In 1973, David Bowie traveled to the Soviet Union. Since he was afraid to fly, he was returning from Japanese tour to England by trans-Siberian express “Vladivostok – Moscow”.
There’s an interesting article on the Moscow News website reflecting his trip through Russia. David Bowie took the trip forty years ago with his childhood friend and back-up singer Geoff MacCormack.
Here’s just a short excerpt from Kevin O’Neil’s “Space Odyssey on the Trans-Siberian: Bowie in the USSR”:
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 Nakhodka-Khabarovsk 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 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 Muesel, a veteran reporter with UPI with hangdog looks, and photographer Lee Childers, whose spiked platinum-blond hair and snakeskin platform boots drew plenty of looks, too.
Muzel described what happened when Bowie boarded the train.
“A passenger made an entrance that stopped onlookers in their 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.
Muesel 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.”