It’s not surprising that Earl Slick was in the middle of a tour when the first Covid lockdown began. The guitarist is, by his own account, “the biggest roadhog on the planet”, one of rock’s most celebrated sidemen: his association with David Bowie stretched over five decades; he has played with everyone from John Lennon to the Cure to Carl Perkins. This time, he was playing in the UK with his friend Glen Matlock, which meant he spent the first six months of lockdown living not at home in New York but in the former Sex Pistol’s spare room in London, an experience he winningly likens to the 1968 comedy The Odd Couple. Apparently, Matlock was the neat-freak Jack Lemmon character and Slick the more laissez-faire Walter Matthau figure. They put on shambolic Facebook live performances, which, Slick notes, “probably had more comedic than musical value”. Between songs, there was certainly a lot of peering at the camera and discussing whether or not it was switched on.
Video-calling from his home in New York, he says he “lost a lot of gigs and a lot of dough” as a result of the pandemic, but at least he had time to put the finishing touches to a solo album, Fistful of Devils, his first in 18 years. It’s instrumental – a stark contrast to 2003’s Zig Zag, which featured Bowie, Robert Smith and Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott among its supporting cast. “But when I go out live,” he notes, “I always go out with a singer. When I’m on stage with a singer, all my sideman tools get pulled out the box. Even if my name’s on the marquee, the main focus should be on the vocalist.”
He was a 22-year-old jobbing musician when Bowie unexpectedly hired him in 1974, on the recommendation of a mutual friend. It was the chance of a lifetime, and a baptism of fire. The Diamond Dogs tour he was booked to play unexpectedly changed so dramatically midway through that one fan remarked “it might as well have been a different artist”: out went the glammy theatrics and a set that reportedly cost $1.4m in today’s money, and in came a soul-inspired revue. “I didn’t understand what the hell was going on,” Slick says. “I really didn’t. I really wasn’t into how it turned out. To me, it turned out to be like a Vegas cabaret act. I might as well have been in a pit orchestra or something. It was pretty weird. Who knew what he was thinking? And that all happened within the first seven or eight months I was working with him, so I learned very quickly he could change with the wind, which happened all the way to the end. There was always a curveball; you never knew what was going to happen next.”
He persevered, playing on 1975’s Young Americans despite his equivocal feelings about the Philadelphia soul that inspired it – “too poppy and syrupy for me” – then 1976’s Station to Station, which has a fair claim to be Bowie’s greatest work, and is home to some astonishing performances by Slick: the dazzling, angular solo at the conclusion of the title track and the funk-rock hybrid of Stay. Station to Station also represents one of rock history’s great mysteries: how do people so out of their minds on drugs – Bowie subsequently claimed he couldn’t remember the recording sessions at all – come up with something so extraordinary, so powerful and focused?
“Well, how I was doing what I do on that record was no different than the way I did anything else, and my drinking and drug habits weren’t any different either, so I was operating on my normal paradigm, you know?” Slick shrugs. “David had gone levels into insanity, but the rhythm section – Carlos Alomar, George Murray, Dennis Davis – didn’t imbibe anything close to the silliness that David and I did. Had they been as fucked up as we were, that record would have sucked. But we spent a lot of time together, me and David, just doing my guitar overdubs and stuff, and we were able to work in that condition quite well. We were in our 20s. You can do serious damage to yourself in your 20s and still make records. I’d only been doing [drugs] for seven or eight years. You couldn’t do that amount of drugs for 25 years and think you’re going to make records. You’re not.” He laughs. “Unless you’re Keith Richards.”
Still, he says, the state he and Bowie were in contributed to his leaving the band before the ensuing tour. There had been problems over his contract, but Bowie’s management declined to tell the singer: when the pair reconvened for 1983’s Serious Moonlight tour, “he found out that they had not let me talk to him, and I found out he had had no idea what was going on. It reminded me of the Elvis thing, man. The guy was so fucked up, and everybody around him was taking advantage of his money and keeping information from him that they didn’t want him to know”.
Instead, Slick pursued his own band, recording a couple of underrated albums, before receiving a phone call from the record producer Jack Douglas, inviting him to a mysterious recording session, which turned out to involve John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Slick played on their final album, Double Fantasy, and Ono’s Season of Glass, a chilling howl of grief and confusion recorded, incredibly, three months after her husband’s murder “with the exact same band, same studio, same engineer”.
