‘Him ? Sure, he doesn’t know if he wants to be a man or a woman’. It was the end of the summer, 1980, and David Bowie at his most theatric, glamorous, playful and compelling, wasn’t convincing my mother. And seeing him in lavish make-up, polarised and in complicated Pierrot garb doing ‘Ashes To Ashes’ on Top Of The Pops, was just that bit beyond her. My mother fostered a real love of music in all of her children and our house regularly resounded to the sound of her radio and, on the special occasions, her record player, which she’d roll out to give Marianne Faithful or The Beatles a spin for us.
As her first child to start school, she made sure I left for Junior Infants back in 1972 with a basic ability to read and write and, after four years spent almost exclusively at her elbow at home, an even better ability to hear a tune. She was wary of those who didn’t like music or who, as she’d say, ‘didn’t have music in them’, but Bowie’s latest incarnation was troubling her. He’d changed quite a bit since ‘Space Oddity’, her introduction to him years earlier, and something strange was going down.
I turned twelve years old that same summer and was about to start secondary school just as ‘Ashes To Ashes’ was topping the singles chart in Britain and as David Bowie was entering the most commercially successful period of his long career. I remember my hometown at that time as a bleak, smoggy and hard place and, when I’d accompany my father on his calls around Leitrim Street and Watercourse Road, it seemed to me that every second premises was a coal yard or a garage. I enjoyed a brilliant, bright childhood in Cork but, for as long as I could recall, Blackpool was seriously dilapidated, in bits. One of it’s most popular pubs, The Unicorn on Great William O’Brien Street, looked like it had been bombed during the war and been left untouched in the years since. Which didn’t seem to deter the regulars, mind, of which there were many.
So it was far from mime, avant-garde and Berlin we were reared but, every weekend, The Evening Echo newspaper carried a series of clues that hinted at a far more interesting part of town and, in underneath the cinema listings, were regular adverts for ‘nite-clubs’: Krojacks, The Bodega, The Arcadia and numerous others. Not un-connected, pirate radio in Cork was having it’s first flushes and several proscribed outfits were broadcasting furtively from caravans, back-rooms and attics around the city. Much of the pirate output was as dire and ramshackle as you’d expect, but the likes of CCLR and CBC at least gave us a local entry point to the pop charts and a connection outside of the mundane. And the pirates themselves were accessible too: you’d ring in and, almost always, would get straight through to the duty jock with a request or a dedication. Many of which were scurrilous.
From the release of ‘Scary Monsters’ onwards, and certainly for the remainder of the life-span of the pirates, David Bowie was a staple on their play-lists, a strange fish on stations that, initially at least, tended towards soft disco and popular soul music. Most of the jocks, with their footballer aliases, were doubling up at night in the night-clubs around town where, one suspects, they mis-pronounced Bowie’s surname as liberally as they did on the airwaves.
I attended The North Monastery, a huge, Christian Brothers-run school at the bottom of Fair Hill, in one of the most deprived parts of Cork city. I’ve written previously about the history of music in the school during my time there, and that piece is available here. I enjoyed ten terrific years in the school, most of it good-humoured and positive – and all of it free – but others among us weren’t so lucky and several were lost in the system to the usual ills, unemployment and poverty mostly. But enabled by our parents and by several excellent teachers, we were always encouraged to read widely and, for those who did, our smart-alecry was tolerated a bit more as a result. The school, as you’d expect, broadly reflected the tone and outlook of the community it served which, in 1980, was over-whelmingly white, Catholic and straight. Fianna Fáil had swept to power in 1977, led by arguably The North Mon’s most famous past-pupil, Jack Lynch, and the Dáil seats in the area tended to mostly go to the two traditional political heavyweights. Even in such a working class area, with unemployment and taxation levels touching record highs, the constituency tended to still vote cautiously and, following a by-election in 1979, the Labour Party held no seat at all in Cork city.
1980 was also the year when The North Monastery’s senior hurlers claimed Dr. Harty Cup and All-Ireland Colleges titles, back-boned by some of the finest players to ever don the blue and white. Local boys like Tomás Mulcahy, Tony O’Sullivan and Paul O’Connor were among the many stand-out players on that team and, on returning to the school after their successes, were greeted by bonfires in old Blackpool and in the quarry off of Gerald Griffin Street where Neptune Stadium now stands. The school retained the Dr. Harty Cup the following year – with a team that featured Teddy McCarthy – when they beat Coláiste Chriost Rí in the final at Páirc Ui Chaoimh in front of a crowd of over 6,000. That side was captained by John Drinan, from Carrigaline outside of Cork City, who provided one of the most interesting links between sport and music in the school: when he wasn’t a marauding forward, he was also a member of the Carrigaline Pipe Band.
To be lateral or notional in appearance or outlook up in the school was often to run a gauntlet there. Every morning during the heart of the playing season, the school’s outstanding hurlers would be fed sandwiches and soup over in the big hall, set apart. But for many others, the yards, playing fields and the walk home were less hospitable and fraught and, on occasion, the climate inside the school wasn’t much better. I remember a talk about careers at which one of our class-mates fetched up wearing an earring and a mohair jumper. Notwithstanding the school’s rules on such matters, or the cockiness inherent in such grand gestures, the reaction of one of the Career Guidance teachers from the stage at the top of the room pretty much summed up the school’s undertones. ‘Is that an earring you’re wearing ?’, the teacher asked. ‘Because if it is, you can take it off and put it into your handbag’.
