Same Old Thing, in Brand New Drag: Bowie Collaborators Talk Uptick in Tribute Acts Ahead of Worldwide Convention

Everyone has their own David Bowie, says longtime collaborator Carlos Alomar. 

This weekend, hundreds of fans will swarm Midtown Manhattan for a chance to see a vast portfolio of industry contributors with their own personalities and charisma. But they all have one thing in common, and that’s Mr. David Bowie.

The David Bowie Worldwide Fan Convention kicks off on Friday, June 16th for a special VIP crowd of superfans. The event runs through the weekend, bringing Bowie alumni everywhere from original Spiders From Mars members to contributors on his final effort Blackstar.

The Puerto Rican-born, New York-raised Carlos Alomar met David Bowie sometime in 1974 when he was “not very well known” and had barely done any shows in America. Carlos ended up in the studio with him and John Lennon trying to write a song for David’s upcoming record.

“They said, ‘You want to go and get something to eat?’, and I was like ‘Man, I’d rather stay here,’” he said. 

What he didn’t know was skipping lunch that day may have kick-started his entire career.

“Instead of going out with John Lennon and David Bowie, I stayed in there and laid out all the thoughts that I had,” he said. “And it came out to be ‘Fame.’” 

The funky hook worked like an earworm. “Fame” became the second single off of genre-bending record Young Americans in the summer of 1975. The song was strikingly different from all other Britpop David had since been known for, and he used all of his soul and R&B influences he gathered in the States to once again be a musical chameleon.

At about 22 years old, Carlos had written his first song with David, foreshadowing the decades-long collaboration that would allow him to tour the entire world eight times over.

Carlos had his hand in a glowing discography including the timeless work of the legendary “Berlin Trilogy,” which consisted of Bowie classics “Heroes,” Low, and Lodger, while having one of the longest runs with David of any musician ever. The iconic “Serious Moonlight Tour” of 1983 propelled him to audiences of 200,000 – “The people looked like ants!” – and the theatrically divisive “Glass Spider” world tour opened with Carlos’ searing guitar solo.

In a world now post-Bowie, Carlos has shied away from the current tribute acts and kept a relatively low profile as a professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. 

“I’m a lecturer and [the convention] asked me to speak about what are the defining moments and what the humanity of David Bowie is, and I felt this totally different thing than when you’re doing all these other tributes and stuff like that,” he said. “I totally respect it and I get it, but there’s an issue of sometimes a certain amount of closure that you want to have – and it only comes by you being able to talk to the same people who talked to David.”

The event, catered to the “fanatic,” as he puts it, brings numerous Bowie alumni and supplemental speakers for a weekend of dress-up, nightlife, photo-ops, and live performances.

Among the speakers, Mark Plati joined the convention’s line-up for another chance to play David’s music again.

Growing up in New York, Mark was a young guitarist who wanted to play like none other than Carlos Alomar.

“In the ‘70s, it was just all stuff: Bowie music, and funk music, and punk,” he said. “As a kid, […] you absorbed it, like it or not, you dipped a toe in all of these things.”

Mark began working with David as an engineer. The two were paired together as Mark was the sort of in-house production person where David was working on new songs that would later become 1997’s Earthling. David didn’t have his own engineer to bring in at the time, so Mark was who they turned to. 

 “You never expect you’re gonna do something again with somebody,” he said. “It’s just the nature of the business.”

Still, the once mere programmer got the call to play fretless bass on the follow-up to Earthling. The 1999 release ‘…hours’ featured Mark playing both bass and guitar, as well as his own additional production.

The dissimilar album featured pseudo-hits like “Something In The Air,” whose claim to fame came in part from the end credits of both American Psycho and Memento. The highs of ‘…hours’ soared: from chunky riffs by Reeves Gabrels in “The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell” to melodic lyricism in songs like “The Dreamers.”

“I just wanted to play a show with him just for fun as an extra guy,” he recalls. “But then he just kept me in the band like, ‘Oh, I like him there now.’”

Mark later became the bandleader and then musical director for the ‘…hours’ and Heathen tours, until giving up his spot to play on 2003’s massive Reality tour to spend more time with his family. No one, including David, knew Reality would be the very last tour.

“After he passed in 2016, there were these sorts of various little tribute shows,” he said. “Different groups of us [Bowie collaborators], we just wanted to play, and I guess that was kind of our little grieving process.”

Mark co-runs a tribute of David’s work every year at The Cutting Room in NYC, that runs for only a few days, typically from January 8th (David’s birthday) until January 10th (the day he passed away).

“We’re not trying to make a thing out of it,” he said. “That kind of scared me off of a couple of other things… just making too much of it. We just like doing it, you know?”

Kevin Armstrong, former touring guitarist of Tin Machine, met David a few months before being asked to put his band together for Live Aid in 1985.

“We weren’t really – well, we were – professionals. We’d all been in bands and things, but that was something completely different,” said Kevin. “We couldn’t believe it.”

During his stint with David in his most polarizing years, he co-wrote multiple songs and played numerous live shows, while also learning that the megastar had many passions other than his songs.

“He was interested in everything,” he said. “He could talk to you about a million different subjects – nothing related to music – because he was a voracious reader and a polymath.”

The edgy live performance of Tin Machine was a stark contrast from David’s more commercial work in the 80s. His self-proclaimed worst album Never Let Me Down kicked off a world tour that consisted of eccentric characters performing their own play as David sang songs – “We can’t let rockstars cross-breed with normal people!” – and then he couldn’t really take himself too seriously.

Tin Machine’s first effort Tin Machine operated separately from David’s solo material. The songs were not by David Bowie, they were by Tin Machine. He was hokey and ironic, with songs like “Crack City” and “Bus Stop.” His newfound energy came about in the form of a fierce but contrarian comeback. Tin Machine played much smaller venues, but Kevin found the experience all the more electric.

Fast forward about thirty years, and Kevin was asked to join Mike Garson’s A Bowie Celebration.

“The ball was really rolling,” he said. “We had some amazing gigs and that was starting to feel really good.”

Overcome by a wave of unfortunate timing, Kevin’s outlet to pay homage to David’s more divisive music came to a screeching halt in 2020.

“COVID shut down the whole thing,” he said. “That was a great opportunity for me, and I was really enjoying it.”

Now, eager to re-immerse himself, he joins the convention both to pay tribute and for his own “selfish reasons”: to upcoming memoir and solo album Run, named for a song he co-wrote with David.

“I think David’s life has got such echoes,” he said. “It’s gonna keep growing bigger, the interest in him. And I don’t know why it just keeps going and going.”

The convention this weekend also allows Kevin, and his fellow Bowie collaborators, to reconnect with people they haven’t seen in decades.

“I know there’s a kind of family element to it,” said Mark Plati. “You all kind of went through this common experience with him because he was just this extraordinary artist and person.”

Mark says he sees someone walking down the street wearing a Bowie shirt several times a week. That person may not recognize who Mark is, but this weekend he is a hero to the hundreds of fans there to celebrate.

“I can’t save somebody from a burning building, but the music I make – or participate in – it can move people,” he said.

The convention promises something for everyone, from the fans of good ol’ Ziggy Stardust to the ones who were jumping out of their seats when they heard David came out of an almost ten-year retirement to release The Next Day in 2013. 

“It doesn’t matter which David Bowie you’re there to honor,” said Carlos. “As long as you represent, you’re actually representing your life, and you’re not hidden.”

The David Bowie Worldwide Fan Convention begins Friday, June 16th, and runs until Sunday, June 18th at the Racket in NYC.