“And if that wasn’t strange enough, Phil Spector was producing, which put the icing on the cake. He was out of his fucking mind. The guy was walking around with a bodyguard the size of a 12-tonne lorry and one of those Clint Eastwood .44 Magnums with the long barrel, in a shoulder holster. John had just been shot! How could he be so insensitive and ridiculous as to walk in front of Yoko with that gun, huh? He had the control room all blacked out, the air-conditioning below zero, and he spoke to us in the third person: ‘Tell the guitar player to do this … tell the bass player to do that.’ He was an asshole, a disrespectful cunt. One day, after about two weeks, I asked Yoko what time Spector was getting to the studio, and she said: ‘He’s not. And you won’t see him again.’ Fine with me! Everything he did was redone, and there ain’t a speck of him on that record.”
Despite his glittering CV, Slick’s career has not been without its longueurs. There was, for example, the moment in the early 90s, when – battered by a succession of “ridiculously failed” projects, broke and unable to find a decent sideman gig – he gave up music, moved to Lake Tahoe and resolved to get a normal job. Hindered by the fact he “had no work résumé, zero – what am I gonna write? Former employers: David Bowie, John Lennon, Capitol Records?” – he found work as a timeshare salesman. It has to be said that Slick looks substantially more like a member of the New York Dolls (which he briefly was, in 2011) than someone you might consider buying a holiday home from, and it didn’t really work out. “I did it for four years or so. Selling timeshares – that’s got to be one of the most despicable things on the planet. You’re selling them nothing of worth, and I knew that. So I didn’t do that well. Made enough money to squeak by.”
He was unexpectedly rescued by another Tahoe resident, Whitesnake frontman David Coverdale. Slick turned down an offer to join Whitesnake, but ended up co-writing a bluesy Coverdale solo album. “It didn’t prompt me to go out, saying: ‘Wow, I’m all revitalised now.’ That didn’t happen until I got this really weird, cryptic message. When I saw the company’s name was Isolar and it had a New York area code, I thought: that looks like it has something to do with David Bowie.”
He ended up playing with Bowie again from 1999 until the singer’s retirement from live performance in 2004. “Then he did his usual vanishing thing and we didn’t do anything for eight years until The Next Day in 2012.” During The Next Day’s top-secret sessions, he noticed that Bowie “didn’t look so good, didn’t look himself, but he was prone to depression, and that’s what I thought it was”. He was swiftly disabused of the idea that there would be any ensuing tour. “We were sitting in the control room of the studio, listening to (You Will) Set the World on Fire, and David says: ‘Man, that track would be great live.’ I looked at him, but before I could even answer, he goes: ‘Don’t even think about it.’”
Slick says he was as shocked as anyone when he heard on the news that Bowie had died of liver cancer. “We knew each other very well for a long time, but we didn’t get into each other’s personal shit. We were friends when we were working, but, in between, it wasn’t like we’d call each other up and go out for a cup of coffee or something.” He played with Lorde at the Brits’ 2016 Bowie tribute and performed a brief tour, with Bernard Fowler, performing Station to Station in full. The tour had been planned before Bowie’s death. “The last time I spoke to him was September or October 2015. I ran it past him, and he said: ‘Great idea, Slicky. Have fun.’” But Slick declined to “take it to another level and go out for months and months” and only played the dates that had been booked before Bowie died.
Instead, he plunged into his work with Matlock, which he expects to resume next year. There’s another solo album coming out – this time with vocals – and a UK tour of small venues with a British singer called Jesse Smith. “I don’t want it to turn into another Bowie tribute thing – I’m going to have to do one or two Bowie songs, but that’s all I’m gonna do.”
He’s clearly enthused about the gigs, but he’s still an inveterate sideman. “If Buddy Guy needed a second guitarist, I’d grab it, and I’d go on my own dime. Oh, yeah. I’m very comfortable in the role of a sideman. People look at it as if you’re always second fiddle, but I don’t see it like that: it’s all about me playing music instead of trying to be something that I’m not. People say to me: ‘You’re so good at what you do, you should really be in the front.’ You know what? After all this time, if that’s what I was supposed to be doing, that’s what I would be doing.”
• Fist Full of Devils is out on Schnitzel Records