Punk, glitter and glam redrafted: going downtown with
Patti Smith and David Bowie

review by Gina Marchetti

[Above] Grant, Charles L., Geoffrey Marsh, and Victoria Broackes, eds. David Bowie Is.

[Left] Cinque, Toija, Christopher Moore, and Sean Redmond, eds. Enchanting David Bowie: Space/Time/Body/Memory.

Hawkins, Joan, ed. Downtown Film and TV Culture 1975-2001. Smith, Patti.  Just Kids

Patti Smith and David Bowie were born just days apart—Smith in December 1946 in the United States and Bowie in January 1947 in the United Kingdom—as members of the earliest cohort of the post-WWII baby boom. Both came from modest backgrounds and moved to the “big city” of New York and London respectively, getting a foothold in the world of arts and letters with Smith working in a Manhattan bookshop and Bowie at a Soho advertising agency. Soho, London, and SoHo, New York, share several common characteristics that attracted Smith and Bowie to these areas.

While both Soho and SoHo have undergone extensive gentrification in recent years, their links to this world of avant-garde styles, subversive fashions, underground aesthetics, and personal rebellion remain. In London, the upscale musicals of the West End, the sleaze associated with the sex industry, and Chinatown border the neighborhood. In New York, SoHo, merging with Chelsea, the Bowery, Chinatown, Little Italy, Alphabet City, and, of course, Greenwich Village, lies at the heart of Downtown Manhattan, where small factories metamorphosed into haunts for avant-garde artists, dramaturges and musicians as the city evolved in the years after World War II. As opposed to highbrow Uptown and the glitz and commercial glamor of Times Square and Broadway in Midtown, Manhattan’s Downtown attracts bohemians and marginalized voices on the cutting-edge of cultural innovations. In both London and New York, these urban incubators produced the stellar talents of the Baby Boom generation. Patti Smith and David Bowie found their creative peers in these trendy enclaves. Known today primarily as rock singer-songwriters, both Smith and Bowie had strong backgrounds in the visual arts, literature, and theatre, and they blossomed in these bastions of underground culture which fueled their multi-art and intermedia talents.

As fashion icons, Smith and Bowie provide a striking, symmetrically androgynous pair—Bowie chic in Mr. Fish’s man-dresses and Smith elegant in thin trousers, narrow lapel jackets, and string ties. In the 1960s, the Women’s Movement, Stonewall, and a deep disgust with the machismo associated with military operations in Vietnam set the stage for cultural experimentation with gender and sexual orientation through style. However, when someone at a club asked Patti Smith if she was “androgynous,” she had to ask what it meant. The reply was “You know, like Mick Jagger.” (Smith, Just Kids, 140) David Bowie was not quite on the rock radar at the time. Smith continues, “Whatever it meant, with just a haircut, I miraculously turned androgynous overnight.” (140) She also includes an amusing anecdote about her first meeting with poet Allen Ginsberg in which he mistakes her for a “very pretty boy” (123) and buys her a sandwich before realizing his error. In David Bowie Is, Mark Kermode quotes the star as saying, “I was the androgyne for the time” (284), and Bowie sings about gender-bending and sexual transgressions in songs such as “Rebel, Rebel” (1974) and “Jean Genie” (1972) with makeup, dyed hair, and extravagant costumes.

At the cusp of the sexual revolution, Smith and Bowie took enormous chances with gender norms and sexual identities. Bowie proudly proclaimed, “I am gay,” in a 1972 Melody Maker interview. But his heterosexual marriages and children dampened the impact of the statement, and some gay men were turned off by his inauthenticity. Smith’s lover Robert Mapplethorpe proved to be more convincing when he came out to her and challenged the world of photography with his sensuous images of flowers and penises. Tragically, Mapplethorpe died of AIDS in 1989, and Smith pays tender tribute to her friend, lover, and muse in her award-winning memoir Just Kids written roughly a decade after Mapplethorpe’s passing. Beyond this, though, much like Hemingway’s Moveable Feast (1964), Just Kids provides a portrait of a city at a particular moment in history by focusing on the bohemian personalities creating the avant-garde art and literature of their day. Like Hemingway, Smith sometimes spends too much time name-dropping, but her autobiographical account of her years on the Lower East Side can also be very tender and moving with vivid portraits of the feast of characters she encountered in New York’s Soho and Greenwich Village.

