Bowie was on the Serious Moonlight World Tour, one of his biggest and most successful. The final two nights of the tour were in Hong Kong, in the colossal Coliseum. My HK Philharmonic was the accompanying orchestra on stage. I had only recently arrived in the city the previous September, freshly out of my Graduate Degree at Indiana University School of Music, and beyond thrilled to take on my first permanent professional orchestral job.
Hong Kong in the early '80s was cacophony- a riot of neon, skyscrapers, shoulder pads, bustle, traffic, the best cuisine on the planet, night markets, obscene assaults of color, sound, smells, bodies and energy. Hong Kong was relentless, yet perfect for my wide-eyed 22 years of eagerness. I relished the new shock of every sensation the city and my job had to offer- I was independent, proud, and ALIVE!
Imagine, then, my astounded reaction when I learned that we select musicians would be accompanying the Icon at the conclusion of his World Tour. Speechless? Yes. In Awe? Yes.
We arrived at the Coliseum on the afternoon of his first performance, ready for rehearsal. We loved seeing the all-white grand piano on stage. The members of Bowie's touring band, who we were supporting by adding the strings, winds, and brass sections, greeted us. I was star-struck and the Man himself wasn't even on stage yet! Would he even appear? Maybe the band would just take us through the set order and the changes. That was not uncommon for artists of Bowie's stature. Then he could have appeared only at the Show, and the fans would be none the wiser. But- No! There he was!
Laughter erupted from a seat in the cavernous auditorium. It was HIM! David leapt up to the stage, swinging up on his arms and skipping the stage stairs. Dressed impeccably in a pure white suit, hair bleached and coiffed, grinning and eyes twinkling. In his oh-so-English accent, he said hello. He thanked us for being a part of this historic tour. He sat at the piano and motioned to begin. As we struck the opening chords, "Scary Monsters", something was not to his liking. He stopped us, and began schooling us, ever-so-politely, in what effect he wanted. Oh my! It dawned on me that he must have Perfect Pitch. He was plucking obscure notes out of the air, time after time, without first referencing his pitch on the piano. He never missed or dropped a note. I too, have perfect pitch. It is s blessing and a curse! It means if I am reading a score and it is being played in a different key than what is notated, I go crazy!
Anyway, noting that Bowie was so incredibly musical when singing live (because the recording studio can famously hide a multitude of musical sins), I vowed to myself that I would somehow pluck up the courage to say hello and thank you right back to him at the break.
I did not know if my idea would work, as it is all-too-customary for famous artists of any genre to disappear in hiding to the Green Room as soon as there is a break in rehearsal. Sometimes artists are whisked away by their minders or agents.
December 7, 1983, was however my lucky day. The conductor left the stage for a tea break. Bowie stayed right where he was- at his piano.
I sidled sideways towards him, not wanting the embarrassment of rebuttal so trying to make my approach random. I must have been a sight! What ELSE could I have possibly been heading towards? The podium next to the piano?
Bowie smiled. He smiled AT ME. OH MY GOD!
He patted the spot next to him on the piano stool. "Come- sit and join me- I'm too tired to get up!"
I went through the motions as any 22 year old in shock might do. There I was. David Bowie and I were- well, "cheek to cheek"!
I said "hello" and he told me he loved the violin, as an instrument, which I was clutching. My knuckles were red from squeezing it so hard! He said he loved the sound of the violin but instead, at his Boy's Grammar School in England, been made to learn the flute. Having been an excellent choir boy,
he later took up sax and piano.
"Excuse me, Sir, but I believe you have perfect pitch"! "Yes, you must too, to be able to tell! Looks like you and I were not destined for the Cricket Pitch"! He chuckled at his joke. I sat frozen. Did he notice? What will my Mother say when I tell her?
It is a strange sensation, when one is so close to a famous celebrity, what odd mannerisms we adopt. I have met many other celebrities in my life, and over the years have learned (only slightly) how to relax and be more natural. But that day I know Mr. Bowie's gracious charm and gentle manner won me over completely. The best thing, that stands out in my mind even today, is that not once did he make me feel uneasy or out of place. He never made me feel inferior. I was his musical colleague on stage, and no matter I was green and young, I was treated with such polite kindness.
We continued chatting until gradually, my fellow musicians trickled back on stage. Bowie asked me about my home in Georgia, and how I liked new life in HK. "We have more than music in common, Leigh- you see, I share your love affair with all things Asian." "Cherish this time of your youth and your musical journey. You have already embraced life by coming here to a new job on the other side of the world. Live it- Love it-Enjoy It." I asked him how he liked the Touring Life. He responded- and I will never forget it- that "Tours are not about fame and fortune. Tours are chances to take our art- our love of music- to the people. We would be nothing without the people. If we cannot be human with them, why would we expect them to buy our albums, attend our concerts? I love interaction. I love people. " I also was amazed at his humility, in including me in his sentiments, by saying "our" and "we". As in "we musicians". That was the gift Bowie had. It was obvious why he was so popular. Artistry, consummate musicianship, compassion, and that bright spark.
That's it. And then, in a flash, I was back near the front of the First Violins. My stand partner poked me with her bow and gasped. "Oh my! What was he like? We had no idea he would stay on stage and that anyone could TALK to him!"
"What was he like"? I responded- "A complete gentleman- and funny too. "
We played two shows together. I'm sure I played all my notes brighter and better since our chance meeting. I was on cloud nine. On the second night. backstage, David gave me a big hug.
I didn't faint. But I shook all the way home!
I wanted to tell my story immediately after I learned the news of his death, but have had to wait until my pain from surgery subsided. I have been resting at home and recovering, and started thinking about those memories of sharing a stage with him. I remembered that his tour managers made a short film about his trip to Hong Kong- and, after a quick Google search, I found the film!
The film is eclectic and kinky and magic- just like Bowie. It somehow captures the essence of HK in the 80's, and evidently Bowie wanted the short film made to document his deep joy of the city and the culture and the people of HK. If you have a spare 15 minutes, enjoy. I loved it, as it brought a flood of memories of a great city - my fav on earth- at a great time.
You can just spot me, there on stage in his final show, as Bowie raises his blonde tresses skywards and starts the first few notes of his tribute and thank you to Hong Kong- his rendition of "China Girl".
I'm near the very end of this short film. I'm on the left in the violin section - the blonde glint of my hair is visible as I play my heart out in the spotlights as the camera pans out wide angle. I also found a better clip of the orchestra, when Bowie sings Lennon's "Imagine" in tribute. I'll post that clip in the comments section.
Bowie you were great. Bravo forever!