The Age - February 24th 2004

When Kerry met Bowie

The charismatic Thin White Duke transforms even a hard-nosed journalist into a quivering fan, writes Helen Razer.

Ask even the most bloodless front-bencher: Kerry O'Brien is as warm, soft and playful as an ice-pick. Known for his polar nerve, the 7.30 Report anchor is rarely defrosted by an interview subject.

It's therefore a rare satisfaction to watch this glacier thaw as he did last week in the company of scorching style icon David Bowie.

O'Brien, his tie removed and shirt partially unbuttoned to signify either a high temperature or an ABC version of hip, appeared genuinely moved during his encounter with Bowie.

He did offer an array of passably adult, if shop-worn, questions about amphetamines, androgyny and art, but viewers might not have been utterly surprised if he'd blurted like a giddy teen, "David, won't you please autograph my clipboard?"

In Australia to perform a series of concerts, Bowie must be rather used to undoing the undoable.

Beyond the rather salient fact that he is the most bonkable 57-year-old on the planet, and even beyond his extraordinary achievements as an artist, Bowie commands a unique and almost religious attention from his fans.

Francis Leach, buff and broadcaster on Melbourne's 1116 SEN, attempts to explain the Thin White Duke's atypical and sustained hold on his devotees.

Bowie, says Leach, is still engaged in the broader culture. "He proves that age isn't a barrier to artistic relevance. Even when Bowie gets it wrong, he still embraces the shock of the new."

A Bowie fan for more than half of his life, Melbourne financial services manager Joe Lewis concedes that the artist's charm cannot be easily enunciated.

"Bowie's X-factor is very clearly still present, but equally opaque in its origin," says Lewis.

"A friend of mine has suggested that the reason he's so appealing might actually be because his appeal is so intangible."

Whatever the source of his allure, the born-again blond remains almost sacred to many. His music, says Lewis, "seeps into your psyche and inhabits a whole part of your personality - maybe the same part that for some people might contain their religion".

One doesn't simply "like" Bowie: one worships and absorbs him. A 28-year-old disciple, Matt Dalton, is unguarded in his devotion.

"I cannot live without his music," he says. "It stimulates my soul in a way no other music has. It comes from a different place and always makes me love something different about my life from an absurd perspective."

Dalton perceives Bowie more as an extraterrestrial than a garden variety god. Bowie, he says, enters one's life with a thud.

It is the film The Man Who Fell To Earth, "that really sums Bowie up for me; (an) alien with multi-coloured eyes falling to a suburban town on planet earth".

It is, perhaps, Bowie's palatable but conspicuous otherness that gives normally sane adults cause to loosen their ties and other articles of self-restraint.

Certainly, today's Bowie, who recently leased his talents as a mineral water spokesmodel, ain't exactly an interstellar threat exploding hetero-normative standards and generally giving your mum something to worry about.

For fans, however, he retains a whiff of alien strangeness and the promise of salvation through otherness.

Leach loses patience with those who criticise Bowie for failing to be as radiantly strange as once he was.

"His best work might have come from yesterday, but that work remains a million miles ahead of its time," he says.

"When people say that he is not as culturally or artistically confronting, or just not as good as he used to be, you have to ask, 'Well, who the bloody hell is?'."

To his fans, no one is as strange, nor as good, as Bowie at his best.

David Bowie performs at Rod Laver Arena on Thursday and Friday.