Between February and May 1973, David Bowie traveled around the world. This was a necessary evil for a man who was afraid of flying, but who at the same time needed to get to the USA and Japan for some gigs. To do so he made an entire loop of the Earth crossing the Atlantic by ship, then toured his way across the USA by bus and train, then crossed the Pacific by ship. After a tour in Japan he then took a boat to Vladivostok where he boarded the trans siberian train that brought him all the way back to Europe again.
Aviophobia or Aviatophobia- Fear of flying
Bowie’s circumstantial round-the-world trip was triggered by his severe fear of flying. For five years, from fall 1972 to spring 1977, David Bowie didn’t fly at all, which made his touring unusual.
“Can’t do it,” David quaked when a jet was suggested. “If it flies, it’s death.”
“I won’t fly, Bowie said “because I’ve had a premonition I’ll be killed in a plane crash if I do. If nothing happens by 1976 I’ll start to fly again.
Since Bowie wouldn’t fly he took ocean liners and trains, buses and cars. And spent a hell of a lot of time in them.
In the fall of 1972 when Bowie slowly got popular in the USA he toured the country for 83 days. In those 83 days 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 – In total well over 15,000 miles.
To and around the USA
In 1973 – with Bowie’s status in the USA raised to superstar – he wanted to visit the USA for his Aladdin Sane tour. To do so he decided to cross the Atlantic by ship on the SS Canberra.
Accompanying Bowie on this voyage was his friend and Spider from Mars Geoff MacCormack.
Bowie and I boarded the SS Canberra at the end of January 1973. I’d only previously travelled on ferries crossing the English channel. The SS Canberra was something else. She towered above us like some giant wedding cake and this mode of travel made what was for me a fantasy journey even more surreal.
Cruising to New York took about a week. Nobody really took much notice of Bowie, apart from a couple of swooning gay hairdressers; they were far too old to know anything about him. The journey was long and languorous; suffice to say, after a while afternoon tea was an occasion to be looked forward to.
In America he then toured around between gigs by bus and train.
Here’s a map, modified from an Amtrak brochure, showing the train routes from that time and which routes Bowie traveled.
The Japan tour
When Bowie finished his US Aladdin Sane tour in March 1973, Rather than returning to NYC after playing the Hollywood Palladium, Bowie sailed to Japan, crossing the Pacific on the SS Oronsay.
Having completed the US, David and I had the delightful problem of getting from LA to Japan. This meant criss-crossing the North Pacific on one of P&O’s finest, the SS Oronsay. Not as grand as the SS Canberra – smaller, older and shabbier – we rechristened her the Old Rancid.
After he finished his Japan tour, Bowie had two options to get home to England: repeat the ocean crossings and the transcontinental train trip across America, or to head eastwards across Siberia to Moscow, and then to Paris, and then home, effectively traveling around the world. And that’s exactly what he did.
The Transsiberian Railway
“I won’t fly, he said but I love trains and I’d probably take this Transsiberian train ride anyway, it’s supposed to be the greatest of them all.”
The Ziggy Stardust Companion recounts the transsiberian story:
A short boat ride from Japan to Russia couldn’t dampen his exuberant mood, but his spirited pranks were quickly frozen solid by a gloomy Siberian train ride that would convince David the world was doomed if communist Russia was a taste of the future…and cause him to mutter pessimistically, “I’ve seen life, and I think I know who’s controlling this damned world.” The long distance journey started out on a high note when David boarded the famous Trans-Siberian Express in the Russian town of Nakotka for an eight day trip towards Moscow.
Upon entering his sleeping car with its ornate golden mirrors and polished wood walls, David announced, “Gee, this isn’t so bad,” but the depressing realities of Russian life were waiting just down the railroad tracks. VIPs like himself, David soon realized, stayed in luxurious “soft-class” cars. But just down the line, native Russians were forced to cluster in crowded compartments with no place to sleep except for hard wooden benches that made Hindu nail-beds feel like downy pillows.
