In his more than 50 years in the music business, David Walker has seen plenty of shit. Walker has played various roles in the stories of some of rock 'n’ roll’s most historic acts, including The Rolling Stones, Devo and Paul McCartney. Walker first got his start in the business at Showco in 1976, where he’d build set pieces for the Stones, Jackson Browne or whatever other musical superstars passed through his shop. On more than one occasion, that included David Bowie, who passed away Sunday in his New York City home at the age of 69.
Two years after Walker first started working at Showco, he started his first project for Bowie. The singer was in Dallas rehearsing for his 1978 Isolar II tour, which was done in support of his Low and "Heroes" records (two-thirds of his famed "Berlin trilogy"). Walker was tasked with building a “box with lights in it” for Bowie, who made a surprise visit to the shop one afternoon.
“He was a charming guy. He said hello to everyone. He made sure that we all got a catered lunch that day,” Walker tells the Observer. “I think he rehearsed in Dallas for a while, and Showco was his audio, lighting and staging company of choice globally.”
Bowie's Isolar II tour would later be documented in a TV special called David Bowie on Stage, which was recorded that April at the Dallas Convention Center.
Walker’s path would cross again with Bowie's nearly 10 years later, when Showco worked on the artist’s 1984 Glass Spider tour. It was then that Walker really started to recognize just how huge working with Bowie really was. “The man was such a genius that it always blew me away,” he says. “On that tour, the curtain would open to reveal the spider in the ceiling, and the principal cast members would repel down, and David would repel down last.”
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In 1984, live concert technology wasn’t exactly the holograms and laser shows that you see on stages today, but Bowie was (of course) a revolutionary. “He always had these innovative ideas. He would put his cast members on snow skis, complete with boots and binding, so they could sway back and forth like they were being hypnotized by him,” says Walker. “These were groundbreaking things, and they were awesome to look at."
On the Glass Spider dates that Walker worked, which included shows in Dallas, Austin, Houston and New Orleans, he had the momentous task of strapping Bowie into his rappelling gear. “Every time, David would say, ‘Alright, don’t drop me,'” says Walker. “Then he’d laugh, drop on down and do his show. He was never a dick at all. Just this super cool guy.”
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Walker does, however, note that Bowie had pretty exacting standards and high expectations for his cast and crew, at least in the '80s. By the time that Walker worked with Bowie on his 50th birthday performance in Madison Square Garden, though, the artist had decidedly mellowed. “That was the most laid-back experience ever,” says Walker. “It was just fun. He was totally chill.”
That 50th birthday performance was also the time that Walker got closest to Bowie. “It’s not like I have an extensive tour diary with him,” Walker says. “The most intimate experience would’ve been the 50th birthday thing, where we had to have him stand in a spot to photograph him for blocking for what felt like forever.”
Walker does remember a particularly charming anecdote involving Bowie and Peter Frampton. Bowie was touring with Frampton in 1984, and according to Walker, Frampton was “kind of agoraphobic,” and wouldn’t leave the catering area where he, Bowie and Walker were all eating. “I wish I had more dirt, but I do remember David Bowie telling Peter Frampton to shut the fuck up at dinner,” says Walker. “Peter was bitching because he was scared to walk past the guys on the local crew, and David said, ‘Just shut the fuck up.'”
At the end of it all, though, all Walker really has to connect him to David Bowie are memories. After two divorces and “vindictive ex-wives,” Walker doesn’t have any of the swag that Bowie’s people handed out to the road crew. “I wish I did have that stuff,” says Walker ruefully. “It would all be pretty pricey now, even though I could never think about selling any of it.”