When I was an undergraduate at Rutgers University back in the 1980s, my favorite book was probably Death in Venice by Thomas Mann. Made into a film in 1971 by the Italian director Luchino Visconti, it told the story the last days of Gustav von Aschenbach. A renowned German novelist in his early 50s, Aschenbach, who is suffering from writer’s block, has come to Venice to get back in touch with the wellsprings of his creative imagination. Instead, he develops an obsession with a teenage boy, a Polish aristocrat on holiday with his family. Death in Venice isn’t a “coming out” story. Visconti was openly gay, and Mann certainly “gay curious”, but Aschenbach is heterosexual. Tadzio, the Polish teenager, does not represent a suppressed homosexual impulse finally liberated by the necessity of coming to terms with writer’s block. Rather, he is the unattainable aesthetic ideal an artist follows until he can no longer find the strength or discipline to pursue his calling. At age 50, Aschenbach has come to the end of his creative life. “There is no impurity,” the dying Aschenbach recalls a colleague saying as he watches Tadzio play on the beach, “so impure as old age.”
So why was I as a 20-year-old so fascinated by a novel about a middle-aged German novelist dying of cholera in early-Twentieth Century Venice? I was of course neither middle-aged nor gay, but I had reached puberty in the late 1970s. The late 1970s, which I now recognize to be final sickly years of the counter culture of the 1960s, were a terrible time to be a adolescent boy. Rock n Roll had long since abandoned the radical, utopian dream of the New Left and the anti-war movement, and had given way to pure hedonism and decadence. Nevertheless, the music industry, which was thoroughly rotten and corrupt, had still retained its rebellious glamour, it’s “cool,” its air of revolution. Just because a particular form of art is dying, doesn’t mean it can’t also throw up brilliant individuals on its deathbed, and the 1970s saw the breakthrough of some of the greatest rock musicians of all, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Joe Strummer, Freddy Mercury, and of course, David Bowie.
David Bowie, make no mistake about it, was a great song writer and musician. Like Michael Jackson and Madonna, he had essentially conquered old age, the plague that destroyed Gustav Aschenbach. The problem was in how he conquered it. Thomas Mann, who saw deeply into the rotten heart of capitalist civilization, understood the process that would eventually drive Michael Jackson insane. Towards the end of Death In Venice, the wellsprings of his creativity now completely dry, and painfully conscious of his middle-aged appearance, Aschenbach visits a make up artist, an almost Satanic figure who, like Michael Jackson’s plastic surgeons, promises to restore his youth. It doesn’t work. Aschebach emerges from the make up studio looking, not like a 20-year-old, but like a painted clown. What undoubtedly gifted musicians and song writers like Michael Jackson, Madonna and David Bowie, tried to do in their art was to replace the normal aging process with the immortality that comes with changing your act in response to a changing marketplace. For Thomas Mann, the idea that you could restore the creativity of your youth by reinventing yourself was fraud. For Jackson, Madonna, and Bowie, it was the gimmick that won them fame and fortune beyond their wildest dreams.
Don’t get me wrong. Madonna was a mediocrity who benefited from breaking into the music industry at the beginning of the MTV-era, but Bowie and Michael Jackson were geniuses who could change their style as easily as taking off one mask and putting on a new one. As soon as the culture changed, either of them could come up with a new act that not only made them money, but allowed them to express themselves in a way nobody had ever imagined. Michael Jackson went from child-star to MTV super-star. David Bowie went from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke. The price that Jackson paid for his drive to remain youthful well into middle-age is well known, racial self-hatred, self-mutilation, pedophilia, and finally early death. We had all thought David Bowie had escaped, that he had gotten away with it, had defied the aging process, and remained vital until his death at the age of 69. More critical observers realized that he hadn’t. Irvine Welsh, in his novel Trainspotting, spoke of Bowie as just another rock star who had “it” when he was young, but lost it in middle-age. A few honest fans recognize that he hadn’t done anything particularly memorable after the early 1980s, but fading away into the mediocrity of old age had been the least of David Bowie’s problems.
