Dougie Bowne gave up a perfectly good regular gig with a world-famous artist to follow his muse. Those in the know have been thanking him ever since.
Dougie Bowne exudes harmony. He speaks with a gregarious enthusiasm, punctuating stories with an arm around a shoulder and a diffused buoyant laugh. That he’s one of the greatest unsung drummers of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s New York experimental jazz and rock scenes is not something about which he boasts. Bowne’s modesty meant that during his busiest period, his prowess spread mostly via word of mouth among musicians and bandleaders. During his heyday he shared the studio and stage with a who’s who of revolutionary musicians, including Laurie Anderson, Iggy Pop, John Cale, Jack Bruce, and Marianne Faithfull.
Today, living in North Carolina and tending to his health, he’s still a man full of infectious energy, someone with whom you could imagine sharing a deep and abiding friendship. “He had a kind of light around him,” Iggy Pop wrote, “the kind of guy who understood the importance of having a laugh.” Recently, at Raleigh’s Hopscotch festival, a delicate trio set with pianist Jil Christensen and saxophonist Bob Pence highlighted Bowne’s sensitivity on the kit.
Back in the ’80s, Bowne embodied a rare combination of touch and power. He was a mostly self-taught drummer, learning through a deep dedication to craft and lots of playing along to records. According to the Bronx-born, South Jersey–bred drummer, “I didn’t have a pad or a metronome, nothing like that. I banged away on a telephone book, playing along with records. I had my kit set up in my room and just hit that shit every chance I could. I practiced, played along with recordings of the people I loved. I learned like most of my idols did.”
Tools of the Times
For the Voice of Chunk sessions, Bowne played a Pearl GLX series kit with maple shells featuring 8″, 12″, 13″, 14″, and 16″ toms, a 22″ bass drum, and a Pearl S-414D chrome-covered steel free-floating snare drum. He used a Pearl P-750 or P-880TW double bass drum pedal, and his cymbals included a 20″ Paiste 2002 ride, 16″ and 18″ Paiste thin crashes, an 8″ Paiste splash, 14″ Paiste and A Zildjian hihat sets, and an old Zildjian China with a chunk sawed out of the edge, which was salvaged from the garbage at Matrix Rehearsal Studios.
Today Bowne plays a Gretsch round-badge set circa March 1964 featuring a 20″ kick, 13″ and 16″ toms, and a 14″ wood snare, which he’s used on many recordings. (“Gray painted insides, of course,” the drummer adds.) He also employs Roland TD-15 e-drums triggering Toontrack Superior Drummer 3 samples, with expansion packs including the new Custom Shop by Joe Blaney. He also triggers the Expansion BFD3 drums.
Bowne’s ear for the wildest music led him to New York City in the late ’70s, and after the drummer did a stint at the drum counter of the legendary Manny’s Music, a guitarist in former Velvet Underground violist John Cale’s band saw him walking down 48th Street with a stick bag. Thinking Bowne looked cool, he mentioned that Cale was auditioning drummers, so Bowne tried out. After a twenty-minute rendition of the Velvets’ “I’m Waiting for the Man,” he got the gig. He’d never heard of Cale or the Velvet Underground before the audition.
After a ton of touring and the release of Cale’s live album Sabotage in 1979, Bowne was taken by his girlfriend at the time to see another artist he’d never heard of, Iggy Pop. “I had no idea about his genius,” he says. “I freaked out and talked everyone’s ear off for a week, so I thought it was joke when he called me.” A few rehearsals later, he was on the road with Iggy. You can see a typically brilliant performance of “Dog Food” on Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow Show on YouTube.
Bowne recorded the Iggy Pop album Party and then right before a tour opening for the Rolling Stones, he gave notice. “I loved [Iggy], loved playing his music, but I needed to play more and different music. My friends thought I was nuts.”
“It’s rough for a drummer to find the right situations creatively,” says Pop today. “Doug was still searching, when we parted ways, for a style of life and music that he could commit to wholeheartedly. I was sad to see him go.”
Bowne worked some day jobs—washing dishes, working in a clothing store and at the Strand bookstore—and played with a ton of people. “I was really fanatical,” he says. “I wanted music to burn through people. Some people think [quitting Iggy Pop’s band was] crazy, but I don’t think so. The Lizards answered my desires.”
The Lounge Lizards had been broken up for about a year before they reformed in 1982. Leader and saxophonist John Lurie was looking for musicians. Before Lurie hired Bowne, he’d heard his name many times. “I was looking for a drummer in 1982,” says Lurie, “and I kept hearing, ‘You have to try Dougie Bowne.’ I went into Binibon [a long-gone diner on Second Avenue] at about three in the morning, and this tiny guy comes up to me and says, ‘Hello, John, I’m Dougie Bowne.’ I’m thinking, This little guy cannot possibly have the power I need for what I want to do. I think I may have actually mentioned how small his hands were at the time. But we got together and played, and he had way more than enough power.”
