The year was 1959 and a 12 year-old boy stood transfixed, mesmerised by the image before him. David Jones had been in this record store before, buying Bill Haley, Fats Domino and Elvis Presley, but this was different – the image of the “fantastic looking mountain or whatever that is” called to him.
The future David Bowie bought the Stravinsky album purely because of the photo of Uluru on the front cover, and thus began a life-long love affair with our great southern land.
With Bowie’s passing still echoing in our collective consciousness, we now have a chance to celebrate the affectionate bond he had with Australia. Starting with a young boy’s fascination, and leading to secret visits to the outback.
In 2004, 35 years after Starman brought Bowie to the world’s attention, he recalled that day in the record shop and the effect it had on him, “It looked really exciting and subsequently when I read the sleeve notes, I realised it was this place in Australia, and I always wanted to see it because of that.”
“I’ve seen it a couple of times now. It’s a childhood image that stays in your mind, and it became an ambition of some kind.”
Fiercely protective of his private life, no photos of him at Uluru were ever distributed. If you’re lucky you might find a photo of him on one of his outback trips, but never at the mystical place that drew him back again and again.
He toured Australia only four times: the first in 1978 saw him perform the largest concert of his career to that point (in Melbourne’s pouring rain), saw him ask the first of four Australian bands to play support for him, and naturally marked the first of many visits to the outback.
A recurring theme to Bowie’s visits were his disappearances. On his first tour he vanished, only to return recharged after a trip to the Perth Zoo. He ventured into our waterways, cruising on the Swan River and Sydney Harbour, but without fail, he would hire a four-wheel drive so he could drive off into the outback – that mysterious world that called to him as a child.
When he returned for his Serious Moonlight tour in 1983, Bowie filmed two of his most political video clips: Let’s Dance and China Girl. The first highlighted the inequality indigenous people still faced in Australia, the second was a sexually charged stab at racism that is just as powerful today.
“My idea was to present an Indigenous people in a capitalist, white – mainly white – society and the problems of the interrelationships between the two,” Bowie said in an interview at the time.
That year he quietly bought “a little flat … overlooking the bay, overlooking the marina. Really gorgeous” in Elizabeth Bay, Sydney, where he would sporadically visit until he sold it in 1992.
“I would come over for a month or so at a time. It was really, really fabulous. I loved being there. It was just a great place to be. I was there a lot more than you’d imagine.”
But the apartment wasn’t where he would stay for the entirety of those month-long visits, it was usually used as a base for month-long adventures to the outback and far north Queensland rainforests.
Another tour in 1987 was followed by a secret visit two years later to record an album with his side project Tin Machine at Sydney’s 301 Studios in Castlereagh St. A fan recalled being invited in to the studio where Bowie talked about how much he enjoyed recording in Australia because it was so much more relaxed and casual than other countries he had worked in.
So casual and relaxed, he would regularly frequent rock venues around the city, confirmed by journalists who spotted him checking out local bands.
Another common trait of Bowie’s was his selection of support acts: in each instance the bands were informed that David had specifically requested them. Members of Models, The Angels, Icehouse and Something For Kate all have stories of the legend’s generosity and insistence that they join him.
Models keyboardist Andrew Duffield said it shocked the band, “we’d just released The Pleasure of Your Company, and Paul Dainty called us saying our record got to Bowie and he chose us!”.
“It was such an incredible time,” Duffield recalls, “we ended up at a BBQ at Molly Meldrum’s house where on one side of the room was the Australian cricket team, and the other was Bowie and his band. We all felt a little daunted as to who we could talk with”.
In 2007, The Angels lead singer, Doc Neeson, recalled his generosity, ”Bowie was fantastic. He treated us as his guests. He came down to our very first sound check and he offered us everything on stage in terms of lighting except for one special one that he wanted to keep.”
Something For Kate’s Paul Dempsey recalled, “The promoter called and said they sent him a bunch of music and he picked us. I don’t know if there is any truth to that but that’s what they said”.
Dempsey continued, “He was unreal, hanging out, sticking his head into our dressing room to have a chat, he would watch us soundcheck and would shoot the s— for half an hour.
“The funny thing about it was it was so easy to forget you were talking to David Bowie because you were talking to a guy in jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap.”
No matter what story of David Bowie’s Australia you listen to, there is one final, underlying theme: he was a down-to-earth man – who happened to be a star.
When the public bar in the Carinda Hotel was being renovated, there was great interest in the tiles on the wall where Bowie had stood to record his Lets Dance video clip.
Each tile was carefully removed and returned to the exact place after the renovation so that future generations could stand in awe, transfixed by the memory of a man who, having been lured here by an enigmatic icon, became one himself.
An edited version of this article was originally printed in Zarraffa’s Grind magazine, Issue 23 (recently put online). This is an expanded version featuring more images.