Sunday night, as he was dying of cancer downtown, David Bowie was also in my apartment in upper Manhattan, singing my son to sleep. One of the unexpected great joys of having a child has been the opportunity to sing, over and over for more than six years now, the lullaby David Bowie wrote for his newborn son in 1971. Titled “Kooks,” the song appeared on one of his earliest, prettiest albums, Hunky Dory, the one with the soft-focus cover image of a very feminine face looking upward, lips slightly parted, one hand brushing back long straight blonde hair that flows down onto the figure’s shoulders. Reviewers at the time saw the cover as evoking Bacall or Garbo — Bowie himself cited Dietrich as the main influence — but of course it was Bowie himself, imagining and projecting himself into a stardom that at the time he made Hunky Dory he was not even close to attaining.
I bought Hunky Dory a couple of years after it came out, with money I received for my twelfth birthday, when I also got my first record player. At the time, “Kooks” was one of my least favorite songs on it. Like most people, I loved “Changes,” which every critic in the world continues to treat as if it were a manifesto anticipating Bowie’s career of transmogrification. And of course I loved the ecstatic yet melancholic beauty of “Life on Mars?,” which has somehow—despite its un-Bowie-like structure of full-rhyming couplets (“It’s on America’s tortured brow/that Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow”) accrued power and meaning even as it has become the soundtrack to, well, everything in the past few decades.
“Kooks,” though, was too sentimental, even sweet, for my proto-adolescent self. It was romantic without any of the overwrought anguish I already associated with romance and desire. The gorgeous “Letter to Hermione,” from the earlier Space Oddity album, spoke to that side of me. (“And when he’s strong he’s strong for you/And when you kiss it’s something new/But did you ever call my name/Just by mistake?”). It’s hard to imagine how Hermione Farthingale, the woman that song was about and for, would respond to its direct address to her. But with every unrequited crush, after every breakup, from my teens into my thirties, it was easy to imagine myself in the position of the abject, spurned lover that is the singer’s position in that song. I did, and the song still makes me weep in memory of all those cathartic experiences it provided for me.
Bowie didn’t write all that many conventionally romantic love songs of this sort, the kind with direct, lyric address to a love object. He more often wrote about “Loving the Alien” than about loving “you.” There are exceptions—“Rock and Roll With Me” from Diamond Dogs; “Can You Hear Me?” from Young Americans, and some sweet but not so memorable songs he wrote after marrying Iman—so he certainly knew how.
He was more likely to include a moment of direct address when it was least expected. The most startling and lovely example of this is in “Five Years”—the song that opens The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Most of the song is observational, about random, generic people’s responses to the news of the impending end of the world (My favorite: “A cop knelt and kissed the feet of a priest/And the queer threw up at the sight of that”). But then “you” appear: “I think I saw you in an ice cream parlor/drinking milkshakes cold and long/Smiling and waving and looking so fine/don’t think you knew you were in this song.” The last line takes the direct address up another level, almost making it into metacommentary but at the same time making it feel more personal.
That was one of Bowie’s gifts: he could somehow produce a sense of intimacy, of closeness, through gestures that might otherwise seem impersonal and distancing. In performance he would do this with his index finger, simply pointing into the audience. I saw it at my first Bowie concert, part of the 1976 tour supporting the release of Station to Station, when he ended “Fame” with the line “What’s your name?” — heavily echoed — and a simultaneous dramatic point into the audience. You can see it in the D.A. Pennebaker Ziggy Stardust concert movie, in his performance of Jacques Brel’s “My Death,” when he sings the last line of the chorus: “but in front of that door/there….is….you.” In both cases, every person in the general vicinity he pointed seemed to scream and nearly faint, as if he were pointing to each specific “you.” In “My Death,” the last time, when he teases the audience by instead of singing “there…is…you” he draws out “there…is” and then casually says “thank you” and the song abruptly ends, without the gesture. Dozens, maybe hundreds of voices call out “me! me!” As early as 1973, Bowie could play with his fans’ expectation of those moments, which allow you to imagine yourself as David Bowie’s addressee, which in turn make you into his object of desire (even if lyrically they’re not romantic or sexual moments; “Fame” is very far from being a love song). And nobody at a Bowie concert could be immune to the appeal of that possibility.
