Growing Up Bowie: Mark Dery's "All The Young Dudes: Why Glam Rock Matters"

Mark Dery's new ebook, All The Young Dudes: Why Glam Matters (the debut publication from Boing Boing's digital imprint) is a delightfully Derynian cultural excavation of the deeper definition of masculinity in the 20th century and beyond. His extended essay on the post-meterosexual landscape takes as its point of departure the doomed-teen anthem penned by David Bowie and performed by Mott The Hoople:

And what, exactly, was a young dude? In the ’70s Southern California of my adolescence, “dude” was the universal form of address among teenaged males. A verbal virus spread by the surfer scene, “dude” was a jocular hi-sign, the verbal fist bump of male bonding. Variously inflected, it could also be a remonstration (dude!), a quizzical exclamation (dude?!), or a backslap of bong-loaded bonhomie (duuuuude, underscored with a Cheshire-cat grin). With the right verbal spin, the term could even signify Jeff Spicoli’s idea of satori, a kind of Tao of Whoahhh—the existential weightlessness common to surfers, stoners, and slackers, a state of mind incarnated by Jeff Bridges as The Dude in The Big Lebowski. But whatever else it was, “dude” was an expression of Dude-ism—straight guy-ness, distilled down to its bro-mantic, brewski-chugging, perpetually adolescent essence.

It’s doubtful Bowie spoke fluent Dude, in 1972. More likely, he reached for the word because of its historical associations with dandies and other Dedicated Followers of Fashion—the sort of “handsome young man, curled, well-dressed, pomaded, painted and powdered” (Edmond de Goncourt, on one of Proust’s friends) whose flamboyance or excessive fastidiousness in dress struck a note of unmanly vanity, even effeminacy.

Dery describes Bowie as "a reverse-drag queen: a heteroflexible straight man playing an exquisitely androgynous gay."

My own career as a Bowie fanatic began around the same time as Mark's (I was an 8-year-old when I discovered "Space Oddity" on AM radio and bought the single in 1973) but at that age the whole gay thing would have been meaningless to me. I just knew that David Bowie was fucking cool--like the coolest most exciting person who had ever lived, like a real-life superhero of sorts and a living, breathing example to me as a kid growing up in Wheeling, WV that you could be whatever you wanted to be. Extreme Bowie fandom helped hip me to Andy Warhol, Williams Burroughs, Evelyn Waugh, The New York Dolls, too many things to name. I'm definitely someone who believes that I am who I am in large part due to David Bowie's existence as the defining cultural avatar of my childhood and how that profoundly influenced my own direction in life.

Dery nails the concept of what Bowie meant to the oddballs, rather brilliantly, I thought:

For outsiders crash-landed in Middle America, Bowie fandom conferred a sense of belonging—to an alien nation, but belonging nonetheless. Straight and white, as a rule, most suburban Bowie-ites understood Ziggy’s gender-bent persona metaphorically; to them, his in-your-face androgyny and bisexuality were emblems of otherness, an otherness that battled back against the mean girls and the jocks by flaunting the fact that it didn’t fit in, embracing the leper-colony status of all the fags and freaks and geeks denied membership in high-school cliques.

Not for nothing did Bowie call Ziggy the “leper messiah.” Though he would, after a long (and occasionally mortifying) molting, attain fame as the living incarnation of cool, Bowie knew what it was to feel like an oddity, and to dream of lifting off, in an escape pod of your own making, from the mind-numbing mundanity of suburbia. “I was talking with a friend of mine...who also came from suburbia,” he said in the 1996 BBC documentary Hang On to Yourself. “You’re given the impression that nothing, culturally, belongs to you, that you are sort of in this wasteland, and I think there’s a passion, for most people that have an iota of curiosity about them, to escape and get out and try and find who one is and find some kinds of roots, you know? Both of us got out for the same reasons, exactly that: the desperation and exhaustion with the blandness of where we grew up.”

In becoming Ziggy, Bowie spoke to every teenage Major Tom marooned in suburbia’s decaying orbit, out of radio contact with the cultural buzz, but like all true artists he spoke first to himself. “If you’d asked me at the time what it was I was trying to do, I had simply no idea,” he said, in the same interview. “All I knew [was that] it was...this otherness, this other world, an alternative reality, one that I really wanted to embrace; I wanted anything but the place that I came from.”

