On race, ethnicity, and multiculturalism

Downtown, however, did not provide unlimited possibilities for all. In Hawkins’ anthology, contributor Lynne Tillman astutely observes, “Downtown was overwhelmingly white, though living inside a city that was not.” (32) Uptown Harlem seemed worlds away, and African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians primarily appear as marginal figures or sources of inspiration in all four books. New York novelist and co-founder of the Village Voice, Norman Mailer wrote “The White Negro” in 1957, and some of his observations hold true for Downtown Manhattan twenty years later. Mailer interprets the 1950s beat scene as follows:

“In such places as Greenwich Village. a menage-a-trois was completed—the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life… The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro.”

“… they [hipsters] are an elite with the potential ruthlessness of an elite, and a language most adolescents can understand instinctively for the hipster’s intense view of existence matches their experience and their desire to rebel.”

When Patti Smith sings “Rock and Roll Nigger” with the lyrics “Baby was a black sheep, baby was a whore,” she channels Mailer’s Hip appropriation of African American argot in the service of her own rebellion against the Man. However, although she reflects on her meeting with Jimi Hendrix, who broke the color-line for rock guitarists, Smith does not consider the role race plays in the class, gender and sexual dynamics of Downtown culture at all in Just Kids. Mapplethorpe’s controversial photographs of nude black men[9] as well as the ways in which punk drew a line between Hip Hop, rap, and disco are not covered in her autobiographical account.

Madonna provides another example of a white performer, emerging out of this New York subcultural mix, around this time, who appropriates minority imagery. Drawing on punk, porn, disco, Catholicism, Hollywood movies, and African American and Hispanic gay subcultures, Madonna crafts an image situated somewhere between Debbie Harry’s Blondie and Patti Smith’s Black Sheep Whore. Susan Seidelman’s low-budget feature Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) immerses Madonna in the street culture of New York City and helped to popularize the star’s distinctive style. In fact, Desperately Seeking Susan builds on the director’s earlier feature, Smithereens (1982),[10] [open notes in new window] featuring Richard Hell, Amos Poe, and others associated with punk/New Wave/No Wave film, performance, and music. Glitter, glam, and punk helped to shape Madonna’s stage persona. It is difficult, for instance, to imagine[10] Madonna in her leather bustier without Lydia Lunch’s provocative punk appropriations of the accoutrements associated with pornography and sexual subcultures involving dominance and submission.

Camille Paglia writes about Madonna as a “real feminist” in the New York Times (Camille, “Madonna—Finally, a Real Feminist.”); however, Paglia fails to link Bowie’s gender transgressions with Madonna’s sexual adventurousness in her contribution to David Bowie Is, even though the two stars have much in common in their ambivalent relationship to racial politics and whiteness. For example, bell hooks criticizes Madonna in Black Looks: Race and Representation, and some of that critique could be extended to Patti Smith as well.

Rosanna Arquette and Madonna reanimate punk for a wider female viewership in Susan Seidelman’s indie feature Desperately Seeking Susan (1985). Jennie Livingston’s Paris is Burning (1990) goes Uptown for a glimpse of queer subcultural expressions beyond Greenwich Village.

Although further Uptown, the world of the African American and Hispanic drag queens in Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning (1990) does not appear in Downtown Film and TV Culture, even though some mention of the documentary could provide a fuller subcultural context for the Downtown films included. Made by a white, woman as an outsider, Paris is Burning not only chronicles elaborate drag competitions, but explores the violence experienced by poor, minority, transsexuals in New York. The film also speaks to a moment in New York film history when women took up the camera to look broadly at sexual minority subcultures and their considerable creative expressions from punk to drag across gender, class, and racial borders.

Afro-Caribbean American graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat[11] also connects the David Bowie books with Downtown Film and TV Culture. As Benjamin Olin points out in his chapter in the Hawkins’ anthology, Basquiat appeared as a regular on the cable-access television show, TV Party, hosted by Glenn O’Brien, who also wrote for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine. In her chapter, “The Downtown Scene in the Digital Era,” Laurel Westrup examines Basquiat as a central figure in Downtown 81 (2000), written by O’Brien, as well as in TV Party. Westrup contrasts Basquiat’s collaborations with O’Brien with the feature film Basquiat (1996), directed by fellow Neo-Expressionist painter Julian Schnabel, who had worked at Max’s Kansas City before being recognized as an artist. Schnabel collaborated with Thomas Holman on the script.[12] Holman also knew Basquiat personally, forming the New Wave band Gray together after Holman stopped touring as a dancer with the glam group The Tubes, known for songs such as “White Punks on Dope.” David Bowie plays Andy Warhol in Schnabel’s film,[13] making the connection to glam as well as Pop Art and the Factory clear. As Westrup shows, O’Brien and Schnabel had very different views of Basquiat. She argues:

