Being at a concert in Queertown is like living in music, in theatre, as art.
Bowie, of course, played there often.
Steph and I shared one night, in small dark club, with Bowie and a tough little band. In Queertown, Bowie could be perfect, which is to say, he could inhabit all of his different identities at once, and he was in his prime, perpetually in his prime – the androgynous alien rock star, stretched in sheer beauty for our indulgence. He melted into us, and we became him, as he sang and played and acted.
He began in innocent blonde mode, gawky, lanky, stridingly overconfident, rattling through ‘Janine’. Steph and I sang along, feeling the line “your strange demand to collocate my mind” and grinning at our tender love of its daft intensity. And when Bowie demanded “take your glasses off and don’t act so sincere”, we felt that we were in a library, two geeks at midnight, finally realising that all our connections, all our thrilled intellectual commune was absolutely Sapphic in essence: we kissed shyly.
Next, he was cooler, smoother, sharper, whispering about ‘The Secret Life of Arabia’. We felt taken away on a magic carpet ride; we felt that we were caught up on a sand-stirring wind; we felt that we were flying across the desert, certain that we would arrive just in time to fulfil our promise: a rendezvous by an oasis with a dark, exotic stranger, one who was destined to teach us ancient lore and wild truth, one who had to be our most enrapturing lover. The song took us away.
The music hovered, throbbed, hummed to a stand-still, then weirdly, beautifully morphed into ‘Life on Mars’. Bowie sang with slightly crazed portentousness, cockneyfying his drawling voice towards something like campness, warning all the while of a coming apocalypse that only the angst-ridden youth could foresee. We were torn out of our stable, adult selves into old identities – kids in bedsits, decorating the walls with resentfully bitter images of degradation and aimless protest. We felt abandoned, lost, foolish – hating the world that had been bequeathed to us but too aware, too cynical, too determined to be different from our immediate cultural predecessors to do anything at all by the way of advocating or bringing about change. We luxuriated in the defiant epoch of the song’s fantastic texture. Each song took us somewhere, so that the dark club receded and other venues, other situations rose up around us, as if real, as if ours, our lives. We held hands, surreptitiously, as the song reached its forbidding climax – a dark sky loomed above us, threatening to unleash a devastating tempest. Then there was just the sound of ecstatic appreciation, and we back amongst the throng of fans pushing towards the shabby little stage to get closer to the oracle-like singer. And Bowie was all prettiness and thrift-store chic and sexy flirtation and light on his feet. He gave a meek bow as we roared our approval.
The atmosphere was tense, raw, absurd: we were intoxicated by Bowie’s shifting presence, such that the melodramatic campness of ‘Time’ seemed profound, excoriating, inspired. Steph leaned close to me to call into my ear that she felt that she was in a drug-den in Paris. I sensed the opiate incense on the air, felt that I too could be a brilliant, terrifyingly original poet, a Mallarme, a linguistic adventurer, spiralling words and ideas together, like smoke, like silks, like wine.
Ambiguity is all: and we became our cute boy selves when Bowie spun in ‘Boys Keep Swinging’. We were two swish lads, skip-stepping downCarnaby Street, in velvet costumes, with pretty scarves and just enough make-up. The other boys were indeed checking us out, from the doorways of the fashionable boutiques; they leered and craned to see our tight little asses shimmying. We felt electric: we were laughing in our gay glory. Life dances when you’re pretty and queer.
Then, in the spotlight, we saw the thin white duke, the slick, sombre, sexy man of the hour, the dandy in the west end, the Manhattan prince, the slender slice of pure elegance: he could carry off ‘Sound and Vision’, as if it meant something, as if it meant that the new life was here, the world of automated luxury, the future that we dreamed of: leisure, ease, fluidity. Steph touched my hair, and blue sparks crowned me.
Somehow, Bowie managed to segue into ‘Jean Genie’, without seeming to have changed the mood at all. But, clearly, everything had changed: we were in the pounding beats’ iron grip; we were stomping along to the raw, guitar-driven insistence of the song’s deminesque brusqueness. We were in big boots, striding out to the pub, lads or lasses – who could tell? We had long, flowing hair and tight, tight blue jeans, and our bodies were lean and taut and fine. And the night was before us, like a victim, like a hope, like a willing accomplice. Bang!
Then the night cracked open, and molten lava spilt out: “Ziggy played guitar …” The time, the times, the tormented dreams. We knew that music is tragic, that the singer, the guitarist, the band – they give their souls for their art. “But where were the spiders?” Steph was bellowing to me, to the world at large. I felt that I was on a precipice, staring down into a black, bottomless pit of despair: the cliff edge was crumbling beneath my feet.
