Young Americans

Young American (take 3, fragment).
Young Americans.
Young Americans (live, 1974).
Young Americans (The Dick Cavett Show, 1974).
Young Americans (live, 1983).
Young Americans (live, 1987).
Young Americans (live, 1990).

Americans love flattery and youth, so it’s no surprise that David Bowie finally cracked the US Top 40 with this song. Bowie always performed it on stage with an acoustic guitar, making the song seem like a remnant of his folkie days, and eventually “Young Americans” was tumbled in with other congratulatory good-time songs of its era. Yet “Young Americans” is a cold piece of work, a ballad that becomes a diatribe, its bite kissed away by Bowie’s American backing singers.

Asked by the NME in summer 1975 about the song, Bowie said: “No story. Just young Americans. It’s about a newly-wed couple who don’t know if they really like each other. Well, they do, but they don’t know if they do or don’t.” (cf. Sly Stone’s “Family Affair”: “Newly-wed a year ago, but you’re still checkin’ each other out.”) In the opening verses, a young, bewildered couple finds solace in sex (though not much: it took him minutes, took her nowhere) and eventually squander all they have going for them, their youth. At least that’s what the final line of the third, shortened verse suggests: We live for just these twenty years, do we have to die for the fifty more?

Bowie was covering Bruce Springsteen songs (he’d cut “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” in a later Young Americans session), so “Young Americans” conceivably started as a tribute or a rip of something off The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle. But Springsteen was in love with his characters, making myths of their meager lives, and even his walk-on roles have pathos, like Madame Marie in “4th of July, Asbury Park.” In “Young Americans,” the boy and the girl lack names, jobs, desires, histories, friends. They’re not even types. Vocal uncertainty (does Bowie sing “they pulled in just behind the bridge” or “behind the fridge” in the first line?) makes even the song’s setting unknowable: the story could open in the backseat of a car, or in some squalid apartment. It doesn’t matter.

The boy and girl move in jump cuts, speak in stilted language, as if they’re hostages reading from a script. It’s just poster love, as Bowie sings later in the song. “Am I still too young?” the girl asks. “Where have all papa’s heroes gone?” she says later. He’s referred to as “her bread-winner.” She’s no more than a talking Barbie doll (her heart’s been broken, just like you have). Even the chorus reads like Maoist agitprop: She wants the young American! I want the young American!

And after the bridge and saxophone break, Bowie knocks his pieces off the board. Instead of continuing his story, he uses his last two verses to riff, offering quips, shorthand, signifiers. In “Life On Mars?” Bowie began with a close-up on the mousy girl in the movie theater stalls, then zoomed out for a wider, more surreal picture, but “Young Americans” begins far away from its subjects. Their fates aren’t important, because the boy and girl didn’t exist in the first place. They were just mere impressions, as ephemeral as the other fleeting images that the singer sees as he watches a country spool past his limousine window: Ford Mustangs, Americans on buses, Caddys, Chryslers. Americans blacklisted, those just back from Washington, whites on Soul Train. Americans using Afro-Sheen, Americans contemplating suicide, carrying razors in their briefcases.

In Serge Gainsbourg’s “Ford Mustang,” from 1968, Gainsbourg and his co-singer whisper and chant to each other American ad slogans, catch phrases and comic book dialogue: Pickup! Keep cool! Fluid makeup! Coca Cola! Ford Mus-tang! But it wasn’t just parody, as Gainsbourg was playing off the hipness and vitality American imagery still had in mid-’60s Europe. In “Young Americans,” that power is gone, long dissipated. Bowie is a tourist who came in the off season, and he leaves with a curse. Leather, leather everywhere and not a myth left from the ghetto.

Richard Nixon’s sudden appearance in the song’s bridge (a line that Bowie would update on stage to Reagan or Bush the Elder) is partly just a contemporary note, as Bowie cut “Young Americans” a week after Nixon’s resignation. Yet it’s also another dismissal, with Bowie accurately predicting that the downfall and disgrace of Richard Nixon, the grand finale of The Sixties, would soon enough be reduced to history, to be fought over by partisans and barely remembered by the masses. (The Clash offered a similar barb in “White Man In Hammersmith Palais” a few years later: “If Adolf Hitler flew in today/they’d send a limousine anyway”) .

As the song closes down, other ghosts appear. The chorus, out of nowhere, sings the opening line of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” in the final verse, a further alienation (the song reminding us it’s just another song, and a lesser one at that). John Lennon originally sang the line as a beautiful, floating reverie, though he was noting how the media turns tragedy into wallpaper, how a crowd watching a car crash only considers it in terms of the victim’s possible celebrity. “Young Americans” views an entire world this way, a flattening of perception.

And then Bowie’s final costume change, a last irony: before the end chorus, Bowie moves to free time and sings, suddenly all alone, “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me…break down and cry?,” the last four words a jolt up to a high D, then a slight descent to a run of high A notes. Bowie’s become Johnnie Ray, who, as Dexy’s Midnight Runners sang, once broke a million hearts in mono. Bowie, interpreting black music, crafting it with primarily black musicians, channels Ray, who he turns into an earlier, flawed incarnation. Ray, a white boy from Oregon, was first taken up by patrons of a black club in Detroit and later signed to Columbia’s “race” label, OKeh: his singles topped the R&B charts. Ray didn’t imitate black singers as much as he did wild, fevered interpretations of them, fueling his art with his own tortured experience (he had a punctured eardrum, was a closeted bisexual); Ray burned out quickly but lingered for decades, dying in Los Angeles in 1990.

