Friday, 15 January 2016

Racing David Bowie

by Fiona Wingett, PGS parent

Photograph of me interviewing David Bowie and Tin Machine band member
Reeves Gabrels in the studio in Sydney in 1989
It had been a wild night. My idol, David Bowie, the man who had set the background to my adolescence, was on stage and performing live – just feet in front of me.

Relaxed, impossibly handsome and just a little tanned, his face shining with perspiration, he was thoroughly enjoying his time in front a crowd of boardie-wearing surfies and the beautiful who’d-heard-a-rumour in a shabby little club on Sydney’s northern beaches.

For a man who could pack stadia, Whale Beach RSL might not have seemed the place to find a rock God on a weeknight. But there he was and he had invited me along.

Long after he had finished playing and I had secured the first of two excusive interviews I fell, in an exhilarated, chattering heap from the doors of the RSL, with a photographer and some mates, hardly daring to believe our luck.

And now, the adrenalin of sheer joy still in my veins, my cheeks still hot with it, there he was at the junction, the man whose work had been the anthem to my youth, next to my beaten up station wagon, in a pert little Jeep. He smiled and waved – and when the lights changed we both put our feet to the floor, laughing hilariously on the deserted early morning roads in between red lights, all the way back to the city.

It had started some weeks before when my Editor had called me in to his office, said Bowie was in town and he wanted me to get an interview. Just like that.

I was covering crime and royal commissions for the Daily Telegraph and had lived in Sydney for a little over a year, so the request was daunting. I had few showbiz contacts and certainly none at the level that might reach a demi-God. What would I do?

I exhausted all my showbiz contacts in, oh, about a minute and tried to find anyone else who might have caught sight of him. The record companies knew nothing, or if they did they weren’t telling me.

I heard he was living in Elizabeth Bay, and I spent long, hot hours mooching there in the vaguest hope of catching him.

In despair, after six days, I joined the Friday throng of journalists in the Evening Star pub opposite the News building and joined the ritual end-of-week sorrow-drowning. I didn’t want to tell my Editor that I had failed.

As the night wore raucously on, the atmosphere becoming ever thicker with cigarette smoke and black humour, I caught sight of a man through the serving hatch which linked the two bars of the pub.

The light catching his golden hair gloriously, the man, wearing a powder blue leather jacket and watching the band, looked uncannily like Bowie.

I couldn’t believe it. Was this one too many beers – or the real thing?

I walked out into the street and into the next door along and I found myself gazing at Bowie. Bowie!

In spite of the beers and a heart beating in my ears far louder than the grunge band on stage, I managed to wait for a pause in his conversation.

I introduced myself, asked him how he was enjoying Sydney, the band, the weather – inane small talk – and then I asked him for an interview, expecting the inevitable.

But, ever a man of surprises, he agreed and asked for my card. It might be a few weeks, but he would sort something out, he said. He’d call me, he said. So I left him and went back into the other bar, brim full of rip-roaringly drunken colleagues.

When I told them Bowie was next door, they laughed and bought me a drink, telling me to “pull the other one, Wingnut”.  So convincing were they that alcohol had somehow conjured a delusion, I went back to the other bar. Bowie was nowhere to be seen.

Dejectedly I walked out, the enormous bouncer on the door asking me if I was “that journo who tried to interview David Bowie”. When I nodded, he sneered and said: “Well, he threw your card in the gutter. You’ll never hear from him.”

I shrugged, while choosing to believe my Starman would come through. That’s what I told my Editor, anyway…

As days passed, I began to mourn my Big Chance. Hopeful, questioning eyebrows from my Editor were met with barely perceptible shakes of my head. Bowie had disappeared off the radar.

Having consigned it to the Opportunities Lost folder of my life, my phone rang around midnight while I threw a dinner party. This was before mobile phones and texting. No-one phoned at that time unless someone had died. And my family lived in England.

Fearing the worst, an English voice asked for me and said: “Hello Fiona, it’s David here…. David Bowie.”

“Oh wow!” I exclaimed, before realising this was possibly the uncoolest thing to say to the coolest man on the planet.

He promised he would give me an interview,  that he’d be playing a secret gig and he would let me know when.

When I hung up the phone, I screamed. When I told my guests, they did too.

That’s how it started – the most surreal two months that an unworldly girl from a small country village had, to that point, had.

He’d phone, often in the office (“Fiona, there’s a David on the phone for you” yelled across the room by unsuspecting colleagues) and he’d let me know he was going to learn how to canoe on the Harbour, or sail, or was heading into the studio to record with Tin Machine or was taking it easy reading and asking what I was up to, what stories I was working on and he was fascinated by my travels in Asia and around Australia on a shoestring.

He seemed completely relaxed in Australia, so relaxed that our chats were that way: him pondering life, Australia; me not wanting to push so that he would be irritated and perhaps withdraw from me the opportunity of a lifetime, but gently reminding him about the gig, or the interview.

Although I tried not to show I was breathlessly excited, that I was astonished to be having this on-going…what?...conversation with the man I had adored from afar as an adolescent of 14, who had provided the score to my most treasured memories, the soundtrack to my childhood, I was gobsmacked – and mainly by his down-to-earthedness, his politeness, his interest…his total lack of ‘star’-iness.

Then one day he called to ask if I could possibly go and see him play that night at Whale Beach RSL. Could I bring a friend…and a photographer? Sure.

That’s when I thought life couldn’t get any better; watching him sing, then racing him down Barrenjoey Road, laughter catching out of the open window.

But it did. Always the gentleman, he’d promised he would give me a ‘big’ interview, where we would sit without noise and crowds and chat.

 “Would I mind,” he asked, “coming into the studio to listen to my new music and tell me what I thought?” He was very sorry it was a Sunday, but his schedule had become quite packed. He’d be very grateful, he said.

And so, that’s how I came to be sitting in a recording studio just up from Chinatown, with one of the greatest icons of modern times, him fixing me with those mesmerizing eyes, almost with concern seeking clues in mine, asking me what I thought of his music.

I cringe now when I think of what I mumbled, entirely out of my depth, semi-paralysed with fear that he would see through me, that he’d know I wasn’t worthy to be critiquing him.

He was never ungracious, always kind. As he’d promised, we did sit and chat and I interviewed him, back in my comfort zone, while we discussed his public image, his fans, his work and touched on his love life.

If this had happened now, in the days of instant communications, there would be the temptation to elicit more and put it on twitter or in a gossip column for immediate Brownie points, to try and pap him as he learned to canoe in Sydney’s stunning harbour.

But then, before the internet or mobile phones, when film had to be developed, images printed in dark rooms, and calls had to made to land lines, two months of trust-building, no matter how nerve wracking, seemed right.

Today I am heartbroken and, and along with millions, have cried real tears of loss. I treasure the time David Bowie gave to me, a no-one who interrupted his night out.

He showed me the truly talented aren’t bratty and petulant, that grace is in the gift of all of us, no matter who we are.

He was a gentleman and a gentle man. And one who changed the world.

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