The Moscow News №32 / 20 – 26 August 2013
Bowie causing a stir in Red Square in 1973 after traveling from Nakhodka to Moscow by train
Bowie in the USSR How Ziggy Stardust took the Trans-Siberian Railway and survived themoscownews
It was a snowy April day just over 40 years ago at the small station of Yerofei Pavlovich in the Far East of Russia when the Trans-Siberian train stopped en route to Moscow. Soldiers stood on the small station’s platform, which was piled high with snow, and watched as the foreign passengers got off and started to throw snowballs at each other. Another group of soldiers bumped into the first, as they were distracted by the sight of a passenger disembarking from the train.
Dressed in a yellow leather jacket with a matching fur collar and a large checked cap, the young man with bright red hair stepped down onto the platform, a visitor not just from another world, but another planet. David Bowie was in the Soviet Union. Scared of flying, Bowie had taken the Trans-Siberian Railway as part of his Ziggy Stardust world tour. He was one of the biggest stars in the world at the time, and yet he was spending a week journeying across a land where his records could not be sold, and his songs never played on the radio.
*** Forty years later, that trip is almost forgotten, but luckily
there were two other men in attendance: Geoffrey MacCormack, the bongo player on the tour, and Robert Muesul, a veteran UPI correspondent who wrote a brilliant report on the trip. MacCormack was one of Bowie’s oldest friends. The two met when Bowie was then simply David Jones at primary school in Bromley, just outside London. In 1972, MacCormack got a call out of the blue just as Bowie was about to go on tour. Would he fancy quitting his job at trade journal Construction News to come and play bongos on the tour with him? MacCormack, not surprisingly, jumped at the chance. He would later create the 2007 photo book “From Station to Station,” about his life on that tour. The world tour began in Britain and continued in the U.S. before heading to Japan, where Bowie fever was at its height. But Bowie’s deep fear of flying – he had travelled by ship to the U.S. and on to Japan – meant that he took the train back across Russia. First, he had to get to Russia from Japan. He and MacCormack boarded a Soviet cruise ship called the “Felix Dzerzhinsky” (after the secret police founder) to the port of Nakhodka. Tourists were likely directed through Nakhodka as Vladivostok, where the Trans-
Siberian finishes, was a closed military city at the time. Bowie walked onto the ship carrying an acoustic guitar. He and MacCormack headed straight for the bar, where they were instantly approached by two men who were dressed smartly, spoke with strong American accents, tried to make friends and asked lots of questions. “When they inquired as to our political leanings, we excused ourselves and walked away,” wrote MacCormack, who was convinced
they weren’t real Americans but KGB agents. It was simple deduction, he told Bowie: “They didn’t have a clue who you were.” That night, the crew changed out of their sailor’s uniforms into traditional costumes to play a concert for the mainly European and Japanese tourists on board the boat. They sang, danced and played balalaikas. At some point during the concert, Bowie disappeared, returning with his guitar and
MacCormack’s bongos for an impromptu show. The crew gave up the stage. Somewhere between Japan and the Soviet Union, Bowie sang “Space Oddity,” the 1969 hit that made him famous and befitted the train journey he was about to take. “For here am I sitting in a tin can far from the world Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do” The Bowie sing-a-long went down a storm with the tourists, but MacCormack thinks it was the second song that conquered the Russians. “Amsterdam” is a cover of the Jacques Brel sailor’s song, which is loosely sung to the melody of the English folk song “Greensleeves.” At the time, the lyrics would never have made it on British radio, let alone Soviet. “In the port of Amsterdam There’s a sailor who drinks And he drinks and he drinks And he drinks once again He’ll drink to the health Of the whores of Amsterdam”
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Watching the May Day parade from the Intourist hotel
The pair spent the rest of the night drinking with the Russian crew, who tapped Bowie for anything he could tell them about music and art in the West. “I left David with the prettiest of the Russian girls, whom he’d managed to completely captivate,” wrote MacCormack. 20-21
The Moscow News №32 / 20 – 26 August 2013
© GEOFF MACCORMACK
language, let alone all the words by heart. “But that didn’t seem to worry them at all. They sat with big smiles on their faces, sometimes for hours on end, listening to my music, and at the end of each song they would applaud and cheer!” Joining the two in Khabarovsk was Robert Muesul, a veteran reporter with UPI with hangdog looks, and photographer Leee Childers, whose spiked platinumblond hair and snakeskin platform boots drew plenty of looks, too. Muesel described what happened when Bowie boarded the train. “A passenger made an entrance that stopped onlookers in their
Trans-Siberian, life quickly orientated around the dining car and discussing the meager food and drink on offer. There was rubbery chicken, unrecognizable meat schnitzel and “if requested, a cereal called grechnivaya kasha guaranteed to stun the digestion of a wolverine,” wrote Muesul. As many travelers before and after, they hopped off at stops to bargain with locals for food. Or rather, Nadya and Dana did the shopping for the kimono-wearing red-haired man in first class. Bowie apparently took a shine to kefir, the fermented milk drink, and he wrote of it in his Mirabelle column. MacCormack was less keen,
‘“David Bowie” they screeched ecstatically, “on our train.” He turned their spines to jelly with a smile’
The Moscow News №32 / 20 – 26 August 2013
traveler. They got bored with the view from the window. “After seven days of constant silver birches, even Sting would have been lobbying for car park,” wrote MacCormack. They made fun of the music coming out of the train radio, often muzak Soviet covers of Beatles songs, singing “Desmond said to Molly, gull I lick ya fass,” imitating the singer’s thick accents when crooning “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da.” They almost got into a fight with drunken Russians in the dining car. As they retreated, one of the drunken Russians drew his hand across his throat in a threatening gesture, which in Russia means “Stick to the music, David.” But some things were pretty unique to their journey. One day, they looked out of the window and saw a silver wolf running alongside the train. Another time, Bowie stuck his
from station to station
head through the cabin door with a bottle of mineral water and asked if anyone had an opener. At that moment, Muesul was standing talking to a group of soldiers, one of whom had a mouth full of shiny metal teeth. Seeing Bowie’s stretched out hand, the soldier took the bottle and, “pop,” opened it with his teeth and handed it back to Bowie.
