David Bowie came out as gay in an interview with Melody Maker magazine in 1972, and it was the closet door heard ’round the world. But what did he mean by it?
* * *
People like Lou and I are probably predicting the end of an era … I mean that catastrophically.
Any society that allows people like Lou and me to become rampant is pretty well lost.
On Sunday afternoon, 16 July 1972, David Bowie held a tea-time press conference at the Dorchester, a deluxe five-star hotel on London’s Park Lane. Mostly for the benefit of American journalists flown in to watch him and his new backing band, The Spiders from Mars, in action, the event was also a chance to show off Bowie’s new ‘protégés’, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. They had – separately – made their UK live debuts on the two preceding nights, at the exact same venue, King’s Cross Cinema.
Glammed up in maroon-polished nails and rock-star shades, Reed sashayed across the second-floor suite and kissed Bowie full on the mouth. Sitting in the corner, Iggy also displayed a recent glitter makeover, with silver-dyed hair, eye make-up and T. Rex T- shirt. Reed, Iggy and Bowie would later pose for the only known photograph of the threesome together, Bowie looking resplendent in a flared-cuff Peter Pan tunic made from a crinkly, light-catching fabric. That was just one of three outfits he wore that afternoon – surely the first time in history a rock’n’roll press conference involved costume changes.
During a wide-ranging and somewhat grandiloquent audience with the assembled journalists, Bowie declared: ‘People like Lou and I are probably predicting the end of an era … I mean that catastrophically. Any society that allows people like Lou and me to become rampant is pretty well lost. We’re both pretty mixed-up, paranoid people, absolute walking messes. If we’re the spearhead of anything, we’re not necessarily the spearhead of anything good.’ What a strange thing to announce – that you’re the herald of Western civilisation’s terminal decline, the decadent symptom that precedes a collapse into barbarism or perhaps a fascist dictatorship. But would an ‘absolute walking mess’ really be capable of such a crisply articulated mission statement? There’s a curious unreality to Bowie’s claims, especially made in such swanky surroundings. Yet the reporters nodded and scribbled them down in their notepads. Suddenly Bowie seemed to have the power to make people take his make-believe seriously … to make them believe it too. Something that in the previous eight strenuous years of striving he’d never managed before, apart from a smatter of fanatical supporters within the UK entertainment industry.
Some eighteen months before the Dorchester summit, the singer had looked washed-up. Deserted by his primary collaborators Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson, he put out the career-nadir single ‘Holy Holy’. (Can you hum it? Did you even know it existed?)
Yet a little over a year later, Bowie had everybody’s ears, everyone’s eyes. His fortunes had transformed absolutely: if not the biggest star in Britain, he was the buzziest, the focus of serious analysis in a way that far better-selling contemporaries like Marc Bolan and Slade never achieved. No longer a loser, he had somehow become the Midas man, a pop miracle-worker resurrecting the stalled careers of his heroes, from long-standing admirations like Lou Reed to recent infatuations like Iggy Pop and Mott the Hoople. Sprinkling them with his stardust, Bowie even got them to change their appearance in his image. There was talk of movies and stage musicals, the sort of diversification that’s tediously commonplace in today’s pop business, but back then was unusual and exciting.
‘People look to me to see what the spirit of the Seventies is,’ Bowie said to William S. Burroughs in a famous 1974 dialogue convened by Rolling Stone. This was not boasting, just the simple truth. How did Bowie manage to manoeuvre himself into place as weathervane of the zeitgeist? The battle was not won on the radio airwaves or at record-store cash registers. There are bands from the early seventies who sold millions more records than Bowie ever did, but they never came near to having the high profile he had at the time and are barely remembered today. Bowie’s theatre of war was the media, where victory is measured in think pieces and columns, controversy and the circulation of carefully chosen, eye-arresting photographs.
* * *
I’m just an image person. I’m terribly conscious of images and I live in them.
