Criminal World

Criminal World (Metro, 1976.)
Criminal World (Bowie.)

I’m gay and always have been, even when I was David Jones.

David Bowie, Melody Maker, 22 January 1972.

The biggest mistake I ever made [was saying] that I was bisexual. Christ, I was so young then. I was experimenting.

David Bowie, Rolling Stone, 12 May 1983.

In the early Eighties, there was a collective denial of bisexuality/homosexuality among a generation of rock musicians. Lou Reed put out a few occasionally uxorious records, one of which had a song whose chorus was “I love women.” Freddie Mercury and Rob Halford kept to their closets. Elton John even married a woman.

Then there was Bowie, who, in the notorious Rolling Stone “David Bowie Straight” interview in May 1983 (coinciding with the release of Let’s Dance), denied that he had ever been gay. He said much the same to Time two months later, calling his admission in 1972 “a major miscalculation.” It was the end of Bowie’s “gay” years. Never mind “John I’m Only Dancing” or “Rebel Rebel”: the new Bowie was pure hetero, a ladies’ man.

This betrayal, if one could call it that, came at a cruel time. By 1983, AIDS, wreaking hell through gay communities, had become the source of lurid speculations and lunatic theories. I was an 11-year-old boy in the South at the time, and I recall what was said, by adults, not just kids: that you could get AIDS from doorknobs and toilet seats, that angry gay waiters were spitting their AIDS-tainted sputum into your food, that homosexuality was inseparable from filth and disease. Kushner’s Angels in America comes out of this period, as does James McCourt’s wonderful Time Remaining, an elegy for a culture annihilated.

So Bowie, a man who once worn dresses on his LP covers, who once sang to a cross-dressing kid “hey babe, your hair’s alright,” now seemed to repudiate a culture that had once revered him, and at its bleakest hour. As I’ve written before (see the “John” entry), Bowie apparently wasn’t gay, rather being a mild bisexual who exclusively chose women for long-term relationships. As early as the Young Americans era, he had stopped playing, as the Melody Maker described him in 1972, a gorgeously effeminate boy…camp as a row of tents, with his limp hand and trolling vocabulary. And as I’ve said before, I don’t care to delve into the gossip of who he slept with.

But what did Bowie owe to gay men? He had trafficked in their culture, had pretended (even claimed) to be one for several years, and gays had been some of his oldest and most loyal fans. Had he just always been an opportunist—and, to bluntly put it, being gay in 1983 was no longer “cool,” but rather something to be avoided?

For Bowie, it was a cold, commercial decision. He felt that he had been defined in America for his entire career as a bisexual first, artist second. In 2002, he told Blender: “America is a very puritanical place, and I think [being known as a bisexual] stood in the way of what I wanted to do…I had no inclination to hold any banners or to be a representative of any type of people.” Camille Paglia, interviewed by Marc Spitz for his Bowie bio, agreed: “Bowie, in my view, had no obligation to say “I’m gay.” His obligation is only to his imagination. It’s the extreme view but I think, quite frankly, it’s the authentically gay view.”

But go back to Let’s Dance. Tucked away on the B side was cover of a gay (or at least bi)-themed song from 1976, “Criminal World.” Was this a communique of sorts, a “psst–I’m still here” note from a converso? Or just one last twist of the knife?

I was really turned off by [Bowie]. I didn’t like him at all. Because of that bullshit. “Experimentation.”…I didn’t feel betrayed. I just felt like he was a product. But then he lost his touch, didn’t he? For many people it was a betrayal. You can’t take that back. “Oh, no, I really am cool. I really am on your side.” At a time when Reagan was in office and AIDS was rearing its head he decided he was going to cash in on his white, male privilege and put a distance between him and his stigmatized fans and by doing that, he basically said, “Okay, I am the dick that you love hating. I am Rod Stewart.”

Justin Bond, to Marc Spitz.

Metro was a band formed in 1976 by two journeyman British musicians, Duncan Browne and Peter Godwin (the guitarist Sean Lyons soon joined them). Inspired by the first generation of glam acts like Bowie and Roxy Music, Metro’s debut album is a forgotten transition piece, fusing early Seventies glam into new shapes, and creating the sound of much early Eighties pop in the process (Browne and Godwin really sound like Tears for Fears in places). The timing was nearly right (Metro almost had Stewart Copeland as their drummer) but not right enough: their records didn’t sell and Browne soon left.*

A half-decade later, Bowie reclaimed “Criminal World,” which the BBC had banned at the time for its bisexual overtones, and on the surface its inclusion on Let’s Dance seems like a typical bit of subversion, Bowie sneaking a transgressive song into a platinum record that grandmothers bought. But it wasn’t quite the same song. Bowie excised half of the first verse, which originally went:

I’m not the queen so there’s no need to bow,
I think I see beneath your mink coat.
I’ll take your dress and we can truck on out…

and replaced the lines with some weak phrases, apparently his own. Then, in the second verse, Bowie changed “I saw you kneeling at my brother’s door” to  “you caught me kneeling at your sister’s door.” He turned a gay-themed line into one that Vince Neil could’ve written.

