27th June 2004
Kicking off our T in the Park preview, DJ Marc Riley explains the magic of his hero (and mate) David Bowie
As David Bowie once pointed out: “For me, a chameleon is something that disguises itself to look as much like its environment as possible. I always thought I did exactly the opposite of that.” So there you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth. David Bowie is not – and never has been – a chameleon of rock. Just thought I’d clear that one up…
It all began for me in early June 1972. I was an avid fan of Lift Off With Ayesha, a sort of music show for kids. It was hosted by three “characters”, the aforementioned Ayesha Brough, retired skiffle star Wally Whiton and an owl puppet called Ollie Beak. Ollie was my favourite. I suppose I looked up to him as a role model, someone to to help me through the difficult years of puberty. Then one week, out of the blue, this red-headed thing turned up, played a song called Starman with his strange mates, and then disappeared again. I didn’t know what it was exactly – but I knew I liked it. The relationship was sealed some two weeks later when we met for the second time: me sat on the floor of my living room, him on Top Of The Pops.
I met the man (whom as a kid I was sure I would never meet) for the umpteenth time a couple of weeks ago, to talk to him about the forthcoming Bowieday on 6 Music. Casually dressed in T-shirt and jeans, Bowie was his usual self: playful, charming, engaging and occasionally perplexing. When he tells you a fantastic tale it could quite easily be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – or it could be one of his stream-of-consciousness flights of fancy! If you attempt to steer him in a direction he doesn’t want to follow, he’ll lead you a merry dance and eventually come to rest in a place a million miles away from where you wanted to be – and that’s what makes Bowie such an interesting and compulsive character, even after a career lasting some 40 years.
I first met Bowie in the flesh in New York in 1995. Mark Radcliffe and I went out there to catch our hero on the second date of his Outside tour on the outskirts of Boston. Two days after the gig, Mark and I were sitting in a tiny studio on Broadway – the very place from where Alistair Cooke used to send his Letters From America – waiting for the arrival of our interviewee, as nervous as a couple of kids waiting to see the headmaster. Arrive he did – and within seconds he put us both at ease by saying how much he liked our show. I thought to myself, “anyone who would stoop to blatant lying to make a couple of old blokes stop shaking is alright in my book”.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Bowie’s career is the rabid loyalty and single-mindedness of his ardent fans. When I spoke to him recently, I likened these “Bowie nuts” to Elvis Presley’s army of committed disciples. They eat, sleep and breathe the Thin White One. Some still dress like him whilst others spend all their disposable income on following him around the world. I’ll happily admit that without Bowie my bank balance would be considerably healthier!
And then there’s Bowienet, the cyberspace base that allows them to hang on to his every word and watch his every move courtesy of the impressive on-line set-up. An obsessive’s dream world that allows disciples to track their leader’s every move wherever he might be in the world, it’s a sort of Truman Show existence. But no-matter how often one cyber-stalks Bowie, you still get the feeling that you are no closer to knowing or understanding what makes this particular enigma tick.
Saturday July 10 sees the ever-changing boy from Bromley return to Scotland for T in the Park. So what should you expect? Well, the Japanese-print jumpsuits are long gone, as are the palm-tree platforms, the steely glare of the Thin White Duke and the mullet of the Glass Spider-man.
These days, Bowie seems happy to put the masks to one side and present himself as a content, creatively buoyant 50-something rock star with little left to achieve and even less to prove.
Bowie seems to have decided that a barrier of panstick and alter egos is no longer necessary! He’s a youthful 57, often prompting lazy journalists to use the word’s Picture, Grey and Dorian (although not in that order). He engages in nigh-on daily boxing bouts to keep fit and with substance abuse some 20 years behind him looks capable on defying old age forever, a bit like the bloke in The Picture Of Dorian Grey… DAMN!
These days, the props and costumes reside in a lock-up in Switzerland – and Bowie engages his audience as he did some 40 years ago, with just a big smile and his music in tow.
The 2004 live set-list is a real mixed bag, drawing on material released over the past 35 years. For the lightweight, there’s the likes of Fame and Fashion in there, as well as chart-toppers Ashes To Ashes and Under Pressure. But don’t go to T in the Park expecting a Greatest Hits show. Lesser-known gems have also been given a regular outing on this tour, the likes of Quicksand (from Hunky Dory) The Motel (Outside) The Supermen (The Man Who Sold The World) Sister Midnight (his Iggy collaboration from The Idiot) and the reclaimed classic All The Young Dudes. These are the tracks the diehards want, and I’ll wager some of them will be sharing the stage with Bowie that weekend. I know Black Francis of The Pixies is a fan, and surely Franz Ferdinand and The Strokes will pay homage too.
Bowie described the current set-list to me as “a game of three thirds, a third very well-known, a third more obscure lesser-known material and a third off the last two albums.”
Pity me, then, as I spend the afternoon of July 10 – my birthday, coincidentally – toiling selflessly for the BBC. The first day of T in the Park is also 6 Music’s Bowieday (my idea, naturally), so while he’s playing back-catalogue classics, I’ll be some 200 miles away from the main event!
Thus far, Bowie’s 1967 top 10 smash The Laughing Gnome has been criminally passed over but – hey! – you never know.
Seriously! When Bowie undertook the mammoth Sound And Vision tour in 1990, he set up a phone vote to allow his fans the chance to pick the set-list for the gigs, intimating that once the chosen greatest hits had been aired they’d be doomed to hang in the ether forevermore, never to be played live again.
The NME famously marshalled its readership to vote for The Laughing Gnome. A wicked ruse to be sure, but I can exclusively reveal to Sunday Herald readers that during a soundcheck at the Manchester Evening News Enormodome on November 17, 2003, Bowie performed a medley to six or so interested observers (me included). What constituted the medley? It was a marrying of the jazzy Bring Me The Disco King off his latest album Reality and the beleaguered novelty hit from 31 years ago. I kid you not! Though in all honesty – I wouldn’t hold my breath!
STOP PRESS: Following on from the much-reported lollipop-in-the-eye incident which took place in Oslo on June 20, I can exclusively reveal that there are no plans as yet to strip-search the T in the Park audience for hidden caches of confectionery.
Marc Riley’s Rocket Science is on 6 Music, Saturdays between 2pm and 5pm. Bowieday on 6 Music takes place on July 10. Bowie plays the Main Stage on Saturday.