A “Young American” Remembers David Bowie
Bowie was my everything music – the alpha and omega. He was the artist who singlehandedly turned me on to sound. So when he passed yesterday, I was demolished. In his last album Blackstar, Bowie continued to tweak musical boundaries, creating a bleaker version of himself — a Major Tom still in outer space. In hindsight, his customarily freaky and brilliant videos clearly hint at his coming demise.
I wrote a little something a few years ago for my friend Nancy Davis Kho’s Midlife Mixtape site about one of my favorite Bowie albums that was still in heavy rotation — Young Americans. On the occasion of his passing, I thought I’d share that here.
I’ll miss you David. Gone but never, ever forgotten — your legacy lives on in every musician and fan.
As an 8-year-old in mid ‘70s Philadelphia, I’d rise most school days to the snap and crackle of WFIL-AM, and the Bay City Rollers, Starland Vocal Band or Hot Chocolate imploring me to get up, “you sexy thing.” Whatever that meant. (I also used to sing, “Voulez vous couchez avec moi, ce soir” without a clue what I was requesting. My parents would cringe.)
Then a funky, bellowing crooner started getting heavy airplay with songs like “Golden Years,” “Fame” and “Young Americans.” Who was this guy?
Something about the sophisticated sound drew me in. A lush arrangement of funky beats, sax, and piano. It was like recognizing a true love for the first time. It was David Bowie, but it was also Music.
I didn’t buy the album Young Americans until I was about 13 years old, when I spent most of my allowance at Sam Goody. Years later I’d go back and clue into other favorites Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Hunky Dory and in high school, of course, sigh, Let’s Dance (finally, I got to see Bowie live.) But it was the full album Young Americans that initially caught my heart. The sound is steeped in thick-cut funk and mellow R&B jams; the perfect high school soundtrack while you were cruising the curves of East River (now Kelly) Drive. It’s an album that I still play constantly, and listen to much differently than I did back then.
Where I was first struck by the unusual, intricate arrangements and the undeniable groove (this ain’t no disco), eventually I hooked into the overall mood and lyrics, often dark and plaintive, lonely and searching.
The title track opens with a cascading spill of beats, the glissando from a piano and a beckoning sax—as if you’re tumbling into the album—or into a snapshot of the City of Brotherly Love. Bowie was reportedly obsessed with the Philadelphia Sound — a style embodied by lavish, string-sweeping arrangements, funky horns and often (to this ear) chillin’ on a Sunday morning. He recorded most of the album at soul central, Sigma Sound Studios — renowned for producers Gamble & Huff and groups like the Trammps, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and the Delfonics — and brought in clutch session cats like Carlos Alomar on guitar, David Sanborn on the omnipresent sax and backing vocals by none other than Luther Vandross. The band sort of kicks his ass. (Just listen to Sanborn riff on in “Fascination.”)
No doubt, the album is polished and high concept — like a kid hanging out with his street corner heroes, just for one day. In fact, Bowie wasn’t immune to out and out pilfering, with approval of course. For that sexy sax-pounding “Fascination,” he and Vandross revised one of Vandross’s originals and updated it for the album. (Here’s Bowie’s; Here’s Vandross’ original).
But “Young Americans” is still the stand-out for me, the speed-reading rush of lyrics filled with political jabs (“Do you remember your President Nixon?”) and references to his pal and album co-conspirator John Lennon (“I heard the news today oh boy”). Sharp-witted lyrics and a spirited vibe — it’s just plain fun. Of course Lennon co-wrote and sings back-up on the deeply cool “Fame” and Bowie covers Lennon’s “Across the Universe”, my least favorite track — its earthy, earlier-Bowie style seems out of place.
It’s the soul-searching tunes that are some of the album’s finest. They have an awake in the middle-of-the-night feel to them (maybe because Bowie, addicted to Cocaine at the time is reported to have rarely slept during the recording.) “Win” is maybe my favorite of those, an elegant slow jam pleading, “slow down let someone love you.” Damn. Those bassoon-deep vocals get me in the lady parts every time.
“Can You Hear Me” is another wish for a lost love, with an almost Smokey Robinson romance. The Luther-led background chorus takes it right to the heart.
In a 1991 Rykodisc/EMI re-iussue (and subsequent editions), the album added tracks that are as good as any of the originals. The lush, bluesy ballad “It’s Gonna Be Me” and “Who Can I Be Now?” which one of my treasured, moody mixtape standbys. Hard to believe that either didn’t make the original cut. The latter song is a sort of meta conversation, Bowie’s having with himself — it’s not just who will the Thin White Duke become next but about finding oneself through love. “If it’s all a vast creation? Putting on a face that’s new?”
Some have criticized Bowie for being the perfect “stylist,” an Andy Warhol of music, parroting back current tastes. (More an homage than a thief, Bowie mined Dylan, Elvis, Lou Reed on earlier albums) Bowie might even agree, once calling this album, “Plastic Soul.” But there’s clearly a Bowie sound here like none other. Experimental, searching, slick, and strange and in that, authentically Bowie.
This piece originally appeared on Midlife Mixtape.
Another musician recently gone: Joe Skyward of The Posies, Sky Cries Mary and Sunny Day Real Estate. He was a dear friend from my younger days and big presence in many of my high school shenanigans. He also went by Joe Howard and Joe Bass. He was open with fans about his life with cancer and got on tv to tell guys to not skip getting their checkups after 50. Joe lived big and he died peacefully, listening to his favorite band and surrounded by people he loved.
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