Off The Record: David Bowie

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Off the Record is a new in-depth music biography series that profiles the extraordinary life of an iconic artist over the course of each season. Music journalist Jordan Runtagh (People, Rolling Stone, EW and VH1) offers a revelatory look at the human behind the hits through rich, dramatic storytelling, extensive research, and interviews with those who knew them best. You know the songs, now meet the legends.

  • 1 hour 20 minutes
    Epilogue: Lazarus (2013-2016)

    Our final episode on the life (or lives) of David Bowie begins and ends with a birthday. We start in 2013, when David reentered public life nearly a decade after his heart attack with the surprise release of “Where Are We Now," his first new song in a decade. It was one of the most stunning comebacks in music history. Most fans assumed that David had simply retired from the industry, content to live out the rest of his days as a father, husband, and anonymous New Yorker. Instead, he'd recorded an entire album of new material called 'The Next Day' entirely in secret. Even at age 66, he still had the power to shock. The story concludes with 'Blackstar.' Released the day David turned 69 in January of 2016, it’s an album that many believe was his parting gift as he faced down the illness that would claim his body two days later. Was this a knowing goodbye? We'll examine the evidence and conflicting theories. Intentional or not, it’s a fitting farewell — one that highlights David's creative daring and his absolute fearlessness.

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    3 May 2021, 4:01 am
  • 47 minutes 9 seconds
    Bonus Episode: Bowie's Guitarist Carlos Alomar on Recording 'Young Americans' and the Berlin Trilogy, Co-Writing 'Fame' and Funking Up David's Music for 30 Years

    We’re taking a brief break from the story this week. (We’ll be back with our final chapter on David Bowie on Monday, May 3rd!) But today we have something very special in store: a conversation with Carlos Alomar — a funk guitar icon, and one of David’s most crucial musical collaborators. He cut his teeth in the late ‘60s as one of the youngest players ever in the Apollo Theater’s house band, leading to stints backing James Brown, Chuck Berry and Wilson Pickett, all while still in his teens. 

    Carlos’ influence helped inspire David to take his famous trip to Philadelphia in 1974 to record the soul-steeped ‘Young Americans’ record. To get the sound, David tapped Carlos, who in turn assembled a group of top shelf funk musicians that included his wife, vocalist Robin Clark, and an old schoolfriend named Luther Vandross. So began a musical partnership that would last almost thirty years. Carlos played on 11 of David’s albums, including classics like ’Station to Station,’ ‘the Berlin Trilogy, and ‘Scary Monster (and Super Creeps),’ and cowrote his first American number one, “Fame.” More importantly, he was a loyal friend throughout his life. 

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    26 April 2021, 10:28 am
  • 1 hour 10 minutes
    Bonus Episode: Bassist Gail Ann Dorsey Reflects on Her Decade-Long Music Journey with David Bowie

    Our latest chapter covered David Bowie’s creative renaissance in the ‘90s and early 2000s. The records that he made in this period are often overlooked but rank among the most experimental of his career, as he rejoined formative ‘70s collaborators like Brian Eno and Tony Visconti to create some of the most daring music he ever made. But one crucial collaborator during this period was new to Bowie’s circle — bassist Gail Ann Dorsey. Over the years she’s worked with everyone from Lenny Kravitz, Gang of Four and Olivia Newton John to Boy George, Tears for Fears and the Indigo Girls, not to mention her own solo work. (Definitely check out her 1988 debut LP called ‘The Corporate World’!) Her partnership with Bowie began with a call out of the blue. It was 1995 and he was looking for a bassist to join the tour to promote ‘1. Outside.’ He had seen Dorsey performing on British television seven years earlier (!) and had never forgotten her. She accompanied him on every tour for the rest of his life, and played on the albums 'Earthling,' 'Reality' and, most thrillingly, his secret comeback album 'The Next Day.'