Lester Bangs, watching a Bowie performance in Detroit in 1974, picked up on the parallel: I peered and peered, trying to catch the ultimate vibe…Johnny Ray. Johnny Ray on cocaine singing about 1984. The audacity of it all made Bangs tip his hat. Don’t be fooled: Bowie is as cold as ever, and if you get off on his particular brand of lunar antibody you may well be disappointed in his latest incarnation, because he’s doubling back on himself.

So is “Young Americans,” at its cold heart, Bowie reflecting himself, making a mirror play of his own preoccupations, disgusts, betrayals? And yet he did so in a song that American audiences loved, one they took to be a communal tribute, a gift left by a party guest. As the years went on, Bowie accepted this: at the height of his ’80s fame, he sang “Young Americans” on stage as if he was covering Springsteen, asking the crowd to sing his Johnny Ray line back to him. “Young Americans” is a guide to a foreign country by a man who never left his house, one beloved by those he never really visited.

Of course “Young Americans” is also good-time music, founded on a steady groove, sweetened by David Sanborn’s alto saxophone obbligato and blessed with a vocal hook, a bar-long exaltation so compelling that all of Bowie’s bile and alienation seem to melt away whenever the chorus sings.

The hook was mainly Luther Vandross’ doing. Vandross, listening to studio rehearsals of “Young Americans,” said to his friend, the singer Robin Clark, ‘what if there was a phrase that went ‘young Americans, young Americans, he was the young American—all right!’ Now when ‘all right’ comes up, jump over me and go into harmony,” Vandross told Musician in 1987. Bowie overheard Clark and Vandross singing this, and, intrigued, brought them into the session. Soon enough, Bowie had reworked the chorus to include the hook.

“Young Americans” is built out of standard materials, its verses moving from the home key, C, up to the dominant, G, in 4-bar repeats, and after the bridge and sax/guitar breaks, there’s a key change up to D, which parallels Bowie discarding his characters in favor of his rolling impressions. The groove slides through most of the song, built on Andy Newmark’s drums, Willie Weeks’ bass (mainly playing repeating two-note patterns) and a running duet between Carlos Alomar’s rhythm guitar and Mike Garson’s piano. Garson had tried to get the taste of more avant-garde material like “Aladdin Sane” out of his playing, establishing a groove “that had a bit of a Latin feel, without going over the top into salsa music,” he told David Buckley.

If the groove feels slightly restrained (Garson’s piano doesn’t swing that much), and while Sanborn later said that his sax playing was under par, calling “a bit repetitive,” any drawbacks are erased by the sense of narrative motion. The verses are quickly answered by choruses, the choruses are broken up by first a 4-bar sax/piano break, the “Nixon” bridge and another 4-bar break dominated by Alomar’s guitar. Bowie’s singing is also a marvel, zipping up to falsetto and, in his final verses, Bowie reels out strings of language, like someone possessed by prophecy (each bar seems to fill up with more sung notes: 11 in “you ain’t a pimp and you ain’t a hustler, a”, 13 in “pimp’s got a Caddy and a lady’s got a Chrysler,” to the point you expect Bowie to finally shatter the song’s sense of rhythm).

Recorded 11-13 August 1974* and released in February 1975 as a single c/w “Suffragette City” (RCA 2523, #18 UK, #28 US) and a month later as the lead-off track of the album it titled. First performed on stage in Los Angeles on 2 September 1974, with the Dick Cavett Show performance taped on 2 November. While a staple of Bowie’s 1980s tours, Bowie hasn’t played “Young Americans” in over 20 years.

Top: William Eggleston, “Two Girls on a Couch,” 1974. A few years later the women [in this photo] sang in a Memphis punk band called Gangrene and the Scurvy Girls.”

* “Young Americans,” according to Tony Visconti’s autobiography and researchers like Nicholas Pegg, was said to be the first track completed at the Sigma Sound sessions, finished on the first night, 11 August 1974. But the newly-surfaced “Shilling the Rubes” reel contains what almost certainly sounds like an earlier take of “Young Americans,” recorded on 13 August (Newmark’s drum intro isn’t quite there yet, for instance).

14 Responses to Young Americans

  1. mike says:

    The fragment sounds like a scene-blocking runthrough while waiting for the coke to arrive….

  2. ian says:

    It’s pretty interesting (to me) how my further understanding of this song coincided with this post. This’s always been a pretty landmark Bowie song in my relation to him, as it’s the first song I really sat down and listened to. My parents had three Bowie CDs, Hunky Dory, Station to Station, and Young Americans. I put them in my ssiicckk 5-disc CD changer, and Young Americans happened to be first. It’s safe to say after that first drum fill, I was a different person.