Bowie and Smith shared many friends and acquaintances—William S. Burroughs, Iggy Pop, John Cale, and Lou Reed, among others. Smith and Burroughs struck up a friendship when both stayed at the Chelsea Hotel, and A. Craig Copetas brought Burroughs and Bowie together for Rolling Stone in 1974. When Burroughs pointed out to Bowie that he chose a surname associated with a “wild boy” knife that could cut both ways, the two became fast friends. Bowie used the author’s aleatory cut-up technique on subsequent albums, working with Brian Eno who helped introduce the element of chance into their musical collaborations. In fact, assemblages and bricolage define both Smith and Bowie’s aesthetic, and they freely borrow, quote, and allude to a wide range of other artists, musicians, and writers in their oeuvre.

Both admired Andy Warhol, The Factory, and The Velvet Underground,[1] [open endnotes in new window] and they spent some of their most productive years in New York City as part of the Downtown scene described in Joan Hawkins’ anthology. They hung out with the Chelsea Hotel crowd and frequented Max’s Kansas City, CBGB, and other venues favored by New York bohemians in the mid-1970s. However, they also had passionate attachments to continental Europe—Smith to Paris and Bowie to Berlin—as well as close ties to Ann Arbor-Detroit rock—Patti Smith married to Fred “Sonic” Smith (1980-1994) of the MC5 and Bowie rooming with Iggy Pop of The Stooges in West Berlin (1977-8).

Patti Smith lionizes Arthur Rimbaud and many other French sexual “outlaws,” who defy heteronormative, patriarchal constraints.  She also greatly admires the rock and roll heroes of her generation, who found a home-away-from-home in the bohemian Paris in the years leading up to and following May 1968.  She makes poetic pilgrimages to places such as Pere Lachaise Cemetery, where Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde, among others, are buried, to pay tribute to her muses. Bowie has a complicated relationship to Berlin and its music.  During his time there, he melded his interests in Weimar figures such as Brecht and Weill with a recognition of the international popularity of electronic bands such as Kraftwerk.  However, his flirtations with fascist aesthetics coincide with glam and punk’s appropriation of Nazi imagery as a provocation to the older generation’s glorification of their role in World War II. 

In fact, Bowie met Iggy Pop at Max’s Kansas City, where Smith and Mapplethorpe were regulars, before meeting up with him again in Berlin. At points in their careers, Smith and Bowie performed Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill songs, and the impact of Weimar on their music, appearance, and performance style can be seen in their use of gender-bending expression of pre-Hitler Berlin’s putative “decadence.” Bob Fosse’s film Cabaret (1972), based on Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin stories, popularized Weimar style for a wider audience around the same time. In fact, Berlin plays such a formative role in Bowie’s oeuvre, three chapters in Enchanting David Bowie by Jennifer Otter Bickerdike and John Charles Sparrowhawk, Tiffany Mainman, and Daryl Perrings, explore the star’s relationship to West Berlin and the impact the divided city had on his career. [Image 4] Bowie produced Lou Reed’s album Transformer (1972) in Berlin. On it, the song, “Walk on the Wild Side” references many of the transgender and gay personalities associated with Warhol’s Factory—Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis, Joe Dellesandro, Joe Campbell (“Sugar Plum Fairy”), and Jackie Curtis—who also appear in Smith’s Just Kids. In other words, Bowie’s Berlin must be understood in relation to Downtown New York.

