The gay writer Andrew Kopkind, in “Gay Rock: The Boys in the Band,” in a 1973 essay in Ramparts, sums it up? The space alien stuff was both a metaphor of gayness and hostile to gays.
It reinforces you’re not from planet earth, you’re alone and despairing here, and you’ll die, probably killing yourself. Bowie reinforced these messages throughout his career.
His first hit, in 1969, was “Space Oddity,” released a week before the Apollo moon landing. It’s a strange scene about an astronaut who seems to be adrift in space. He was evidently inspired by the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, but where that movie was read as hopeful, even a spiritual idea of a new age dawning, Bowie wrote a suicide song. “And I think my spaceship knows what I must do, and I think my life on earth is nearly through,” the depressive astronaut sings in the song’s early demos. Even as released, as Sanford notes, the song has a “message of withdrawal, of life closing down.”
Suicide is his basic vibe, as with “Conversation Piece,” a 1969 demo, later recorded for Heathen, about a scholar who comes upon a bridge and jumps off. Or “Five Years,” off Ziggy Stardust, about a man talking a walk as he watches humanity react to the news Earth is ‘dying’.
Panic at mortality seems to be his thing since he was a kid. In Christopher Stanford’s Bowie: Loving the Alien, we learn young David Jones was perceived by his aunt as “‘a vain child’ who learnt early on how to tyrannize his parents.” Then this: “Even in 1951, the Joneses’ neighbors would routinely be startled by the arrival of the borough ambulance summoned by the boy’s plausible, but always unfounded, claim to be ‘dying’.”
His dying songs—including the Ziggy Stardust album, ending with “Rock n Roll Suicide”—fit into the prevalent genre of gays killing themselves. As Vito Russell later details in his 1981 book on Hollywood’s treatment of gays, The Celluloid Closet: “Once homosexuality had become literally speakable in the early 1960s, gays dropped like flies, usually by their own hand, while continuing to perform their classically comic function in lesser and more ambiguous roles.”
That was Bowie’s view carried out into music: a series of odd man committing suicide or going crazy. Unfortunately for Planet Earth he mixed homosexuality in with that. In a famous 1972 interview where he came out as gay, he became identified as homosexual, then wasn’t. In 1976, he told Playboy he was bisexual, saying he had used “that fact very well. I suppose it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.” He’s vacillate about it, telling Rolling Stone: “I didn’t ever feel I was a real bisexual.”
His message was that homosexuality was a phase.
Jayne County, the transgender performer, recalls Bowie’s view of his gay fans: “He would stomp backstage after a show and scream, ‘Those fucking fags in the front grabbing for me! I hate them!”
It was every attack of the patriarchy in pretty clothes and makeup.