NEW YORK — I waited for Bernard Fowler in a corner of a large hotel restaurant near Central Park. When he arrived, wearing bright yellow sneakers and silver sunglasses, he had such a big presence that the otherwise empty space seemed the right size for our conversation.
The night before (Aug. 1), he sang and played percussion at the Rolling Stones’ concert at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford. He’s held that spot with them on tour and in the studio for more than 30 years.
“It’s hard to come down from a stadium tour.” Fowler said. “I’m happiest when the music is playing and I’m singing, but the music has to stop at some point and then you’re back to the world … No matter what’s going on outside, when I’m singing, I’m part of the song. I’m there and I can shut the noise out.”
With the release of his third solo album, Inside Out, on the Jersey City-based Rhyme & Reason Records label, Fowler — who is a a producer, songwriter and vocal arranger in addition to being a singer and percussionist — offers a stirring and provocative way to hear some of the Stones’ material anew. The album features nine of the band’s songs as powerful, emotional and riveting spoken word.
While he has honored the group, which he referred to as “family,” by recording their songs, Inside Out should not be viewed as a cover album. It is a reinterpretation of their songs that requires mindful listening. He has truly turned the songs inside out to reveal the depth of the Stones’ lyrics and his own soul.
If you have been following the Stones for decades, you might feel there’s nothing you don’t know about their songs. Guess again. Even the most loyal fan will learn something new about them by listening to Inside Out.
Obscured by their stellar musicianship and mad moves onstage, the Stones’ lyrics are often underappreciated. Fowler presents their words — stripped of Keith Richards’ guitar riffs and Mick Jagger’s commanding swagger — in their raw state.
“People get so caught up in Rolling Stone funk,” said Fowler. “They catch the chorus, but the meat of it they kind of glance over. … Even if you did hear it, now, the way it’s presented (on Inside Out), you hear it a whole other way. The meaning becomes even stronger when you hear it in spoken word form.”
It is ironic that a remarkable vocalist decided to make an album without singing. But his poetic rendering has more of a musical quality than I’ve ever heard from someone who is just talking. Fowler not only continues to demonstrate his strength as a solo performer on this new release (which follows two prior solo albums, 2006’s Friends With Privileges and 2015’s The Bura), but also reminds us of the transformative power that spoken word can have on subjects ranging from love, loss, longing and sex to pain, death, addiction and war.
Fowler has been active in the New York music scene since his work in the late ’70s and early ’80s with Bill Laswell’s funk group Material; the dub-electronic band Tackhead; and the groundbreaking group, the New York Citi Peech Boys, led by DJ Larry Levan. Formed at the Paradise Garage, the group is best known for their soulful 1982 hit, “Don’t Make Me Wait” and for “Life Is Something Special” (1983). When I listen to these tunes, they channel the New York dance floors of the early 1980s.
Fowler has been ahead of the class for a long time now. “We were a dance band and didn’t call ourselves ‘house’ or ‘garage music,’ ” he said.
When “Don’t Make Me Wait” hit the airwaves, “it was playing everywhere and it was on ‘American Bandstand,’ ” he said. “We were on our way.”
If you trace his career, it is not surprising that he does not fear trying something new. He has worked in many genres, including projects with Alice Cooper, Public Image Ltd, Herbie Hancock, Yoko Ono, Philip Glass, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Bonnie Raitt, Rod Stewart, Nickelback, Motörhead, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bootsy Collins and Slash. “What other people run away from, I run to,” he said.
As I listened to Inside Out, I was stunned by how unfamiliar all but one of the tracks sounded (“Sympathy for the Devil” was quickly recognizable). Surprised by the subject matter and by Fowler’s voice, nuanced with deep expressions of anguish, outrage and vulnerability, I remembered the power of spoken word. Rock ‘n’ roll usually carries me away to a better place. Fowler’s spoken word made the present moment satisfying.
Fowler, who lives in Los Angeles, is already contemplating his follow-up spoken word album, which he said will probably not be limited to Stones’ songs. He has long appreciated spoken word for its potential to move people, but never recorded it until now.
“One of my favorite projects was working with Bill Laswell on the PiL (Public Image Ltd) album,” he said. “That’s when I met Ginger Baker (of Cream). He (Laswell) brought him back from Italy with (jazz drummer) Tony Williams. I hadn’t heard him out of the jazz realm before.
“We walked into the Electric Lady (recording studio). He’s (Bill’s) my cat, my mentor — he opened my mind and split my head right in two. Me and Bill and Tony Williams were outside of Electric Lady talking about (Williams’) rock band and I was going to be the singer. Two weeks later, he was dead.”
Fowler’s stories could fill a book.
