Pat Metheny reveals insights about making of David Bowie's iconic song This Is Not America.
Working with David Bowie on “This Is Not America” was an incredible experience. I had written the song as the main theme for the score for “The Falcon and the Snowman”. After traveling to Mexico City where the filming was taking place and watching Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton do a few scenes, I went back to my room and the whole piece came very quickly.
Later while in London recording the score, John Schlesinger, the director of the film, suggested a collaboration with David Bowie for a version of the song to go over the final credits. David came to a screening of the film and I sat near him as he saw the picture for the first time. He had a yellow legal pad on his lap and was writing constantly. At the end of the film, he had a list of maybe 30 (brilliant) song titles that he had thought of while watching. One of them was “This Is Not America”, a line from the film.
David took the music with him and a month later the core of my band and I traveled to Montreux, Switzerland to join him in his studio to record the single. In the meantime, David had taken my original demo, added an additional drum machine part and while keeping the form and big chunks of the original melody, added an additional vocal line on top of the “A” section to which he had written those haunting and evocative lyrics. To me his words make “This is Not America” one of the greatest protest songs ever.
Watching him do his vocal was something I will never forget. I can only say that it was masterful - kind of like the feeling I have had whenever I have had the chance to be around a great jazz musician who carried a one-of-a-kind type presence that filled every note that came out of them. He was really fast. He asked if any of us could sing (we couldn’t/can’t!), so he did all the background vocals himself, kind of transforming into what seemed to be two or three different people as he did each part.
And it doesn’t surprise me at all that his last recording includes some of the best contemporary players in New York, especially the fantastic Donny McCaslin. During our time together he expressed a real appreciation and knowledge of this music and saxophone players in particular. He carried the kind of broad view of music and art that was inspiring to me as a collaborator and a fan. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to be around him.