Christopher Isherwood got the measure of David Bowie when he told Ziggy (or David) he should check out Berlin. If you listen carefully, then Bowie always was the greatest cabaret singer, and the way he wrapped his voice around all those decadent songs… None of his contemporaries could sing with that much drama or distance.
The year 1969 might be a long way from 1930s Berlin. Weimar was far from the post-war London that brought up Bowie and Marc Bolan; lower-middle-class households, grey flannel trousers, a London of bomb sites.
There are correspondences between Bowie and Bolan. Both try to make it as singers in 1960s London. Both end up with gay managers in a Soho music business run by older gay men promoting young boys. I think Bolan and Bowie meet for the first time in 1964; they are painting the walls of manager Les Conn’s Soho office.
Older men school Bowie. As a teenager he moves into the West End flat of his bisexual middle-aged manger Kenneth Pitt (he has several of these managers). The books on Bowie say this relationship was sexual (more or less). Pitt educates Bowie in books and restaurants, Fitzrovia, antiques. Bowie was not, recalls Pitt, “a cultured person”.
Bowie was quiet about these relationships, Bolan more forthcoming. He liked to talk about an older man he called The Wizard, who took him to France, showed him real magic (like spells). In reality, there was an older man who took Bolan to Paris, presumably for sex.
Bolan’s diaries reveal a teenage London that resembles 1930s Berlin – rent boys and narcissism. Entry, 1966: Mark spends the day in Piccadilly… “nobody tries to pull me – oh no, not another off day… where did all the queens go?” He wakes up the next day, looks in the mirror to “wonder if I am as beautiful today as I was yesterday”.
The greatest cultural gift Pitt gives Bowie is an acetate of the first Velvet Underground LP, in 1967. Bowie must have been one of the first people in London to hear Waiting for the Man. This would begin to unlock everything for Bowie. It is worth doing a Bowie/Ziggy timeline, in relation to New York.
January 1971. Bowie is 24. He has had a hit with Space Oddity, but he is no superstar – he is more like a one-hit wonder. He is working on new material (Hunky Dory). David goes to New York for the first time. He hears The Stooges and writes Moonage Daydream and Hang onto Yourself.
September 1971. Bowie is back NY. He goes to Max’s Kansas City and meets both Warhol and Iggy (who joins his management company). At this point, Bowie is performing in black culottes, red platform boots, a woman’s jacket… He is on his way to being that Ziggy creature.
He must have seen the New York Dolls at Max’s. And Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn. And all the well-documented fervour of Max’s. The Dolls’ Sylvain Sylvain says they met Bowie in 1972. “And he got a pair of custom-made high backless mules in the same style and from the same guy that we went to… ”
There are always correspondences. Bowie met Freddie Mercury in 1970, when Mercury worked on a stall in Ken Market and fitted Bowie with a pair of suede boots. At the same time, Sylvain and Billy Murcia sold their knitwear business in New York (they had a fashion background) and came to London. They bought a grey Jaguar. “We got it just to go to Kensington Market in, where we’d have tea, smoke hashish and buy boots all fucking day long,” says Sylvain.
The Dolls were into the Stones. Johnny Thunders was a massive Stones fan – you can see the teenage Thunders in the audience of the Stones film Gimme Shelter. They were Stones-type dandies, at first. Some of the Dolls were into platform boots. But David Johansen took them over the edge.
“It wasn’t until we got David that we became really flamboyant,” said Sylvain, “but he took it to a level that I was never happy with. I’d worn make-up before his arrival, and Johnny used to wear girls’ shoes all the time but we never thought of it as, ‘Hey we’re gong to dress up as women’… I said to David, ‘Are you gay? Do you want to be a transvestite?’ But he would never give me a proper answer.”
Bowie, Bolan and Johansen, they will have this in common; not easily fixed – perhaps not even in their own minds, sexually.
There are further Mick Jagger correspondences. In 1970, Bowie was convinced that Jagger was bisexual and took Jagger for a role model, says Bowie’s music publisher (at the time), Bob Grace.
More: Jagger wears a Mr Fish dress for the Stones’ Hyde Park show in 1969; Bowie wears a Mr Fish dress in 1971 – but Bowie is more femme than Mick – he passes for Lauren Bacall in that dress.
