copyright 2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 57, fall 2016

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

review by Gina Marchetti

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 notes 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).

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.”

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.

On sex, gender, and spectacular subcultures

At the same time punk, glitter, and glam appeared on both sides of the Atlantic, scholars in England, associated with Birmingham and Open Universities, began to reevaluate the ways in which sociologists looked at youth culture. Drawn primarily to the spectacular street subcultures in postwar Britain such as the Mods, rockers, Teddy Boys, and punks, scholars such as Stuart Hall, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke, and Dick Hebdige brought Marxism, structuralism, ethnography, and media theory together to look at youth in terms of cultural difference rather than juvenile delinquency. Although Angela McRobbie and Jenny Garber did write on girls and subcultures, most of this scholarship dealt with young men and their investment in ostentatious styles that separated them structurally from mass-mediated consumerism as well as the working-class culture of their parents.

Since the 1970s, research on subcultures has expanded, and several of the authors in Downtown Film and TV Culture, David Bowie Is, and Enchanting David Bowie explore the relationship between star image and youth culture through style. In David Bowie Is, Jon Savage, for example, references cultural studies research done by Stanley Cohen and Dick Hebdige and explores Bowie’s image relative to glam, Mod, punk, and various gay subcultures that intersected with the star’s career. Speaking of the evolution of Bowie in relation to these subcultures, Savage observes:

“His relationship to youth subcultures is complex and fascinating, as it shadows his development as an artist and a mass-media performer. He begins as a follower, trying things out before he begins to find his individual voice; he then becomes an outsider, as he attempts to develop that voice; when he finds it, he becomes a leader—creating youth culture in his own image.” (103)

For Bowie, this meant taking a leading role in the development of glitter and glam.

Punk and glitter/glam coexisted in the 1970s as extraordinarily fecund youth subcultural styles. They concretized a sensibility associated with post-Vietnam, Watergate, moral, political, and economic exhaustion in the United States and the waning days of Swinging London on the other side of the Atlantic. Many aspects of punk, glitter and glam drew on earlier subcultures—particularly the Hippies in the United States and the Mods in the United Kingdom. In America, the Hippies sported long hair, torn jeans, love beads as a unisex rebellion against the military draft of the Vietnam War era by going as far as possible away from crisp military uniforms and crewcuts as possible. Looking like a “girl” meant not being part of the American war in Vietnam. In England, some of this unisex Hippie style merged with Mod dandyism, creating a trans-Atlantic androgynous style typified by Mick Jagger’s use of makeup, lace, soft fabrics, bright colors, and long hair. Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell’s film Performance (1970) starring Mick Jagger as the gender-bending bisexual rock star Turner exemplifies this aspect of subcultural style. Turner, much like Bowie’s stage persona Ziggy Stardust, and space alien Thomas Jerome Newton played by Bowie in Nicolas Roeg’s science fiction feature The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), has a malleable identity that transcends traditional gender norms as well as considerable personal charm and sexual charisma.

For both Jagger and Bowie, Mods played a key role in the fashioning of their gender-bending styles. In the 1960s, Mods[5] rebelled by dressing in flamboyant suits, ties, and colorful jackets as a concrete stylistic expression symbolizing transcendence of the working-class boundaries of their parents’ generation by parroting the fashions associated with the gentry. For the Mods and other subcultures, as Dick Hebdige points out in Subculture: The Meaning of Style, self-fashioning allowed for rebellion by reworking commercially produced articles in subversive ways. In his chapter in Enchanting David Bowie, Christopher Moore draws on Hebdige to underscore the importance of subcultural bricolage to Bowie’s identity formation as the star repurposes symbolic commodities, usurps commercial fashions, subverts accepted meanings attached to mass-produced objects, and provides alternative styles through these transgressive cultural re-appropriations.

