4th February 2013

Joe Stevens reflects on his time photographing David Bowie

Article by Christopher Hislop, Seacoastonline.com

There are a mountain of monumental moments in Joe Stevens' career as a rock photojournalist. If you know him, you've heard one of his larger than life stories. If you don't know him, but hang around the Seacoast arts community, you've likely heard a community member recite one or more of his magnificent (true) tales. One subject he's very keen on is David Bowie. Before you can even finish asking who his favorite subject was to shoot back in his heyday, Stevens quickly blurts out Bowie's name.

"There are people that earn their living taking pictures of fashion shows, which are sound-tracked and lit like a rock 'n' roll gig," said Stevens over a cup of coffee recently. "Your focus as a photographer is head to toe. Get the outfit, get the shoes, get the great big hat...; get everything. What the hell is the difference between that and David Bowie dressed in drag playing the Marquee Club? There is no difference. He had it all. He was larger than life. And the music was great (snickers)."

Steven's work can be seen in Paolo Hewitt's recent hardcover, "Album by Album," (Carlton Books) which takes the reader on a detailed artistic journey of Bowie's career, from his debut album up until 2003's "Reality" release (he has a new record, "The New Day" - his 28th album, and first studio release in a decade - due out in March of this year).

"I first shot Bowie at the Rainbow Theatre (in London) in the early '70s," says Stevens. "He was with the Spiders from Mars. We (Joe, and journalist Charles Shaar Murray) were still in the underground press at the time, with few connections. We sat in the balcony. I shot a bunch of photos that Charlie hid in his sock (the film) due to a fear of security confiscating the roll. We thought we'd get the photos published in some underground rag, but they wound up getting picked up by the New Musical Express (NME), which we then took over (literally) minutes later (laughs).

"I first met Bowie shortly thereafter shooting stills for the Russell Harty Show. Bowie asked me backstage - I just happened to be alone with him in the same room - what I thought of the tune he had played, and I said, 'David...; 'My Death'? Give me a f---ing break.' It was a terrible choice. I wasn't going to kiss his a - like everyone else did. He took a liking to me immediately."

Bowie liked Stevens so much that he invited him to the Chateau d'Herouville, in France to shoot photos (for the NME) while Bowie was recording his final album with the Spiders from Mars, "Pin Ups." "Pin Ups" also served as the final record of the contract he signed with RCA, and was a collection of Bowie's favorite covers from groups he admired coming out of London from 1964-67. Artists ranging from Syd Barrett's Pink Floyd, The Kinks, The Who, The Yardbirds, and others were covered on the record.

Stevens hung out with Bowie in the studio for five days during the making of the record and got a slew of intimate shots, from which a couple choice frames are showcased in "Album by Album," along with a couple obscure shots of Bowie chatting with the conductor of a train he was riding on (due to his fear of flying), and a shot of the musician's hairdresser, Suzi Fussey, who helped craft the look of Ziggy Stardust (and whom later married Spiders from Mars guitarist Mick Ronson).

"Bowie hired four French violinists to come in and record string arrangements for 'Sorrow,' Stevens says about the "Pin Ups" session. "If you needed anything - being 90 miles outside of Paris - a limousine would come and get you and bring you to Chateau. On the day they arrived I noticed Bowie was wearing pink trousers with a big bulge in the back. I couldn't stop wondering what it was - couldn't stop looking at it...; They (the violinists) had been their all night and into the day. They thought they were about to head into the studio to unpack their violins and get started, but Bowie had called the limo service to come back. He sat the players down and said, 'You're through. I don't need you.' They hadn't recorded a lick. He asked them how much they got paid, reached into his back pocket, and the bulge ended up being a massive bankroll of about 150,000 Francs. He paid 'em out, and moved on. I had always thought he had a business manager taking care of the money. There were so many people in that entourage to worry about. But Bowie did it (at that time). I witnessed him doing business, which was utterly fascinating to me. I was also glad to find out what that bulge actually was (laughs)."

"Another memory I have of the session that is included in the book occurred on the second night I was there. After recording all day, Bowie came down after a nap, or perhaps some extra curricular activity (snickers). Bowie loved the maids... Anyhow, he comes down and sits down solo at the piano in the rehearsal room and begins to play. I was on the phone in the other room. When I heard someone playing, I walked into the room and saw David. He allowed me to fire off some shots on the camera and then asked me to stop. He said, 'are you getting restless, Joey?' I said, 'I'm losing my mind here.' 'That's it,' he said. 'I'm getting a limo.' So we packed everyone into the limo and took off for Paris where we ended up spending an evening hanging out with Serge Gainsbourg in a cafe. Everyone at the place knew Bowie and wanted a piece of him. But the limo driver had no idea who he was. He left us stranded. We had to call another car to pick us up."

Stevens, who has shot Bowie professionally 12 to 15 times throughout his career seemingly became a made man when Bowie took a liking to him. When the Spiders from Mars rented out the Marquee Club in London to do a live shoot for the famous "Midnight Special" television program (which would also act as the final performance of the band), Bowie phoned in to NME again and asked for Stevens directly.

"Bowie called the offices of the NME and asked if I was in," Stevens recalled. "'Is he busy?' The paper said, 'who is this?' 'It's David Bowie.' They said, 'Yeah, right.' Somehow he convinced them though. He described the way I walked and talked at the time. So they said, 'Ok, Mr. Bowie, he's here right now, he just off the elevator, do you want to speak to him?' ' Ohhhh, nooo. Well, OK,' he joked. I picked up the line: 'Hello, Joseph, did you hear about the show I'm doing at the Marquee?'

I thought he was going to torment me, and tell me there was no chance in hell that I'd be able to get in, and not to bother trying to sneak through the doors. But he said to me, 'I've got you on the door, and you can bring a guest.' WOW, I thought. That's when people at the NME started to wonder, who is this f---ing American guy? How is he so connected? Is he part of the CIA? (Laughs)."

"Album by Album" offers an impressive pictorial collection (along with solid prose) that gives you a glimpse into the life of a music legend. The fact that our own Joe Steven's plays a part in the volume makes it that much more noteworthy and worth checking out. For Stevens, Bowie is a crucial chapter in the life story of a photographer whose life work is the staff of magnificent wonder.

"I wasn't doing it for money, really," said Stevens while reflecting on what it means to see his photos regularly used in works like this book. "I was taking a look at the bigger picture back then. I was looking at it from a historical perspective. When I see my photos now that came out of my camera way back when, I'm very pleased at my contribution to the history of rock 'n' roll. I was just out there doing the best that I could. I captured some historic moments, and I got so excited every time I was sent to shoot an artist, or when an artist was sent to my studio. From Chuck Berry at Carnegie Hall to Fats Domino the very next night... I nearly had a stroke every time I had a gig. That's how exhilarating it was for me. I still get excited thinking about it. Don't do things that are important to you anticipating a sum of money. Do it because it's a labor of love and you want to be doing it. For me, that's the bottom line."

Article by Christopher Hislop

For more information on Joe Stevens, visit www.joestevens.com

Find out more about Bowie: Album by Album

Recent news