The road to hell is paved with covers of songs by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. You can probably think of some really inexplicable ones without belaboring the point, like “Wild Horses” by Susan Boyle, or “Jumping Jack Flash” by Peter Frampton, or “Gimme Shelter” by the Sisters of Mercy. In each of these cases, and in the great majority of Stones covers, the essential ingredients of a Stones song are stripped away—for example, that Keith Richards guitar sound, or the snap of Charlie Watts’s snare, or Mick Jagger’s bluesy drawl—and what remains behind is so estranged from its setting as to have none of the qualities that made the song attractive in the first place. This would seem to suggest that despite the seductive idea of attempting to interpret the Stones, it is a job better left to the Rolling Stones themselves. Nevertheless, there remains the tantalizing possibility that a really great interpretation of the Stones lies in wait for us, if only the singer or performer in question were willing to go far enough. It’s into this space that Bernard Fowler projects himself on his recent collection of Jagger/Richards compositions, Inside Out, which was released this spring on Rhyme & Reason.
Fowler, whose incredibly varied career is discussed below, is among the backup singers for the Stones when they tour, and he has served in this capacity (and as occasional percussionist) for thirty years, and so it is a foregone conclusion that he now knows the material inside and out, as the title suggests. But part of what makes Fowler’s collection not only the best album of Stones covers that I know of, as well as one of the most interesting and compelling releases of 2019, is that Fowler uses his keen knowledge of Jagger/Richards compositions to go further afield. The songs are bent far out of their compositional form, their chords and melodies mostly set aside, and what remains is the sense of percussion as a starting point. This turns out to be an incredibly canny and insightful approach. Not only does Fowler make the songs more flexible and swinging than they often are on the Stones albums, he finds a deep and ancient point of origin for songs initially suffused with the blues, which is to say he makes of the Stones songs African-American music. There is funk on Fowler’s record, and soul, and something akin to free jazz and spoken word, and there is very little traditional rock and roll. Moreover, what unites the recording, makes it consistent and aesthetically coherent, is Fowler’s brilliant, insightful readings of the lyrics, which, when performed as though they were poetry, behave like poetry. No one, having listened to the whole Undercover album, released during a period of minimal contact between Mick and Keith, can be accused of thinking its lyrics were among Jagger’s very best, not on the basis of a recording beset by 1980s recording techniques. And yet when performed by Fowler, with his lovely, hortatory voice, some of Jagger’s most forgotten lyrics turn out to be urgent dispatches on drugs, political instability, grief, and mortality.
Inside Out, in truth, is one of the very best Rolling Stones releases in recent years and it catapults Fowler out of his sturdy, reliable, but perhaps sometimes confining home in the backline at the Stones gigs. He becomes, on this recording, an interpreter of great inventiveness, iconoclasm, and compassion, as well as a great and creative thinker about music, and about the politics of appropriation and re-appropriation. I have listened to his percussion-and-voice “bonus” version of “Dancing with Mr. D” as much as a I have listened to any song in the last three or four months, and it never gets old. It allows us to feel exactly the implications of the Stones track, in a way the Stones themselves never quite managed, with a full and unvarnished rehearsal of the ominous ache of the lyrics.
As regards the interview that follows: I met Bernard Fowler at the Four Seasons in Boston, the night after the Stones played at Foxboro, and the joint was still crawling with people wearing tour Stones t-shirts. Though I’m not sure the fans recognized Fowler, the maître de at the restaurant did, and gave him a very friendly welcome, a recognition of how many times the entourage has passed through Boston, and how long the road has been. I felt lucky to be there, talking to a consummate professional in the midst of such momentous music making, both in the band he sings with in his steady gig, and now in his excellent and compelling solo work.
The Rumpus: I too was in New York in the early ‘80s and I’m really interested in your connection to Celluloid Records and Material and all those guys in those days. How did you get hooked up with that scene?