Citing their gender rebelliousness, critics and scholars link Smith and Bowie with the same progenitors including Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Jean Genet, Jean Cocteau, and other sexual “outlaws” questioning gender norms, heteronormativity, and the laws that govern our social bodies. From the visual arts, Smith and Bowie draw on Dada, Surrealism, the Pre-Raphaelites, Aubrey Beardsley, the Vienna Secession and German Expressionism. They found inspiration at the fringes of popular culture from film noir to B-movie science fiction and horror. In Just Kids, Smith writes about going to Coney Island sideshows with Mapplethorpe, with Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) on their minds. David Bowie’s album cover for Diamond Dogs (1974) in which his body merges with the hind quarters of a dog on display at a freak show indicates his thinking went along the same lines. New Yorker Susan Sontag wrote her essay on photographer Diane Arbus, “Freak Show,” in 1973, and in a 1974 television appearance, David Bowie told Dick Cavett he had a book of Arbus’ photographs on his coffee table. Leslie A. Fiedler published Freaks: Myths and Images of the Secret Self in 1978, making a clear link between mainstream society’s views of physical abnormalities and distain for youth subcultures by branding them “freaks.”

David Bowie produced Lou Reed’s Berlin album, Transformer (1972), featuring the hit song “Take a Walk on the Wild Side,” about the “wild side” of Warhol’s Factory on the Lower East Side rather than the wild West Side of Berlin. Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, and David Bowie all found inspiration in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) as they saw themselves and the way society viewed them reflected in Coney Island sideshows.
The spectacle of the animal-human hybrid parallels the hermaphrodite’s gender hybridity on the cover of Diamond Dogs (1974). From Ziggy Stardust to Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Bowie embodies alienation through his space alien personae.  He has a knack for looking in the mirror and seeing himself as an “Other.”  While not a novel experience for many women, teens, racial, ethnic and other minorities, it comes as an epiphany when experienced through the eyes of an adult, white male.

A symbol of alienated youth, Bowie took on the persona of aliens from outer space such as Ziggy Stardust and Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), and his asymmetrical eyes analysed in detail by Kevin J. Hunt in Enchanting David Bowie became a key element in the mise-en-scene of Roeg’s film. Smith, too, became an emblem of alienation, singing, “Baby was a black sheep, baby was a whore.” As a teenage unwed mother who gave her baby up for adoption, she lived that song. Gender and the Atlantic separated Bowie and Smith, but the New York avant-garde and rock and roll in the mid-1970s brought them inextricably together as generational icons with enduring legacies.

Taken together, the four books reviewed here provide portraits of these two extraordinary figures. However, more than that, each book opens a window onto a subcultural landscape that has not received the critical scrutiny it merits. Even though these books do not take up “subcultures” as their primary focus, the authors do recognize the significance of various subcultures to the film, media, visual and recording arts of the era. Joan Hawkins’ Downtown Film and TV Culture (1975-2001) acknowledges the centrality of punk within the media arts community as well as the importance of LGBTQ subcultures after Stonewall in shaping the culture on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

In an interview included with Nick Zedd, known for coining the term “Cinema of Transgression”(1985), a manifesto written in the wake of the New York punk explosion, the filmmaker eloquently describes the role played by the urban underground in creating dissenting counter-discourses “through happenings, pranks, events, disruptions, satire, comedy and other forms of ridicule through skepticism.” (216) Although Hawkins argues for “downtown” as a term extending beyond New York City to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, and elsewhere, the vast majority of the book deals with Manhattan from the waning of Warhol’s Factory before his death in 1987 to the AIDS epidemic and the rise of LGBTQ activism to counter the homophobia of the times. The fact Hawkins decided on 2001 with the 9/11 collapse of the Twin Towers as the terminus of the period again betrays the fact that the book really deals with Manhattan’s media arts community and its particular blend of cosmopolitanism at its core.