“What a terrifically clever idea this is. I am all shades of green as I didn’t think of it first. Take the two of us and pretend that we went to America, Japan and, wait for it, f–––– Russia of all places, me as a rock star and you as cheerful backing singer and sidekick and then write a book about it. Brilliant! Will you actually be able to get this stuff
*** Muesul’s article has been translated into Russian for 21st century fans of Bowie. The translator, called Miss X, adds her own commentary as the train ride heads toward Moscow. When Bowie takes a fancy to kefir, she adds in brackets, “What joy, at least our country can be proud of kefir.” After the scene with the soldier and the bottle of water, she writes “the foreign guest was so impressed by what happened that it took him another 23 years to decide to give a
Bowie was disappointed with the Trans-Siberian after the luxury of the Nakhodka-Khabarovsk train
It’s obvious that Bowie remembers the trip well. Many years later, he wrote to MacCormack about how he had read a book on the gulags which had mentioned a ship with the name Dzherzinsky – just like the one they had sailed on.
*** In Nakhodka, they transferred to a grand train, with dark wood paneling and brass fittings. At one point on the train from Nakhodka to Khabarovsk, Bowie tried to give a book on Japanese modern art to a Russian on the train. The man explained that he couldn’t accept such books, and Bowie promised to send the book by post anonymously. Who knows if he ever got it? The travelers were given communist propaganda on their arrival: the book “Marx, Engels and Lenin on Scientific Communism” and various leaflets explaining what they could and couldn’t photograph, as well as a sermon on the evils of Tom and Jerry which said the cartoon was sick,
degrading and a threat to children’s development. To back up this argument, the leaflet noted that then British-Prime Minister Edward Heath had staged a private showing of the cartoon at his country home of Chequers. It was only once they got to Khabarovsk that they realized that they weren’t actually on the Trans-Siberian Express. This fabled train was a bit of a disappointment after the grand old NakhodkaKhabarovsk train – more Formica than wood paneling, even if they were travelling in first class. In the rather sweet columns that Bowie wrote for teen magazine Mirabelle, he paints a pleasant, varnished picture of the trip, as if writing to reassure his worried aunts at home. “I could never have imagined such expanses of unspoilt, natural country without actually seeing it myself, it was like a glimpse into another age, another world, and it made a very strong impression on me. It was strange to be sitting in a train, which is the product of technology – the invention of mankind, and travelling through
land so untouched and unspoilt by man and his inventions.” More realistically, MacCormack told of how he had to run and jump onto the train after it began moving out of the station while he was buying food on a platform. “The very thought of being stuck with no ID in the wastelands of Siberia still fills me with panic, even after all these years.”
*** The two train attendants in his carriage, Danya and Nadya, were unsmiling and stern (as would you, if you were on a seven-day shift), but they melted once Bowie presented them with a soft toy he had been given in Japan. They also were given the full Bowie charm. “I used to sing songs to them, often late at night, when they had finished work. They couldn’t understand a word of English, and so that meant they couldn’t understand a word of my songs!” wrote Bowie in Mirabelle, whose readers almost certainly took an instant dislike to these women who had what they had dreamed of and didn’t even know the
tracks, as he was destined to do at most of the 91 stops to Moscow. He was tall, slender, young, hawkishly handsome with bright red (dyed) hair and dead white skin. He wore platform-soled boots and a shirt glittering with metallic thread under his blue raincoat. He carried a guitar, but two Canadian girls did not need this identifying symbol of the pop artist. “‘David Bowie” they screeched ecstatically, “on our train.” Bowie turned their spines to jelly with a smile.” There was reaction from the Russian side too, as one passenger looked at Bowie askance and said that such a thing could only happen in the decadent West. Muesul hints that Bowie had a fun time on the train, but without providing any details. Mentioning talk of Bowie’s bisexuality, he wrote, “There was nothing ambiguous about his relationships with some of the prettier girls on board, either. “My wife Angela understands,” he laughed one day.”