“Alice (Cooper) was one of the sweetest people I ever met in the business. I worked on his record Along Came a Spider, singing and with vocal arrangements.” Cooper wanted to sing a duet with Ozzy Osbourne. When Osbourne could not do so, Fowler offered to step in.
“I go in the bathroom and stick tissue in my nose. I started singing. Cooper liked what he heard and Alice asked me, ‘How did you do it? We are gonna keep it.’ ”
Conceived during several days of soundchecks during The Rolling Stones’ Zip Code Tour of 2015, Inside Out focuses largely on lesser known Stones songs. Fowler explained that during soundcheck, he warmed up by playing congas while Chuck Leavell, the band’s musical director and keyboardist, called out song titles to play. Fowler responded by reciting the lyrics, stripped of chords and melodies, with just the backdrop of congas.
Jagger and Richards both liked what they hear and approved of his plan to record a spoken word album, he said.
“Mick said to me, ‘I’ve heard Rolling Stones songs played in many different ways, but I’ve never heard it like this before,’ ” Fowler said. “Mick’s a funny one. He will say when he doesn’t like it. If he isn’t saying something, he really likes it. That’s very Mick. If he doesn’t like it, you will know about it.”
Richards approved twice. “I played a taste for him when it was in production and after the album’s release, and he liked it,” Fowler said.
“Charlie Watts and I went to an Arabian horse farm in Texas last week and he told me how good he thought the record was, and he has ideas for the next one.”
Fowler thumbed through the Stones’ tremendous catalog of music and picked songs with lyrics that embraced social and political themes, including issues of injustice, violence and addiction — all subjects that connected to the world he grew up in, in the Queensbridge Housing Projects in Queens, N.Y. He also picked a few tracks that focused on sex and love.
“Richards is a balladeer … he loves songs about love,” said Fowler, who also appreciates tender songs. (Listen to “See You Again” from The Bura, a hauntingly beautiful tale of love and loss.)
In the album’s liner notes, he dedicates the album to “the black and Hispanic brothers that I grew up with. Together we listened to the music, ate food and kissed the girls, and to this very day I still feed off those experiences. …
“I didn’t know the cats that wrote like this, and I wondered how many of their fans knew these cats that I seemed to have just rediscovered. Could it be that the Stones are actually some black guys disguised as English gentlemen?”
He added during the interview: “I didn’t study the lyrics until I decided to do this record; they’d give us the lyrics in rehearsal and I’d say to (singer) Lisa (Fischer, who toured with the band for many years), ‘Did you know that was in there?’ ”
Fowler considers the social commentary expressed by his song selections — recorded by the Stones from the late 1960s to the 1980s — to be relevant to current societal struggles and concerns, and selected them “because they could all have been written yesterday.”
Given the current opioid epidemic in this country, “Sister Morphine” and “Dancing With Mr. D. are on point. He noted that the same issues in the U.K. that Jagger and Richards described in their songs were also present in New York when he was growing up.
On the track “It Must be Hell,” Fowler warns:
We got trouble, that’s for sure
We got millions unemployed
Some kids can’t write and some kids can’t read
Some kids are hungry
Our TV leader boldly speaks
The words of Christ he tries to preach
We need more power to hold the line
The strength of darkness still abides
Must be hell living in the world
Living in the world like you
Saxophonist Tim Ries and percussionist Walfredo Reyes Jr. — who have both played with the Stones — and percussionist Lenny Castro provide a magnificent backdrop to this track. It was written in 1983, but could be describing present day circumstances.
Fowler’s reimagined versions make each word of the lyrics palpably clear, and his use of repetition and his expressive vocal inflection are reminiscent of Felipe Luciano’s 1971 recitation of “Right-On (Hey Now),” a powerful poetic call to action. (see video below) Luciano was a member of The Original Last Poets and his dramatic recordings inspired Fowler to venture into the realm of spoken word.
A founding member of the New York chapter of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican and Latino rights group, Luciano also recorded the righteous poem “Jibaro” (see video below) which explored racial oppression and, Fowler said, influenced his approach. Targets of the U.S. government’s counter intelligence program (COINTELPRO), the Young Lords (along with the Black Panthers and other student and radical groups) spoke out about poverty, violence, injustice and U.S. involvement abroad, including in Vietnam.
Fowler said spoken word has the power to inspire change, and acknowledged its ability to spark conversation, which he said is as important now as it was then.
You can hear The Original Last Poets’ influence on Fowler’s powerful rendition of “Undercover of the Night,” the lead track from the Stones’ 1983 album, Undercover. The ghost of bluesologist Gil Scott-Heron is present on this song, too. (Fowler recorded a song with him in 1984 titled “Re-Ron” about then-President Reagan’s re-election run.)