“The discrepancy between Schnabel’s vision of Basquiat and O’Brien’s in the Downtown 81 DVD operates metonymically—that is, the competing narratives of Basquiat represent competing narratives of the Downtown scene as a whole… a tension between different definitions of the Downtown avant-garde’s aesthetic ethos, some of which privilege individual artists who work in a single medium, and some of which privilege collaboration and intermedial experimentation.” (294-5)

That this bickering involves white interlocutors of African American/Hispanic musical, literary and artistic expression over authority to depict the “authentic” Basquiat exposes some of the racial politics in play in Lower Manhattan.

One vision of Jean-Michel Basquiat in Glenn O’Brien’s Downtown 81 (2000). A competing depiction of Basquiat in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996), featuring David Bowie as Andy Warhol.

In New York City, Downtown also includes Chinatown, and, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, several media institutions serving the Asian American community called Lower Manhattan home, including Downtown Community Television Center (DCTV co-founded by Keiko Tsuno and Jon Alpert) and Asian CineVision, which hosted the annual Asian American International Film Festival, located on the Bowery for several years. Downtown Film and TV Culture does include a chapter by Jack Sargeant on Jon Moritsugu’s Mommy Mommy Where’s My Brain (1986), which he positions as part of the Cinema of Transgression. Sargeant, however, does not discuss Moritsugu’s impact on Asian American film at the time. Born in Honolulu, Moritsugu, who attended Brown University in Rhode Island, does have East Coast connections and did make some of his films in New York, e.g., L'il Debbie Snackwhore of New York City (1987). Moritsugu’s punk films such as Der Elvis (1987), which served as his thesis film at Brown, created considerable argument when they screened at Asian American film festivals. Not only did he court controversy because of his raw aesthetic, irreverent scatological humor, and provocative Nazi references reminiscent of British punk rocker Sid Vicious’ infamous swastika jockstrap, but Moritsugu, collaborating with Amy Davis, very often did not feature Asian faces or narratives dealing with his Japanese American ethnic heritage. As a consequence, some programming committees questioned whether they should be considered “Asian American” at all; however, as a punk films, they attracted considerable attention Downtown in other circles.

James Schamus, co-founded the independent production house Good Machine with Ted Hope, produced Moritsugu’s Terminal USA (1993), the same year Schamus produced and co-wrote The Wedding Banquet with Ang Lee. In Terminal USA, Moritsugu takes on a dual lead as twin brothers—one a closeted homosexual uncommunicative computer nerd, and the other a sex and drug-crazed punk rocker—in a dysfunctional Asian American family. Schamus also produced Todd Haynes’ Poison (1991), the New Queer Cinema classic examined in Chris Dumas’ chapter in Hawkins’ anthology. In fact, Schamus figures prominently in Downtown media arts as bringing together New Queer Cinema, Asian American independent features, and punk/No Wave aesthetics. For instance, also in 1993, Schamus produced Totally F***Ed Up (“Another Homo Movie By Gregg Araki”). Like Moritsugu, Araki troubled the usual definitions of Asian American filmmaking at the time by producing raw work about urban alienation, teenage angst, gay youth, and AIDS. Araki is a California filmmaker; however, Downtown brought him into New York’s bohemian circles through his screenings at the Asian American International Film Festival. More attention to the role played by Asian Americans in Downtown media arts would also spotlight some key independent filmmakers such as Shu Lea Cheang (Fresh Kill, 1996)[14] and Evans Chan (Bauhinia, 2002),[15] who set much of their work in Lower Manhattan.

Fresh Kill’s Erin McMurtry and Sarita Choudhury with a reference to Downtown Community Television in the background. Evans Chan’s Bauhinia (2002) tells the story of a young female filmmaker from Hong Kong struggling near Ground Zero in the aftermath of 9/11 in Lower Manhattan.