*** As with many travelers on the
and calls it rancid yogurt in his book. One story has Nadya and Dana coming to the rescue of Bowie and Childers after they started to take photos at one stop, only to be harassed by a man in a leather coat and dark glasses who was either KGB or a time-travelling character from “The Matrix,” who demanded the film from their camera. The provodnitsy hustled the foolish foreign pair away from the menacing man, then blocked the entrance to the train to stop him from getting onboard until the train pulled away. A less romantic version has Bowie and Childers escaping from the officious agent themselves and jumping on the train, but we dismiss this story for its lack of drama. Perhaps when the KGB archives are opened up completely, there will be a report on the strange foreigners who passed through in April 1973.
© GEOFF MACCORMACK
continued from page 19
*** So what else happened on that long, long ride from the East to the West? Much of it was the lot of any
You could never say that Bowie dressed like a Soviet citizen
concert in the mysterious Country of Kefir and Saber-Toothed Soldiers.” Bowie’s only concert in Russia took place in 1996. Looking out of the window, Bowie wondered about the poverty he saw out of the windows, the harsh winter – “I don’t understand how they live through winter” – and the woman who did much of the hard, physical labor on the railway. Most of the foreigners on the train knew who Bowie was, but an incident in Khabarovsk shows that not all Russians were ignorant of Ziggy Stardust. Childers, who joined the train in Khabarovsk, was walking in the town when kids started following him and shouting “Bowie, Bowie,” Muesul reported. “The word somehow got around that David might be there and I was the only likely-looking candidate, I suppose,” Childers said. Oleg, 57, a hippie in the 1970s, says that Bowie was known even back then, and that kids in the Far East could have been even more up to date on their pop knowledge. In Moscow, when you listened to foreign radio, you heard “zhzhzhz,” as the stations were blocked. But it was easier to hear the stations in Siberia and onwards, he said. Oleg was actually in the Amur region when Bowie trundled through on the train, but serving in the army, so he knew nothing of the kimonoed apparition that passed by. The whole experience was undoubtedly as alien for Bowie as Bowie was for the Soviet Union. “It influenced his thinking,” said Victoria Broackes, one of the
published do you think?” Geoffrey MacCormack’s “From Station to Station,” is a memoir and photo book about life on tour with David Bowie. The book, which has a foreword by Bowie, is available in a special edition, autographed by MacCormack and Bowie, from Genius Publications. Price: 295 pounds. www.genius-publications.com
MacCormack’s tour memoir
curators of the hugely successful exhibit “David Bowie Is” at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which finished earlier this month and is now touring internationally. Such train journeys allowed him to read and do lots of thinking. “He was interested in the totalitarian state. He is very interested in other cultures and their ways.” She drew pointed to his next tour, which would be influenced by George Orwell’s “1984,” saying his experiences of crossing borders and checkpoints in the Soviet Union no doubt played a role in its conception.
Gitanes, the pair were forced to smoke Russian cigarettes, Belomor Canal judging by the description, as they celebrated being off the train with “copious bottles of wine and copious lethal throat-burning Russian cigarettes.” They stared down from the windows of the Intourist Hotel on Tverskaya Ulitsa, now the RitzCarlton, at the showcase Soviet holiday, May Day, a show of strength and propaganda that makes today’s celebrations dim in comparison. After two days, they left Moscow, taking the train through western Russia, into Belarus and on to Berlin.
As the train moved toward Moscow, the people became less friendly. Emerging into the capital, the group felt their differentness. “We were every inch the freakiest show in town,” wrote MacCormack. “Everywhere we went people stared in amazement but few had the courage to approach us…” Of course, they went to Red Square, and one photo shows Bowie, an alien in a land that has no idea who he is but knows he’s not one of them. All the eyes of passersby are drawn to him, but everyone continues on their way past him – not simply ignoring him, but trying to get away from him. A visit to GUM was a big disappointment as they crashed into the grim Soviet consumer economy. The GUM cafeteria was so bad that they got up and left and Muesul, an old Moscow hand, took them to the Hotel National for a meal. Having run out of their usual
One last adventure was ahead. On arrival in East Berlin, their train attendant tried to smash their door in. It was only the arrival of scary border guards that stopped him. After being asked for visas they did not have, they met the trained aggression of an East German 1970s border guard. “We felt we could almost read their thoughts: Why should East Germany be saddled with these two pathetic degenerates. Let the West have them,” MacCormack wrote. The train rumbled on through the bleak, bombed-out ruins of the no man’s land between the communist and capitalist worlds, the two halves of the divided city. Bowie had his head out of the window as it pulled into West Berlin. He started smiling as he saw ahead on the platform, “fifteen or twenty Ziggy fans, some with painted faces and others with sequins and feather boas.”
© GEOFF MACCORMACK
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© NATALIYA PLATONOVA, OLGA KIRSANOVA
Is this Russia yet?