As a consequence, Downtown Film and TV Culture serves as a perfect companion to Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which extends the temporal frame back to 1967 when she first met Robert Mapplethorpe in the East Village, but really focuses on their emerging careers with the rise of punk, glitter, glam, and the sexual transgressions associated with queer culture in the mid-1970s overshadowed by the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, coming to a close for Smith around the time she married Fred “Sonic” Smith in 1980 and Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989. Arguably, the overlapping years in downtown Manhattan from 1975-1990 provide the clearest picture of the ways in which punk, glitter, glam, and its associated queer subcultural expressions transformed the New York avant-garde and rewired the connections between music, fashion, film, graphic arts and youth culture. The Hawkins’ anthology examines phenomena only touched on in Smith’s account, but Smith’s ability to delve into her own psychic engagement with the Downtown literary, fine arts, and rock culture of the time adds considerable emotional depth to many of the films, videos, television broadcasts, and other motion pictures discussed by the contributors to Downtown Film and TV Culture. As women, too, Hawkins and Smith help to shape a picture of the Downtown New York arts world that shows how differently men and women, gay and straight, experienced the punk and glitter/glam subcultures at the time.

Ivan Kral and Amos Poe’s 16mm, black and white, non-sync, non-fiction rock music feature, Blank Generation (1976), brings the subcultures together on screen through what the directors termed “presence” filmmaking, and several of the chapters in Downtown Film and TV Culture return to that seminal film. Kral served as Patti Smith’s guitarist, and, in Just Kids, she describes how she found him through an ad she placed in the Village Voice, since the other musicians who applied had not “warmed up to the idea of a girl being the leader.” (Smith 244) Kral had left his native Czechoslovakia after the Soviet crackdown on the Prague Spring in 1968, and he played guitar for Smith, Blondie, and Iggy Pop in Manhattan.

Smith does not talk about Blank Generation in Just Kids, but a brief artist’s statement by Ivan and his wife Cindy Kral on the genesis of his collaboration with Amos Poe in Hawkins’ anthology fills in some essential information about the easy access he had to his fellow musicians even with his “physically intrusive” Bolex (Kral, and Kral 58) and cassette recorder. Shooting the bands playing in venues such as CBGB in 1974-75, Kral performs onstage, hangs out with his bandmates, observes his fellow musicians as a “home movie” filmmaker, and participates as a member of the audience actively shaping the subculture. His “presence” says quite a lot about the punk aesthetic, since his participation in Blank Generation speaks to the fluid borders between music and motion pictures as well as to punk’s raw DIY style, disregard for convention, and blurring of the boundaries between performer, fan, and observer. Downtown Film and TV Culture also includes a thorough analysis of Blank Generation’s significance by Mark Benedetti, an appraisal of its continuing circulation in the digital age by Laurel Westrup, and a very acerbic denunciation of its citation in Celine Danhier’s Blank City (2010) by Juan Carlos Kase. In fact, Kase dismisses Danhier’s film as an “anodyne, anemic document.”

As a French documentarist with no formal training in cinema, Danhier came to her subject as an admirer of American independent auteurs such as Jim Jarmusch (Gustason, “Celine Danhier Draws a ‘Blank’”). Working with producers Aviva Wishnow and Vanessa Roworth, Danhier managed to cajole many of the major figures associated with New York punk/no wave/Cinema of Transgression/ Downtown films of the 1970s and 1980s into appearing in the documentary and lending some very rare footage for the project. What seems to be missing in Kase’s assessment of Danhier’s film as well in most of the commentary on Blank Generation is the way in which Kral and Poe’s raw, out-of-sync, hand-held, participatory film highlights the ways in which rock brought together diverse stakeholders in a scene that challenged gender norms and sexual mores in such aggressive terms.

