‘Head off the beaten track’ - down-to-earth Bowie’s advice to me

David Bowie
David Bowie
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FOR a global superstar who brought us Space Oddity and Spiders from Mars, I couldn’t have found myself talking to a more down-to-earth gent.

With today’s news of the sudden and sad passing of David Bowie my mind returns to the top room of a bar in the northern reaches of Sydney where I was lucky enough to meet the man himself.

It was November 1989 and I was just over a week into a 12-month voyage around Australia. The intervening 26-plus years may have misted the full events of that evening, but certainly not the memory of what an amazingly friendly and unassuming person he was.

I had been welcomed Down Under by fellow journalist and Cowplain native Fiona Wingett, who was working for newspapers in Sydney. With her English links, Fiona had been detailed to chase up an interview with Bowie who was in Australia recording his second album with Tin Machine - the Anglo-American band he was fronting at that time.

Fiona found out that the band was playing a low-key gig at Moby Dicks, a venue overlooking Whale Beach on Sydney’s northern peninsula. She struck up a good rapport with Bowie and was invited along to the show with a promise that she would see if she could get me and my travelling-partner-come-wife Jane on to the guest list.

It was touch-and-go until late on that Friday night when the call came in that we should hotfoot it north to what was going to be an intimate and exclusive affair.

In truth, I can’t remember too much about the performance itself. I retain a love of many Bowie classics but would never claim to have been a great fan and certainly knew none of the Tin Machine tracks being played that night.

But in a hot, dark and packed Moby Dicks, a bearded Bowie led the band with an extraordinary presence. It was amazing to think that the musical icon was singing within feet of where I was being jostled, squeezed and swayed by a boisterous crowd.

But better was to come. With the set finished and the thoughts of myself and the rest of the crowd returning to drink, I was instead ushered upstairs to where Bowie and the band were enjoying a post-performance gathering.

Coming face-to-face with the man himself was a daunting prospect until the moment arrived and Bowie made it so easy with his own casual, relaxed and interested demeanor. Wondering what a Brit was doing so far from home I opened by saying that the previous day had been my birthday (which was true) and joked that as a treat I had flown out especially for the concert which - luckily - he took with great humour.

And so the conversation flowed on a really down-to-earth level, mainly centred around travelling and the many wonders there were to experience in Australia. His biggest tip was to ignore the bright lights and big cities and simply hire a reliable 4x4 and head off the beaten track. He talked with great enthusiasm about his own experiences of Kakadu, Australia’s largest national park steeped in Aboriginal heritage and rich in animal and plant life.

But what still strikes me about my 15 minutes with the great man is that the discussion wasn’t all about him and what he was doing. He had a real interest in why Jane and I had travelled to Australia, what our plans were and and what we were hoping to get out of our trip. And it was a genuine interest - not feigned or forced in any way.

I wondered whether it was the small reminder of England we provided which had made Bowie so open and forthcoming. But I listened in as he moved on to a conversation with a small group of locals. Their lives revolved around skateboarding and so the talked turned to trucks and tailslides. Again Bowie eased himself in to the chit-chat with interest and humour. It ended with an invite for Bowie to join them the next day and, in truth, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the following morning had found Bowie on a half-pipe somewhere in downturn Sydney.

The world has truly lost a musical legend today - a trailblazer who gave so much enjoyment to his fans and so much inspiration to many who have followed in his footsteps.

And, for someone lucky enough to have met him - even for such a short space of time, many years ago - I know we have also lost a truly warm and wonderful person.