‘David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music’ by Darryl W. Bullock
Author: Steve Susoyev
December 10, 2017
Dear Darryl Bullock, please forgive any of us who initially take your book’s engaging title as a metaphor. This reader was prepared to ponder, through 350 pages, this question: What does Bowie—androgynous, ambiguous, continually self-reinventing Bowie—represent to our culture?
But a few pages in, I realized that I was holding a memoir, not a metaphor, in my hands. If Darryl Bullock had been born at a different time, he might have titled his book “Cole Porter Made Me Gay” or “Leonard Bernstein …” or even “Sam Smith…” But he was born in the mid-sixties, and David Bowie is his guy. At times during the historical narrative, he pauses to pay Bowie touching tributes. Perhaps the most personal, and globally applicable, appears in Chapter 1: “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.”
Bullock has researched the music world for many years, and in 2016 published a rollicking best-seller about the hilariously godawful opera singer, Florence Foster Jenkins. He has said that he originally planned that his next book would provide a gay perspective on the process of recording music, with an examination of how musical genres interact and influence one another.
But Bowie’s death in January of 2016 galvanized Bullock, and he realized the true subject of his next project: “There was always Bowie,” he said in a recent interview. “Every time you turned around, when there was nothing to listen to, there was always a new Bowie album. I hadn’t realised it until he died,” he told the University College Dublin’s University Observer, “but he was the soundtrack to my life.”
The book’s subtitle begs the question, “What is LGBT music?” Is it music composed and performed by musicians who are gay, including those in past decades who were widely rumored to be homosexuals? Or is it music conceived of and produced with an LGBT audience in mind? Or is the genre broad enough to include music that has encouraged LGBT people to be themselves, even if such was not the songwriter’s original intent? Bullock offers several possible answers, which he leaves us free to develop in our own directions.
Reading Bullock’s 100-plus-year history, you could conclude that gay people invented jazz, the blues, and rock & roll, and that we commandeered Broadway show tunes and disco, and had a hand in establishing punk and new wave.
And your conclusions would be accurate. There’s an argument to be made, since the B-52s’ 2009 performance at the CMT Country Music Awards, that we’ve even expanded the reach of country-western. And heavy metal audiences demonstrated their readiness for a new attitude when they embraced Life of Agony’s singer, Mina Caputo, the genre’s first openly transgender star, when she came out in 2011—13 years after Judas Priest’s frontman, Rob Halford, referred to himself as “a gay man in the metal community” during an MTV interview. Halford now says that after a momentary second thought, he has never regretted outing himself: “I’d never seen such an outpouring of love from people in all my life—the letters, the faxes, the phone calls from everybody in the metal community.”
If a premise ties together the many strands of this history, it’s that LGBT people have been living on the fringes of polite society for a very long time, and that we accordingly tend to experiment with new art forms, and incidentally launch new streams of commerce. The history related here, which Bullock disentangles in fascinating detail, began in New Orleans in the late 1890s, with a city councilman named Sidney Story. While visiting Europe, Story observed that cities with legalized prostitution prospered even during times of economic hardship. His colleagues in New Orleans were ready to test his theory that New Orleans could benefit from the same policy. In the city’s newly legal brothels, gay musicians like Tony Jackson—a feminine, very young Black piano prodigy and later the composer of the international hit song “Pretty Baby”—began to play the music that came to be known as “jazz.”
In New Orleans’s elegant bordellos, and later in similar establishments in Chicago, Tony Jackson accompanied the singers and dancing girls, improvising and composing songs that survive today. Yes, this gay boy helped to develop jazz. He was well compensated and his accomplishments were widely celebrated. The book’s early chapters introduce Ma Rainey, credited for naming “the blues” and mentoring an 11-year-old Bessie Smith.
The history is rich and inspiring, with several themes—one of which involves the importance of maintaining good public relations. As jazz and blues developed into international phenomena, the largely white audiences flocked to hear female stars—including Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Lucille Bogan—sing scandalously about their sexual adventures with other women.