“We’ve got five years left to die in …” This next song was always one of my favourites. The moment that both Steph and I love is when the song suddenly shifts into a seemingly random scenario: “Think I saw you in an ice cream parlour …” That night, at that concert, we were transported together into that retro scene, and saw the girl – or was it a boy? – “smiling and waving”, gamine, possessive of a curious élan, fine as powder. The day – we were there in the endless, easy, open day, in London, workless, shiftless, careless, living our Bohemian lives, always on the look out for fascinating people like our crush in the milk shop. Gorgeous song: behind it, the anxiety, the ending, the horror of knowing that you had a certain five years of life left, that the world as a whole had only five years left. Panic. But she, or he, in the ice cream parlour – she lives on in the song.
The darkness enveloped us. Bowie did his cabaret cover: ‘My Death’. It was inexorable. And at the end, we all took his death from him, we all cried out “me”, we all died in his place. We would sacrifice everything for his art. “A kind of madness,” Steph said, but was unable to resist, nonetheless.
The downward cascade led obviously to ‘Rock n Roll Suicide’, which had us hanging on to life by a thread in a dreary hotel room, which we had trashed the night before. Sitting amongst the wreckage of our debauchery, Steph and I felt that there was, perhaps, nowhere to go. But then: the concluding sequence – the uplift, the hope, the reaching out. “You’re wonderful!” A realisation hits the depressed companions: life is rich and full and marvellous. Bowie reached out his thin, strained arm towards the audience; he stretched to touch our yearning hands. Made-up, looking drugged-up, more female than male, but brutishly male at heart, Bowie was Ziggy, was alive, forever alive, because we, his loyal lovers, buoyed him, lifted him, saved him. And he let the life-force pass from us to him. We felt close to his skeletal hand. We believed that we might connect.
Bizarrely, the mood was lifted by the suicidal song. Then Bowie shifted from darkness to light – ‘Memories of a Free Festival’. Again, as the song got into a groove, we got taken up into the moment. A sun machine was coming down and we were going to have a party. It was as if freedom could be conferred from above, like a balloon descending, bringing news, truth, companions, escape – bringing an endless summer’s day, during which all things would be possible. Yeah, yeah.
And so to finish the main set, Bowie goes all cool in black clothes and torments us with ‘Heroes’. Steph feels that we could conquer worlds together, wrapped in the song’s affirmation, loved by one another and by art’s saving grace. We zoom towards satisfaction. Wild cheers see Bowie off stage.
He returns with a grinding roar: ‘Queen Bitch’. The dream creature, the dizzy, fizzing, lively, funny, smart, original, cute, cute, cute whirl of energy in vintage clothes, unstoppable, unfathomable, absolute, fine. The bounce cannot be contained: this is love like jealousy – we want to be her, to be as brilliant as this genius of living, this mistress of the art of life. She shines on and through us; she fractures our hearts with diamond refracted rays of pure colour. The song outdoes us with its boundless chic, its raging assertion, its queer confidence, its sex-force.
The band then give us ‘Teenage Wildlife’, with Robert Fripp doing rippling miracles with his guitar licks and Bowie crooning ironically, bemoaning misunderstanding and helplessness. It’s a seamless performance, one that takes us to the seats at the side of a mournful school disco, too timid to ask anyone to dance.
Then, as an apparently final encore, Bowie presents his version of ‘Wild is the Wind’. Steph and I feel like two ghosts, lost on the storm-tormented heath, torn and damaged and spurned: we cling to each other, fearfully, dreadfully, darkened down to the depths of ours souls, sodden with dirty rain, sick with inanition. The song is our need, our hope hanging by a thread, our refuge, our raw feelings bleed out of our staring eyes. It is the terror that Queertown has answered; it is the fear that exile from Queertown means death.
And that was surely that for this little, intimate perfect gig, but no, onto the bare boards of the stage, a wearied, emaciated, slinkingly beautiful, fragile, bewildered Bowie stepped and cautiously began to sing ‘The Bewlay Brothers’. What does this cryptic, sorrowful song mean? Bowie, reading Baudelaire and Rimbaud, listening to Bringing it all Back Home, celebrating and mourning his relationship with his lost companion, fearing that madness might overtake him too, hoping to awaken old times, old stories, the old self that had been trapped in silence for years – Bowie not knowing what he is saying but needing to say it. There is transgression, cross-dressing, strip-tease; there is reading and delighting in wild, dangerous ideas; there is sexual awakening; there is the freedom and exhilaration of the inspired masturbatory fantasy: all things were possible. And, in mood, in temper, there is the song of the refugee, the lost one, the outcast from Queertown. This how it feels to regret leaving the queer haven; but some people had to leave. Bowie understood this, retreating into the circles and spirals of the song’s strange conclusion, creeping away, but wishing to stay: Bowie left the stage.
