Big truths, small lies

<strong>Tony Visconti, the autobiography: Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn boy </strong>
Tony Visconti

"Is he still alive?" Morrissey joked, after being told that Tony Visconti wanted to produce his latest album, Ringleader of the Tormentors. Very much alive - and kicking, too. Visconti turns out to have been a lifelong karate kid, an amateur fighter who can tell you the stylistic differences between the fung sau and wing chun schools of chopsocky kill. But it was his introduction in the early 1980s to the "internal" martial art, t'ai chi ch'uan, that did most to ensure that Visconti was still around to work with Mozza a quarter of a century later: "The inner peace I gained during t'ai chi practice diminished my desire to get high as a solution to depression," he writes. "I felt great naturally."

There's no gainsaying another man's contentment, though whether Visconti's desire to get high really needed diminishing is another matter. To be sure, this book's only index entry longer than that for "Tony Visconti: drug use" is the one for "Tony Visconti: love life and marriage", but we are hardly dealing with a latter-day de Quincey. Apart from a few excesses in his late teens, Visconti seems always to have been in control. The only thing he has ever really been addicted to is his work. Since Visconti's work has consisted largely in monitoring the output of others, it has paid him to keep a weather eye on his own intake.

In other words, this book is a lot less action-packed than its publishers would have you believe. For which, much thanks. Too many memoirs of the 1960s and 1970s are all crash and burn. David Bowie, one of the key figures in Visconti's career, wrote most of his best songs between 1971 and 1977, but I doubt whether he could string together more than a couple of sentences about his life during those years. Words worth said poetry was emotion recollected in tranquillity. Bowie was so out of his head back then that he couldn't recollect the emotions if he wanted to. Visconti wasn't - so he can, and does.

A burgeoning dislike of the envious yet egomaniacal Marc Bolan aside, Visconti's overwhelming emotion seems to have been sheer excitement at the possibilities afforded him by the onward march of recording technologies. Though he played in his share of teenage bands, Visconti says he has never been satisfied by the aural quality of live music. While there are more than enough pictures here to convince you that Visconti must have looked good on stage, the bulk of his work went into sounding good off it. He spent his time unpicking Rolling Stones records note by note, sound by sound, trying "to mentally picture how things were done". Listening to the Stones version of "Not Fade Away", Visconti thought he heard "the reverb of a small room" and decided that the song must have been recorded with "just a few mics picking up the slap coming back off the walls". By the time Visconti, who was born and bred in Brooklyn, arrived in London, he was desperate to learn all he could about the "swooshy effects of phasing and flanging" on the likes of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds".

He did learn, and kept on learning. A decade after Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, he co-produced Bowie's Low, which feat ured Visconti's new Harmonizer, a computer ised gadget that could change the pitch of a note without stretching or shrinking it. Or, to use Visconti technologese, it "fucks with the fabric of time". But it didn't fuck with what Walter Benjamin called the fabric of real life. Bowie and Visconti's (and co-writer Brian Eno's) use of programmable, automated gizmos to sound off about the alienating effects of modernity was a conceptualist black joke. The joke was on the PVC- clad dorks and dweebs who trailed in their wake and really were alienated from the conditions of production. The machines had finally taken over.

Not that Visconti doesn't have a mechanical side. Anyone who can work as happily for the Moody Blues as for David Bowie, as eagerly for Elaine Paige as for Marc Bolan, is plainly more craftsman than artist. But a craftsman is no mean thing to be. For one thing, craftsmen tend to be better than artists at passing on the wisdom of the years. The musical education this book offers isn't quite up there with the one Visconti himself received at school - the teacher would have him listen to a recording of a string quartet and then get him to score the individual parts - but only the tone-deaf and tin-eared could fail to learn something. "I wanted pop music to be true," writes Morrissey in the book's foreword. Visconti, though, reminds us that not even Maria Callas could always hit top C, and that the producer's job is to construct big truths from small lies. As liars go, he's up there with the best. The Castle in the Forest, Norman Mailer, Little, Brown, 477pp, £17.99Fiction

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iran - Ready to attack