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.