CHICAGO–(ENEWSPF)–February 25, 2016. During a 40-year career of recording and performing contemporary music, Roosevelt University Associate Professor of Jazz Studies Paul Wertico has rubbed shoulders with many superstars.
Members of Pink Floyd, AC/DC, The Who, Yes, Santana, Chicago, and Wilco, are just a few whose numbers have been stored in his cell phone over the years.
However, none of the Roosevelt drummer’s many encounters with star celebrities has sparked the kind of memories that Wertico has found himself revisiting after David Bowie passed away in January.
“Musically, David was always challenging himself and his audiences,” said Wertico, a jazz and contemporary music studies professor who tries to follow that guidepost in a teaching and music career that includes seven Grammy Awards, as well as having played on hundreds of recordings by various artists.
“David was just so full of ideas and energy,” recalled Wertico, who met Bowie as a member of the Pat Metheny Group in Montreux, Switzerland in 1984. (Above is a picture from the recording session. Wertico is second from left and Bowie is fourth from left) .
It was a brief encounter, a couple of days of hanging out together while recording the song “This Is Not America” for the Hollywood movie The Falcon and the Snowman starring Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton. (You can see the movie promo and hear the song featuring Bowie and the Pat Metheny Group with Wertico on drums here.) It was a long time ago but Wertico has been thinking a lot lately about the impression that Bowie left with him.
“David was very nice and really down to earth, and right after we first met, he told me that I reminded him very much of a young Anthony Newley, whom I later learned was a major influence on David.”
Wertico remembers sitting outside of the studio on Lake Geneva where Bowie introduced him to Oblique Strategies cards. Created by British artists Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, each card contains a cryptic remark that is meant to help musicians break creative blocks by encouraging them to think laterally. The cards said things like “Use an old idea,” “What would your friend do?” “Try faking it.”
“David was really into the idea of using the cards as the starting point for an inspiration, as well as a tool to use when a session ran into a snag,” said Wertico.
“Later, after all the rhythm tracks were recorded (Wertico played drums and congas on the track), it came time to record David’s vocals. Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays asked me to convey their production comments to David. Pat felt that David and I got along well, so they made me be the go-between – the one to tell David when we needed to do another take on this or that verse,” recalled Wertico.
“David was great to work with, his initial vocals blew us all away, yet he was very open to comments and suggestions as well. I was really surprised how well he took things and how open minded he was to new ideas and different ways of looking at making the song better,” he said.
“David seemed to me to be someone who was always growing. You know, I never thought he’d be someone who would die so young,” added Wertico, who still uses Oblique Strategies cards today, even introducing them to students in his “Introduction To Music Business” class.
Moved by Bowie’s final message – a recording and video released last month that shows the rock icon on his deathbed in his losing battle to cancer – Wertico has been impressed that Bowie managed to move the goalpost once again, challenging his audience, even at the end.
“Somehow you never want to think that the rock stars you grew up with are going to get old, but Bowie showed us that even when they do, that we, as creative artists can continue growing and evolving,” said Wertico.
Since Bowie’s passing, other music legends like the Eagles’ Glenn Frey, Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister, singer Natalie Cole, and Earth Wind and Fire’s Maurice White also have died.
“The challenge is to keep the music alive even after we pass on. It’s central to our lives and it’s important and influential to our culture,” said Wertico, who taught a course last fall called “Rock Music/Its Role In Society” and a class this spring on “Exploring The Blues.”
However, life as a musician is full of ups and downs, and right after the Bowie recording session was finished, Steve Rodby and Wertico needed to get back home, even though they had been up for almost two days straight. Bowie flew them back to Chicago first class on TWA, where they were even served wild boar on the flight, but were too tired to enjoy it. Immediately upon arriving home, Wertico had to play a wedding he was previously booked for at the infamous purple Hyatt House Hotel in Lincolnwood. “So I showered, put on a tuxedo and went to the gig,” said Wertico, who recalls being so tired that evening that he was actually falling asleep while still playing the drums. “I remember asking the bass player if he noticed, which he said he didn’t and that I sounded fine, giving real meaning to the phrase ‘I can play in my sleep!’”
“So, going from recording in Switzerland with David Bowie to playing a wedding in a hotel in Lincolnwood, talk about contrasts, but those were a few unbelievable days I will always treasure,” said Wertico.