Bowie by Land, Bowie by Sea

For five years, from fall 1972 to spring 1977,  David Bowie didn’t fly, which made his touring unusual. He took ocean liners and trains, buses and cars. By mid-1972, Bowie was a star in the UK, but a virtual unknown in much of the US. While Carnegie Hall sold out, only 180 people showed up in St. Louis, 400 in Seattle, and 200 in Phoenix during the first months of the September 17 to December 10, 1972 tour. But by November 25th and 26th, Ziggy and the Spiders from Mars played to 10,000  fans two nights running —  in Cleveland.

Still, I think in the early days it must have taken more nerve to refuse to fly than flying itself requires.

In 83 days that fall Bowie traveled from New York to Memphis and back to NYC, down to DC and up to Boston, over to Chicago and out to LA , then up to Seattle and down to Phoenix, way down to Ft. Lauderdale and back up to Nashville, then down to New Orleans, then up to Cleveland, then over to Philly before returning to NYC — and that list accounts for maybe a third at most of their stops —  well over 15,000 miles. I’m already exhausted from adding it up.

Sept. to Dec. 1972: Fifteen Thousand Plus Land Miles

But that is what Bowie did.

I’ve read that a particularly harrowing flight between Cyprus and London is what scared him off flying, but I don’t know when that occurred. The first time he came to the US for contract negotiations in February 1971, he flew. Here’s a picture of his far-from-glam first night in the US.  Then in June 1972 he flew over from London to see Elvis play Madison Square Garden:

“[Elvis] was a major hero of mine. And I was probably stupid enough to believe that having the same birthday as him actually meant something. I came over for a long weekend. I remember coming straight from the airport and walking into Madison Square Garden very late. I was wearing all my clobber from the Ziggy period and had great seats near the front. The whole place just turned to look at me and I felt like a right idiot. I had brilliant red hair, some huge padded space suit and those red boots with big black soles. I wished I’d gone for something quiet, because I must have registered with him. He was well into his set.”

And that was his last flight until early March 1977  when he flew to New York for Iggy Pop’s US tour:

“I flew for the first time in five or six years. I think the airplane is really a wonderful invention.”

By the 1983 Serious Moonlight tour, Bowie had a customized 707.

After his daughter was born in 2000 and especially after the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, Bowie again became a very reluctant air traveller.

Richard Wallace’s June 29, 2002, Daily Mirror interview notes that

“Bowie, 55, is in Britain for his first live show in two years after a stately five-day voyage from New York aboard the QE2 (he hates flying and welcomed the chance to watch a pile of obscure black-and-white European and Japanese movies on DVD).”

Later that summer, the question of flying came up on Charles Wooley’s talk show:

  • Wooley: How did you get here? How did you get to Paris if you don’t like flying?
  • Bowie: I got the train, mate.
  • Wooley:What do you feel as the plane takes off?
  • Bowie: Oh, terror.
  • Wooley: You know the actuarial figures; you’re a businessman these days.
  • Bowie: I know, I know.
  • Wooley: You know that it’s safer to get in a plane than to drive a taxi across town.
  • Bowie: I know. Isn’t it ridiculous? It’s absolutely ridiculous. I guess with, you know, the confluence of recent events have really sort of indicated to me that if I’ve got the chance to take the boat then I will.

This would have been for the Heathen tour.

On the Reality tour, Bowie flew: in Scandinavia, Gail Ann Dorsey noted in a diary for The Mirror that

“so far, David has been dealing with our little charter plane fairly well. He has always hated flying ever since I’ve known him.”

When they could, Bowie and band took the bus through long stretches of the American West. But when your tour includes Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, and Europe as well, there must have been a good deal of flying.

The Reality tour ended abruptly when Bowie, who first thought he had pinched a nerve in his shoulder, ended up having emergency surgery to fix an acutely blocked artery in Germany.

Two weeks later he was back home in NYC. The Bowie machine does an excellent job of closing off access and flying below the radar; Bowie has a keen sense of what is private, and his people are loyal. So we don’t know, and of course don’t need to know, how he got home, by boat or by plane.

Still, I like to think it was aboard a luxury liner, Iman and Lexi beside him.


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