As much fun as his linguistically exact prose is to read, my favorite part of All The Young Dudes is Dery's humorously personal recollection of his teen years "growing up Bowie" in sunny San Diego:

Most schooldays, I slunk out of the house, under parental radar, the collar of my London Fog raincoat (like the one Bowie wore in the gatefold photo on David Live) turned up to conceal eyes hooded with black eyeshadow and lined with Maybelline eyeliner pilfered from my mom’s medicine cabinet. My default costume was a double-breasted vintage suit (inspired by Bowie’s outfit on the front cover of David Live, naturally), awesomely accessorized with clip-on earrings and a rhinestone necklace circumspectly purchased at my local drugstore.

Every afternoon, I dawdled my way home, describing a circuitous arc that took me blocks out of my way and added an hour to my walk, all in the name of avoiding three guys—two brothers and their buddy—waiting on my street corner to kick my ass.

Every day they waited, impervious to everything but skin-soaking downpours or the mercury-boiling heat of the Santa Ana winds.

Every day.

On the same corner.

For a year.

Apparently, the news that Bowie had “severed the bonds between prissy finery and what you did down there” hadn’t penetrated the algal bloom of cultural backwaters like San Diego.

Good stuff, right? And so cinematic! How long can it take before Hollywood options Dery's life story?

Order Mark Dery's All The Young Dudes: Why Glam Rock Matters | Read an excerpt

[Check out this great photo at Dangerous Minds of a young Sid Vicious going to a Bowie concert in 1973]


  1. Structuralism offers the best account of the mullet’s narrative arc, even if it too is déclassé.

  2. “…delightfully Derynian…”

    Game of Thrones is awesome. Seriously though, what is this referring too?

  3. “A heteroflexible straight man?” As interesting as this book seems, I have to contest this phrase. He’s said numerous times that he is bisexual. Marrying a woman (or two) does not make a bisexual man straight. Sleeping with a thousand women does not make a bisexual man straight. Having kids with a woman (or two) does not make a bisexual man straight. Your interpretation of a bisexual man’s life does not make him straight. 

    Bisexual people are erased in the media all the time, boxed into either “straight” or “gay.” Bowie is perhaps the most notable (and/or notably) bisexual person in popular culture today. Don’t try to take him from us or define his sexuality for him.

    1.  I take your point, but don’t share your conviction that sexual preference can be taxonomized so easily. I’d argue that we need more nuanced distinctions, a vocabulary that distinguishes between a bisexual who plays the field, with a history of experiences of varies degrees of intimacy and profundity with both sexes and someone who is more or less gay or more or less straight yet occasionally dips his or her toe in the other end of the pool. It’s virtually universally held, among sexologists, that human sexuality exists across a broad continuum, and that many if not most of us have had same-sex experiences of one short or another, if we broadly define a sexual experience as everything from “playing doctor” to full-on snogging. My problem with your definition is that it doesn’t distinguish between a straight man who has a single same-sex experience—say, a happy ending from his male masseuse—and one who routinely samples everything on the Lazy Suzan. Bowie, by all accounts, had a vanishingly small number of gay experiences: he *may* have slept with his manager Ken Pitt, though there’s no conclusive evidence that I know of; the famed Jagger rumor was transparently an attempt to gin up scandalized headlines; and his famed quip in the Cameron Crowe PLAYBOY interview about neatly fucking some beautiful boy, as a teen, was tossed off at a time when Bowie was polishing his brainpan shiny with big, fat rails of coke. *No* former partner has *ever* come forward to sing for his supper about having slept with The Dame, which seems odd in the age of tell-all pathographies and supermarket tabloids. I mean, if Bowie was doing it Diamond Dog-style with sweet things from The Sombrero Club, where he and Angie hung out in the Ziggy era, wouldn’t one of them have milked the story for all it’s worth, by now? Virtually every bio of Bowie addresses this point, and is chock a block with stories about Bowie turning beautiful boys and drag queens away from his hotel room but beckoning the babes into the inner sanctum. I attempted to create my own taxonomic term for an *apparent* bisexual whose *actual* sex life, to the extent that we know it, is 99% hetero by calling him “heteroflexible.” Too glib by half? Perhaps. But when we’re doing pop ethnography and glam-rock subcultural studies, we have to make it up as we go along, sometimes.

      1. I’d like to start by thanking you not only for responding but for doing so in such a thorough way. As a writer, I can only hope that if I’m ever published I can show the same respect to an audience. 

        I understand that we need a wider taxonomy of sexual behavior and identity. Believe you me, I’m swimming in those waters (I identify as “queer for lack of a better term” at the hip parties and “bisexual” when it needs to be a little more simple, but neither term is sufficient). And yeah, Bowie’s sexual preferences and activities are, to the outside observer, too complex to categorize so simply.