There was no excuse for this. A decade before, Bowie had written “Sweet Head” and “Velvet Goldmine,” had put out “John I’m Only Dancing” as a single. Now he’s bowdlerizing a mild, vaguely-bi obscurity, cutting out any language that could possibly upset some square in Dubuque?

The “Criminal World” remake is a pretty solid track. Nile Rodgers did a variation of his “China Girl” riff, a little bouncing movement on the the high strings of his guitar, and after the chorus the stomping riff of the Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” sneaks in. Tony Thompson is solid as always, while Carmine Rojas’ bass, with its low, drooping slides, is the lead instrument whenever Stevie Ray Vaughan is absent. Vaughan gets two typically exuberant solos (though they seem staid compared with the wild, abrasive guitar on the original Metro track). It’s the best track on a mediocre side.

But why is it even there? As with “Ricochet,” there’s a sense that Bowie is including some domesticated versions of his past work in his new all-ages record. It’s subversion turned to mummery, it’s a formerly fearless man bluntly hedging his bets. It’s a mistake, an insult, one of his least noble moments.

Recorded ca. 1-20 December 1982, at the Power Station NYC.

* Both Browne and Godwin had bigger hits as solo acts in the Eighties: Godwin’s “Images of Heaven” and Browne’s “The Wild Places.” Browne died of cancer in 1993.

Photos: Helga Paris, “Pauer” and “Gabi,” from the series “Berlin Youth,” 1982.

48 Responses to Criminal World

  1. You deserve the Nobel prize for music criticism, if such a thing exists, for this piece. I think no-one has ever drawn a portrait of David Bowie in such human depth, flaws and all, as you do here. I feel a bit sorry for Bowie in this period, caught in a matrix of money and fear, frozen for all time like a gaudy bug in a web of homogenizing, politically conservative mass media.

    The beginning of what was almost the end of Bowie as an artist is being described in this articles, and in your hands I expect this can be as thrilling and thought-provoking as the golden years you have so impressively documented.

  2. Jasper says:

    At the time and into the mid 80’s I did not notice many of the gay or bisexual themes in songs in general, it was a time where so many pop and rock bands was in the in-between in lyrics and especially in looks, straight or gay. Take Duran Duran dating supermodels and waring tons of makeup. Although knowing they were gay I was quiet surprised when i much later learnt what Frankie Gores To Hollywood Krisco Kisses was all about, I did not get that at 14 lol. In one way It makes it a weird time to have the need to go back on being bisexual, but on the other hand it was a very conservative time, and fits with Bowie wanting to be more “corporate”.

    Yesterday i saw the Ricochet film. The most interesting thing was how nice and clean it portraits Bowie, with a handful of alienation thrown in. There was no doubt it was supposed to show him as an somewhat exotic mainstream figure, It fits perfect with what you write in this article, and with his history no doubt a very conscious choice. It’s is as far as it can be from Cracked Actor. It is bland and not very interesting as a documentary. It kind of made me sad, the way it shows the beginning of him wanting to become someone or thing, come in the way of the music, where it before was used to ignite his creating of great music.

    I never heard the original Metro version before, I quiet like that and will get that album. I still like Bowie’s version.

    • Pinstripe Hourglass says:

      You have an interesting point about the continued gay presence in pop music via groups like Duran Duran, Culture Club, Frankie, etc. But, Duran Duran excepted, most of those groups had very limited success in America, and I think that’s the market Bowie was really trying to break back into.

      • Jasper says:

        I don’t know how it was in 1983 in the states, I didn’t stay there until a couple of years later.
        In Europe the hole New Wave and Pop that allowed for a play on sexuality especially in looks was huge, with the bands you mentioned to the more arty ones like Echo & the Bunnymen and Visage. At the same time there was the cold war with hard conservatism with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan running things. I think you’re right that for Bowie it was all about breaking the US marked big time, and that meant being mainstream, non controversial and fitting to MTV, with Let’s Dance he mastered that perfectly. He had a very good sense of that, there is the video from China Girl where we see his ass in a short glimpse, they made a censored version of that, that stunt got a lot off attention. I think he and the ones he worked with knew exactly where the limit to being controversial was when being mainstream, and being bisexual was too much in the US, that does not excuse him, especially when thinking about how much he had used the being bisexual remark in his promotion earlier, it doesn’t really matter if he ever was or not he put it in play and used it.

      • swanstep says:

        Culture Club were plenty big in the US….anyhow Bowie’s wanting to ‘play it straight’ at this point in his career seems to me to have been in part a direct reaction to the ‘younger generation’ of Bowie-wannbes, all androgynous etc in UK new pop: they’re Ziggying so he’s zagging. Of course Bowie *does* want lots of US success too, but there does seem to me to be an intelligible musical motivation for the direction in which Bowie is going here. (I guess I really am impressed by the basic conundrum Bowie faces in the early ’80s – that he’s got multiple cohorts of disciples frantically chasing up every possible hybridization of his back catalogue in both sound and visuals. What do now then?)