Bernard Fowler: I’ve not been asked that one in a while. I was part of the band, the New York Citi Peech Boys, and we had a couple really big records that I actually wrote—”Life Is Something Special,” and “Don’t Make Me Wait.” I couldn’t leave my house without hearing them. As soon as I walked out my door, those songs were playing somewhere which was, of course, very exciting for a young cat, you know, hearing himself on the radio. The Peech Boys thing was just all over the place. Larry [Levan] in the band—you know, the DJ from the Paradise Garage—had made an a cappella of the record so it wasn’t just the actual record playing. The a cappella version was playing in mixes all over the place.
I got a call from Bill Laswell or from his right-hand man, Roger Trilling, I think it was. Bill wanted to work with me, so I met Bill, which was a good time because, at the time of meeting him, the Peech Boys were falling apart; they were falling apart fast. It’s amazing what a little tiny bit of success does to people; it destroys bands and it destroyed the Peech Boys. The writing was on the wall. So, I met Bill and I found out about Material and he wanted me to sing on this Material record and I was like “Yeah!” I always wanted to sing with other people and it was an opportunity for me to do that so I did. I did a song with Bill Laswell and Michael Beinhorn called “I’m the One” and I think on the strength of the Peech Boys playing so hard people recognized the voice and now “I’m the One” is playing on the radio. So, that was probably my introduction to Celluloid—with Bill and Material.
Rumpus: The Peech Boys were sort of dance music, right? What was your musical diet like then? Were you as eclectic then as you are now?
Fowler: Well, yes. My diet was, you know, soul-based records, all groove-based records like Kool and the Gang, Parliament, Funkadelic, the Bar-Kays, Mandrill, New Birth. Most of the bands had a horn section and I played the trombone at that time.
Rumpus: That was your first instrument?
Fowler: Well, my very first instrument was upright bass and my very first gig—the first time I ever played in front of people—I played the upright bass with a salsa band and then, in school, I went on to play the trombone. That was my diet along with Joni Mitchell and Carole King and that kind of stuff. You know, Chicago. A little bit of everything was my diet but growing up in a predominately black and Puerto Rican neighborhood, it was soul music. That’s what the diet was.
Rumpus: What was your neighborhood?
Fowler: I grew up in Queensbridge Projects made famous by brother Nas.
Rumpus: Long Island City?
Fowler: That’s Long Island City. That’s right. I grew up right next to the 59th Street Bridge.
Rumpus: One thing I’m interested in, with respect to Inside Out, is when you were made aware of The Last Poets’ recordings. Because of the relationship of your album to the first Last Poets album.
Fowler: I was made aware of those recordings when those recordings happened.
Rumpus: In the 60s.
Fowler: Yes. I have an older brother; he’s, I think, eight years older than I am… nine years… and he was a part of that scene. Blacks and Puerto Ricans were one; they listened to all the same music together. They went to the clubs and danced salsa together. The clubs played both soul music and salsa so that’s the neighborhood I grew up in and my brother brought those records home. I listened to those records and played those records; my friends who also had older brothers were hip to it. It didn’t really play on the radio. We learned about this material by listening to our parents’ hi-fi. We’d be out in the street reciting Last Poets, you know.
Rumpus: How revolutionary were those songs to you growing up in the Queensbridge Projects?
Fowler: Very revolutionary. We expected the revolution to be televised.
Rumpus: The Herbie Hancock record you worked on, Future Shock, was really revolutionary, too. Was it through Laswell and Beinhorn that you came to sing on Herbie Hancock’s record? Was that before you met Mick Jagger?
Fowler: I had met Mick before at the Paradise Garage but it was just briefly; he wouldn’t remember. Then I was singing with Herbie Hancock and I had a break from the tour and I walked into my apartment—I had barely lived there—and Bill called and said “Hey Bernard, what are you doing?” and I say “Hey Bill, I just walked in the door,” and he said, “Go to the airport.” I’m, like, “You don’t understand, man… I just walked in the freaking door!” “Go to the airport!” He was serious so I go to the airport and there’s a ticket; I flew to London. I get there, he picks me up and I still don’t know why I’m there. I just know I’m there to work with Bill. I trust Bill with anything because he opened my mind to another world and I knew that anything he did would be interesting to me. We get in the cab ride, we’re talking about music and he’s telling me about stuff he’s working on that he wanted me to hear. He never let on to where we were going or who we were going to meet.