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    22 April 2021, 3:56 am
  • 1 hour 27 minutes
    Chapter Twelve: Heathen (1987-2004)

    Today we’re looking at Bowie the Rock ‘n’ Roll Elder Statesman. Throughout the ‘90s, he continued to change and challenge, inspiring new generations with his work. Far be it from David to go gently into middle age. In this era, he produced later-career gems like '1. Outside,' 'The Buddha of Suburbia' and 'Heathen,' reconvening with creative partners like Brian Eno and Tony Visconti. But more than ever, he enjoyed life outside of the spotlight. David had a second chance at marriage and fatherhood, and was deliriously happy in both. He’d faced his demons and won. Now he faced his own mortality. And that would be a much more difficult battle.

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    19 April 2021, 4:01 am
  • 53 minutes 39 seconds
    'LABYRINTH' WEEK: Muppet Icon Steve Whitmire Recalls His Time on Set with Bowie, and His 26 Years as Kermit the Frog

    Today’s ‘Labyrinth’ Week guest is puppeteer Steve Whitmire, who performed several characters in this beloved film — including one of the fiery figures in the “Chilly Down” dance sequence, and (my favorite) Ambrosius, the trusty dog of Sir Didymus. But these roles, impressive though they are, are just a minuscule part of his resume. If you know anything about Muppet history, then this man needs no introduction. For 26 years he was the voice and soul of Kermit the Frog. And don’t forget Ernie (of Bert and Ernie fame), Rizzo the Rat, Bean Bunny, Wembley Fraggle, Statler (of Statler and Waldorf fame), Beaker — the list goes on and on. Jordan spoke with Steve about the Muppets, the cosmic philosophy of puppetry, whether or not it’s actually easy being green, and, of course, his unforgettable encounters with Bowie on the set of ‘Labyrinth.’

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    14 April 2021, 4:01 am
  • 57 minutes 10 seconds
    'LABYRINTH' WEEK: Conceptual Designer Brian Froud on Creating the World of Goblin City — and Jareth's Notorious Pants

    This week on 'Off the Record,' we're playing special tribute to Jim Henson's 1986 film 'Labyrinth,' the beloved cult classic that introduced David Bowie to generations of kids. We're kicking off the festivities with conceptual designer Brian Froud, the man who imagined world of 'Labyrinth.' A legendary illustrator and painter, the movie began with Brian’s drawings of goblins, monsters and surreal landscapes. These visions formed the basis for the film’s script, written by Monty Python veteran Terry Jones. Brian helped oversee the construction of elaborate character puppets along with his wife Wendy, a famed sculptor and puppet maker perhaps best known for fabricating Yoda for the Star Wars series. And they were also joined on the set by their baby son Toby, the child abducted by Jareth the Goblin King (aka David Bowie). Brian put his heart, soul and firstborn into this film, so it seemed only write that we kick off 'Labyrinth' Week with him.

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    12 April 2021, 4:01 am
  • 49 minutes 6 seconds
    Bonus Episode: Thomas Dolby Recalls Backing David Bowie at Live Aid While a Billion People Watched

    The climax of our last chapter is David Bowie’s set at Live Aid in the summer of 1985 . Our guest today was alongside him on the Live Aid stage – and in the helicopter on the nerve-wracking ride out to Wembley Stadium. His name is Thomas Dolby, and his time with Bowie is just one entry on his extremely lengthy resume. On his twitter bio, he describes himself as a recovering synth enthusiast, but even that barely scratches the surface. He’s best known as a techno-pop pioneer who helped define the sound of New Wave with albums like 'The Golden Age of Wireless' and 'The Flat Earth'.' His immortal 1982 smash “She Blinded Me with Science” seemed to predict his move into the burgeoning Silicon Valley tech sphere in the early ‘90s, when he developed innovative audio software for websites and cell phone ringtones. Between 2002 and 2012 he served as the musical director for TED conferences, and is presently on faculty at Johns Hopkins’ Peabody Institute, where he heads up the Music for New Media program.. Dolby was kind enough to share his vast musical insights about David Bowie’s work, and also his truly mind-blowing memories performing with Bowie at this historic concert for an audience of a billion people.

