Pete Townshend said ‘You work with a lot of artists. Now you’re going to work with the artist’

Tom Kenny has worked as a lighting designer with everyone from Hillary Clinton to Robert Plant – but no one taught him more than David Bowie

The last time I worked with David Bowie was the Reality tour. I've kept in touch and we were always back and forth about the art in a monthly email. Because of my work I would see a lot of people on the way up, I would send him a video or whatever; it would spark something in him and he would go off and investigate in his own way. He would tuck it all in.

I met him first in the 1980s. I got asked to light a dance piece which he did in the Dominion Theatre in London in 1988. We immediately hit it off. He had a great affectionate for Ireland and Irish arts. He understood the history. He loved anyone who had angst, he loved the melancholy, and had great inspiration that was rooted in Dublin. There’s a thing about coming back to Ireland: it fills up your soul with art; he knew that and he loved the place.

That's the type of person he was: he always wanted information, he was always learning and reading. He collected a lot of Irish art. He was a huge fan of U2 and Sínead O'Connor. The last time he played in the Point, just before he went on, he grabbed Gerry Leonard and me and said, "You did Irish in school, what should I say?" He came out and started the show with Rebel Rebel and at the end, we told him to say "Tiocfaidh ár lá." A lot of people we're surpised when he came out with it in perfect pronunciation.

When I got a job with Bowie, Pete Townsend from The Who said to me, “Tom, I know you work with a lot of artists. But now you’re going to work with the artist.” He was the perfect person. He was very involved and extremely trusting and had an unbelievable brain. Every day I learned something from him. He would come in, give me a little pointer and then say “You know what you’re doing Tom, off you go.”


Everything was performance, everything was perfection. “You need to fail to teach yourself,” he used to tell me. Most great artists have failed all their lives and then one thing sparks it off.

To be that person and to be that famous – no actually fame is a load of bullshit: to be that iconic is because you have an awful lot of knowledge. And he had an amazing amount of knowledge. He would blow you away every day that he could be that famous and yet that normal. Every day was like being around the greatest teacher. It was hilarious. He was such a great teacher: about being a lighting designer and about being a human being.

I recently sent him an email about Berlin and he sent me back an email, and I should have known. It was a very different email, not a David email at all, and in a way he was saying goodbye. With all of this I sort of it knew it was coming, but I didn’t want to admit it.

– In conversation with Laurence Mackin