(In 2004 I played at the Isle of Wight festival early Sunday afternoon. The Who had played the night before and David Bowie closed the weekend later on that night. Here was my blog from that time, starting from after my performance.)
I suppose I should have stuck around and watched the Charlatans, who I heard were really good. We heard a little bit of the band after me, the Delays. We thought it was a woman singing. Then we realized it was a guy.
If I had stuck around and eaten in the catering tent, I would have seen David Bowie and Gerry and hung with them, which would have been fun. I forgot we even had catering, and instead I made the bad call to walk into town, remembering with some queasiness the concession stands the day before. Someone said I could get MacDonalds for Ruby in town, so off we went.
I didn’t see him this time, but I had met Bowie once before. It was a couple of years ago, right after Gerry started playing with him. Gerry Leonard was my guitarist from 2000 -2002. I met him through Rupert Hine and he played all the guitar parts on Songs In Red and Gray. He really proved himself when I broke my arm just a few days before 9/11/01, and we decided we would continue with the tour in spite of the fact that the world was falling apart. He played all his guitar parts and mine, and I really relied on him during this time.
Sometime in 2002 he was hired by Bowie, so he recommended Billy Masters to take his place. Bowie was playing Jones Beach, so we went to see the show. To be honest I was not a fan at that time. I was going more to see Gerry. I had dim memories of the Bowie freaks in high school with dyed red hair dressed in Spandex singing “Spiders From Mars” and I could not relate. I was into Bob Dylan. Glynn was amused. “What do you mean you are NOT a FAN?” he said. “How can you NOT like DAVID BOWIE?” “Whatever!” I said, prepared to go and shout “Gerry!” through the whole performance.
However, Bowie walked onto the stage at Jones Beach in the pouring rain, and smiled. That’s all he had to do. My mouth fell open and I was charmed. Before I knew it I was up screaming and dancing and singing in spite of being soaked to the bone, with Glynn laughing at me. There was a big sign saying “Bowie” in lights behind him, and his persona was one part vaudeville entertainer and one part pure rock star. He never got to finish the show because the lightning was crackling around him and rain was pouring onto the stage, but he sang “Heroes” and we all sang with him.
I loved everything about it, the music, the way he dressed, the spectacle, the fact that we all knew so many songs. He joked about being from New York. He smiled at us like he wished he could continue with the show, but he couldn’t, he had to go, and he loomed heroically from the stage with the rain and lightning snapping around him like he was a force of nature.
After a huge hassle with security (“I am playing here in 2 weeks! No, really I am! I’m opening for Jethro Tull! See, here’s my name on this poster and everything!”) we finally got backstage with some help from Gerry, and Pam, his beautiful ethereal girlfriend (now his wife). We stood there stunned, trying to adjust to the backstage gloom and saying hello to all these people I knew, the drummer Sterling Campbell who is a friend of Anton Sanko’s, Mark Plati who helped me with the Vigil project.
Suddenly Gerry came toward me and said “David would like to meet you.” I looked up and here was David Bowie. He had changed into a creamy linen suit from his wet stage clothes. He looked at me, smiled and said, extending his hand to me,
“Suzanne Vega! Finally we meet after all these years!”
The words reverberated in my head for a few seconds afterwards. You mean, he not only knew my name, but had been thinking about me for years somehow? How could that be? Unfortunately I said the first thing that sprang into my mind.
“You’ve seen the poster in John Gidding’s bathroom?” I wondered out loud.
I knew that Giddings was Bowie’s agent, and my name was on one of the posters in the bathroom of the Solo office. Fortunately I pulled myself together and told him what a magnificent show it was, how much we enjoyed it, how great Gerry was.
“When he’s not yours, he’s mine!” I said, feeling bold. Ruby was nearby, reading The Hobbit, and Bowie gently drew her out of herself, speaking to her about books, and how wonderful they are, they’ll really take you places.
After a minute he excused himself. “If you’ll excuse me, I must go see my wife, as we have guests” and he sailed off to the beautiful Iman, who was in a dressing room somewhere. He could not have been more gracious.
But here we are now, in June of 2004, back at the Isle of Wight, walking into the ghostly town while everyone else is back at the catering tent. We stopped into one restaurant and they told us they couldn’t serve us, they had run out of food. We walked down the main street and up a back street looking for chicken nuggets for Ruby. Finally we saw the MacDonalds and bought 20 chicken nuggets so she would have food on the long triptomorrow.
We stopped into the pub next door where the sour faced matron shouted at us because of the MacDonald’s food.
Glynn said “Do you actually have food? Other restaurants have run out.”