    But the song remained as this unknowable, untouchable thing— I never tried to puzzle out the lyrics until this summer, when I picked up a copy on record for the first time (yes, i myself am a young american). It’s a cold song, sure, and the characters may be nameless, but what feelings he does let them have are pretty wrenching. It’s a bit of a stroke of genius to have a song that’s musically uplifting to the highest degree, then counterweight that with mostly depressing lyrics.

    If it wasn’t for this song having the sound and the distinction of being a ‘hit single,’ I feel like it’d be raised to the canon of ‘great Bowie gems.’ I mean, this sounds as Poppy as Blue Jean, but Blue Jean doesn’t have lyrics like “would you carry a razor / in case, just in case of depression.” No, it’s got “I’m going to write a poem and letter / I’m going to get that faculty together.” Sure, that’s a nice lyric, but it says Nothing. Young Americans says everything by saying nothing.

  3. Anonymous says:

    fantastic insights into a wonderful performance – the Springsteen influence with Luther Vandross making the chorus exceptional

    it makes an extraordinary appearance in Dogville

  4. Joe the Lion says:

    I puzzled over the lyrics forever – firstly, just to work out what he was saying, and then to work out what he meant by it all. The words are very enigmatic, especially when considered with the music which seems at odds with what Bowie says. Towards the end, when he packs his myriad impressions in, it’s like he’s fighting against the stately pace to express himself, like he *has* to tell us what he thinks before the track fades out. The whole thing is a bit of a miracle, really.

  5. David Jones says:

    Yes – what could have been a most cynical of moves (calling a track Young Americans is like putting the word radio in the title of a song it guarantees air play) becomes a glorious celebration of everything deeply supeficial.

  6. David Jones says:

    superficial…with an R

  7. snoball says:

    I always heard it as “fridge” but “bridge” makes a lot more sense, both narratively and as a Springsteen touch. Maybe Bowie left it as “fridge” in the same way as the “mad love”/”man love” line from ‘Moonage Daydream’. Except that the blurring of the words in that earlier song makes sense, so perhaps not.
    Bowie criticises everyone in this song: the young couple, people out in the street, even himself. “white’s got his Soul Train” always seemed to me to be DB talking about himself. It’s there with ‘Quicksand’ as possibly the most depressing and critical Bowie song.

  8. LondonLee says:

    My copy of the album has a lyric sheets and it’s definitely “fridge” which always puzzled me like most of this song but you can’t deny it sounds great and is very evocative.

    Fabulous post.

  9. What a great writing about a great work…

  10. snoball says:

    Just listened to this again and it’s definitely “bridge”. Wonder why I thought it was “fridge” for so long?
    Also a thought: seems that everyone puts on ‘Young Americans’ and pretends to be Bowie. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bowie puts on this album an pretends to be Bowie.

  11. Jim says:

    My take on this song is that the couple it describes can’t relate authentically to each other, because they live in such a media-saturated, super-mythologised society. They want the Young American, the idealised form of youth, beauty and dynamism of the American myth, as constructed by a all those Hollywood movies, billboard ads, TV sitcoms and pop songs, as well as writers like Ernest Hemingway (that’s what I take ‘Papa’s heroes’ to be referring to, by the way). But they’re not getting it. Instead, they’re just getting each other – real, flawed humans – and it throws them. That’s why they end up with non sequiturs, bad sex and cries for help.

    So, assuming it’s ‘bridge’ (although it’s hard to beat the fridge as a symbol of American consumerism), in the first verse the hero is following a movie script that gets interrupted as soon as ‘he lays her down’ and looks her in the eyes. He can’t relate to her directly, and so he turns inwards and becomes self-absorbed. The couple’s expectations of each other and of their lives have been set by all the second-hand pop cultural myth they’ve absorbed, and that inevitably leaves them frustrated – a frustration that’s reflected in the chord sequence that never quite feels resolved, the relentless driving rhythm, and the tumbling, crashing syllables of Bowie’s vocal.

    (Incidentally it’s just occurred to me that, in its depiction of people taking their social and sexual cues from the movie screen, and finding their own lives wanting by comparison, Young Americans is a further development of the themes explored in Life on Mars and Drive-In Saturday.)

    In the final verse, Bowie the outsider is talking directly to the real young Americans in his audience, asking if they have any truly authentic experience left or just a forest of empty symbols that have lost their potency, songs full of emotional histrionics that could never make you cry, and conflicting, overwhelming desires that can never be satisfied (“You want it, I want you, you want I, I want you want…”).

    But how do you talk directly to people when you’re speaking through the very cultural forms that you’re simultaneously criticising for getting in the way of direct communication? Especially when you’re a thin, white, British cocaine addict attempting against all possible odds to make *soul* music? It’s a heroic effort, but one doomed to failure, as the point above about the way American audiences have interpreted the song, makes clear.

    (Phew, wrote a bit more than I intended there! Thanks for all the brilliant writing on this blog – it’s been making me think about these songs in a new way, which is exhilarating.)

  12. dee massive says:

    He nicked the chords from Satellite Of Love or vice versa.
    And he looks a bit like Alain Delon.

  13. Mike says:

    Would love to read that Lester Bangs review.

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