It doesn’t matter what I write about. Nothing I say can be as erotic as Bowie, in any of his guises but especially the early ones.
I was eight when I first discovered him, the same spring Mum went back to work. Before that she’d been been single, unemployed and benefit-reliant, and on the weeknights she went out to teach dance classes and no babysitter could be found, I sat home alone with warmed up food and television. Small children aren’t supposed to be left on their own all evening, but I’m glad I was: unsupervised, it was the first time I allowed myself to watch series like Buffy, deemed then to be what Christianity opposed, and – via the archive version of Top of the Pops, which aired immediately before – was how I first met Ziggy Stardust.
A mythos has grown up around the clip where Bowie, pipecleaner thin even before the coke and wearing a lurid faux-snakeskin jumpsuit, plays ‘Starman’ to a 1972 crowd. Its sales skyrocketed when the performance aired, bringing him fame and scandalising straitlaced parents throughout Britain. With his made-up face and coquettish gaze – the kind I knew then from Princess Diana – I might myself have been convinced he came from Mars, and it speaks volumes that in 2000, the footage had the same effect on me as on children who saw it thirty years before.
The image of Bowie on his knees, mouth pressed to the strings of Mick Ronson’s guitar and hands gripping his thighs, has been analogised to cunnilingus; considering whose crotch it was behind the instrument, there’s as strong an argument for fellatio, but perhaps the ambiguity was the point. In fact, they never did this on Top of the Pops – photos of it were taken on their tour – but what was caught on camera was more than enough for me. In the chorus, as his voice jumps the same octave on ‘star-man’ Judy Garland’s does singing ‘Over the Rainbow’, Bowie drapes a single, languid arm round Ronson’s neck.
Sat on the carpet by the TV screen, life went from sepia to Technicolor. Putting an arm round someone had been a prosaic gesture, something middle aged couples did or boys used as a way of scaring girls at school. (‘Scaring’ was what they called it then.) If two boys did it it was meant to be funny, but this wasn’t funny. Ziggy’s smoky eyes beckoned forward, optimistic and intent, as if doing it meant nothing to him, so to me it meant everything. I hadn’t realised this was an option, and suddenly so many new options existed; didn’t know what planet he was from, but wanted desperately to visit.
Some say Bowie’s bisexuality was put on, produced by mere ‘compulsion to flout moral codes’. Rumoured affairs with male musicians and Mick Jagger, with whom his then-wife claims to have found him in bed, aren’t publicly confirmed, and in middle age he’s settled at least outwardly into married life. What if it was affected, though? Long before I encountered him, I’d learnt to break the rules – to enjoy the shifting architecture of the doll’s house at the dentist, ask teachers for the fuchsia-coloured card and collage it in floral tissue paper, if only to make other boys uncomfortable. (Other boys, I’d decided, were dull.)
Christopher Hughes and Harry Machin, who sat at my table aged five, sniggered when I did the latter that I was a sissy and a girl. I was pleased with myself. Boy or girl, it seemed to me, was all about what you put on: occasionally I’d be the latter for an hour, slicking my hair back, applying cosmetics from the cabinet and salvaging old shoes from below Mum’s bed, though the only time I told her I’d turned myself into one, she asked why as if I’d done something more grandiose, shocking and confusing by far than playing with doll’s houses. Later, by the time my hair was long enough adults called me a girl, I’d learned enough to feel shame.
You could read these anecdotes as omens of inevitable queerness, but there was nothing inevitable about them. Other boys broke rules too, or hadn’t yet discovered them. Harry, who grabbed the bulge in my shorts in kindergarten and could deal eyewatering pain with fingernails on foreskin, never realised what he was doing was forbidden (or, in the former case, reserved for girls), so no doubt has forgotten it. I still recall because like Bowie, with his eye shadow and steady, sex-drinched grin, I liked to provoke. What I did as a child became the first part of a story he inspired with an arm round Mick Ronson, breaking a rule I hadn’t known I could.