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Bowie divines doom in Moscow

Steve Gaines • Circus • October 1973

 

It was only an eight-day train ride to Moscow, but the tortuous trip nearly scared the shorts off David...and forced him to put down his pen.

Kansai, the outrageous Japanese designer who is David's exclusive costumer, was about to cover David's lithe figure in skin-tight lame leotards when Angie Bowie suggested her hubby discard the tights for a red athletic supporter. After drenching himself in his own sweat, David ripped off the Kansai outer skin to give the Japanese fans a little skin of his own - clad only in his jock strap! Could this be the beginning of "jock-rock"?

It was a hot night in Tokyo when David Bowie flashed his pubes at three thousand straining Japanese fans, but less than seventy-hours later David found himself plunged into the cold wastelands of Russian Siberia.

The madness behind his unusual escape method? Rock and roll's most daring darling preferred the long overland trek home instead of an airline. "Can't do it," David quaked when a jet was suggested. "If it flies, it's death."

As a nearly naked David left the Tokyo stage after his ninth - and final show, three thousand kids rushed the stage, sending some unlucky fans sailing up into the air or flopping down to the ground under the stampeding wave. The Tokyo fans stomped so hard they twisted the massive steel girders supporting the floor of the arena and almost caused the collapse of the ceiling in David's dressing room.

A short boat ride from Japan to Russia couldn't dampen his exuberant mood, but his spirited pranks were quickly frozen solid by a gloomy Siberian train ride that would convince David the world was doomed if communist Russia was a taste of the future… and cause him to mutter pessimistically, "I've seen life, and I think I know who's controlling this damned world." The long distance journey started out on a high note when David boarded the famous Trans-Siberian Express in the Russian town of Nakhodka for an eight-day trip towards Moscow.

Part of David's fabulous Japanese journey included visits to Tokyo's major department store, where he autographed fifteen-foot tall posters of himself. Tiny children chased him down the aisles, called, "Boowy! Boowy!"

Upon entering his sleeping car with its ornate golden mirrors and polished wood walls, David announced, "Gee, this isn't so bad," but the depressing realities of Russian life were waiting just down the railroad tracks. VIPs like himself, David soon realized, stayed in luxurious "soft-class" cars. But just down the line, native Russians were forced to cluster in crowded compartments with no place to sleep except for hard wooden benches that made Hindu nail-beds feel like downy pillows.

David spent his entire eight-day train trip wrapped in a comfortable kimono. On the rare occasions he visited the dining car, he dressed in conservative street clothes, and was shocked to find the travelling Russians dining there in pyjamas. Chatting with David are United Press International reporter Bob Musel and David's travelling companion, Geoffrey MacCormack.

The railroad attendants assigned to David's plush car were two burly young women who looked like they had never cracked a smile in their lives. Dressed in masculine navy blue uniforms, they were a frightening sight to the slender Englishman until he discovered that both were ardent Ziggy Stardust fans! The two would-be Russian rock and rollers took an instant liking to the grinning carrot-topped celebrity, keeping David cool on the tedious trip by serving him hundreds of glasses of tea in carved-silver holders.

David was terrified most by the poverty of the Siberian shantytowns. The Russian peasants lived in tiny shacks built of rotted wood and held together with frayed rope. "I don't understand how they live through the winter," David exclaimed.

But, like the poor Russians in the next car who existed only on raw eggs congealing on hot plates, the world that passed by the windows of David's sleeping car was a sharp contrast to the ornate glitter that ensconced him inside. As the train travelled west the infrequent smiling faces of the Russian people evaporated into the chilled Siberian air. Ramshackle towns rushing by David's window turned greyer and the countryside more barren. Soot infested everything, and even David's posh sleeping car afforded no way of washing. He began to think about changing his name to Ziggy Sootdust.

At night, as the train chugged through the Siberian mountains, David's depression kept him tossing restlessly in bed. And just when he was finally able to drop off to deep, the diesel train engine was exchanged for a steam engine which literally shook him out of bed. "Isn't train travel fun?" he sarcastically asked everyone.

The seemingly endless journey screeched to a halt every fifteen minutes in shanty towns where the poverty stricken peasants fought to get a look at the dazzling young rock star from the West. Yet even David, who thought naught of displaying his loins in Japan, self-consciously shied away from the curious natives. "If we had a war with Russia," he confessed to personal photographer Leee Black Childers, "they'd win. They are already living on war rations."

But the most harrowing moment hit David like a scene from a futuristic horror film a la 1984. David gratefully eased himself off the train for the first time in the dingy town of Sverdlovsk. Photographer Childers playfully posed him against the grim surroundings. Suddenly, two uniformed guards appeared from the shadows and viciously began dragging the shaking photographer away. Our lad insane grabbed his own camera and started to film the entire event! Quickly the dynamic duo were hustled back to their train-barely escaping military arrest.

May Day in Red Square was a frightening display of Russian artillery prowess that lasted twelve hours. As Bowie wandered through the Square, he was trailed by strange men who demanded to see his identification. A shopping spree at Moscow's Gum department store proved a huge disappointment when David found the only souvenirs available were Russian soap and underwear. The candy counter was like a treasure chest in the midst of a barren wasteland, and a chocolate bar cost as much as a priceless jewel!

After the eighth day of torturous travel, the Bowie caravan arrived in Moscow on May Day to confront an awesome celebration of Russian military might. The city of Moscow had been arranged in fifty concentric circles of security guards with only communist party members allowed to enter the inner circle. David's hotel was located in the second circle, but the walled "celebration" he saw from his window only terrified him as thousands of young people marched below carrying pictures of Lenin (not John), and banners of muscular field workers.

Even the so-called highlight of Bowie's Moscow blitz visit to Gum's department store, the largest single store in all of Russia proved a shocking disappointment. The aisles and counters were barren except for simple necessities like soap and underwear. "They take everything away from you," David whispered as he wandered up and down the aisles looking for presents for friends back home, "and by the time you get one little chocolate bar, you hoard it like a treasure."

Moments after this photo of David was taken in the town of Sverdlovsk, two uniformed guards began to hustle photographer Leee Childers into a waiting car with barred windows. David began to film the scene with his own 16mm camera when two more guards appeared to arrest him! With visions of Siberia dancing in their heads, David and Childers were saved at the last minute by the two railroad attendants who had taken a liking to the Bowie entourage. The women attendants literally carried Bowie and Childers back to the safety of the train while battling off the furious uniformed men. Heroically, the two husky girls blocked the door to the train until it picked up speed and moved out of the station.

"By the time I got to Berlin, I was calling it the 'free world' and really meaning it," he added. Yet even the comparative gaiety of beer-drinking Berlin couldn't dispel David's Russian-induced depression. "I just want bloody well to go home and watch the telly," he confessed to his wife, Angie, on their way home to Beckenham, England. "After what I've seen of this world, I've never been so damned scared in my life."

Would this journey like the American tour, which inspired David’s last LP Aladdin Sane give rise to a new LP? Insisted David, "If I ever wrote about it, it would be my last album ever." And he added mysteriously, "I don't think I'd be around after recording it."

 

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this page updated September 28, 2018