THE MAN WHO SOLD US THE WORLD, MADONNA & LADY GAGA
David Bowie was the bisexual alien rock star who sold genderfuck to the world. He’s also claimed to be the first pop star to declare that he was gay – even though he wasn’t. But in embracing his “otherness” Bowie changed music, art, media and the very nature of fame completely.
Ahead of a retrospective exhibition on his career, Steve Pafford, author of the BowieStyle book, explains why ‘Dame David’ remains the most relevant, reinvented and revolutionary pop artist alive today.
“I’m gay and I always have been. Even when I was David Jones.”
Who said such a thing? Elton John? Boy George? David Cassidy? Nope. The bigmouth who struck a generation was David Bowie in an interview for British rock weekly Melody Maker in 1972, less than five years after homosexual acts had been decriminalised in the UK.
Legendary diva Dusty Springfield may have outed herself as bisexual a couple of years before, but the man born David Robert Jones in Brixton, South London on 8 January 1947 was, incredibly, first pop star ever to ever publicly declare their homosexuality to the world.
I can hear many DNA readers querulously querying that quote with some disbelief – which it kind of deserves. But yes, this is the very same David Bowie who many of you may only know of as the all-singing, all-jiggly, all-dancing dandy in ‘80s kids classic Labyrinth. You know, the guy in the Tina Turner frightwig and tights so tight they revealed the Thin White Duke‘s ample appendage is just as impressive as his entire body of work.
Yup, we’re talking about the very same 68-year old London luvvy who, for over a decade, has been holed up in a curious state of semi-retirement in a magnificent Manhattan condo with his second wife, the stunningly beautiful Somalian supermodel Iman. They’ve been together for almost a quarter of a century.
Just to confuse things further, Dame David, as he’s affectionately known, was encouraged to make this deliberately shocking declaration at that particular time by his then-wife Angela, herself a voracious and vociferous swinger. Angie Bowie is the mother of David’s son, Duncan, himself a successful movie director. (Duncan Jones directed Moon, Source Code and Warcraft, which is due for release in 2016).
Confused? So was he. But then if there’s one absolute certainty about the artificial construct that is David Bowie, it is that he’s never let the truth get in the way of a good quote. This has been the unofficial manifesto of his entire career. This one time riot of sexual confusion and pop’s original cherry-picking gender bender is now in his sixth decade of making music.
From an impeccably groomed Mod to a tanned, uncomplicated symbol of ‘80s wealth, and a Millennium Man technophile, for the best part of fifty years, David Bowie has been the entertainment world’s most conspicuous mannequin, and creator of fabulous fads and phantasmagorical fashions. This most photogenic of style icons has outlived every one of them.
Bowie’s formative years were spent chasing trends, often adding idiosyncratic touches to elevate himself above the crowd. Hitting a creative peak between 1972 and 1977, he transcended street style by reinventing himself into a one-man spectacular; a cultural whirlwind whose series of alter-egos – Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, the Thin White Duke – were lapped up by his flamboyant and dedicated flock with unflinching devotion.
To his critics, who saw only peripheral costume-changes and grand theatrical gestures, Bowie was a charlatan, a calculating clothes-horse who’d fast-tracked to stardom on a tide of hype. And the sneers came thick and fast: Mock Rock, Glitter Rock, Shock Rock, Camp Rock, even Fag Rock, each invoked with a resigned shake of the head. Bowie was an arriviste, an invented star with the airs and whims of a pampered mistress in the hat department at Harrods.
Yes, the Bowie project was about style and presentation and ego. But beneath the shiny exteriors, those seemingly empty gestures, that lust to be looked at, was a brilliant new aesthetic – with David Bowie as its ideologue and showpiece. His playful mix-and-match style wasn’t applied only to the costumes. Irreverence and pastiche also informed his music. He’d take the simple flash of ‘50s rock’n’roll, a snatch of doo-wop, the artful primitivism of little-known American warp-merchants The Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop, and give them a seductive singer-songwriterly sheen. His concept of “the star”, which he’d discuss with Warholian ingenuity, came gift-wrapped in fiction and artifice.
