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David Bowie no hero for sleeping with kids, but he was no Gary Glitter either

By Fionola Meredith

Published 22/01/2016

David Bowie
David Bowie

I was in Berlin the weekend after David Bowie died and it seemed the right place to be to celebrate him. It felt like Bowie was Berlin: a true oddity - experimental, androgynous, genre-defying. Old Seventies photographs show him striding through the streets in his black leather trenchcoat like some sort of beautiful alien. And sure enough, in death, Bowie was everywhere. His framed face high up in a window, his voice floating out of a dancehall as we stood outside in the softly falling snow.

Of course, Berliners were far from alone in mourning him. Huge numbers around the world heard the news with a jolt of sadness. Through the inevitable cloud of rampant narcissism, tear-drenched hysteria and mediocre musings by self-styled experts which the deaths of great musicians so often seem to generate, you could see that some people genuinely cared about Bowie's passing. There was an authenticity to their words. Something about the man or his music had touched them, and their sorrow was real.

As ever, though, there was a backlash. Claims emerged that Bowie was not some lilywhite repository of our collective dreams - did anyone really think he was? - but a man of dubious appetites, at least in the past. Apparently, he had sex with under-age girls in Los Angeles in the Seventies. The girls in question were known as the Baby Groupies, and one of them, Lori Maddox, had already spoken about her experiences with Bowie as a 13-year-old. Then, of course, there was the backlash against the backlash, with vitriolic Bowie-mourners lambasting those who dared to point out their dead hero's iniquities and imperfections.

What made the whole thing even more complicated was that Maddox, inconveniently for some, clearly did not consider herself a victim. "You need to understand that I didn't think of myself as under-age," she said. "I was a model. I was in love. That time of my life was so much fun. It was a period in which everything seemed possible. I saw the greatest music ever. I got to hang out with some of the most amazing, most beautiful, most charismatic men in the world. Am I going to regret this? No."

Yet, however Maddox thought of herself then or later, the uncomfortable truth remains that she was just 13 years old.

So what's a Bowie fan to do? Blow out the mourning candles and dump his records in the bin because he allegedly once slept with children? It's an interesting conundrum, and one reinforced in my own mind when, flicking through old records in a Berlin flea-market, I came across Gary Glitter's 1973 hit single I'm The Leader Of The Gang (I Am). The musician was later convicted and jailed for a string of child sex offences. I didn't buy the record, needless to say. Why? Because the song was dire, always was, and besides, it seemed somehow tainted.

But this in itself was a double standard. I'd have snapped up a Bowie record good and fast if I'd found one. As the writer Julie Burchill has pointed out: "It can't be a crime when rubbish entertainers sleep with children, and all fine and dandy when great ones do." True enough. All the same, I have no intention of stopping listening to Bowie, or - my latest self-indulgence - looking up pictures of his incredible suits.

The easiest way to side-step the issue is to say that, unlike Glitter, Bowie was never convicted of any crime. You could also try and argue that there's a big difference between a predatory paedophile actively in pursuit of children and a man who once slept with underage girls, as well as all sorts of other people - Bowie's sexual proclivities were famously diverse - but you'd be on pretty dodgy moral ground with that one.

No, what's better, I think, is to actively disengage with the idea that the artists we admire must be entirely admirable people. To fetishise them is to drain them of their humanity just as much as if we were to demonise them. The American feminist writer Camille Paglia once defended The Rolling Stones' song Under My Thumb - that shameless whoop of delight at subjugating a woman - as sexist but still a fabulous song. So it is.

In the same way Bowie may not have been a hero, but he made great art. That should be enough.

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