‘I’m just an image person. I’m terribly conscious of images and I live in them,’ Bowie told the NME in 1972 – a catch-all confession that covered his interest in style and his song lyrics, which were like compressed screenplays that turned your imagination into a silver screen. Bowie started developing a series of startling new looks, urged on by Angie and assisted by the new gay and ambisexual friends they’d acquired through frequenting gay clubs like The Sombrero. One new pal, the androgynous Freddie Buretti, became his exclusive clothes designer.
The defining style move came when Bowie cut off his long wavy hair: a symbolic break with the sixties. At first, his new coiffure looked vaguely mod, but then, with further sculpting and the application of virulently artificial-looking dye, Bowie achieved a hairstyle that screamed, ‘It’s the seventies!’ – a sort of electrocuted mullet, goldfish orange in hue.
This angular, inorganic hairstyle was matched with equally stark and lurid make-up. Cosmetics had already been introduced into pop by Bolan (tentatively), Alice Cooper (grotesquely) and The Sweet (clumsily). But Bowie’s use of theatrical make-up, informed by his dalliances with mime, was both more extreme and more exquisite. Coached by master cosmetologist Pierre LaRoche, Bowie became an expert on the subject and an eloquent defender of male self-beautification: ‘Normally before a battle the men would make themselves up to look as beautiful as possible,’ he observed. ‘And look at all the old kings and dandies … And if you look to the animal world, so often the male is more beautiful than the female – look at peacocks and lions. Really, makeup and beautiful clothes are fundamental to me …’
At the height of glittermania, Creem magazine started a style column called Eleganza, and one month it was partly devoted to ‘David Bowie’s Makeup Dos and Don’ts’. Nestled amid full-page ads for Peavey monitor speakers and a piece on bottleneck guitar techniques, you found Bowie recommending ‘a very light liquid base, usually white, pink, or yellow, but for stage, sometimes iridescent, applied with a damp sponge’, suggesting Elizabeth Arden eight-hour cream for a nice shine for lips and eyelids, and kohl ‘smudged right along the lash line’. It also gave away the recipe for the ‘now iconic gold circle on his forehead’ – tiny gold rhinestones stuck on with eyelash glue. But actual glitter was a no-no on account of its tendency to fall into his eyes during performance – a problem made worse, no doubt, by his intermittent penchant for shaving off his eyebrows, to increase the weirdness quotient.
As for a new musical direction, things had begun to shift during the course of 1971, when Bowie took up writing songs on a piano. The result was Hunky Dory: a clean, bright, prettily arranged sound that had almost nothing to do with rock. Instead, it resembled an existentialist Elton John: lovely, extended melodies that delivered questioning and questing lyrics that turned over quandaries to do with time, death, doubt and spiritual confusion, in an incongruous mood of bouncy gaiety. ‘Changes’ combines philosophical musing about impermanence with third-generation plaints (‘these children that you spit on’, ‘don’t tell us to grow up and out of it’). Over time the song has acquired a retroactive status as a mission statement, as if foretelling his career’s succession of ‘strange changes’ and the ‘fascination’ these persona shifts would induce in his fans-to-come. Multiple ‘best of’s titled Changes solidified this interpretation. ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ likewise addresses a potential constituency, flattering his yet-to-arrive followers with Nietzschean allusions to the new breed of ‘homo superior’ they represent.
Although Hunky Dory was Bowie’s most attractive album to date and has since become one of his most beloved records, it came out to a quiet, politely appreciative reception in December 1971, making the need for a dramatic publicity stunt all the more urgent. So, in early 1972, David Bowie decided to be gay. Very publicly gay.
Tentative moves towards ‘coming out’ had been made earlier. There’d been an interview with gay magazine Jeremy in 1970, which presented the singer as very much on ‘our side’, without printing anything like a definitive declaration of his orientation. An April 1971 profile in Rolling Stone edged nearer: the piece ended with Bowie flirtatiously instructing his interviewer John Mendelsohn to ‘tell your readers that they can make up their minds about me when I begin getting adverse publicity: when I’m found in bed with Raquel Welch’s husband’. In the piece, Mendelsohn also reported that when Bowie turned up for a guest spot on San Francisco’s progressive radio station KSAN-FM, he told the ‘incredulous DJ that his last album was … a collection of reminiscences about his experiences as a shaven-headed transvestite’. But these were flippant, jesting remarks, and hardly anyone had noticed. So Bowie turned to the media outlet in which his announcement could make the biggest splash: Melody Maker.
