Earl Slick: ‘Nobody turns down free cocaine’

'Rock and roll is not what I do, it's who I am'
'Rock and roll is not what I do, it's who I am' - Dan Callister

On May 12 1983, Earl Slick flew to Belgium to begin his second stint as a guitarist in David Bowie’s live band. The gig had been arranged in a hurry, following the last-minute departure of Stevie Ray Vaughan less than a week before the tour in support of the blockbusting Let’s Dance LP began in Brussels. Two weeks later, the group and their singer were scheduled to appear in front of 100,000 people at the US Festival, in San Bernardino, California. Not without cause, Bowie was worried. 

“I remember David being nervous because we hadn’t worked together in so long,” Slick tells me. “He said, ‘Slickie, are you going to have it together for the US Festival?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m going to have it together for the first show.’ And I did. I had four days to learn the entire set. I stayed up day and night, but I did it...”

Welcome to the lot of the rock and roll sideman, a world in which vast, adoring crowds and private jets are counterbalanced by insecure employment and opportunities that arrive and disappear in an instant. With stories to burn, Slick’s newly published memoir, Guitar, gives an unvarnished account of the weird and unpredictable life of a musical mercenary. The guest list ain’t bad, either – alongside Bowie, John Lennon, Keith Richards, Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton, Phil Spector and the New York Dolls also appear. 

“Rock and roll is not what I do, it’s who I am,” Slick says. “All that bull---- that you’re not defined by your job, that don’t apply to me. If you’re in the arts, especially, if you’re not your job, you’re probably not very successful at it.” 
He sure looks the part. Bursting forth on my computer screen from a wood-panelled living room in Upstate New York, the tattooed 71-year-old is wearing octagonal Ray-Bans and a leopard-print shirt that merges so completely with the pattern of his settee that at times it seems as if I’m interviewing a decapitated head. Sprouting wild and free, his hair looks as if it’s been cut by someone who was trying to quit smoking. 

Raised in Staten Island and Brooklyn, his course was plotted after seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. Ten years later, when his friend Michael Kamen, the composer and arranger, recommended him to David Bowie as a replacement for the recently departed Mick Ronson, Slick – real name Frank Madeloni – faced the choice of slogging his way towards a record deal with his own band, Mack Truck, or playing sports arenas as a hired hand to an emerging icon.

'If you're in the arts, if you're not your job, you're probably not very successful at it'
'If you're in the arts, if you're not your job, you're probably not very successful at it' - John Kisch

“People ask the question, well wouldn’t you want to be the star guitar player with the band?” he tells me. “And part of me always did. But they would put the question to me like they were looking at the sideman thing kind of like it was second fiddle. I didn’t. My role, even in my own rock and roll bands, was to make sure that everything going on behind that singer was everything he needed to put on a really good show. So, in essence, Keith Richards is a sideman. He’s just the best one on the planet.”

Playing with Bowie off and on over the course of four decades, Slick soon learnt that his place stage left of a superstar – three nights at the Milton Keynes Bowl, a headline slot in front of a quarter of a million people at Glastonbury – sat cheek-by-jowl with fallow periods that, in the 1990s at least, required him to take a day job selling timeshares from an office populated by colleagues who, he claims, were more dysfunctional than anyone he encountered in rock and roll.
“It’s hard for me to explain the relationship I had with David,” he says. “We were close and we could read each other’s minds in the studio and onstage, and on a personal level, sure, we were great friends and we had love for each other. But it wasn’t one of those best mates kind of things. That happened with a few other guitarists that I won’t name. And they got burnt.”

'His place stage left of a superstar': Earl Slick is one of the most famous sidemen in rock
'His place stage left of a superstar': Earl Slick is one of the most famous sidemen in rock

As a self-described “quick study”, Slick soon learnt that the insecurity of his profession was not something he should take personally. “You’ve got to look at it, like, it’s David Bowie’s name on the marquee,” he explains. “No matter how much we were mates onstage… the bottom line is, he was the company and I was the employee. It wasn’t stated, and it didn’t feel like that, but you were always conscious of the fact that you’re,” – he pauses to find the right word – “disposable.”

He pauses again when I ask if being a sideman at the high end of the market is a well-paid gig. “Money’s a thing I prefer not to get into,” comes the eventual response. Another pause. “Actually,” he says, “I’m going to do a rare answer to this question. When compared to the revenue that was coming in, what I was making was nothing. But if you turn the clock back to 1974, when that relationship [with Bowie] started, it led me down roads I would never have been able to go down on my own. We wouldn’t be talking right now… There would be no book… there would have been no John Lennon record, and so on and so on.”

Slick’s time with Lennon is recalled in his memoir with particular poignancy. Given that the sessions for the Double Fantasy LP saw the by then reclusive Englishman at work in a recording studio for the first time in half a decade, clearly, it was a big deal, too. There was even talk of a world tour in the new year. But Mark Chapman fatally shot the former Beatle outside his home at the Dakota Building in Manhattan on December 8. For John Lennon, there would be no new year. 
“Who knows what would have come out of that?” Slick says. “John might have said, ‘You know what, I’m loving the s--- out of this and I’m gonna keep this band together for the next 10 years.’ Or it could have been a one-off tour thing. You just don’t know. That’s kind of the beauty of it, but it’s also kind of the ugliness of it. You don’t know. You don’t get to know.”

'No matter how much he were mates on stage, the bottom line is that I was disposable' Earl Slick says of Bowie
'No matter how much he were mates on stage, the bottom line is that I was disposable' Earl Slick says of Bowie - Ron Galella Collection

Other aspects of the rockstar life in the 1970s and 1980s were more predictable. From recording with David Bowie over three sleepless days and nights to taking cocaine with Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood in a bathroom stall at Mick Jagger’s birthday party at the Palladium, New York, Guitar portrays a world in which drugs were all-but omnipresent.
 “There was always gonna be some guy with a lot of money, either a dealer or some rich dude, who was basically a groupie that would follow the band around and have money coming out of every orifice,” Slick explains. “And some of them would show up at shows all over the place with tons of drugs. Now, obviously, if you’re doing a lot of blow [cocaine], nobody turns down free blow. When I did start having to pay for it was when the damage from my habit started to kick in and I wasn’t getting hired as much.”

After giving up drugs and booze at the start of the 1990s, these days Slick merelygives the impression of someone as high as a satellite. As with many rock lifers, it’s a look that suits him. 

As our interview comes to a close, his eyes turn to an acoustic guitar in the corner of the room. “I’ll be making a noise with that as soon as we’ve finished talking,” he tells me. “See, I’ve never believed in having a ‘Plan B’. When people ask me if I’m going to retire, I reply, ‘Retire from what? Retire from being me?’”

Guitar by Earl Slick (with Jeff Slate) is out now, published by Michael Joseph