He asked me in the cab ride if I liked the Stones and I said, “Yeah, I love the Stones. The first record my dad ever gave me was a Rolling Stones record.” And we kept talking. So, we pull up to a house, we walk in and go into this room, and there’s a guy in the floor and I can only see the back of him. Bill says, “This is Bernard Fowler, the guy I’ve been telling you about.” I turned around and it was Mick. I was like “Wow!” A total shock to the system. Mick Jagger is sitting on the floor. We sang a bit and he gave me a cassette and said, “Listen to this; this is what we’re going to work on tomorrow.” I had a four-track cassette recorder and did all this vocal stuff. We went to the studio the next day and I saw Paul McCartney in the hallway and was like “Oh, a Beatle!”
Fowler: I went into the studio and Paul McCartney came into the room and Mick started frowning and said, “Hey, get him outta here!” I was like “Oh, shit! He just kicked a Beatle out of the session.” I played for him what I did on the four-track recorder and he liked it and said, “Let’s do it.” That was the beginning of my working relationship with the Stones, really.
Rumpus: The Hancock record was pretty amazing and unusual at the time that it happened. Did you have a sense of how powerful those sounds were and what a groundbreaking project that was going to be?
Fowler: I could imagine. When I heard it I wanted to pull my hair out because of the rhythm. It was relentless and I had never heard anything like that. Oh my God… what a killer groove! I heard it before Herbie was even on it; I just thought “This is going to be big.” It was right at the beginning of hip-hop and it was as big as everybody who heard it thought it would be.
Rumpus: What’s astounding to me is how you travel back and forth across genres with such ease, and you can work with experimental music and pop music with ease. So, you’re going from Future Shock to the Jagger record (and that’s She’s the Boss, right?). It’s a completely different project in terms of the musical vocabulary. How do you make that transition?
Fowler: [Laughs] I close my eyes and I listen real hard. There’s something good in all music so, when my eyes are closed and I’m listening, I just give it a try. I get off on trying things; that’s a challenge for me. Bill challenged me. I didn’t know I could do a lot of those things but Bill said, “I want you to do this,” and, “Come on, let’s try.” You know, doubling Lemmy’s voice, which I did, that wasn’t my idea; that was Bill’s idea for me to go in and do that and I discovered it was part of my gift, being able to really blend with people. I’m a music lover, especially if I can feel it. If I can feel it, I can do it. I always say that the only thing they can say is “no” and I’ve heard it before and I’ll hear it again. But I’m going to give it a go.
Rumpus: I’m asking these questions about the past because I’m really interested in the vibe of this record, Inside Out, which to me is not like a rock and roll record at all. It’s very unusual in terms of the sound and the feel. I can feel the Last Poets influence but I also feel like it’s got some jazz in it.
Fowler: It’s a jazz record.
Rumpus: Who did you think of as a jazz influence? Is there a particular jazz influence that you think of on this album?
Fowler: You know, New York had a great jazz radio—WRVR. Again, it was part of my growing up listening to Frankie Crocker, Symphony Sid, WRVR, Wolfman Jack, and all of that. When I got tired of listening to one thing, I turned the dial and would listen to the next. I never stayed on one station and I think, because of it, my appreciation for music grew and when I was playing trombone in the first band I was in, all those guys were older than I was. That’s all we listened to—jazz records. Return to Forever to freaking Maynard Ferguson, you know, and everything in between. I’ve always been a fan of Tony Bennett. I liked Tony Bennett better than Sinatra; it took me a while to actually really dig Sinatra because I was so into Bennett. I listened to a lot of jazz. Before I even started singing I was listening to it.
