David Bowie offered us a template; nothing would ever be the same again
The singer showed to be outside was where it was at and provoked and inspired by example. He showed us how we had to “own it” to set ourselves free
David Bowie in a shot for the release of The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. Photograph: Brian Ward
Uncage the colours Unfurl the flag Luck just kissed you hello
– Boys Keep Swinging
Almost every gay man of a certain age has had a “David Bowie moment”. Almost every gay woman of a certain age has had a “David Bowie moment”. Indeed almost every outsider, every queer, every trans person, no matter what their age, has had their “David Bowie moment”. These moments might all be unique in circumstance but they amount to the same thing in the end.
An early engagement with Bowie’s work helped ease the fear of being marginalised. His defiance, his freak status and his fierce effeminacy amounted to a liberation of sorts. He let us know that to be “outside” was okay.
Indeed, to be outside was where it was at and he provoked and inspired by example. With his unique swagger and tat he showed us how we had to “own it” in order to set ourselves free.
He swallowed his pride and puckered his lips
And showed me the leather belt round his hips
My knees were shaking my cheeks aflame
He said: “You’ll never go down to the Gods again”
– Width of a Circle
My first encounter with Bowie’s music was in the late 1970s when my older sister played me her copy of Life on Mars. I was utterly terrified. There was something in the violence and alienation of that song that I found to be deeply disturbing and I avoided him thereafter until my mid teens. It was then that I discovered the album Hunky Dory.
By that time I was well aware that I was homosexual. I was scared and lost and felt like I was dangerously different to my peers. I had begun to go to gigs and discos and in those gatherings, in halls and youth clubs, to a god-awful heavy-metal soundtrack, I recognised the world that Bowie had been singing about in Life on Mars: a world of petty violence, cruelty and alienation; a world where gender conformity was expected and policed; a world where I felt myself to be utterly alien.
It is no exaggeration to say that Hunky Dory saved me back then. It is fearless in its queerness and I clung desperately to that. And if it taught me anything at all it was this: that if I was to be rejected by the society I lived in, well then, f*** it, I’ll reject it first. And so I did.
As it transpired, I was not alone. I found myself a set of friends for whom Bowie was a god too and life began to look up. Bowie offered us a template, of sorts, to live by or aspire to. In those crucial years he helped us “make” ourselves.
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through
That is not to say that he wasn’t capable of disappointing us. This was the 1980s, after all, and he was in a decade of creative retreat. He had just released Never Let Me Down and was about to start a heavy metal band (I own both Tin Machine albums and I still hate and resent them fiercely).
It seemed to me then that as soon as Bowie had embraced the mainstream he had “straightened” himself out and lost himself, creatively. Without his kink he held little interest. There were always the landmark 1970s albums to return to, though. They seemed enough for a lifetime of listening. They still do. They were certainly the soundtrack of my youth and they were also a cultural education in themselves.
Through them I became aware of the work of queer artists such as Klaus Nomi and Lindsay Kemp; fell in love with the very idea of Berlin; discovered the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, Roxy Music, Philadelphia soul, Kraftwerk, Neu!, Harmonia, Aleister Crowley, William Burroughs and Nicolas Roeg. (A fully committed Bowie fan was certainly made to work.)
He also influenced a whole generation of queer performers that were springing up in that period: Bronski Beat, Culture Club, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Pet Shop Boys (all of whom claim to have seen and been transformed by his 1972 Starman performance on Top of the Pops.)
Indeed, without him it would be hard to imagine there being any Suede, Blur, Björk, Adam Ant, Madonna, Talking Heads, Scissor Sisters, Smiths, Breeders or Pulp. He queered the pop cultural landscape for everyone and nothing would or could be the same again.
Now the dress is hung
The ticket pawned
The factor max that proved the fact
Is melted down
And woven on the edging of my pillow
– The Bewlay Brothers
I’ve grown up with Bowie. He has been a huge part of my life. He has seldom bored me and I have always looked forward to every twist and turn in his extraordinary career. Indeed, I spent the weekend listening to Blackstar and loving its daring and its beauty. There is, however, something inscrutable there at its heart. It seems to be a thing away on its own and adrift from the rest of his catalogue; the song structures wayward and unpredictable, the imagery dark, and at times frightening.
To my ears, at times, it sounds like a man grappling with chaos or with approaching death perhaps. The one thing that it is, though, is the work of a brave, compassionate and truly queer artist, undimmed.
I know something’s very wrong
The pulse returns the prodigal sons
The blackout heart the flowered news
With skull design upon my shoes
– I Can’t Give Everything Away
Mark O’Halloran is a writer and actor. His latest film, Viva, is on the longlist for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film