David Bowie revolutionised how pop looked and sounded. But he also changed how we looked at stars, and how we listened to music. Prior to his spectacular Moonage landing as Ziggy in 1972, much of rock aspired to impress musicologists and literary types. Bowie’s most enduring influence was to drag it back to where the fiercest debates centred on authorship, sexual identity and the blurring of high and low art, debates that were later united under the postmodern banner. Far from smothering rock with foundation cream and elaborate stage sets, Bowie liberated the form, prompting a whole new set of debates and extending its limits.
Bowie’s ‘style’ has always amounted to more than clothes, hair and cosmetics. Style, for Bowie, is inextricable from art. It is the books he reads, the paintings he buys, the films he watches. It’s also bound up in the way he sees himself and how he lives his life. It is less a flight from reality than an entire way of life; that’s what makes him so fascinating. Anyone can adopt a series of guises in the name of art and build a stadium career out of it. In fact, many do. But ultimately, Bowie is less about trappings and more about confronting the traps that seek to limit human potential. That quest has taken him from Beckenham to Babylon, from playful melodramas to the brink of insanity and death.
David Bowie’s earliest ventures into style conform closely to a textbook reading of post-war subcultural fashions. The fledgling Jones developed a youthful passion for rock ’n’ roll. Unsurprisingly, the visually striking Little Richard and Elvis Presley – who shared David’s birthday – were particular favourites. This matured into jazz until he saw a role for himself in the burgeoning rhythm and blues movement.
By 1962 the Teddy Boy look already belonged to the previous decade, but stray remnants of the style – narrow tie, drainpipe trousers – could still earn reputations for 15-year-old boys. Already, styles were being mixed, and David’s winklepicker shoes and button-down shirts, both recent imports from Italy, were evidence of the emerging Modernist look, a sophisticated, aspirational style that contrasted with the Teds’ aggressive working class stance.
Bowie later enthused about the new breed: “These weren’t the anorak Mods who turned up on scooters… They wore very expensive suits; very, very dapper. And make-up was an important part of it; lipstick, blush, eye-shadow, and out-and-out pancake powder. It was very dandified.”
Chic, modern and highly individualistic, the Mod ethic proved instantly seductive to aspiring peacocks like David Jones and his mate, George Underwood. But their competitiveness sometimes strayed beyond fashion and music. An argument over a girl called Carol in 1962 ended when George walloped David in the eye, leaving him with an indelible characteristic that even surpassed his left-handedness for marking him out as ‘different’ – a permanently dilated pupil in his left eye that leaves the impression that one eye is much darker than the other.
Between 1963 and 1966, London became the style capital of the world. Galvanised by the resounding thud of the Beatles-inspired beat boom, Britain’s first post-war generation cast off the National Service mindset in favour of a riot of self-expression. The West End was awash with boutiques, scooters roared down busy city streets and the state of the nation debate centred on the length of young men’s hair.
David Jones, already on intimate terms with his bedroom mirror, was perfectly poised to join the cultural revolution. He was obsessed by stardom, taste and style which, in true Mod fashion, would change with the weather. His attention to such matters gave him his first taste of media controversy when, in November 1964, he was invited onto a BBC television show to defend the right of young men to grow their hair. His first concern, though, was carving a niche for himself on the music scene. Unfortunately, it was primarily the era for musical groups, so the boy David was forced to throw his lot in with other musicians such as the King Bees, Manish Boys and Lower Third. It was a frustrating period for him, with success proving more elusive than he might have imagined.
He grew his highly cultivated (and lacquered) hair, blossomed into a Carnaby Street peacock and changed his name to avoid confusion with Davy Jones of The Monkees. Depending on who you believe, he either delved back to his schoolboy fascination for the Wild West and came up with a name of a popular hunting knife used by Alamo hero Jim Bowie… or he caught a glimpse of a newly built housing block, Bowie Close, mere metres away from one of his favourite beat and bandstand haunts, Clapham Common. Regardless of the inspiration, from now on, he would be known as David Bowie.