In her essay in the anthology, “David Bowie Is… Customizing,” Helene Marie Thian takes a close look at one of David Bowie’s jackets to show how the Mod practice of customizing clothing with printers’ ink gave the aspiring musician a way of connecting and commenting on male fashion through Op Art stripes. Thian argues that Bowie’s jacket not only marks his individual interest in self-fashioning and control over the details of his public image, but also betrays his debt to the Mod subculture which referenced the “dandy’ in a collective statement against social expectations that working-class men should be “macho.” She says of the jacket:

“It is also a statement rooted in the subculture movement of the mods and their customization of clothing for the purpose of bonding as a social group to expand the boundaries of acceptable limits of self-presentation for working-class men in Britain in the 60s.” (239)

The exaggerated elegance of the Mods morphed into the glam rock style of Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music and Marc Bolan of T. Rex in England, and Hippie androgyny paved the way for glitter rock with Gary Glitter in the U.K. and Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper and Wayne (Jayne) County and the New York Dolls. As Christopher Moore notes, Bowie’s “mod persona was less occupied with class than it was with gender…” (159), and gender and sexual orientation, rather than class, set the stage for Bowie’s global popularity.

For Ian Chapman, the cover design of the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972) resonates with the glam subculture’s fascination with glittering super-stars:

“Glam rock, circa 1971-75 (approximately) offered its followers an escape from the confinement, drudgery and physical, mental and emotional restrictions of the inner city and suburbia. The wider reinventive promise of glam rock was that one could transcend one's immediate physical, social and even sexual environment to construct a new idealized version of the self.” (35)

In his chapter on Bowie’s cover versions of songs by other artists in Enchanting David Bowie, David Baker argues that the songs in the Pin Ups (1973) album “are homage and acknowledgement to the specific music that influenced and formed ‘glam’ Bowie….” (111) Glenn D’Cruz argues for a broader view of Bowie’s star persona in relation to glam and glitter in his analysis of Todd Haynes’ feature Velvet Goldmine (1998). The lead character, Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), like Bowie, has a space alien stage persona “Maxwell Demon,” who dies at the height of his rock music career. Bowie, of course, famously killed off his alter ego Ziggy Stardust when he decided to move on to the next phase of his career. Other characters in the Velvet Goldmine resemble Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, and Bowie’s first wife, Angela Bowie.

According to D’Cruz, Haynes did considerable research with rock music journalist Barney Hoskyns, who wrote a book on the subculture’s history, Glam! Bowie, Bolan and the Glitter Rock Revolution, timed for publication with the release of the film. D’Cruz states: “Glam rock was a seismic event, for Haynes and Hoskyns, because it shook the heterosexual foundations of society in general by, paradoxically, appealing to heterosexual boys….” (260) However, as D’Cruz rightly points out, the film does not unequivocally celebrate glam and glitter as politically progressive. In the film, Haynes critiques the subculture’s superficial, narcissistic, excessively materialistic, and self-destructive tendencies, and D’Cruz argues that the film’s “ambivalence about sexual identity, politics and the transformative potential of popular culture is perhaps its greatest contribution to our understanding of the cultural significance of David Bowie.” (271) Ironically, the closest Enchanting David Bowie comes to being disenchanted with the star is in a chapter about a film in which Bowie does not appear.

Punk traces its trans-Atlantic genealogy differently from glam and glitter. Expressing frustration with the economic, social, and spiritual cul-de-sac that confronted British and American youth in the 1970s, punk champions an aggressive, “bad” attitude associated with violent outbursts on stage, in bars, and on the streets; a raw DIY trash aesthetic; and, an uncompromising commitment to shout about taboo topics and extreme feelings of alienation and despair. In David Bowie Is, Jon Savage notes the influence Bowie had on the emerging punk subculture by channeling William S. Burroughs’ homoerotic The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead (1971) and the dapper droogies of Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation (1971) of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange (1962) for a younger generation:

“Within five years of Ziggy, the punks were enacting The Wild Boys on the streets of London, Manchester, Liverpool and other cities in Britain—as if to promote and preview an inevitable collapse of society. Many accounts of punk accentuate its social realism, but it also had a very strong science fiction element—projecting into a conceivable nightmare future.” (103)