“Kooks” is written entirely in the form of a direct address. However, the addressee is a newborn infant—indeed, a very specific, personal one, the child he’d just had with his wife Angela. Then known as Zowie Bowie, and referred to next to the song’s title on the handwritten back cover of Hunky Dory as “Little Z,” he has grown up to be the film director Duncan Jones. The song’s conceit is that the singer is asking whether the child is willing to “stay in our lovers’ story” even though its parents are “a couple of kooks/hung up on romancing.” He confesses that the child will need “a book of rules/on what to say to people when they pick on you/because if you stay with us you’re gonna be pretty kooky too.” The only part I recall liking, each time it came around (skipping a song being played on vinyl did take some effort, after all) was the “school’s out” bit at the end: “And if the homework brings you down/then we’ll throw it on the fire/and take the car downtown.” As a child in public school in the Common Core era, who has lots of homework even in first grade, my son thinks that’s a hilarious idea.
As a song about a man and a woman having a baby, and about keeping that reproductive unit together, “Kooks” may seem like the least queer David Bowie song of the 1970s. And yes, it invites that child to stay in the hetero family, and within the couple-form. But it frames — absurdly but audibly sincerely — the situation as a choice the infant has (“Will you stay…..”). And it presents the formation of that family not as a natural phenomenon (it’s not “you are part of our lover’s story”) but as a negotiation (“We’ve bought you a pair of shoes/a trumpet you can blow”) as well as a set of conditions (“Don’t pick fights with the bullies or the cads/Because I’m not much cop at punching other people’s dads”). To use a word that was often in the 1970s used by homophobes to describe the activities of gay and lesbian groups, the song is a scene of “recruitment.”
And I knew — everyone who read the newspapers knew —that the family into which “Little Z” was being recruited looked like this:
It was impossible to understand David and Angela Bowie as a heteronormative couple. British magazines — and in the U.S., even People — wrote about their open relationship, and about the publically stated bisexuality that they had in common (which ultimately may have been all they had in common).
Those images matter to the meaning of the song. Bowie’s music is rarely, if ever, meant to stand on its own. The public image which he worked on meticulously from his earliest bands (anyone who attended the “David Bowie Is” exhibition will have been struck by this in the chronologically early section of the show), then the fictional personae from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane to Halloween Jack to the Thin White Duke and even the happy pop star of Let’s Dance; the dizzying array of images he put forward as he embraced the new art form of the rock video: all were very clearly part of the performance, not mere supplements to the music.
The interdependence of sound and image (“Sound and Vision” is the other song often taken to be an artistic manifesto) continued in the week before Bowie’s death. Though “Blackstar” is tonally stunning, with a melodic middle section full of joy and defiance, and though “Lazarus” can stand proudly in the line of self-referential songs he has made throughout his career, the videos released with each single are integral to any understanding of what they’re about.
Relatedly, Bowie’s death is integral to what they’re about. And he knew it; you don’t release a song that starts “Look up here/I’m in heaven” four days before your death from cancer that you know about but most of the public does not, and make a video depicting yourself in a hospital bed, unless you are working, as an artist, with the relationship between sound and image, even unto death. It’s a video that is hard to watch on the day of his death, but he almost explicitly asks us to do so, and to picture him dying. I’m really not sure if that makes it easier or harder to take the news of Bowie’s death, but the self-consciousness of it certainly kept alive for several hours the rumor that this was just another performance, that death was his latest persona.
