I wrote this for Noisey in honor of the release of “Blackstar.”
As a kid sitting cross-legged on my parent’s rug, hearing “Heroes” for the first time was the auditory equivalent of falling in love. That was it. I’d found The One, and millions of other sexually confused kids and self-proclaimed weirdos, from 1969 right until this second—and for the foreseeable future—had too. We share a love affair to last a lifetime with our hero of many masks, David Bowie.
Like me, and others around the age of 30, I put a moving image to the voice when I saw Labyrinth. The celestial star of the 1986 film was a mulleted Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King, but it was his Lycra-ensconced bulge that snagged the gaze. “Mommy, who is this man with the spiky long blonde hair, sequined jacket, and elaborate eye makeup, and why do his tight pants make me feel things?” As a kid, Labyrinth was pleasurably scary for reasons other than all those monster hands grabbing for a young Jennifer Connelly. It was a moment of sexual awakening inspired not by a Backstreet Boys poster taped to the wall, but by an androgynous man far too old for me, who so confidently wailed about someone called “Queen Bitch” (and did so while wearing lashings of gold lipstick). The fantasy he inspired wasn’t one of handholding, red roses, and longing glances exchanged, but rather, with Bowie as Jareth, the kidnapper fantasy began to tease our nascent eroticism. Likely not what director Jim Henson was going for, but hey, that was my experience.
As I grew up, discovered masturbation, and then began boning, for someone whose boner didn’t always jive with the heteronormative standard of attraction, there was no more comforting mantra than: “If Bowie did it, it must be OK.” Exclusively watching lesbian porn with strap-on dildos as a 19-year-old college kid in conservative North Carolina sure seems a lot less odd when reminding yourself that Bowie’s infamous ex-wife Angie supposedly found him in bed with Mick Jagger. But as an icon for the sexually different, Bowie’s role went far beyond his alleged bisexuality. It wasn’t just about what he proclaimed, it was about he presented himself too. Bowie’s the type of guy that can dress in drag such as on 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World cover, coquettishly cocking his head draped in long blonde curls (let us never forget that the man of many hairstyles was, at 17, founder of The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long-Haired Men). He’s the kind of artist unafraid to adopt the soft focus Hollywood glamour of 30s starlets, just as he did on 1971’s Hunky Dory (a clear nod to the moody shots of Marlene Dietrich like this one). And yet, somehow this glam Martian was a performer who all Earthlings admired—from straight dudes in suits to glitter-eyed gay boys.
Bowie first announced himself to the world with his eponymous ’67 debut as the very British, very pretty David Jones. His sound at the time a decidedly jaunty brand of psych-folk—just don’t put his name in the same sentence as “hippie,” a word he grew to detest. But, it wasn’t until ’69 with “Space Oddity” that he made his break into the mainstream, and the surreality within him began to emerge, leaving the old guard media flummoxed. On one 1972 episode of the BBC’s long-running live music show, The Old Grey Whistle Test, Bowie was intro-ed with a bemused voiceover which ran thusly: “This is the face the public wants… an ex-art student from Brixton who has turned himself into a bizarre self-constructed freak.” The same year legendary photographer Mick Rock snapped an electric live shot of Bowie simulating fellatio/flossing his teeth with some guitar strings, English music newspaper Melody Maker asked about Bowie’s affinity for women’s dresses, to which he responded, “Oh dear, you must understand that it’s not a woman’s—it’s a man’s dress.” Later in that same interview the singer exclaimed, “I’m not outrageous, I’m David Bowie.”
Glam rock embraced and celebrated androgyny, flamboyance, button-pushing and liberally applied makeup, but what’s remarkable about Bowie is that he didn’t remain trapped in the glittering amber of the genre. With his ever-changing guises he gave us the green light to explore our secret facets. Straight men could sashay with Ziggy, gay men could put on a suit and out-masculine everyone as the Thin White Duke. It’s practically moot to point out that his playful toying with imagery wouldn’t have had a mere smidgen of the impact it has, if Bowie’s music wasn’t as catchy as it was mind-warpingly progressive and emotionally resonant. Just revisit the Berlin Trilogy: as much as Bowie liked to downplay his skills as a musician, with these records he gave the world a sprawling masterpiece. Songs like “Always Crashing in the Same Car” revealed inner turmoil, messages of mental struggle that sound almost suicidal, of repeating mistakes and searching for identity. Low, the first in this triumvirate, is a sonic snapshot of his skin-shedding that would result in coming into a space to create Heroes, which communicates a much calmer and cohesive exhilaration.