Punk rocker Siouxsie Sioux mentions Bowie and glam icon Bryan Ferry as influences. Bowie, however, claims to have missed direct contact with the subculture in London and New York because he lived in Berlin when punk explored in the United States and the United Kingdom: “I really regret missing out on that. I’d love to have seen the dialogue on television… and the feel of the clubs at that time.” (257) Christopher Breward, however, sees a significant change in Bowie as punk overtook glam and glitter:

“And though Bowie later disavowed that punk held any sway over him, its visual codes and nihilistic nastiness did seem to herald the coming of the end of glam aesthetics for something far more disturbing.” (198)

Glam continued to be a cultural force, however, overlapping the popularity of punk.

Glitter and glam experienced a resurgence, for example, with successful midnight screenings of the glam rock musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), directed by Jim Sherman and based on a British science fiction/horror spoof by playwright Richard O’Brien. The film version stars Tim Curry, reprising his London stage role, as a “sweet transvestite from Transylvania,” and the film attracted a cult following of devoted fans who lined up in costume at the Waverly Theatre in New York’s Greenwich Village beginning in 1976. Drawing on glitter/glam style from both sides of the Atlantic, Rocky Horror devotees crossed-dressed as their favorite performers, participated in the film’s pan-sexual fantasies, sang along and talked back to the characters on screen. In addition to drawing on gay male subcultural tropes such as the male bodybuilder and drag queen, the film also recognized female sexual desire in a refreshingly direct way with the character Janet (Susan Sarandon) given a solo in which she signs, “Touch-a-touch-a-touch me. I want to be dirty.” As Christopher Breward points out in David Bowie Is, Pierre La Roche, who worked with David Bowie on his stage make-up, also designed the make-up for Rocky Horror, and the connection between Bowie’s gender-bending and Curry’s interpretation of the character of Frank-N-Furter—also an androgynous, bisexual space alien who sings rock and roll—seems clear.

In Just Kids, Patti Smith does not talk about punk, glitter, or glam at all. A poet, actress, and graphic artist, she came to music comparatively late. Her rudimentary musical education derived from avidly following, like most in her generation, the careers of her rock idols (Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Grace Slick, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Springsteen), many of whom she had met in person. For Smith, Downtown Manhattan serves as an arts incubator, and she sees herself as part of a countercultural continuity that extends from the beat poets and Abstract Expressionists to Warhol, Mapplethorpe, and her own oeuvre without any clear subcultural rift. However, the punk subculture gave her club venues, an audience, and creative opportunities she likely would not have had otherwise. Because of punk’s DIY raw aesthetic and support for intermedial experimentation, lack of formal musical training did not stop Smith from forming a band, and she tacitly recognizes that she was part of a broader movement in Just Kids. For example, Smith eloquently describes her feelings playing at Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs with punk/new wave bands such as Television:

“We imagined ourselves as the Sons of Liberty with a mission to preserve, protect, and project the revolutionary spirit of rock and roll. We feared that the music which had given us sustenance was in danger of spiritual starvation. We feared it losing its sense of purpose, we feared it falling into fattened hands, we feared it floundering in a mire of spectacle, finance, and vapid technical complexity. We would call forth in our minds the image of Paul Revere, riding through the American night, petitioning the people to wake up, to take up arms. We too would take up arms, the arms of our generation, the electric guitar and the microphone…. CBGB was the ideal place to sound a clarion call. It was a club on the street of the downtrodden that drew a strange breed who welcomed artists yet unsung.” (245)

Even though Smith identifies with the “sons” rather than the “daughters” of liberty, she describes a punk rock incubator that gave many female musicians their start and set the stage for women to emerge within a punk subculture that allowed them to express their dissatisfaction with consumer-defined feminine ideals by wearing torn jeans, streaked makeup, studded leather, safety pin accessories, lingerie and various props appropriated from sadomasochistic porn and bondage subcultures. Smith voices the anger of her generation in a way that speaks to women in a particularly poignant way. For a working-class Catholic girl to get up and sing in “Gloria” that “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” required considerable temerity. However, Smith was not the only angry woman to take the stage and make the scene in Manhattan at the time.