The railroad attendants assigned to David’s plush car were two burly young women who looked like they had never cracked a smile in their lives. Dressed in masculine navy blue uniforms, they were a frightening sight to the slender Englishman until he discovered that both were ardent Ziggy Stardust fans! The two would-be Russian rock and rollers took an instant liking to the grinning carrot-topped celebrity, keeping David cool on the tedious trip by serving him hundreds of glasses of tea in carved-silver holders.
But, like the poor Russians in the next car who existed only on raw eggs congealing on hot plates, the world that passed by the windows of David’s sleeping car was a sharp contrast to the ornate glitter that ensconced him inside. As the train traveled west the infrequent smiling faces of the Russian people evaporated into the chilled Siberian air. Ramshackle towns rushing by David’s window turned grayer and the countryside more barren. Soot infested everything, and even David’s posh sleeping car afforded no way of washing. He began to think about changing his name to Ziggy Sootdust.
At night, as the train chugged through the Siberian mountains, David’s depression kept him tossing restlessly in bed. And just when he was finally able to drop off to deep, the diesel train engine was exchanged for a steam engine which literally shook him out of bed. “Isn’t train travel fun?” he sarcastically asked everyone.
The seemingly endless journey screeched to a halt every fifteen minutes in shanty towns where the poverty stricken peasants fought to get a look at the dazzling young rock star from the West. Yet even David, who thought naught of displaying his loins in Japan, self-consciously shied away from the curious natives. “If we had a war with Russia,” he confessed to personal photographer Leee Black Childers, “they’d win. They are already living on war rations.”
But the most harrowing moment hit David like a scene from a futuristic horror film a Ia 1984. David gratefully eased himself off the train for the first time in the dingy town of Sverslovsk. Photographer Childers playfully posed him against the grim surroundings. Suddenly, two uniformed guards appeared from the shadows and viciously began dragging the shaking photographer away. Our lad insane grabbed his own camera and started to film the entire event! Quickly the dynamic duo were hustled back to their train-barely escaping military arrest.
After the eighth day of torturous travel, the Bowie caravan arrived in Moscow on May Day to confront an awesome celebration of Russian military might. The city of Moscow had been arranged in fifty concentric circles of security guards with only communist party members allowed to enter the inner circle. David’s hotel was located in the second circle, but the walled “celebration” he saw froth his window only terrified him as thousands of young people marched below carrying pictures of Lenin and banners of muscular field workers.
Even the so-called highlight of Bowie’s Moscow blitz visit to Gum’s department store, the largest single store in all of Russia proved a shocking disappointment. The aisles and counters were barren except for simple necessities like soap and under-wear. “They take everything away from you,” David whispered as he wandered up and down the aisles looking for presents for friends back ho,e, “and by the time you get one little chocolate bar, you hoard it like a treasure.”
Berlin, Paris and home in the UK
From Moscow, Bowie took another train to Paris with a stop in Berlin.
“By the time I got to Berlin, I was calling it the ‘free world’ and really meaning it,” he added. Yet even the comparative gaiety of beer-drinking Berlin couldn’t dispel David’s Russian-induced depression. “I just want bloody well to go home and watch the telly,” he confessed to his wife, Angie, on their way home to Beckenham, England. “After what I’ve seen of this world, I’ve never been so damned scared in my life.”
In Paris he missed the train that would have taken him to Victoria Station (“‘Seven thousand miles,” says David smiling and very, very fresh, ‘and we miss the bleedin’ train on the last leg. From Japan to Paris and we miss the train.’”) Instead, he took one that involved a hovercraft trip to Dover — but only reluctantly, for even a hovercraft seemed too much like flight to him.
On the final leg of his RTW trip home, he told Roy Hollingsworth of Melody Maker:
“‘after what I’ve seen of the state of this world, I’ve never been so damned scared in my life.’ ‘
When Hollingsworth asked him “Are you going to write music about it?” Bowie replied with “If I did write about it, it would be my last album ever.’ ‘You mean what?’ ‘It would have to be my last album ever.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Because I don’t think I’d be around after recording it.’”
A kickass trip indeed and that just because he didn’t feel like flying.