Photography by Andrew Kent
The first time I saw Bowie he really scared me -- it was his lizardy, wizardy look. I was in boarding school in Scotland, and he was performing “Jean Genie” on Top of the Pops. You can tell that he just loves to freak people out, which I can relate to -- there’s a protective thing about looking freaky. That’s certainly what Hedwig was for me. A mask becomes a safe place behind which you can create amazing art, and that’s what drag is.
Some people felt a little bummed out when he said he was a latent heterosexual later in the ’80s, but we all have our queer straight uncles, and he’s the greatest one. He’s a music hall performer at heart, and because of his genius -- his brilliance -- he took everything he loved and made something absolutely unique with every new album that came out. They’re timeless records, especially that string of albums in the ’70s from Hunky Dory to Scary Monsters. Who has had that string of brilliance? Even Dylan had problems.
My second encounter with Bowie was his famous Saturday Night Live 1979 appearance, when he sang “Boys Keep Swinging.” I was a junior in high school, and it was probably the most formative artistic vision I’d ever had. I was 16, living in Albuquerque, choreographing crucifixion dance sequences to Stevie Nicks songs, and then I see Bowie on TV with Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias. For “TVC 15,” the second number they performed, Bowie was wearing a grey pencil skirt, kind of like a Ninotchka-style women apparatchik outfit, with a robot poodle in the background, and Joey and Klaus were doing New Wave angular robot moves. I was like, What the fuck? And from then on I was on my way to Hedwig, I guess.
I graduated in 1981, which was of course when AIDS hit, so there was always darkness and scariness involved, and that was Bowie. I really discovered him in college, and then I couldn’t get enough -- I was just absorbing everything, the way I did when I read Lord of the Rings. “Heroes” is probably his greatest song, and also his most emotional. When my father was a military commander in Berlin, before the Wall came down, I would go and visit and cross over to the East. The story that touched me most, and which informed Hedwig, was about a person trying to escape who was shot in no man’s land between the two walls and just lay there bleeding for days -- no one from either side would dare come in to get him. That was Hedwig, caught in the middle and somehow drags herself to freedom.
It’s really hard to have a favorite album, but it’s probably Hunky Dory, because of the innocence of those songs. I went to see him during the Glass Spiders tour, which was cool, but it was so huge that I didn’t really experience the full-on live-ness. Some people you go to see fall apart -- Judy Garland or Iggy Pop, say -- and other people you want to see because they rule you. That was David Bowie, that’s Aretha Franklin, that’s Grace Jones, that’s Justin Bond. You want to be their bottom; you must submit, in a somewhat masochistic way, and it feels great.
John Cameron Mitchell is the director of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus