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Here’s How David Bowie Stole Guitarist Adrian Belew from Frank Zappa

Hulton Archive / Larry Hulst / Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive / Larry Hulst / Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Adrian Belew‘s stint as guitarist in David Bowie‘s band began after a decidedly uncomfortable dinner with Frank Zappa.

Zappa’s 1978 tour of Europe, Belew’s first, had reached Cologne, Germany, when Brian Eno – a longtime collaborator who knew Bowie was looking for a new guitarist – caught a show. He urged Bowie to see a subsequent stop, Belew says, setting off an incredible chain of events.

“The next night we performed in Berlin,” he says, “there was a part of the show where Frank took an extended guitar solo and most of the band members, including myself, left the stage for a few minutes. As I walked to the back of the stage, I looked over at the monitor mixing board and saw David Bowie and Iggy Pop standing there.”

After collecting himself, Belew says he told Bowie how much he loved his work, to which Bowie said, “Great, how would you like to be in my band?” Belew noted that he already had a job, with the guy currently soloing on stage.

“David laughed and said, ‘Yes, I know, but when Frank’s tour ends my tour starts two weeks later. Shall we talk about it over dinner?'” Belew remembers.

They took great pains to disguise the negotiations, meeting in a waiting limo outside Belew’s hotel. (“It was like something out of a spy film,” he says.) Bowie then announced he was taking the guitarist to one of his favorite restaurants in Berlin. Problem: Zappa and the rest of the band were somehow at the same place. “How many restaurants are there in Berlin?” Belew asks, rhetorically. “25,000?”

Though he clearly had been caught trying to poach Belew, the ever-debonair Bowie attempted to make the best of things – but Zappa was having none of it.

“David, trying to be cordial, motioned to me and said, ‘Quite a guitar player you have here Frank,'” Belew remembers. “And Frank said, ‘F– you, Captain Tom.'” (Belew notes that the angered Zappa had “demoted David from Major Tom to Captain Tom.”) Bowie tried again to make small talk, but was met once more with the same reply from Zappa: “F– you, Captain Tom.”

“By this point,” Belew adds, “I was paralyzed. David said, ‘So, you really have nothing to say?’ Frank said, ‘F– you, Captain Tom.'” After that, Bowie, Belew and Bowie’s assistant simply got up and left. “Getting in the limo,” Belew remembers, “David said in his wonderfully British way, ‘I thought that went rather nicely!'”

Belew ended up joining Bowie, who died on Sunday after a battle with cancer, for tours in 1978-79 and again in 1990. He’s also worked with Talking Heads and King Crimson along the way.

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