In honour of the great man’s birthday, here’s the best thing I maybe ever wrote – all about him, first published several years in the Erotic Review:
With his gloss-frosted lips, bat-wing shaded eyelids, and a five-inch high blond feather cut, he is a cross between my favourite Princess Swan Keeper and a haggered Toyah Wilcox after an over-zealous smack binge; and I am spellbound. Something in me stirs. I couldn’t possibly tell you what or where. Not because my nine-year-old self is prudish, or even knowing about these things, but more because this strange scritching up and down my insides which occurs whenever the Goblin King appears on the screen is like nothing I have ever known before. A tender yet electric sort of internal itch. Like calamine-craving chicken pox on the wrong side of my skin. “What a pity!” His sardonic interjections, that lilting, slightly unhinged intonation, give the impression he will burst into song at any moment. And when he does, oh, the insolent thrill of it! I have been brought up on this voice, mainly courtesy of my parents’ vinyl Ziggy Stardust, and when I hear Bowie’s theatrical vibrato, the way he holds the beat back, then relinquishes it, catapulting his swaggering waul up to the next note, I go pink with delight. The sensation of Bowie’s voice violating my eardrums is the aural equivalent, as a child, of eating a pickled onion; I scrunch my nose up to my eyes, wincing as I prepare to bear the tang, and then squeeze and squeeze some more as the vinegar douses my nose and throat. Pleasure. Pain. I do it again. I can eat five, six, seven pickled onions in a row this way.
I am, of course, reminiscing about the first time I watched Jim Henson’s 1986 film, Labyrinth. A bricolage of Greek myth and Gothic-lite fairy tale, Labyrinth tells the story of Sarah (played by a pre-double dildo Jennifer Connolly – see Roman Polanksi’s Requiem for a Dream), an introspective teen forced to mind her baby half-brother Toby on a Saturday night, all the while seeking solace in an inner fantasy realm of crumbling castles, mythical beasts and royal paramours proffering the keys to their Kingdom. On discovering her favourite teddy bear in her younger sibling’s cot, the irate Sarah carelessly vocalises her wish for Toby’s removal, and in doing so, unwittingly invokes the Goblin King (the divinely hammy David Bowie) who immediately does her bidding and leaves her with just 13 hours in which to solve the labyrinth, revoke her rash words and reclaim the oblivious baby from the Goblin castle.
Made in the decade of New Romanticism and the neo-Goth revival, Labyrinth encapsulated the theatricality of these movements in a fantasyland film, the Gothic elements of which ooze with nascent sexuality. The labyrinth itself, for example, where an illogical threat lurks round every shape-shifting corner. The goblins, their unsightly physiognomy contrasting with the lustrous looks of our heroine. The idea, that as Sarah frantically battles against time and the relentless challenges of a metamorphosing dreamscape to rescue her infant half-sibling, she is blatantly running to reclaim her symbolic Innocent self, compromised when she conjured up the sly, capricious and bizarrely seductive King Jareth. That theme of dark sexual pursuit, of the virgin failing to preserve her own virtue (and secretly enjoying it too) motor the plots of numerous classic Gothic novels. Dracula, The Moonstone, even Jane Eyre. Of course, Labyrinth being a ‘children’s’ film, there is no literal deflowering of Sarah, and with prescient early teen wisdom, she realises that being grown-up may not be all it’s cracked up to be, and opts instead to keep the lid on her Pandora’s box for the time being.
Of course, as a nine-year-old, this sexual subtext is beyond me. And yet I am still in thrall to the riding-booted, ruffle-shirted, beautified flounce of Bowie. This is my first real taste of the Male Object, and I can’t get enough. Half-way through the film, my parents look in on me and my oblivious little brother brumming his cars about, and relish the scene. Ahh. See how entranced she is by the puppet monsters, the pretty teen playing at Questing Princess. Wrong! I smile smugly to myself. Only I know the true cause of my beguilement: David Bowie’s mesmeric cheekbones, his wicked bi-coloured eyes, and then there’s…That Crotch.
Even now, I think about the first time I watched the ballroom dream sequence and feel overripe with lust. The scene, in which King Jareth is part Morpheus, part Orpheus and part Prince Charming, thrills because Sarah is the Innocent, suppliant to his authority, in both the literal and the etymological senses of the word. When hunger pangs cause Sarah to falter on her course through the great mazey wilderness, Jareth has one of the goblins assail her, Persephone-like, with a delicious narcotic peach. She is soon sedated under a broad-trunked tree, and from his castle turret vantage point, King Jareth’s leather-gloved hands let lose a stream of glass bubbles filled with suggestive scenes of a masked ball. Containing the first frames of her fantasy, we wait for these to permeate, then script her dreams. If I am to identify with Sarah, then I know that something untoward is happening here. Not only is King Jareth old enough to be her uncle, he is also the benevolent Master, Teacher, and the Symbolic Father combined in one prepotent trinity. And yet, as she falters about wearing an expression of nubile wonderment in that bountiful virgin bride frock, her mega-volume hair laced with cake-icing ribbons and her rose bud lips in provocative semi-parting, the look he gives her is definitely not fatherly.