  3. Maj says:

    Not sure if I even registered this was a cover. Might explain that the song is pretty good (ouch!). I’ll have to give a listen to the original & the whole album.
    Back to Bowie…having said this was a pretty good song…when you put it in the bigger picture, him covering it really is an insult, isn’t it.
    I could write an essay about this – and I did XD – but I’d better save that for my blog.
    This entry has made me quite sad, I have to say.

  4. Pinstripe Hourglass says:

    I had no idea that he’d changed the verses… Christ, that’s really awful. It’s a shame, the track is really good. A bright spot on the album’s meager b-side.

    …I need to gather my thoughts more before I write anything about this. Good on you for this entry though! Really good analysis. I agree completely with Mr. Almond.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Such good work man. You write with precision and tenderness; by 1983, David had all but imploded.

  6. For a while in the early 90s, I completely stopped listening to David Bowie because of this very issue. (Yes, it was childish, but I was also in my late teens and early 20s, so I think I’m allowed.) I remember him trying to defend himself against this a decade later in an article in Interview, probably around the time of Black Tie, White Noise, and it just completely turned me off. As a gay man, I didn’t care that he didn’t identify as gay anymore: I objected to the way he phrased it, the words he used, his dismissive attitude towards the issue. This is someone who should have known better; someone who was familiar with gay culture, and by extension with gay issues; someone who shouldn’t have seemed so defensive about the fact that he was attracted to women. The problem for me wasn’t that he owed the gay community anything, but that it apparently indicated how little regard he held the gay community. It left a bad taste in my mouth, and it took about five years to get over it.

    About the song itself: I had the benefit of having heard Metro’s original before I even encountered the cover, and I find I prefer the slinky menace of the original. Nevertheless, this is a great write-up, sir.

  7. mike says:

    “It’s subversion turned to mummery, it’s a formerly fearless man bluntly hedging his bets”.

    YES! That could apply to all of LD….and most of what’s followed.

  8. Gnomemansland says:

    Not sure you have really represented Duncan Browne correctly. Having listened to quite a lot of his work (Wild Places etc) he is always dallying (in his songs) with women in paris, or women on the edge of the night. Casual sex yes, but its pretty tame stuff – nothing as risque as sweet head. The songs though are exquisitely crafted and Brown was something of a musician’s musician and I suspect Bowie included the song just because he liked it and the original production rather than as throwback to his own “experimentation”.

    • col1234 says:

      good point. but why change the lyric then?

      also, i was just using this song in part to address the “david bowie straight” issue, which needed to be on the table at some point in covering his Eighties career. Agree that it’s not a gay anthem by any measure.

      • David L says:

        I think he changed the lyric because at this time, he simply wanted to set the record straight re: his sexuality and if he’d kept the lyrics as is, then more confusion would result.

        Bowie was changing quite a bit at this time, going from artiste to businessman, to put it in broad terms. He was through with the uncertainty of the purely artistic world, and wanted the certainty of a steady paycheck. And in doing so, he was jettisoning a lot of what (for him) went along with being an artist, including sexual experimentation. I don’t think it was a betrayal of the gay community so much as colossally (and inadvertently) bad timing.

  9. David L says:

    Oh yeah, and a really dig this song, one of my faves from this album. Love the change-up halfway through.

  10. Brendan O'Lear says:

    I’m with Gnomemansland. Why change the lyric? Perhaps because it’s duff. Even when the original version was released the phrase ‘truck on out’ would have seemed dated and ridiculous. (I’m pretty sure he also changed the lyrics on Kingdom Come and added bits to Let’s Spend the Night Together – the first two covers that spring to my mind.)
    When the album came out, my initial reaction to this song was that he was trying to force the ‘gender-bending’ stuff back IN, almost playing up to an image that he’d left behind ten years earlier. (It was already wearing thin by the time of Rebel Rebel.) It never occurred to me – until now – that it could be seen the other way around.
    The ‘Bowie straight’ thing is very American, as is the idea that he was somehow denying his past. Is there a Rolling Stone interview somewhere in which he ‘denies’ his extraterrestrial origins?
    Nothing he says in interviews -certainly before 1977- can be taken seriously in any way; I even remember reading an interview where he discussed his Jewish family background at one point. Funnily enough I recently stumbled across an interview with Amanda Lear in which she laughs off the ‘sex change’ stories; she’s not denying a transgendered past, she’s just a little embarrassed by some of the things she did to sell records.

  11. MrBelm says:

    I loved that Metro record, and remember being unpleasantly surprised at hearing the song turn up on Let’s Dance.

  12. Jeremy Earl says:

    As a heterosexual male who is totally fine with homosexuality Bowie’s supposed bisexuality has barely been an issue for me, so I don’t really care either way about the sexual politics of this song and Bowie’s comments. I can understand why some people may have a problem with it though, but I’m not going to judge him either way. Am apolitical on this one!

    As for the song – solid, catchy and a fine pop moment without being amazing. I can take it or leave it. I like the way he sings the track though.

  13. diamond dog says:

    Despite Bowie back peddling his homosexual revelations its a superb track with as you say a fantastic band performance. I was I confess unaware of the original and far from Bowie censoring the orig I see it as subverting the homophobes with a muscular re work.
    I’ve always assumed Bowie used the homosexual tag as a fashion item and something to grab front pages , let’s face it he was married with a son for years unlike Elton who lasted only a few weeks as a couple. It could have gone against him so was a well calculated risk.

  14. Marion Brent says:

    I like this track, I think it’s got a quiet power. Just as Shake It presages the horrors of Tonight, this one seems to hark back to Scary Monsters. If the guitar solos were a little harsher and less ‘tasteful’, you could imagine it on the 2nd side of Monsters, maybe replacing Scream Like A Baby or Kingdom Come.

    I’m prepared to cut Bowie a little slack on the gay issue. Yes, the timing of his ‘renunciation’ was horrendous, and yes, much of his 70s persona (and therefore much of his success) had drawn on sexual ambiguity and a camp gay aesthetic. But clearly by the eighties he wasn’t feeling it any more. He didn’t want to be defined by something that he felt he wasn’t any more. I’m not aware of any homophobic utterances he made at the time, all he did was distance himself a little from that culture. A bit of a solipsistic move perhaps, given the context of the time, but I’m not really convinced it was all a calculated ploy to win back an American audience.

    • Remco says:

      I don’t know if I’d call it homophobia but saying it was the biggest mistake he ever made is pretty unforgivable, especially given the times. It implies that being gay is something to be deeply ashamed of, something far worse than, say, being cocaine addict or doing that cover of ‘Across The Universe’.

      The fact that he did that just so he could shift more units makes it an even more sordid affair.

      • twinkle-twinkle says:

        Bowie has always famously contradicted and bent the truth of his life and thoughts to suit his feelings at the time, his current status and who he’s talking to.

        Bowie accidentally punned that, ‘Iggy’s on stage antics really hurt him, that some people never noticed his strong song-writing talents, because they only saw his crazy behaviour’.

        In a similar way, Bowie’s artistic clothes and performance were simply seen as ‘drag’ in the U.S. It was always the thing people asked about and commented on. How tedious to hear the same old questions about what he did in bed.

        Indeed, he once joked that because of his image, he’d get someone into bed and they’d expect to be doing weird things with light bulbs.

        People always wonder at his duet with Bing Crosby. Well, Crosby begat Sinatra, and Bowie had always wanted to duet with Frank.

        When he went backstage to try and meet Frank around ’75, when a rumour was going round that db would play Sinatra in a bio-pic, an Italian heavy came back with the message, ‘Frank don’t wanna meet you, or have no Limey faggot playing him either.’

        I think singing with Bing was a sort of ‘getting back’ at Frank, and also a come on, showing he wasn’t the freak of the tabloids. Going out with one of Sinatra’s daughters may also have helped, but not enough it seems. Still, Frank did say he respected Bowie as an artist… just not as much as that arse-lick Bono it would appear, lol!!

        Anyway, this is what Bowie was up against. As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s Bowie’s life to live as he wants. 5 lost years in the mid-80’s can be excused in the overall scheme of things. He never claimed to be a Dylanesque spokesman for any generation or cause, quite the opposite in fact.

        When Bowie said he regretted saying he was bisexual it was in terms of peoples perception of him as an artist. It was stopping him do the artistic things he wanted to do, just as Iggy’s rare cutting of his chest just gave people the wrong solitary image. Even Bowie couldn’t see the repercussions just around the corner as far as AIDS was concerned.

        In the 80’s aging rock stars were a new phenomenon. How to age? I know, they were only in their mid-to-late-thirties, but no one could know then that Leonard Cohen would still be on stage at 80yrs and the Stones would be touring at 70-ish.

        Charles Shaar Murray praised ‘Lets Dance’ and the ‘Serious Moonlight Tour’, for doing coolly and elegantly what Springsteen sweated buckets to for. The 80’s were a new territory for 60’s/70’s rock stars and even Bowie was struggling to find a way through.

        I seem to remember even Neil Young getting a haircut, a tie and some electronic gadgets back then. And Springsteen’s guitarist had to stop him singing about his new wealthy lifestyle and get back to the concerns of his blue-collar audience.

        The thing is, a big part of Bowie’s schtick was always about being a star, unlike Rod turning his back on his laddish Faces ways. It’s just that an 80’s star wasn’t quite as appealing as a 70’s one. By the end of the 80’s Bowie was working to correct his big miss-step.

  15. tahreem says:

    defined by something that he felt he wasn’t any more. I’m not aware of any homophobic

  16. diamond dog says:

    Lets face it however you feel about the ‘biggest mistake’ remark regarding the homosexual issue his denouncement was, im sure not meant as an insult to gay people . If it was meant as a marketing ploy …it worked so what this says about the USA is anybodys guess. Bowie used high camp in the same way as Bolan , c’mon both were married men with kids !
    I know scraping the barrell of gossip was not the aim but im sure rumours are out there of who he was sharing with his ex wife.

    • Brendan O'Lear says:

      I suppose the homophobic point does make some sense if you take his initial ‘coming out’ seriously. If you, like you seem to, take the original comments with a pinch of salt, the kind of thing would-be pop stars say to attract attention, then it certainly was one of his biggest ever public mistakes. He must have grown sick of questions about what was probably one of countless nonsensical statements he made in early interviews.
      (I’m not sure how true they are, but I’ve read a lot of accounts that say Marc Bolan would suddenly switch voices when off-duty. The working Bolan would talk in typically camp fashion, but as soon as he clocked off, he would shift into a broad London accent.)

      • Pinstripe Hourglass says:

        If you take Bowie’s coming out seriously (and while publicity was undeniably a factor, it wasn’t necessarily the only one), then Bowie’s comments in the RS interview come across pretty badly. Saying he wasn’t a bisexual is one thing but he also said that he never had been, that he was just “experimenting”, and that it was just a part of the cultural scene of the time. Bowie obviously had no obligation to carry a banner, but comments such as those were, arguably, queer erasure. Bowie had been an inspiration for many people to be more open with their sexuality, and now he was saying it was all just an artifact of the time.
        I don’t mean to demonize him at all; I love the man and his work, and in later interviews he seemed to regret his statements here. But what he did in the RS interview was a betrayal, of sorts.

  17. Gnomemansland says:

    As an aside heard an interview on the BBC world service last night with Nile Rogers in which he outlined the meeting with Bowie in an after hours club “sitting alone drinking orange juice” which led to Lets Dance. Apparently they discussed jazz — actually you can hear it here

  18. Frankie says:

    A well-written description of his gay thing.

  19. Maj says:

    Just found an interesting bit of a 1976 interview in which Bowie says – on being bixesual: “Oh Lord, no. Positively not. That was just a lie. They gave me that image so I stuck to it pretty well for a few years. I never adopted that stance. It was given to me. I’ve never done a bisexual thing in my life, on stage, record or anywhere else. I don’t think I even had a gay following much.”
    This was March 1976. Obviously this didn’t get as publicised as the 1983 renouncement but I think it further shows that being a straight all-American blond man of 1983 didn’t come completely out of the blue.
    He says a lot of bullshit in this interview, as he does in all interviews but when I read this bit I thought…”veeery interesting…”.

  20. Diamond Duke says:

    When it comes to the whole issue of Bowie’s sexuality (straight? gay? bi?), and the further issue of whether or not he owed anything to the gay community, I tend to side with Camille Paglia’s comments rather than Justin Bond’s. First and foremost, David Bowie is an individualist, and the strident militancy demonstrated by those who cried foul once he eventually came out of his “reverse closet” is a perfect example of the sort of leftist militancy which Bowie so loudly decried in Cygnet Committee back in 1969, and which he has always regarded as anathema, however righteous the cause espoused. Yes, back then such attitudes were embodied by the more violently radical hippie contingent rather than the gay community, but it’s still of the same paradoxically intolerant stripe. (And before going any further, I feel I should issue a disclaimer and say that I tend to be of a more left-leaning liberal sensibility myself and have never voted Republican in my life…)

    Furthermore, I always got the impression that David Bowie was never comfortable with the idea of being pinned down – either as an artist or as a human being. I would be willing to venture that part of the problem for a lot of people in same-sex relationships – or even simply those who have “experimented” – who are less than forthcoming about their personal lives is simply that while there certainly is far more tolerance these days for people who are gay or bisexual, I imagine there is a genuine fear that if they reveal the truth, then other people’s perspectives or attitudes toward them may undergo a subtle shift and that they won’t be looked at or spoken to in quite the same way ever again. Other people in their lives may not necessarily become violent or demonstrate any overt bigotry, but I can imagine that friendships, working relationships and family relationships may sometimes become a bit…stilted and uncomfortable. Tolerance is not necessarily acceptance, and acceptance is something we all need in our lives. People should not be made to feel guilty for prizing the acceptance of others above all else, and should . Having bravely and publicly come out as bisexual back in the early ’70s, Bowie was quickly made uncomfortable by how much focus was put on his sexuality – especially in a prized American marketplace which at the time even more puritanical than it is now.

    As far as the song Criminal World itself as concerned, I personally think the Metro original is rather better, while the Bowie version just feels like a bit of a filler track. But that solo from Stevie Ray is just so righteously cool…

  21. Diamond Duke says:

    I seem to have left an unfinished sentence behind me yesterday! I’m sorry, for I was a bit pressed for time, in a little too much of a hurry, and had to be somewhere else. Anyway, let me finish up right now:

    “Tolerance is not necessarily acceptance, and acceptance is something all of us as human beings need in our lives. People should not be made to feel guilty for prizing the acceptance of others above all else, and should not be made to feel as if they’re ‘letting the side down’ or betraying a cause.” As someone who could be described – as I have done above – as an individualist, I also think that David Bowie would be far more likely to side with and have more respect for someone who simply lives life in his/her own way (provided of course they were respectful of others’ rights to the same) than he would for someone who takes some kind of hardline stance and self-righteously denounces others as some kind of traitor to a “cause”…

    Although, I feel it should be stated that, regardless of how open or “out” someone chooses to be about their sexuality, what’s ultimately at stake is the issue of the individual’s own self-acceptance and self-esteem, or whether or not that person is accepting of themselves and comfortable with who they are. That’s something that should be taken into consideration and settled within oneself before it’s ever brought to the attention of others in his or her life. (And while we’re on the subject, let me just say that I’m a 38-year-old virgin, and I certainly haven’t worked out jack-squat on this issue yet! Ha, ha, ha…)

    While I certainly think it was incredibly brave and groundbreaking for David Bowie to publicly proclaim “I’m gay” in the pages of Melody Maker in 1971, and while a case can certainly be made that it was helpful in terms of creating – as Nicholas Pegg states in The Complete David Bowie – a pretext for debate and for just putting the issue on the table, he ultimately wasn’t “gay” as such, and one could possibly describe him retrospectively as foolhardy in this regard. While Bowie’s “coming out” has often been regarded by many as some kind of crass and calculating publicity move – and there may be some truth in this assessment – there is certainly the possibility that he hadn’t yet completely, 100% worked everything out – at least in his mind – yet. While most assuredly heterosexual in terms of his own drives, there was probably still enough leftover ambiguity to leave him with questions. It’s probably not too much of a stretch to suggest that Bowie’s whole stance and stage persona at the time – for this was the beginning of his Ziggy Stardust period – represented a working out in artistic terms of these inner questions. (And it’s even less of a stretch to imagine the lyrics of such earlier songs such as The Width Of A Circle in this regard.)

    But ultimately, by the time of 1983 and the Let’s Dance/Serious Moonlight era, he had probably long since put the issue to bed (so to speak), and as ever he had moved on to other areas of expression. While a case can certainly be made that the music Bowie made during the 1980’s doesn’t approach the quality, weight and importance of his ’70s achievements (and Let’s Dance would certainly be much farther down my list of Bowie favorites from 1-26 – probably 24), it would be unfair of anyone to expect Bowie to remain in the same place.

    So for me, I think Bowie was telling the truth – at least to the extent that he understood it – in Melody Maker in 1971. And I also believe he was telling the truth to Rolling Stone and Time in 1983. No contradiction whatsoever.

    • twinkle-twinkle says:

      For a 38yr old virgin you talk much sense.

      There are many Bowie’s. Sometimes he takes incremental steps album by album, or in one sudden leap, and you find yourself struggling with what he’s doing. For example, ‘Young Americans’ the single and ‘Fame’ I loved, but I had a hard time liking the album at the time of release.

      Interviews and interviewers must be the worst thing artists have to deal with. It’s no wonder their ‘victims’ say stupid and outrageous things to them in frustration or to bait them.

      The bitchy incompetent Russell Harty in the UK, trying to wind David up in ’73 and ’76. No wonder Grace Jones attacked him when he interviewed her. Lester Bangs in the U.S. Look at Lou Reed, listen to ‘Live Take No Prisoners’.

      Imagine having ones life crawled over and dissected, the horror of it – and here I’m doing it to the poor man too. Sorry db.

  22. Carl says:

    I’ve always said that “John I’m Only Dancing” is about a flamboyant young rock star, who’ve taken an interest into being sexual edgy and thus engaging a gay guy he’s met on the party scene (“John”) into a relationship of sexual experimentation. Except that he hasn’t gone through with it that much yet (“Man, I’ve need some loving”) except fondling (“touch me”).

    But for whatever reason the rock star is more interested in the girl than any gay adventures (“Joe is awful strong, bet your life he’s putting us on”) and very turned on by the girl he is dancing with, which might lead to sex or not, But still his male companion is watching from a distance with a cold jealousy.

    I think it mirrors DBs own foray into bisexuality quite well.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Quite frankly, Bowie got what he deserved. He spent a decade riding the waves of his own self-imposed alienation in queerland and then surfed out of Motel Freaky in time for his Patrick Bateman ATM cash withdrawal. 1983 Bowie is the sound of a yuppie stabbing the homeless black AIDS infected fag on the corner of 37th and 8th. It sounds just like bigotry does: brash, wrapped in entitlement, amplified by its own moral majority induced torpor. The fact it was produced by a black creator of funk and disco only heightens the disconnect. I wouldn’t be surprised if period photos showed a light skinned Nile Rodgers kissing Nancy Reagan at the Power Station. I’ve heard people went straight just looking at the cover of “Let’s Dance”. (Bowie’s shadow boxing is so butch it almost tilts into Village People territory, though…)

    He basically killed his muse. After a long aesthetic freeride in other people’s subcultures, he cut his losses and asked the girl out.

    There’s nothing of political/musical/aesthetic relevance to straight Bowie. He knew it. His fans knew it. So instead of disciples, he finally got an audience. What’s missing from Glass Spider is not merely an inspired singer-songwriter, it’s someone willing to listen. And we all know queers lend a very sympathetic ear…

    In a different post you describe “I can’t read” as Bowie’s acknowledgement of his decade long fall from grace. It’s fitting, and that’s why I don’t believe he deserves any stone throwing for his backtracking. He was punished by the gods – and they never listened to his prayers again.

    That Bowie’s sense of post-modern alienation collided perfectly with an emerging queer sensibility was a fortuitous and serendipitous moment in culture. That he willingly abandoned it, thinking that moment had passed and was no longer artistically fruitful, was his greatest faux-pas, the one he never recovered from.

    • twinkle-twinkle says:

      I think too many people equate Bowie, his muse and his fame with his alleged bisexuality.

      From ‘Young Americans’ to ‘Scary Monsters’ there is only one overtly gay song, ‘Boys Keep Swinging’. So, Bowie’s loss of muse and decline started after ‘Diamond Dogs’ in ’74? I think not. Your thesis does not hold water.

      Dylan, The Beatles, The Stones, all music icons only get 10yrs, if lucky, of great works. Anything after that is always a bonus and usually a mixed bag.

      Bowie’s thing was RE-INVENTION, not mere sexuality, that was just the usual rock’n’roll trope to tease and scare. Bowie merely extended the parameters and emphasized what had previously been underground.

      If there is a lyrical through-line from his earliest days, it’s questioning god against a backdrop of war and horror, seeking deep spiritual love even if life is meaningless and god doesn’t exist.

      You may not like some of his re-inventions, but sexuality has little to do with most of them, except for the projections people put on to him. Enjoy the periods that speak to you and, as I had to do with ‘Young Americans’, grin and bear it till a new face comes along.

      • Anonymous says:

        Twinkle, you are conflating gay with queer. They’re radically different things. It is not about WHOM Bowie slept with, it’s about WHOM he aligned himself with. This is not a sexual matter in the essentialist identitarian sense, but a political and aesthetic matter in the strategic and (anti)-normative sense. Maybe I threw you off when I wrote “fag” – but I used it as a word of abjection, not as a stable sexual signifier.

        A parallel would be Michael Jackson and his gradual detachment from black culture’s lifeforce towards mainstream pop. An artist requires a place of inspiration to draw sustance from, a sensibility composed of alliances and positionings. Without it, marketing takes over.

        “Going straight” has nothing to with bedding women. It’s about straightening the bent lines, discarding fluctuation and uncertainty for assurance and clarity. The strategy used to be Warholian: Bowie was once a powerful artist disguised as a product. By straightening up is act, he became a mere product disguised as an artist.

      • twinkle-twinkle says:

        Thank you for clarifying. 2015 already, sheesh?

      • col1234 says:

        looking forward to twinkle’s reply in 2015

  24. Thanks for a fascinating piece and a take I’d somehow completely missed. Being gay and having always loved this track, you’ve charged me with having to explain something to myself.
    Why did Spitz interview Camille Paglia? Had she worked with or known Bowie, or researched him? I never knew there was any Paglia-Bowie connection.
    Don’t blush when I say that your insights throughout these pages are remarkable and you write absolutely beautifully. I can’t wait to have all of this in book form.

    • I imagine she was interviewed because she is an academic who has made herself available to opine on behalf of queers everywhere and as such writers have made her a spokesperson. Similar to how a writer discussing the black community might decide to get a few opinions from Cornel West.

      • stuartgardner says:

        Christopher, I didn’t find your reply to me until a moment ago. Thank you for it.

  25. On the one hand: Bowie outing himself as straight was not simply “bad timing”- it and the retreat of everyone-not-Boy George into the closet was a deliberate response to AIDS and a fear of being contaminated by it, figuratively and literally (and bless Boy George for his bravery, by the way).

    On the other hand: Bowie had a point that his earlier stance interfered with any kind of frank evaluation of his talent. People in 83 were still slandering him as a tart in Ziggy makeup with no actual relevence long after albums like Low should have put that to rest. Even after the century turned, well into his fifties,and what is by all accounts a happy marriage to a woman, people like Jonathan Ross were still pestering him about kissing boys.

    On the other other hand: Criminal World WAS a betrayal, as was that interview. Even if you can claim he didn’t use the gay community (individual members whould disagree, like Calvin or Lindsey Kemp) he did exploit their ideas. He was perfectly in his right to come clean about being straight, but he could have expressed it in a far more honest and loving way then he did. The RS interview wasn’t a denial, it was contempt.

    On the fourth hand: Scary Monsters was in many ways meant to be the end of Bowie-as-character (it didn’t actually work out that way, but….). Major Tom was dead and Pierrot had walked off into the computer generated sunset. The “I’m gay” Bowie was a pose, and frankly, glam makeup begins looking silly as one approaches 40 (I know this from personal experience). If not then, when?

    The body had to be buried – but it is hard not to blame him for just dumping it in a ditch rather than giving it a nice eulogy. By bthe way, as wonderful as Angels in America is, it still approaches the AIDS crisis in retrospect from the perspective of an era where it was finally being researched and mitigated. For a truly contemporary perspective, I have to recommend The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer- whereas Angels will make you sad, Normal Heart will make you angry, and rightly so.

  26. wirestone says:

    Such a fascinating discussion, and I really wonder how Bowie feels about it all now — given how much culture has shifted in the last 10-15 years. (On the other hand, it hasn’t shifted as much in terms of gender-bending or genuine “queerness” as it has for gay folks who look and sound like ever-so-slightly fey straight people.)

    But it must be noted that this ambivalence wanting to be known as an artist — rather than a gay/bisexual artist — is not unique to Bowie. Playwright Edward Albee, who’s been out for decades and decades, is famously crotchety on the subject. He doe not want to be known as a gay playwright. Period.

    So while the covering the commercial bases explanation is certainly valid (and rather wretched), it’s also possible that this is part of Bowie’s overall unhappiness with how his work was perceived. And as someone not particularly interested in autobiography (as opposed to explorations of themes and characters and favored symbols), it must have been incredibly irritating to know his best work was being ignored based on what people thought he was, versus what the work was.

    Finally, I think it’s worth noting that Bowie did eventually make an uneasy peace with this all. Look at his performance at the Freddie Mercury tribute (he clearly knew people dying of AIDS at that point). And in interviews in the late 90s and early 00s, I seem to recall that he doesn’t deny being bisexual anymore, and in fact admits that’s pretty much what he is.

    For instance, this is what he said in 2002: “Interesting. [Long pause] I don’t think it was a mistake in Europe, but it was a lot tougher in America. I had no problem with people knowing I was bisexual. But I had no inclination to hold any banners nor be a representative of any group of people. I knew what I wanted to be, which was a songwriter and a performer, and I felt that bisexuality became my headline over here for so long. America is a very puritanical place, and I think it stood in the way of so much I wanted to do.”

  27. steg says:

    Good day col1234.

    Thanks to you, a while ago I re-discovered this song and the band/duo (I was in London in December 1977: Metro were playing The Marquee, but I opted for 999 at The Red Cow: those were punk days).

    I was wondering if Bowie also changed “brother” to “sister” in order to avoid any link with “The Bewlay Brothers”.

    In my humble opinion, the cover pales when compared to the original.

    Last, but not least, the pictures by Helga Paris are wonderful.

  28. postpunkmonk says:

    This cover is a track that I only heard after [finally] buying “Let’s Dance” in 1999 and I was appalled by yet another instance where Bowie had covered a tune that I loved [see also: Iggy Pop’s “Bang Bang”] and eviscerated it’s meaning with ill-considered lyrical re-writes! The understandable sense of queer betrayal you mention here surely manifested itself fullest in the rich, effete slap in Bowie’s face that was Todd Haynes’ “Velvet Goldmine!”

    Having long been a fan of Peter Godwin and Metro, I found the cover dismal and shocking in its sabotage of the original’s theme, although better than many tracks on “Let’s Dance!” At the end of the day, I’m such a Godwin fan that I can appreciate that he covered this tune, as badly as it turned out, if only to keep Godwin solvent with the no doubt substantial publishing royalties that this top selling Bowie album engendered!

    As Godwin himself so eloquently put it in the liner notes of his 1988 “Images Of Heaven” career compilation CD:

    “This song was written back in 1974. It plays around with the sexual confusion of the time [hey, so nothing changes!], when all the young dudes were pretending to be killer queens, even if they were really virgins, celibates, or rampant heterosexuals! The band I sang with Metro, recorded this as our debut single in 1976 and oh sweet irony, the guy who started all of this confusion among English adolescents, and was the main influence behind the lyrics, David Bowie, recorded it for his 1983 album, “Let’s Dance.” This was extremely nice for Duncan Browne, Sean Lyons, and myself who wrote it, as it sold more than a few million copies. A long overdue thank you David! By the way, the Metro single was banned by English radio at the time, because of the “sexual” nature of the lyrics! I don’t think they understood the half of it!” – Peter Godwin

  29. stowe says:

    The vocal melody sounds a bit like “Repetition” to me, especially the Metro version, which seeing as it was made in 1976, he could have been affected by when recording Repetition I guess.

  30. Tyrell says:

    Reading Bowie biographies I have the impression that emphasizing and exaggerating his bisexuality was heavily influenced by his relation to Angie. It was their game to

    play the charming bisexual couple in an open marriage. Playing down his bisexuality began right after their marriage deteriorated (e.g. rewrite of John. I’m Only

    Dancing). If in his mind the “I’m gay” period was attached to Angie then it is understandable that in the years after the divorce he wanted to deny everything which

    had to do with her.

  31. Trevor Mill says:

    I’ve finally got round to looking the Metro album up. This morning I’ve heard criminal world 7 times in a row. The original is slinky, the Bowie cover is just bored.
    It would make a great partner wth John Howard on a hidden bisexual 70’s compilation.

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