Rumpus: So, the sort of famous story about the genesis of Inside Out is that you were warming up onstage with the congas and Mick heard you freestyling…
Fowler: That did happen but, before that happened, I had been thinking about making this record. A year or two before that incident happened I was doing a gig at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and it was a tribute to the Rolling Stones. Steve Jordan was the musical director and Chuck D was going to be part of this all-star band to do this tribute and something happened where Chuck missed his flight; his flight didn’t come in that day. I had been thinking about this idea for a demo, a sort of spoken word thing so we were rehearsing and we were about to do “Sympathy for the Devil” and, instead of singing it, I started to recite it and Steve said, “If Chuck don’t show up, let’s do that.” Chuck did show up and he killed it and I thought “How is Chuck D going to fit in with all these musicians?”
Man, I took my hat off; I gained a whole new respect for Chuck D in that situation with all these musicians and I did perform that night. Some time passed and, again, this thought was still bubbling and floating around in my head at rehearsal; we were on tour and I was practicing conga and I think it was Chuck Leavell who yelled, “Hey man, are we going to do this song for sound check?” and I’m playing and started reciting whatever song it was and some people were laughing; they were all kind of shocked but everyone was smiling. It became sort of a thing that I did at sound check and I come out to practice my conga one day before sound check and there’s Mick standing behind the conga. Mick says, “Bernard, I’ve heard a million Stones songs a lot of ways and I’ve never heard it like that before. We’re going to cut it when the tour is over,” and I said, “That’s a good idea.”
Rumpus: And it’s true that he saw the Last Poets play in the 60s?
Fowler: Yeah and, during that same time, Last Poets came up in our conversation and he said, “I saw them perform in England at a party at someone’s house.” I thought, How fucking cool is that! Who is that person who had the forethought to have the Last Poets come to London to play a party at their house! That just goes to show how, back then, how fast things could travel.
Rumpus: Was the original idea that it would be percussion and voice?
Fowler: That’s all it was going to be originally. After I did a few songs I thought that people would probably make a comparison to the Last Poets and I thought, Let me do something a little different, so I put a rhythm section on a few of the songs. I remember I was at Vince Wilburn’s studio in his house, the drummer, and, again, it had been a few years with this idea floating around in my head, so it was just a matter of doing it now. I called Vince and asked him if I could use his place and he said “Yeah, man,” so I called Darryl Jones [the Stones bass player] and George—a friend of theirs from Chicago, and mine—and they came over and I told them the idea I had. To get them to go to a certain era, say, the 70s, you know, “Black exploitation, pimp style… I’m trying to go there! Superfly! I’m trying to go there!” We started playing grooves and, as they’re playing, I’m reading lyrics and going through the pages in the Rolling Stones songbook and, if that groove isn’t working so much, just keep playing then, when I heard a groove, it was like, “Stop! We’re going to play that groove!” So, we started again and I found stuff I liked lyrically and recited it in my head to the groove they were playing and got a microphone. A lot of that stuff was just one take.
Rumpus: Were you isolated in a booth or were you in the room with them?
Fowler: I was in another room. It’s a house, where we recorded: the drums are in the living room, Darryl’s in the kitchen. I was just in another room and that’s another reason why the guy who mixed wanted me to redo the vocals. Not only did the mic sound like shit but you could hear a lot of bleed from being in the house. He really busted my balls about not doing it over but I wouldn’t do it over because, when I listened to it, I got it—the performance—right then. I got it! To me, it even added some character to the whole thing, you know, being a little dirty.
Rumpus: I want to ask about the song selection because that’s a really interesting feature of the album. It’s an incredibly idiosyncratic song selection.
Fowler: [Laughs] There’s no rhyme or reason to it, I know.
Rumpus: Did you do more and cut down?
