Darryl W. Bullock had originally planned his latest book to be about the process of recording music, a fascination of his since his days working in record shops. He thought the book would be about recorded music from a gay perspective or a look at the development of music, or how genres influence each other. However, an event happened in the middle of his writing process, one that would change music, the world, and his to-be-published book forever. Shocking him and the rest of the world, David Bowie died on 10 January 2016.
Bullock, however, was not anticipating his own reaction. He regarded his favourite band as the Beatles, not Bowie, and experiencing John Lennon’s death when he was sixteen had felt like the death of a parent. However, it was Bowie’s constant presence in his life that caused Bullock to go into mourning for days after his death. “He was always there.” Bowie released his first record, 1964, the year Bullock was born. “There was always Bowie. Every time you turned around, when there was nothing to listen to, there was always a new Bowie album. I hadn’t realised it until he died, but he was the soundtrack to my life.”
“David Bowie Made Me Gay makes it evident that many musicians’ sexuality and influence has been blanketed over by a straight-washed past.”
From this moment, his book idea was now clear to him. After seeing the outpouring of grief from social media, it was evident that Bowie was not just influential, he was culture-changing. This got him thinking about the history of LGBT+ music, and about how influence occurs from act to act, and genre to genre and so on in a chain from the 19th to the 21st century. “It was like a bright light going off, almost like marking out tube stations on a map, a very clear line from act to act.”
That was how his book happened. David Bowie Made Me Gay is a look at how LGBT+ musicians have pioneered musical development over the last 100 years, and helped music evolve into what we listen to today. Of course, there are the big name acts like Bowie, George Michael, Elton John, that have been widely successful, but the domination of LGBT+ acts throughout the history of recorded music has been largely ignored, with artists either long forgotten or unappreciated during their lifetimes. The literary market features few books that focus on this phenomenon. While books about disco, glam rock and punk fill discourse of influential artists and the effects they had on their respective periods, there is no recognition for the monumental and constant influence of LGBT+ artists. The blues and jazz era is not generally associated with the LGBT+ community in the same way as other eras. This is contrary to the fact that LGBT+ artists were “in the maternity ward during the birth of the blues”, however, “they are lucky if they get a mention,” says Bullock. Contrary to popular belief, the musical history of the gay community did not start with Stonewall. It was here that Bullock saw the perfect opportunity to delve into an uncovered world, and see what he could find.
“David Bowie Made Me Gay is a deep and dense history, examining in rich detail the progression of artists and their musical expression, following smoothly from period to period.”
And he struck gold. David Bowie Made Me Gay is a deep and dense history, examining in rich detail the progression of artists and their musical expression, following smoothly from period to period. I found it utterly engrossing, as each story connects to the other like a timeline. I read rapidly from chapter to chapter with growing eagerness to understand this rich history. Significant historical events which had an impact on life in the early 20th century, of course, impacted queer existence, which before World War Two allowed for quite open and thriving places where queer people could meet and express themselves. The prohibition on alcohol in America lead to underground bars and private stages, where sprung the Pansy craze. Major capitals in Europe and the US had similar scenes, of stages of very effeminate gay performers, and women and men in drag, expressing themselves on stage to an audience that accepted them (as long as this style didn’t leave the stage). The timeline of influence suggests connections and relationships between performers. Bullock concedes, “What we can see is that collaborations as we know them today didn’t really come about until the 60s or so, but there was a huge underground network. This helped people to be able to get away with more, and it was understood you had a space where you could be queer.” It may surprise some to read about LGBT+ influence on such masculine-dominated genres as hip hop, rock or reggae, but the book calls attention to the disparity between belief and reality.
Take, for example, the story of Ma Rainey, known as the Mother of the Blues who lived and sang during the Harlem Renaissance. “For the most part, gay men, lesbians and bisexuals were an accepted part of the Harlem Scene.” Ma Rainey herself was bisexual and many of her songs, most notably ‘Prove It On Me Blues’, were obviously and outlandishly bisexual. Her music attracted throngs of people, black and white, craning to listen. Blues and jazz were primarily sung by black women, and fellow bisexual and lesbian artists such as Bessie Smith and Lucille Bogan showcased themselves as out and proud in their songs.
The most important part of writing, Bullock says, was being able to ensure these people are remembered and put back into public consciousness for what they did and the influence they had. David Bowie Made Me Gay makes it evident that many musicians’ sexuality and influence has been blanketed over by a straight-washed past. “They put music where it is today.” In reasoning this phenomenon, we can look to fashion, one of music’s biggest influences. “We, as a community, have always pushed fashion forward. We’ve always pushed the envelope forward a bit, and have always been looking for the next thing, the next high. Fashion-wise, we’ve always lead the way.” LGBT+ artists have always been the ones speeding it up, or slowing it down, dressing it up and making it raunchy or exciting. “LGBT culture pushes fashion and music forward, and we should be really bloody proud of ourselves for it.”
“LGBT culture pushes fashion and music forward, and we should be really bloody proud of ourselves for it.
The necessity of celebration is abundantly clear, particularly when it comes to looking at countries today where being gay is still illegal. LGBT+ people in those countries can be arrested, attacked or outlawed because of their sexuality. Bullock studies countries like Russia, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, and Jamaica, in the chapter ‘Hope and Homophobia’, where there are varying degrees of injustices against LGBT+ people being committed. “Our community stands up for these people. There is an emergence of political clout in the west, and we need to use it to our advantage, and helping other places to change for the better.”
Music can be an incredibly powerful agent. It can carry a voice of hope in a hopeless world, through an accessible medium. “Music empowers and nurtures people. For a young, poor LGBT person living in, say, Kenya, and all they have is a radio. This radio can be their lifeline.” Where the government controls what goes on the airways, there are many brave gay and gay-friendly musicians from these countries who upload songs to Youtube where they can be found by anyone who wants, or likely needs them. Songs can talk to you and make an impression on you, they can be there to tell you who you are when there’s no one else like you. “For me, it was discovering Tom Robinson’s angry, acoustic performance of Glad To Be Gay when I was a teenager. It made me suddenly realise that LGBT music was more than just disco. It was something that I could relate to, and it was such an awakening for me.” It can be a voice from another world, a world you didn’t even know existed.
In the western world, the abundance of apparent freedoms can be easy to take for granted. “It would be so easy for us to lose so many of the rights we’ve won over the last 50 years. It’s exactly what happened in 1930s, and it’s exactly what’s happening all over the world.” However, if anything can be taken from this book, it’s that no matter how much hardship is happening to the LGBT+ community, through silence, violence, shame and prejudice, the community always pushes through. “I do think things will get better. Things are very, very slowly getting better in Russia and Jamaica. But we as a community need to be there, to offer support and nurture communities. We need to be opening our arms. The political struggle from the 50s and 60s hasn’t gone away, it just changed borders. We need to be there.”
“The political struggle from the 50s and 60s hasn’t gone away, it just changed borders.”
The smallest moment can be a catalyst for change. 13 million people watched the historical performance on Top of the Pops in 1972, where Bowie slid his arm onto the shoulder of his guitarist Mick Ronson and stared deep into his eyes. Although this moment seems strange to comment on now, at the time it was a huge watershed moment of television. “As an artist, he was always playing with gender fluidity and identity. What he did so subversively, was push it a little bit further for the audience. He brought it into people’s homes.” Bowie, turning his stare directly into the camera, towards the viewer, as if directly communicating with everyone watching. This was a moment for young viewers grappling with their sexuality, to see his stare, which seemed to say ‘I believe in you, and it’s going to be ok.’ Bowie legitimised, through his music and his career, celebrating difference, and empowered people to not be afraid of it.