“I know I’m rambling, but I’ll get to the part where I met David Bowie,” legendary record producer Tony Visconti said to a chuckling audience about 30 minutes into the biographical part of his SXSW Music keynote on Thursday morning. It’s not that Visconti hasn’t led a broadly fascinating life with a lot of great stories to tell, but Bowie especially has been on everyone’s minds since the iconic rock star died two months ago.
Visconti, who worked on more than a dozen albums with Bowie from the 1970s right up to January’s landmark swan song “Black Star,” offered up some great personal memories of the first time he met Bowie. “We kind of had a long date that day,” he said, recalling their walk through Manhattan streets and a foreign film viewing. There were tales about other superstars as well, such as when Paul McCartney asked Visconti to write the string parts for his “Band on the Run” album.
But the initial 45 minutes turned out to be a prelude to the most fascinating part of Visconti’s talk. It was almost certainly the first time anyone has used SXSW’s keynote forum to read a fictional short story. “The Universe,” set in 2016 in Sydney, Australia, found Visconti extrapolating the current unstable state of the music industry into a future where there was only one major record label and faddish pop stars rotated almost weekly based on a lottery drawing.
That Orwellian vision, which Visconti likened more to him posing as “the ghost of Christmas future,” was unsettling, largely because it drew upon a lot of aspects that already are are a part of our world today, from music-based reality shows to the consolidation of corporations to even the onset of global warming. (The story’s protagonist, a Jimi Hendrix devotee who had been a New York record exec, got stuck in Australia after major weather shifts put a halt to most overseas travel.)
Not everything was believable, and that was no doubt by design; in some respects, Visconti was using exaggeration to make a point. He hoped, he said later, not to come across as simply an “old-school curmudgeon,” even as he allowed that he probably is. But he encouraged artists and business types alike to keep focusing on quality first and foremost. “Show them your best stuff,” he stressed, “not what you THINK they want.”
A downside to Visconti’s combined biography-and-fiction presentation was that it left very little time for Q&A. Only one question from the audience was allowed before the room was cleared to make way for the conference’s next events. Perhaps the biggest disappointment, though, was that Visconti made only passing mention of his work on “Black Star.” Bowie’s determination to complete the revelatory album in his final days was one of the most masterful strokes of art in recent memory, We’d have loved to hear more about how it all came to be, straight from the man who was in the producer’s chair.
As he took the stage, Visconti also gave a shoutout to local connections, noting his production work on several Alejandro Escovedo albums, some collaboration with producer and Spoon drummer Jim Eno, and a friendship with Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson.
Early arrivals in the crowd, which filled about half of the spacious Ballroom D at the Convention Center, also got a short but lively opening set from Dallas gospel band the Relatives. Their official SXSW showcase is Thursday night at 9 p.m. at Antone’s.