David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music by Darryl W Bullock – Review
By Rachael Popow
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, but Darryl W Bullock is going back twice as far in his fascinating celebration of a centenary of LGBT music.
He discovers that in the early days of popular music, not everyone realised they were making proto-gay anthems. Some publishers were initially reluctant to allow any changes to the lyrics of their songs to better suit the performer’s gender, which explains how Bing Crosby came to record a track entitled ‘Ain’t No Sweet Man Worth the Salt of My Tears’. (And even if some fans did secretly snigger at that one, his 1929 song ‘Gay Love’ probably seemed completely innocent at the time.)
However, other artists have deliberately set out to push boundaries, from piano genius Tony Jackson, whose performances in the bordellos of New Orleans would influence generations of jazz musicians, to contemporary acts like Years & Years
But while there is much to celebrate in how far we’ve come, Bullock’s book, which tells the story of LGBT music by genre as well as chronologically, shows that progress has sometimes been halting, and some leaps forward have been followed by steps back. As the author acknowledges, even Bowie, who gave the book its title, would later backtrack about his own sexuality.
“A big subject”
One of the most moving quotes in the book comes from electronic music pioneer Wendy Carlos, who was born Walter. She initially went to great lengths to keep her transition a secret, only to be surprised by the understanding reaction from the press and the public when the story emerged: “There had never been any need of this charade to have taken place. It had proven a monstrous waste of years of my life.” Yet other performers’ careers would be ruined, or never really begin in the first place, due to their sexuality.
And before we assume that’s all in the past, Bullock points to the plight of LGBT performers in countries such as Russia, Kenya and Jamaica. Meanwhile, an eyebrow-raising quote from a 2014 Spectator review of a Dusty Springfield biography suggests that Brits shouldn’t get too complacent about our own progressiveness either.
It’s a big subject for one book to cover, and David Bowie Made Me Gay may leave you wanting to know more about some of the less famous figures or wishing for a more thorough investigation of intriguing trends. There’s probably a separate book to be written on the importance of gay men in 1960s British pop management, and at least an essay on why so many artists featured in this book got their showbiz starts in the ‘tribal rock musical’ Hair.
But as an overview, David Bowie Made Me Gay makes for entertaining, enlightening and often uplifting reading, and gives more than a few unsung heroes their due.
‘David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music’ by Darryl Bullock is published by
Duckworth Overlook, £18.99