To Hawkins’ considerable credit, she provides much needed gender balance to the extant scholarship on subcultures and media arts in Downtown Film and TV Culture. Even though key subcultural scholars are conspicuous by their absence (Hebdige, for example, only makes a brief appearance on pp. 328-9), subcultural communities, with shared oppositional aesthetic practices and collective styles, and women as well as sexual minorities attracted to the arts scene in Lower Manhattan take pride of place in her book. Hawkins includes reprints of two classic articles written at the time punk/New Wave erupted on screen in bars, discos, clubs, in underground cinemas, as part of performances, and in other alternative screening venues. A Jack Smith/Lou Reed/John Cale collaborator, Tony Conrad, who passed away in April 2016, brings his background as an electronic musician championing minimalism, structural filmmaker associated with “flicker” films, and experimental performance/video arts to his appraisal of the small-gauge films made in the mid-1970s. In “At Last Real Movies: Super-8 Cinema from New York,” Conrad does a superb job of articulating the relationship between the subculture, New Wave music, and New York underground filmmaking:

“(1) the films are often shown like TV in a bar, on a video projector; (2) the most unvarnished raw energy work is welling up out of the same geographic and social source as the old ‘underground’ (the lower East Side), and (3) so many of the new directors are European.” (24)

Conrad picks up on the European origins of the filmmakers, which Jonathan Everett Haynes expands on his analysis of Amos Poe’s Unmade Beds (1976) bringing New York’s punk/New Wave music and No Wave film into conversation with Godard and the French New Wave. Chris Dumas makes a similar gesture in his chapter, which compares Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982) with Todd Haynes’s unapologetic homoerotic aesthetics and the birth of what B. Ruby Rich terms the New Queer Cinema.[6] Tony Conrad seems to agree with programmer Edit deAk that the super-8 films should be called “New Wave,” since “[t]here are no—and there have never been—punks in New York.” (26) However, this really belies the fact that, in music, film, fashion, and through subcultural style, the trans-Atlantic conversation between young artists and musicians in Europe and the United States cannot be denied. Many of these filmmakers come from Europe, and they congregated on the Lower East Side at the same time that American bands, such as the Ramones, who championed a raw, stripped down, style of aggressive punk rock toured in the United Kingdom.

Even though labels vary, the connection between music, video, dance, sartorial style, performance art and specific New York venues such as the Mudd Club and CBGBs remains clear. Conrad singles out Lydia Lunch’s performance in James Nares’ Rome ’78 (1978) for comment: “Lydia Lunch, the most consistently intense personality of first-rank New Wave genius, is here, all akimbo, slinky and slimy....” (26) ] Conrad does not mention it, but perhaps the most striking aspect of this program is the fact that so many of the films are directed by women—Becky Johnston, Tina L’Hotsky, Laura Kennedy, Pat Place, Ellen Cooper, Cara Perlman, and Kiki Smith. As this shows, punk opened up avenues for women to express transgressive, violent anger with the sexual status quo through media in which they had been traditionally underrepresented, including hard rock, avant-garde cinema, and performance art.

