Friendly Ghost What’s next for Bowie guitarist, Gerry Leonard?

Friendly Ghost What’s next for Bowie guitarist, Gerry Leonard? 
by Richard Byrne Reilly

Recording the album with Bowie was an exacting exercise even for the most competent musicians. “Bowie,” Leonard says, “knows when you’re bullshitting.”

Guitarist Gerry Leonard was in the back of a livery cab driven by his friend Carlos, a one-armed Dominican, when his cell rang from a blocked number. 

It was 2003, and Leonard was on his way to a gig in Manhattan. Looking at the blocked call, the guitarist had a hunch to pick it up. 

He’s glad he did. 

“It was David. He said, ‘do you want to be musical director?’ I couldn’t believe it.”

“So I said, ‘can I think about it?’”

“He said, ‘yes.’ And I went home and I think started meditating,” says Leonard, a convert to Buddhism. 

David. Better known as Bowie. The one who has sold an estimated 140 million albums in a career spanning nearly half a century. A global music visionary who many had, quite literally, given up for dead.

It’s 10 years since that phone call, and Leonard is riding high. Bowie’s new record, his first in a decade, The Next Day, released March 8, has climbed the charts to number one and is being hailed as one of the greatest comebacks in the history of rock and roll.

And it’s Leonard’s sonically atmospheric guitar work that has helped define the record that is being hailed as Bowie’s best since 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).

“We’re all very happy with the album,” Leonard told Wine & Dine Magazine recently near his house in upstate New York, where he lives with his wife and seven year-old daughter in a converted railroad depot.

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind for the Dublin-born guitarist. The music trades have been calling with interview requests. So have his friends, many of them famous musicians and producers, all to offer their congratulations on a record that more than any other in the recent Bowie canon harkens back to his best-guitar driven rock songs in nearly two decades. 

Not bad for an Irish musician who arrived in New York in 1994 with big dreams, a few guitars and little money.

Leonard, a slim man with a quick wit whose mop of silver hair resembles one of Andy Warhol’s platinum silver wigs, also played keyboards and contributed vocals on the new record. 

Leonard began working with Bowie on The Next Day two years ago, when he invited the English singer to write songs at his home studio outside New Paltz, New York. 

Leonard says he lured Bowie by telling him he had a killer espresso machine. 

“He pulled up to the house in, I think it was, a Ford rental car. He had a map in his hand. I had repainted the mailbox in big letters after the numbers had fallen off because I didn’t want him to get lost. We worked on three songs in my Pro-Tools studio and he even read a story to my daughter,” Leonard says. 

The Next Day was recorded in total secrecy at New York’s Magic Shop studio, a non-descript warren of rooms in the SoHo neighborhood. The musicians on the record, in addition to producer Tony Visconti, took a vow of secrecy. It worked. Nothing was leaked to the press. 

Under the radar, Bowie and his team sketched out demos sporadically over a nearly three-year period. Bowie would take the demos and disappear for months, then resurface with new lyrics and ideas. He would call Leonard, or lead guitarist Earl Slick or bassist Gail Ann Dorsey, and have them down to the studio to play their parts. 

Twenty-eight songs were recorded during the sessions. Fourteen ended up on The Next Day, along with bonus tracks. 

The album’s first single, Where Are We Now, was released on January 8, Bowie’s 66th birthday. It quickly became one of the fastest selling songs on iTunes. 

Bowie’s reflective on the album’s second single, The Stars (Are Out Tonight), as he croons about fame and the corrosive effect it has on sunglass-wearing movie stars.

Leonard and Bowie co-wrote Boss of Me, a droning, fast-tempo rocker with driving power chords. In it, Bowie sings about his preoccupation, perhaps obsession, of being dominated by a girl of limited means. 

The strongest track on the album is I’d Rather be High, a song driven by catchy guitar licks, a weaving bass line and Bowie’s discernible falsetto. The lyrics grapple with a veteran conflicted about killing an enemy he can identify with. 

Recording the album with Bowie was an exacting exercise even for the most competent musicians. “Bowie,” Leonard says, “knows when you’re bullshitting.” 