This may be the one of the reasons why the female production team of Blank City gravitated toward this particular moment in New York’s independent film history. In Blank City, Debbie Harry, lead singer of the New Wave band Blondie, talks about feeling “like our lives were movies” and that the scene was “cinematic,” alluding to the way she crafted her stage persona as a pastiche of Hollywood’s “dumb blonde” / “blonde bombshell.” Patti Smith, explosive even out of sync in Blank Generation, represents hyper-feminine Harry’s punk polar opposite as the dark, brooding androgyne. Bands closer to glam such as The New York Dolls and transgender performer Wayne (Jayne) County also appear in Blank Generation. Even though the film’s title comes from Richard Hell’s punk lament that “we belong to the blank generation,”[2] the performers on stage as well as the members of the audience expand beyond punk and provide a capacious picture of Lower Manhattan that includes gender-benders and sexual outlaws involved in glitter and glam, punk, and intersecting subcultures forming what Hawkins rightly sees as the Downtown “scene” (xi).

David Bowie Is and Enchanting David Bowie speak to each other in an even more obvious fashion than Downtown Film and TV Culture and Just Kids. In 2013, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London mounted an ambitious exhibition devoted to David Bowie, sponsored by the German audio company Sennheiser and the Italian fashion house Gucci, highlighting the importance of the cultural icon as both sound and image. The lavishly illustrated David Bowie Is catalogues the exhibit with an emphasis on Bowie’s contribution to aural and visual design through materials displayed from his own archive. The exhibit opened after the launch of the album The Next Day in January 2013, Bowie’s first studio release in a decade. Two academic anthologies came in the wake of the album release and exhibition, Enchanting David Bowie and David Bowie: Critical Perspectives, edited by Eoin Devereux, Aileen Dillane and Martin J. Power, both published in 2015. While this review deals only with Enchanting David Bowie , the latter anthology needs to be mentioned, since both books appear at the same time and take note of Bowie’s career as summed up in the Victoria and Albert Exhibition[3] and relaunched with The New Day. The overlap between the two books indicates the existence of a coterie of scholars devoted to David Bowie in the emerging field of celebrity studies, characterized by an interdisciplinary blending of music, film, media, fashion, design, entertainment industry and cultural studies. (Another scholarly book, Future Nostalgia: Performing David Bowie, by Shelton Waldrep, also appeared in 2015, published by Bloomsbury.) Authors contributing to both books include Ian Chapman, Tiffany Naiman, Dene October, Tanja Stark,[4]and Helene Marie Thian. David Bowie Is, as a museum catalogue, stands apart from the academic anthologies, since it relies on curators, music critics, and popular commentators for the preponderance of its material.

Even though David Bowie Is and Enchanting David Bowie organize their subject matter within very different conceptual frames, the books cover many of the same themes and topics, including Bowie’s cut-up aesthetics and postmodern assemblage, the centrality of Berlin to the development of the star’s career, the visual design of his album covers, his feature film roles, space aliens and youth alienation, and, of course, his androgynous star image and sexual allure. Both books, too, follow many of the themes set by the curators at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The first section of Enchanting David Bowie on “Space” parallels Geoffrey Marsh’s essay entitled “Astronaut of Inner Spaces” in David Bowie Is. The third section on the “Body” expands on many of the points made by Camille Paglia in “Theatre of Gender: David Bowie at the Climax of the Sexual Revolution” in the catalogue. Victoria Broackes’ “Putting Out Fire with Gasoline: Designing David Bowie” and Oriole Cullen’s “Changes: Bowie’s Life Story” in David Bowie Is resonate with Helene Marie Thian’s analysis of Bowie’s jacket. Album covers serve as the focus of Ian Chapman’s and Tanja Stark’s chapters in Enchanting David Bowie as well as Christopher Breward’s piece in the catalogue.

