The Jean Genie

The Jean Genie.
The Jean Genie (live, 1972).
The Jean Genie (live, TOTP, 1972).
The Jean Genie (live, with Jeff Beck, 1973).
The Jean Genie (1980 Floor Show, 1973).
The Jean Genie (live, 1974).
The Jean Genie (rehearsal, 1976).
The Jean Genie (live, 1978).
The Jean Genie (rehearsal w/Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1983).
The Jean Genie (live, 1987).
The Jean Genie (live, 1990).
The Jean Genie (live, Bridge Benefit, 1996).
The Jean Genie (live, 1997).
The Jean Genie (live, 2000).
The Jean Genie (live, 2003).

David Bowie’s first United States concert was in Cleveland on 22 September 1972 and somewhere between the next stop, Memphis, and New York, Bowie began to write “The Jean Genie.” Either Mick Ronson or Bowie’s old friend George Underwood (depending on which interview you read) was in the back of the tour bus playing Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley songs on an acoustic guitar, which devolved into variations on the “I’m a Man” riff (“Bus, bus, bus…we’re goin’ busin’!” was the refrain). Bowie took the idea of playing off the “Man” riff and had a song in a few days.

Two weeks later, Bowie and the Spiders recorded “Jean Genie” over a couple of hours in RCA’s New York studios (when Bowie demoed the completed “Jean Genie” to the Spiders, they quickly picked up that the song was a blatant rewrite of “I’m a Man,” so Trevor Bolder simply played the “I’m a Man” bassline with a few runs added). It was mixed in Nashville a month later and by Christmas had become Bowie’s highest-charting UK single to date.

Its rushed creation gave “The Jean Genie” a punch and an immediacy; it’s all muscle and sinew. The song’s mainly just three chords—the verses have, in each bar, three beats on E, then one beat on A, and then back to E in the following bar (Ronson plays an Esus4, while a second guitar hits on the A chord). This creates the track’s lumbering momentum: three steps in place, one step up, a quick step back. Bowie’s vocal in the verse mainly stays on one note, then drops down for the last beat of each bar; the lyric’s word-packed and soaked with rhymes, and Bowie usually hits on the third beat of each line (“off to the CIT-y,” “ate all your RA-zors”, “talkin’ bout MON-roe”). Over this Bowie and the Spiders tracked harmonica squalls, guitar fills and rattlesnake percussion (the latter usually signaling the start of each verse).

After two transitory bars to draw out the suspense, the chorus moves up to B (the dominant of the home key, E), Woody Woodmansey slams on each beat, the harp wails, Bowie howls out the vocal. The key line is “let yourself go,” which everyone does. Third verse is different from the first, with Bowie getting snagged on “loves to be loved,” repeating the phrase until Ronson, who’s been buzzing in the background, takes over for a 12-bar solo that’s mainly a blistering run of triplets (matched by Bolder’s bass in the last two bars, which mirrors the intro). The track closes with Ronson’s guitar imitating the rattlesnake tambourine and the band raving up.

“Jean Genie” refined Bowie’s ambitions and Ronson’s skills into a sharp four-minute rock record, one with a great sense of space—take the way every instrument is cleanly defined in the mix. It’s a dance song with a taste of menace (the version taped in Santa Monica in October ’72, linked above, is brutal, Ronson’s guitar sounding like an insurrection). Building on the audience he created with “Starman,” “Jean Genie” expanded Bowie’s base—it was the song that won him the working class vote (in Belfast, Bobby Sands dressed in denim for a while in homage). The Mancunian bruiser Gene Hunt calling himself “the Gene Genie” in Life on Mars seems fitting enough.

Many have called “Jean Genie” a portrait of Iggy Pop as an authentic American Primitive, though Bowie told an interviewer in 2000 that the song’s more about “an Iggy-type character…a white-trash, kind of trailer-park kid thing—the closet intellectual who wouldn’t want the world to know that he reads.” (He’s also claimed that the obvious pun on Jean Genet wasn’t intended, blaming his subconscious). Another inspiration was Cyrinda Foxe, the model who appeared in the promo film and who was Bowie’s major fling during late ’72 (she turns up, under assumed names, in other Aladdin Sane songs like “Watch That Man”). Bowie said he wrote much of the lyric in her apartment to entertain her.

And like “Starman,” “Jean Genie” is fused from pieces of older rock & roll records, from the “I’m a Man” riff to the Mod harmonica (intended to sound like Jagger’s harp on the Rolling Stones’ first LP)—over the years, Bowie has incorporated everything from “Don’t Start Me Talkin'” to “I Walk the Line” to “Purple Haze” into long medleys centered around the song. “I’m in love with rock & roll, and I’ll be out all night,” Jonathan Richman sang in a demo of “Roadrunner” he cut the spring before Bowie’s US invasion: “Jean Genie” could be playing on Richman’s car radio.

Recorded in NYC on 6 October 1972 and released on 24 November (RCA 2302, c/w “Ziggy Stardust”). Bowie premiered “Jean Genie” the day after it was recorded, at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre, and played it throughout his late ’72 US tour. A performance taped for Top of the Pops in December was later wiped [edited Dec 2011] but was blessedly found! And it rocks.

One of Bowie’s finest and most popular singles, “Jean Genie” should’ve been a #1 but was stalled in the second slot, initially by Jimmy Osmond’s “Long Haired Lover From Liverpool” (likely being used to torture people in Syrian prisons as I write this), then by Sweet’s “Blockbuster,” which has pretty much the same riff in its verses. Later on Aladdin Sane and on every Bowie hits compilation ever made, it’s been a staple of most Bowie tours as well.

Top: The late Cyrinda Foxe and Bowie, filming the “Jean Genie” promo film at the Mars Hotel, San Francisco, 27 October 1972.

9 Responses to The Jean Genie

  1. Chris Oliver says:

    I once read that, at the final Ziggy show, the band was joined by Jeff Beck for a medley of “Jean Genie” and “Love Me Do” which could be found on bootlegs of the show. I’ve never come across this version, but man, I’d love to see/hear that!

  2. Anonymous says:

    TOTP’s – audio only, no video.

  3. Anonymous says:

    “The Jean Genie” is a blatant rip off of a song entitled “Oh Yeah”, recorded by 60’s US garage band, The Shadows Of Night.
    “The Jean Genie” is a better song, but it’s a steal.

  4. Andy says:

    Am currently listening to Nuggets – the Lenny Kaye compiled US garage/punk rock compilation, that features “Oh Yeah”, by The Shadows Of Night, and was originally issued in 1972 (can’t find a release date anywhere). It’s pretty inconceivable that Bowie would have been aware of the original US 45, but this compilation was very well received and reviewed by the UK rock press at the time, and DB must surely have heard a copy, and the dynamics of the SoN version are definately ‘referenced’ at the very least on JG.
    By the by this compilation is some kind touchstone both for the beginnings of an appreciation and recognition of ‘rocks rich tapestry’, as well as being a key influence on US and UK punk bands in the mid/late 70s, not to mention the start of a whole re-issue industry. And it’s pretty much all freakin’ great too.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I always thought Jean Genie’s riff sounded a bit like The Doors Texas Radio and the Big Beat. Really enjoying your log, congrats and thanks

  6. Rufus oculus says:

    Just listened to the Shadows of Night song Oh Yeah on my IPod and it’s obviously Jean Genie but I think it more likely that Ronson or someone else in Bowie’s entourage was more familiar with the Bo Diddley original than this cover.

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