It was 2003 and I was living in a 4 bedroom apartment in Harlem with three other people. I was packed into the end of a long hallway. I had no belongings. I only owned a rolling bag of luggage that doubled as my closet. I slept on a bed that was already in that room, abandoned by its former owner, adopted by myself.
I was out of Los Angeles–free to do what I wanted to do–so in a fit of hysteria I went to the Virgin Megastore in Time Square, bought every music magazine with an image of Bowie, and created a collage of the artist that I taped to the wall of my bedroom.
One of my roommates told her boyfriend about my collage. He sheepishly knocked on my door one afternoon and I let him in. I stood there in my underwear, paralyzed. He was curly haired and cute, a hipster before hipsters were a thing.
He thought the collage was cool, which made me cool.
My roommate, this boy, and I sat in a circle in the living room listening to Aladdin Sane on vinyl one afternoon. I confessed my most private blasphemous thought: that Bowie’s version of Let’s Spend the Night Together was better than the Rolling Stone’s version. The boy yelled in agreement, bursting like someone had just given the exact words to his secret. I didn’t need to be in love with him to understand the gift of acceptance. We shared this intense bond of music that soothed any alienation I felt in regards to New York city. In the grand scheme of things he wasn’t even a minor character in the story of my life, but the city tends to hand you the gift of minor-minor characters who show up and ease your soul.
Aladdin Sane was the perfect album for my first few months in New York: Jarring, campy, absurd, and also extremely gay.
Ziggy Stardust is the nice semi-gentrified gay bar you take your straight friends to. Maybe the bartenders have their shirts off for some titillation, but overall everyone is well-behaved and your straight friends might get a nice thrill.
Aladdin Sane is the 3 AM gay bar, the one called The Hole, or the Fist, or something nasty. You walk inside and there’s a very rude drag queen, it smells like lube and poppers, and if they have TVs then they’re probably playing gay porn. All but your foolhardiest of straights would dare enter.
And this isn’t really because Aladdin Sane is a dirty record (it is) but it’s mostly because the language that Bowie speaks and the attitude dripping from the album is so fucking gay that I think straight people still have a hard time understanding this album.
How else to explain this?
Bowie, draped in a boa, showing off milky white thighs, sings what sounds like a cabaret/burlesque song about death and regret like a grand diva. To the layman this all looks and sounds ridiculous, but to people who are in the know–that is–to people who understand being gay, an outsider, or a lover of camp, all of this makes perfect sense.
Aladdin Sane is in a different language. One long wink to the listener. When I was a kid I could hear the language and see the wink. I knew about the love that dare not speak its name, but here I first heard it whispered. The way Bowie says “Boy” is how I wanted to say “Boy.” I knew the longing that Bowie sang, but also the subversive language he used to mask it.
Tracks of Note
This is a Bowie-Grower, the sort of Bowie track you might not get at first but you appreciate the older you get. The track is doo-wop about a couple attempting to get it on in a very traditional way. Course, this being a Bowie song, it’s the future, and the couple is part of a society that’s forgotten how to fuck. The song is self-consciously campy, distancing itself from tradition by embracing a traditional genre. Bowie is great at approaching common everyday things (like screwing at a drive in) in the weirdest most perverse way possible. Part of his outsider charm is allowing the listener to understand how strange the normals are. This is the basic enchantment of drag queens.
I’ve mentioned Time already, but it demands multiple listens. I love it. It’s one of Bowie’s most under-appreciated masterpieces.
Let’s Spend The Night Together
As far as I am concerned, the Stone’s original is a pretty hetero seduction:
Bowie’s cover is a queer act of celebration and desperation
Clearly subjective. If I was a straight dude I would prefer the Stones. But I’m not. So there.
The Jean Genie
My second favorite Bowie music video (behind Life on Mars) and one of my favorite overall Bowie tracks. It’s not a stretch for me to say that this track may have saved my life. In my early years living in New York, scrounging money from temp jobs all over Manhattan, I would have this song playing almost on repeat, imagining myself as the subject of Bowie’s bluesy rock anthem–the one living in a capsule and smiling like a reptile..
If this track didn’t exist I don’t know that I could have mustered up the energy to work as hard as I did to stay in the city.
Years later I learned who the Jean Genie actually was. Bowie was referencing a famous french author and poet by the name of Jean Genet. I read his “Our Lady of the Flowers” and was delighted to find that Jean Genet was an extremely gay master of smut. The book is a compendium of hookers, transvestites, drag queens, and drug addicts living in squalor in Paris France. In other words: it’s perfect.
The large viny image of Bowie with a pink and blue lighting bolt splitting down his face will always remind me of Harlem, barefoot on a dirty rug, talking to a boy who thinks I’m cool, teetering on the edge of homelessness. I would eventually tear down my collage of Bowie when I left that apartment in an emergency. My other roommate had threatened me with a knife. I had to call the cops on him. I left in the night to stay at a hostel. Then stayed with a friend while I looked for an apartment with only a fistful of cash.
The city had turned on me as quickly as it had embraced me. Bowie had warned me it would happen though, warned me in Lady Grinning Soul
A Few Words On Prince
The artist Prince passed away about a week ago. Like every living thing on Earth I enjoyed Prince songs, but I never really got deep into the Prince discography. I really regret that. I always considered him to be from the same galaxy as Bowie. I was touched to learn he covered a Bowie song in one of his last performances