Bretagne Actuelle - 30th May 2016

The three weeks that David Bowie spent in Saint-Malo

Interview with Alain Lahana
By Grégoire Laville

Nobody knew it then: at the end of September 1991, David Bowie and his band at the time, Tin Machine, settled in Saint-Malo for three weeks for rehearsals before the It's My Life Tour. Three weeks of calm and concentrated work, in Brittany, which he loved very much. Three weeks told by the one who organised them, his turner for 15 years.

Interview with Alain Lahana, turner for David Bowie in France from 1989 to 2004, who has worked since 1995 with Patti Smith and, for 39 years, with Iggy Pop.

Under what circumstances did you come to organise this rehearsal session in Saint-Malo for David Bowie and Tin Machine?
Following an informal conversation at the end of the Fréjus concert for the Sound+Vision Tour (note: in August 1990). David told me he was looking for a quiet place to rehearse Tin Machine. He was offered places in Belgium but he wanted to be in France. I suggested that he come to Saint-Malo where I lived with my wife and my son. I also staged a lot of concerts there: INXS, Stephan Eicher, Les Pogues, Echo and The Bunnymen... I had good relations with the town hall.
So I suggested Saint-Malo to David Bowie, thinking of the small theatre (the Chateaubriand Theatre in the walled city) which was also a small cinema where they hosted the Knowledge of the World screenings... A few months later I received a phone call from the tour manager who tells me that David confirmed to him that we were doing rehearsals in Saint-Malo.
So I reserve the Grand Hôtel des Thermes for the whole team, I'm starting to fix everything. Because 15 days later, he landed.

In a reduced team?
He was with his band and Coco Schwab. That's all. There was a bodyguard but who was much more of an assistant than a bodyguard... A very small team. Less than 10 people, including the musicians: the group with Reeves Gabrels and the two Sales brothers, Tony and Hunt.

This type of rehearsals in a place close to the first place of the tour is frequent or was it an original request?
It's something we often do with artists but very little with internationals. We set up in tour configuration and we rehearse for 10 or 15 days and often, at the end, we do a little concert in the place where we rehearsed to see what happens. With David, that's exactly what happened.

Do you remember his first impressions of Saint-Malo?
He loved it. He was very fond of history. A strong city like Saint-Malo obviously interested him. Chateaubriand, that means something (note: the writer, born in Saint-Malo, is also buried there, on the rock of Grand-Bé).
But this was not a criterion for choosing the location of the rehearsals.
He had two options on the table: an urban location or not. He chose the non-urban option because he also wanted to relax.
David walked a lot. It was frequent: he would come down from the Thermes to go on foot to settle on the terrace of the bar of the Universe, in the walled city, to drink his coffee, smoke his cigarette while reading his newspaper. All alone. No one ever asked him for an autograph. People thought he looked like David Bowie but couldn't imagine it could be him!
We had somewhat sanctuarised the cinema because I had the usual reflexes in relation to personalities like that. But no one ever tried to bother us.

What was he doing outside of rehearsals?
We were taking walks. We went to eat at Roellinger (note: the great chef Olivier Roellinger in Cancale). We celebrated the birthday of one of the Sales brothers in a great little restaurant near the Solidor Tower. We took the small room at the back but without being ultra discreet and we celebrated it at Badoit since it was a very sober period. A concentrated period of work.
The atmosphere is very studious when you are preparing for a tour. We worked all day.
Everyone sees Bowie as an untouchable icon when he was a guy... great, everyone knows that, but in his job, he was just a super hard worker! He had a very simple relationship with others with a form of tongue-in-cheek humour. He was very funny. He did not miss the valve. Concentrated, precise but funny! He was also very demanding with him and seeing how he worked was very interesting.

How were his working days?
During rehearsals, my grand-nephew was the driver and was always at the theatre to help a little with everything. And there was David's little team, with his stage manager, a backliner etc., who set up their stuff every day for rehearsals, spinning.
We also built part of the set: one day, David asked me to go and buy rolls of wire at the nearby hardware store to make little papier-mâché figurines.

He also designed the decor?
Yes, that's what was very interesting to see: it's that he who puts on grandiose shows, when he's in a different, lighter configuration, he adapts, he's in that spirit. He doesn't come with his big hooves and to fit an elephant into a mouse's shoe. It creates something balanced against the context. In the Baby Universal clip, you can see blurry images of the band on stage: these images are made at the Chateaubriand Theatre and I'm probably holding one of the cameras! It was done like that and always in a big working atmosphere.

And he finally wanted to organise a concert?
At the end of the stay, he told me that he would like to organise a concert the next day, October 1, to test the repertoire a bit. I tell him that the hall is small, with 300 to 350 seats, and that he is David Bowie after all! But he replies that it will be quiet and a good way to test. He wanted to do a free concert, put a kitty at the entrance so that people put what they want and with the money we would get back, we would buy a table football for the kids at La Découverte (note: neighbourhood neighbour of Saint-Malo).

