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Bowie and Politics Chapter 4: The Gouster and the Duke

In an alternate reality, David Bowie would have named the album that came to be known as Young Americans, The Gouster instead. Nobody would have known what the word meant, and that’s what his latest manifestation would have come to be called: The Gouster.

Bowie, indeed, considered naming the album, The Gouster. And an album by that name was eventually, posthumously released as part of a box set. According to liner notes by Bowie’s producer and longtime collaborator Tony Visconti, “Gouster was a word unfamiliar to me but David knew it as a type of dress code worn by African American teens in the 60s, in Chicago. But in the context of the album its meaning was attitude, an attitude of pride and hipness.” But again, in this alternate reality, the article, “the,” would be interpreted as meaning that Bowie’s new look corresponded with a new character, and that character was the Gouster.

The eventual Young Americans accomplished many things for Bowie. It was commercially and critically successful, yielding Bowie’s first number one hit, “Fame.” It allowed Bowie to detach from Ziggy, glam rock and, for the most part, his androgyny. Bowie’s American profile rose sharply, and he began appearing on mainstream talk shows and variety shows, including those hosted by Dick Cavett, Dinah Shore and Cher— he never appeared on an American talk show as Ziggy. Young Americans remains one of Bowie’s beloved albums and today is considered to have been highly influential. But in at least one respect, it was a failure.

Unlike Ziggy (the character more than the album), the Gouster did not change the world. Rather than sharpening Bowie’s menace, Young Americans made him less controversial. Suddenly, the flamboyant, gay space alien was none of those things (well, not as flamboyant, in any case). There are hints, however that Bowie might have intended to replace the norm-breaking aspects of Ziggy with a whole new set. The problem was that he was about a decade too late.

Racism, of course, remains one of the major plagues of American society and not just American society. But, by 1975, the year of Young Americans, the idea of integration and blacks and whites working together was mainstream enough for prime-time television. The year before Bowie rolled out Major Tom, Captain Kirk kissed Lt. Uhura, providing viewers of Star Trek the first televised romantic kiss between a white man and an African American woman. And The Jeffersons, one of serval television comedies of the time that addressed race as a subject, beat Young Americans by about two months when it debuted in January 1975. And while other shows tackled racism, The Jeffersons was the first to include recurring characters in an interracial marriage. By contrast, American television featured no openly gay characters prior to Ziggy. Whatever Bowie intended the Gouster to be, it (he) was not going to be breaking new ground.

This is not to say that Bowie didn’t try. The whole premise of Young Americans was for Bowie to sing in a style more associated with black artists at the time— he called it, “Plastic Soul.” His backing band was interracial (and included future star Luther Vandross). It gave him an excuse to be one of the first white performers to appear on Soul Train (indeed, he would sometimes erroneously claim to have been the very first such artist, perhaps too embarrassed to admit that his rival, Elton John beat him to it). Bowie even flaunted his relationship with Ava Cherry, and African American performer— even while still married to Angie.

Visconti explained in those linter notes for the posthumous version of The Gouster, “We weren’t ‘young, gifted and black’ but we sure as hell wanted to make a killer soul album.” Regardless of Bowie’s personal practices, he could credibility claim to have been gay or bisexual. He couldn’t claim to have been black.

Young Americans was popular. This version of Bowie was welcomed into American living rooms. But gone was his identity politics strategy. He was not making common cause with an out-group, and not sparking a cultural counter-protest to help better define who was on what side.

Bowie seems to have at least thought that his gambit would have been more controversial than it was. Bowie rattles off a laundry list of oppressed groups in his 1980 song, “Scream Like a Baby” (the origin of which goes through a lyrically different version Bowie wrote and produced for Ava Cherry named, “I Am A Laser”):

“I wouldn’t buy no merchandise
And I wouldn’t go to war
And I mixed with other colors”

Later in the song, he sings that the oppressive enforcers of societal norms, “came down hard on the faggots.”

Bowie was identifying traits he associated with himself. To this point, most of the handful of Bowie’s overtly political songs were about war (“Bombers;” “Running Gun Blues;” “Aladdin Sane”). His turn from the increasingly commercial sounds of Young Americans and Station to Station, to the Berlin Trilogy albums was a rejection of commercialism (to a point). When it came to sexual identity and race, Bowie sings of gays as being oppressed but not racial minorities per se. Instead, the song’s narrator claims to have “mixed with other colors.” In Bowie’s formulation, he views race mixing as what’s controversial.

All four traits targeted for oppression in “Scream Like a Baby” were career moves for Bowie: his folk/hippie phase, his glam phase, his deliberate retreat from commercialism phase— and his Gouster phase. But the Gouster phase didn’t last long.

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Despite, or perhaps because of its enormous success, Bowie quickly turned on Young Americans. Before the album was a year old, he said it was “the phoniest R&B I’ve ever heard. If I ever would have got my hands on that record when I was growing up I would have cracked it over my knee.” Months later he claimed he did not listen to it much and that it was a phase. At one point he called the album to be “unlistenable” (though his self assessment eventually changed and Bowie would come to acknowledge the album as having greater worth). Whether Bowie’s early reaction to his own product was genuine dissatisfaction with the work itself or, rather the reaction it got, he once again shifted to a new character. And this one had a name — the Thin White Duke.

