“Weren’t Born A Man” – Dana Gillespie’s Unavailable Masterpiece

 

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Gillespie, circa 1973, at the time of the release of “Weren’t Born a Man”

This is the way the brain works, why we like the things we like.

Back in the 1970s, I picked up a copy of The Man Who Fell To Earth, by Walter Tevis, the author of The Hustler. A great, beautifully written little book about class alienation (metaphorically expressed in the story of a literal alien) which I read over and over again. Probably a bad sign for my own long-term mental health, but there you are. The author himself seems to have cracked up a bit after its publication; he retired from writing for a couple of decades, then came out of retirement to publish a bunch of horrible novels before he quickly died. When the movie, directed by Nicholas Roeg, was re-issued, in the era before VCRs, I rushed out to see it. I was disappointed (the book’s alien is averse to sex with humans, which would likely kill him, and they’re a different species after all), and the book’s very subtle sexless love story was turned into … well, something else entirely! But the movie led me to David Bowie, just off his great Berlin trilogy, and on the verge of his great Scary Monsters comeback. No need to discuss David Bowie here, who is not destined for oblivion. But a glimpse into the world of David Bowie led to other things, because he was a man of diverse and exceptionally obscure interests, from Aleister Crowley to Iggy Pop, and once he had the power to lift up artists he admired, he did.

Iggy Pop got his comeback and a great new career through David Bowie; the singer and actress Dana Gillespie got a part Roeg’s Bad Timing, and also a 1973 record, Weren’t Born a Man, which is in-part Bowie-produced, and which is a near-masterpiece and also, I understand, a commercial failure, although used copies of the long-unavailable LP continue to demand a hefty price tag, probably due to her magnificent cover version of Bowie’s Andy Warhol, the only song on the album that she didn’t write.

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Gillespie, movie actress

So let’s start there: Andy Warhol by the beautiful Ms. Gillespie is a better song than Andy Warhol by the beautiful Mr. Bowie, more polished, more brooding, more admiring and sadder. Gillespie’s voice is a wonder, pure as water on the glitter/glamrock songs, like Warhol, gritty and authentic on her blues numbers like Backed A Loser, and the perfect vessel for over-the-top romanticism on What Memories We Make. The two songs that should have earned this album a place on the list of the greatest albums of the 1970s are the title track, a yearning love song for another woman, whom Gillespie regretfully rejects (“It’s so sad/You weren’t born a man”) and Stardom Road Parts I & II, which is a wistful, unabashedly and self-indulgently melodramatic, lushly orchestrated (violins!) assessment of a failed musical career, presumably sung by Gillespie some decades in the future (perhaps 2017), which is so sad, so lovely and so daring that it gives me chills whenever I hear it.

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Gillespie today

Gillespie keeps making music; for a while, she seems to have made Hindu spiritual records, but she continues to champion the blues. She made the rounds when Bowie died last year, to tell the press what he’d been like as a boy. I think she was happy to see her name in print again; so was I.

 

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