Producer/musician Tony Visconti, an old-time, long-time collaborator of David Bowie's is playing the classic 1970 album The Man Who Sold the World in its entirety at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville on Friday night. He and the band Holy Holy are on tour with it - and now, with Bowie's death Sunday night, it all takes on added poignancy.
Visconti was not talking to anyone about Bowie on Monday. He was reported to be grieving. But he wasn't altogether silent.
"His death was no different from his life - a work of Art," Visconti wrote on his Facebook page. "He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift."
Blackstar was the album Bowie released Friday, shortly before his death. Visconti wrote that he was aware the end was close: "I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn't, however, prepared for it. He was an extraordinary man, full of love and life. He will always be with us. For now, it is appropriate to cry."
Blackstar wasn't Bowie's only parting gift to fans. After having long promised to pen a theater piece, Bowie wrote Lazarusa the icy alien Bowie played in director Nicolas Roeg's 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth. The sparsely staged, avant-garde musical drama, co-written with playwright Enda Walsh (Once), directed by Ivo van Hove (A View from the Bridge), and starring Michael C. Hall (Dexter) is at the New York Theatre Workshop through Jan. 19.
An eerie companion piece to his already-elegaic song of the same name (and a sequel to the film), Lazarus ruminates coldly and loudly on the bleakness of earthly existence and the hopelessness of getting off this planet in one piece. Hall does his best Bowie impersonation – warbling voice and all – on a series of greatest hits. On occasion, Lazarus appears to be a David Bowie High School Musical with kabuki touches. Other times, Lazarus' weary character is as drunken, sullen, and riveting as Roeg's original.
Visconti befriended Bowie in 1967 and has collaborated with the singer-composer ever since, playing bass and leading the band on BBC sessions, and producing several of Bowie's albums, including Blackstar. But he also produced and played bass on The Man Who Sold the World.
Now he is on the road with Holy Holy, a band Visconti cofounded with '70s-era Bowie drummer Woody Woodmansey. Together with vocalist Glenn Gregory and a team of guitarists emulating the late Mick Ronson's razor-sharp leads, Holy Holy will play a Bowie album "never done live for an audience."
Bowie is being seen off with a surge of productions. There is Blackstar, an avant jazz-and-soul excursion. There is Lazarus, Bowie's Off-Broadway musical. And in February there will be Bowie at the Beeb, a vinyl box of BBC radio sessions from 1968 to 1972.
In an interview last week, before news of Bowie's passing, Visconti said he was "over the moon" about the Bowie wave.
How did the Holy Holy tour come about? Visconti said that Woodmansey "wrote me out of the blue in 2014 and asked if I wanted to do that album live." Visconti has kept producing, with albums by Morrissey, Angélique Kidjo, and Alejandro Escovedo, but he hasn't played on stage for decades. "Considering we never did Sold the World live, it suddenly seemed challenging," Visconti said. At the same time, Visconti and Bowie began demo-ing songs that would become Blackstar up in Manhattan, where each lived at the time.
Visconti said the goal of The Man Who Sold the World was to make a better album than 1969's Space Oddity. "That record used session musicians and was very lightweight - all based around David's 12-string acoustic guitar playing - but a conversation about making a heavier rock album prevailed."
After snagging then-unknown guitarist Ronson ("he looked and sounded like a rock god") and drummer Woodmansey, the foursome moved in together to an apartment Visconti and Bowie shared with their girlfriends. "We converted a wine cellar in an old Victorian south of London into a studio and formed a band specifically for that album," Visconti said. "It was enlightening to approach something with ferocity and singular vision."
The vision for The Man Who Sold the World was heavier rock, circa 1970. And Friday night, Holy Holy will be doing crushing metallic versions of "The Width of a Circle" and "The Man Who Sold the World."
But any Bowie fan knows Bowie was a jazz freak. He spoke lovingly of Gerry Mulligan ("the reason Bowie bought a saxophone," said Visconti), of swing band leader Louis Jordan (an influence on 1983's Let's Dance), and Stan Kenton, whose use of odd harmonic arrangements appealed to Bowie's weird sonic locution.
Visconti's a jazz fan, too.
"We absolutely were all about jazz in our youth," he said enthusiastically. "I loved Kenton. Snuck into Birdland to see him at 16. When I met David in '67 and talked about music, Kenton was one of the things we both loved. Neither of us thought we were good enough to play jazz, but we talked about it. When we did Blackstar, we had that, our past in jazz, at the back of our minds."
Right up to the end, Bowie, even if the two pals hadn't heard from each other for months, would send e-mails with lists of recordings he loved - including the 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar, a hip-hop album with jazz roots. Bowie sent Visconti music by new-school experimental jazz leader Maria Schneider to give him a feel for where Blackstar was heading.
"He mentioned she had interned with Gil Evans, and wrote in Gil's style," Visconti says. Schneider and her orchestra, along with saxophonist Donny McCaslin, recorded Bowie's " 'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore" and "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)" for a single in 2014 - tunes that, in harsher versions, appear on Blackstar.
McCaslin's ensemble worked on Blackstar with Bowie and Visconti. "Watching David in the studio, singing take after take live in the same room with Donny's guys, was awesome," said Visconti. He had "immense power as a vocalist. I noticed it when we did The Next Day [Bowie's 2013 studio album, his first after nearly a decade], but on Blackstar he's even stronger." The producer paused. "It's great, you know." He called Bowie "one of my dearest and oldest friends."
And Bowie loved the idea of the tour, of Visconti, Woodmansey, and Gregory (the bald baritone for the synth-pop band Heaven 17, "not someone with bright orange hair you'd mistake for David," Visconti hastened to clarify), playing together.
" 'Fantastic. Go do it,' was the first thing David said to me when I mentioned the Holy Holy thing," says Visconti.
"David believes we - he, I, Ronson and Woody - would have been a great band if we stayed together. David respects me as a player, and The Man Who Sold the World is one of his favorite albums, so we had his blessings."
Holy Holy, with Morgan Visconti and Jessica Lee Morgan
8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 15, Colonial Theatre, 227 Bridge St., Phoenixville, Pa.