It’s Hard To Be a Saint In the City

November 3, 2010

It’s Hard To Be a Saint In the City (Bruce Springsteen, demo, 1972).
It’s Hard To Be a Saint In the City (Springsteen, Greetings From Asbury Park).
It’s Hard To Be a Saint In the City (Springsteen, live, 1975).
It’s Hard To Be a Saint In the City (Bowie, 1974?).

After I heard this track I never rode the subway again… it’s called ‘Saint In the City’. That really scared the living ones out of me, that.

Bowie on Radio One, May 1979.

Bruce Springsteen came to Sigma Sound on 25 November 1974, on what was supposed to be the last night of the Young Americans sessions. His escort was Ed Sciaky, a Philadelphia DJ, who had brought Springsteen along at the request of Tony Visconti. Bowie had been working on a version of “It’s Hard to Be a Saint In the City,” off of Springsteen’s debut album, which was Bowie’s favorite of Springsteen’s records. (During the ’79 Radio One appearance, Bowie took a dig at Darkness At the Edge of Town.) Visconti thought Springsteen would be interested in hearing the cover, even playing on it.

Springsteen at this time seemed committed to living out his own street myths. Contacted around noon that day, he hitched a ride to Asbury Park, then took a Trailways bus to Philadelphia, and, upon arriving, hung out with the bums in the station until he was picked up.

Bruce is stylishly attired in a stained brown leather jacket with about seventeen zippers and a pair of hoodlum jeans. He looked like he just fell out of a bus station, which he had.

Mike McGrath, Bowie Meets Springsteen, November 1974.

Bowie arrived at the studio an hour later. The initial meeting was polite but strained. Springsteen was shy and reserved, while Bowie admitted years later that he was so cracked up on drugs and worn down by his breakneck work schedule that he found it hard to relate to anyone. “What do I say to normal people?” Bowie recalled. “There was a real impasse.” Still, the two found common ground, complaining about stage jumpers, and Bowie complimented Springsteen by saying there was no other American artist he was interested in covering. Bowie tried to do a vocal take, noted it wasn’t late enough in the evening (“I won’t be able to record anything till about half past five”); he drifted in and out of the conversations, perking up when the talk turned to UFOs.

Springsteen left at 5 AM. Bowie never played him the cover of “It’s Hard to Be a Saint,” partly because Bowie wasn’t happy with the track, which he soon shelved. A shame, because Bowie’s somber, romantic take on “Saint,” complete with a Visconti string section, was in line with what Springsteen was attempting to do, broadening the sonic palette of his first two records, committing fully to what the radical John Sinclair sneeringly called “tales of a mythic urban grease scene.” Springsteen had spent much of 1974 laboring over what would become Born to Run, with little to show for it at year’s end. Only when he hooked up with Jon Landau and Steven Van Zandt, in March ’75, did the record really take focus.

“It’s Hard to Be a Saint,” with its Bo Diddley-esque braggadocio, its self-mythology, was better suited for Bowie than “Growin’ Up,” Bowie’s earlier cover. Bowie sang it as though he was trying out the extent of his vocal range (taking the verses low, subbing for his backing singers on “don’t that man look pretty”). There are the occasional wayward notes and gruesome phrases that seem to be attempting Americanisms, but it’s one of Bowie’s more inspired covers of the decade, better than most of the covers Bowie officially released. Bowie was channeling Springsteen’s own development, ghosting his future records. The two would never work together, but on that evening, unknown to each other, they were brothers.

Recorded 20-24 November 1974? (though it’s possible Bowie revisited the track during the Station to Station sessions, in October-November 1975). Released on the Sound + Vision box set in 1989.

Top: Terry O’Neill, “Bruce Springsteen on the Sunset Strip,” 1975.


Young Americans

October 12, 2010

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).


Growin’ Up

August 19, 2010

Growin’ Up (Bruce Springsteen, demo, 1972).
Growin’ Up (Springsteen, live, 1972).
Growin’ Up (Springsteen, Greetings From Asbury Park).
Growin’ Up (Bowie.)

By late ’73 Bowie had discovered Bruce Springsteen’s debut album Greetings From Asbury Park N.J. and soon covered two songs from it. The tracks didn’t make the grade, though: Bowie’s Springsteen covers were shelved for nearly 15 years until they appeared on various CD reissues. (Bowie likely first heard the songs as demos or acetates, as Springsteen was being pushed in the UK throughout 1973 by Adrian Rudge, a colleague of the Beatles’ former music publisher Dick James.)

Early Springsteen and Bowie had much in common. Springsteen was as much a self-mythologist as Bowie was, and, like Bowie, his core instincts were theatrical (there’s a very thin line between Born to Run and Bat Out of Hell). Bowie also recognized in Springsteen a fellow latecomer. Though they had lived (and recorded, in Bowie’s case) through the ’60s, each knew they were fated to be judged in its shadow: they would be curators and inheritors as much as they were creators.

Of course Bowie also likely enjoyed Springsteen’s “Growin’ Up” as a piece of American blue-collar exotica: Springsteen rewriting his adolescence into a goofball autobiography, a cross of Mad magazine strip and misheard Dylan lyric. Bowie’s version of “Growin’ Up” is quite faithful to the original, with Mike Garson slowing the tempo of David Sancious’ piano line, while Bowie does a fairly credible American-sounding vocal (until he squawks out “she couldn’t SAYL” in the second verse). It’s a curio, interesting mainly in that it seems, like the Astronettes material Bowie was working up in late ’73, to be an initial sketch of Young Americans, and suggesting that Diamond Dogs was something of a detour.

Recorded in November 1973 (lead guitar by Ron Wood, who seemed to turn up on every UK record cut from ’73 to ’75); it was eventually released on the Ryko reissue of Pin Ups and, later, on the 30th anniversary reissue of Diamond Dogs.

Top: Edie Steiner, “Father and Son,” 1973.