The line reduced the hall to fits and, no doubt, reduced our class-mate a bit too: it was a sharp, instinctive and instructive exchange and the intention was clear. Earrings had no place in a school like ours, which was exclusively male. Maybe it wasn’t only my mother who was put out by those who may have just wanted to buck the trend and test the bend a bit ?
Myself and one of my friends still recall a conversation in the schoolyard one time about David Bowie: a member of our class was certain that the singer had under-gone a sex change. Sure, why else would he look like he did ? And, by looking like he did, looked nothing like either ACDC, Status Quo or Madness, the most popular music acts among our peers. And that’s how absolutely dopey we were: sexual ambiguity never featured on our radars, nor did it feature in any of our biology, religion or civics classes. The closest our parents and teachers got to the subject was when April Ashley, a British model who had actually undergone a full sex change in the 1960s, appeared one night on The Late Late Show and left a week of consternation in her slipstream around Ireland.
Cork folk in general – and Blackpool people especially – like to remember their own successes proudly and loudly and you’d hear regular mention of the great entertainers, actors and performers from around our way: Niall Tóibín, Joe Lynch, Walloo Dunlea, Paddy Comerford and others. But you’d hear far less talk about Danny La Rue. La Rue was born and raised in Cork city, a couple of lofts of a bowl from where our house was, although his family moved to London in the early 1930s while he was still a young boy. He’d enjoyed a stellar career as a singer and stage performer in Britain and even by 1980, was still one of the most popular draws on the British theatre circuit and a regular on the stages in The West End. Danny La Rue was a gay man, best known as a female impersonator and drag artist. He’d routinely return to Cork, where he’d fill The Opera House and, in his flamboyant frocks and rubber bosom, bring the house down with his arch routines and songs.
Danny La Rue’s performances in Cork never attracted protests outside of the local theatres. Nor did I once hear my parents ever suggest that he didn’t know if he wanted to be a man or a woman. But then, as a regular fixture on prime-time television in Britain, La Rue was a safe bet and just faintly ridiculous;- beyond the crinolines and the smutty one-liners, he was harmless.
David Bowie, though, was a far more legitimate threat: he was younger, more provocative, smarter, more beautiful and open. And yet he – and Freddie Mercury – always found favour among the local gutty boys, many of whom would rather open your skull than ever open a book. And who, when they weren’t trying to score girls to the strains of ‘Let’s Dance’ or ‘Radio Gaga’ in Chandras or St. Francis Hall, had little time for ‘faggots’ and ‘steamers’ and weren’t slow in saying as much. Those local toughs whose concession to diversity extended as far as crossing, the odd time, over into the Southside and yet who, in the same breath, loved ‘Boys Keep Swinging’.
Some of our teachers weren’t spared either and the abuse doled out to one or two of them in particular was savage. To speak or behave in a particular tone or manner, to be effete in any way, was simply a weakness in any male teacher and was exploited at every turn. And yet, when it came to David Bowie, who was sexually ambiguous and very outwardly so, there was never an issue.
Maybe he was just too subtle, too popular and too complicated for the hardy bucks, many of whom, in their Bowie suits and slip-on shoes were already paying their respects openly with their choice of trousers ?
The Bowie suit was an iteration of the wide-boy uniform for a couple of years from around 1983 onwards, based [very loosely] on Bowie’s look during the ‘Let’s Dance’ period. Comprised of a jacket cropped in above the waist and a pleated trouser for narrow men of narrow mind cut in a baggy style, the look was often complimented by a knitted jumper tucked into the elaborate waist-band. It was, for a while, the home kit of every gowl in Cork and, alongside imported leather jackets and American-style cardigans, made a household name of at least one Cork-based retailer.
But it wasn’t just with cheap imitation clobber that Bowie was publicly lauded in Cork. I remember plenty of graffiti acclaiming his genius daubed on walls around the Northside, most memorably along the side of Farranferris college, around where we lived and which, for decades, served as Cork’s diocesan seminary. And this at a time when street art around the city was largely confined to scrawled support for the I.R.A., for outing those who had allegedly snitched on dole cheats and standard punk rock slogans. Deb Murphy, who grew up as a David Bowie fan on Blarney Street, has written a lovely piece on this subject on her blog and that piece is available here
The point has been made repeatedly in the many obituaries and tribute pieces since his passing that, apart entirely from his body of work – which is utterly magnificent – one of David Bowie’s most telling impacts was in how he enabled society to tolerate difference, an example of sorts to those who, for one reason or another, felt like they were being unfairly restrained. And this much is undoubtedly true.
Away from the school, especially during holidays and weekends, you’d see a handful of Mon boys from all over the school with their earrings in, their hair un-furled a bit and maybe even wearing an odd bit of slap or eyeliner. I half-knew a couple of lads from around Dublin Hill who, in their tight tank tops and Henna-dos, cut brave, impressive shapes and it wasn’t too difficult to know what, and who, they were listening at home in the evenings.
The North Monastery has long been a renowned centre of education and achievement and boasts a rich, proud and far-reaching history that endures to this day. But to many of us, for a number of years from 1980 onwards, one of our finest teachers and most impressive and impactful educators was someone who never once stepped foot into our classrooms. But whose prints are all over the ambitions we’ve long determined for ourselves.