From the late sixties through to the end of 1973, Melody Maker was Britain’s leading music magazine. By 1972, it was also the best selling, having outstripped the pop-oriented New Musical Express and achieving a weekly circulation that hovered just above 200,000. ‘You’d go to work on a Thursday morning on the Tube on the Central Line, and any male under twenty-five would be reading the Maker the morning it came out,’ recalls Melody Maker staff writer Richard Williams. Thanks to a phenomenal pass-on rate, it was read by maybe five, perhaps as many as ten times the number who bought it.
* * *
I’m gay. And always have been, even when I was David Jones.
A photo of Bowie looking willowy and gorgeous graced the front cover of the 22 January 1972 issue of Melody Maker, with a caption describing him as ‘rock’s swishiest outrage: a self-confessed lover of effeminate clothes’. Inside, the interview story featured another photo and the headline ‘Oh You Pretty Thing’. Watts’s introductory paragraph was written as a playful parody of drooling same-sex lust:
Even though he wasn’t wearing silken gowns right out of Liberty’s, and his long blond hair no longer fell wavily past his shoulders David Bowie was looking yummy.
He’d slipped into an elegant, patterned type of combat suit, very tight around the legs, with the shirt unbuttoned to reveal a full expanse of white torso. The trousers were turned up at the calves to allow a better glimpse of a huge pair of red plastic boots with at least three-inch rubber soles; and the hair was Vidal Sassooned into such impeccable shape that one held one’s breath in case the slight breeze from the open window dared to ruffle it. I wish you could have been there to varda him; he was so super.
Such a tone of frank male-on-male delectation had never been seen in the pages of the serious but very straight music papers, in which critics focused on musicianship or social issues rather than physical appearance or style. Watts’s use of words like ‘varda’ was a delicious in-the-know touch: it came from the slang idiom palare (sometimes spelt ‘polari’ and various other ways), favoured by gay men in the era when homosexual acts were illegal and code was a necessity. Traceable back to nineteenth-century itinerant theatrical companies and used by criminals, prostitutes and showbiz folk as well as gay men, palare would have been incomprehensible to most readers. ‘David’s present image is to come on like a swishy queen, a gorgeously effeminate boy,’ Watts noted, implying that this was a gambit, a pose likely to be abandoned as abruptly as it had been adopted.
Then came the quote that reverberated around the world and instantly ignited Bowie’s career: ‘I’m gay. And always have been, even when I was David Jones.’
The feature’s galvanising effect on Bowie’s career came not just from the shock statement, but from the pictures that illustrated it. It is hard to reconstruct the drabness, the visual depletion of Britain in 1972, which filtered into the music papers to form the grey and grubby backdrop to Bowie’s physical and sartorial splendour. Even in black and white, the elegance of the images leapt out of the pages, surrounded as they were – in that particular issue of Melody Maker – by thickly bearded minstrel Cat Stevens, sideburned ex-Spooky Tooth singer Gary Wright and his new band Wonderwheel, and the startling ugliness of a full-page ad for Grunt, Jefferson Airplane’s label. ‘He was a fantastically glamorous figure. I remember being quite dazzled by him when I first met him,’ recalls Watts. ‘It was like being with Marilyn Monroe. There was nobody else around like that. He was such a break with that sixties past.’
On Melody Maker’s front cover, the portrait by Barrie Wentzell showed the new shorter-locked Bowie, wearing a delicate bracelet and an open patterned zip jacket showing a bare, hairless chest. Inside, a close-up of Bowie’s face, cradled delicately in one hand, features doe-like eyes cast to one side as if demurely avoiding the viewer’s gaze. The framing was studiedly unmasculine, almost as if informed by reading John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (published that same year), in which the critic suggests that judging by the history of Western art, ‘men act and women appear … men look at women; women watch themselves being looked at … The surveyor of woman in herself is male … Thus she turns herself into an object – and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.’ Watts’s write- up likewise broke ground by encouraging the (mostly male) readers to look at another man as an aesthetic object, a treat for the eyes.