In 1976 he gave an interview with Playboy where he stated: “It’s true—I am a bisexual. But I can’t deny that I’ve used that fact very well. I suppose it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Fun, too.” He absolutely used it—in the way Mad Men portrayed Don Draper using his big-dicked sexual energy to cut swathes through the ad industry (and the ladies in his path). Nevertheless, it’s worth noting the bisexual identity is one he’d flip-flop on: at times he’d refer to himself as gay, then in 1983, he told Rolling Stone that coming out as bi was “the biggest mistake I ever made,” before going on to describe himself as a “a closet heterosexual.”
Labels aside, most biographies can agree he was experimental—and regarding sexuality, his exploration wasn’t simply regarding orientation. His infamously open relationship with Angie allegedly included a threesome on their wedding night according to one biography released last year, “Angie and David used to have the most amazing orgies.” Apparently they had a vast bed of called “The Pit.” Love didn’t have to fit in any box: it was much more “You like me and I like it all.” It didn’t even have to be a unary or static experience—love could be part of the equation of finding oneself. Forget love—David Bowie taught how to consistently fall in love, the hardest dragon to chase. And yeah, sex was part of this: Everyone wanted to fuck David Bowie and David Bowie made it OK to want to fuck everyone. Except to honor him only as an early champion of sexual and gender fluidity short-circuits his all-encompassing fluidity. With his ever-changing, always evolving image he made it OK to experiment not just with your sexuality, but with who you are. “It’s OK that in college I crossed state lines to see Phish and got a peace sign tattoo on my ass and now I look like a Kat Von D wannabe; I’m not borderline, I’m like David Bowie!”
Through my awkward and wild first years in New York City, flashes of memory include a 4 AM cuddle pile with both bi girls and bi boys, which went from simply masturbating to actually eating pussy, and then there was that one Halloween spent dressed as Ziggy Stardust, wobbling down the Westside Highway in the early hours with a buzzed brain to match. That night I’d wind up alone in the fetal position—“Rebel rebel, your face is a mess”—but I’d repeat the mantra: “If Bowie did it, it must be OK.” And as Bowie knew far too well—shedding your skin can be painful. “It’s OK to have had mental breakdowns and not leave my apartment for a week curled up on the floor screaming; David Bowie pulled that shit all the time in 1976.” Apparently he even kept his piss, hair, and nail clippings in his manager’s fridge because he thought someone was going to curse him. I even got his Aladdin Sane lightning bolt tattooed on my back. The tattoo artist reminded me also looked like the Gatorade logo halfway through. Ah the impulsivity of youth can be awkward.
Bowie would dip back into the dark place for Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)—often regarded to be a collage of his various personas and sounds thus far. He’d appear oddly conventional with 1983’s “Let’s Dance,” and well, yeah, yeah, there was that yellow sweater and goatee, and no one even talks about Tin Machine, but Bowie would grow up and impress again with 2002’s Heathen. His musical aesthetic and over-arching philosophical DNA is traceable from Boy Gorge to Marilyn Manson to Lady Gaga, and today, when he drops shit—like yesterday’s creepy 10 minute video for “Blackstar”—everyone still pays attention. David Bowie is the rock god who neither burnt out nor faded away. For all his experimentation, he never apologized. He could use different labels to describe himself and his sexuality because that was his muse at the moment: he leaned into his inclinations with his whole thin frame. The fact that he sobered up and settled down and married Iman shouldn’t be taken as Bowie losing his edge. Who wants to bet the 68-year-old’s had Iman dress up like Ziggy and enjoyed enacting some really fucked up fantasies like, this week? Perhaps he was always a “closeted heterosexual”—who knows?—but in a world where people are now adopting and inventing increasingly complex labels from “demi-girl who identifies with the female binary” or “a graysexual panromantic transman,” labels which at times need more explaining than acting as an explainer, Bowie appears even more forward thinking. He learned long ago that a label or alliance will eventually mutate or be shrugged off, and that his strength is just existing as it pleases him there and then. For those who’ve felt the pains of society’s razor sharp cookie-cutter, Bowie is a beacon. Try this mantra: “I’m not outrageous, I’m David Bowie.”