Through the ensuing decades, the pattern remains the same: On the fringes, gay people experiment and create new forms of music, attracting audiences who are bored with the mainstream and ready for something new—particularly, but not only, if the music resonates with their own sense of alienation from the mainstream.
Thus, by the 1970s, Bullock writes, “Bowie’s accessible androgyny appealed to all: you didn’t have to be gay to appreciate it.” In spite of his broad historical brush, Bullock is painting a picture here primarily of and for members of his own generation. The world changed abruptly for gay kids during a 1972 performance of Bowie’s new song “Starman” that was broadcast on the British TV show Top of the Pops. Bowie stroked the shoulder of guitarist Mick Ronson and looked deeply into his eyes. Sounds pretty tame to us today, but the BBC received no end of boycott threats from scandalized parents who saw the future and were resolved to stop it before their own teenage sons had the opportunity to dye their hair magenta and strut around in metallic bodysuits. In the same moment, David Bowie earned the lifelong devotion of millions of young fans.
Another writer has written an entire book about that three-and-a-half-minute performance: In When Ziggy Played Guitar, Dylan Jones—who was 12 when he saw the broadcast—wrote, “It was thrilling, slightly dangerous, transformative. For me, and for those like me, it felt that the future had finally arrived.” A British radio announcer, Mark Radcliffe, who was 14 at the time, has said that Bowie and Ronson seemed to have “arrived from another planet where men flirted with each other, made exhilarating music and wore Lurex knee socks.”
A sequel to Bullock’s book could be titled, “My record company made me closeted.” He reveals some of the inner workings of the music industry: as Joni Mitchell explained, channeling David Geffen in her song “Free Man in Paris,” producers spend their time “stoking the star-maker machinery behind the popular song.” From Bullock we get a close-up view of how Elton John’s “coming out” as bisexual in a 1976 Rolling Stone interview damaged his U.S. record sales. Guitarist Mark Eitzel says he outed himself in the early 1980s, a decade before R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe did the same thing, and “the record company wasn’t happy and they wanted to put out that I was bi, not gay.” The velvet-voiced Johnny Mathis lived a rather private life, which became much more private after he received death threats in response to his revelation in a 1982 Us Weekly interview that “Homosexuality is a way of life I’ve become accustomed to.”
Sam Smith, the 25-year-old British songwriter and pop star who has won four Grammys and shared a 2016 Oscar for best original song, asserts, “I am not a gay singer. I’m a singer who happens to be gay.” Smith’s decision to announce to the world that he was gay seems not to have been modulated by a producer or manager. With the 2014 release of his first album, In the Lonely Hour, he stepped back, studied the career paths of his heroes including George Michael, and decided simply to come out immediately and avoid being gossiped and speculated about. In his Grammys acceptance speech that year, he said, “I want to thank the man who this record is about, who I fell in love with last year. Thank you so much for breaking my heart because you got me four Grammys!”
When Hair premiered in 1968, it sparked a revolution as the first Broadway musical to feature rock & roll. But the revolution was even more far-reaching than that: The most-quoted exchange in the play also introduced the aging Broadway audience to the newly casual attitude toward homosexuality:
Jail Psychiatrist: You have any sexual attraction towards men?
Woof: Am I a homosexual?
Jail Psychiatrist: Yeah.
Woof: I wouldn’t kick Mick Jagger out of my bed, but I’m not a homosexual, no.
This whimsically casual attitude prevailed for over a decade, and bisexuality was widely embraced as cool. It was during these years that Elton John, Freddie Mercury, Davie Bowie, and many others including Mick Jagger became enormously successful while experimenting with androgynous looks and antics, and even flirting with the possibility that they were bisexual.
Some who simply announced they were gay found themselves held to a different standard. A singer-songwriter calling himself Jobriath hit it big in 1974—meaning he received a $300,000 advance from Elektra. Dressed and made up like Diamond Dogs Bowie, Jobriath identified himself as a True Fairy and is remembered for saying, “Asking me if I’m homosexual is like asking James Brown if he’s black.” Elektra forfeited its advance, and Jobriath died of AIDS in 1983, virtually unknown.
