While bravely fighting legions of foul washing up just now, I heard a song that took me right back to the summer of 1990. Loose-jawed and wide-eyed, standing on tip toes on a bench in an unlit room, peering out at strangely beguiling sights.
Me and a some school friends went inter-railing around Europe in the summer between school and university. We started off in France, then up to Belgium, onto The Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the longest train ride known to humanity through what was then Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy … then I had to break off and limp home via Switzerland and France cos I ran out of money.
Those were a couple of spartan days I can tell you. I had an ace up my sleeve though. A year earlier I’d been visiting my sister in Geneva and her landlady/flatmate distinctly told me that if I was ever in Geneva again, I could look her up and stay with her. Well, being a youngling with no concept of trifles like people having lives or giving advance notice of a visit, I literally just turned up at her flat and knocked the door demanding to stay there. Obviously she was horrified and politely told me to get fucked because it wasn’t convenient. Typical Swiss – all Toblerones and cuckoo clocks while the going’s good; then when the shit hits the fan, they declare neutrality and hoard all the Nazi gold.
OK that’s harsh I know – clearly I still have unresolved issues around the incident. Reflection over the intervening years has gradually revealed the truth about that day to me: how it was in fact convenient, but how the sudden advent of my unheralded handsomeness at her front door drove her temporarily insane and she lost all grip on reality and just started talking nonsense. It’s the only explanation. I’ll forgive her. If she sends me my body weight in Toblerones.
Anyway let’s just say I had to give a lot of tramps a lot of handjobs before I made it back to England. Not for money you understand – it just felt like the right thing to do. I remember buying an apple, bread and cheese, and having to make it last a long old time. I also remember sleeping rough in the Gare Du Nord in Paris one night. You’d probably get shot dead as a terrorist now if you pulled that. I also unwittingly teamed up with an alcoholic madman on board a train to Boulogne in exchange for one of his cans of Heineken. Unfortunately this meant that I had to stand back-to-back with him and fight off hordes of angry passengers and railway officials when he started blasting his loud accordion cassette all over the train and refused to switch it off. Fuck that was awkward. Ironically, the ensuing brouhaha neutralised any good effects I got from the Heineken.
I told myself I was a bohemian adventurer living on my wits rather than a behemoth tit who’d fucked up his holiday by failing to budget even close to correctly. The painful part is I think I took ample supplies of money with me. Mind you those French tramps drive a hard bargain.
Anyway despite the crazy Dunkirk style ending to the holiday, I’ve got to say it was one of the most fun and extraordinary holidays I’ve ever had.
By that time, inter-railing had become a bit of an established pilgrimage among young people throughout Europe and even further a field; much like the Way of Santiago de Compostela seems to be now. Though lacking any religious component and being more of a hedonistic magical mystery tour.
As such, various services and facilities aimed at the weary teen pilgrim had sprung up in the various nodes that made up the many routes. In Munich I distinctly recall sleeping in an old circus big top that was now cynically rented out as cheap accommodation. They made no effort whatsoever to make that place nice. You literally walked into a massive open tent and slept on the floor with random people next to you.
In Copenhagen, we travelled out of town some ways until we arrived at the Danish national football stadium – which I think was designed by the same architects who did The Borg Cube and The Death Star. Minimalist and bleak albeit functional.
Slap bang next door was our accommodation for the night – a disused ice rink that had been neatly partitioned off into little pseudo-rooms. So they weren’t really rooms at all cos they had no doors and there was no ceiling atop the partitions. But still, with a bunk bed each and the illusion of privacy, it was the lap of luxury compared to anarchists’ circus tent. Once we had de-journified and ditched our stuff, we meandered outside for a bottle or twelve of beer(you may start to piece together where my budgetary deficit crept in at this point).
So anyway we’re sitting there sinking a couple of cold ones, and Danish party people start flooding past into the stadium. At some point the Mexican wave of whispers made it to our table: David Bowie was playing the football stadium that evening as part of his Sound and Vision tour. Wow – this was super-duper exciting. I wasn’t a massive Bowie fan but he was huge and my sister liked him. It was just a big deal any way you looked at it. So even though we were denied a view of the stage by the scary thousand foot high concrete stadium walls, we still rubbed our hands at the prospect of hearing a free Bowie concert.
The music started and we tried to pick out the Bowie tracks we recognised, while all claiming to be massive Bowie fans and straining for Bowie-cisms to regale each other with. A bit like after Bowie died and all the usual emotion vampires came out of the woodwork to stake a claim in the fanhood cake with some poignant Youtube comment like “RIP Star Man”. Oh shit wait, maybe that’s what I wrote?
Aaaaaaaaanyway, so I got up at some point to splash my boots and grab us some more thimblefuls of beer, and I noticed an open awning window high up in a disused room adjoining the toilet. There was no-one around so I went in and climbed up onto the bench under the window. I got up on tip toes so I could get a good view out of the window. Two life altering sights graced my eyes:
- Through a big vertical split between the stands nearest the ice rink, I could just make out a little luminous man up on the stage at the far end of the stadium, dancing in a most peculiar way.
- After watching Bowie do his weird 80s dancing a while, my focus was pulled sharply back to some movement by the chicken wire fence dividing the ice rink and the stadium. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, it became apparent that girls were scurrying back and forth between the stadium and the fence to have a pee. It looked like a trail of ants raiding a picnic table. Presumably there was a gig-ruining queue for the women’s toilet inside the stadium so they were taking matters into their own hands.
I was rather inexperienced with women at this point and was thusly quite discombobulated by the sight of a train of young women lifting their skirts up, pulling their knickers down, and crouching down right in front of me. As for this extra weeing element, I didn’t know what the hell I was even supposed to do with that.
While it was too dark to really make any kind of detail out, it was pretty obvious what they were doing and my mind filled in the blanks with a terrible thoroughness.
As a jamming session between sexual arousal, taboo and toilet wrongness kicked off in my mind, I took the opportunity to go and fetch the others. No, not to see the weeing girls your honour! Though it would’ve been a betrayal to low hanging fruit(no pun intended(errr!)) not to mention it to them. So we went back into the room and took turns climbing up and looking out at the Bowie/wee peep show double until we were thoroughly Bowied out and our sexual wiring had been violated beyond repair.
I went off Bowie for a good while after that, even having a drunken argument with a friend’s mother about how he was over-rated. Turned out she was some kind of rampant Bowie old guard fan and I thought she was going to tear my face off. I hadn’t even got enough to go on to form an opinion at that point though to be fair. I think I’d got a little hung up on his clean-cut 80s image and a couple of unfortunate soundbites I’d stumbled on. I subconsciously filled in the gaps and concluded he was a supercilious poser.
I only saw the error of my ways years later in the early to mid 00’s when I started “procuring” a lot of old music that I couldn’t afford to buy in my youth. I quickly felt like a bit of an arse for my earlier anti-Bowie stance and fell in love with a few of his songs – Changes, Life on Mars, Golden Years, Sound and Vision, Queen Bitch, Absolute Beginners, The Man Who Sold the World, Sorrow, Modern Love. Too many to list really. I also caught a few interviews with him on the WWW and it turned out he wasn’t the pretentious arsehole I had him pegged as after all. I even kinda dug where he was coming from on a few sociopolitical issues.
Now, I’m relieved I re-found him and his music before he left us. Not so I could leave some feigned sincerity underneath a Youtube video. But to bring everything full circle so I could say goodbye to him properly when the time came.
I’ll leave you with the song behind the eponymous 1990 Sound and Vision tour: