EARL SLICK CAN remember the last gig he played — right off the top of his head. “It was March 7th, 2020, with [former Sex Pistols bassist] Glen Matlock, in London,” he says. “Ever since then, I’ve been mostly on my own, like everybody. And let me tell you, you tend to go a little batty with so much free time on your hands.”
The veteran guitarist hasn’t exactly done anything during the past year, and he says the period of relative isolation has been a blessing. It’s given him time to work on a memoir, which he says he’s close to finishing (“You keep thinking you’re close to being done, and then you go, Oh, wait, there’s that other thing!”), and it afforded him a clear chunk of time to record Fist Full of Devils, his first solo album in nearly 20 years.
Mostly, though, the extended lockdown has provided Slick with the opportunity to do something he rarely does. “I just sat around and thought a lot,” he says. “I’m always so busy doing this or that, and if I’m not doing something, my mind is on whatever I’ve got to do next. For the past year and a half, things kind of stopped, and I’ve had a lot of time to just think about who I am and what I’ve done.”
He pauses. “Funny things come into your head, like, ‘Did I just fake my way through it all?’” He laughs. “But then I go, ‘No, come on. That’s crazy.’ Some of the stuff I did, you just can’t fake it.”
Fakers don’t get to play with rock royalty like David Bowie and John Lennon, two of the more celebrated names on Slick’s star-studded resume. Slick was just 22 years old in 1974 when he began what would become a 30-year, on-and-off association with Bowie. After hearing the “unschooled, street player” jam along to unmixed and unreleased recordings of songs such as “Rebel Rebel,” Bowie hired Slick to replace Mick Ronson in his band for the Diamond Dogs tour. “I don’t know how many people were up for the gig, but I got it,” Slick says. “After that, I was off and running.”
Years earlier, like millions of other teens, the guitarist sat mesmerized in front of his TV set as the Beatles were introduced to America on The Ed Sullivan Show. The next day, he pestered his father to buy him a guitar — a $30 secondhand Danelectro. “Did I ever think that one day I’d get good enough to play with John Lennon?” he asks rhetorically. “Of course not. The idea still blows my mind. Lennon was this huge guy; he was a hero. A little kid from Brooklyn doesn’t get to be in a room with him.”
Slick took all of three guitar lessons before embarking on what he calls “a dedicated period of musical self-education.” Instead of playing rudimentary exercises, he hunkered down with the radio and records. At first, he picked along to the pop songs of the British Invasion bands, but soon he gravitated to the Rolling Stones and the Animals, and from them he learned about their roots — Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Chuck Berry. “I got really into the blues and became sort of the outlier at school,” he says. “My friends were still learning to play pop songs, and I’m playing the blues.”
Moving to New York City in the early 1970s, Slick tried to make a go of it in bands. There was an outfit called Mack Truck, and for a short time he played in a duo called Slick Diamond (with Scottish singer-songwriter Jim Diamond). Acing the Bowie audition changed everything for Slick, and together they changed music. Their daring experimentation on the title track to 1976’s Station to Station, fueled by Slick’s ragged, at times atonal leads, combined funk, soul and art-rock for an overall effect that became revolutionary. Between tours and sessions with Bowie, Slick collaborated with artists such as Ian Hunter, John Waite, Tim Curry and David Coverdale, among others. After playing on John Lennon’s Double Fantasy (as well as tracks for a follow-up record, which was released in 1984 as Milk and Honey), he worked with Yoko Ono on her 1981 album, Season of Glass. Along the way, he formed the band Phantom, Rocker & Slick with the Stray Cats rhythm section of Slim Jim Phantom and Lee Rocker, as well as the short-lived band Dirty White Boy.
“I did a lot,” he says with a laugh. “That’s one of those things that has run through my mind during this whole pandemic. I don’t spend a lot of time on social media, but I recently hired a guy to work my web page and all that, and before I knew it, fans started popping up, and it reminds you of all the things you’ve done. It’s sort of mind-boggling.”
Slick’s fans will find a lot to like about Fist Full of Devils, a diverse set of instrumentals that spans smart-alecky blues, poignant torch songs, white-knuckled rockers and a host of tracks that toss genres into a blender. At age 68, the guitarist still has plenty of spunk in the trunk. He doesn’t so much strum an acoustic as dance with it, and his electric solos sing, swoon, sputter and roar. “The funny thing is, playing solos is my least favorite thing to do,” he says. “I could play rhythm all day and be perfectly happy. When I was cutting these songs, I didn’t construct every note of the solos — I never do that. But I hear things in the chord changes and that guides me through a melody.”
He makes it clear that anybody expecting a record of guitar-clinic shred can look elsewhere. “The world doesn’t need another wanking guitar album,” he says. “Besides, I’m not proficient enough to pull that off. My whole thing is feel. Personality. It’s what’s carried me this far, so I’m sticking with it.”
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