It’s Gonna Be Me

October 19, 2010

It’s Gonna Be Me.
It’s Gonna Be Me (live, 1974).

“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.

After Today

October 14, 2010

After Today (earlier studio take, fragment).
After Today.

Within days of Bowie starting work at Sigma Sound in Philadelphia, a routine had developed. Bowie’s musicians, particularly Mike Garson, David Sanborn and Carlos Alomar, would show up in the late morning or early afternoon and would record overdubs, jam, try out arrangements. Bowie tended to arrive late, around 11 pm, and, fueled by cocaine, would usually work through the following morning. The grueling pace took its toll on many players (Garson recalled being one of the few who had the stamina to endure Bowie’s all-nighters) as well as on Tony Visconti, who had what he thought was a heart attack while driving home from the studio one morning.

Bowie went through the day’s takes upon his arrival, picked what he thought worked, then usually sang live in the studio with his band. The communal, spontaneous nature of the Sigma sessions, with songs often coming together out of jam sessions, played by a free-flowing group of musicians and singers, and with Bowie fans camped outside the studio (he eventually let them come in to hear rough mixes), was a contrast to the Diamond Dogs period, in which Bowie was often isolated, producing and playing much of that record himself.

“After Today” is typical of the freewheeling Sigma sessions, as it was tried out both as a slow, moody ballad and as an uptempo piece, with a take of the latter version eventually released on Bowie’s career retrospective Sound + Vision (the decision seemed to be Rykodisc’s, who preferred the faster take).

Bowie’s decision to sing much of “After Today” in falsetto turned out to be overly ambitious, and likely doomed the song to being an outtake, but “After Today” remains a showcase for Andy Newmark’s drumming. Newmark, who was a replacement behind the kit for both Sly and The Family Stone and Roxy Music, had started out in a ten-piece soul band. His playing was so dynamic that, at an impromptu audition, he got the wasted Sly Stone out of his bed and dancing. Newmark often played a stripped-down kit—a bass drum, snare, hi-hat and one cymbal doing double-duty as a ride and crash—and got a sharp, cracking sound via a tightened snare head and by constantly hitting rim-shots. He once described his sound as being “either super low or super high—super bottom or super top. Everything cuts through the band. The bass drum and the floor tom are like volcanos.” An earlier take of “After Today,” which turned up on the “Shilling the Rubes” tape, has a ferocious 4-bar intro by Newmark that could have kicked off a punk song.

Recorded 13-18 August 1974, though it’s possible the Ryko version was cut later that year. Released on the Sound + Vision boxed set in 1989, but oddly enough “After Today” has never been included on various Young Americans reissues.

Top: Pete Dexter, Philadelphia, 1974.