It opens with dialogue Fowler wrote — a woman crying in fear of being caught by government soldiers, lost in the chaos of war-torn Nicaragua, with ominous drums by Steve Jordan, percussion by Reyes Jr. and Castro, with Clayton Cameron on snare brushes.
Fowler hired Rachel Morales to recite the opening dialogue; she happened to grow up in the middle of the conflict in Nicaragua. She was referred to him by Carmine Rojas, bassist for David Bowie and Rod Stewart. She didn’t have any acting or vocal experience, and started to cry during the recording process, drawing on her traumatic memories.
Rojas can be heard as the voice of the soldier who responds to the woman in distress by saying “Let’s get her!” You can feel the terror.
The subject of war and violence “is as relevant today as it was then,” Fowler said. “ ‘Undercover’ is the only song I knew I would do. It had an effect on me when I first heard it. I thought it was really different for the Stones. The effects caught my attention. The music, and then you hear the screams.”
I had to exhale deeply after hearing the strong ending of Fowler’s version of “Tie You Up” (also originally from Undercover) which he explained is about the pain of love and sex and the messy world created by attachment. “You’re deaf to it, blind to it, it’s like a thunderclap/Feel the prickles running up and down your back/Why so divine, the pain of love,” he wails, and repeatedly begs, “Don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me.”
Excitement and tension build with each beat, his voice rising and falling. His pain is palpable. “I was moved by that lyric … I heard Last Poets in it. Love, sex and the pain of it. A lot of songs are written when your heart is in disarray,” Fowler said.
As the album’s producer, Fowler relied upon a little help from his friends, who created magic on each track at Steakhouse Studio in Los Angeles, despite a tight budget. It is a testament to his talent that so many luminaries jumped at the chance to play on his album. Initially, he intended to use only his voice and percussion, but he added other instruments on some numbers.
Jordan offered to drum on all the percussion-based tracks. Fowler was also joined by Stones bassist Darryl Jones, along with former Miles Davis drummer/producer Vince Wilburn Jr., and Michael Bearden on piano. Guitarist Ray Parker Jr. (who wrote the theme song to the 1984 movie, “Ghostbusters”) joined him on “Time Waits for No One” and “Sister Morphine.” Listen for Keyon Harrold’s trumpet on “Sister Morphine”; Harrold played trumpet on the Miles Davis biopic, “Miles Ahead.”
Mike Garson, the pianist who frequently worked with David Bowie, is featured on “Sympathy for the Devil.” Listen for his stunning solo and Fowler’s commanding phrasing. “Just as every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints” is as familiar as Christmas carols, but when Fowler speaks those words, I am forced to sit down with my coffee to catch every word as if I was listening to an important speech. The track ends with a sinister laugh that sounds pretty convincing.
Fowler’s music education was grounded in not just The Last Poets and Scott-Heron, but also other African-American poets and spoken word artists, including Amiri Baraka, whom he heard on the pioneering PBS television show, “Soul!” Born in the Jamaica section of Queens, he moved to the Queensbridge Projects and woke up to the sounds of salsa music from outside. He listened to funk and R&B, and his parents played gospel and soul music in the house. His father gave him his first record: The Stones’ 12 x 5.
Fowler connects “Dancing with Mr. D” to his experiences watching his friends and family dancing with trouble. I asked him if Mr. D symbolizes death, drugs or the devil, and he responded, “All of them. Death, the devil and drugs were all over Queensbridge. It’s all connected.”
Fowler didn’t intend to join a rock ‘n’ roll band and jet around the world playing in stadiums before 60,000 people. In fact, he wanted to be a professional basketball player. But when he was offered his first gig singing with a local band, his coach gave him an ultimatum.
“You are either going to play ball or sing in the band, but you are not gonna do both,” Fowler said, imitating his coach. “I remember standing there crying and asking him if he meant it.”
Fowler was not backing away from music, so the coach kicked him off the team, and Fowler never played ball again.
The Queensbridge Projects are known not only for its tenants’ contributions to hip-hop (giving rise to Nas and Mobb Deep, among others), but also known for racial segregation in the 1950s, when white families were moved out of Queensbridge to other housing projects. In the 1970s, the projects experienced a rise in crime, and drugs were impacting his community. This setting informed Fowler’s song picks on Inside Out.
We talked about Scott-Heron and the Last Poets’ rap-like vocal style and their social consciousness, which influenced and foreshadowed hip-hop. Fowler expressed frustration with some hip-hop artists’ departure from their early roots.
When Fowler was growing up, his mother, Pearline Fowler, kept a watchful eye on him, calling him out when he failed to return a message from a musical group interested in him early on. She also has kept him grounded all these years that he’s been jet-setting with rock icons.
Fowler said he abides by his mom’s advice: “When you start to believe your shit is when it all goes away. Stay humble.”