Unfortunately, there was little demand for such a creature by the time of his eponymously titled debut album in 1967, when hippie fashions and popseeker psychedelia dominated. Hopelessly wrong-footed, David licked his wounds for what seemed like an eternity before coming on as a Bob Dylan cum Simon & Garfunkel style folkie, albeit prettier and with an eye for a gimmick.
That was the David Bowie the world first glimpsed in the summer of 1969 when Space Oddity, a faintly macabre Bee Geesian interpretation of space travel, gave him his first taste of chart success, and famously featured the use of the stylophone, a pocket-sized electronic instrument popularised by a certain disgraced Australian. “We were all aware of it because of the adverts with Rolf Harris playing Waltzing Matilda, or something very close,” remembers producer Tony Visconti. “It was a curious instrument that all rock musicians wanted to get their hands on. David immediately realised the potential of its unusual voice. It was the beginning of synths, albeit a very unorthodox synth.”
In April 1971, the UK’s Daily Mirror ran a piece on the cover of Bowie’s latest album, The Man Who Sold The World. In a thinly-veiled parody of a painting he claimed was by pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the singer’s slim, languid frame was pictured in repose on a chaise longue that had been draped in blue velvet. His mousy blond hair was long and peek-a-boo style like Hollywood starlet Veronica Lake. Most spectacular of all, he was wearing what he called his “man’s dress”. A salmon pink silk number, it was one of two he’d bought from Mr. Fish at a knockdown £50 apiece, though in truth it was originally intended as a medieval-style gown.
Countering the newspaper’s barely-concealed prurience, Bowie insisted that he was “not queer and all sorts of things… my sexual life is normal.” He had come, he explained to Rolling Stone, “to tart rock up. I don’t want to climb out of my fantasies in order to go up on stage – I want to take them on stage with me.”
The new image attracted the inevitable titters from the tabloids, but the cynical and hype-wary British press regarded Bowie’s literal interpretation of unisex fashion as just plain silly. In America, where it was reported that he “would prefer to be regarded as a latter-day Garbo”, and “was “almost disconcertingly reminiscent of Lauren Bacall”, they took him far more seriously. Perhaps the eye-shadow and shoulder-bag, which he’d added for his trip there, clinched it.”
A couple of decades later, the Dame, ever the revisionist, attempted to play down his audaciousness: “I’m not sure if I was really trying to be provocative, it was more like a hangover from the ‘60s. It was certainly more provocative when I wore the dress in America. The album wasn’t released with the original artwork in America.”
Bowie was now moving toward a different type of stardom, one that owed more to Andy Warhol’s ironic and corrupted take on Hollywood than to the homilies of rock manners. “Pantomime Rock” it may well have been, but Bowie clearly understood the genuine need for a different kind of idol. “Music is the Pierrot (the sad clown of the Commedia dell’arte) and I, the performer, am the message,” he said rather haughtily and pretentiously, rejecting rock’s infatuation with technique and technology in favour of a personality-driven approach – all with a knowing detachment.
“Sometimes I don’t feel like a person at all, I’m just a collection of other people’s ideas,” he confessed. You wouldn’t have heard Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney talking like that, but in mid-1972, as Ziggymania was transforming him into the most discussed performer in pop, David Bowie, replete with outrageous costumes and an ever gaudier, eyebrow-less facial aesthetic, was turning the concept of the star on its head. It seemed as much about manufacture and manipulation as it was music. As the year began, Bowie had playfully predicted his own stardom, and then let his alter-ego, Ziggy, do all the hard work for him.
“The creation of Ziggy Stardust was, wrote Bowie’s ex-wife Angie in Backstage Passes, her ‘90s memoir, “the first emphatic act in a great liberation”. The focal point was Bowie’s “cockade orange”, the feather-cut from hell (or maybe Mars) that was conceived in suburban Beckenham, Kent and held in place with a few generous squirts of a popular anti-dandruff treatment called Guard.
Angie described the Ziggy barnet as “the single most reverberant fashion statement of the ‘70s” and for once her unquenchable thirst for exaggeration was justified. “He looked just as ambivalently enticing as he had with his long blond hippie hair,” Angie maintained, “but the new, streamlined red puffball upped the ante. Now he looked stronger and wilder; just as fuckable, but a lot stranger and, well, more sluttish.”
