David Bowie was the biggest role model of my closeted existence in the seventies
I was born in 1967. Yeah, I’m that old. When I woke up this morning and the radio news broadcaster suddenly announced the breaking news of David Bowie‘s passing (who was already famous when I was born), my seventies flashed before my eyes, all of a sudden. I had of course read about his latest album, his rant against Apple for the 10 minute length rule for a single song, but I hadn’t listened to Blackstar. His recent albums just hadn’t been my thing. And quite honestly, few songs by him really ever ‘were’ my thing, Heroes being a very prominent exception, as well as a couple of duets with other singers.
It was David Bowie, the persona, the star, that were crucial to my youth. In 1979, I was twelve, German magazine publisher Stern published a book about the rampant drug scene in West Berlin, written from the point of view of young Christiane F. It was a huge hit, probably in part because many schools and teachers used it as material in their anti-drug classes. We read the book, and we saw the film when it came out in 1981. It’s a very formative time, reaching your teens, and at the same time realizing that I was different. Christiane’s boyfriend Detlev (if there’s such a thing as a gay first name, that’s the one. Not sure if it’s because of the character though…) had gay sex, not that he was gay, but he made money from meeting with gay johns. I remember how excited I was at the prospect of seeing gay sex (off camera of course) and Detlev was kind of hot in the movie (here’s a cool article about the actor.)
If you’re European and my age, I’m fairly sure that you’ve seen the film. I don’t remember much of the film except the suggestive music, and how miserable drug users are/were. The book was about as forthcoming when it came to sex as it could be at the time. I just found my old copy and read sentences like these (my translation):
“Jürgen became our regular john. He was bisexual. Usually we’d go to him together. I’d keep him busy on top and Detlev on the bottom [whatever that means…] We always got one hundred DM for it.”
“Some people were already running around naked or only with a towel around their waist, and they began to fumble each other… Guys were fumbling girls, but also guys with guys…”
For fourteen year old me, this was porn, it was exhilarating, and it all happened against the backdrop of David Bowie’s music and his Berlin trilogy albums. Christiane and Detlev were big Bowie fans and this is a big thing in the film. My music taste had long been focused on ABBA, and to this day, they are my favorite act. But as people, I found them boring. Het, married with children, living their “boring” lives off the limelight. By the time they split up (as couples and a group), the seventies were over. David Bowie was different. He claimed (in a Playboy Interview in 1976) to be bisexual, and when news of his existence reached me, he hadn’t “retracted” yet, and the fact that he was married was “duh, all bisexuals are married…” (or so we believed.) Later he said in an interview that he greatly regretted that, and I quote from Wikipedia:
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.
I can totally believe that he suffered from it. Can you imagine how we felt? Those of us who actually were freaks? Gay, bisexual? Yet to us (I for one was too young to understand that it was all marketing or PR), what David Bowie did, was heroic. To be one of the first public figured to stand up for sexual plurality (he was followed by so many other acts in the eighties: The Communards, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Marc Almond, Pet Shop Boys, Wham, Culture Club and others.) To be out and proud, in orange or purple hair, make-up, with his beautiful eyes (who knew they weren’t contacts back then?) made David Bowie different, made him the star and dream of my closeted days. Not that I’d ever dreamt of opening those closet doors, but through David Bowie, this pimply teenager was dreaming about being my true self. I didn’t come out for good until 1990, and some of those years were extremely difficult
David Bowie was a great artist, so I hear and read from the many articles published in the past day. I’m sure he was. I’m not the one to judge his musical genius, or his acting, nor am I the right person to judge him as a human being. My heart goes out to his family and friends, to those who lost their father and husband, a friend. To me, and maybe to other freaks as well, David Bowie was a star in so many more ways than one. He was the quintessential “starman”, he was a role model, something we dreamt of being in our boldest dreams.
David Bowie was the light we followed on the horizon, a stream of light, often the only thing that kept our gay closets from being completely dark, all compliments of the public education system…
For that, I’ll remember him forever, and he has a special place in my heart. I am alive, happy and pursuing my dreams, not in a small part because of this man.
Thank you David Bowie. Rest in peace. You deserve it. Please feel free to share your memories of David Bowie if you feel inclined to do so.
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PS: After I had written this post, I listened to someone on the radio talking about his final release, Lazarus, and how, in the end, Bowie retreats into a closet. The radio heads agreed that this is Bowie’s bow to the world, his final farewell. I just watched the video, and I have to tell you, as difficult as the song is (not “easy listening” if you catch my drift), the opening scene with the boy peeping out of the closet and the final one, with Bowie disappearing, wow, I’m speechless.