January 8, 1937– Shirley Bassey
“I think men are afraid to be with a successful woman, because we are terribly strong, we know what we want and we are not fragile enough.”
January 8, 1947– David Bowie:
“I felt very puny as a human. I thought, ‘Fuck that. I want to be a superhuman.“
I had always dreamed of them recording a duet.
They have given me a lifetime of listening pleasure and they share a birthday today. They are both Capricorns, certainly the brightest birth sign. Unlike me, this pair of Brits have had decades-long super-careers in showbiz. Bassey feeds my fantasies about growing old gracefully, epitomized in beautiful songs like Charles Aznavour‘s Yesterday, When I Was Young. Bowie encourages me to stay a Young American, bored with my external characters, daring to seek ideas within my alter egos. He was an artist-hero who tosses off his past roles: Spaceman, Bisexual, Rebel, like outdated clothing.
Both are beyond normal criticism, defying purely musical assessment. Bassey over-sings, but thrillingly, and cannot perform except with total commitment. Bowie over-played, but rivetingly, and he demanded attention by his extravagant idiosyncrasy, which is as unrepentant as hers. She devours the listener; he incited the listener. Each powerfully proves the power of personality.
Funny, but I seem to really fully embrace artists when they are at their core fans’ and the critic’’ low ebb: The Beatles with The White Album, Rolling Stones with Some Girls, U2– Achtung Baby, R.E.M. and Automatic For The People. I have listened to and collected Bowie since 1969 with the release of Space Oddity, a song I continue to listen to. That is 50 years of living with Bowie in his many incarnations and personas. But, my favorite era for Bowie was not Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, Alladin Sane, or the Brian Eno lean years of Low. No, I love the Bowie of the Let’s Dance era of the mid-1980s. That album, along with the next year’s Tonight were the soundtrack of the very best time of my life: Modern Love, Let’s Dance, China Girl, songs that mixed his blue-eyed soul with an industrial edge and a big dash of pop sensibilities. I thought Bowie was in his best voice and his sexiest during this time. I saw some serious moonlight in the 1980s.
There is a list of British acts that seem to have eluded pure pop music popularity in the USA: Celia Black, Lulu, and Robbie Williams come to mind. Why hasn’t Shirley Bassey caught on in this country after 67 years of recording great pop music and being the Number One Female Artist in Britain? Why isn’t she especially loved by American gay people? I love the Bassey sound of the 1960s and I am zany for her cover of Pink‘s Get The Party Started which was my party song in summer 2007.
Bassey won an entirely new generation of fans when she guested on a 1997 song from British techno act, Propellerheads. The terrific tune, History Repeating, charted in both Europe and North America, and appeared on the soundtrack to the popular film There’s Something About Mary (1998).
Bassey had already enjoyed a 50 year career as a performer at that point, recording a string of hit singles in the 1960s and garnering a devoted cult following for her torchy, slightly risqué songs, glamorous looks and compelling stage presence. Sometimes called “Bassey the Belter” for her strong distinctive alto, Bassey had already delivered a string of hits by the time she went huge with an international Number One song, the theme for the James Bond flick Goldfinger (1964). She went on to record three Bond theme songs, more than any other artist. Yet, Bassey had only one album reach the Top 20 on the USA charts, Live at Carnegie Hall), and she was technically a one-hit-wonder. She did have five Top 10 singles on the USA charts over the decades.
Bassey was born in a rough neighborhood of Cardiff, Wales. Her mother had 10 children from as many fathers. When she was two years old, her father was sent to prison for five years and was then deported back to Nigeria. Bassey never saw him again.
When she was 15, Basssey began to sing in local pubs. At 17, a music agent signed her up, by which time Bassey had a daughter who lived with one of her sisters. Within a year she had a record contract and was appearing in clubs around London. In 1959, she became the first Welsh person to have a Number One single. The tune was As I Love You and it stayed at Number One for four weeks. While “As I Love You” climbed the charts, so too did Bassey’s recording of Kiss Me, Honey Honey, Kiss Me and both singles occupied the Top 10 at the same time.