The other article anthologized here, J. Hoberman’s “No Wavelength: The Para-Punk Underground,” which originally appeared in the Village Voice in 1979, stands as perhaps the most referenced essay on New York punk cinema in print. Many of the other contributors to the book cite Hoberman, and, as Mark Benedetti points out in his chapter, “Canonization and No Wave Cinema History,” it serves as one of the principal texts used to create a “canon.” Benedetti’s decision to call these films “no wave” rather than “punk” or “New Wave” or merging them with the later Cinema of Transgression or with earlier New York underground movements testifies to the centrality of Hoberman’s analysis of the super-8 film explosion that coincided with the visibility of punk music and fashion around 1977. In his essay, Hoberman makes a compelling case for the intermedial merger of these films with punk music, performance, and visual arts. As he sees it:

“Closely linked to local art-punk, no-wave bands, these film-makers parallel the music’s energy, iconography, and aggressive anyone-can-do-it aesthetic, while using the performers themselves as a kind of ready-made pool of dramatic talent… The existence of punk bohemia, the cross-fertilization of avant-garde rock and post-conceptual art… and the proliferation of sync-sound Super 8mm cameras have stimulated a number of young artists and musicians over the last year to produce a new wave of content-rich, performance-oriented narrative films.” (15)

Hoberman also displays a clear sense of the punk aesthetic that animates these films. Likely with glitter and glam in mind, he contrasts “camp”[7] with punk:

“For the pseudo-aristocratic camp sensibility, the key element in American popular culture is its mass-produced glamour; for pseudo-lumpen punk, it is America’s mass-produced sleaze… Camp’s vanguard subculture was the homosexual; punk’s is the alienated urban teen. The secret star of camp is the female impersonator; the sacred monster of punk is the dominatrix. Camp was obsessed with sexuality as a style; punk is obsessed with the aesthetics of violence.” (18)

Both subcultural styles involve androgyny, so the effeminized Bowie represents the campy qualities of the glam/glitter subculture and the masculinized Smith performs the anger associated with punk. Arguably, the Downtown scene described by the authors included in Hawkins’ anthology, paved the way for a productive dialogue between gay and straight communities that fueled activism around AIDS as well as the development of “queer” as a way of thinking about sexuality and gender beyond heterosexist norms.

With the exception of James Nares’ Rome ’78, Hoberman does not write about the same films as Conrad;[8] however, like Conrad, Hoberman showcases female filmmakers (Beth B—partnered with Scott B—and Vivienne Dick, in particular), without commenting on the relative visibility of women behind the camera in punk vis-à-vis American avant-garde cinema more generally. David Sterritt’s chapter, “In the Movie-Viewing Machine: Essential Cinema in the 1970s” allows for a comparison between the earlier underground and the punk new wave/no wave. As Sterritt shows, the number of women involved in New York institutions such as Anthology Film Archive and circulated as part of the Essential Cinema Repertory (no women/five men on the selection committee) was miniscule—a handful of female luminaries such as Maya Deren and Marie Menken making the cut—when compared with the significance of women in the New York punk subculture’s motion picture circles.

Moreover, like Conrad, Hoberman celebrates the centrality of Lydia Lunch of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks as a major punk performer featured in several of the films he analyzes. He comments on her talent as follows: “As Rome ‘78’s disheveled coquette, the bratty dominatrix of the B’s Black Box, or the autistic child of Vivienne Dick’s Beauty Becomes the Beast, this 20-year-old ex-groupie… has demonstrable range as well as presence.” (17) In “Lydia Lunch, The Right Side of My Brain,” Chuck Kleinhans makes a compelling case for the centrality of Lunch as the super-8 star of punk, which he sees as a “ moment—musical and lifestyle and filmic” when “the ripped and ragged, the torn, the distressed, the limited, the obviously flawed, brand an attitude.” (101) Even though Richard Kern directed the short, Lunch’s powerful screen presence shapes the film’s “dark Romanticism” and, as Kleinhans argues, assures “its place as a major film presenting female abjection.” (101) Like Patti Smith and other female punk performers, Lunch never shied away from dealing with objectionable, excessive, disturbing, grotesque, and taboo subjects, including sadomasochism, bondage, lesbian desire, interracial sexuality, childhood sexual abuse, the occult, torture, sexual humiliation, and self-loathing without an overtly “feminist” frame providing a specific way to read these images.

