'David was terrified': the inside story of how Bowie met John Lennon

<span>Photograph: Ron Galella/WireImage</span>
Photograph: Ron Galella/WireImage

David Bowie and John Lennon first met in scenes more reminiscent of an awkward children’s playdate than a summit of two of rock’s greatest ever stars, according to a new interview with music producer Tony Visconti.

Speaking on the programme Bowie: Dancing Out in Space, airing on BBC Radio 4 and 6Music on 10 January to mark five years since Bowie’s death, Visconti, who produced 11 of Bowie’s studio albums, tells the story of how the pair met in a New York hotel room, ahead of their collaborations on Bowie’s 1975 song Fame and his cover of the Lennon-penned Beatles song Across the Universe.

“He was terrified of meeting John Lennon,” says Visconti, who was asked by Bowie to accompany him and “buffer the situation”. He added:

About one in the morning I knocked on the door and for about the next two hours, John Lennon and David weren’t speaking to each other. Instead, David was sitting on the floor with an art pad and a charcoal and he was sketching things and he was completely ignoring Lennon. So, after about two hours of that, he [John] finally said to David, ‘Rip that pad in half and give me a few sheets. I want to draw you.’ So David said, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea’, and he finally opened up. So John started making caricatures of David, and David started doing the same of John and they kept swapping them and then they started laughing and that broke the ice.

Visconti says the pair’s “great friendship” was settled from then on. A week later, Bowie called Lennon to invite him to play on the Across the Universe cover; following the recording, a jam they worked up together became Fame, co-written with guitarist Carlos Alomar.

Both songs ended up on 1975 album Young Americans, whose title track features another Beatles reference, the line, “I heard the news today, oh boy.” Fame, on which Lennon also sang falsetto backing vocals, reached No 1 to become Bowie’s first US hit.

Visconti, 76, also refers to the encounter in his 2007 autobiography Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy. He met his future wife May Pang – who was dating Lennon while he was estranged from Yoko Ono – for the first time that evening, and he offended her with an ill-advised comment about kung fu. “Eventually everyone in the room finally got into a dismally dark conversation about, ‘What does it all mean’, ‘it’ being life, which left us all staring dejectedly at the floor; we were not helped by the dwindling effects of the cognac and coke,” he wrote.

He added that he left around 10am that morning, returning at 4pm to find Bowie awake in exactly the same spot he had left him, and announcing he was finally going to bed.

A previously unreleased Bowie cover of Lennon’s song Mother – which addressed his absent parents – was released on 8 January to mark what would have been Bowie’s 74th birthday.

Visconti says in the BBC interview that Bowie’s mother Margaret “was a very withdrawn, very sad person. Probably suffered from chronic depression … She was in poor health and even though they didn’t get on really well, he went back to London to see her. So, he loved her nonetheless … [the cover of] Mother was probably a reaction to that, maybe a way of expressing that.”

Visconti, whose career with Bowie stretches back to Bowie’s self-titled second album in 1969, also discussed his final album Blackstar, released in 2016 on his 69th birthday two days before he died of liver cancer at home in New York. Informed by jazz, electronica and Kendrick Lamar, it is now regarded as one of Bowie’s finest releases.

“His keenness was incredible,” Visconti says. “It was important for him. He knew what his health issues were. It was important for him to get this album done. But we never spoke about it, apart from one private conversation I had with him prior to the album, his health was never brought up. He didn’t even honestly look unhealthy or act unhealthy, he was in great shape. You could hear from that singing that his voice was probably the strongest ever in his life.”

Visconti also said Bowie will be “remembered like Beethoven … in a hundred years’ time … He’s more than an Elvis, because Elvis never wrote a single song in his life.

“If he created a formula, he certainly wouldn’t use it a second time. Bowie was not only a songwriter, he was an innovator on every level. He was a great dancer, he was an actor. More than just a rock star.”

• Bowie: Dancing Out in Space is on BBC Radio 4 and 6Music, Sunday 10 January, 8pm