For many fans, the late British singer David Bowie is remembered as a fun, colorful alien. A pioneer of gender bending, maybe “queer” or “genderqueer.” The reality, I’m afraid, is that underneath the make-up and costumes is the oldest, worst thinking about sex.
He was creepy in a lot of ways. A man having sex with 14-year-olds is not acceptable. I read Bowie biographies, marking passages that horrify me, and the pages are full. “He slept with women because it appealed to him; he slept with men as trophies as he exerted control over them.”
Christopher Sanford’s biography, Bowie: Loving the Alien, continues on, detailing Bowie’s views on women: “It was their business to ensure the continuity of the race and to look after men and children.” A female lover is quoted saying he had “almost a pathological aversion to open up to a woman.” His ex-wife, Angela Bowie, notes that “David made a virtual religion of slipping the Lance of Love into almost everyone around him,” but in her experience, “the sex was lousy.”
He’d become incensed if kept waiting for service from women. John Lennon reprimanded Bowie for barking at Lennon’s fiancé to make breakfast. Angela has a scene: “David hurtled across the room, grabbed my throat in both hands, and started to throttle me.” There’s his odes to Hitler. “Oh he was a terrible military strategist,” he says, “the world’s worst, but his overall objective was very good, and he was a marvellous morale booster.”
He goes on and on about Nietzsche’s “superman” as a model for himself, so the Hitler praises are an obvious extension.
On reflection, I came to realize that Bowie was hostile to the very ideals he seemed to champion. He sold the illusion of being liberated, but the “changes” were cosmetic, skin-deep.
He remained fundamentally male—if that means: detached, misogynist, and violent.
“I’m a pretty cold person. A very cold person, I find.” He describes himself in 1972 to Rolling Stone: “I can’t feel strongly. I get so numb. I find that I’m walking around numb. I’m a bit of an iceman.”
How wasn’t he a #MeToo target? “When word leaked out that he had a habit of seducing anyone who worked for him, job applications to his management company rocketed,” notes the Daily Mail after his death in 2016. As if it’s a joke that a workplace was a harem.
And I’m still wondering what to think about this 1987 story:
The case was dismissed. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have sex with her, bite her, then for laughs tell her he’d given her AIDS.
Bowie, of course, plays a vampire in The Hunger (1983) and his “borrowing” from other musical acts would be described in those terms, as by Danny Fields in David Bowie: The Oral History: “David was a vampire, but a good vampire, he did something good with the blood. He shared the nutrients.”
That’s what you get with Bowie: a vampire who “shares,” i.e. steals from other musicians, repackages it and sells it to you.
Let’s talk about his music?
“My impression is that the space motif has always allowed Bowie to make more ambiguous the anguish of coming out, and to escape to a degree the reality of his personal-social conflict about sexuality.” —Andrew Kopkind
The gay writer Andrew Kopkind, in “Gay Rock: The Boys in the Band,” in a 1973 essay in Ramparts, sums it up? The space alien stuff that made Bowie famous was a metaphor of gayness, but hostile to gays. It’s a prompt to check out. “Only life on Mars escapes the terms of existence and the forms of behavior that Earth lays down,” as Kopkind says.
Spaceman Bowie tells you that you’re not from Planet Earth, that you’re alone and despairing here since it’s not your home, and you’ll die grimly and horribly—killed, or killing yourself.
His first hit, in 1969, was “Space Oddity,” released a week before the Apollo moon landing. It’s a strange scene about an astronaut who seems to be adrift in space. Bowie was evidently inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, but where that movie was read as a spiritual statement on a new age dawning, Bowie wrote a grim suicide song. “And I think my spaceship knows what I must do, and I think my life on earth is nearly through,” the depressive astronaut sings in the song’s early demos. Even as released, as Sanford notes, the song has a “message of withdrawal, of life closing down.”
Death is his basic vibe, as with “Conversation Piece,” a 1969 demo, later recorded for Heathen, about a scholar who comes upon a bridge and jumps off. Or “Five Years,” off Ziggy Stardust, about a man talking a walk as he watches humanity react to the news Earth is ‘dying’.
Fears over mortality seem to haunt him since he was a kid. Stanford notes: “Even in 1951, the Joneses’ neighbors would routinely be startled by the arrival of the borough ambulance summoned by the boy’s plausible, but always unfounded, claim to be ‘dying’.”
Bowie’s dying songs—including “Rock n Roll Suicide” off the Ziggy Stardust album—fit the prevalent genre of gays killing themselves. As Vito Russell details in The Celluloid Closet, his 1981 book on Hollywood’s treatment of gays: “Once homosexuality had become literally speakable in the early 1960s, gays dropped like flies, usually by their own hand, while continuing to perform their classically comic function in lesser and more ambiguous roles.”
That was Bowie’s plot point: single, lonely men committing suicide, or going crazy over “fame,” etc. The prompts to party seem, then, like mania following depression. His Ziggy Stardust character gets a cosmic message from the ‘Starman’: “Let the children lose it, let the children use it, let all the children boogie.”
Nothing about inclusion, love, hope, etc. It was just . . . boogie. To his records that you bought. A new gospel that centers all meaning on the purchase of his music.
“Oh lord, I got over being a queen quite a long time ago,” he tells Playboy in 1976. “I would say that America forced me into it.”