Punk aggressively enacts the dark side of society without providing explanations, analysis, or excuses, and that makes it an empowering, potent provocation for many of the women who embraced the subcultural style. Drawing on Julia Kristeva’s analysis of abjection (Kristeva, Powers of Horror), Kleinhans explores the way Lunch uses punk to shape her pain and transform it: “… in this case female embrace of abjection reveals itself as potentially and perhaps actually more profound, more powerful, more threatening.” (Kleinhans 110). Without a doubt, women artists have worked with raw and violent themes throughout history; however, as Kleinhans’ appraisal of Lunch shows, punk opened up “a potential energy in female abjection” (109) for young women to express intense disgust with the sexual status-quo.

Using the punk subculture as a conceptual frame sheds light on an interpretative landscape that would remain occluded otherwise. Outside of the subcultural context, Lunch’s performance loses much of its significance as an indictment of the ways in which gender norms straightjacketed young women, how traditional sexual mores stymied their search for pleasure, how sexual violence haunted their lives, how society treated them like trash, and how too many in the feminist movement dismissed them as victims of internalized misogyny. Punk permits Lunch to perform her abjection as more than a self-indulgent exhibition of personal fantasies of dominance and submission, and to voice a naked appeal to look at how society has trashed her generation in more ways than one. Starting out as a rock groupie runaway, Lunch’s ability to move from fan to punk performer testifies to the porousness of the boundaries between stage and dance floor. In Just Kids, Smith highlights this by noting: “The thin line between the stage and the people and the faces of all those who supported us.” (245) The raw punk DIY aesthetic allows Lunch to cross media with confidence, and her performances as a musician and spoken-word artist blend together with her screen appearances and decision to take up the camera herself later in her career.

Editor Joan Hawkins’ own contributions to the anthology also involve women filmmakers—interviews with Beth B and Bette Gordon and a chapter devoted to Gordon’s feature Variety (1984) that helped give New Queer Cinema independent producer Christine Vachon her start as well. Hawkins adeptly situates her reading of Variety within the context of the pornography/erotica debates and “sex wars” erupting in feminist circles at the time, in which questions of erotic pleasure and violent sexual danger polarized women in the movement. She expressly situates Gordon’s film within a Downtown scene in which women (many identifying with punk and/or glitter/glam) infiltrated all-male domains, such as strip bars and porn cinemas, for their own ends:

“The early days of the Downtown movement encompass an era that is not usually discussed in feminist history. This is a pre-Third Wave period that overlapped Second Wave Feminism and took many of Second Wave Feminism’s accomplishments for granted. But it also reacted against much of what has been seen as the constrictions of Second Wave Feminism. Downtown women dressed up, made up and revelled in the way that gender and sexuality could be performed. Many Downtown artists worked in the sex industry or danced in clubs to make money to do their art, and they resented what they saw as the prudishness and privilege of feminists like Andrea Dworkin. Later, the AIDS crisis galvanized the entire Downtown movement, and the women I’m writing about here joined forces with ACT UP in a manner that put sexuality and race (rather than just gender) front and centre in their identity formation.” (124)

The preponderance of the other chapters included in Downtown Film and TV Culture pick up on this vitally important aspect of the subcultural melting pot of Lower Manhattan from the mid-1970s to early 1980s. As Hawkins acknowledges, younger women, representing an evolving postmodern post-feminism and queer sensibility, brought a dramatically different conception of gender and female sexuality to the New York scene. Laurie Stone’s appraisal of Spalding Gray’s performance pieces, for example, shows the way in which the male raconteur appropriates aspects of the confessional style of feminist artists as well as the explicit description of homoeroticism only possible after Stonewall. A roundtable discussion, “Downtown’s Queer Asides,” with Lucas Hilderbrand, Alexandra Juhasz, Debra Levine and Ricardo Montez, makes many of the inchoate LGBTQ political concerns of the other chapters more explicit as well.