And you're arranging that for the next day?
I put a card at the entrance. But at the time, we didn't have the Internet, no relay whatsoever. I'm starting to say we're doing a show tomorrow with Tin Machine. No reaction... I had not previously warned anyone. I call a few friends, the director of the Barclay record company who has come specially from Paris. They didn't believe me.
They disembark.
And the room wasn't filling up because people thought it was a hoax! I went to solicit people in the street to get them to go to the concert! I even caught a group of school children who were nearby. When Bowie saw that, I had to go around the pharmacies to get some earplugs because he didn't want to have any complaints.
And we did the concert, which lasted two hours.
And the kitty, I can say it now: everyone only put in yellow coins... I put in a 500-ball note because I was too embarrassed about him.

And this somewhat original Saint-Malo audience, how did they react?
It was very special because the audience was made up of people who didn't know what Bowie stood for or people who were speechless... It was incredible. On the day of the show, we also handed over the keys to the city to Bowie, at the town hall because everyone had played the game in the most total discretion.
The next day, when an article appeared on the front page of Ouest-France, a lot of people said: "But then it was him we saw every day!"

Finally, this stay of rehearsals in Saint-Malo was interesting for all?
He might as well have rehearsed in another country, in some rehearsal room. Except that there, it was a period of end of a cycle and this stay on the seafront in St Malo was, I believe, quite prolific for many things. It was a moment of peace and concentration.

We know he was curious about everything. Was he very interested in Brittany?
I'm going to put a small caveat: for five years after these rehearsals and even two years ago, real estate agents called me to tell me that Bowie wanted to buy a malouinière, that he wanted to settle in Brittany. As soon as an artist arrives in a region, everyone thinks that he wants to settle there. It was not on the agenda. But he loved Brittany: we came back on the next tour, without Tin Machine, for a concert at the Parc des expos in Rennes, which had been tense because we had had a bomb threat just in the opening of the doors. And there again, I still had real estate agents... But he never wanted to settle in Brittany.

Right after, Tin Machine started the tour It's My Life Tour?
We did promotion in Paris, like two songs at the Nation for NRJ
And then it was the European tour with an Olympia and a Zenith in stride, on October 29 and 30.
I remember a funny anecdote: I also went to join him in Germany for a concert. He had said to himself that he was going to start with the last title of the encore and perform his concert "upside down"! And at the end of the stage, I go into the dressing room, he bursts out laughing and says to me: "How stupid was that! I would never do that again..."

This debut of Tin Machine opened a new period for Bowie?
He really considered himself part of a group. He didn't want any more interviews of himself. It was a collective project that he presented like that. It was his revival, his source of inspiration. Because the meeting, just before, with Reeves Gabrels (guitarist of Tin Machine) made him want to go exploring again. He got his taste back then. In fact, going back to the Sound+Vision Tour, which was supposed to put an end to a whole past, gave him back a lot of desire.

The group however did not last very long (1988 to 1992)?
No, but I'd say it's almost normal... You can't say you're equal with someone like Bowie in a band.
The very fact that it is a group is an anomaly. It was a great band but Bowie is Bowie. He's the leader, he's the one driving anyway. A project he was in, he vampirised anyway.

He wanted to blend into a group. He had a particular relationship to the fame he had sought?
Yes, but he's an artist who has often questioned himself: it's already a special relationship with fame. Breaking the character when you're on top is not something very common... When you "return to square one" for each chapter, it's called a "real artist". Make a complete "reset", I find it very strong.
Don't forget that he was being spat on when he started Tin Machine! It was a real risk taking. It was very badly perceived at the time. And now people realise that the 2nd album (Tin Machine II) is important in Bowie's career.

In your opinion, the last 10 years of his life, he really chose to retire, to live a family life?
Absolutely. For me, in the character Bowie, there is still a lot of Dorian Gray, "Never get old". When he had his heart problems, for two years, there was talk of him coming back. In my opinion, that's when he said to himself: 'maybe I pulled the strings a little too much and I'm going to refocus on my daughter to be more present than I was able to be for my son'. Afterwards, when a great communicator stops communicating, it is noticeable. There were plenty of rumours during this period to which he did not react.
But it was a desire to live alone.
He had a very funny thing: he walked around New York saying that he was leaving with his "bodyguard" and it was a cap he put on, glasses, and he went in the crowd. Always in touch and that's why he was able to be a trendsetter.

How do you explain that we are so touched by his death, why, as Jérôme Soligny (musician, writer, journalist at Rock & Folk and biographer of Bowie) says, "when he left, he invaded us"?
We realise that we are obliged to have a part of life that is linked to it.
He was the precursor of such a movement, and not only in music! Everything he initiated and which has become commonplace, which has affected several generations... Life would have been different without him. So his disappearance is very significant. The lack is immense. I see few rock artists who wouldn't claim him.
He was involved in such landmark albums, apart from his own career: if only his productions of Lou Reed (Transformer in 1972) or Iggy Pop (The Idiot and Lust For Life in 1977)!
It's a very broad spectrum that has affected everything rock. He's the boss...

Had he really walked away from Iggy Pop?
Yes. They had moved very far away. Everyone has gone their own way. But with great mutual respect. Iggy took over Tonight after his death. It was extremely moving like everything he said about Bowie.
I remember another anecdote in Toulon with David: he plays Lust For Life (co-written by Bowie and Iggy Pop for his album of the same name) on the soundcheck. I was in the office; I come running. He bursts out laughing: "It was just to see if you were there..."