Her act was perfect for London in that era. It was sexy, but not salacious, luxurious, but never vulgar, and her recordings such as Hey, Big Spender and Diamonds Are Forever reflected Britain’s taste for a swingin’ style.
Bassey struggled with her personal relationships. Her first husband turned out to be gay and died of a drug overdose when he was 40 years old. Her second marriage, to a rich hotel mogul, ended in a bitter divorce after 12 years. Her second daughter, rumored to have been fathered by actor Peter Finch, committed suicide. Tales of her tempestuous personality are legendary. Bassey claims that she can count her friends on her fingers. Bassey:
“I’ve found happiness in my work, but not in my private life. I had to take from my private life to make my public life successful. I had to make a lot of sacrifices. I was happy in Cardiff. I had a great time. Every Thursday there was a factory club; darts, dancing. I was happy until success entered my life, and then it was all downhill. Success spoiled me. It took away my happiness. My success became a barrier with my family. They couldn’t relate to me, and I couldn’t relate to them.”
She has released 59 albums and 105 singles. Today, she lives alone, with homes in Monaco and London, still in superb voice and with plenty of misconceptions. She still gives concerts. At a gala for AMFAR (The Foundation for Aids Research) in Los Angeles last year, Bassey, a great grandmother, sang Goldfinger, Diamonds Are Forever, and the gay anthem I Am What I Am.
Bowie went out with a bang, with one of his very best albums, his 25th, Blackstar. It is jazz infused, lyrically enigmatic and thrillingly odd. He had just had his first try at composing songs for a stage musical, Lazarus, based on the classic sci-fi novel The Man Who Fell To Earth by Walter Tevis. Bowie successfully played the lead role of a hollow-eyed alien in the film version in 1976, directed by Nicolas Roeg. Lazarus was playing Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop when he left this Earth. Lazarus was directed by hot gay experimental maverick Ivo van Hove.
“I’m an instant star. Just add water and stir.”
Bowie is a Style Icon and a Gay Icon. He rarely did interviews. He never did much to promote his new releases. He did not do world tours playing the hit songs. In fact, he didn’t do the things that rock stars are supposed to do, or explain himself in any way. Some deaths are just more shocking than others. Bowie had released his album Blackstar on his birthday in 2016, he was gone two days later, taken by a cancer that he hid from his fans.
When Bowie stepped onto the stage as Ziggy Stardust in 1969, one of the greatest Gay Icons was born.
Two years after marrying his first wife Angie (born Mary Angela Barnett) in 1970, Bowie said in an interview with Melody Maker magazine: “I’m gay, and I always have been“. 1972 was also the same year where Melody Maker called it “the year of the transvestite” and 700 people walked in the first London Gay Pride Parade. Homosexuality had been legalized a few years prior and things were fast changing. Four years later, Bowie told Playboy magazine that he was bisexual.:
“It’s true—I am a bisexual. But I can’t deny that I’ve used that fact very well. I suppose it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Ziggy Stardust had flaming red locks and wore a skin-tight Lycra bodysuit. His debut was watched by 14 million people on the BBC television series Top Of The Pops (1964-2006) where put his arm round his guitarist Mick Ronson and gazed lovingly into his eyes. A man putting his arm around another man on television was as a momentous moment for young people grappling with their sexuality.
A decade later, Bowie told Rolling Stone that he was “always a closet heterosexual”. Regardless of Bowie’s own sexuality, he remains a revolutionary icon for the LGBTQ community. Pushing the boundaries of what was and wasn’t acceptable, Bowie’s sexual ambiguity helped millions of queers to express themselves.
With so many musical legends taken in 2016, I thank the gods that Bassey didn’t kick the bucket. I still miss Bowie.