The chapters on cable access by Terese Svoboda, Benjamin Olin, Nick Zedd and David Sjoberg show how programs such as TV Party brought punk, glitter, glam, and their queer possibilities into subscribers’ living rooms—albeit buried on obscure channels at odd hours. In fact, Downtown Film and TV Culture’s mission to rescue many of these ephemeral broadcasts, buried super-8 reels, and club performances from obscurity also adds significantly to the history of female artists, musicians, and filmmakers. The book concludes with Mark Benedetti’s “semi-comprehensive filmography and videography of Downtown moving image production from the mid 1970s to the early 2000s” (335) with many distribution sources. The number of women on this list testifies to the contribution punk and other New York subcultures made at the time to enabling women to pick up the camera to tackle new subject matter in the company of other women who shared their vision, aesthetic, and subcultural sensibilities. In the wake of punk filmmakers such as Beth B, Ericka Beckman, Vivienne Dick, Pat Place, Tina L’Hotsky, and, of course, Lydia Lunch, other women gravitated to the cinema to explore similarly disturbing topics involving women’s bodies, sexual taboos, and female abjection, including Sadie Benning, Bette Gordon, and Abigail Child, among others listed in Benedetti’s filmography.

In Just Kids, Patti Smith does not write much about the filmmakers in her circle although she does mention some luminaries such as Jonas Mekas and Shirley Clarke, and she only makes desultory comments on the films in which she appears. For example, she does not mention Blank Generation, but Smith does discuss a film not included in Hawkins’ book, Sandy Daley’s Robert Having His Nipple Pierced (1971), which circulated in some touring programs devoted to punk film at the time. Acquainted with Andy Warhol and his circle as well as the residents of the Chelsea Hotel, Daley frequented Max’s Kansas City with Mapplethorpe and Smith. In Just Kids, Smith talks about the production as follows:

“Robert got his nipple pierced. He had it done by a doctor in Sandy Daley’s space while he nestled in the arms of David Croland. She filmed it in 16mm, an unholy ritual, Robert’s Chant d’Amour. I had faith that under Sandy’s impeccable direction it would be beautifully shot. But I found the procedure repellent and did not attend, certain it would get infected, which it did. When I asked Robert what it was like, he said it was both interesting and creepy.” (159)

Thus, Daley’s film speaks to another meeting point between trans-Atlantic glam/glitter and punk. Mapplethorpe’s lover, David Croland, had, as Smith points out in her book, collaborated with Donald Cammel, the co-director (with Roeg) of Performance. Moreover, Smith sees the film in relation to Genet’s homoerotic short about prisoners and their jailor, Song of Love (1950), which Mekas had brought to New York. Writing earlier in the book about Mapplethorpe’s evolving sexual identity and their romantic relationship, Smith admits:

“I knew nothing of the reality of homosexuality. I thought it irrevocably meshed with affectation and flamboyance. I had prided myself on being nonjudgmental, but my comprehension was narrow and provincial. Even in reading Genet, I saw his men as a mystical race of thieves and sailors. I didn’t fully comprehend their world. I embraced Genet as a poet.” (77)

Smith’s stream-of-consciousness voice over for Robert Having His Nipple Pierced speaks to her intimate involvement and alienation from New York’s gay male subcultures and their rituals. Literally off-screen and excluded from this part of Mapplethorpe’s life, she still witnesses the piercing through the eyes of another woman, Sandy Daley. Speaking about her trans brother, drawing on her own life and artistic influences in her monologue, Smith maintains her distance from the rites and rituals of the gay subcultures that Mapplethorpe embraced.

