David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music
David Bowie Made Me Gay, Darryl W. Bullock’s new timeline of the last century in popular music and the contributions that LGBT artists—many of whom are almost completely unknown today—made to the artform is something of a slow read.
Not because it is dull. It is anything but. Or because the writing is dense and weighty. No. In fact, the book sings, in both pitch and pace.
No, Bowie is hard to finish because the reader will find himself or herself spending a great deal of time Googling the names of various composers, singers, and entertainers in order to find out more, or to locate pictures, or YouTube recordings of their songs.
Bullock’s work, it turns out, is something of a celebration. Of talent and of achievements and, of course, of David Bowie.
The book begins with a focus on Bowie at the time of his death after a music career that spanned some 52 years. And with this tribute from Boy George:
“I first saw David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, performing at Lewisham Odeon in 1973 just before my twelfth birthday. I have been a loyal fan since that first concert. As a teenager growing up in Suburbia, I was very much the odd one out and Bowie was the light at the end of a very grey tunnel. He validated me and made me realize I was not alone.”
In casting into words the impact that Bowie had upon the culture of the day and most especially upon the myriad young gays sitting cross-legged much too close to the living room television screen, Bullock writes: “David Bowie exploded from the TV set like a rainbow-colored angel.”
That word “exploded” does not overstate. Nothing before had prepared the television audience for the sense of possibility that Bowie presented in his music, his clothing and his demeanor. He was, at once, androgynous, masculine, almost predatory, and ethereal, sexless. The Thin White Duke suggested that life could be lived fully as one chose to live it, without boundary, without limits, and without judgment.
As Bullock further comments:
“Gay, straight or bisexual: whatever word Bowie chose to define his sexuality, this particular cat was out of the bag—or rather the closet. He’d said it, in print, and for thousands of young LGBT people across the world, life was suddenly a little less suffocating.”
Even if Bowie was not the actual cause of the onset of “gay” in the lives of those thousands of youths, he stood out as a beacon of sorts, illustrating what was possible, in terms of freedom of expression and of sexuality and of musical artistry in the early ’70s.
Soon after Bowie exploded, Freddie Mercury declared, “I am as gay as a daffodil, my dear,” and no one was much surprised. And Boy George himself soon joined the chorus. And we moved forward, richer for their music and their presence, to the present day.
But while David Bowie Made Me Gay begins by working its way through the era in which it came as no great cultural shock when we learned that Boy George or George Michael or Elton John or even Dusty Springfield was gay, David Bowie having gobbled up the shock and awe earlier on, the bulk of the book examines a time before such total freedom was possible, and a time in which the musical cues of queerness were often (but not always) far more subtle.
If there’s a time and place to which the impact of gay and lesbian performers impact upon American music can be traced, it is the red-light district of New Orleans—an area known as Storyville—at the moments just before the turn of the 20th century, when Tony Jackson played the piano at Gypsy Schaefer’s brothel on Conti Street and captured the whole moment with his keyboard by writing the indelible “Pretty Baby.”
Alberta Hunter, who had a hit with the song, and who was herself a lesbian, told her friends that the pretty baby that Tony Jackson wrote about was actually a “tall, skinny fellow,” something that Jackson himself never did deny.
Indeed, in New Orleans, and, later, in his new home in Chicago, Jackson lived his life openly as a gay man, something that was rare and dangerous in that day.
After Jackson come singers Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, to whom Rainey acted as mentor and lover. They were both openly and vocally bisexual and they would, together and separately, both refine and define the blues for the American public. And from its roots in work songs and spirituals, the blues would develop into a potent form of musical storytelling.
As Bullock puts it, the blues spoke through “simple lyrics full of emotion, blues songs dwelt on love and loss, with singers recounting tales of loneliness and injustice of hard-done-by women and their cheating men.”
Ethel Waters (who was herself an openly gay woman, and who, with her lover, dancer Ethel Williams, would be known as “the two Ethels”) would soon take on the blues and would one day help to transform it for the mainstream (read: heterosexual) audience.