Fowler: I did. There’s probably three or four more. It was going to take more work to get them where they needed to be. I didn’t have a budget for this so I had to do some dates and I ran out of time; I ran out of money. The stuff I recorded that was really close, that I could actually see getting finished is what I picked to complete the record. Also, I did not want to use any of the radio or commercial songs of theirs; I didn’t want to use any of them. In the catalogue the lyrics are so much deeper to the songs that people don’t sing every day. “Sympathy for the Devil” was not supposed to be on there because it was too popular of a song but, like I said, I ran out of things and it was easy and I made it even easier for myself by using the percussion beat from the original record. I had Wilfredo and Lenny, the percussionists, play that exact part all the way through, all the way through. It’s a great groove and everybody knows it. As soon as you hear it you know what it is. I heard somebody do that the other day: I was in Canada and they were listening and just knew that I had a new record. They didn’t know what the concept of the record was and, as soon as that came on, that percussion, I heard him say “‘Sympathy for the Devil’ it sounds like…”
Rumpus: It’s also the only song on the record where you preserve the melodic chord structure.
Fowler: It has the chord structure also. That was easy. I wanted it to have an avant-garde jazz feel, you know, and I had been doing these David Bowie celebration dates and Bowie’s piano player for forty years, Mike Garson, and I had a conversation a couple months before that where I was telling him how I grew up listening to salsa and I think that stuck in his head, so when he plays on the track that’s why his solo feels like it does. I told him how much of a fan I was of Eddie Palmieri. We didn’t talk about it; he just played and went there so I assumed it was the conversation we had.
Rumpus: How about the themes on the album? You picked the songs that were really dark.
Fowler: Not only did the strong verbal lyric content matter but the subject was important. It had to be as relevant today as when they wrote it. Again, I was just doing it but all the songs could have been written today and that’s just divine intervention, you know. Like I said, I’m just there being creative and being open to things and I ended up with that. Also, four of the songs are from the Undercover album.
Rumpus: Yeah, I want to talk about that!
Fowler: Again, it’s just something that happened. I knew that I would do “Undercover of the Night,” the song, because it’s such a strong piece.
Rumpus: I love that song, too.
Fowler: It’s a strong piece and it was part of our nightly news world. I was like, I know I’m definitely going to do that but I need to go and find other stuff, so I got the song book out and went through and, if it didn’t strike me, I’d go to the next one. So, all those things that ended up on the record were things I was just looking to try to find. It just happened with Undercover. I opened the book… not at the beginning… and four of the tunes were from that album.
Rumpus: I feel like nobody knows those other three songs. They are really unconventional selections.
Fowler: Nobody does know them.
Rumpus: Have you performed these pieces yet?
Fowler: Just one time. In spoken word I did just one time when we were in Chicago. I did a show at a club called Martyrs.
Rumpus: Who was in the band?
Fowler: Cats I picked up in Chicago. I had met them that day, that afternoon of the gig. We did an hour rehearsal. I was already on the edge and that hour had me just about fall off. I was really pleasantly surprised at how good they were; they were really good players. I found out later that they all knew Vince and Darryl; they all knew each other. If you know Darryl and Vince, you’re probably a bad motherfucker. It was my first time ever performing stuff in spoken word like this in front of an audience so I was a little sweaty and people were really attentive. They sat and listened. Some people knew about the project and some didn’t; I could look and tell who knew and who didn’t. They loved it and I was blown away. I was blown away like I am by the response still. People were like “Shhh!” so this was really working.
Rumpus: Your approach forces us to consider the lyrics which, I think, which the Stones albums themselves don’t always do. “Start Me Up,” I think, is about a car, but I never have paid close enough attention to those lyrics. But this record really causes us to look closely at the lyrics. You’ve sung a lot of these lyrics professionally as a back-up singer, I’m guessing. Has this journey put you in a position where you can really think about these lyrics?
