For an isolated Southern kid growing up in the Seventies, David Bowie was terrifying.
My first memory of him is seeing the fold-out cover for Diamond Dogs that belonged to a friend’s older brother. Although we didn’t have the term back then, it was a total WTF moment. My universe did not include half man/half dogs who wore eye liner and displayed their genitalia, and I simply had no context for it.*
*Oddly enough, it turns out that original genital-displaying album cover was actually rather rare at the time. I wonder now how it ended up in my friend’s brother’s possession.
Later I would hear such classics as “Space Oddity,” “Golden Years” and so forth, and I wondered (as did many) just what planet this guy was from. In 1976, Cameron Crowe called him, “a self-designed media manipulator who knows neither tact nor intimidation.”
It wasn’t until the Eighties, when I was in college, that I suddenly got the joke, and realized it had been on people like me (and Cameron Crowe) all along. Because Bowie wasn’t trying to scare us, or force us to confront our gender issues, or even make us listen to music (although he definitely wanted us to buy it). Bowie, like so many pop performers (and toddlers, I might add), was simply delighted by what he could get away with.
Doubt me? Go back to Bowie’s first 1967 album and check out the closing track, “Please, Mr. Gravedigger.” It’s a spoken-word track, with only rain and the sound of a spade hitting the dirt, performed by a murderer who’s killed a girl and is now burying the gravedigger who stole a locket from her coffin. Who puts that on his debut album if he’s serious?
Need more? In the same year he released “The Laughing Gnome,” a tribute of sorts to Anthony Newley. It included puns on the Home Office (“I ought to report you to the gnome office”) and timekeeping (“What’s that clicking noise?/That’s Fred, he’s a metrognome”).
Visually his ever-changing appearance was as much knowing wink and deliberate provocation. Besides his Diamond Dogs display, he appeared in full drag on the cover of 1970s The Man Who Sold the World, in what he claimed was a parody of the paintings of Gabriel Rossetti, and mimicked Marlene Dietrich on Hunky Dory.
By the time of Let’s Dance, his Eighties comeback, the jokes were in plain sight. On the cover he’s wearing English boxing gloves, and at the time nothing could’ve been less likely than gender-unspecific Bowie trying to appear tough. Later that same decade he would perform a duet with Mick Jagger on “Dancing in the Streets,” and his ironic reactions to Jagger’s showboating made the video more entertaining than it should have been.
The long-form video “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean” also showcases Bowie’s humor, as he plays both Vic, a bumbling fan trying to impress a girl, and Screaming Lord Byron, an exaggerated version of himself. But of course the biggest joke of the eighties, and possibly of his career, was his appearance in Labyrinth, or rather (and echoing to my original encounter) his genitalia’s appearance behind tight stretch pants in Labyrinth. What better joke, really, to play on the audience who’d come to see a Henson-made family film than to really, ahem, show them the Muppet?
A lot of his jokes were subtle, but many were not. For the song “Little Wonder” on the 1997 Earthling album, Bowie arbitrarily decided to work in the names of Snow White’s seven dwarf. Thus we get couplets like, “Big screen dolls, tits and explosions/Sleepytime, Bashful but nude.” In 1998 he told Vanity Fair that his greatest fear was “converting kilometres to miles,” and that “sympathy and originality” were the most overrated values. In 1999, he wrote in The Guardian that, “I’ve been known to do a fair amount of appropriation myself (in a spirit of post-modern irony, of course).”
And in 2000 he brought things full circle, when the NME (New Musical Express) named him its most influential artist: “I really think I should have done more for gnomes...I really could have produced a new sensibility for the garden gnome in Britain. Gnomes should have been explored more deeply.”
But I mean none of this as criticism. Rather, I’m delighted. David Bowie made a career out of shaking us up and surprising us, and if we took his transgressions seriously, that was our problem, not his. With so many artists laboring under exaggerated senses of self-worth and the importance of their “art,” especially during Bowie’s seventies heydey, it’s refreshing to realize that a true legend was really only tweaking our collective nose with his antics. Of course some of his work is serious, but the spirit behind it all—as with all the best rock and roll—is pure “wham bam, thank you ma’am.”
Alex Bledsoe is author of the Eddie LaCrosse novels (The Sword-Edged Blonde, Burn Me Deadly, Dark Jenny, and the forthcoming Wake of the Bloody Angel), the novels of the Memphis vampires (Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood) and the first Tufa novel, The Hum and the Shiver.