‘It was Melody Maker that made me … that piece by Mick Watts,’ Bowie recalled in the middle of 1973. ‘It all exploded.’ Yet the funny thing about the Shock Revelation is that the quote was immediately followed by a hint of doubt: ‘There’s a sly jollity about how he says it, a secret smile at the corners of his mouth,’ Watts observed. The idea that it was all a game was made clear right at the outset. ‘I was a bit sceptical,’ says Watts today. ‘He was pretty certainly bisexual, as far as one can deconstruct what bisexuality is. But I think it’s inescapable that most of Bowie’s sexual encounters have been much more heterosexual than gay. I interviewed him quite often after that, and he was always very keen to make the point that he wasn’t going to be flag-waving for Gay Lib. And Gay Lib got very cross with him because he wouldn’t throw in his lot with them and proselytise for homosexuality. Now, how do you interpret that? It may have been a form of commercial self-protection, or it could be his genuine belief …’
While some gay men regarded Bowie as a tourist, others saw him as a pop-culture pathbreaker, making it easier for others to come out. The gay American critic Andrew Kopkind, for instance, hailed Bowie in an October 1972 piece for the Boston Phoenix as ‘an authentic gay superstar, authentically a superstar and authentically gay at the same time – for the first time in our culture since Oscar Wilde’. He zoomed in on the ‘lyricism’ of his stage movements and the way he and Mick Ronson ‘exchange erotic glances, gestures and dance steps hitherto only acceptable between man and woman in a band’. Over the ensuing years, Bowie oscillated wildly, sustaining a miasma of sexual undecideability that enabled him to be all things to all people. In one single year, 1976, he told a British journalist that his professed bisexuality ‘was just a lie … I’ve never done a bisexual action in my life, on stage, on record, or anywhere else’, but also recounted his same-sex history to Playboy, which started with ‘some very pretty boy in class in some school or other that I took home and neatly fucked on my bed upstairs’ and continued intermittently.
Cherry Vanilla, who knew him intimately as well as professionally, says, ‘You can tell when men really love women or don’t really love women, and as far as I’m concerned, he really loved women … I would consider him heterosexual, but who fooled around, experimented a bit. And in those days, didn’t we all?’ Her MainMan colleague Tony Zanetta believed Bowie ‘was bisexual, but what he was really was a narcissist – boys or girls, it was all the same. He was attracted to the gay culture because he loved its flamboyance.’
* * *
I thought – this is a lifestyle I really have to explore because I recognize things in this book that are really how I feel.
Bowie’s interest in gayness seems more cultural than sexual – a classic case of ‘love and theft’. That’s the title of Eric Lott’s classic study of nineteenth-century blackface minstrels, his term for the simultaneous admiration and appropriation directed by whites towards black music and black style. In the same way, Bowie looked to gay culture as a vanguard of sensibility. If the sixties had been about the White Negro (mostly British groups, like the Stones, playing tough rhythm and blues), Bowie was guessing – gambling – that the defining crossover of seventies might be the Straight Gay. There was one important difference, though: unlike with the white sixties groups co-opting blues and R&B, there wasn’t an exclusively gay-identified style of music for Bowie to appropriate. Opera and show tunes, while associated with gay taste, had plenty of straight (and, indeed, square) fans. So what Bowie did was to layer gayness over the existing post-sixties British tradition of pop and rock.