But my point is that I heard — everyone heard — “Kooks” in a context that had very little to do with reproductive heteronormativity. What David and Angie Bowie projected at that moment was a radically alternative model for living. And the fact that they included in that model a song about having a baby accentuated the fact that this was a model for adult life. Plenty of rock stars produced images of perpetual youth, and especially of perpetual adolescence (including, by the 1970s already, rock stars who were no longer adolescent youths). But Bowie—in his public persona — taught that adulthood could be complicated, thrilling, unfixed. That he was sixteen years older than I was helped, of course. But so did the fact that he was self-consciously part of a younger generation than the already “classic rock” stars of the 1960s. He knew exactly the demographic he was addressing when he wrote in “All the Young Dudes” from the perspective of someone whose brother was “back at home/ with his Beatles and his Stones/We never got it off on that revolution stuff/What a drag/Too many snags.”
Bowie of course never just rejected the past; he mined it voraciously, if selectively. When I bought it, my own favorite song on Hunky Dory was on the second side (again: vinyl), which was mostly taken up by tributes to Bowie’s American influences (Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol). The song had the titillating (to a 12-year old) title “Queen Bitch.” My six-year-old, who knows that “bitch” is a bad word but one that David Bowie likes to say a lot, dutifully replaces the word with “B.” That works well in this context — “Queen B” is an amusing title — but is less apposite back on the first side of the album, when Bowie sings “The earth is a bitch/we’ve finished our news/homo sapiens have outgrown their use.” Leaving aside aside the question of whether such lyrics—with or without profanity — are appropriate for a small child, I am proud to say that my son has happily shouted “The earth is a B!” and the rest of the lyric since he was about four.
I liked “Queen Bitch” partly because it was the “hardest” rock song on an otherwise very soft, even folky album largely driven by Rick Wakeman’s music-hall-style piano (to undo any impression I may be giving that I had uniformly great taste in my early adolescence, I was also into Bachmann-Turner Overdrive at the time), but I also enjoyed its very swishy sound. In fact, its lyrics included the word “swishy” (“She’s so swishy in her satin and tat/In her frock coat and bippity-boppity hat/Oh God I can do better than that”), and I sang along with it alone in my room, over and over again. My son loves that song, too — he laughs at the word “bippity-boppity” every time. We have danced around to it, acting “swishy” and “bippity boppity.” It’s not a great lullaby, though sometimes at night he asks me to sing it.
In the years between the release of Hunky Dory and my purchase of it, Bowie had further developed the transgressive sexuality foreshadowed in the album immediately previous, The Man Who Sold the World, with its darkly explicit song about anal sex “The Width of a Circle” (“My knees were shaking, my cheeks aflame/ He said ‘You’ll never go down to the Gods again’/(Turn around, go back!”) and then, in 1972, announced his bisexuality. It seemed all the more pleasurable to discover that he had being doing all this while married to a woman with whom he’d had a child, and I have a recollection of casually telling my mother that I too was bisexual, simply because David Bowie was. In my memory (which may be false—but if it is, I don’t want to know) she was reassured when I also told her I didn’t know what the word meant. But despite my disavowal, I knew something.
Bowie’s music often has that effect; after you hear it, you know something, and feel it deeply. Or maybe better — because Bowie is one of those artists who is about surfaces that are more important than depths — you feel it right on the surface of your skin, as something stimulating, transgressive, erotic. Even if you’re not quite sure what you have knowledge of — is it self-knowledge? Is it knowledge of something radically different from your self? — you’re not the same, epistemologically, affectively.
So I’m sure my son doesn’t know that “Queen Bitch” is sung from the position of someone watching his or her (male) lover out the window, picking up what appears to be a transvestite prostitute (to choose, uncomfortably, the two words that would have been used then to describe what a “Queen Bitch” could be). As Chris O’Leary says in his wonderful “Pushing Ahead of the Dame” blog, which has a post about each and every David Bowie song (and whose title is taken from the lyrics of “Queen Bitch”), “what’s most galling [to the singer] isn’t the betrayal, really, but the sort of pickup his man’s descending to—“Oh God, I could do better than that!“ he snarls in desperation and envy. Is he talking about his own taste in cruising, or that he’s flashier and prettier than the streetwalker? It’s either or both.” It’s a great song.
