Tracing My Dad: Dennis Davis’s Son Talks with Tony Visconti

Last spring 2019, I found a video of Hikaru Davis, the young son of the late drummer Dennis Davis (died of cancer 2016), and  was Tony Visconti.p  the Davis was part of of the DAM trio (Davis-Alomar-Murray)  during Bowie’s incredible 1975 to 1980 period.

Wanting to know about the father he knew so briefly, Hikaru visited his friends and colleagues, and Nacho offered his assistance with editing.

I started at the end, with the 2018 Tony Visconti visits. One of the things that comes through in all these interviews is that Bowie did not surround himself with arrogant fools. I was impressed with the tenderness and respect the men he met showed Hikaru. They spoke with him as they would an adult: the Mister Rogers effect, too seldom seen when adults and children are together.

I’ll admit I came for the Bowie. But I left with an appreciation of how much others contributed to his sound and vision.

Visconti is a good explainer, telling Hikaru that what made his dad standout as a drummer was that he played “like an octopus,” each hand and foot doing a different thing, a style more often seen in jazz musicians. In fact, before Carlos Alomar approached Davis, Bowie, a rock performer with limited exposure in the US, had flown under Davis’s radar. Then he was asked to join David on Young Americans (he played on “Fame” and “Across the Universe”).

There is some good footage demonstrating how Davis affected this period in Bowie’s development. Usually drummers don’t get much screen time, nearly barricaded behind their instruments.

Part 2 of the Visconti interviews begins with Nacho’s synch of The Man Who Fell to Earth with the music of Low: a huge change from Young Americans, but hearing it with the drumming in mind, I really appreciate Dennis Davis’s driving the machine.  I’ll never hear Low quite the same way again. Visconti attributes about 60 percent of side one of the album’s sound to Davis.

The working style for the Berlin trilogy  was that Bowie told the bass section trio what he had it mind, and left them to it; Visconti too was open to their work and relays how lucky it was that Davis and rhythm guitarist George Murray “locked in.” Hikaru is spellbound as Visconti describes how his dad figured out how to use the harmonizer to create sounds “no one in the world had heard yet.”

It must be pretty cool to hear your dad “single-handedly created a new sound.”

In Part 3 Visconti then switches to Davis’s innovations on “Blackout” on Heroes, playing between his trap set and congas. Visconti describes Davis’s drumming as “metronomic.”  When it came time to mix Stage,  Visconti didn’t have one single good version of  “Station to Station.”  He needed to blend half of one performance with half of another. The risk was that the beat wouldn’t be precise between the two. He was astounded to find that at different concerts in two cities, the beat was perfectly consistent. Davis kept perfect time.

Finally, this segment, with the drums isolated: Visconti, enraptured, explains why “Look Back in Anger” is one of his favorite examples of Dennis Davis’s skill. Grief at losing Davis and Bowie isn’t in Visconti’s reactions, but rather joy — joy to have this music to return to. Visconti doesn’t stay in the past tense with Davis; he is fully present still in that video.

Tracing My Dad. Tony Visconti, Part 1. Part 2 Part 3.

Next Up: George Murray.

Image belongs to Hikaru Davis. Used with his kind permission.

 

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