Finding David Bowie's queer roots

  • by Michael Flanagan
  • Monday January 8, 2024
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David Bowie in Freddie Burretti's ice-blue suit in the 'Life on Mars?' music film
David Bowie in Freddie Burretti's ice-blue suit in the 'Life on Mars?' music film

"I like people who are AC/DC. You know what I mean?" — Bowie fan, "Moonage Daydream"

Flashes of recognition hit me when a fan mentions sexuality in the 2022 film "Moonage Daydream." Ziggy Stardust made a whole generation of fans question gender and sexuality while he looked amazing. I was one of those fans who snatched up "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" in the summer of 1972 and was preaching the gospel of Bowie by the time I went to college that fall.

Bowie wasn't the first rocker to incorporate gay sexuality into rock. The documentary "Little Richard: I Am Everything" revealed that the original lyrics to "Tutti Frutti" were gay and Richard was glam before glam existed. "Hair" had the song "Sodomy," and it was a number one Billboard album in 1969. The Kinks released "Lola" in June 1970.

Bowie would have been more or less aware of all of this: he first saw Little Richard at 15 in 1962; he opened for the Kinks with his band The Mannish Boys in 1964 and tried out for the cast of "Hair" in 1968. The difference was that gay sex and gender fluidity were topics of his lyrics consistently for years.

Darryl W. Bullock's 'The Velvet Mafia'  

Bowie introduced alternative sexuality and caught people's attention before many knew about Stonewall. But where and when did his exposure to queer culture happen?

Two recent books "The London Boys: David Bowie, Marc Bolan & the 60s Teenage Dream" by Marc Burrows and "The Velvet Mafia: The Gay Men Who Ran the Swinging Sixties" by Darryl W. Bullock have added to our knowledge about Bowie's association with London's gay scene in the 1960s.

Burrows book tells us that in the summer of 1965 David Jones (soon to be Bowie) was spending time at La Gioconda coffee bar in Soho with Mark Feld (soon to be Marc Bolan). Gioconda was ground zero for out of work musicians. Soho had also been the center of gay London for over a decade, as Burrows notes:

Marc Burrows 'The London Boys'  

"In an interview published in QX Magazine, a scene regular known as 'Amber' remembered a number of covertly gay bars in the fifties, including The Alibi, the Huntsman, Take 5, The Apple, No. 9 and the Casino — 'You didn't have to go 100 yards. We had more places then than now.'"

In 1965, Bowie got a new manager: Ralph Horton. Burrows calls him "a wily booking agent who had previously represented the Moody Blues," but Wendy Leigh's biography "Bowie" differs, calling him "a former booker for the King Agency, then a roadie/driver for the Moody Blues." Leigh reports Horton was relatively open about being gay (this was two years before the Sexual Offences Act, which made homosexuality illegal in Britain, was repealed).

Horton was interested in Bowie in a both professional and a personal way, as one of Bowie's bandmates recalls in Burrows book:

"Lower Third guitarist Denis Taylor remembers sleeping in the freezing cold in the band's converted ambulance on night close to Horton's Warwick Square pad and hammering on his door to be let into the warm, only to be told that (according to drummer Phil Lancaster) 'You can't come in. Ralph's in bed with David.'"

Horton was out of his depth trying to break Bowie, and knew it. He managed to get Bowie signed to the booking agency Marquee Arts and to get him a series of shows at the Marquee Club called "The Bowie Showboat" in late 1965 and early 1966.

Curious Magazine cover with Freddie Burretti and David Bowie (photo: Brian Ward)  

Horton was looking for a more established manager to share duties with and get funds for the band. He approached Simon Napier-Bell, manager of The Yardbirds and eventual manager of Bolan, who turned him down. He then approached Ken Pitt, who had worked with Sinatra, Liberace and Judy Garland.

Pitt initially turned down Horton, but suggested that David Jones change his name (due to Davy Jones of the Monkees among others). Both Napier-Bell and Pitt are featured in the "Velvet Mafia" by Bullock. Horton kept pursuing Pitt and eventually succeeded per Burrows:

"It was on 17 April 1966 that Horton finally convinced Ken Pitt to attend a David Bowie performance at the Marquee. David certainly gave Pitt a show. Horton and Bowie had discussed in advance how important and useful it would be to have Pitt onboard, and David and the Buzz seemed to have tailored their set specifically to meet his interests. They closed with an intimate and spot-lit rendition of 'You'll Never Walk Alone,' knowing that while much of his teenage audience would associate the song with Gerry and the Pacemakers, Ken Pitt would be thinking only of Judy Garland. It was a move calculated to appeal to Pitt's instincts and bring him onside. It worked spectacularly."