These songs — a lot of David Bowie songs — are about what psychoanalytic theory refers to as the dialectic between having and being. The desire to be David Bowie overlapped with the desire to have him — not only sexually (though certainly sexually), but in many other ways. “Kooks” even asks you to desire to have David Bowie as a father, one who was not like “other people’s dads.” “Queen Bitch” asks you to identify with a character who is angry because his man is picking someone up who is not as good a queen as he is. By no means did I know all this when I was twelve. But, again: I knew something.
This combination of knowing and unknowing, this epistemology, began to be articulated in the late 1980s and early 1990s in queer theory. To put it another way, being obsessed with David Bowie as an adolescent in the 1970s made Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s deconstruction of the distinction between identification and desire seem intuitively right.
Consider Sedgwick’s essay “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay,” which is among the most pointed and accessible of her writings. In it she argues that one of the crucial accomplishments of gay/lesbian feminist theory and activism of the previous decades—the analytic separation between the metacategories of gender and sexuality—was not inherently or uniformly beneficial. “To begin to theorize gender and sexuality as distinct though intimately entangled axes of analysis,” she argues, “has been, indeed, a great advance of recent lesbian and gay thought.” She goes on to say that “There is a danger… that that advance may leave the effeminate boy once more in the position of the haunting abject–this time the haunting abject of gay thought itself.” David Bowie knew this, or something like it, in the 1970s. And so did his fans, many of whom were “effeminate boys,” others of whom were boys, girls, and others whom we’d now call gender nonconforming.
From this unsettling claim about the gender/sexuality distinction, several argumentative steps lead Sedgwick to the moment that I want to draw out here, and that I think David Bowie prefigured in the 1970s. First Sedgwick makes a point that she expresses in different ways throughout her writings: that there is “a wish endemic in the culture… that gay people not exist.” This wish, she argues, is not located solely in the overtly homophobic and hateful parts of society. It can, in fact, co-exist with the desire to treat gay people with dignity, to demonstrate tolerance, even to change laws. “But,” Sedgwick argues, “the number of persons or institutions by whom the existence of gay people is treated as a precious desideratum, a needed condition of life, is small.”
Bowie created spaces for such persons and institutions. He promoted not liberal “tolerance” for people who might later come together under the term “queer,” but a positive affirmation, a sense that such queerness was “a precious desideratum.” He did so first by joyously affirming radical difference. Todd Haynes talked just days before Bowie’s death of how “all of the sudden these teenage kids—who are in a constant state of instability, uncertainty — have this image of a bisexual space alien up onstage,” and of how this image allowed them to project identities for themselves that were not defined in relation to a dominant image of normalcy. Instead, they could define themselves in relation to Ziggy Stardust, or Aladdin Sane, or Halloween Jack.
Haynes depicts a version of this moment in his film Velvet Goldmine, when the Christian Bale character sees the Bowie-esque rock star played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers and imagines shouting to his parents “That is me! That’s me there! That! That’s me!” while pointing at the screen. This moment reads as an act of pure identification and recognition: “That (image on the screen) is me (my identity)” or “I want to be, or I am (like) him.” But like the pointing in concerts, like the moments of unexpected direct address in his songs, there’s something else going on there, too. There’s a desire (“I want to have that beautiful person”) that is inseparable from that identification. The desire to be David Bowie and the desire to have David Bowie are so closely intertwined as to be almost indistinguishable.