By the time Mick Jagger licked guitarist Ronnie Wood’s lips on stage during the Stones’ 1978 Saturday Night Live performance, the press, and the Stones’ fans, were ready to love it. Ronnie, memorably, kept his lips tightly shut throughout Mick’s licking.
When the film adaptation of Hair was released in 1979, preserving the exchange between the jail psychiatrist and the long-haired boy who would not kick Mick Jagger out of his bed, a mysterious immune deficiency was spreading among gay men. In two years “gay cancer” hit international headlines. In a very short time, being bisexual was rendered uncool. The industry ducked back into the closet, and forced many of its musicians to do the same.
Bullock balances the salacious tidbits with an occasional political charge. Focusing on British musicians, he comments, “Strange as it may seem now, in the 1980s the majority of Britain’s (resolutely closeted) LGBT pop stars were unmoved” by the AIDS crisis, and made no attempt to get the government involved in research or treatment. He calls out Freddie Mercury, Elton John, and George Michael in particular for their failure to “stick their head above the parapet” while Tom Robinson, Jimmy Somerville, Boy George, and the Pet Shop Boys stood up to be counted with their activism and advocacy.
Somerville had been one of the founding members of Bronski Beat—a band whose electronic sound topped the charts in the UK, Australia, and the U.S. The three friends who founded the band—Somerville, Steve Bronski, and Larry Steinbachek—were turned off by the innocuous message of most gay bands, and set out to produce music with an overtly political message. “Smalltown Boy,” the band’s first hit, about a young man leaving his repressive home town and clueless parents, was the featured song on their debut album Age of Consent, along with a cover of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from Porgy and Bess (“…the things that you’re liable / to read in the Bible / they ain’t necessarily so…”). The album’s liner notes, deleted from the U.S. release, included the age of consent for gay sex in countries around the world. Bronski Beat headlined at Pits and Perverts, the LGBT fundraising event in support of Welch coalminers that was celebrated in the 2015 film Pride, and Bullock documents the members’ continued political work.
In a chapter devoted to women’s music in the age of feminism, Bullock points out that lesbian musicians’ close-knit community buoyed record and ticket sales, and a strong ethic of inclusion and safety. Margie Adam, a pioneer of the Women’s Music movement, insisted that the tech crews be staffed entirely by women on all of her tours and performances, “creating a safe space for women performers and their audiences as well as work for female crews.”
The book’s playful title belies the depth of the author’s research and extensive personal interviews. Even the 503 endnotes and four-page bibliography fail to convey the extent of Bullock’s devotion. The advance review copy I received contained no index, and I groaned. But the PDF provided by the publisher did contain an index, as does the final hardbound book, and thank God. When I wanted to look up the contributions of k.d. lang and Janis Ian, Jobriath and Johnny Mathis, the index made it easy. Bullock has reached far beyond the famous and infamous and created an invaluable resource for anyone interested in LGBT or musical history—a resource which, incidentally, is sumptuously packaged with dozens of high-quality photographs, many in color.
In order to herd this information into 19 chapters, Bullock had to make some difficult choices. Not all readers will appreciate the choices he has made, though all must admit that thoroughly exploring every aspect of the past 100 years of LGBT music would require far more than 350 pages. Elton John’s name appears over 50 times, and Frank Sinatra’s appears six times, though never as a rumored homosexual. But few classical composers and musicians are mentioned, and few from theatre or film. Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim appear once in the book, in a reference to their roles as composer and lyricist of West Side Story, and Bullock mentions Tchaikovsky only as the composer whom the Soviets tried for decades to portray as heterosexual although he once wrote that he was married to “a woman with whom I am not the least in love.” Ten-time Tony Award winner Tommy Tune and Broadway favorite Neil Patrick Harris don’t appear at all. John Cameron Mitchell gets a nod as the director of the video “Filthy/Gorgeous,” and as co-creator and director of the “cult film” Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but Hedwig’s record-breaking stage run on Broadway and Mitchell’s 2015 special Tony Award aren’t mentioned. Nor are the contributions of Hedwig composer Stephen Trask, who also composed the scores to the films The Station Agent and Dreamgirls, among many other stage and film productions. Matmos didn’t make the cut—they are M.C. Schmidt and Drew Daniel, the experimental electronic music duo who have toured with Bjork. They “came out” as a couple in a 2002 Butt magazine interview. They are funny, edgy, sexy, self-effacing—and missing from the narrative.
