Transformer by Simon Doonan review – a walk on the wild side

The former creative director of Barney’s remembers a beautifully transgressive moment in pop culture

In an age when discussions of gender so often come with a side helping of earnest academic debate and social media controversy, it comes as sweet relief to read Simon Doonan’s charming new book about the glittering world of 1970s glam. At just under 150 pages, it provides a terse reminder that challenging established sexual identities and norms doesn’t only have the potential to be revelatory and liberating, it can also be tons of fun. Doonan establishes this through the snap of his prose and the absence of pretension in his worldview. The result is the inverse of Simon Reynolds’s Shock and Awe: Glam Rock and Its Legacy from the Seventies to the Twenty-First Century, published six years ago. While that 700-page doorstop was incredibly smart, useful and true, it also managed to render in pale monochrome a movement that was all about colour.

Doonan, the former creative director of Barneys, has mastered every hue of glam. It helps that he grounds his analysis in his own story. On the very first page, he describes himself as “a pansy amid the begonias”, setting the tone for a work that’s as much memoir and mash note as historical portrait and tribute. Now 70, he grew up at a time when gay sex was outlawed in his native UK. Though a little younger, I was the ideal age – 14 in 1972 – to also swoon over glam’s platform shoes, shag haircuts and implicit green light to lust after all the other young dudes I desired. Much like Doonan, I viewed the freakiness of glitter as a lifeline as well an encouragement to pursue a path of self-invention and pluck. At the same time, glam was hardly immune to the vexing, and often contradictory, sexual mores of its day.

Doonan properly identifies some of the ironies that flow from that, including the fact that relatively few actual gay people listened to glam. As Doonan writes: “The astonishing thing about glam rock – the style and the music – was its aggressive heterosexuality.” In fact, hardly any of glam’s swishing stars were gay. As critic Dave Hickey pointed out at the time: “The world of Hollywood is filled with gay people trying to act straight while the world of rock’n’roll is filled with straight people trying to act gay.”

We glam fans who actually were gay knew that it was a put-on, and we loved the artists all the more for the perversity of it. Of course, Lou Reed was a bit different, since he was either gay, gay-adjacent or simply gay-friendly, depending on the year. Doonan quotes him from back in the day venting to a journalist about growing up in the closet. “It was a very big drag,” he said. “I could have been having a ball. What a waste of time.”

Regardless, Reed was eventually able to write such screamingly gay songs as Vicious and Walk on the Wild Side. Doonan informs us that those classics were widely panned at the time. No less vaunted a critic than the New Yorker’s Ellen Willis referred to Transformer’s “lame, pseudo-decadent lyrics, lame, pseudo-something-or-other singing and just plain lame band”.

Of course, half a century of changing fashion has reversed that view – not that fans needed the endorsement at the time. After all, when you’re a kid trying to carve out an identity, it’s actually an advantage to feel as if you’re the only one who understands something. Not only does Doonan capture that truth with insight and empathy, he also offers some wisdom to today’s gender pioneers. “Great artists are now consigned to the trash heap based on past transgressions great and small. Being a hell-raiser has gone out of fashion. This is a shame. As Flaubert said, ‘you don’t make art out of good intentions’.”

As Doonan proves, however, you can make a joyful, glitter-strewn book out of airing every one of your opinions and feelings – good, bad or just plain wild.

Transformer: A Story of Glitter, Glam Rock, and Loving Lou Reed by Simon Doonan is published by HarperCollins (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.


Jim Farber

The GuardianTramp

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