Thursday, May 24, 2007

The man who saw the world

By Kevin Young
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Geoff MacCormack gained a rare insight into life on the road with an international rock star as a backing singer and percussionist for David Bowie during the 1970s.

David Bowie and Geoff MacCormack
David Jones, as he was then, and Geoff MacCormack met at school
They were childhood friends, listening to 78rpm records together as nine-year-olds.

And during his three years with his schoolmate's band, The Spiders, life for MacCormack really was on the road - or on trains or boats - because Bowie refused to fly.

Now he has published a plush coffee-table book, a photographic record of the extended periods they spent together from 1973 to 1976.

"It was kind of a huge leap but it was like being invited to a party. The party went on for three years. Sometimes you'd go home and wash - and then go back to the party.

"Being a naive kind of person, I didn't ask what it was going to be like. I just went and did it," he says.

"They were wild times but the point of it was not just being invited to go on the road, but getting to these places by ship or whatever. That was a complete bonus."

'Devil's music'

He had come from a musical family, with a jazz-loving brother and a sister who was into pop.

I used to drive down in the Emperor Rosko roadshow truck to see David in concert
Geoff MacCormack on the early 1970s

His mother preferred classical music and could not understand the appeal of the hits of the day, he says.

"David and I listened to Screaming Jay Hawkins' I Put a Spell on You. I played that at home and my mother asked me to take it off. She actually thought it was the devil's music. But I knew better!"

After school, he and Bowie went their separate ways but continued to "slip in and out of each other's lives".

"For a while I was working for a wonderful DJ called Emperor Rosko. He thought I was a great singer, because I used to sing his jingles for him on the radio, and he wanted to manage me.

"I used to drive down in the Emperor Rosko roadshow truck to see David in concert.

'Totally surreal'

David Bowie
Young Americans was among the albums recorded during this period
"My girlfriend at the time used to take armfuls of clothes down, with ideas for the band, and so we got back together at the time of The Man Who Sold the World."

The rock star lifestyle meant he would also regularly bump into stars such as John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen or Elizabeth Taylor, but they were "just other people at the party, really", he insists.

"When you consider that the whole of Bowie's management staff were taken from Andy Warhol's troup of actors, it was totally surreal. Just about everything was a fantasy."

He describes Bowie as "a really fabulous guy" who has always been "great value, very funny".

I'd be photographing out of boredom. And I like the fact that some of them look a little scrappy
Geoff MacCormack on his pictures of life on the road

And touring around countries such as the United States, Japan and the USSR gave him plenty of opportunities to record their friendship with his camera, although he concedes this was done "in more of a holiday-snap way, not because I thought it was something historic".

"I'd be photographing out of boredom. And I like the fact that some of them look a little scrappy," he says of the images.

These document events as diverse as Bowie wearing only his underwear while playing to adoring fans in Tokyo, meeting Russian villagers after stepping off the Trans-Siberian Railway or the filming The Man Who Fell to Earth in New Mexico.

A chest at his mother's house held these memories for 30 years. "I'm not much of a hoarder - I'm always being told off by my wife for throwing things out - so I'm really delighted that I decided to keep those things."

Favourite song

Playing with Bowie - "a gift" which made him a "much more adventurous" young man, he says - came to an end in 1976 when the star heralded a new era with a new band.

The pair have stayed in touch, however.

David Bowie and Geoff MacCormack
Bowie wore painful "alien" eyes to film The Man Who Fell to Earth
"He would come to my house and have Sunday lunch or he would phone - he rang a few weeks ago to say how lovely the book was. I did a reading at his wedding, which was scary!"

And McCormack's favourite Bowie song?

"I really don't know - I've thought about that one. I mean, I loved Heroes, which is a wonderful track.

"But then he came out on stage last time I saw him with just [pianist] Mike Garson and he sang Life on Mars, which was a 'tingles down the back' moment."

As that song goes, McCormack's three years with Bowie seem to have been "the freakiest show" - but it's clear that he had the time of his life.

Geoff McCormack's book, Station to Station: Travels with Bowie 1973-76, is on sale now via Genesis Publications.

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