The media gleefully dubbed him ‘The first rock star of the ‘70s’ knowing full well that the phrase had been concocted by Bowie’s manager, the inimitable Tony Defries. For two years Bowie/Ziggy played the part of the Superstar to the hilt. Only favoured journalists and photographers were given access; tours of Britain, America and Japan (Australia had to wait until 1978) were conducted in a manner usually reserved for royalty; a phalanx of burly bodyguards surrounded Bowie at all times, while the attendant entourage travelled everywhere in limos. A mantra, “Mr Bowie does not like to be touched,” was recited as if safe passage to a blissful afterlife depended on it.
In emphasising the manufacture of stardom – using fictitious aliases, hype, and revelling in Hollywood-like plasticity – Bowie both uncovered and exploited the pop fantasy. The art was in the deconstruction; the outcome, as Bowie had always intended, was the real thing. What he couldn’t have predicted was the scale of his success; how, like the legends of Dietrich, Garbo or Valentino, the more remote and ‘false’ he became, the more his popularity grew. No one had reckoned with the repressed desire for old-style stars – glamorous, larger-than-life and endowed with unfathomable mystery.
David Bowie wasn’t the first manufactured superstar, but he was the first to make the creation an integral part of his enterprise. By using the device of an alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust, his bid for fame was both a quest and a goal. It is this distancing technique, the conceit of appearing to be above authenticity or honesty, that lies at the heart of Bowie’s achievement. Pre-Ziggy, rock artists were essentially one-dimensional acts whose talents were measured according to the rules of poetic or musical competence. Bowie widened the rules to include visual elements, then bent them completely out of shape with a ‘knowingness and nothingness’ clause that dragged artifice into art. In doing so Bowie paved the way for scores of artists, musicians and models to pick up an instrument or a can of hairspray. The Dame virtually single-handedly and unwittingly invented or inspired everyone from Kate Bush to Kate Moss, Boy George to Lady Gaga, Gary Numan to Gary Oldman, Japan to Duran Duran, Madonna to Moschino.
When Bowie made his grand entrée with Ziggy, he played a cat-and-mouse game with one of the music world’s central referents – identity. Ziggy mutated into Aladdin Sane, and Bowie, a “grasshopper” contrivance for whom role play was a more gainful pursuit than the spurious notion of finding himself, declared he was, to paraphrase the lyrics of Moonage Daydream, worshiping at “the church of Man-love”. As he camply cribbed Judy Garland and The Supremes for Starman (his first hit since Space Oddity), Bowie played the part of an Astro-sphered androgyne from alien parts (more than two decades before Marilyn Manson pulled the same trick). He forced audiences to confront their sexuality, and the very foundations of popular music shuddered.
His live shows became multi-media extravaganzas incorporating mime, theatre, film, movable scaffolding and even the piped sound of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, lifted from the soundtrack of A Clockwork Orange. “A Bowie concert is your old Busby Berkeley production… this was perhaps the most consciously theatrical rock show ever staged,” wrote one critic. Anyone under 40 probably assumes that theatrical shows started with Michael Jackson or Pet Shop Boys, or Madonna’s Blonde Ambition. In fact, you’ll need to wind the clock back another 15 years or more.
The Bowie songbook, deceptively simple but skilfully administered, may even have been pastiches. He could be artfully highbrow or shamefully crass, a romantic visionary or a postmodern bricoleur before such a thing was ever contemplated. One thing was definite: during the 1970s David Bowie altered the look, sound and the meaning of popular music. For this achievement alone, he secured a vital place in history.
Catching the zeitgeist, the striking imagery is what really established Bowie. Ridiculously glamorous and charismatic, he was a lover of novelty, and would incorporate any new costumes or movements or attitudes into the detail of his repertoire. 1972’s The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders Mars – propelled by an epochal performance of Starman on the BBC’s long running TV show, Top Of The Pops – gave Bowie his first hit album, one whole decade after his first recording sessions as a member of the Kon-Rads.
