Sterling Campbell: My Time With David Bowie

January 16, 2016

It was 1978. I was 14 and I had already been learning the drums for a few years. On this particular day I happened to be walking in through the lobby of our apartment building on the Upper West Side when a drummer by the name of Dennis Davis was walking out with a cymbal bag and stick bag. I didn’t know any professional musicians so I simply asked him, “Where are you going?”

When Dennis said, “I have a gig tonight, I’m playing at Madison Square Garden,” I was floored, and even much more so when he followed with, “I have a gig with David Bowie. You want to go?” And he gave me a ticket.

At that time, all I knew of David Bowie was one song, “Fame.” The influential music Dennis had recorded with him—”Young Americans,” “Station to Station,” “Low,” “Heroes”—wasn’t yet part of my musical vernacular.

Despite that, I was very excited at the idea of going to my first concert by myself. I wanted to be a drummer, and here I was receiving an invitation from a professional musician to the Madison Square Garden.

I was just happy to be there, with no idea what I was in for. Then it began.

The lights dimmed and David emerged on stage—I had never seen anything like it. It looked like a spacecraft with white fluorescent lights, and it had this ominous feeling to it. The show didn’t start with a big bang, but with a sobering piece of music called “Warszawa” from the “Low” album.

There was this ambient pastoral sullen sound coming from the speakers, with David playing a Chamberlin keyboard and Carlos Alomar conducting the band. This was something totally new—this was no ordinary bell-bottom rock band. I was in the presence of a visionary. This was Stanley Kubrick with a mic and a backing band. It was a new experience and I will always cherish it.

David was able to merge an urban aesthetic that was soul and R&B and mix it with this European aesthetic, which was classical pastoral dissonance and electronic (Krautrock). The band was amazing and played so well together. It was Dennis Davis on drums, Carlos Alomar on guitar, George Murray on bass, Adrian Belew on guitar, Roger Powell on synths, Simon House on violin, Sean Mayes on piano.

It was a magical experience and a turning point for me, because that night I decided to dedicate my life to music. It also opened me up to how expansive music could be.

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