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David Torn: Making Records, Film Composition, and Working With David Bowie

Mark Sullivan By

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I was on four of David's records starting with Heathen. So we went from Heathen to Reality, to The Next Day which was a very different project even from Reality. For The Next Day he used like three different bands. I played on 21 finished tracks. I don't know where they all are; I'm sure they'll all show up at some point in time. It was the first time I played live in the studio with the band, which was super fun, but it kind of threw me a little bit. On the other projects it was always like David would be there awhile, we'd talk for awhile, then they'd leave me alone with the material. I'd just do my thing, make my own arrangements, show it to David when he came to the studio, which I really liked. On The Next Day I wound up playing in the control room a lot, which I don't really like: I was taking a hit for the band. I would have liked to play in the same room where I could take the headphones off and hear the whole band, but the room was too small!

There was one more we were going to do and he took a side trip with Black Star. He sent me a note saying there was something else we were going to do before he really knew that he was going to pass away. The Next Day for him was also part of a series I think. I really like Heathen, I think it's a really good record. The Next Day was an outgrowth of a good working relationship, you know it really was good. It was a really good thing.

In 1992, Torn was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumor. It required intricate surgery that left him deaf in his right ear. Torn gave a performance and talk for TEDx Caltech 2013—the theme was "The Brain"—examining his brain tumor diagnosis and recovery.

They just called me and said, "would you be interested in; do you care about, would you mind talking about your problems with your brain?," Did I mind? No, and Joe Lima, who's the one who called me for Dr. Michael Roukes, who is the chief research scientist, head of that Caltech Tedx, they weren't aware that I had already done one, in '96 or something like that. I did a pretty big 20-minute-long NPR piece that was focused on me talking about coming back from not being able to hear anything and having all these problems with my brain, and doing more work than I had ever done before, you know. I was thrilled to do that, it got a little messed up at the end because I played and spoke but when I got on stage to play—I don't know if you know this but on the TED talk how much time you use is very important to everyone, because everybody's time has to be fixed.

I got on and so there are clocks everywhere on the stage and they count down from your allotted time to zero, right. I got out on the stage and in the middle of the second or third note, I glanced up and realized that the clocks had stopped, they just had frozen and there's like three or four of them on stage around me. I'm going "Uh-oh," then went "fuck it, I'll get the timing right." So I thought I just buried myself in the music, I went maybe a little longer with the music then I should have, but not much: maybe a minute or something like that, minute and a half, I'm guessing. Got up to do the speech part and was building up to the big emotional ending thing, and building up and feeling more and more and more emotional and I know what my ending was because it's part of the story, and I was really looking forward to getting there and wanting very much for the audience to be moved by this as I was.

And suddenly the clock starts counting down, I can't remember if it started counting down from 90 seconds to go or 60 seconds to go from not moving for 14 or 15 minutes, it suddenly started and I totally panicked, totally panicked. And I went, what can we, how can I just get to the end, just gottta jump right to the end forget about the big build-up and I just went "and blah-da blah had happened and he looked at me and said blah blah..." And I'm looking at Michael Roukes, on the side of the stage, and he's going "uh oh, you better get off soon," and I'm like "and then that's what happened." [mimics sound of cheers and applause] And I walked off. I was so bummed out, I had like this whole thing and I couldn't believe it got fucked over but it did. It was like skipping the last solo you know; "I don't have time to do the solo?"

Asked if he was still living in Los Angeles to be close to Hollywood, Torn replied that he had moved back to the East Coast and had not done a film recently. On film composing:

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