In fact, a striking difference between the two books involves illustrations. Even though so much of the scholarship in Enchanting David Bowie relies on visual analysis of the star’s films, album covers, publicity materials, and other visual representations, the book has few images and no photographs of Bowie himself. I assume this has to do with copyright, but I found it frustrating to turn to the Internet or the David Bowie Is catalogue in order to follow the authors’ arguments in Enchanting David Bowie. Tanja Stark has her chapter up on her website, so I just read her piece with the images in situ on the Internet. [https://tanjastark.com/2014/10/20/confronting-bowies-mysterious-corpses-2/] Ironically, the question of digital reproduction and the mashup in relation to copyrighted material comes up explicitly in Christopher Moore’s chapter, “2004 (Bowie vs. Mashup),” about the contest the star ran for his fans in which “subscribers to Bowie’s website BowieNet were offered the chance to create copyright-friendly Bowie mashups and enter the ‘Never Follow’ competition to win an Audi TT coupe, Sony VAIO laptop and licensed copies of industry recognized digital audio software.” (162) However, entrants could only use specific versions of Bowie’s songs for their mashups, and they signed away any rights they may have to their creations in order to participate. In this chapter, Moore takes an ironic look at Bowie’s own cut-up appropriations in relation to the limitations he placed on the digital subcultural expressions of his fans.

Both volumes on David Bowie solicit personal responses from many of their contributors as Bowie “fans” or witnesses to the various time periods that marked his lengthy career. This can be seen clearly in the transcription of a roundtable discussion with Christopher Frayling, Philip Hoare, Mark Kermode, and Geoffrey Marsh in David Bowie Is. In Enchanting David Bowie, the editors make this an explicit part of their methodological strategy:

“In preparing the manuscript, we also asked our contributors to reflect back upon their very thoughts and responses to our call for contributions, summarizing these for inclusion in the volume. We have included these personal accounts as part of the respective sections herein. The volume is a labour of love and our authors demonstrate this through the way they personally reflect upon the reasons they individually felt inspired to write about the enchantment of David Bowie.” (5)

Several of the authors in both books mention that they remember retreating to their bedrooms as teenagers to listen to Bowie, who spoke directly to their questions about gender, sexuality, identity, alienation and angst, taboo topics in their household. As Geoffrey Marsh shows in David Bowie Is, the star was quite aware of this aspect of the domestic “psychogeography” (27) of his appeal. Marsh quotes Bowie as saying: “I had to retreat into my room; so you get in the room and you carry that ruddy room around with you for the rest of your life.” (28) The adolescent bedroom of the mind, then, provides the imaginative common ground for Bowie, his listeners, and the scholars who comment on his cultural significance.

Fans, enchanted by stars, often describe this illusion of intimacy; however, “enchantment” with Bowie may not be the best foundation for a critical appraisal of either his popular appeal or artistic contribution. As a catalogue for a museum exhibition celebrating the star, David Bowie Is may not be the best place to look for any sharp criticism of the celebrity, and Bowie’s direct involvement made it virtually impossible. However, the tension between academic detachment and personal investment plagues cultural studies more generally, and this has long been a sore point in subcultural studies, which can tend to be more celebratory and sympathetic than probing and analytical. Just Kids, of course, is a memoir with no pretext of objectivity or academic utility; however, it still offers insight that eludes scholars who did not experience living at the Chelsea Hotel in the 1970s. However, some of the contributors to Enchanting David Bowie sometimes appear to be too invested in the celebrities as fans rather than academics, and Downtown Film and TV Culture does a better job of pairing scholarly appraisals with personal testimony of filmmakers, videographers, and archivists. Taken together, however, all four books illuminate the importance of key celebrities such as Bowie, Mapplethorpe, and Smith as well as provide valuable insight into the subcultural expressions of the 1970s and 1980s.

Bringing Patti Smith and David Bowie together in this review of these four books shows how punk, glitter, and glam in New York and London helped to transform the sexual and gender norms in arts and entertainment during this period. However, as the differences in their careers suggest, a gender hierarchy remained in place—gradually changing with the popularity of Madonna and Lady Gaga. Although Smith and Bowie both attacked sexual boundaries through rock and roll often in the same place at precisely the same moment in time, Bowie became a megastar and Smith remained essentially “just” a “kid.” This, of course, says a lot about gender inequality in rock music, but it also points to the distinct ways in which the same “message” of gender rebellion and sexual liberation erupted from two very different subcultures. Patti Smith serves as a “punk poetess,” while Bowie reigns as the glitter chameleon of glam rock.