Of all the many photographs taken of David Bowie throughout his career, perhaps my favourites are those taken after a gig in Sydney in 1983. They are understated black and white shots in which Bowie, deep into his “I’m just a normal guy” phase, wears a loose shirt and trousers; his hair a striking bleached-blond. And next to him, occasionally rolling a cigarette, occasionally laughing with a broad smile, is Richard Butler, the intoxicating frontman of one of the UK’s foremost post-punk bands, The Psychedelic Furs.
Those of you who don’t think you know The Psychedelic Furs probably do without realising. Their song ‘Love My Way’ was recently used in Luca Guadagnino’s coming-of-age romance Call Me By Your Name and, as a result, became almost as popular as it was when it was first released in 1982. At the time, Richard Butler was regarded as one of the most charismatic frontmen of the era, and often received comparisons to Bowie, owing to his high cheekbones, mesmerising performance style, and sexual ambiguity.
I suppose that’s the reason I like those photographs so much. They document the meeting of to kindred spirit; two south London boys who discovered a passion for art and music after attending art school. Indeed, Bowie was a big fan of The Psychedelic Furs, and much of Butler’s style was influenced by Bowie.
So how did they meet on that night in Sydney? Thankfully, Bruce Butler, who was on tour with The Psychedelic Furs in 1983, recalled how the meeting came about. He remembers how Bowie was in Australia filming his videos for ‘China Girl’ and ‘Let’s Dance’, and wrote to Bowie, inviting him to the band’s gig in Sydney: “To my surprise, I got a call from a minder saying Bowie would accept my invitation and what were the security arrangements for his arrival and departure etc.”
I arranged for Bowie and his minder to meet me in the hotel’s drive-in bottle shop,” Butler continued, “Bowie arrived on time and he, his minder and an Asian girl (much later identified on seeing the ‘China Girl’ clip as Geeling). I whisked them through an entrance to the residential part of the hotel and into the venue’s back-stage area. There was a private balcony above the crowd right in front of the stage. Bowie, Geeling, my girlfriend and I plus the minder sat there through the whole gig. After the set we retired to the band room.”
“Soon, the band started to arrive from stage,” Butler continued. “When Richard Butler arrived wearing his big blue suit Bowie said, ‘Hey! Didn’t I wear that on my Diamond Dogs tour? I wondered where it’d gone.’ Then the cellist arrived and Bowie asked if he could borrow her cello. He then told us he’d just made a film in New York and had learnt to play ‘the thing’. He then proceeded to play some music from The Hunger,” Butler added.
Bruce Butler remembers how Bowie was relaxed in the company of The Psychedelic Furs, and seemed to have an affinity with Richard: “David showed us a party trick where he balanced on one leg on an empty can of beer then bent over tapping the can on its sides making it collapse to a pancake. He was in a playful mood. David, Richard and I sat together for ages talking about all sorts of stuff including David telling us of a terrible new disease which had recently claimed the life of Klaus Nomi while he was in America.” That disease, Richard and Bruce would later find out, was the AIDS virus.
But that wouldn’t be the last meeting between Butler and Bowie. In the late ’80s, after an Iggy Pop concert, Butler, in a drunken stupor, would accuse Bowie of being a terrible actor. Bassist Tim Butler recalled how: “It happened at an after-show party for the tour he did with Iggy Pop in the late ‘80s. I walked up to him, took the drink out of his hand, took a swig of it and said: ‘You can’t fucking act, can you?’. He said: ‘Well, I didn’t ask your advice’. And I said: ‘I didn’t give you any!’. Then he replied: ‘That’s the reason!’. Which I thought was a great comeback, and I skulked off with my head hung down. He had been a hero for years but I was drunk and wanted to be a smart-arse young punk and he put me in my place. He came to see us a few times after that so he didn’t hold any grudges.”