Along with his encounters with the Lindsay Kemp milieu, clubs like The Sombrero and, most recently, the polysexual Pork Warholites, Bowie had also been inspired by reading John Rechy’s novel City of Night, which chronicles the journey of a young man from his small-town background to the homosexual underground of New York (and later Los Angeles), where he turns tricks to survive. ‘A stunning piece of writing,’ Bowie recalled in 1993. ‘I found out later that it was a bible among gay America … There was something in the book akin to my feelings of loneliness. I thought – this is a lifestyle I really have to explore because I recognize things in this book that are really how I feel. And that led me a merry dance in the early Seventies, when gay clubs really became my lifestyle and all my friends were gay. I really opted to drown in the euphoria of this new experience which was a real taboo with society. And I must admit I loved that aspect of it.’ But Bowie also admitted that ‘as the years went on it became a thing where, sexually, I was pretty much with women the majority of the time. But I still had a lot of the trappings of the gay society about me. In terms of the way I would parade or costume myself or my attitudes in some of the interviews I did … It seemed to be the one taboo that everyone was too afraid to break. I thought – well, if there’s one thing that’s going to put me on the edge, this is it. Long hair didn’t mean much anymore.’
City of Night is the perfect title for Rechy’s gay odyssey. In Mother Camp, her groundbreaking 1972 study of drag-queen culture, social anthropologist Esther Newton points out how important the concept of ‘urban’ was to the subculture: many queens who came from small towns in the rural south or Midwest spoke of feeling uncomfortable in the country. ‘It is the country that represents to us “nature” and, ultimately, what is real,’ Newton wrote. Cities, especially nocturnal, after-hours cities, offered the rootless freedom and dark spaces in which you could be your non-normative self. Female impersonators, she observed, ‘would say of themselves “we are city people; we are night people”.’
For Bowie and other ‘straight gays’ in the early seventies, male homosexuality was the New Edge in two different ways. A new frontier of gritty and graphic realness: sex acts, sex customs, sex attitudes, sex locations that were all bracingly unfamiliar. But also a new frontier of campy unrealness. One thread in Rechy’s novel that might have intrigued or influenced Bowie is the theatricality of sex. The hustlers in City of Night are actors as much as they’re sex workers: they quickly learn not to say or do anything that might disrupt the john’s particular ‘sexdream’. One regular’s special kink is dressing up a boy in biker gear of leather and heavy boots, then promenading around the city for an hour or two in his company. No sex takes place. The customer maintains a wardrobe of costumes in different sizes, what one character calls his ‘drag’, even though it’s the opposite of what that usually refers to – the garb of female impersonation.
The buried idea here extends forward to RuPaul’s ‘We’re born naked, everything else is drag’ and as far back as Shakespeare’s ‘All the world’s a stage’. Even when we’re not overtly in costume, we’re all ‘players’ acting out a social self. As W. H. Auden put it in ‘Masque’, ‘Human beings are, necessarily, actors who cannot become something before they have first pretended to be it; and they can be divided, not into the hypocritical and the sincere, but into the sane who know they are acting and the mad who do not.’ This poetic insight was given solid sociological credence in 1959 with the publication of Erving Goffman’s famous study The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, in which he formulated concepts like ‘impression management’ and the ‘personal front’. Depending on your perspective, the conclusion to be drawn is either melancholy (we can never be really real, in any interpersonal situation – and perhaps even on the stage of our conscious mind we act out an ideal or prettified version of our self) or liberating (since there’s no core to identity, we can reinvent ourselves, change the roles we play and the self we present, over and over again).
Camp is hard to pin down, but one core strand to the sensibility is what Susan Sontag called ‘the metaphor of life as theater’. The origins of the word are much disputed, but some point to the French se camper, which means to posture boldly, to strike a provocative pose. For some gay men, being camp was a way of flaunting one’s difference from the hetero-norm, a cultural separateness as much as a sexually determined one. Yet that made camp detachable as a sensibility; if you could be gay but not the least bit camp, that opened the possibility of acting camp without ever engaging in homosexual acts. Bowie’s coming out was itself a camp gesture: a form of public theatre, the striking of a provocative pose, not necessarily backed up by anything he did in his private life.
* * *
I think it should be tarted up, made into a prostitute, a parody of itself. It should be the clown, the Pierrot medium.
