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Bowie & Me

A daughter of a couple of University friends of mine was given a topic at her Uni: “How has David Bowie's exploration of gender through his work influenced modern art and culture?”

Her parents suggested she ask me for a few thoughts, and she asked me to put together my own thoughts and experiences of Bowie.  This is what I wrote for her - I deliberately didn’t write her essay!

On the day David Bowie died, I cried.

I was driving from Aberdeen back to Manchester, and had to stop the car several times. I was one of many to whom Bowie’s music meant so much that I had little control over my emotions.

I asked myself how the death of someone I had never even met, could affect me so much.

 

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I love music, and am an avid collector.  I have every UK No.1 single and album, and there are over 130,000 tracks in my digital collection.  I spent over a year ripping all my vinyl and cassettes into my PC.  Of all the artists in that collection, Bowie is my favourite.  I have all his officially released tracks, and loads of bootlegs.  A search for ‘David Bowie’ has turned up 1,350 tracks.

Bowie_JohnDancingAgainThe first Bowie record I bought was ‘John, I’m Only Dancing (Again)’.

I bought it out of a bargain basket in a record shop in early 1980 for 10p.  I was 15 and nearly all my pocket money would go on records.  My purchases were usually the major chart hits of the period, dominated by ‘punk’ and ‘disco’.  I’m guessing now that I bought this because of the picture on the front.  I don’t think I had actually heard it before, as it was only a minor hit.

On weekend evenings, when our parents would head to the Working Men’s Clubs, the kids in the street would take it in turns to go to each other’s houses and play records.  When I got this one out, I distinctly remember one of my mates saying “You know he’s a poof, don’t you?”.

I didn’t, and of course he wasn’t, but none of that mattered.

I have known I was gay from as early as I could put a word to it.  Growing up gay in the 60s and 70s was very different than it is now.  I sincerely hope that kids today have an easier time than my generation did, and I believe that having rôle models is the key.  Today, LGBT rôle models are everywhere, in pop music, soap operas, films, and in real life!  Back then, we had Larry Grayson, John Inman, and ‘The Naked Civil Servantメ.  None of which appealed to me.  Then I found Bowie.

His popularity was very much on the wane in the late 70s, and he was recognized as more of an ‘artist’ than a pop star.  But he was credible, interesting, and challenging all at the same time.  I wanted to know more about this man.  There was of course no internet in those days, and the school and council libraries didn’t have books on pop music.

Bowie_AlabamaSongWithin a couple of weeks, Bowie released another single, which I bought at full price.  The full cost of a 7” vinyl record was nearly all of my pocket money.  The single was ‘Alabama Song’.  Not the easiest of tracks to listen to, for a boy brought up on Boney M and Abba.  But I persisted.

I didn’t know it then, but the track is actually from the 1930 German opera ‘Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny’ (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny).  Bowie released the track on the 50th anniversary of the original Lotte Lenya recording.  Miraculously, it charted.  It also spawned in me a love of the works of Brecht & Weill.
Bowie was obviously not playing by the rules of the pop music industry.

My desire for information about Bowie was not being met.  All I heard was rumour and gossip.  It would be many years before I realised that this was Bowie’s marketing strategy all along!

220px-AshesToAshes3Fortunately, as the year progressed, Bowie was back at the forefront of the pop industry, and in the news.  I left school in June of 1980, and in the long summer break before I started college to study for A-levels, Bowie released ‘Ashes to Ashes’.  I bought it the weekend it came out, and was delighted when listening to the chart rundown on Radio One the next Tuesday, to find it had entered the Top Ten at No.4.  The next week, it was No.1.

When they showed the music video on BBC1’s Top of the Pops, it was a major iconic moment in the history of British popular music.  Bowie had done the same with ‘Starman’ in 1971, but I had been too young to notice.

The video was then the most expensive one made, and featured regulars from the London underground music scene, including Steve Strange.  Punk was dead, and New Wave and New Romanticism had arrived.  Boys could wear make-up, and the weirder your clothes, the better.

Bowie was everywhere in the music press at the time, and his blurred sexuality was always hinted at.  Just the fact that Bowie might be gay, was enough to draw me further in.  Strangely, I don’t think I ever fancied him.  I was always more interested in the ‘boy next door’ type, than some distant, unreachable cult figure.

220px-DavidBowieScaryMonstersCoverWhen the album ‘Scary Monsters and Super Creeps’ came out, I was at college, and working part-time.  Nearly three weeks wages were spent on the album and a Bowie greatest hits collection on  K-Tel.  I slowly accumulated his back catalogue, and anything he had had any part in, including music by acts as diverse as Iggy Pop and Lulu.

By the time Bowie released ‘Let’s Dance’ in 1983, I had used him as the subject for my General Studies A-Level project.  I’d bought two (very expensive) books on Bowie for my research, which in retrospect I now know were about 20% fact and the rest speculation.

Writing this, I realise that everybody who is a fan of Bowie has their own personal picture of him in their minds.  And I think that that was what he always intended.  I guess that the only person who really knew who David Bowie actually was, was the man himself.  It’s also evident from his own words that his views of himself were as fluid as his various adapted personae.

Right from the start, Bowie challenged the norm.  Whether it was his hair, his music, his clothes, his art, his acting, he always took the route ‘less traveled by’.  His talent was as much to get his audience to open their minds to new ideas, as it was to make great music.