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Not unlike Bowie’s interest in African American music and style, he also had a fascination with German culture. While touring in support of Diamond Dogs, the album that preceded Young Americans, Bowie’s elaborate sets were inspired by the work of German artist George Grosz. Diamond Dogs was based, in part on George Orwell’s 1984, and the set designs spoke to the theme. Importantly, considering what would follow in a couple of years, Grosz opposed fascism through his art. There was an episode while in Germany where the artist eluded capture by the Nazis, and he eventually emigrated to the United States in 1933. Diamond Dogs and the initial phase of its supporting tour was a commentary on authoritarianism, and that commentary was not pro. It was during the Diamond Dogs tour that Bowie shifted styles and personae to focus more on his brand of soul music. Despite moving on from more overt anti-Nazi imagery and subject matter, true Nazis wouldn’t have been happy with what Bowie would later refer to as mixing with other colors. Given all that context, the Thin White Duke was a radical departure.

There is little in Bowie’s actual lyrics that suggest Nazi sympathies, however in 1976 he began to adopt imagery that led a reviewer of one of his concerts at the time to write that “it might have been staged by [Nazi architect Albert] Speer.” Indeed, Bowie ditched his previous color explosions in favor of stark black and white motifs, both for his staging but also for himself. His Thin White Duke character wore black pants and a black vest accompanied by a white shirt. Bowie himself claimed the motif to be inspired by German expressionism, which does not have fascist connotations, but Bowie made matters worse for himself by making a series of pro-fascist statements.

David Bowie was born in 1947. His parents’ generation fought in World War II, which had ended a mere 31 years prior to his introduction of the Duke. Many Londoners would have had a living memory of the Battle of Britain and a truly existential conflict with Hitler. It is one thing to intellectually understand that Hitler and his movement were evil, but quite another thing to have personal memory of the war. To the extent Bowie’s parents’ generation found homosexuality to be threatening, they would have found Nazism to be far worse. So, regardless of his other intentions, the 29-year old Bowie had come upon a character that made the grown ups really, really mad at him.

During this period, Bowie would make provocative statements to interviewers such as he never had before or since. He’d claim that “the best thing that can happen is for an extreme right government to come,” and that Hitler had been the first rock star. He spoke admiringly of how der Führer worked a crowd and had mastered stagecraft. He described his character, the Duke, as “nasty” and “Arian.” In one interview, he suggested that he himself would have made a “bloody good Hitler.”

And then came the Nazi salute incident. At one point, upon returning to Britain from Germany, Bowie, in his full-Duke getup, boarded a black Mercedes and … waved to fans. A photo of the wave makes it look like a Nazi salute, and the photo sparked international outrage. At no point did Bowie claim to have been giving a Nazi salute but rather dismissed the photo as simply capturing his image in mid-wave. But the totality of it all was too much to simply brush off as misinterpretation. Years later, Bowie, embarrassed by this time in his life, blamed it on his drug addiction as well as a naive interest in occultism that intersected with Nazism. But afterward, more of his music became decidedly political, with an unmistakable leftward messaging, as if he felt compelled to devote part of the rest of his life to disabusing the world of the idea that he was actually a Nazi.

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Bowie’s later explanations of the motivations behind the Duke character, ranging from his drug-addled state to his interest in German expressionism and the occult are all believable, but I don’t think those excuses constitute the whole story. Bowie seemed more at home being rejected by mainstream society than embraced by it. He was playing the Nazi angle for shock value. Also, he clearly appreciated an aesthetic that one review compared to that of Speer, and reminds me of some of the photography and cinematography of Hitler’s propagandist, Leni Riefenstahl.

Riefenstahl, who lived into the 21st Century, might be the only Hitler associated recognized for genuine artistic talent. Her infamous movie, Triumph of the Will celebrated Hitler and his movement through the use of creative camera angles and strategic use of shadows. None other than Mick Jagger posed for Riefenstahl in 1972. Those pictures make characteristic use of shadows and presaged what Bowie seemed to be going for four years later.

Songs throughout Bowie’s career are populated by dictators and strongmen. To him, rock stars, deities and demagogues were often interchangeable. His comparison of Hitler to a rock star was very much the subject matter of the song, “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” from Young Americans, which does not mention Hitler by name but is about a sinister figure that might be a politician or might be a rock star. But nothing much on Young Americans got much traction as being especially controversial, so Bowie, drug-addled or not, revisited the subject matter in as provocative a way as he could muster.

The one time Bowie directly name-checked a Nazi in any of his songs was in “Quicksand,” from Hunky Dory in 1971. In it, Bowie makes the confounding claim to be “living in a silent film portraying Himmler’s sacred realm of dream reality.” Heinrich Himmler was one of the most infamous of all Nazis, being head of the SS and one of the prime architects of the Holocaust.

Philosopher and public intellectual Simon Critchley wrote in his book, Bowie, that the line revealed Bowie had “an acute awareness of Himmler’s understanding of National Socialism as political artifice, as an artistic and especially architectural construction, as well as a cinematic spectacle.” Bowie’s various personas played out as if he were living in a movie, a theme of which, as Critchley pointed out, he returned to again and again.

Once again, I find an apt comparison to professional wrestling and the concept of kayfabe, the idea of the continuous presentation of fake scenarios and personalities as true. In the heyday of kayfabe, wrestlers would not break character even while off the job— it was a fireable offense for a “face” (good guy) to be seen socializing with a “heel” (bad guy). Bowie was demanding that his fans similarly play along, always leaving a little doubt as to what was real and what wasn’t. On some level, wrestling fans booing the likes of Baron Von Raschke and Waldo Von Erich knew they were not really Nazis, but the fans would always react as if they were. Bowie may have hoped that on some level his fans too would know it was all for show but react as if it weren’t.

Instead, Bowie seems to have been horrified by the reaction he was getting and quickly re-wrote his own script. But it would not be the last time Bowie would suggest that politicians were practicing their own form of kayfabe.

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Stay tuned for chapter 5 next week. Bowie and Politics is intended to be a long-form piece under the umbrella of the Lyrics Series.

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