The scene at the Marquee Club reflected Soho's gay culture as well. Burrows cites Paul Trynka's book "David Bowie: Starman:"

"Paul Trynka quotes Simon White, a gay man working at the Marquee around the time of the 'Bowie Showboat' gigs, who describes the typical audience as 'six girls at the front and half a dozen of us queens at the back, with Ralph hanging on his every move.'"

Horton was too successful. By April 1967, Pitt was Bowie's sole manager. Regarding Pitt's sexuality Burrows says:

Angela Bowie's memoir  

"Despite Angie Bowie's continual reference to him as an 'old queen,' he approached his own sexuality quietly and privately, a fact exemplified by his chosen form of queer activism: joining the Conservative Campaign for Homosexual equality."

Pitt provided Bowie with a place to live as well as management. Having released his first album under Pitt's guidance, Bowie moved from his family home to Pitt's apartment in June 1967 so that he could practice music and not keep his family awake at night.

Pitt also provided Bowie with an early musical influence. In December 1966, Pitt was in New York and took Andy Warhol to lunch, expressing an interest in being the Velvet Underground's UK promoter. In turn Warhol gave Pitt an acetate of "The Velvet Underground and Nico" before it had been released, which he turned over to Bowie who was a fan and started covering "I'm Waiting for the Man" in 1967.

Pitt's promotional work landed a copy of Bowie's first album in the hands of the mime Lindsay Kemp. Kemp began using Bowie's "When I Live My Dream" in a show called "Clown" at the Little Theater Club. Burrows gives the following details:

"Bowie began attending Kemp's classes at the Dance Centre on Floral Street near Covent Garden, which he kept at for a while. After one of the first classes he accompanied Kemp back to his flat and they became lovers."

Bowie was an adept mime. Before "Space Oddity" became a hit, he was the opening act for T-Rex as a mime in early 1969.

Sold (not) out
Through Pitt Bowie met Calvin Mark Lee, an A&R man for Mercury Records. Lee was responsible for Bowie's third record "Man Who Sold The World" being on Mercury. Leigh's book reports that Lee sent Bowie passionate fan mail via Pitt and that Bowie responded in kind:

"Once a week David would spend the night with thirty-three-year-old Chinese-American A&R man Calvin Mark Lee, a flamboyant, flirty, effeminate character from San Francisco who wore a glittering red love jewel on his forehead."

It was through Lee that Mary Angela Barnett (soon to be Angie Bowie) first saw a photograph of David Bowie, as she says in her book "Backstage Passes," "My first image of David was enticing: a Polaroid of him posed naked, shot from the groin up. He was very pretty."

Calvin Mark Lee circa 1969, photographer unknown  

A year after meeting Bowie, they were married on March 19, 1970. Angie was with Bowie when they first saw the "man dress" by designer Mr. Fish that appeared on the UK cover of "The Man Who Sold The World." Initially Mr. Fish quoted them a price of 300 pounds. However when Bowie tried them on Angie reports:

"Mr. Fish was the first to speak. 'I'll let you have them for fifty pounds apiece,' he said. 'Just swear to me you'll tell people where you got them.'"

Angie was also with David when he first went to Yours and Mine, the London gay bar often called the Sombrero Club because of the restaurant upstairs. It was there they met Freddie Burretti, a designer who worked on King's Road. Burretti would briefly be in Bowie's band Arnold Corns and would design some of Bowie's more stunning outfits, including the ice blue suit he wears in the video for "Life on Mars."

In early 1971 Bowie did a promotional tour of the U.S. for "The Man Who Sold The World," often wearing the Mr. Fish dress. On April 1, 1971 John Mendelssohn published "Pantomime Rock" in Rolling Stone, which reports on Bowie's visit to San Francisco in February:

David Bowie's first three albums in 1967, 1969 and 1970  

"In the studios of San Francisco's KSAN-FM, he assures an incredulous DJ that his last album was, very simply, a collection of reminiscences about his experiences as a shaven-headed transvestite."

Mendelssohn closes out the article with this quote: "Tell your readers that they can make up their minds about me when I begin getting adverse publicity: when I'm found in bed with Raquel Welch's husband."

Bowie was ready for his close up. The next year would bring us Ziggy Stardust, and the world hasn't been the same since.

The First Church of the Sacred Silversexual performs two entire David Bowie albums, plus other hits at Great American Music Hall. 'Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,' Jan. 12, 10pm. 'Diamond Dogs' Jan. 13, 10pm. $25-$40. 859 O'Farrell St.

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