Unlike his colleague Brian Eno, Bowie isn’t an intellectual, but he’s incredibly bright and also extremely intuitive about people and ideas. Ziggy was only just starting to take off, but he was already producing Lou Reed and Mott The Hoople and hustling Iggy Pop around to boot. He became influential very quickly, not just in rock ’n’ roll terms but in the wider culture. He was like a force of nature. Over 40 years later, people still talk about Reed’s Transformer, Iggy’s Raw Power and Mott’s All The Young Dudes as being the most significant albums in the careers of those three acts. David was the centrifugal force that drove this magic moment in time, and you can’t help wondering if those three acts would even be remembered if it wasn’t for Bowie’s interventions.
Bowie’s “I’m gay” declaration was the master-stroke that secured his career. “Best thing I ever said, I suppose,” he later acknowledged. But there were reservations: New Musical Express lamented the fact that “it took a spate of calculatedly outrageous acts to bring him any reasonable degree of mass recognition”. Of course it was a shameless act of hype, and all the more bizarre considering his family man status – and appetite for consuming groupies with the enthusiasm of a Viagra-chomping rabbit. And that’s when he wasn’t enjoying brief liaisons with Salvador Dali’s sex change muse Amanda Lear, Ava Cherry, Marianne Faithfull, Claudia Linnear, Lulu or Berlin tranny, Romy Haag.
Nevertheless, in a rock world where homosexuality was barely acknowledged, his comments broke one of the last taboos. “As soon as your article came out,” Bowie told music journalist Michael Watts months later, “people rang up and said, ‘Don’t buy the paper. You know what you’ve gone and done? You’ve just ruined yourself.’ They said, ‘You told him you were bisexual.’ I said, I know, he asked me! Nobody is going to be offended by that; everybody knows that most people are bisexual.” Unfortunately, despite the proliferation of unisex hairdressers and boutiques, they didn’t.
“There was an inevitable backlash. Readers wrote in expressing their fears for what might become a new genre (“Fag-Rock”, suggested one), and speculated whether they might yet see Elvis in drag. Music Scene took a pot-shot at what it called “The Powder-Puff Bandwagon”. The hilariously named Lester Bangs, a famously antagonistic, anachronistic American critic, unleashed reams of bile about “faggot rock”; Newsday’s Robert Christgau questioned whether “songs about Andy Warhol written by an English fairy are enough for American audiences”.
Disc queried “Why Bowie Is Feeling Butch,” while Sounds couldn’t resist a few playful innuendos, claiming that Bowie’s Rainbow show “didn’t quite come off”, and quoting Elton John saying he thought Bowie had “blown it” (Elton and Bowie have barely been on speaking terms since, but then I suppose the Dame calling John “the token queen of rock” probably didn’t help). After Melody Maker made Ziggy Stardust the best album of 1972, one reader complained that the paper was “now fawning at and licking the boots (covered in silver glitter of course), of a drag artist… If this is the best album of the year in your coveted opinion, then what are we to expect as your 1973 choice – Shirley Temple’s Greatest Hits? God help rock.”
Sections of the gay press were also suspicious of Bowie’s freak show bisexuality, though the emerging lesbian and gay movement generally welcomed the fact that the issue was at least on the agenda. Writing in July 1972, Gay News’ Peter Holmes was hopeful: “David Bowie is probably the best rock musician in Britain now. One day, he’ll become as popular as he deserves to be. And that’ll give gay rock a potent spokesman.”
One-time champion Michael Watts opined that “David’s present image is to come on like a swishy queen, a gorgeously effeminate boy. He’s as camp as a row of tents with his limp hand and trolling vocabulary.”
Nevertheless, the publicity served Bowie well. He fanned the debate by adopting an increasingly androgynous look, and showing a keen interest in costume and theatre. And fans scoured Bowie’s lyrics for further clues discovered plenty of references to an uncertain sexuality, some dating back to his 1967 self-titled LP. In Spain, one album was even given the name El Ray Del Gay Power. But the pop news story of 1972 was encapsulated in a single photograph: a shot of Bowie on his knees ‘fellating’ his foil Mick Ronson’s guitar drone a live show. This image was quickly distributed and has since become the defining image of glam rock.
