I never understood what Bowie was singing about in Gene Genie and it
used to trouble me. I knew all the words but what did it all mean? It
was a puzzle. One night when I was at a party, however, the song was
played over the sound-system and suddenly (with the aid of a copious
amount of hashish, I should add) it suddenly made sense: All that
Bowie was doing was throwing together a random selection of rhyming
couplets and playing a kind of word association game. The couplets
weren't actually intended to make much sense and the clue was in the
line "Let yourself go", meaning to stop trying to
make sense of it all and just free your mind - and your ass will
I was stoned, remember.
But then what was it with the title 'Gene Genie'? I read later that
it was a nod to Iggy Pop but that also it was a pun on the name 'Jean
Genet', whom Bowie was an admirer of. When I discovered that Patti
Smith was also an admirer of Jean Genet, I wanted to find out more.
The Thief's Journal is Genet's most famous book and it records
the progress of him as a young man travelling through Europe during
the 1930s. Genet is a tramp, a thief, a beggar and a male prostitute
but moreover, he's a brilliant writer. His words are like those of a
poet though not in the sense of 'I wandered lonely as a cloud' but
more comparing criminals to flowers and waxing lyrical over an
Born an orphan into a world that from the start had resolutely
rejected him, Genet in turn rejected the world and aligned himself
instead with all the other underdogs: the homeless, the poor, the
criminal underground, prostitutes, petty criminals, tramps, beggars,
the destitute, the desperate, the unloved and the unlovable.
According to Genet: 'Betrayal, theft and homosexuality are the
basic subjects of this book', but it's also about the quest for
saintliness though for someone who has only the rags he stands up in,
how might this be achieved? For Genet, it's by destroying all the
usual reasons for living and in discerning others. Subsequently, he
becomes ecstatic in his poverty, and every crime, every petty theft
becomes an exaltation.
When all you have is lice and dirt and rags, do you become a
worthless person? Of course not. Genet bestows poverty with a virtue
and a wonder though he doesn't romanticise it, nor does he bestow
honour upon his thievery because after all, there is nothing romantic
about being poor and there is no honour among thieves. He does,
however, charge them both with erotic intentions. As he puts it from
the start: 'I was hot for crime.'
I was once hitch-hiking on the island of Crete when a car pulled over
to offer me a lift. Inside were two German girls dressed in shabby
"Where are you going?" one of them asked. I told them and
they said to jump in. They seemed to hold little interest in engaging
in conversation with me and just chatted between themselves in
German. After about ten minutes, they pulled over to the side of the
road and one of them said to me: "We'll be back in a minute."
They both got out and I watched as they headed off down a dusty path
to an old church. After a couple of minutes they came back and got
into the car again, their arms laden with candles.
I couldn't believe it. Had they just stolen a load of candles from a
"We use them to light our room," said one of them.
I was dumbfounded. For want of anything better to say, I said: "You
won't get to heaven," and they seemed to find the remark amusing
as they spent the rest of the journey laughing their heads off. When
we arrived at the village where I was living, we all went for a drink
together before going our separate ways though I admit, I would have
liked to have hung out with them for longer.
I relay this anecdote simply because reading The Thief's Journal
reminded me of it. It was my Jean Genet moment when I was hot
Genet's book is a thing of strange beauty. It transcends the
consensus on how a saint should be perceived. It redefines what it is
to be poor and what it is to be a petty thief. It redefines what it
is to be homosexual and it redefines erotica. From out of nowhere and
from out of nothing, Genet forged his own world though which he
battled with, was a world of his own making rather than a world
imposed upon him of which he had no say.
'My adventure, never governed by rebellion or a feeling of
injustice...' says Genet at the start of The Thief's Journal.
Years later, however, after becoming a world-famous writer but then
to all intent and purpose leaving the business of writing behind,
Genet threw his support behind Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the Paris
student revolution of May '68, the Black Panthers, and the political
situation of Palestinian refugees. It was only a short step
thereafter to him declaring an affinity with Germany's the Red Army
Faction, for which he drew much criticism.
Was this Genet being still hot for crime, I wonder?
Genet had an obsession with flowers as he so succinctly explains in
the Journal: 'I am alone in the world, and I am not sure that I am
not the king - perhaps the sprite - of these flowers. They render
homage as I pass, bow without bowing, but recognise me. They know
that I am their living, moving, agile representative, conqueror of
the wind. They are my natural emblem, but through them I have roots
in that French soil which is fed by the powdered bones of the
children and youths buggered, massacred and burned by Gilles de
Jean Genet may well have been the king or the sprite of flowers, who
knows? What is certain, however, is that he was the most rarest of
flowers and The Thief's Journal is nothing less than him in full,