David Bowie (1947–2016)
January 11, 2016 | by Faber Social
Remembered by Jon Savage.
In case anyone cares to remember, the first couple of years of the 1970’s were something of a hard rock desert. It was all singer songwriters and shagged out hippie stylings, the revolution of 1966/67 grown tired. If you wanted louder faster harder it was not easy. In late 1971 and early 1972 it was a case of scrabbling around: the MC5’s “Back in the USA”, the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Teenage Head”, Alice Cooper’s “Love It To Death”, the Velvet Underground reissues written about so eloquently by Richard Williams in the Melody Maker. But what of Britain?
I used to haunt Ken Market, a rabbit warren of stalls and approaches to life situated just eastwards of the Barkers Building on Kensington High Street. One guy sold records there: he was training to be a lawyer and so was super sarcastic in the way that such people can be. I was riffling through the lps early in 1972 when I came across “Hunky Dory”: didn’t know much about David Bowie but I liked the cover and the feel. Seemed worth a punt. ‘Oh, he’s the new hype’ I was told with a sneer. So of course I bought it. Fuck you.
Bowie had just given a great interview in which he carefully positioned himself in contrast to the pop culture of the day. ‘I feel we’re all in a fucking dead industry that really relates to nothing anymore,’ he told Cream magazine; ‘the most important person in Europe and England today is Marc Bolan, not because of what he says but because he is the first person who has latched onto the energy of the young once again. He has got his dictatorships fixed up. He’s kind of neuter and he has that star quality. That is very important. Marc Bolan is the new angry young man. Marc Bolan has that angry young life. You can quote me on that. I also like Iggy Stooge and the Flaming Groovies. Rock should tart itself up a bit more, you know. People are scared of prostitution. There should be some real unabashed prostitution in this business.’
How to cut through the half-baked products of a dead industry? In January 1972, he was interviewed by Michael Watts of the Melody Maker, who wrote: ‘David’s present image is to come on like a swishy queen, a gorgeously effeminate boy. He’s as camp as a row of tents, with his limp hand and trolling vocabulary. “I’m gay,’ he says, ‘ and always have been, even when I was David Jones.’ But there’s a sly jollity about how he says it, a secret smile at the corners of his mouth’. That set the cat among the pigeons.
Well. I got home and played the record, searching for rockers. “Andy Warhol”, that’s great – like the laughter, good tune. But it was the legend next to track 4 side 2 that caught my eye: ‘SOME V.U., WHITE LIGHT RETURNED WITH THANKS’. OK, I’m there, and “Queen Bitch” was everything I could have ever wanted, from the camp scat introduction to the moment when Mick Ronson’s guitar slices through everything: all the ersatz country rock and fake maturity and even more, the conspiracy of silence about the person that I’m beginning to I realise that I am.
“Queen Bitch” is a clarion call for weirdos everywhere. It’s not just the sound and the camp lyrics – ‘She’s so swishy in her satin and tat/ In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat’ – and the sense of immersion in a glamorous, deviant subculture, but the knife-edge sense of desperation. Can there a better line for that awful feeling than ‘and I’m phoning a cab ’cause my stomach feels small/ There’s a taste in my mouth and it’s no taste at all’. Mix in asides like ‘choo betcha’, ‘oh yeah’ and the general sense of glee, and something is changed forever.
It’s complex but shattering. Slowly the realisation: it’s actually OK to be gay. Wear this song as a badge of pride, along with the glitter eyeliner. Crank it up – along with Lou Reed’s “Vicious” – and annoy the Grateful Dead freaks. Don’t look back.
In “Queen Bitch” you can hear a door unlocking. Despite the best efforts of many, it has remained open. Thank you, David Bowie.