January 02, 2018
More than 45 years later, the life-changing moment remains vivid for Patti Brett.
“I was driving…on my way home from school one day, and a song came on [the radio],” recalled the longtime owner of Doobie’s, the beloved Philly dive bar at 22nd and Lombard streets.
“One of the people in the car screamed ‘Roll the windows up!’ I said, ‘What?’ She said, ‘Don't let any of the sound out!’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ She said, ‘It's David Bowie!’ [The song] was ‘Memory of A Free Festival,’ and by the end…I was a fan.”
David Bowie performing “Memory of A Free Festival:”
That fandom not only continued to burn white-hot within Brett for the next four-plus decades, but it led her to create Philly Loves Bowie Week in the wake of the singer-songwriter’s shocking death from cancer almost two years ago. The second annual Bowie bash, which runs Jan. 5-14, features an impressively diverse series of events that extend well beyond the standard tribute concerts that are, of course, a big part of the festivities.
For instance, the celebration—which is raising funds for Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia-- commences with the “ Hey Babe, Your Hair’s Alright: Bowie Blowout Benefit” at the Rebel Rebel Salon in Port Richmond. The 19 subsequent programs range from a tasting of the Bowie-inspired Loving the Alien beer to a Philly Loves Bowie Quizzo Night (both at Doobies) to “Bowie-Oke” at Johnny Brenda’s to the "Snowy Bowie Skate” at Blue Cross RiverRink to a screening of the 1976 Bowie-starring sci-fi flick, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” at South Street Cinema.
And speaking of Bowie cinema, the festival also boasts the world premiere of a rough-cut of “Sigma Kids,” a documentary about the small troupe of young, hardcore fans who stood nightly vigil while Bowie was in town in the summer and fall of 1974 recording his landmark “Young Americans” album at Sigma Sound Studios at 12th and Race streets.
“Sigma Kids” trailer:
This, among all of the Philly Loves Bowie Week events, is likely closest to Brett’s heart as she was one of the film’s title characters and appears as a talking head in it.
“When he was at the Tower Theater for the ‘Diamond Dogs’ shows in July [‘74], he sat out on the steps of his hotel--the Bellevue Stratford [now the Hyatt at the Bellevue]--and told us he was going to be recording his new album…at Sigma Sound, and we should come and look for him.
“So, we started a vigil. Back then, there was no Internet, no cell phones, no anything. We had to drive by the studio and see if we could find him.”
Here are photos of the “Sigma Kids” (including Patti Brett) at the studio.
According to Brett, she and her fellow Bowienauts—whose ranks also included the late supermodel, Gia Carangi--never expected to have any interaction with their hero.
His chauffeur would open up the car and we would take cigarette butts and search the seats for hair.”
“I don't think that was the intention for any of us,” she said.
“We were content with seeing him go in and out of the studio, going in and out of the hotel. His chauffeur would open up the car and we would take cigarette butts and search the seats for hair.”
But then, things changed dramatically. Bowie, recalled Brett, “went into the studio one night and said, 'If you are still out here when I come out, I have a surprise for you.’ He warned the group against telling anyone else about the “surprise,” warning them to “keep it under your hat." That, said Brett, “is exactly what we did.”
She explained there “were always dozens of people milling outside the studio. One by one, we got rid of everybody. We said, ‘Oh, he's not gonna come out 'til four-five o'clock in the morning, so you might as well go.’ He told us not to tell anyone, and if there were extra people there...we didn't want to ruin getting up there.
“Somewhere around midnight, it started to rain. [Bowie] had sent word downstairs to let us into the lobby so we didn't get wet. And shortly after that, somebody came and got us and up we went.”
Once in the studio, continued Brett, Bowie addressed his minions, thanking them for being “so supportive and so wonderful to us.” He then told the Sigma Kids--whose ranks didn’t include Carangi because, according to Stephen Fried’s 1993 bio, “A Thing of Beauty,” she’d grown tired of waiting outside and left--he was seeking their feedback on what he’d been recording “because it's unlike anything else that I've done.”
“Young Americans” (full album):
To this day, admitted Brett, “I still don't know how I kept my head from exploding.” She added that despite photographic proof, “I still don't believe that it happened. I keep thinking, it had to be a dream.”
For more on Philly Loves Bowie Week, click here.
Chuck Darrow is a veteran entertainment columnist and critic. Listen to “That’s Show Biz with Chuck Darrow” 3 p.m. Tuesdays on WWDB-AM (860), WWDBAM.com, iTunes, IHeartRadio, and TuneInRadio.
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