On his previous solo albums, Fowler worked with legendary artists such as Robert Plant, Joe Elliott of Def Leppard, and the Stones’ Ron Wood. Fowler said he took the song and album title “The Bura” from “a wind with hurricane force that blows off the Adriatic Sea between Italy and Croatia.” A lot of stormy emotions are expressed on the album. In addition to “See You Again,” listen to “Will You Miss Me,” inspired by the Stones’ temporary reprieve from playing.
“They hadn’t toured for a while and then they announced a tour and people speculated it would be their last. I started writing the song with that in mind. It’s like their sign-off song. I’m writing from the Stones’ perspective to fans. They never said it would be the last.
“The Bura meant a lot to me. I never wanted to make solo records. I always wanted to be with a band. But when you’re in the business, you realize that keeping a band together is probably the hardest thing to do in rock ‘n’ roll. And I’ve been in lots of bands.”
Dynamics with the Stones have naturally evolved over the years. In 1985, Fowler recorded vocals for Jagger’s solo album, She’s the Boss (he also has performed on solo albums by Watts, Richards and Wood). He joined the Stones on their Steel Wheels Tour in 1989 and has toured with them ever since.
“After the Steel Wheels Tour, the relationship was building. I would meet Keith in the city. I remember one night he said, ‘Come meet me on the West Side.’ I go up the elevator and Tom Waits and Keith are working. I watched them. I didn’t jump in. I was looking and listening.
“Then I’d meet them at a rehearsal place. They were writing songs. There’s one song in particular — ‘How Can I Stop,’ from Bridges to Babylon. Keith is writing. It’s a beautiful ballad. And Mick is there grooving on the song. I’d back off, but I wrote all the vocal parts in my head. I had it mapped out … I was there for hours. And everyone is getting tired. I waited my turn. Then I gave everyone the parts and the tape rolled. I was spending so much time with Keith, I knew what he liked. I created those things from what I knew he liked.
“Keith would sometimes stay in the hotel and we’d play dominos and listen to music. He’s known this life since he was a teenager. I would go out of the room at 5 o’clock in the morning. We’d sneak out of the hotel. We’d walk in the middle of Munich, Prague, walking till the sun rises.”
Fowler said he when he started touring with the Stones, he “was used to being the frontman so it was a bit weird,” but then “we became like family. I’ve watched their children grow.”
Fowler got to know Jagger first, and used to ask him what Richards was like. “He said, ‘Bernard, you and Keith would get on really well.’ At the time they were fighting, but I know that shit don’t move unless the two of them are on board … I remember hearing somebody saying something against Mick and Keith would say, ‘You are not going to talk about him. Only I do that.’ ”
Fowler has joined Bowie’s collaborators, including Garson and guitarist Earl Slick, on tour, with a show titled “A Bowie Celebration.”
“Slick wanted to do an anniversary tour of Station to Station,” Fowler said. He asked Fowler to join the tour, which celebrated the 40th anniversary of the 1976 album with some alumni musicians from Bowie’s bands. Fowler asked if Bowie, who died in 2016, knew about the tour. He did.
“David said, ‘Who are you going to get to sing, Slicky?,” said Fowler. He learned that Fowler was the pick.
“Bowie said, ‘I thought for a second you were gonna get a skinny white guy to sing Bowie-oke’. He endorsed us and posted on social media about the tour … Then right when we started rehearsing, Bowie passed away. It was special that we had that tour booked already. We didn’t jump on the death bandwagon.”
Fowler recently performed selections from Inside Out at a sold-out show titled “The Rolling Stones Project” at the Jazz Standard in New York with Ries, drummer Terreon Gully and trumpeter Wallace Roney. The crowd was awestruck. In addition to performing “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Sister Morphine” and “Undercover of the Night” as spoken word, he sang a few songs not featured on the album, including a gorgeous and emotionally riveting rendition of “Wild Horses.” His expressive voice was matched by the intense emotion on his face. (see video below)
When the Stones’ No Filter Tour is over, Fowler plans to perform all over in support of Inside Out. He also plans to record a sequel to it, as well as a sequel to The Bura.
Fowler thinks the Stones will “likely” tour again, but does not know when. Despite Jagger’s recent heart procedure, which caused a delay in their touring schedule, “he didn’t miss a step. He’s fine and he’s taking care of himself. … They are getting better with age. They are not going to slow down. They love it.”
Where do you go, when you have played with everyone, including the Stones? Home perhaps? I asked him if he missed New York and he said, “Yes, there’s too much sun (in Los Angeles). Somebody asked me ‘Does (New York) feel like home?’ Absolutely.”
For information and updates, visit bernardfowler.com.
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence, though, depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of $10, or any other amount, to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJ Arts Daily to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.