At this same time in the black community in major cities, so-called “Faggot Balls” rose in popularity. While these drag balls had been in existence for more than three decades, with persons of all gender and color and sexuality dressing up as grand women competing for beauty crowns and the adulation of the masses, they gained a sudden popularity with New York high society, who travelled to Harlem to witness “drag.”
Thus it may be said that ragtime and the blues and drag were the roots from which the garden of American poplar music arose, with RuPaul’s Drag Race owing everything to some brave souls in Harlem in the 1890s, and it must be noted that, as with jazz, all three were created and/or nurtured by the black communities in New Orleans and Chicago and New York City and all were uniquely American.
It should also be noted that the first gay bar opened in Manhattan at this same time. Pfaff’s Beer Cellar was said to have been staffed by effeminate men and to have been a particular favorite hangout for Walt Whitman. And that, by 1903, gay bathhouses had become very popular in New York as well.
Indeed, drag revues, gay bars and bathhouses remained popular and largely ignored by city officials and police alike until, with the 1939 World’s Fair about to open, it was decided that the streets were under a sort of “gay siege” and a clamp-down was undertaken that continued until the Stonewall riots 40 years later ended police persecution of the gay community.
What David Bowie Made Me Gay does very, very well is bring to life these performers and the stages upon which they performed. Author Bullock does his job so well that the reader, as noted above, has to stop and search the Internet for examples of songs, and bits of video from those shaped our culture around us.
Along the way, he also throws in bits of information that would be unobtainable anywhere else: Brigham Morris Young, son of Mormon leader Brigham Young, performed publicly under the stage name of Madam Pattirini for about 20 years at the end of the 19th century—who knew?
Bullock is at his very best in his chapter on the obscure country and western album Lavender Country (a record whose subtitle is “An Album of Gay Music”) and its creator Patrick Haggerty.
Although only one thousand copies of Lavender Country were pressed when the record was first released in 1973, it would be re-released (when its existence was newly discovered) many years later and added to the Country Music Hall of Fame’s collection in the year 2000. Today, despite decades in total obscurity, Lavender Country is available for download on iTunes.
In the early ’70s, however, it was considered subversive and obscene enough to cost the one radio station who would play the album its broadcasting license.
Of Country’s creator, Patrick Haggerty, who wrote nine of the eleven songs on the album and gathered together friends to sing and play instruments, Bullock writes:
“Brought up on a dairy farm within a loving and supportive family, Haggerty wrote songs for Lavender Country that are filled with both humor and deep emotion. With titles such as ‘Cryin’ These Cocksucking Tears’ and ’Back in the Closet Again,’ the record is very much a reflection of his own experiences, from his upbringing in rural Washington, through his dismissal from the Peace Corps because of his sexuality, his incarceration (at the hands of a family physician) in a mental hospital…and his struggle to be heard as a young gay man when he came out, empowered by the Stonewall riots. ‘Most of us were angry,’ he says of those days [Haggerty, very much still alive, is in his early 70s]. ‘I think anger spurred us all on. Id been kicked out of the Peace Corps and ended up in a mental institution. I spent eight years jobless; no one would hire me because my mouth was so big. All of us knew that we were potentially sacrificing our lives.’”
Listening to Lavender Country today, the music is naïve in its presentation, but quite knowing in its lyrics. The songs invite re-interpretation by today’s LGBT artists and, as a whole, seem rather of-the-moment.
It stands as a unique, powerful example of the gifts that LGBT artists have given our mainstream culture.
Bullock’s timeline is long, and he casts his net deep, ensnaring artists as diverse as Noel Coward, Little Richard, Janis Ian, Byrd E. Bath and the Gay Blades, Lou Reed, Sir Monti Rock III, Jobriath, The Village People, Handbag, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood—all of whom turn up in these pages, all with stories and contributions to share. Some are well-remembered, others now obscure, but each, in his or her own way, contributed to modern culture and to their global LGBT community.
David Bowie Made Me Gay is an important volume. One that deserves to be read. One that deserves to be taught.
Hopefully, in spite of the fact that it has been published by a small-ish publishing house and that it has been published in the most retrograde moment in American History since Joseph McCarthy died, both will happen and, like Lavender Country, it will find an audience whose lives will be enriched by enjoying it.