In the newest chapter of our Unknown Legends interview series, Sterling Campbell looks back at his two-decade saga as David Bowie’s go-to drummer. They met in 1992 when Nile Rodgers brought Campbell into the studio to play on Black Tie White Noise, and he went on to play on 1995’s Outside, 1999’s Hours, 2002’s Heathen, 2003’s Reality, 2013’s The Next Day, and at every concert Bowie performed from 1999 to his final show in 2004.
His era in the live band came at an exciting time when Bowie decided not only to un-retire his hits after leaving them aside for much of the Nineties, but also to open himself up to basically any song he’d released throughout his entire career.
“Ultimately, it was this simple idea of wanting to have fun and not get bored,” said Campbell. “We learned a lot of songs and we were egging him on at soundcheck. We’d be like, ‘C’mon, let’s do “Panic in Detroit.”‘ And he’d just get on the mic and do it and then it would be in the show … I wrote him a bunch of emails prior to the [Reality] tour. It was so long with all that kind of stuff, like ‘Fantastic Voyage.’ I knew if I put them all down, he’d at least say yes on some things.”
One of the more surprising picks came during a special BBC show on September 18th, 2002, when Bowie played the “The Bewlay Brothers” from Hunky Dory for the first time since the original recording in 1971.
“This song I have never … please don’t correct me, anybody, because I’m sure I’m right on this,” Bowie said. “I have never, ever performed this in my life until this minute. One of the reasons, probably, is that there are more words in this than in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It’s not just these three pages, but this entire book. I wish us of us luck on this one. Off we go.”
There are indeed a ton of words in “The Bewlay Brothers,” and Bowie fans have spent the past five decades trying to figure out what exactly they mean. Many are convinced it’s about Bowie’s schizophrenic half-brother Terry, but they may be overthinking it. “I wouldn’t know how to interpret the lyric of this song other than suggesting that there are layers of ghosts within it,” Bowie said in 2008. “The circumstances of the recording barely exist in my memory.”
The mystery of the song wasn’t resolved in his 2002 BBC performance, but Bowie did manage to work through it without making a single mistake. He played it again at two additional Heathen promotional gigs in 2002 and then again at two shows in May 2004 near the end of the Reality tour.
By that point, he was playing intimate venues like the 3,200-seat Borgata Event Center in Atlantic City. He’d been on the road for so many years that a Bowie concert no longer felt like a huge event. Had anyone known these were going to be the final shows of his life, it would have been a very different story.