David+Bowie+Lets+Dance+6315988b2d365382f0d745116500b8d0b33a5cWhen I was 19, one record shop where I had spent an awful lot of money, gave me the shop promotional poster for ‘Let’s Dance’.  I put this on one wall in my bedroom, and put a big poster of a very provocative Debbie Harry from Blondie on the other.  The Debbie Harry one was by way of balance.

If I’d just had the Bowie one, folk might think I was gay.

 

Whilst Bowie’s gender fluidity was a more prominent feature of his early 70s work, his past was always there, and fans like me who joined his following later in his career, were influenced by what had gone before.

Aged only 17, then still using his birth name David Jones, he appeared on television.  He was defending a man’s right to have long hair, which was very controversial at the time.  He described himself as the as the founder of ‘The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-haired Men’.

Before his recording career, Bowie was a member of Lindsay Kemp’s Dance Troupe.  They performed in Aberdeen in the early to mid 1960s, and Bowie was with Kemp at a student party on the Spital in Old Aberdeen.  The party was particularly outrageous, with drink, drugs and open homosexuality.  You won’t find any reference to this anywhere on the internet.  I was told the story by a very reliable source, Annie Inglis MBE, who was at the party, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

His first UK hit was in 1969 with ‘Space Oddity’.  He had been recording since 1964.  It made No.5 in the charts that year, and became his first No.1 when it was re-issued in 1975.
He failed to follow up on his initial chart success, and released three albums and six singles, none of which troubled the charts.

TheManWhoSoldtheWorldOne of these albums was ‘The Man who Sold the World’ and it produced considerable controversy, if few sales, because of its provocative cover art.
A picture of a man wearing a dress was just ‘not on’ in 1970.
The cover was quickly changed, and never released in the USA.

The album is now considered a classic, with the title track covered by Lulu, and Nirvana, amongst others.

 

David_Bowie_-_Hunky_DoryHis last studio album not to chart on release was ‘Hunky Dory.  Many fans would argue that it is the best album he has ever produced.

Again, the cover art is unconventional, to say the least.
If you haven’t listened to this album yet, you probably don’t know anything about David Bowie at all.  It is probably his most autobiographical album, and will tell you more about him than I ever could.  Listen to it all, in order, and check out the lyrics.

 

220px-ZiggyStardustHis next album was the big one: ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’.  It didn’t sell as many as his 1980s blockbuster ‘Let’s Dance’, but in quality it out-shines it by a mile.  It was his first album to actually chart, and led to his earlier albums being re-issued.

Bowie had been building up a loyal following from his outrageous live shows, and the single ‘Starman’ entered the Top 50.  He appeared on Top of the Pops, and the rest is history.

 

guyp1After hitting the big time, most artists go ‘mainstream’.  Not Bowie
 Of course, he flirted with the mainstream, even appearing on a US TV show with Bing Crosby, singing a Christmas carol, but he always preferred being on the edge.  Many of the lyrics on his follow-up to ‘Ziggy’, ‘Aladdin Sane’ and his last album ‘Blackstar’ require ‘Parental Guidance’ stickers.  His 1974 album, ‘Diamond Dogs’, has cover art showing Bowie as half-man, half-dog.  The dog penis was airbrushed out for later pressings, following complaints.

bowie-boys-keep-swinging

Throughout his career, Bowie continued to challenge gender stereotypes.  The lead single from his 1979 album ‘Lodger’, ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ featured a video of Bowie appearing as himself, and as three drag-act backing singers.

 

 

 

1361893918-david-bowie-and-tilda-swinton__largefqEvW2XFor the promotion of his 2013 album ‘The Next Day’, he joined friend and actress Tilda Swinton, for a rather impressive gender-bending photo shoot.

Whilst Bowie’s androgynous images were a big part of what made him interesting, I don’t think that for him it was the fundamental part.  His work shows that he would stretch every aspect of his personality to see just how far he could take it, and sexuality was just one aspect.

 

When questioned bluntly about his sexuality, he is on record giving several contradictory answers.  However, all his long term relationships, and his only really successful one, have been with women.  You can’t stereotype his music, and you can’t stereotype his sexuality either.

He embraced difference, and challenged conformity.  I think many of us can relate to that.

 

So why did I spend a day in January 2016, bursting into tears?

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Recommended Listening:

Space Oddity – from the 1969 album ‘David Bowie’, later re-titled ‘Space Oddity’.
The Man Who Sold the World – from The Man Who Sold the World
Hunky Dory – the whole album.
Starman, Ziggy Stardust, Rock’n’Roll Suicide – from Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders from Mars
My Death – from Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture
Port of Amsterdam (single B-side)
Aladdin Sane, Time – from Aladdin Sane
Rebel Rebel – from Diamond Dogs
Fame, Can You Hear Me? – from Young Americans
Station to Station, Wild is the Wind – from Station to Station
Sound and Vision, Always Crashing the Same Car – from Low
Heroes – from Heroes
Boys Keep Swinging - from Lodger
Ashes to Ashes, Fashion – from Scary Monsters and Super Creeps
Let’s Dance – from Let’s Dance
The Heart’s Filthy Lesson – from Outside
Little Wonder – from Earthling
Thursday’s Child, Seven – from Hours...
Slow Burn – from Heathen
New Killer Star, Bring Me the Disco King – from Reality
Where Are We Now?, The Stars (Are Out Tonight) – from The Next Day
I Can’t Give Everything Away, Blackstar – from Blackstar

 

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