        However, to me sexual identity is primarily a matter of self-identification (with a few exceptions, eg religious/political figures who preach bigotry and then get caught with 14 year old boys). If David Bowie says he’s bisexual, I’m inclined to believe him. As someone outside of the straight/gay binary myself, I know how easy it is for people to dismiss: “ok, but which do you like more?” or “when do you think you’ll figure it out?” or, my personal favorite, “but you have a [gendered term for partner].”

        I’m currently putting together a workshop for LGBTQIA conferences about rock music and gender expression, so if this unemployed streak ever ends, I’ll definitely be purchasing this.

        1. Tré: And thank you for saying so, and for your thoughtful response. I think we have to split an epistemological hair—or two—here. First, while I’m generally in agreement with the proposition that the right to name oneself is an inalienable right, essential to shaping not only your own identity but your own subjectivity as well, that doesn’t mean we have to check our skeptical inquiry, or are Enlightenment empiricism, at the door. (I realize I’m wading into turbulent waters, here, and I’m theorizing as I go, so here’s hoping I don’t inadvertently offend.) Yes, Bowie claimed, early on, to be bisexual, although it bears pointing out that in the January 22, 1972 _Melody Maker_ interview heard ’round the world, he actually says, “I’m gay and always have been.” As I note in my essay, Bowie used “gay” and “bisexual” more or less interchangeably at the time, and later infamously renounced both—to the outrage of gay cultural critics—in a _Let’s Dance_ era Rolling Stone interview, unsubtly titled “David Bowie Straight.” If Bowie is anything, he’s a calculating careerist of Warholian or, if you prefer, Dalinian skill, which means that we have to weigh his right to define himself against our certain knowledge that, on the cusp of his Ziggy breakthrough, he was aging fast, desperate for success, and willing to risk it all on a P.R. stunt he and Angie hoped would make him the star he fervently wanted to be. What you and I are kicking around, here, is the tension between self-definition and social perceptions of you based not only on what you say but what you do, not only on your social presentation of self but on the (perceived) facts of the matter. I’m not sure that tension is resolvable. Nor am I even sure it’s regrettable. The world is a far more interesting place for it, especially at a moment when people are pushing the envelope of self-definition in the face of all apparent anatomical or presentational evidence to the contrary.  

          1. The distinction between social perception and self-definition is a good one to make, especially for celebrities, and it brings to mind some of the language used in a lot of gender studies about the difference between identity and expression. Right now our taxonomy for sexuality only really has the former (and our popular, colloquial taxonomy for gender only has at-birth-assignment, bleh), but I can see a whole Goffman “you are who you think we think you are” factor being totally ignored there. I think another that we just don’t have the language for would be fluidity; apart from the super bullshit “ex-gay” thing we really don’t have a way to describe the fact that for most people, sexual preference changes over time, and for a lot of people, that includes gender preferences.

            I always chalked the whole “gay/bisexual” thing up to a difference in how we used those terms today and how they were used then. Even today, because of the domination of the “G” in LGBT, people in queer communities will occasionally use “gay” as a catch all (although we’re finally having discussions on how language like that puts anyone who’s not a male homosexual who identifies as “gay” in the back seat). Still, I had never heard of the Rolling Stone article you mentioned.And I didn’t even look at the price, considering my current situation, but I guess I didn’t assume it would be so affordable. I suppose hosting costs less than trees, but that’s still quite the deal.

      2. in Please Kill Me, the interviewees considered Bowie and Iggy to be having an affair during their time in Berlin.  These were folks that knew them.  I’m certain you’ve done your due diligence, though.  Am I remembering what I read wrong or were the interviewees just gossiping?

        1. It sounds entirely plausible, but the plausible isn’t the probable, as we all know, and the probable isn’t the proven. The weasel phrase, there, is “considered.” Were any of the interviewees able to say they’d actually caught the boys in flagrante delicto? 

          1. I had assumed that you’d read it considering the obvious depth of your research, but let me dig it out…
            without giving the whole thing a solid re-read, I suppose the quote from Angela Bowie was what I was thinking of.  Not exactly what I remembered, but she avers that they were boy-fucking, not explicitly saying each other but “fighting over who could get the prettiest-looking drag queen.”

            this links to the chapter, then scroll to p.255-6.  i could swear there’s more about their relationship somewhere in there, but that’s all I found in a quick search; then again it could also be my mind filling in the blanks from innuendo.  It’s a great read in any event.  I read it expecting punk only but there’s a ton of glam and general rock scene stuff in there.

  4. Always thought that the lyric was I’m ‘gonna race this cat to bed’ until a couple of years ago.  ‘The’ makes a difference.

    1.  Electrons only, sadly.
      But hell, it’s only .99. Maybe she could spring for her own copy, to have and to hold, until Jeff Bezos arbitrarily decides otherwise, without warning?

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