She snapped, “They’re the lucky ones then!” I guess the locals have to get used to the idea of hordes descending upon them for this festival.
We ate there, and got back in time to see some of the football game broadcast into the big field. England lost, and this cast a gloomy shadow on the crowd. I peeked through the fence to see what the crowd was doing. Security ran forward. “Miss Vega, I wouldn’t do that if I were you!” You’ll see why in a minute.
They tested the PA system by playing the band Crowded House, which was produced by my ex-husband Mitchell Froom. I was behind the barricades at this point, talking to Missy of the Mooncusser film crew, having a nostalgic moment, listening to my ex-husband’s production, when suddenly the sound of gushing liquid made a racket over my voice.
I turned around to see an arc of pee, cheerfully flying through the air where I had stood seconds before. This was joined by another and then another, so all nostalgia was dispelled, while Missy and I shrieked with laughter and ran back to the bus. Honestly, gentlemen, if you must poke your penis through a fence, consider who may be on the other side!!
As we walked to the Nokia VIP lounge to see Bowie’s performance, Jackie the babysitter and I discussed who was more famous, David Bowie or the Who. I said I thought Bowie was more famous at this point in time, as he has continued to make albums that are contemporary. Not that the Who haven’t, but Bowie is more known for it.
She said, “At least I’ve heard of the Who!”
“You have never heard of David Bowie?” I asked her.
“No!” she said, and I told her she probably knew some of the music but never knew who it was.
Jackie is a 21 year old elfin black girl from North Carolina with a merry intelligence. She has a great combination of social wit and banter and serious introspection in her personality. She has been on tour with us as Ruby’s babysitter for several years now.
Bowie’s onstage film begins with a cartoon of Gerry playing, and so the show began.
“Gerry!” I shouted.
He began the set with “Rebel Rebel” and Jackie’s eyes lit up.
“That was great!” she said. “He’s so cool! What a great energy!!” We talked about he old he was — mid fifties?
“I don’t care how old he is! I’d date him!” she shouted. It was great to see her so excited.
I said, “You see these 35,000 people? They feel the same way.” I told Ruby and Jackie they had to go to bed after half an hour. When “Under Pressure” began, Jackie came running back breathlessly.
“I know this one!!” she said.
“Of course you do,” I said.
He was in great form. He was more coquettish than I had seen him previously, more feminine in his gestures for part of the show. At one point he swung his hips from side to side with his feet wide apart, grinning at the audience like a naughty schoolgirl. Older women in the crowd were shouting “I’d have him now!” according to Dougie.
When I tried the gesture later in front of the hotel room mirror, I realized a woman would have had some undulation in it but he was all perfectly straight legs and hips. He was both masculine and feminine, aristocratic and working class, human and alien, introspective and wild extrovert; he worked the whole range of what it’s possible to be onstage. Tough and vulnerable, funny and serious and tragic.
At one point he said “Because of all the cows in the neighboring fields, you must NOT sing with me on this one as it will disturb them…” then burst into “All The Young Dudes” which of course we all shouted along with. “All the young DU-U-U-DES, carry the N-E-W-W-WS…, etc.”
“I told you NOT to sing!” he mock scolded us afterwards as thought we were children and he was our babysitting uncle. “And it was going so well, too! Oh well, goodnight”, he said, pretending to leave, while we giggled. I loved him for this very human bit of teasing. I like him so much more now than when he was Ziggy Stardust and all that. A very seductive evening.
The sound was great, deeper and richer than the Who’s sound (I knew because I was right near Glynn who kept up a running commentary comparing the two nights.) Afterwards we ran into Pete Keppler, Bowie’s sound guy who seemed depressed for some reason. Later I learned that the band had felt it was an off night. But from the audiences perspective, we were thrilled.
The only thing that was really odd was the video display which had been so tight for the Who. Watching the Who’s video display was like watching TV, you could see everything, details, expressions, articles of clothing, different angles. Bowie’s was one midpoint angle which never changed and they seemed to be having technical difficulties. It was frustrating because he is beautiful to look at, and yet we couldn’t really see him.
Within a week or two we would learn that Bowie had canceled the rest of his tour, supposedly due to a pinched nerve, but what turned out to be heart surgery, similar to what happened to Glynn experienced last year. Right now there was no hint of that happening, he was effervescent and dynamic as ever. The papers agreed as with the Who.
Right before the end of the show, fireworks started going off, which seemed only fitting, as it had been a glorious weekend. We watched the fireworks and I felt happy for Giddings the promoter – his favorite bands had come to his own festival, and it felt like a huge birthday party, or something. I stood on the Nokia balcony and watched the throngs of people leaving and all the garbage strewn everywhere in the pale spotlights.