Glam also has complicated racial politics. As the creation of an alter-ego called the “Thin White Duke” might imply, David Bowie had a self-conscious understanding of his white skin and its relationship to race, class, colonialism and the decay of the British Empire. However, although Bowie saw himself as performing a part, his flirtations with Nazi imagery caused considerable controversy. Moreover, Bowie took the African American roots of rock music for granted as David Baker points out in his analysis of Bowie’s covers in Enchanting David Bowie, and an ambivalent relationship to American culture more generally as Amedeo D’Adamo points out in his contribution to the book on the song “Young Americans.”

Sean Redmond’s chapter in Enchanting David Bowie, “The Whiteness of David Bowie,” addresses his “hyper” whiteness in relation to the upper-class masculinity of the aristocratic dandy as well as the otherworldly whiteness of what Redmond sees as part of Bowie’s “alien androgyny and an unstable sexuality” (215). Redmond concentrates on the year 1983 for his analysis of Bowie’s whiteness, which he explains as follows:

“The year 1983 registers as that in which whiteness is acutely imagined to be under threat from the ‘Asian tiger’ and transforming geopolitical realities, its own languid anti-corporeality, the AIDS ‘epidemic’ and the rise of racism in Europe and elsewhere—realities which require it to reposition its power relations with the sexual and ethnic Other.” (215)

“The desire for the Other, for the ‘strange’ in 1983, radiated out from a cultural centre that was white, and stemmed from a ‘white’ need that was about both owning the exotic Other, and devouring or ingesting them.” (228)

Drawing on Richard Dyer’s book, White: Essays on Race and Culture, Redmond argues that Bowie’s appearance as a vampire in Tony Scott’s The Hunger, as well as his portrayal of an officer in a Japanese prison-of-war camp in Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, speak to similar issues of whiteness as Bowie’s 1983 stage persona. With an eye on the increasing visibility of Japanese consumer goods such as automobiles and electronics as well as popular culture such as manga and anime, Tony’s brother, Ridley, made Blade Runner (1982), a science fiction/film noir hybrid set in a techno-Oriental future Los Angeles in which people speak an argot sprinkled with Japanese. Therefore, Bowie’s whiteness drew on the historical past as well as pointing to a dystopian future.

While The Hunger references consumerism, disease, and the fragility of white masculinity in the wake of feminism’s empowered women, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence[16] draws on Christian messianic symbols of sacrifice, resurrection, moral and spiritual superiority, and serves as “a vehicle for a postcolonial global exchange where what takes place is the reinforcement of racial difference, and the re-centring of white culture in a master/slave relationship with the Other.” (224) Redmond points to Bowie’s appropriation of Japanese clothing designs by Kansai Yamamoto to reinforce the star’s “commodification of the Orient that takes place in a global marketplace.” (225) As Camille Paglia points out in David Bowie Is, the star’s Orientalist incorporation of Japanese costuming can be traced to his fascination with the female impersonators (onnagata) found in the all-male Kabuki theater. Bowie played Nihon Budokan Hall in Tokyo in 1978, and, arguably, the star had his eye on the increasing importance of his Asian fans to his career when he decided to work with Japanese New Wave director Nagisa Oshima and Ryuichi Sakamoto, a musician associated with techno-pop similar to electronic compositions by Brian Eno and other Bowie collaborators, on Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.

In the bilingual coproduction, Oshima draws on the popular appeal of music stars from Asia and the West, both in their own way “exotic” larger-than-life personalities, in a sharp critique of traditional masculinity, imperialism, and militarism. Sakamoto’s character, Yanoi, resembles Yukio Mishima, a postwar Japanese author of homoerotic fiction known for his adherence to the military code of bushido, his failed coup attempt of 1970, and seppuku ritual suicide, as well as nodding to Japanese screen villains such as Sessue Hayakawa’s prison commander in David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai (1958). Lean also directed Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Oshima seems to be responding to Lean’s blockbuster epics by making the homoeroticism at the heart of Lean’s films explicit in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.[17]Resembling Peter O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia in many respects, Bowie’s character, Celliers, tacitly recognizes Yanoi’s homosexual attraction and plays on the Japanese commander’s desire in a calculating fashion culminating in a queer kiss that leads to the end of Yanoi’s command and Celliers’ execution. Oshima’s critical examination of imperial masculinity in relation to torture, masochism, and repressed homosexuality uses Bowie’s whiteness in a way that complicates Redmond’s interpretation. When Celliers’ red sunburned head protrudes from the sand like the sun at the heart of the Japanese flag, Yanoi cuts a lock of his ash-blond hair. The enemy’s body at the heart of Japanese nationalism ironically serves as Yanoi’s deepest taboo sexual desire. Arguably, Oshima queers Japanese militarism for reasons that go beyond Bowie’s appropriation of Japanese style for global consumerism and speak more deeply to the auteur’s sustained critique of global capitalism, militarism, sexual repression and Japanese society.