Hunky Dory’s back cover features the handwritten credit ‘This album was Produced by … KEN SCOTT (assisted by the actor).’ Kemp’s camp, Rechy’s novel, the Warhol crew – all these influences had intensified Bowie’s existing tendency to view himself as an all-round entertainer, a variety artist, skipping between different mediums and swapping out roles constantly. Rock, at the turn of the sixties into the seventies, demanded commitment and consistency; songs and singing were about revealing one’s inner truth or speaking truth to power. Bowie had tried to go along with rock’s anti-showbiz values for a moment at the end of the sixties, but now, liberated by his immersion in gay culture, he could goad rock orthodoxy. ‘What the music says may be serious, but as a medium it should not be questioned, analysed, or taken so seriously,’ he declared in the 1971 Rolling Stone interview. ‘I think it should be tarted up, made into a prostitute, a parody of itself. It should be the clown, the Pierrot medium.’
Unwittingly or not, here Bowie tapped into a set of negative associations surrounding the theatre that conflate acting, prostitution, homosexuality, cross-dressing and insincerity. ‘The antitheatrical prejudice’, as the historian Jonas Barish called it in his 1982 book of the same title, goes back as far as Plato, who distrusted and disapproved of mutability and mimesis. But it was at its most pronounced and hysterical during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Puritans published countless tracts with titles like A Mirrour of Monsters that decried playhouses as ungodly and ultimately closed down the theatres during Cromwell’s rule. Plays were accused of arousing base passions with their depictions of sex and violence, as well as their effeminising emotional extremes. Actors were seen as analogous to prostitutes, feigning unfelt emotions for money. Some Puritans equated acting’s pretence with the sin of hypocrisy (which actually comes from hypokrite, an Ancient Greek word for ‘actor’). Others even saw it as a usurpation of God’s role as Creator.
Highest among the concerns of many Puritan tract writers was the reigning practice in sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century England of women’s roles being played by men, or rather by pretty, androgynous boys. In his thousand-plus-page diatribe Histriomastix (1632), William Prynne rails against ‘our artificial stage-players’ who ‘emasculate, metamorphose, and debase their noble sex’, in the process becoming ‘neither men nor women, but monsters’. Cross-dressing offends God because ‘it perverts one principal use of garments, to difference men from women’.
Anti-theatricality still had a half-life even in the twentieth century, cropping up in fictional contexts like The Catcher in the Rye, where Holden Caulfield voices his contempt for the theatre and all actors because they’re ‘phoney’. While rock can hardly be characterised as puritanical, it does contain a long-running vein, stretching from the late-sixties underground through to indie and alternative rock, of antipathy to showiness and spectacle. As if to deflect such prejudices among Melody Maker’s readers, Michael Watts’s feature concluded: ‘Don’t dismiss David Bowie as a serious musician just because he likes to put us all on a little.’ There’s a double sense in which ‘put on’ can be taken: a playful trick, but also a mask or role that can be put on and then taken off once its purpose has been served. So it would be with Bowie’s gayness.
Bowie’s stagey exit from the closet was perfectly timed. All things gay, bi, trans and ambiguous were ‘in’. David Percival’s 1970 West End play Girlfriend became the 1971 movie Girl Stroke Boy, in which a young man called Laurie brings home Jo to meet his parents, who find it impossible to determine whether their son’s sweetheart is his girlfriend or boyfriend. Michael Apted’s 1972 directorial debut Triple/Echo (retitled Soldier in Skirts for America) concerns a Second World War deserter who hides on a farm, starts dressing as a woman, then rashly goes for a date with a brute of an army sergeant from a nearby base. Bowie actually auditioned for the cross-dressing soldier’s role. He also auditioned to play the beautiful bisexual youth embroiled in a love triangle with an older man and an older woman in 1971’s Sunday Bloody Sunday. Meanwhile, in America, Myra Breckinridge – the 1970 film version of Gore Vidal’s best- selling satirical novel – featured a transgender protagonist, S&M and anal sex with a strap-on dildo, while Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) included a trans character, the record-biz Svengali Z-Man. As scriptwriter Roger Ebert explained, Z-Man ‘seems to be a gay man for most of the movie, but is finally revealed to be a woman in drag’. The is-she-or-isn’t-she-(a-he)? theme infiltrated pop, too, with The Kinks’ ‘Lola’, a huge, career-resurrecting international hit for the group in 1970.