He affirmed to the dominant culture that old idea: homosexuality is a phase.
His handlers and employees to this day stick to the idea that it was all a joke. Lisa Robinson writes: “As for all the talk about his ‘bisexuality’, I always thought it was fun, no big deal, a clever marketing ploy, or all of the above.”
Looking back, we see he uses gays when its suits him and that his real view of them seems to be very poor. Jayne County, the transgender performer, recalls: “He would stomp backstage after a show and scream, ‘Those fucking fags in the front grabbing for me! I hate them!’”
The gay scholar Wayne Studer notes the “gloomy, depraved vision of homosexuality that emerges from Bowie’s corpus. There’s nothing ‘gay’ about it. It’s all bitchiness, shock, pain, misery, loathing, and decadence.”
It was homophobia in pretty clothes and makeup.
Bowie worked to end the 1960s message of love, freedom and liberation. His message: estrangement, breakdown, suicide and silence. “Thematically, I have always dealt with alienation and isolation,” as he says.
This was appealing, no doubt, to a human race that hadn’t really experienced intimacy before, and would’ve been afraid of it? Bowie opposed the sexual revolution, or rather, substituted rampant sexual experience as seems in retrospect troublingly tinged with themes of predation. He made the feminism of 1970–71 seem like a female-only development, when Glam, or ‘glitter’, was the male version. Feminism was women accessing male modes, and glitter was men accessing female modes. But he never did.
Many important glitter performers, from Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn to the New York Dolls, etc., were forgotten as Bowie rode into New York, bought up the press (eager to sell itself) and moved to establish himself as the scene’s sneering leader.
The 1960s types disliked him. Germaine Greer notes Bowie was viewed as “a useless hanger-on.” Frank Zappa was deeply hostile. In a 1974 interview in Hustler, Zappa calls Bowie’s work “a piece of shit.” In a screenplay, he elaborates on the Bowie mode as “ugly and loveless” and diagnoses his act as “the troubled life of a white boy with special hair who achieves musical greatness through unusually large sales figures.”
Ever driven by rivalry, Bowie retaliates in 1978 with an aggressive play to hire Zappa’s guitarist, Andrian Belew, from under Zappa’s nose, then rub his face in it. “Fuck you Captain Tom,” Zappa says.
Rivalry is Bowie’s stance with many musicians, as he razed the music landscape through the wars he created. The “true fairy” Jobriath, in 1973, was a gay musician intent on articulating the homosexual man as feeling and humane. Leee Black Childers, the gay photographer in Bowie’s employ, told me: “Everybody was David’s enemy. But Jobriath was openly, in his mind, the enemy. He had to be crushed.”
Strategies? “David did actively tell various important people in the press who were used to behaving like that, like Lisa Robinson, ‘Say good things about him, or say anything at all about him, and you’ll never see me again. I won’t even let you interview me.’ And a lot of people fell for it.”
Watching the contest between Bowie and Jobriath play out, the gay activist and later club owner Jim Fouratt recalls: “I think that in fact Jobriath was more musically gifted than Bowie. But I think that what Jobriath lacked was the essential core that Bowie has, which is very heterosexual and very male, of winning.” I’m a big Jobriath fan, and point to recent podcast on the ’77 Music Club for a refresher on his different values.
But Bowie “won” by sidelining the more interesting performers doing deconstructions of traditional maleness—Jayne County, Lou Reed, Jobriath, Iggy Pop, on and on. Bowie defamed or absorbed them.
So he became the idea of androgyny to the culture that accepted him because he was, hardly ch-ch-changed, but . . . unchanged.
And you, you can be mean
And I, I’ll drink all the time
’Cause we’re lovers, and that is a fact
Yes, we’re lovers, and that is that
Remember that “Heroes,” his apparent ode to courage, is actually a portrait of abusive addicts.
I do wonder if Bowie was sort of gay, and expended a lot of energy in “proving” otherwise. He’d reproduce—publicly—all the worst features of traditional maleness in that effort. He “out-manned” everyone.
Privately, it might be a different story? “I remember him saying he was bisexual,” says Alan Dodds, a bandmate Bowie knew at age 16. There are extensive descriptions of Bowie’s boyfriends and affairs with men.
It does seem he had a longtime romance with Mick Jagger. Angie Bowie spilled some of the beans on The Joan Rivers Show on May 4, 1990. “I caught him in bed with men several times. In fact the best time I caught him in bed was with Mick Jagger.”
Jagger rushed in to dismiss it as “complete rubbish,” and Bowie’s lawyer said any “implication that there was ever a gay affair between Mick Jagger and David Bowie is an absolute fabrication.”
In a 2012 book, Mick: the Wild Life and Mad Genius of Jagger, Christopher Andersen claims the two men had a longtime affair. In a 2015 memoir, Warts And All, now strangely unavailable, John Ffitch-Heyes recalls showing up at Bowie’s house just as Jagger came storming out. A “stark naked” Bowie followed, with Angie explaining it was a “lover’s tiff.”
Tina Turner spent time around the two of them, recalling: “They were like brothers, kind of like brothers or close, close, close friends.”
I think these people we call “popstars” spend their lives spinning fictions. Even when they want to stop, they can’t.
I think it’s time to put them all to bed.