My personal disappointment is that Donovan Leitch never appears. His song “To Try for the Sun” was released when I was 12. Donovan is not gay, but that song, about two boys huddled together after midnight to keep each other warm in a derelict building, gave me my first hint that boys could share such experiences. That song did for me what Bowie’s “Starman” did for Bullock.
In spite of omissions and name-dropping that will annoy some readers, Bullock has managed to include obscure and little-known musicians along with the household names. He introduces the black singer-songwriter Charles Timothy Ashmore, who legally changed his name to Blackberri and today works as a tenants’-rights activist and remains busy in music. Concerning Steven Grossman, a slightly better-known songwriter who died of AIDS in 1991 at age 39, Bullock writes, “if you ignore the fact that he’s clearly singing about men having emotional issues with other men, you could just as easily be listening to songs by Joni Mitchell or Cat Stevens.” Bullock has catalogued decades of work culminating in Grossman’s 1974 album Caravan Tonight, released by Mercury—the first album dealing with openly gay themes from a major label.
Blessedly brief sections of the book ramble on, with celebrity names appearing almost at random. Billie Holiday is rumored to have had an affair with Tallulah Bankhead. This mention of Billie Holiday’s likely bisexuality leads to a page of references to Ray Charles, Diana Ross, Etta James, and many other performers not rumored to be LGB or T, and a quote from Frank Sinatra crediting Holiday as a major influence. In these places the book threatens to devolve into tiresome detail and gossip, with lists of gay musicians and musicians rumored to be gay—including a one-time roommate of Jimi Hendrix. Bullock’s research is sound, and his personal interviews yielded bounties of rich material, so that these passages of name-dropping are unnecessary and distracting.
But, of course, some of the gossip is intriguing. John Lennon is widely believed to have sung, “Baby, you’re a rich fag Jew” in the closing of the studio recording of the Beatles’ “tribute” to their gay manager Brian Epstein. (I’ve listened for it, and really can’t tell.) Pete Townsend of The Who rather famously told a Rolling Stone reporter in 2012, “What I remember of the size of Mick Jagger’s penis—I remember it as being huge and extremely tasty.” Townsend, who is openly bisexual, clearly was joking, in a riff on a comment in Keith Richards’s 2010 memoir concerning Jagger’s “tiny dodger.” But the public’s reaction to Townsend’s joke, with the story repeated in the Hollywood Reporter, shows how seriously the world takes the sexuality of famous people. Townsend’s ease with the joke also demonstrates how comfortable the pop music world had become with gay sexuality. By 2009, as noted earlier, the B-52s—an all-gay band except for singer-drummer Cindy Wilson—were performing their hit “Love Shack” at the CMT Country Music Awards in Nashville.
Bullock’s prolific research stands beside his personal commitment to preserving the history of LGBT music. Elsewhere he has written:
“Glad To Be Gay” by the Tom Robinson Band was my coming out song. The angry, venomous solo performance Robinson gave at Amnesty International’s Secret Policeman’s Ball fundraiser in June 1979 sparked the beginning of my gay life. I was 14 and I had already attempted in my own clumsy way to come out, and when the music from the show was issued the following year I pulled my pocket money together and bought a copy. “Glad To Be Gay” changed my life; I’m sure it changed many other lives too.
“LGBT culture,” Bullock has said in an interview, “pushes fashion and music forward, and we should be really bloody proud of ourselves for it.” In his 2016 book, Florence! Foster!! Jenkins!!!: The Life of the World’s Worst Opera Singer, Bullock reached back beyond his own generation and managed to create an entertaining, thoroughly researched resource. The author’s investment in this new book is deeply personal, and that investment pays off for his readers and, it certainly appears, for himself.
David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music
By Darryl W. Bullock
Hardcover, 9781468315592, 350 pp.