It has been almost a week since my last post. When I put the first two Bowie songs back-to-back, I was making a big deal how important his music is to me and how long I waited to write these works and then the President came down with Covid-19 and then I went in for a minor medical procedure and because I’m dramatic the prep for it felt like the worst thing I’ve ever had to do. Then I was knocked out for a couple of days and work was super busy and whoops, six days goes by without a post. Kind of takes the air out of the drama. But I carry on.
After writing the #17 post about Bowie’s “Station to Station” I questioned whether I had the two songs switched*. I think of “Young Americans” being “Station to Station’s” spiritual cousin. They’re both title tracks on back-to-back albums in that category of songs I described in the “Station to Station” post as a modern pop epic in that they are long, grand, and surprisingly efficient for their length. Unlike “Station to Station,” “Young Americans” was a single and the album with which it shares a name was an intentionally accessible album in the style he described as “plastic soul.” It was a lean-in on his fascination with American Soul music. Being full aware of the potential for this to be a classic exemplar of cultural appropriation before any of us had that in our vocabulary, he self-deprecatingly threw that “plastic” qualifier on and it seems to have worked.
*When I posted about “Station to Station,” my friend Kelly said that she’d quietly speculated that the Bowie selections would all end up being in the top ten and she was right to think this. I had to put my thumb on the scale for some others to keep the top ten interesting. So, 16, 17 as well as “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” at 18 are all a bit deflated in their ranking.
Anyway, after giving a first listen in preparing for this post, I do think I made the right decision. I don’t know when I first heard this song. I mentioned I cut my teeth on Bowie with the basic starter pack: Hunky Dory, the Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust…, and the Changesbowie collection*. I’m quite certain the first time I heard “Young Americans” was on Changesbowie and I was fairly immediately taken with it but didn’t know where to go from there. This is the distilled version of why it’s so easy to fall into the Hunky Dory/Ziggy Stardust-only trap. I liked “Space Oddity” so I got the Space Oddity album. Rookie mistake. I very much enjoyed Nirvana’s cover of “The Man Who Sold the World,” so I listened to the album of the same name. NOPE! I think I made the same mistake with “Young Americans” in which I listened to the album because I knew the title track and “Fame” and was underwhelmed by the rest of it, despite its being intentionally accessible.** Point being--I’ve been listening to and loving “Young Americans” for a long-ass time, possibly even longer than I can measure.
*Another bad collection, here. It was released in 1990 with a remix of “Fame” as “Fame ‘90” and “John, I’m Only Dancing” which was not originally released with The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust… but did appear on reissues starting in 1990. There are so may fucking versions of Changesbowie and I’m very angry about this because both “Starman” and “Life on Mars?” would have slapped me in the face much faster than they did, given that I had this collection before getting the albums. Anyway, another bad thing about it is that on most versions, the only song from the Berlin Trilogy is “Heroes,” though “Sound and Vision” shows up on special versions that I didn’t have access to.
**If you’re interested, I think the best album to try after Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust… is Scary Monsters. It’s welcoming.
In 1973, David Bowie famously fired his band on stage, effectively dumping the team that made him a cult sensation. This is widely seen as a ballsy move on his part but it’s also plainly a dick move on his part. He did it as a means of self-preservation, thinking that he needed to start fresh in order to stay relevant and it was in no uncertain times the right career move. And I would be really sad if we didn’t have any Bowie other than the through-Aladdin Sane Bowie. Diamond Dogs was released next, which was kind of a one-off in that he didn’t replace Mick Ronson and just didn’t have a lead guitarist* for that album. But on Young Americans, the world was presented with the unholy union of Bowie with Carlos Alomar.
*Evidently Bowie tried to get Alomar for Diamond Dogs but “negotiations” evidently didn’t work out like some kind of NBA trade deadline situation.
Carlos Alomar is one of those with whom people I would really love to have dinner and a bottle of wine or three. He is a delightful human being and he was a major collaborator and contributor to Bowie’s output through the early 2000s. One of my very favorite stories about anyone is Carlos’s story about the first time he met David Bowie ahead of the Young Americans sessions. He described him as being the whitest man he’s ever seen and he had this orange hair, “I'm not talking about your momma's orange hair,” Carlos has said. Carlos was also struck by how thin Bowie was at the time (recall the red bell pepper and milk diet). “You gotta come to *my* house,” he’s said. Alomar cowrote “Fame,” “Golden Years,” and “Stay” among a ton of others. What I wouldn’t give to pick his brain?
The impressive roster of players on Young Americans isn’t limited to Bowie and Alomar. Famously, Luther Vandross contributed as a backup singer, one of a ton of early backup jobs he worked before breaking through as a solo artist. Young Americans was also Ava Cherry’s first appearance on a Bowie recording. She was another recurring character on Bowie albums and they’re both very lucky to have dated each other, comprising one of history’s top ten best-looking couples (along with David and Iman).
One of the things I love best about Ava Cherry, Carlos Alomar and other notable character drummer Dennis Davis in talking about working with Bowie is how obnoxious it was recording Young Americans. The result is basically a monument to anal retentiveness in an eight-song LP. In the BBC documentary Five Years, we’re treated to footage from some of the recording sessions. In them we see how Bowie furiously micromanaged even the backing vocal arrangement and performance. The singers would come out with something that sounds great and he’ll stop them and demonstrate how they should be performing and it sounds exactly like what they just did. Then the backing vocalists would try it out and it all seemed like such a nightmare. I’m not a patient person. I would think working on this album would be my ironic hell, having someone like David Bowie putting me through the wringer like this. One thing I can’t explain given this information, on “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” I swear to god there’s a mistake where David comes in early, with an “eff.”. It happens at 0:42, one measure before the first verse really starts with “everybody.” Pete surmises that he did come in early but liked how it sounded, so kept it. I find this hard to believe because it doesn’t sound particularly good or fitting.