“I had no warning for that fellatio shot, which I took at Oxford Town Hall in June 1972,” recalls the photographer Mick Rock. “I was at the front of the stage, and when I moved to the side, David suddenly did it. I remember him coming off stage and saying, ‘Did you get it, did you get it?’ I didn’t know if it was planned or spontaneous, but he was always looking for a move that would break through. That one really did!
“I developed the shots the next morning, and took them round to the GEM office. David and his manager picked out the shot they liked best and rushed it off to the printers. They both knew it was a master image. They bought a page in Melody Maker and ran it like a fan advert. David might regard that photo as being one of the key images of his career. It certainly made a dramatic and controversial statement.”
“It was all done on a shoestring with smoke and mirrors. There was so much stylised behaviour in his performance that he was great to shoot. It was like watching a kaleidoscope; he just kept changing on stage,” continues Rock.
“Androgyny was in the air and David was undoubtedly the finest manifestation of that. It was an innate part of his personality. If truth be told, David is very much a boy – I know a lot of girls he had sex with! But he would play up like English schoolboys do, groping and romping in the playground. He developed that, and it became part of him.”
“He loved the camera when that wasn’t the ethic of the time. David would give you what you wanted, he was always up for it. He’s always up to something, even today. He never sits still; he’s got an enormous amount of energy. He’s still in control of his image, but also now his destiny.”
Bowie’s arrival certainly broadened the palette of role-models for a generation of pop fans, and many prominent gay celebrities such as Marc Almond, Boy George and Neil Tennant have since described the liberating effect Bowie had in unlocking their true sexuality. Ultimately, though, Bowie’s personal sexual ambivalence might better be understood in the wider context of his work. It has more to do with the aesthetics of camp than being gay. “Camp sees everything in quotation marks,” wrote Susan Sontag. “It is the fullest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theatre.”
Over the next few years, matters of his sexual orientation were flirted with but left open to interpretation. But in 1976, during the depths of cocaine addiction, Bowie confessed all to Playboy magazine, revealing a deep-seated bisexuality: “It didn’t really matter who or what it was with, as long as it was a sexual experience. So it was some very pretty boy in class in some school or other that I took home and neatly fucked on my bed upstairs.”
Finding himself on the daytime TV chat show circuit three years later to promote his latest single, Boys Keep Swinging, the gloriously nudge-nudge wink-wink riposte to the inexplicable rise of the Village People, he attempted to close down the subject by telling Valerie Singleton through somewhat gritted teeth, “I’ve said I’m bisexual.” But come the next decade, the one-time ‘King Of Camp Rock’ remained remarkably elusive on the subject in public.
The strikingly unsettling Ashes To Ashes, a sequel of sorts to Space Oddity, returned Bowie to the top of the British charts in 1980. The marvellously memorable promotional video saw him raid the dressing up box for what seemed like one last time, whilst ingeniously tapping into the burgeoning New Romantic movement that he helped create, by co-opting Steve Strange and his fellow Blitz Kids into supporting roles.
Nevertheless, the single and parent album, Scary Monsters, did nothing to halt Bowie’s commercial decline in the States that had started with 1977’s Low and Heroes. Those two experimental albums are now viewed as two of his greatest ever achievements; absolute creative zeniths produced in collaboration with that former Roxy Music knob-twiddling soundscapist, Eno.
When Bowie returned with a perma-tanned bleached blond public schoolboy look and a new multimillion dollar contract with EMI, he calculatedly played it at straight as possible to appeal to the widest possible audience, particularly in America and Australia. The Dame’s heterosexualist conformity in the ’80s was a disappointment to many.
