An Israeli's Week in the Recording Studio With Bowie

A surprise phone call in 1995 led to bassist Yossi Fine recording alongside the music legend in New York. He recalls that life-changing experience

David Bowie / 1979
AP

The year was 1995, not long after I’d returned to Israel after 10 years in New York. It was almost midnight and I was dying to get to sleep after a long day, but I decided to check my answering machine.

“Hi Yossi, this is Carlos Alomar. I’m with David Bowie in the studio and we want you to come – call me back as soon as you can.”

Yossi Fine
Daniel Tchetchik

Whoa, what a shot of adrenaline! I was alert in a flash and full of energy. I called immediately and we agreed that I’d come to New York at the beginning of the following week. I told no one except for two very close friends.

At the time, we were in rehearsals for [Israeli hip-hop group] Shabak Samech’s first album and we were to start recording in another week or so. At the next rehearsal I told everyone, “I have to fly to New York urgently, but I’ll come straight back to the studio in 10 days. Everything will be on time.”

“What do you mean you’re leaving?” asked singer Muki. “I can’t tell you, but it’s really big,” I replied. “How big?” he asked. “The biggest,” I replied.

On Monday morning at 9 A.M., I got to the Hit Factory recording studio in New York.

“Can I help you?” asked the secretary.

“I’m here to play with David Bowie,” was what came out of my mouth.

“Ah, yes, he’s in the studio on the left.” And when I entered, he was already there, before everyone.

“Good morning, I’m Yossi.”

“Hello, and I’m David. Want some coffee?”

David Bowie - Outside

“Sure.” He started chatting to me and wanted to know as much as possible about me. In short, it was the softest possible landing. What a great guy! Afterward, the other musicians came and we started to play the first song, “Outside” [the title track of the concept album, Bowie’s 19th studio record]. I sat right next to him; I was on bass and he was on keyboards with a microphone near him. Very shortly afterward, we started to record and it was then that it started to sink in – it was him! He was singing into the microphone and he sounded just like David Bowie, with all the nuances. At the end of the recording, that was it; we went on to the next song. And that’s the take you hear on the album. It was that simple.

That’s how the whole week went, and we became really good friends. We spoke a lot about music and slowly I understood how he worked and how he chose musicians who would not fall into the rock clichés. On the contrary, he gave me a free hand and when I wanted to stay in the studio and record again, he would leave for an hour and say, “Tell me when you’re ready.” What freedom, what fun.

He asked if I’d heard of jungle music from London; he told me he had cassettes of the music that DJ friends had sent him from London and invited me to listen. Wow, what a burst of music.

In the midst of all this, I was making sure that Shabak Samech’s album would proceed on schedule, and I made them swear that they wouldn’t tell their manager, Itzik Lichtenfeld, that I was abroad.

David heard my conversations in Hebrew and asked what they were about. I told him the group would never believe that I’d gone for a week to record with him, and asked if he could write me a note, like for teacher. He gladly agreed.

That week was very significant for me, because I saw how much he believed in himself. He was not signed with any record company at the time, as incredible as that sounds. He never compromised himself as an artist, and the way he thought through and managed the recording process is the way I’ve been working for the past 20 years – almost the opposite of how it’s usually done.

A year later, when he performed in Israel, we sat in his dressing room backstage and spoke about art, painting and my latest project. The David Bowie I knew was accessible, friendly, and a gentleman – a Star with a capital “S.” Shining over them all. And so open

Many thanks for the inspiration, for giving me a chance to experience some music together. It still sustains me. And I will continue to consult with you.