* * *
To me he represented the most bizarre things which were evil and not of this world and completely beyond the imagination … the most peculiarly advanced stages of sexuality.
While he remained a divisive, uncertain figure for the gay community, for his hetero audience Bowie became a symbol of possibility: his songs and his image spoke to forbidden frissons, an expanded sense of latent erotic potential, a flexibility and flux that might never be realised beyond the realm of imagination but felt liberating. It spoke above all to boys alienated from straight-and-narrow manliness, and to girls looking for objects of desire outside those confines.
‘I seem to draw a lot of fantasies out of people,’ Bowie admitted, appearing on Russell Harty’s TV chat show in 1973. Harty had asked about the kind of fan mail he received; Bowie would not be drawn on the details, except to say that some of the letters were ‘heavy duty’ and ‘very sexy’. It was really with the singer’s next move after Hunky Dory that this kind of obsessive projection took off, with the creation of the Ziggy Stardust persona. The combination of Bowie’s unusual beauty and the Ziggy look – the glossy wrestling boots and tight-fitting two-piece outfits made of quilt in oriental or retro-futuristic patterns, influenced equally by Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey – inspired strange reveries. The dreaming surely got weirder still with Bowie’s next image-phase, the Aladdin Sane era, with the lightning bolt slash across the face, the mystic gold circle on the brow and Kansai Yamamoto’s astonishing bodysuits, vinyl geometric constructions that wore the person inserted into them rather than the other way round.
Drawing on fan letters sent c/o record companies, as well as interviews with fans looking back on their fevered past, Fred and Judy Vermorel’s book Starlust explores in detail the kind of fantasy narratives Bowie triggered. At the extreme, the erotic scenarios stray into hallucinatory and mystical zones, verging on self-invented forms of sex-magic, phantasmic projection and even imagined telepathic communion.
‘I thought he was so extraordinary that he couldn’t possibly be human,’ confessed Julie, one of the Starlust interviewees. ‘He was paranormal almost … I began to think he was a new kind of Messiah … He had the qualities of a type of ruler … He was science fiction personified. To me he represented the most bizarre things which were evil and not of this world and completely beyond the imagination … the most peculiarly advanced stages of sexuality.’
The Beatles were the first to create a fictional group, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. There was also Zappa and The Mothers of Invention’s doo-wop homage alter ego Ruben and the Jets, while The Turtles released a concept album, The Turtles Present the Battle of the Bands, in which they pretended to be eleven different groups, parodying styles from psychedelia to surf band to country rock. They were photographed as each group for the gatefold inner sleeve. So Bowie wasn’t really breaking new ground when he conceived the concept of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
But the idea of playing a rock star, rather than simply attempting to become one, went to the core of Bowie as an artist in a much deeper way than it had with The Beatles or Zappa. It extended his sense of himself as an actor. Paradoxically, by seeing it as just one role out of the many he could take on, Bowie could commit to rocking out and to rock-star postures, despite having no great attachment to rock. As late as 1970, interviewed by Jeremy, Bowie located his heroes in English music hall (George Formby, Gracie Fields, Nat Jackley, Albert Modley), with chansonniers like Jacques Brel and oddballs like Tiny Tim thrown in. Bowie saw this as something that differentiated him from Bolan. ‘Marc only has his music …’ Bowie mused to the NME in 1972. ‘He knows that my areas stretch out, and so my conviction for music probably isn’t as strong as his … I can’t see myself always being a rock and roll singer.’ In other interviews, Bowie talked about feeling ‘like an actor when I’m on stage, rather than a rock artist’, and how ‘if anything, maybe I’ve helped establish that rock’n’roll is a pose’.
* * *
From the book SHOCK AND AWE: Glam Rock and Its Legacy, from the Seventies to the Twenty-First Century by Simon Ryenolds. Copyright © 2016 by Simon Reynolds. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.