In 1982, David Bowie was the face of pop music, and when it came to sports, tennis superstar John McEnroe was his equivalent. For one night, their worlds would collide in bizarre circumstances when ‘Rebel Rebel’ brought them together – and it’s safe to say that Bowie wasn’t delighted about it.
McEnroe burst onto the scene in 1977, the same year that Bowie released Heroes and confirmed his iconoclast status. The tennis supremo entered the French Open as an amateur and reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon later that summer despite only being 18 and not even turning professional yet.
Five years on from his debut, he was no longer this plucky underdog, and McEnroe was arguably the most notorious figure in sports after his infamous outburst on the court at Wimbledon in 1981 – famously blurting out “you can not be serious” during a meltdown which captivated the mainstream media.
When he returned to the crime scene a year later, the entire sporting world was looking at McEnroe. In a bid to take his mind off the pressure, the tennis player began to practice playing the guitar. One night, he entertained himself by imitating Bowie in his hotel room, and little did he know at the time, but in the room above was the man himself, who couldn’t bring himself to hear his art being slaughtered by a stranger.
“In between rounds at Wimbledon in 1982, I struggled to learn David Bowie’s ‘Suffragette City’ and ‘Rebel, Rebel’ in my hotel flat,” McEnroe wrote in his autobiography, You Can Not Be Serious. “I heard a knock on my door. It was David Bowie. ‘Come up and have a drink,’ he told me. ‘Just don’t bring your guitar'”.
Remarkably, McEnroe’s story checks out with Bowie’s recollection of the events. However, unsurprisingly, he left out the singer’s infuriation at being kept awake before discovering exactly who it was butchering his collection of songs. “I can tell you a very funny story about that,” Bowie told Performing Songwriter. “One night, I was in London in a hotel trying to get some sleep. It was quite late, like 11 or 12 at night, and I had some big deal thing on the next day, a TV show or something, and I heard this riff being played really badly from upstairs.”
He continued, “I thought, ‘Who the hell is doing this at this time of night?’ On an electric guitar, over and over [sings riff to ‘Rebel Rebel’ in a very hesitant, stop and start way]. So I went upstairs to show the person how to play the thing (laughs).
“So I bang on the door. The door opens, and I say, ‘Listen, if you’re going to play.’ And it was John McEnroe! I kid you not (laughs). It was McEnroe, who saw himself as some sort of rock guitar player at the time. That could only happen in a movie, couldn’t it? McEnroe trying to struggle his way through the ‘Rebel Rebel’ riff.”
The chances of these two giants in their own respective fields being in the same building are already as thin as a cigarette paper, but McEnroe keeping Bowie awake thanks to his messy renditions of ‘Rebel Rebel’ reads like fiction, yet, astonishingly this took place. Unfortunately, his evening with Bowie wasn’t enough to help him get over the line, and ultimately, McEnroe lost the tournament’s final to compatriot Jimmy Connors.