While courting an Asian woman, Iggy Pop collaborated with David Bowie on the song “China Girl,” which Bowie rerecorded for the 1983 release of Let’s Dance. Redmond points out that in the video that accompanies the song, “… the love of the exotic Orient is played out through sexual desire, drug addiction and a cryptic critique of hyper-whiteness in terms of its historical imperialism.” (227) The interracial romance in the song in some ways parallels the relationship between Celliers and Yanoi in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. Bowie supposedly understood the song/video as a critique of racism, and it does seem to equate white male imperialism with “visions of swastikas in my head” and the cultural industries that support it—“I'll give you television; I'll give you eyes of blue; I'll give you a man who wants to rule the world.” However, feeling like “Marlon Brando,” who plays a very ambivalent character in the Hollywood interracial romance, Sayonara (1957),[18] his relationship to the “little China Girl” may not be an unequivocal celebration Hollywood’s white saviors of oppressed Asian women. Images of an Asian woman brandishing the red flag of China and confronting Bowie from behind barbed wire compete with Orientalist fashions inspired by Chinese opera. When the Asian woman described in the song says, “Oh baby, just you shut your mouth,” she may mean just mean it—shushing his condescending sexism and racism while putting a hold on his imperial ambitions in the bedroom.[19]

In this segment of the music video for “China Girl” with Geeling Ng, Bowie seems more like William Holden in the classic beach scene with Jennifer Jones in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955) than Marlon Brando in Sayonara (1957). Bowie’s cross-cultural kiss with Ng dressed to resemble a Chinese opera beauty remains ambivalent, and it seems impossible to untangle the Orientalism of the images from the video’s ostensible critique of imperialism.
The music video for “China Girl” with Geeling Ng allegorically references Asians' subjugation by Western military and political figures.  Dressed as the soldiers and bankers of British imperialism ... ... they hold “China” embodied by the Asian woman as captive. The red flag points to the potential power of Asia to resist.

Redmond concludes that Bowie’s androgynous sexual otherness puts him in a position to transcend any implicit racism, fascism, and imperialist posturing: “Bowie is not only able to deal with the double binds of whiteness, but the politics of the difference of the Other.” (229) However, whether he succeeds at this consistently remains moot. Neither book examines Bowie’s marriage to African model Iman, which lasted for twenty-four years, and the challenges they faced as an intercultural celebrity couple. Iman did, however, comment on their marriage shortly before Bowie’s death: “We both understand the difference between the person and the persona…When we are home, we are just Iman and David. We’re not anybody else.”[20]

Mortality and memorials

Punk, glitter, and glam were among the last spectacular youth subcultures to emerge before the digital age. Printed fanzines, posters, super-8 and home videos of performances and club events, garage band cassettes and vinyl records, and tapes of cable access broadcasts circulate on the Internet and as newly released DVDs. However, as “Part III: Memorials” of Downtown Film and TV Culture makes clear, there has been considerable loss of this ephemera. As a result, there is a feeling expressed by archivists Richard Toon and Laurie Stone as, “You had to be there.” Just Kids, of course, serves as a book-length eulogy for Robert Mapplethorpe, and Jean-Michel Basquiat haunts the Downtown scene in Hawkins’ anthology as well, dying of an overdose a few months before Mapplethorpe succumbed to AIDS. Other Downtown casualties receive no mention, however. British punk rocker Sid Vicious stabbed his lover Nancy Spungen at the Chelsea Hotel in 1978. Out on bail, awaiting trial for her murder, Vicious attacked Patti Smith’s brother, Todd Smith, who nearly lost his eye as a result. (Lim, Gerrie. “Patti Smith: The Power and the Glory, the Resurrection and the Life.”) Although Smith does talk about the death of Todd, who passed away around the same time as her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, Sid and Nancy, who lived in her old haunt, the Chelsea Hotel, stay out of the book. Memoirs need to be selective, and some of the darker side of punk buried.