Keith Richards (speaking to the NME) is articulate on Jagger’s sexuality: “I really have no idea if anyone ever shoved it up the shitter. But there was, at the time, a load of excruciating, painful campness that went on.”
The year 1971. The books on Bowie tell the same story: he went to gay clubs in Soho, he flirted, he copped off, he socialised with Ossie Clark. You might see Bowie with Lionel Bart, who would turn up with a rent boy or be snuggled close to Bowie.
Bowie rolled the dice in 1972. In a very famous interview, just before Ziggy was released, Bowie spoke to the Melody Maker. “I’m gay,” he said, “and always have been.” Although the Melody Maker did note he was married at the time. They weren’t entirely convinced… “there’s a sly jollity about how he says it, a secret smile at the corner of his mouth. He knows that in these times it’s permissible to act like a male tart”.
Ziggy, if you take a close look – with his porcelain skin, long bare thighs and kimono top – is far weirder than “male tart”. He is some kind of male extreme (I hesitate to get into androgyny, and anyway, he is clearly not female). Anyway, his songs are never macho. Which is a crucial difference between Bowie and the Stones and Bolan. Bowie’s songs are full of sexual play. All those “tigers on Vaseline” and “backs on the arch” – this is much more gay and sodomitical than the usual male lyrical business.
Bolan looks cute – glittery silver eye paint and ballet shoes – but his music falls back to crotch rock. There are endless guitar hero solos. The books on Bolan tell the same story: too much drink and coke, played it too safe with the music.
Bolan doesn’t even give good interview. ZigZag asked him about Bowie. “I like his songs and we have a very good head thing… but we don’t make love. To make love would be repulsive to me. It would just be a bit of a bore with bums, and it’d hurt.”
Bowie, very sophisticated. Bolan, not so sophisticated. New York Dolls – severe drug and alcohol problems, very little professional discipline. Bowie has a post-Ziggy existence, the others burn out.
These girl-ish, alien, un-manned boys – they are mainly heterosexual, but often present in a way that is not. Also, they have all been exposed to gay milieu (for the Dolls, just living in New York in that period, being close to Times Square, was enough).
But girls love them. This is interesting, because female visual sexual triggers are not as well documented as male. And if you read all the interviews, then none of them is particularly clear on what they are doing. Or certain about anything.
“I’m regarded quite asexually by a lot of people,” Bowie told William Burroughs (Rolling Stone put them together in 1974). “And the people that understand me the best are nearer to what I understand about me. Which is not very much, for I’m still searching. I don’t know, the people who are coming anywhere close to where I think I’m at regard me more as an erogenous kind of thing. But the people who don’t know so much about me regard me more sexually.”
An “erogenous kind of thing”. Makes you think of some sort of object. Or signal.
It’s worth remembering Bowie was a huge romantic. He adored Lou and Iggy. And whatever he adored, he could express – so when he sings Lady Stardust and Rebel Rebel and all those decadent songs, he makes everything – being young, slutty, druggy and wild – sound beautiful and poetic.
Were they fey, these boys? It is a word for romantic poets (Bolan loved to namecheck Byron). The word fey comes from the Middle English – it means “fated to die” – damned, pale, wispy creatures, half-dead, limp.
I think there was more fire and wickedness. They came after the 1960s. What were you supposed to do in the 1960s? LSD (which Bowie and Bolan avoided). Marijuana (Bowie and Bolan avoided). Left-wing politics (Bowie and Bolan avoided). Bowie and Bolan chose alcohol, cocaine, success, fame, glamour, fashion and money. They sensed the link between the female and luxury and capitalism and glamour, and wanted it. But underneath the make-up they were boys… naughty, swinging boys.
Thanks to: Bolan: The Rise and Fall of a 20th Century Superstar by Mark Paytress (Omnibus); The New York Dolls: Too Much Too Soon by Nina Antonia (Omnibus); Starman: David Bowie by Paul Trynka (Sphere); Bowie, Bolan and the Brooklyn Boy by Tony Visconti (Harper)
By Tony Marcus