“When you’re with him you gotta bring something to the table when he starts singing. When he goes to work it comes together very fast. David brings the beginning and the end, and you bring the middle.”

Bowie is not doing interviews for the album. So there are few ways -publicly at least- to accurately gauge what ‘The Thin White Duke’ thinks of the new record, whose artwork features a re-worked cover of Bowie’s ubiquitous 1977 album Heroes.

Bowie respectfully declined an interview request from Wine & Dine. 

“I think he’s happy it’s been so well received. He really doesn’t need to talk about it to the media; he’s re-writing the book and doing it his own way,” says Leonard

Platinum selling singer Suzanne Vega has worked with Leonard since 2001, and says that the guitarist quickly made a name for himself on the New York music scene in the 1990s. His textured guitar chops and effects wizardry has lured the likes of, not only Vega, but Laurie Anderson, Roger Waters, Rufus Wainwright and Duncan Sheik.

For Vega, Leonard has been a lifesaver. Just two days before September 11, 2001, Vega took a nasty fall on her bicycle, busting her arm. She couldn’t play guitar. She had a record coming out in two weeks and a tour booked. She was, as she describes, “frantic.”

“I was desperate to figure out how to do this. I knew Gerry knew my songs, and could play my guitar parts just like I could,” Vega says. 

“So I got him for the line-up, he’s that versatile.” 

Leonard played on Vega’s next album Beauty and Crime.

“He did the record with me and I wanted him for the tour but he turned me down because he was with Rufus Wainwright,” Vega laughs. “I was like, ‘oh, OK, fair enough.”

Leonard’s friends call him ‘Ghost’. Or ‘Irish’. And it was clear meeting with Gerry over a two-day period recently how these attributes – a formidable sense of humor and an effortless ability to get along others – have helped him navigate the cutthroat world of the New York music scene. 

Just ask composer and artist Laurie Anderson. 

“It’s kind of a cliché, but its true that the Irish people have certain musical skills, and Gerry has a lot of those skills as well,” says Anderson who recruited Leonard to play on her 1995 album Bright Red. 

In fact, it was Anderson who took Leonard under her wing when he arrived in New York. Anderson mentored and introduced Leonard to the right people and then utilized what she calls his undeniable talent in the studio. 

“The way he uses processing and combines it with these amazing chops, plus his skills at pushing buttons, he has a very unusual musical capability.” 

Leonard first crossed paths with Bowie in 2001 at the now-shuttered Looking Glass Studio in SoHo where both musicians were working on different projects. 

Not long after that meeting, Leonard was playing in a psychedelic guitar arrangement with his band Spooky Ghost at a tiny club in the lower east side of Manhattan and who, but Bowie was sitting in a shabby lounge chair near center stage. 

“The place had 50 seats. I got word that David was coming down to the show. And it was great. He was heckling me from the audience which helped break the ice,” Leonard says. 

Then, one day after a “walk in the woods” Leonard returned home to a surprise. “There was a light on the answering machine and I pushed ‘play.’ It was Bowie. He said ‘Hey, its David. You wanna play on a track?’” 

Leonard ended up playing guitar on five songs on Bowie’s 2002 Heathen album and then embarked on a short tour, playing 38 gigs in Europe and the States. 

Bowie called Leonard back to the studio to play on his follow-up record, Reality. The album was well received by critics. The band, with Leonard and Earl Slick on guitar, embarked on a world tour.

But, the tour was cut short. In July 2004, Bowie suffered a mild heart attack backstage at the Hurricane Festival in Scheesel, Germany. 

“That was very scary,” Leonard says of the incident. 

Bowie has not performed live since. And he’s not likely to either. Next Day producer Tony Visconti, who has worked with the singer since the late 1960’s, said recently that Bowie has no interest in hitting the road. 

Leonard would like to tour with Bowie, but he isn’t pushing it.

“As a guitarist, I’m really very proud to have worked on this record. It’s a total validation of what I do, and its good for the soul,” says the Ghost. “It’s like ‘maybe you’re doing something right.”


by Richard Byrne Reilly

About Gerry Leonard

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