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    7 April 2021, 5:54 pm
  • 1 hour 25 minutes
    Chapter Eleven: MTV Idol (1980-1985)

    Today’s episode looks at David in the ‘80s, a time that saw him grow from a famous artist to a global superstar — a one-man brand bolstered by the fresh force of MTV. David embraced the exponential growth of mass media, and shamelessly courted mass popularity with the Nile Rodgers-assisted ‘Let’s Dance.’ He got the success he craved, but it changed his reputation in a way that was irreversible. Up till then, he was the world’s most famous outsider. To all who felt marginalized or misunderstood, he had been a towering example of power, strength, grace and courage. Now, his move to the mainstream read as a rejection of those who felt othered and looked to him as their patron, voice and guardian. Bowie himself would struggle with the impact of his creative choices — was he a sell out? It was a classic case of be careful what you wish for...

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    5 April 2021, 4:01 am
  • 1 hour 3 minutes
    Bonus Episode: 'Heroes' Assistant Engineer Peter Burgon Recalls Singing with Bowie on a Rock Classic and Life in a Divided Berlin

    So far we’ve discussed the making of Bowie’s landmark track “Heroes” — one of the most mythic songs in his cannon. Everything about its creation is loaded with drama. It was recorded in an old Nazi concert hall within sight of watchful East German snipers atop the Berlin Wall. And of course there was the famous kiss by the wall, which allegedly inspired one of the song’s best known verses. Jordan’s guest today not only worked at the legendary Hansa Studios (the so-called Hall by the Wall) when “Heroes” was recorded — he actually sang on it, nose to nose with Bowie himself. And that’s just one of his many incredible stories. His name is Peter Burgon, and he worked as an assistant engineer under our previous guest, Edu Meyer. When Herr Meyer was on vacation during the sessions for ‘Heroes’ in 1977, Peter stepped in and took over. Peter shared his stories, busted some tall tales, and provided fascinating insight into Bowie and his music. 

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    2 April 2021, 5:00 am
  • 24 minutes 40 seconds
    Bonus Episode: 'Low' Engineer Edu Meyer Remembers Working with David Bowie During His Berlin Years at Hansa Studios

    Our last two episodes followed David Bowie in the late ’70s as he recorded ‘Low’ and ‘Heroes,’ the twin pillars of his so-called Berlin Trilogy. (Sorry, ‘Lodger’ fans.) These records are an artistic triumph on nearly ever level, and contain the most innovative music Bowie ever made. In addition to co-producer Tony Visconti and mad musical scientist Brian Eno, another crucial collaborator during the German sessions was Edu Meyer. Edu was an engineer at Hansa Studios — the famous Hall by the Wall that served as David’s creative home during his time in Berlin. Edu helped David put the finishing touches on ‘Low,’ and even played the mournful cello part on “Weeping Wall” — inspired by the symbol of division and oppression looming just outside the studio windows. He also assisted on the album’s David produced for Iggy Pop, ‘The Idiot’ and ‘Lust for Life.’ Their working relationship stretched into the ‘80s, when David would return to Berlin to record the soundtrack to the Bertolt Brecht play ‘Baal’ in 1981, and perform his legendary 1987 concert at the Reichstag. They’d remain friends until the end of David’s life. Edu spoke to Jordan about his memories working alongside Bowie during his most creatively daring period. 

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    1 April 2021, 1:49 am
  • 1 hour 10 minutes
    Chapter Ten: 'Hero' in Berlin (1977)

    Today’s episode looks at Bowie’s years in Berlin. It was a time of tremendous personal and artistic growth as the newly minted 30-year-old escaped the trappings of his showiness bubble and re-entered reality. Holed up in a nondescript apartment with his friend Iggy Pop, Bowie lived a generally anonymous life in the German capital. The experience forced him to grow up and become an adult — a scary proposition for anyone involved in rock ‘n’ roll. But newfound maturity brought exciting new music, including the landmark album 'Heroes.' At the end of the decade he’d dominated, David built on all he’d learned through the many characters he’d played. Now he was ready to move forward as himself. But the transformation would be a difficult one, as he says some painful goodbyes.

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    29 March 2021, 4:08 am
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