Sunday, January 17, 2016

Oh God, I Could Do Better Than That

When the AV Club posted an article titled, "What Did David Bowie Mean to You?", my initial reaction was: not a whole lot.  The article itself, composed of short tributes by several AV Club critics, is quite good, often moving, and it at least acknowledged the queerness in much of Bowie's work and personae.

An earlier article on the recording of Bowie's second album, The Man Who Sold the World, didn't acknowledge it, and I thought that was a significant omission because the original cover English cover art, replaced with something more neutral on the US release, upset a lot of critics (Not as much as the original cover art for Diamond Dogs did, though.)  So did the song "Width of a Circle," with its account of the singer's encounter with a leather boy.  I suppose it could be taken as a positive sign that the musicians in Bowie's band for that album apparently didn't react negatively when he brought in those lyrics, but I wish someone had asked them about it.

Because when I thought about it, I realized that what Bowie did mean to me for a while in the 70s was that he was a major-label artist who recorded gay content.  Hunky Dory, his third album, had "Queen Bitch," a sort of tribute to the Velvet Underground with lyrics about rival queens pursuing a piece of trade.  As I remember it now, I bought Hunky Dory because of "Queen Bitch," and while it was a fine rocker and the lyrics were a breakthrough of some kind for major-label pop, I was also disappointed.  When Lester Bangs wrote later that he "thought [Bowie] wrote the absolute worst lyrics I had ever heard from a major pop figure with the exception of Bernie Taupin," I was relieved to find that I wasn't the only person who thought so.  It just occurred to me that Bowie could be seen as the Kilgore Trout of pop, after Kurt Vonnegut's fictional science fiction author who had great ideas, but was a terrible writer.  In "Queen Bitch," for example, it seemed to me that Bowie had picked up some American street slang but didn't really know what it meant or how to use it.  On the other hand, I admired his admonition to his newborn son: "Don't pick fights with the bullies or the cads/'Cause I'm not much cop at punching other people's Dads."  One reason why Hunky Dory stands out among his product is that for once Bowie spoke personally, even intimately, in his lyrics, with touching results.

Bowie continued to play with erotic and gender ambiguity for his next few albums.  One of my favorites from The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is "Lady Stardust," whose "lady" is a "boy."  I like some of the rockers better ("Hang On To Yourself," "Suffragette City"), but lyrically, "Lady Stardust" is interesting.  On Aladdin Sane, "ambiguity" is the key.  Several of the songs can be heard as gay or straight, such as "Panic in Detroit," whose narrator might be male or female.  In "Cracked Actor," for example, about a middle-aged movie star who picks up a hustler on "Sunset and Vine," the hustler might be male (I always took it for granted), but might also be female (as a homophobic straight friend insisted).  Lester Bangs, as I recall, disliked Bowie's cover of the Stones' "Let's Spend the Night Together," which he saw as a gay remake, but I've never been sure of that; the eye of the beholder, I guess.

Then came Diamond Dogs, which included "Rebel Rebel," probably his best-known and most-covered song about gender confusion.  "You've got your mother in a whirl / She's not sure if you're a boy or a girl."  Bowie never resolves it, which is fine. I took it for granted in those days that other performers would take advantage of the opening Bowie had created by coming out, which took a lot more courage then than it does now.  It didn't happen.

It's always been seen as Bowie's trademark that he changed stage personae like a "chameleon," a word that often recurs in the reviews.  (It's funny to see him complaining about the short attention span of the media in this conversation with William Burroughs from 1974; he was one to talk!)  But within each era he also wrote for different characters: the "I" of "Cracked Actor" isn't the "I" of "Panic in Detroit," and on Ziggy Stardust the "I" changes from song to song.  This fit with the theatricality that numerous rockers were playing with in those days, from the Doors to the Who, and the dramatic monologue was used by other singers as well.  Musically, in terms of his songwriting as well as his singing style, Bowie belonged more to English theatrical tradition than to rock; he was often compared to Anthony Newley in reviews.  But I think that his performance of different characters in his songs bothered a lot of critics, especially Americans it seemed.  They wanted to believe that if Bowie sang a song about sex with a boy, it had to be his own experience, despite all the lyrical evidence that it wasn't necessarily so.  Randy Newman (a much better lyricist) got away with it, but in general playing roles upset the critics' Puritan sensibilities.  (Lester Bangs came from a family of Jehovah's Witnesses, for what that may be worth.  Despite his raunchy talk and substance abuse, Lester was quite a Puritan.)

As Bowie moved away from his queer period, disavowing and disowning his previous avowal of bisexuality, I largely lost interest in him, though I dutifully listened to and sometimes bought each album as it came out until sometime in the 80s.  It wasn't because of the lack of queer content -- there was often some excitement among the fans over ambiguous songs like "Boys Keep Swinging" -- but because I didn't find his music interesting.  (There are plenty of heterosexual musicians whose work I like.)  I've been listening to Blackstar, his farewell album, and while I'd like to like it, it's not working for me.  The dirgelike music suits his mood, I guess; he knew he was dying when he recorded it.  But the lyrics don't grab my attention, they're the usual Bowie word salad, and the music doesn't reach me either.

The writers in the A.V. Club piece are at least twenty years younger than I am, and first encountered Bowie's music ten years or more after I did.  They grew up with him, either as a musician or as an actor.  His role as the Goblin King in Labyrinth made a big impact on several of them.  Of course he meant something different to them than he did to me.  I'd begun returning to his music several months ago, before the world knew he was sick, and much of it does work for me, as I've said above.  The songs I liked forty years ago, I still like; those I didn't like haven't grown on me.  As with any artist, we create our own meanings for Bowie.