The fact of being addressed — David Bowie pointing at you — changes both your desires and your identifications, and thus makes you into something you weren’t before. The theorist Louis Althusser coined the term “interpellation” to describe this. If a police officer says “Hey, you there,” and you turn around, your response changes you into a subject and a suspect. Althusser doesn’t focus so much, though, on the collective identities brought into being by such unexpected acts of direct address. Bowie did, at crucial, climactic moments in his songs. Think of the exhilarating conclusion of “Rock n Roll Suicide,” one of the many moments when Bowie imagined his own death (not just the death of the Ziggy Stardust persona). It starts out as an individual act of empathy: “Oh no love! You’re not alone…No matter what or who you’ve been/No matter when or where you’ve seen/All the knives seem to lacerate your brain/I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain.” But then the Spiders join in as backing vocalists, so it becomes a call-and-response: “and you’re wonderful/so gimme your hands/’cause you’re wonderful/just gimme your hands.”
Such moments of collectivity were even more evident in concerts, especially in the mid-1970s, when thousands of fans would show up dressed as various earlier Bowie personas, only to be fascinated and engaged and sometimes a little put off by the fact that he had moved on to the next one. What did it feel like to come to a concert in full glam gear, having painted a red-and-blue lightning bolt across your face, only to watch Bowie perform as the thin white duke, with all clothing and lighting either black or white? Even at later shows I saw after his big hits changed the crowd—the “Serious Moonlight Tour” in 1983 or “A Reality Tour” twenty years later—there were moving moments where when he’d play a deep cut, an obscure song, and you’d realize that some large portion of the crowd knew every word of “The Bewlay Brothers” or “Joe the Lion” and was singing along, almost involuntarily.
At such moments, individual identifications turn into the imagination of a community, a public, a collectivity. These other people are connected to the Christian Bale character (they are also pointing at that screen in acts of simultaneous identification and desire) — but also different from one another (maybe they’re wearing Ziggy Stardust makeup at a Young Americans show). Tilda Swinton got at this in her wonderful speech at the opening of the “David Bowie Is” exhibition by saying that Bowie brought together “the loners and pretty things and dandies and dudes and dukes and duckies,” and then “provided the sideways like us with such rare and out-there company.”
David Bowie made these things happen in the 1970s. And this accomplishment is a permanent one. It was not undone when in the 1980s he disavowed his earlier statements about his sexuality, nor by his poor treatment of some actually existing queer artists (e.g. Klaus Nomi). The evidence is that it’s still there in the ending of Stephen Trask’s “Midnight Radio,” the final song from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, when Hedwig tells the audience (whom she’s addressed directly throughout) that “All the misfits and the losers/Well, you know you’re rock and rollers” and then leads the whole crowd in a chant of “Lift up your hands” that seems a direct echo of “Gimme your hands.”
My six-year-old does not know all this. He also doesn’t yet know what a lot of the lyrics mean, though he’s starting to ask, and I expect that once he does, a few songs, such as “Sweet Head” and “Cracked Actor” will come off the playlists he has access to. And I’m especially pleased that when he listens, he stares at the fold-out photos that came with the CDs (yes, I still have CDs—which will make it hard to remove certain songs), looking at Bowie in a dress on the cover of The Man Who Sold the World, or in the Pierrot outfit on the cover of Scary Monsters. And I’m pleased that he sings along, without hesitation, to lyrics like “People stared/at the makeup on his face…..and Lady Stardust sang his songs/of darkness and disgrace.” And, of course, he doesn’t understand death: when I told him David Bowie had died, he asked why; accepted the answer “He was sick for awhile, though I didn’t know it;” gave me a hug because he knew could tell I was sad; and then contentedly went to do his homework.
Despite the title of her essay, Eve Sedgwick didn’t really give us instructions on how to bring our kids up gay. But for the space oddities, pretty things, starmen, hot tramps, sweet things, heroes, scary monsters, aliens, and outsiders of all ages who listen to him, David Bowie left a lot of music and images with points about identification and desire that are anything but straight. That’s part of his legacy, and it’s what Bowie and I will keep singing to my son at night.
Will you stay in our lovers’ story
If you stay, you won’t be sorry
‘Cause we believe in you
Soon you’ll grow, so take a chance
With a couple of kooks, hung up on romancing.
Glenn Hendler‘s aim is true.