Fowler: Absolutely. You think you know the lyrics to a lot of stuff and it’s not until we’re in rehearsal and they give us the lyric sheets and I’m reading them am I like, “Shit, I never knew that was the lyric.” Singing the songs really made us look into them and focus on what they were writing and that’s how I discovered how strong a lot of the lyrics are. Most people are lost in Rolling Stones funk, in Rolling Stones grooves. They are lost in the grooves; they are lost in Mick’s delirious stuff. They hear it but they’re not really listening to what it is.
When I was making this record in the studio, I wasn’t letting anyone hear what I was doing. So, one day, there are some guitar players and they’re all rock and roll cats who all know and love the Stones and I say “Hey man, come listen to what I’m doing.” So I play something and their reaction is: “That’s fucking incredible. Blah, blah, blah” and I ask “Are you getting this?” and they say, “Yeah, man. I’m getting it; it’s fucking badass,” and then I sing a little bit to them and then tell them what it is and they said, “Holy shit, it is!” It wasn’t until I said something that they realized where the songs came from. It’s happened with a lot of people.
Rumpus: I really, really love the stripped-down take of “Dancing with Mr. D.” I had that record as a teenager, Goats Head Soup, and I always thought that song was sort of a throwaway; it wasn’t the song on the record that I liked the best, but your delivery of it takes the lyrics to a spot where it’s impossible to ignore what’s really taking place in the song. It has a tremendous impact. I like both versions you’ve recorded but the stripped-down version is really unapologetically in your face.
Fowler: I’m with you. Now you see why there are two versions of it on there; I couldn’t not use it. It’s great, man and it’s [slams fist] very strong with just the drums. I had a very hard time making the decision: Am I going to use this version or that version? and I just said “Fuck it! I’m using them both. I’ll call it a bonus track.”
Rumpus: There’s a journey to the sequence of the album as a whole which is really nice because nobody listens to albums really in the way we did when we were young. This album has a cumulative power.
Fowler: These days, people pick their favorite songs from it and throw the rest away. I think you’re right; I think this record kind of forces people. Once they hear the first single, they gotta hear what’s coming next: what’s next, what’s next. I think, also, “Undercover of the Night,” with the dialogue at the front of it, is like the carrot, you know. That wasn’t easy, picking the order, because I had so many different orders. Before I made the final decision, the order was all percussion and then songs with a rhythm section and I thought it might be too much for some people to absorb all that percussion. So that’s when I said I’m going to mix it up a bit. So now the sequence starts with percussion and that’s followed by a rhythm section. I liked the end result of the song order. It works for me.
Rumpus: So what about the spoken word thing? You’re a great singer but you’re not singing here at all. Did that arise out of your developing it in rehearsal where you were playing the congas and kind of fiddling around with the words?
Fowler: I’m just being an artist. I’m just being creative. You don’t have to sing all the time. That’s what this record was: I didn’t want to make another record like Friends with Privileges and the last record, The Bura, which I thought was a great record. I think a lot of people missed it, that The Bura was an incredible record. It took a lot out of me making that record and I just wanted to be totally creative and not do that right now. I wanted a break away from that and spoken word was the way.
I’ve got other projects I have to make; I have to make a follow-up record to The Bura and this Inside Out has been so well received I have to do a follow-up to Inside Out! I did not expect people to react to Inside Out the way that they have. They were either going to love it or hate it and I’m not seeing a whole lot of hate. Especially with Rolling Stones fans because they’re just so hardcore; you’re fucking with the Holy Grail! It’s just been well-received so, when the tour is over, I’m going to do some spoken word dates and I’ll probably be in the studio recording and writing songs for The Bura follow-up. I’m going to Uruguay to record candombe. I have a friend there who is a slave descendant and a master candombe player. I took Jagger to his house. If you think the rhythm on this record is good wait until you hear some of this shit! Oh my God, it’s going to set your head on fire! That’s the plan and I also want to do an orchestra record similar to the record I did with Charlie Watts.
So, I got some plans. I got some things I want to do. It’s just finding the time to do them all and go out and perform. So, we’ll see.
Photographs of Bernard Fowler by Casey Mitchell.