He bought a swish apartment at Kincoppal, in Sydney’s Elizabeth Bay, and filmed the videos to Let’s Dance and China Girl in his new favourite country. The film for Let’s Dance, shot in Sydney, Warrumbungle and the remote rural outpost of Carinda, highlighted the plight of the Australian indigenous people, whilst the altogether saucier China Girl, partly filmed in Melbourne’s Chinatown, finished off with a naked Bowie baring his beach boy butt with an Asian temptress in the surf of Sydney’s Long Reef beach.
The plan worked. Globally, 1983’s Let’s Dance was Bowie’s bona fide coffee table record, and remains his biggest selling album and single, while that year’s Serious Moonlight tour saw him break attendance records the world over. One concert in Auckland was estimated to have been seen by 1 in 30 of the entire population of New Zealand, the 100,000 strong audience being the largest ever recorded for an Australasian concert. To put that in perspective, the Guinness Book Of Records recorded it as the largest crowd gathering per head of population anywhere in the world, a feat unmatched to this day.
The rest of ‘80s Bowie was largely without merit; evermore overblown stadium shows, once unthinkable duets with even more unlikely bands (Queen, Pat Metheny Group) or his showbiz shags (Mick Jagger, Tina Turner) and a plethora of largely forgettable movies.
Come the ‘90s, the Brit-pack, headed by Suede, Blur and Oasis, name-dropped the Thin White Dame in interviews and inadvertently helped make him cool all over again. The now “closet heterosexual” recalled his groundbreaking Melody Maker interview of twenty years before: “I had been bisexual for many years before I made that statement but it was perceived like it was a great gimmick. I found out I wasn’t truly a bisexual but I loved the flirtation with it. I enjoyed the excitement of being involved in an area that had been perceived as social taboo. That excited me a lot.” He continued: “I don’t think I did anything that my contemporaries didn’t; it was just that I was the only one who talked about it. In the ’60s anyone who had a sense of style seemed to be gay. I wanted to identify with that.”
Bowie increasingly positioned himself outside of the mainstream as the ’90s wore on. Though he could still cosy up to commerciality when he needed to. In late 1995, stung by an avalanche of pernicious press over an impenetrable album (Outside), and attendant tour that was forced to use a ‘special guest’ (an even more antagonistic Morrissey) as a way of filling otherwise half-full arenas, Bowie was tipped the wink of an impending Brit award for Outstanding Achievement to Music.
What did this most media savvy of performers do? Bowie decided needed a hit. And fast! So he turned to Britain’s premier pop duo, the Pet Shop Boys, and let them loose on Hallo Spaceboy, a pulverising piece of Nine Inch Nails-inspired noise that revisited the dear old Dame’s perennial themes of sci-fi exploration, futurism and sexual confusion. Remarkably, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the gay Lennon and McCartney transformed the muscular brash thrash interlude into a fully realised disco ditty that even topped the charts in Eastern Europe. Once again, Bowie was flirting with sexual ambiguity and camp innuendo, carrying on with lines like, ”Do you like girls or boys?/It’s confusing these days/Bye bye love!”
What worked to an even more astonishing degree was 2013’s The Next Day, his only album in the last 12 years. After serious health issues following a heart attack in 2004, Bowie no longer subjects himself to interviews, exhausting tours or public speaking. The result was that the shock comeback garnered lavish praise, headlines and, for the first time in 20 years, Bowie enjoyed pole position in the charts.
Along with it comes the launch of a new image; that of a nostalgic legendary rock star called David Bowie. It’s a brand he’s reinforced by making his own back catalogue the subject. Hence, the career retrospective on its way to Australia, and Lazarus, the New York musical he’s penning, based on his most famous film, The Man Who Fell To Earth; this new persona wants us to focus on the past, not his present.
George Michael once told me he considered Bowie to be “the single most important rock star after Elvis”. Weighing up The Dame’s trailblazing achievements and indelible influence on music, style, sound, vision, fashion and popular culture as a whole, it’s almost churlish to disagree. He is a cultural plunderer, a genre of his own making and a complete one-off. I’ll leave it to Madonna to sum up: “David Bowie really played with ideas, and iconography and imagery. He’s a brilliant man. And a gentleman too.” The queen has spoken. Long live the king.
© Steve Pafford 2015, 2017
First published: DNA, June 2015