“It’s Gonna Be Me,” Bowie’s epic outtake from the Young Americans sessions, is in the same realm as “Can You Hear Me”: both are sung by a wayward man regretting his actions, wondering if he’s left the real thing behind, and slowly circling into obsession, with the chorus serving as reassurance, or possibly only voicing his delusions.
Bowie had done his research before going to Sigma Sound, listening to recent Philly Soul, Aretha Franklin and Al Green records, and tracks like “It’s Gonna Be Me” find Bowie playing with soul conventions, particularly with vocal choruses. In a typical Green track, the chorus is under Green’s complete control, keeping quiet until he gives his cue; so in “Let’s Get Married” it’s only after Green finally reaches his conclusion (“I wanna settle down”) that the chorus rushes in to sing the title phrase. They elaborate on his thought, but they’re only ratifying a decision he’s already made. And in many of Franklin’s classic songs, like “Respect” or “Don’t Play That Song,” the chorus serves as her confidant, backing her plays, urging her on, fueling her indignation.
In “It’s Gonna Be Me,” the backing singers are barely there in Bowie’s three long, tortured verses, cropping up only to softly underline a particular phrase (like “weep over the breakfast tray”). Then they emerge as a support system in the chorus, singing simple, upward-moving lines while Bowie scurries around them. Bowie can barely bring himself to sing the title line, which he nearly mutters in its first appearance, leaving the chorus singers to provide the melodic hook.
With the church-trained Luther Vandross helping to craft the vocal arrangements, it’s easy to argue that the vocal narrative casts Bowie’s lead as a wandering penitent, one eventually reconciled to community in the chorus. Yet there’s often a disunion between Bowie’s vocal and the chorus—they come together, they work together, but there’s still a feeling of estrangement. Bowie seems unable to accept his singers’ reassurances, his jittery phrasing undermines their solidarity. The last verse, in which all but Mike Garson’s piano abandon Bowie, is so brutal, the singer walling himself up in desperate fantasy, that when the singers finally reappear to help Bowie play out the final chorus, it seems like they’re only doing so out of pity.
“It’s Gonna Be Me” initially was considered a central track for Young Americans, and Tony Visconti wrote a typically understated, sumptuous string arrangement once he returned to London in late 1974. But it was cut to make room for Bowie’s collaborations with/homages to John Lennon (“Who Can I Be Now?” also got axed).
Recorded 11-18 August 1974 and performed in some of the late ’74 Philly Dogs shows (the performance linked above is from Los Angeles in Sept. ’74). The studio take wasn’t released until the Ryko CD issue of Young Americans in 1991.
Top: Neil Libbert, “New York,” 1974.