One thing I do unexpectedly like about the Young Americans album is his cover of “Across the Universe.” I am not a Beatles fan (but I’m also not not-a-Beatles fan, I just don’t care that much) and Beatles fans disagree with me. What I like about it is the Bowiesque apocalyptic sensibility he brings to the song. I have no idea what John Lennon’s original intention for it was, but in Bowie’s version, I hear a man bemoaning his country’s place in history and his complicity as a Briton. As with a lot of Bowie and glam rock in general, I hear those coming of age in a crumbling empire throwing up their hands for lack of anything else to do, well aware of the shit that’s in the process of hitting the fan domestically and the mostly historical but ongoing sins of colonialism. More on this in a later post. I hear this entirely in his performance. Early in his career, Bowie was self-conscious about his singing voice for reasons I can’t fathom and I like to believe that this contributed heavily to his theatrical delivery, which is a top-five thing I love about him (though I don’t love this in all vocalists--I think Bowie was just exceptionally good at it). Anyway, I may be reading too much into Bowie’s version of “Across.” He was hanging out with John Lennon (who sort of co-wrote “Fame”) a lot at the time and on a whim was probably just like “hey John, would you mind?”
Anyway, “Young Americans.” Rob Sheffield, if you’ll remember, brazenly declared Station to Station Bowie’s best album and similarly named “Young Americans” Bowie’s best song, which is even brazener a declaration. I will not do all of us the disservice of trying to summarize his description of “Young Americans” because it is best read as a primary source but I’m going to go ahead and recommend that each and every one of you pick up a copy of On Bowie written by Sheffield because it is a quick read and excellent for the soul. One of my other favorite music writers Simon Reynolds described this song’s themes in detail. To Reynolds, in “Young Americans,” he hears a 27 year-old Bowie feeling very old for his age, envying those just beginning to plot their lives. Though not old, Bowie by that time had already had an incredibly full life and--it could be argued--was not quite as much in control of his life as the newlyweds and the slinky vagabond he sings about, despite all of his advantages. He makes a parallel observation about his nationality vs Americans’. Not only are the Americans he admires younger than he feels, they’re part of an enviably younger culture. Weirdly, I think of this song as being a negative-image of “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd a song I don’t hate performed by hateful people. Both are a strikingly non-objective account of American culture in the 1970s, a time and place dismissively thought of as a bit of a culture nadir (incorrect). Also both songs mention Richard Nixon for seemingly equal and opposite reasons. I love it.
However, what I love best about this song is the insane structure. Years and years ago, I dared to attempt “Young Americans” at karaoke and despite thinking I know this song like the back of my hand, it was a complete disaster. It was then that I realized that you cannot know “Young Americans,” not *really*. Only Bowie can fully know it. Then, in 2017 we saw Gene Ween doing Billy Joel, a weird and fun thing he does between Ween stints. Opening for him was the fruits of another Gene Ween hobby, his School-of-Rock-style summer camp. At the end of the program, these kids went with him on his Billy Joel tour and performed covers of classic songs, taking turns on vocals and different instruments. When I heard the opening drums and glissando (it’s back again), my heart sunk. As this gangly red-headed boy took the microphone, I cringed hard, knowing it too would be a disaster and it was. They fucked up so much and I wanted to die for them.
Less than a year later, we went to see Bowie collaborator and pianist Mike Garson do a Bowie tribute with a full band, including Sting’s son and Corey Glover from Living Colour. Glover was by far the biggest name in this band but was oddly absent from the first half of the performance. The band made some nervous jokes about him taking a nap until they seemed to get to a point in the set when they couldn’t really go on without him and pulled him on stage. He was clearly pretty hammered, so of course the first thing they did was jump right into “Young Americans.” I leaned over to Pete and said “watch. This is going to be the absolute worst” and it certainly was. Some guys 10 or so years our senior were like “who the fuck is this guy?” He was reading off of an iPad, could barely stand and could NOT follow the song structure. He couldn’t follow because the song is magic and belongs to one man. Also, he was drunk.
“Young Americans” is a classic Bowie musical mystery in that the verses have a tune and a beat and it goes with the fairly conventional chorus. However, the verses are a long-form rant and are so hard to replicate which is why karaoke is so impossible and poor, hammered Corey Glover struggled so badly. There are too many words! The cadence is completely unpredictable and he slips into that chorus totally without notice. The “fairly conventional” chorus is only conventional by comparison and in a structural sense but the tune is fucking crazy. I think it’s because the backing vocals are so obtuse that the lead vocals make no sense without them. Then we get a couple of tangents: “do you remember your president Nixon?”; “Well, well, well, would you carry a razor? In case, just in case of depression?” He brags about his Soul Train appearance and then the Beatles stop in to say hi. It’s bat-shit crazy and I dig it so hard.
A totally botched edited version of this song appears on the Legacy collection in which they cut that beautiful bridge out, but do it so clumsily, Pete has described as sounding like the edit was made on his old four-track. Despite this and a couple of other remastering errors, I do like the Legacy collection and it’s the most convenient place to listen to both “Space Oddity” and “The Man Who Sold the World” since I wouldn’t otherwise put on either of the albums on which those songs appear. It’s good dinner-making music.
Before the album was released and the world became somewhat acquainted with this enigma, he performed it on the Dick Cavett show, which is the precise interaction of mid-70s hot and sexy from my end, given my hard crush on mid-70s Dick Cavett and my general Bowie obsession. This is despite Bowie basically looking like a re-animated skeleton in a brown zoot suit. You get to see the entire gang in all of their glory in front of one of those black foil curtains and it is absolutely one of my favorite YouTube videos ever. See it for yourself: