Criminal World

November 10, 2011

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.