Rock and Roll Book Club: 'David Bowie Made Me Gay'

Darryl W. Bullock's 'David Bowie Made Me Gay.'
Darryl W. Bullock's 'David Bowie Made Me Gay.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

"Bowie did not make me gay," says Andy Bell of Erasure, "but it was pretty staggering seeing him perform on Top of the Pops."

That 1972 performance was a watershed in LGBT music history: a time when queer viewers across the United Kingdom saw a radically inclusive, positive vision of what music and art could be when a man didn't try to hide his openness to same-sex affection and androgynous self-presentation. There have been many more moments in the history of LGBT music, though, that weren't so public.

Darryl W. Bullock's David Bowie Made Me Gay is a walk through the history of LGBT music in the recorded era. It's an essential read for music lovers during Pride month, and you're guaranteed to learn something fascinating about the contributions gay, bisexual, and trans people have made to popular music.

19 chapters walk chronologically through music history, starting with the birth of jazz. Tony Jackson, the only pianist Jelly Roll Morton recognized as having talents superior to his own, wrote his classic "Pretty Baby" for a "tall, skinny fellow." Morton's recording is the only one that preserved Jackson's original lyrics, including a triple-entendre reference to a jelly roll.

Jackson was openly gay, and one of the fascinations of David Bowie Made Me Gay is the way that, even in the many times and places when artists couldn't be officially out, music created spaces for the expression and exploration of homosexuality. Sometimes those spaces were literal, as in backstage at concerts by blues legend Bessie Smith. "I got 12 women on this show," she reportedly said to a would-be lover who rejected her advances, "and I can have one every night if I want it."

Bullock chronicles the 1920s "Pansy Craze" for female impersonators, which swept New York and helped lay the foundations for today's drag culture — generating stars like Julian Eltinge, who were so famous they attracted interest from Hollywood before the Hays Code of 1930 barred films from depicting gender-queerness. Pre-war persecution drove many American LGBT artists to Europe, as depicted in the musical Cabaret.

Billie Holiday and Sister Rosetta Tharpe loved women. Johnny Mathis had to be closeted, but suggested gay themes in songs like "A Time For Us." Fascinatingly, Bullock points out that even the likes of Bing Crosby — a straight man — occasionally recorded love songs addressed to members of the same sex, when publishers refused to allow a word of their songs be changed.

Bowie's formative spark of musical inspiration came from Little Richard. "Seeing those four saxophonists onstage," remembered Bowie later, "it was like, 'I want to be in that band!' And for a couple of years, that was my ambition, to be in a band playing saxophone behind Little Richard. That's why I got a saxophone."

Like Liberace, Richard was not only closeted but felt the need to occasionally moralize against homosexuality. Simultaneously, campy singers like Jackie Shane put queerness so far over the top that people could write it off as a joke — although it was far from it.

As Bullock notes, LGBT contributions to popular music go behind the scenes as well. The biggest bands of the British Invasion were managed by gay men: among them, Brian Epstein (the Beatles), Andrew Loog Oldham (the Rolling Stones), and Kit Lambert (the Who). Joe Meek, who pioneered experimental recording techniques in the early '60s, was known as the Phil Spector of England. He wrote and produced the Tornadoes' "Telstar" (1962), the first British rock record to hit number one in the U.S.

Bowie, Freddie Mercury, and Elton John rose to popularity after Stonewall, when for the first time artists could come out of the closet and still find popular success. Few did, but queerness became so central to new music of the 1970s that artists like Lou Reed and Alice Cooper were accused of passing as gay. "I'm straight," said Cooper in what Bullock calls an "incredible" 1974 interview, but "I think in the future everyone will be bisexual. And everything would be so much simpler then."

By the '80s, artists like Boy George didn't feel they needed to define their sexuality. It was apparent he wasn't Bruce Springsteen...you could do the math yourself. On the other hand, artists like George Michael knew they risked losing a mass audience if they came out as openly gay. Acts like the B-52s and "queercore" bands emerged on the alternative scene, though, and — as with the Pet Shop Boys — mainstream success sometimes followed.

Disco is a subject big enough for its own books (which it has), but Bullock sketches the way that a genre that emerged as "an underground musical movement among the blacks, the Latinos and the LGBT community" became "a corporate, antiseptic behemoth" that nonetheless served as whipping boy for homophobic, racist rock fans. One of the book's best anecdotes relates the Village Voice ad recruiting the members of one of disco's hugest groups: "Macho types wanted: must dance and have a mustache."

Bullock suggests that Ricky Martin coming out in 2010 marked a sort of watershed: today, artists like Sam Smith and Sia can be openly, proudly gay while enjoying massively successful pop careers. He cites artists who are hopeful that often-homophobic genres like country and hip-hop will follow suit.

One of the most fascinating stories Bullock celebrates is that of Patrick Haggerty, whose 1973 album Lavender Country is now celebrated as the first openly gay country album. Thanks to a reissue, songs like "Back in the Closet Again" and "Cryin' These Cocksucking Tears" are now widely available. "I think anger spurred us all on," says Haggerty, who lost multiple friends to homophobic killings. "All of us knew that we were potentially sacrificing our lives."

Enter The Current's David Bowie Made Me Gay giveaway

Use this form to enter The Current's David Bowie Made Me Gay giveaway between 7:45 a.m. CDT on Wednesday, June 20, 2018 and 11:59 p.m. CDT on Tuesday, June 26, 2018.

One (1) winner will receive one (1) hardcover copy of David Bowie Made Me Gay. Three (3) back up names will be drawn.

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