When they dance, even my pre-teen self recognises they way they lock eyes to be somewhere on the dark side of Heaven. As Sarah is hypnotically twirled about in his arms, Bowie (and I say Bowie because we all know this role is actually a cameo for the rechercé Pop Star during a dry period) lip synchs a stream of hyperbolic sentiment, vouching his eternal steadfastness and loyalty, even as the world falls down. But alas! The clock strikes 12 and remembering there are only 13 hours in which to rescue her spoilt half-sibling from goblination, she is flinging the erotic paean back in Bowie’s face and the mirrored walls are cracking from side to side and the love that dare not speak its name is unfurling its illicit fingers from around Sarah’s teen-tight waist, and the Goblin King and his glistering frock coat and the lacy froth of ruffles at his fine throat have all vanished along with the ballroom fantasy as self-sabotaging Sarah is spewed back into the sanctuary of her bedroom. No King Jareth. No Goblins. No quest to retrieve the kidnapped baby. Just relief among the trinkets and teddy bears. Until of course the sanctuary reveals itself to be yet another cruel illusion, and the bedroom melts away, and the reality of fantasy means she is in fact still flailing about the labyrinth: thrown out of a midnight paradise, forsaking and forsaken by sexual awakening, and fated instead to reclaim the Innocent, her summoning to the Kingdom of Cock postponed for a few more years.
I am puff-cheeked with disappointment. I would like to feel the sheeny weight of one of King Jareth’s twinkling capes against me as we danced. Although then the breeches and what lies beneath might be a little too close for my tweenage comfort. I sit glumly through the rest of the film. She might as well rescue her teething, tantrumming half-brother; she certainly isn’t going to be licking the frosting off her lips anytime soon.
I watch disinterestedly as she negotiates the Bog of Eternal Stench then defeats the Goblin army to confront King Jareth once and for all. Here, at the Final Reckoning, the puissance of his ham-Gothic Majesty is truly revealed. On entering the fragmented Escherscape, all previous gratuitous shots of the Bowie bulge are surpassed by the sight of him now in pearl grey hose more figure-enhancing than any worn before. And then the final power play begins. “I am exhausted from living up to your expectations of me,” he withers. I am confused. I think this is the first time my newly wired mind becomes cognisant with the concept of psychological manipulation, this crafty display of self-deprecation designed to make her feel guilty for abusing her power. Watching now, I smile darkly and relish his affected sub. Oh
Oh, David. Well, if you would insist on wearing such tight breeches…
But Sarah is immovable. Because now, the precocious little madam has come into her own and begun to recite the incantation which will restore order to her wayward daydreams and Toby to his nursery.
“Just let me rule you and you can have everything that you want,” King Jareth pleads. Still confused, I manage to sense some inherently sexy contradiction in this mutual exchange of supplication and command. But Sarah will not be moved. Autonomy is the name of the game, and she has not conquered the seemingly indomitable labyrinth only to relinquish it.
“Just fear me. Love me. Do as I say. And I will be your slave!” Extraordinary. This exquisite, pantomimic being at your whim? How could she possibly refuse?! But she does. A pause the length of a heartbeat, and then, “You have no power over me!” And just like that, the Bulge metamorphosises into the barn owl and Sarah can look forward to a year or two’s rest before the real battle of sexual wills – and bulges – begins.
I wonder how many times I watch the film from childhood through adolescence and teendom. One, two, five, ten years go past and still I feel the same potent draw. Invariably, I pay more attention to That Crotch the older I get. At the girls’ school I attend, That Crotch is a running joke, routinely cited through the years for entertainment purposes on long coach trips to yawnsome stately homes and choir competitions. Later, we consume Malibu in the cupboard under the Latin department stairs for the purpose of invoking sexual confessions, and discover that it is the whole psychosexual spangle of King Jareth that has entranced each of us all our lives, a combination of Bowie as Male Object, Master and Slave that penetrated our burgeoning sexual fantasies before we even knew we had any.
So let us all hail King Jareth, the pop-Gothic pin-up of my generation. Johnny Depp’s adorably bruised Edward Scissorhands may have been close contender, but he permeated our world, rather than sweeping us off to his. And besides, where was the tyrannical male in him? Prince was before our time. Michael Jackson we knew was asexual even before we ourselves had reached puberty. And we didn’t encounter fictional erotic archetypes of domineering masculinity such as Mr Rochester until well into our teens.
By that point, Bowie’s incomparable Goblin King had already left an indelible print on our pre-pubescent hearts, catching us when our connection with fairytales and our sub-conscious appreciation of their Freudian sub-text was still ripe for the plucking. Besides, you have to hand it to the man. Who else could have made an oversized mohair cardigan and tights the colour of three-day-old tinned tuna the costume of tweenage fantasy?