I recently chanced upon this clip of Rod Stewart performing ‘The Killing of Georgie Parts I & II’ on a late-night BBC4 re-run of a Top of the Pops from 1976. I was completely transfixed. Not by nostalgia though, for a change. Bizarrely, scandalously I don’t recall seeing or even hearing this well-known classic before.
I have a bit of a blind spot about Rod Stewart. As a kid I hated ballads. They were bor-ing. Like the kissy-wissy bits in films. And by the time I got into pop music in a big way Stewart was the Bawling Balladeer. I did go to see the Stewart musical Tonight’s the Night with a friend when it opened in 2003. Alas, it was written by Ben Elton and so we had to leave at the first interval.
But I found myself utterly mesmerised by Rod’s achievement here. It’s undoubtedly one of the best to-camera performances I’ve ever seen by any artist. Literally breathtaking. And although the song perhaps owes a debt to Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, produced by David Bowie, four years earlier in 1972 (the gay/outsider journey to New York on a Greyhound bus, the doop-doop backing…), I think David would give his non-dilated eye to have done this.
The song tells the story – remember when songs did that? – of a gay friend of Stewart’s who, rejected by his family after explaining that ‘he needed love like all the rest’, moved to New York where he ‘soon became the toast of the Great White Way’. But was cut down in his prime during a random mugging.
It’s not so much the subject-matter (a true story, apparently) that got me. It’s the astonishing performance itself, which in its fearless extravagance and beauty seems the perfect tribute to his fallen friend. It’s as if Stewart, the working class footballing lad and lady-killer, is showing you with his drag queen gestures and shining androgyny what Georgie the show queen liberated in him. (Stewart has said that he Georgie wasn’t a close friend of his personally, but that he was ‘surrounded by gay men’ at the time.)
It’s there in the lyrics, of course:
He said “Never wait or hesitate
Get in kid, before it’s too late
You may never get another chance
‘Cos youth a mask but it don’t last
live it long and live it fast”
But it’s much more ‘there’ in Rod’s ‘gay abandon’ in front of the camera – and Marlene Dietrich eyes. And that wink he does when he sings: ‘he needed love like all the rest’.
I’ve watched the clip several times now and the final line to ‘Part I’ – ‘Georgie was a friend of mine’ – delivered with arms stretched out, open-palmed towards the audience, towards the world, and that unswerving, heavy-lidded gaze gets me every time.
The ‘Part II’ coda is a frank, almost embarrassing expression of love and loss, mourning and melancholia. Rod weeps for his lost friend:
Oh Georgie stay, don’t go away
Georgie please stay, you take our breath away
But by taking our breath away too, at the height of his youth, his beauty and his talent, Rod ensures Georgie – and the glamorous gayness of the pre Aids 1970s – also lives forever and never goes away.
No matter what Rod himself was to turn into, as the mask of youth slipped – as it does for all of us who don’t die untimely deaths.
I bet Antinous’ nose looked even more like Rod’s IRL. The sculptors were being flattering.
I remember when I went to a gay club, as a teenager in the 90s. My girlfriend took me there. The lesbians were in the dark basement, and that was as dire as it sounds. But I found myself unable to join the gay boys upstairs. The dance music and all the bodies scared the life out of me. I didn’t feel fabulous enough, although I’d dress up in sparkly shirts in homage to Edie Sedgwick, which caused my girlfriend to tell me I look like a drag queen (it wasn’t a compliment). She was a tiny little thing who studied ballet, who went on to become a bodybuilder, as I learned through Facebook.
Yes, the nose is wonderful. It’s good to see someone else who appreciates a real nose.
But that world of pre-AIDS glamour really did exist for a while, and not just at Studio 54. As a woman, I had only limited access, but I remember the first enormous dance loft, a short-lived club called Flamingo, somewhere on Houston Street (pronounced House-ton), nowadays a gentrified, unaffordable downtown neighborhood, but back in 1977 or 78 a properly dark and seedy area.
My gay boyfriend was kind enough to take me a couple of times. In those days women didn’t just walk into gay clubs on our own. It was my first exposure to a dance floor of literally hundreds of shirtless gay men, wearing jeans or fatigue pants and combat boots. It took my breath away then. I’m still not quite recovered from the excitement of it all.
Perhaps not the same kind of glamour as Rod Stewart’s performance, but very beautiful, and in retrospect very moving.
I’ve just realised who he reminds me of with his nose, his eyes and his downcast looks, even more than Marlene. Antinous. But then, every beautiful boy does that:
I’ve always found Bowie a bit icy. Fascinating, but cold and invulnerable and ultimately unloveable. Rod here however is laying it all on the line. He’s not afraid to be sentimental. He’s also much more of a natural beauty.
But you’re right: the make-up should have won an Oscar.
It’s funny you should write about this because when I watched it the other week on TOTP I had exactly the same reaction. I’d never seen the clip before and was quite mesmerised by its sheer intensity and it kind of made me re-assess Rod a little.
Watching it I couldn’t help but think ‘and there was outrage at the Ronson/Bowie arm thing?!’ I know this is a few years later but Rod is just as subversive here. The make-up is gorgeous too!
Elise: It is so much all about the eyes – which hold you in a way I can’t recall anyone else’s eyes doing in a music promo not actually performed by Marlene.
But also the nose. When he does the stagey-but-still-somehow-tasteful downcast look in profile he looks positively Florentine. Cellini or Michelangelo could have sculpted it.
Glenn: Another blind spot. Of course I’m very familiar with ‘Maggie May’, but I have no idea what the song is about. I’ve heard it a thousand times but probably never listened to it. I shall correct that now.
Yes, my assertion at the beginning of the piece that I wasn’t transfixed by nostalgia (for a change) because I couldn’t remember seeing this clip before was entirely false.
As Ann says, I was engulfed by a nostalgia for the vanished, pre-Fall era that it represents. Which possibly only existed in Studio 54 a couple of nights a week anyway.
Nevertheless, looking at something like this I can’t quite shake the feeling that in many ways metrosexuality is just a poor, stunted shadow of what happened back then.
In a way the most romantic aspect is Mark’s (and our) nostalgia for the pre-AIDS 1970s, so beautifully represented in this performance.
It seemed then as if everybody–black and white, gay and straight–was going to get along, just the way disco music had brought us together. We were all into “gender-bending” and glamour, bisexuality and androgyny.
And then came the random muggings: AIDS, Ronald Reagan, Maggie Thatcher, the beginning of today’s world of inequality and constant warfare.
Don’t forget his star turn as a kept school boy in “Maggie”! His early stuff seemed to be all about breaking sexual conventions
You’re right, that’s one gorgeous androgynous performance, and I’m no Stewart fan either. Yes, it’s all in those downcast, dreamy, narcissistic downcast eyes and beautiful big eyelids.
I don’t think Rod’s career ever quite recovered from that album – or Kenny.
Rod Stewart, the Scottish Englishman. This has stuck in the memory for around 30 years now for obvious reasons… 🙂