Smith also chronicles the making and exhibition of another cinematic collaboration with Mapplethorpe in her book. Emerging director Liza Rinzler served as the cinematographer for Still Moving (1978), designed as part of a gallery installation showcasing pieces by Smith and Mapplethorpe. A still photographer and director of cinematography for documentaries and feature films such as Menace II Society (1993), Rinzler, like Daley, provides a female point of view that mediates Mapplethorpe and Smith’s creative encounter. In the finished piece, Mapplethorpe intercuts his still photographs of Smith with Rinzler’s motion pictures and Smith’s voice over on the themes of artistic inspiration, occult mysticism, and the responsibility of the artist to speak to society. Smith talks about the success of the collaboration with Mapplethorpe in Just Kids as follows:

“He decided to call the film Still Moving, as he incorporated the stills in the final edit of the film, and we built a sound track with my commentary mixed with me playing electric guitar and excerpts from “Gloria.” In doing so, he represented the many facets of our work—photography, poetry, improvisation, and performance… Still Moving reflected his view of the future of visual expression and music, a type of music video that could stand on its own as art.” (257)

This marked the first and last time Smith collaborated on a gallery show with Mapplethorpe; however, it testifies to several crucial aspects of the meeting of fine art and punk, gay men and straight women, music videos and gallery installations within the fecund creative environment of New York City in the 1970s. Downtown Manhattan provided a place where diverse subcultures, avant-garde photographers and rock musicians, several generations of underground artists and poets, as well as young activists involved in feminist and LGBTQ movements could congregate and overturn many of the rules that governed both the world of fine art and commercial popular culture. Mapplethorpe and Smith played a crucial part in these sex and gender “culture wars” that extended far beyond the borders of Lower Manhattan.

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] 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 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. 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.

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.

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]

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.


Acknowledgments: I am grateful for the help of my research assistants, Iris Eu and Kasey Man Man Wong in the preparation of this manuscript.

1. For more on this earlier period, see Marchetti,“Fringe Cultures.” [return to text]

2. Richard Hell also made a film called Blank Generation (1980), directed by Fassbinder regular, Ulli Lommel, who had moved to New York and collaborated with Andy Warhol before making this fiction feature about punk rock.

3. For a detailed analysis of the exhibition, see Johnson, “David Bowie Is.”

4. Stark also participated in the Victoria and Albert Exhibition.

5. See Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers.

6. See Rich, New Queer Cinema: The Director’s Cut.

7. See Sontag, “Notes on Camp.”

8. Hoberman mentions Pat Place, who is in Conrad’s article, as a performer but not a director.

9. See Mapplethorpe, Robert Mapplethorpe: Black Book. To be fair, Smith was in Detroit during this period in Mapplethorpe’s career.

10. Other feature films acknowledged women and girls within the punk subculture. For an appraisal of Allan Moyle’s Times Square (1980) as one example, see Kleinhans, “Girls on the Edge of the Reagan Era.”

11. Basquiat’s father was Haitian and his mother Puerto Rican, and he drew on his Caribbean heritage as well as on the broader African American community in his oeuvre.

12. For Holman’s side of the story, see Jonah, “Michael Holman Talks Glam Rock, Graffiti Rock, Basquiat and Blue’s Clues.”

13. Kevin J. Hunt calls Bowie’s portrayal of Warhol “automaton-like” (185) in “The Eyes of David Bowie.”

14. For more on Cheang, see Marchetti, “Cinema Frames, Videoscapes, and Cyberspace: Exploring Shu Lea Cheang’s Fresh Kill.”

15. For more on Bauhinia, see Ford, “Global Aches: Teaching Evans Chan’s Bauhinia.”

16. For another reading of Bowie in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, see Derfouti, David Bowie: Critical Perspectives.

17. Chuck Stephens also makes this connect in “Lawrence of Shinjuku: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence." Stephens also makes the connection to the queer themes in Oshima’s Gohatto (1999).

18. For an analysis of this film, see Marchetti, Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction.

19. For another reading of race and “China Girl,” see Waldrep, “The ‘China Girl’ Problem: Reconsidering David Bowie in the 1980s.”

20. Read more: Kirby, “’We Both Understand the Difference between the Person and the Persona’: David Bowie’s Widow Iman Reveals What Made Their 24-Year Marriage Last in Touching Interview Recorded Before He Died.”

21. See Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste.


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