Sound & vision
In an exclusive audience with David Bowie — the rock legend happened to be sitting in an otherwise empty Auckland bar — Napier musician Roy Brown approached him with a cracker opening line.
“I said ‘Hey, David Bowie, my name is Roy Brown. What was going through your mind when you wrote the lyrics to The Bewlay Brothers?'”
The last track on Bowie's 1971 album Hunky Dory, the opening lines to The Bewlay Brothers go:
And so the story goes, they wore the clothes
They said the things to make it seem improbable
The whale of a lie like the hope it was
And in the third verse:
And my brother lays upon the rocks
He could be dead, he could be not, he could be you
He's chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature
Interested in the Beat Generation writers (mobilised in the 1950s by Jack Kerouac's free-rolling prose) and one of the movement's outsiders, junkie/writer William Burroughs, Brown saw in the obscure lyrics of The Bewlay Brothers the influence of Burroughs' cut-up technique. The cut-up technique involved cutting up written text and rearranging it to create a new text.
In a Daily Mail interview, Bowie said of The Bewlay Brothers he'd had a wad of words he had been writing all day. He had written the rest of the Hunky Dory album before booking the studio, but The Bewlay Brothers was an unwritten piece he felt had to be recorded instantaneously.
“I had felt distanced and unsteady all evening, something settling in my mind. It is possible that I may have smoked something in my Bewlay pipe.
“I do believe that we finished the whole thing on that one night.”
Bowie didn't explain any of this to Brown though.
“He asked more questions about me and about Hawke's Bay than I asked about him. I ended up talking more about Roy Brown than his music,” says Brown with a note of regret.
Possibly he told Brown about his chord progression technique though.
“He wrote chords on cards, shuffled them up and threw them down to get him out of his routine. That led to the writing of Life on Mars.”
Describing the song as a gloriously strange anthem, The Daily Telegraph's Neil McCormick said Life on Mars was “completely impenetrable and yet resonant with personal meaning”.
“You want to raise your voice and sing along, yet Bowie's abstract cut-up lyrics force you to invest the song with something of yourself just to make sense of the experience.”
The owner of Napier venue The Cabana, and long-time musician with six of his own albums behind him, Brown describes Bowie as an absolute genius and his “absolute hero”.
Three months before his hero died in 2016, Brown put together the Bowie tribute act Absolute Bowie.
Ranging from Absolute Beginners to Ziggy Stardust, the band's playlist is extensive but Brown is hard-pushed to name a favourite song.
He enjoys playing Life On Mars on piano. His mother was a pianist so among Brown's biggest influences were The Beatles and Chopin, but Bowie was always at the top of his personal hit parade. Brown's three favourite Bowie albums are Scary Monsters, Hunky Dory, and Bowie's swansong Blackstar.
While many people have told Brown his singing voice sounds a little like that of Bowie's, the Napier musician does not mimic the artist in style or costume.
“There are no costumes. It's not Stars In Your Eyes.
Brown brings the show to Gisborne in about a week's time. Absolute Bowie's musicians are sound, he says.
“I have the absolute kick-arse band — the result of owning The Cabana.”
Absolute Bowie, Dome Room, Saturday, February 1 (8pm). Presale tickets available from The Aviary, $25 cash or $28 from eventfinda