If everything in this interview is true, David Bowie should have done prison time for statutory rape.
“Next time Bowie was in town, though, maybe five months later, I got a call at home from his bodyguard, a huge black guy named Stuey. He told me that David wanted to take me to dinner. Obviously, I had no homework that night. Fuck homework. I wasn’t spending a lot of time at school anyway. I said that I would like to go but that I wanted to bring my friend Sable. She was dying to fuck Bowie. I figured that she would sleep with him while I got to hang out and have fun. At the time, Sable and her sister Coral were both dating Iggy Pop, spending time at the home of Tony DeFries [then-manager of David Bowie and Iggy] up in Laurel Canyon. People there were so high all the time — Quaaludes, heroin, whatever. In the limo ride to the Rainbow, Sable said, “If you touch David, I will kill you.” I didn’t think she was kidding.”
If Lori Mattix, David Bowie’s 14-year-old “lover” is to be believed, Bowie did more than commit an indiscretion. He didn’t just get drunk or get high at a party and unknowingly fuck a young girl without asking for her ID. Fully sober, he sent his bodyguard to procure a child for sex, and it wasn’t only Bowie. It was Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger, and just about everybody else in the corporate music industry. Michael Kaplan’s interview with Lori Mattix illustrates the sickness at the hear t of the corporate music industry in a way perhaps not even he understands. If David Bowie had been a fat, 50-year-old banker in Thailand paying for child prostitutes we’d be calling for him to be sent to the guillotine. If he had been a 25-year-old sergeant in the United States Marine Corps who stood by and watched under age girls being procured for sex for visiting diplomats, we’d be calling for him to be sent to Leavenworth. The fact the he was talented, charismatic rock musician shouldn’t excuse it. In fact, it makes it worse. David Bowie, and every other rock musician who participated in group sex with under age girls, perverted their art, exploited children, not only physically, but spiritually. They seduced an entire generation of Late baby Boomers and early Gen-Xers into worshipping idols, into looking to corporate mass culture, instead of to themselves, for enlightenment.
If Lori Mattix argues that her sex with David Bowie was consensual that’s part of the problem. Lori Mattix is now a woman well into middle-age, still arguing that drugging and raping 14-year-olds is not only acceptable, but “beautiful.” She comes off like a member of a cult, her morals, even her ability to think clearly, having been destroyed by the corporate mass culture she worships, and by the idea that once, as a young girl, she had access to the rich and powerful. It’s likely that if David Bowie had stood up and denounced the sexual exploitation of children in the early 70s, it might have been the end of his music career. Even gifted, talented performers can be replaced. But let’s not think we don’t have an example of someone who stood up and did the right thing, not only at the cost of his career, but of his life. In the 1960s, when Malcolm X realized his mentor Elijah Mohammed was sexually exploiting children, he broke with him and denounced him publicly.
“They’re afraid that I will tell the real reason that they’ve been — that I’m out of the Black Muslim movement, which I never told, I kept to myself. But the real reason is that Elijah Muhammad, the head of the movement, is the father of eight children by six different teenaged girls, six different teenaged girls who were his private personal secretaries. Four of them had one child apiece by him, two of them had two children and one of those two is pregnant right now in Los Angeles with his third child. The one who first made me aware of this was Wallace Muhammad, Mr. Muhammad’s son and it was their fear that if I remained in the Black Muslim movement, and this came into the knowledge of their followers that they would leave him and follow me. So a plan was immediately set in motion to take me down, put me out and the statement that I allegedly made…or not that I allegedly made, I did make it… the statement that I made about Kennedy was used as a pretext to take me down, but in reality, it was because I had come to New York and told Joseph, the captain in New York and the secretary and the minister in Boston about these children that Mr. Muhammad had and it was that, that right there was the real reason for my being out of the movement.”
Malcolm X was a hero. David Bowie was probably worse than a rapist.