The concert had been astonishing, but the evening ended in another warning of some sort of peril.
Steph and I were sitting on the curb outside the club, our ears ringing. She had her head in her hands. “Bowie in general, that song in particular,” she said, “reminds me of someone I once knew.”
And so she told me the story of her college friend, David. “He was blonde and strange and tall and troubled – a Bowie-esque beauty. And, more to the point, he was an alien; he was like an alien who had fallen to earth and forgotten his heritage. He was from another world, and struggled always to understand ours – an innocent, a raw recruit. We were companions, never lovers, though the rumours had it so. I was a dyke and he was straight, though he’d experimented with gay sex – another aspect of life he wanted to investigate. We spent our time to together, talking about Schopenhauer and Shakespeare and Herman Hesse. We journeyed together into the strange lands of art and culture.”
Steph and David had been a typical couple of arty, smart teenagers, discovering everything together and imagining that they were the only ones to ever think existential thoughts or contemplate living a life outside of the dreary precepts of capitalist conformity. David, with his Bristolian naivety and his wide-eyed openness to everything was like no-one else Steph had known. She recalled his shocked reaction to a French film they had seen – “It’s so morally bankrupt,” he had said, as if he expected all movies to be models of virtue and ethical probity. Another time, she found him in his college room burning aftershave in an ash tray and letting little pieces of flaming tissue paper float towards the ceiling. He wrote poems – tiny intricate little shards of ideas and images: brilliant, icy, riddles. He would shout “out of order” whenever he saw any grossly sexist behaviour. He agreed to go to bed with anyone who appeared to want him, men or women, though he admitted that homosexual relations gave him no pleasure and his interest in most of the women he slept with was relatively small. He was happiest sipping scolding hot coffee in a greasy café, near to his lodgings, watching the aged clientele arguing over horse races and the sovereignty of Poland.
And then, suddenly, during their second year at university, David disappeared. Steph had been busy with some of the lesbian crew for a while and had seen less of him, then, when she went to call, she was told by a neighbour that he had been taken home by his parents: “unwell”.
In this case, “unwell” meant mentally ill – something had slipped out of place; he was lost in paranoid delusions, talking ceaselessly about conspiracies and plots that were being hatched all about him. The newsreaders were speaking in code, telling him that he was the one to put things right; the road signs were pointing the way for him to go: he’d been found wandering the streets at four in the morning, insisting that he had to knock on a certain door at a certain time to reveal his destiny. All this Steph found out when she contacted David’s parents, talking with him was not an option.
“The thing is,” Steph said to me, sitting there outside the club in Queertown, “I feel such guilt about this: I really abandoned him. I mean, we wrote letters and spoke on the phone sometimes, but he was never fully well, always talking of things that could not be true. He had his plans, wanted to marry me, to come and live with me, to travel to South America with me … and I always gently put him off, held him at bay. His sparkling innocence had degenerated into confused emptiness. I did not know how to speak to him, how to be with him; I feared that I might be dragged into his corrupted, deranged world. He did nothing; he was paralysed by his illness – often depressed, sometimes troublesomely manic. I was backing away, backing away.”
‘The Bewlay Brothers’ and the stories of Bowie and his schizophrenic half-brother seemed like echoes of Steph’s relationship with David. And she was haunted by her memories right now.
“Queertown makes his dreams real,” Steph contended. “But it also, sometimes, makes me feel that I have gone the same way as David – that this is all some kind of hallucination.”
“And what happened to David?” I asked compassionately.
“He died,” she said blankly. “And that’s one of the reasons why I have to stay here.”
She would not elaborate further, and I did not seek to push her. Anyhow, in Queertown, there was always an urge to move forward, move onwards, live the next scene: no-one regrets much for too long in Queertown.
But once you are on the outside again: you are all regret and little else. That’s why the pain is so great – all the suppressed misery floods back into you, through you, over you. Outside of Queertown, there is only regret.
That night had been all about Bowie’s genius, but the fear of a future tainted by regret was also in the air. Then I looked again at Steph and saw that she was grinning and delighted and fanciful – as if she had not mentioned her friend at all.
“Bowie blew my mind!” she screamed, leaping to her feet and charging off into the night.