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.
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?