Many other subcultural celebrities who appear in these four books have passed away over the years as well. All of these enormously talented artists, composers, writers and performers lived and/or worked within a few square blocks in Manhattan. They knew each other worked together, argued, fought, and contributed creatively to the world beyond Lower Manhattan. If nothing else, reading these four books made me realize how important urban spatial proximity, temporal concurrence, and what Pierre Bourdieu might call “social capital”[21] are to cultural formations and subcultural transgressions. Subcultural street styles feed fashion, art, music, and literature. The life and death of the people involved mark the passage of time, and, for Hawkins, the end of an era with the collapse of the Twin Towers in 2001. Lou Reed died in 2013 from liver failure, and his wife musician/performance artist Laurie Anderson pays tribute to his memory by ruminating on mortality through a stream-of-consciousness commentary on 9/11 juxtaposed with the life and death of her pet Lolabelle in Heart of a Dog (2015). Reed’s absence is strongly felt, and the fact he is not there provides a particularly moving tribute to his memory and the pain Anderson must still experience because of her loss.

David Bowie Is contains a photograph of his “life mask,” which, of course, looks like a death mask for Ziggy Stardust. Many of the chapters in Enchanting David Bowie deal with themes of death, resurrection, and the afterlife. As Michael Mooradian Lupro notes in the first chapter, Bowie’s first major breakthrough song, “Space Oddity” (1969), not only parodies Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968) and comments on the 1969 moon landing, but also deals with death, human vulnerability, and rebellion. Bowie released “Lazarus” shortly before his death, and the song and accompanying music video provide a fitting end to themes that haunted his music his entire career. In his chapter on Velvet Goldmine, D’Cruz, drawing on Jacques Derrida’s concept of “hauntology,” talks about the cinema’s “flickering vacillation between presence and absence that enabled the dead to return.” (264) In David Bowie Is, Geoffrey Marsh mentions an early experimental short The Image (1969), directed by Michael Armstrong, which seems to obliquely allude to the homoerotic and decadent imagery in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). Bowie plays a ghostlike male beauty in a psychodrama in which Bowie’s character appears to entice, seduce, and obsess a painter who reacts violently to the young man’s “image.” Even after the painter appears to kill his nemesis, the reanimated subject of his obsession returns to haunt him. In “Lazarus,” Bowie, on his deathbed, revisits this funereal relationship between the image and his own mortality, between his rebellion against death and its inevitability.

Just Kids, Downtown Film and TV Culture, Enchanting David Bowie, and David Bowie Is all pay tribute to the gender rebels of the 1970s and 1980s, giving punk, glitter and glam an afterlife as fitting tributes to their rage against sexual conformity. I highly recommend all four books for anyone interested in engaging with the popular culture, subcultures and experimental media arts of those times more deeply. Punk, glitter and glam represent the last major youth subcultures of the Baby Boom, and, as such, they offer insight into the enormous cultural shifts to follow. They solidified the gains of their generation while also exposing the darker side of the conservative forces that continued to plague gender outlaws, sexual nonconformists, rebel artists, political radicals and avant-garde activists. Gentrification has swallowed Downtown Manhattan and London’s Soho district. Youth subcultures have become more nomadic with online contact replacing much of the intensity of Greenwich Village or swinging London. However, punk, glitter and glam still serve as a model for how youth subcultures operate. Even without urgent battles over physical space, those marginalized by gender, sexual orientation, race, class, or age still struggle for a cultural space for artistic expression and the development of a style unfettered by the demands of the mainstream. From this perspective, reading Just Kids, Downtown Film and TV Culture, Enchanting David Bowie, and David Bowie Is offers more than just an exercise in nostalgia for an aging generation. Reflecting on the relationship between youth subcultures, art, fashion, technology, and the marketplace offers insight into the continuing importance of struggling for subcultural expression and recognition in often hostile environments. David Bowie, Patti Smith, and their peers may no longer be “just kids,” but the struggles they represent haunt us into the twenty-first century.

David Bowie reanimated in the music video Lazarus (2015), a fitting summation of a career in which themes of death and resurrection played such an important role. David Bowie’s first film role in The Image (1969), directed by Michael Armstrong, hauntingly parallels his final performance in Lazarus.