The reformed Lounge Lizards were a band in the true sense. It wasn’t just a “gig” for the members; they didn’t get paid for the sweaty Westbeth Theater basement rehearsals. This, despite the fact that the band consisted of the cream of the downtown New York scene: Marc Ribot on guitar, Lurie and Roy Nathanson on sax, John’s brother Evan Lurie on piano, Curtis Fowlkes on trombone, E.J. Rodriguez on percussion, and Erik Sanko on bass. The new version of the Lounge Lizards was creating music far removed from the ironic, meta jazz commentary albums that the band released in the ’70s. They began to create a music that was in a class by itself—muscular yet sensitive, masculine without the macho posturing. When asked about the band’s new direction, Lurie explains, “I’d spent a long time in Morocco [acting in] The Last Temptation of Christ. [While there] I was introduced to these Gnawa musicians who were nomads, living in tents outside of Marrakesh. They would play every night, and I would go to play or just listen. They played for exactly the right reason. That hit me deeply. I tried to bring that back to the band, almost like we would be a tribe.”
At band rehearsals, Lurie would bring in ideas, and the other players would help shape them into something unique, with Lurie having the final say on the arrangement. “The melodies that John would bring in were often kind of oblique,” Marc Ribot tells MD. “We wouldn’t try to match them; we would find things that were interesting juxtapositions. John would serve a kind of editor function on it. When the [parts] seemed like they were in the right relationship, he’d try his best to freeze them into shapes that we could repeat.”
“We went into a room, ideas were forwarded, and we hashed shit out, trying tons of stuff ,” Bowne elaborates. “John was clearly the leader, and his aesthetic made the band what it became. But the personalities were strong, and you can still hear the players’ identities in the music.”
One very distinct element on Voice of Chunk is the multiple meters being played by each musician on top of each other. Lurie describes how Bowne helped him open up that aspect of the composition process: “I was becoming more and more interested in odd time signatures. But the writing was getting a little stuck on some things. Dougie said, ‘You know, you can have more than one time signature playing at the same time.’ This hadn’t occurred to me. It freed me up in a wonderful way. We would be playing sections of 5/4 against 7/8 against 6/8, and it created a sea of rhythm that became very organic.”
The band began touring constantly, and were selling out rooms all over Europe, but they weren’t getting interest from record labels. Everyone in the band could feel that the new material had a kind of rare magic, though, and Lurie was worried that if they didn’t capture their performances immediately, it was in danger of going stale. “I’d inherited money from my Uncle Jerry,” Lurie recalls, “way more money than I’d ever had before. So I paid for us to go into the studio, feeling sure that a label would pick it up and reimburse me. But that didn’t happen. So then I started a label [to release Voice of Chunk]and lost the rest of my money.”
A couple songs from the album were actually recorded twice, first in a studio in Brazil and then in New York. To save money at the New York studio, the band booked the graveyard shift. Ribot remembers being woken up to record his solos.
When the album was finished, the band members knew they’d created something special, and though Lurie tried to find a label again, they were refused everywhere. The only option was to self-release the album, which Lurie advertised with ads on late-night television. A great one is up on YouTube: “To order your new Lounge Lizards record,” the voice-over went, “call 1-800-44-CHUNK. Not available through stores.”
Also on YouTube is a contemporaneous performance of the title track from the short-lived but influential TV program Night Music. It’s a mind-boggling combination of time signatures and harmonic interplay that provides a clear example of Rodriguez and Bowne’s telepathic rhythmic exchange. While the Lizards featured the instrumentation of a jazz band, it was working in a parallel realm of improvisation that transcended idiomatic playing, and it was speaking in a voice all its own. It was a tremendous moment for the band; Lurie’s vision and drive to document these compositions provided a bounty for listeners.
We worked with Bowne to transcribe his beat from “Voice of Chunk,” which is a unique and elemental character of the tune. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the song without it. Bowne even met a number of his heroes through admiration of this beat—Michael Brecker approached him after a performance, and Tony Williams complimented him on it.
“Voice of Chunk” is a document of an extraordinary group of musicians who pushed through industry indifference to make something startling. We asked Bowne why he thought the music was so special. “John pursued a thing he heard—the compromises, little battles, and cooperations that take place when people get together to do anything: people holding each other up, pushing against each other, and working towards a thing that is beautiful. The experience, at that particular time, for us was profound and challenging. There were fights, and there was excitement, and all the while there was some kind of feeling that we might be onto something, making something real and—I know to John’s thinking—spiritual.”