“It was ragged and naive/ It was heaven,” sang David Bowie in a hymn to the free rock festival he staged in the unlikely location of Beckenham on the same weekend as Woodstock.
Now rock’s most elusive star has rushed to the rescue of the dilapidated bandstand under which he strummed at that performance 44 years ago.
In mid-1969, Bowie was an aspiring – but broke – psychedelic folk singer who played pub gigs in and around the south-east London suburb of Bromley, where he had grown up and gone on to study art and music at Bromley Technical High School.
On 16 August, while 500,000 hippies were converging on Woodstock in the US, Bowie organised a concert at Croydon Road Recreation Ground in Beckenham, designed to encourage donations for his free-thinking Beckenham Arts Lab. Bowie, who played tunes which would soon appear on his Space Oddity album, later immortalised the experience on his 1970 single “Memory of a Free Festival”.
While Bowie used Beckenham as a launch pad to fame, the bandstand has fared less well. A Bowie fan from Russia who moved to Beckenham and discovered that the location has fallen into disrepair, is staging a second concert next Sunday to raise funds to return the stage to its former glory.
Bowie, who has turned down all offers to play live since the success of his surprise comeback album The Next Day, is not expected to return to Beckenham. But the star has sent signed albums which will be raffled and sold in an auction for the cause.
The Memory of a Free Festival concert features Amory Kane, a US folk musician who performed at the 1969 show, a Bowie tribute band and young bands inspired by rock’s great chameleon.
Natasha Ryzhova Lau, the concert organiser, said: “We’re very grateful for David Bowie’s generosity in supporting our event. We want to celebrate [his] time in Beckenham but our most important objective is to rescue the bandstand, which is part of Beckenham’s heritage and urgently needs repairs. It is totally dilapidated but cannot be restored with funding from the public purse.”
The bandstand’s coronet is extensively corroded and repairs to rotten roof timberwork, roof coverings and ironwork are urgently required.
On this occasion, the organisers are charging a £5 entrance fee to cover expenses. The 1969 event, attended by 3,000 fans, raised £200, with Bowie’s soon-to-be-wife, Angie, selling hamburgers cooked in a wheelbarrow.
Bowie played solo despite the death of his father just days before.