After the world’s tributes to the late David Bowie, a fabulous journalists’s unique memory of the multiple personality that was Ziggy Stardust. Talented newspaper reporter, columnist and magazine editor Fiona Wingett recalls the day her editor sent her on the trail of a growing legend. There is a strong connection with Voice of the North: the Daily Telegraph editor who assigned Fiona to track down the elusive Bowie was Voice regular columnist David Banks. . .
IT HAD all started some weeks before when my editor called me into his office, said Bowiewas in town and he wanted an interview.
Just like that.
I was covering crime for the Sydney Daily Telegraph and had lived in Sydneyfor barely a year. I had few showbiz contacts and certainly none at the level that might reach a demigod.
The record companies knew nothing, or if they did they weren’t telling me. I tried to find anyone else who might have caught sight of him.
I heard he was living in Elizabeth Bay, and I spent long, hot hours there in the vague hope of catching him.
In despair, after six days, I joined the Friday throng of journalists at the Evening Star hotel for the ritual sorrow-drowning.
As the night wore on, the air becoming thicker with cigarette smoke and black humour, I caught sight of a man through the serving hatch that linked the two bars of the pub.
Wearing a powder-blue leather jacket and the light catching his golden hair, the man watching the band looked uncannily like David Bowie.
I couldn’t believe it. Was this one too many schooners — or the real thing? I walked next door and found myself gazing at Bowie. Bowie!
Despite the beers and my heart beating 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.
When I told my rip-roaringly drunken colleagues Bowie was next door, they laughed, telling me to “pull the other one, Wingnut”.
So convincing were they that alcohol had conjured a delusion, I went back to the other bar. Bowiewas nowhere to be seen.
Dejectedly, I walked out, the bouncer 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.”
As days passed, I began to mourn my big chance. Questioning eyebrows from my editor were met with barely perceptible shakes of my head. Bowie had vanished off the radar.
Having consigned it to the Opportunities Lost folder, I was throwing a dinner party when my phone rang about midnight.
As I feared 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 he hung up the phone, I screamed.
And so began the most surreal two months that an unworldly girl from a small country town had ever had.
He’d phone, often in the office (“Fiona, there’s a David on the phone for you,” unsuspecting colleagues would yell across the room) 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.
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 withdraw from me the opportunity of a lifetime, but gently reminding him of his promise.
Although I tried not to show I was breathlessly excited to be having this ongoing — what? — conversation with the man I had adored from afar as an adolescent of 14, I was gobsmacked — and mainly by 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 the Pacific Highway, 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 talk.
“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 mesmerising 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, semiparalysed with fear, but he was never ungracious, always kind. As he’d promised, we did sit and chat, discussing his public image, his fans, his work and his love life.
If this had happened now, in the days of instant communication, there would be the temptation to elicit more and put it on Twitter or pap him as he learnt to canoe on Sydney Harbour.
But then, before the internet or mobile phones, when film had to be developed, images printed in dark rooms, and calls made on land lines, two months of trust-building, no matter how nerve-racking, seemed right.
Today, along with millions, I have cried real tears of loss. David Bowie showed me the truly talented aren’t bratty and petulant, that grace is in all of us, no matter who we are. He was a gentleman and a gentle man.
One who just happened to change the world.
*This article originally appeared in the Daily Telegraph,Sydney <www.dailytelegraph.com.au>