"Is David Bowie's 'Young Americans' the greatest song ever?" asked the 2004 fourth edition of The Rolling Stone Album Guide. "For the five minutes of the song, all anyone could ever want is to be or do a young American. David Bowie's whole world, & everything great about rock & roll, is in this tune."
& even better is the version he sang on The Dick Cavett Show in 1974:
Let's be clear here: "Young Americans" is not the greatest rock & roll song--it's not even the greatest David Bowie song. But it has a grit, an attitude that carries it, at once cool & removed, & intimate & sexy. The song caught Bowie in his short-lived "plastic soul" phase--between the far more celebrated "Ziggy Stardust" & "Thin White Duke" periods--where he tried to make classic soul & Philadelphia funk records, or at least his own version of it.
By the time he sang the song on Dick Cavett, Bowie was in the midst of a sold-out series of concerts & his usually-pristine voice was shot. We hear him reach for notes he can't quite hit & run ragged over his own lyrics. Instead of taking away from the performance, it only makes it that much better, his body literally injecting that raspy-voiced, going-all-out feel that makes soul music soulful.
& all of this on the title track of a mediocre album in a period of his career which is usually overlooked by his more thrilling peaks.
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When David Bowie died yesterday on January 10--two days after his 69th birthday & the release of his final album Blackstar--he left a legacy that is little equaled in rock. Instead of asking, "What David Bowie song do you like best?," one could just as easily ask, "Which David Bowie do you like best?" A decade before the likes of Michael Jackson, Madonna, & Prince were changing up their looks & styles with each new album, David Bowie was pioneering the melding of rock & roll & performance art. He is often described as a chameleon, but this doesn't do him justice. A chameleon blends in with their surroundings; Bowie stood out & led the way for others to follow.
He emerged just after Rock had established itself as Art (with an uppercase A), through the likes of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper & everything that Bob Dylan ever touched. The Beatles & Bob Dylan showed that a rock performer could be a rock artist--& change & progress as their career saw fit. Hence, you have The Beatles' sonic development from the folk-rock of Rubber Soul to the psychedelic rock Revolver & beyond, as well as Dylan's lyrical development from the earnest folksinger of The Times They Are A-Changin' to the surreal joker of Another Side Of Bob Dylan & Bringing It All Back Home. What The Beatles & Dylan did with their albums, Bowie did with his albums, but also with himself.
For Bowie's music wasn't only inspired by his rock peers, but by artists like Andy Warhol, whose "Pop Idea" that anyone could do anything was a major influence. Bowie was also fascinated by the likes of Anthony Newley, a British actor who played a pop star & then became one in real life. Finally, the lure of musical theater (& the gay community that surrounded it) appealed to Bowie, a stage on which one could literally act out a role & become a star.
All of this would inform his music & his Art, which were one in the same.
He developed from the psychedelic pop of "Space Oddity" (1969) & the underrated The Man Who Sold The World (1970) the following year into the showtune-souding-heavy Hunky Dory (1971), which, propelled by his signature "Changes," was his first masterpiece. All of this set the stage for his most celebrated achievement: Ziggy Stardust.
Building on The Beatles & Dylan's musical advancements & mixing it with the philosophy of Andy Warhol, he decided that he would become the biggest rock star in the world by playing the role. He used stretch limos & booked major arenas, believing that if you want to be treated like a star, you have to act like one. What is often overlooked is that the album this was all built upon, The Rise & Fall Of Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars (1972), was a rare rock masterpiece, one of the finest albums ever created. From the opening doom-threat of "Five Years" through the wrenching closer "Rock & Roll Suicide" some 40 minutes later, not a second is wasted. Glam rock would soon become an overblown joke of excess, but here it's the economy that shocks you. The title track "Ziggy Stardust" & "Suffragette City" are the famous ones, but every song is a classic. To my ears, nothing sounds better than the centerpiece, "Lady Stardust," which breaks down the love of fandom & rock into a few perfect lines:
I smiled sadly
For a love
I could not obey
Of darkness & dismay
"Lady Stardust"--& in turn, Ziggy Stardust--worked because because it was fueled by love--the sacred bond between fan & star, grounded in a swaying piano & the warmth of an acoustic guitar. It's all so touching that you can almost miss him mumbling get some pussy now at the end of the song.
The whole Ziggy Stardust thing went over brilliantly in England, where a few well-chosen TV appearances & concerts could launch someone of great talent into "The Next Big Thing," but it all fell apart somewhere in the American heartland on his Ziggy Stardust tour. America was too big to hold the illusion in place it seemed, & rock music as a whole was beginning to splinter to a point at which an artist like Elvis or The Beatles could no longer unite it, no matter how good they were. The fallout was charted on Aladdin Sane, in which he seemed to struggle between a new persona of "Aladdin Sane" & a continuation of "Ziggy Stardust."
But credit Bowie for keeping going, wherever his muse took him: The 1984 Orwellian glam opera Diamond Dogs (1974); the plastic soul of Young Americans (1975); the emergence of the "Thin White Duke" on Station To Station (1976); the much-celebrated "Berlin Trilogy" of Low (1977), "Heroes" (1977), & Lodger (1979), which found him mixing rock with atmospheric soundscapes; the postpunk Pierrot of Scary Monsters (& Super Creeps) (1980), which yielded the funky, surreal sequel to "Space Oddity," "Ashes To Ashes," which may just be his finest song of all. Let's Dance (1983) shifted the focus to the dancefloor in the 1980s & contained his last truly classic song, "Modern Love." Since then, he's continued to release material, both solo & with various collaborations, some magical, some forgettable, but none of which carry the stamp of his first decade.
* * *
The truth is that none of it needed to.
Through a combination of hard work & good music, Bowie earned that most dysfunctional decade of rock & roll: The 1970s. No one else could deftly mix singer-songwriter music with underground rock & glam, & then soul, dance music, & ambient art rock--let alone enjoy a major hit at nearly every step of the way.
& in acting like a rock legend, he became one. touching nearly every era & legend of pop music: He claimed to have been in the crowd at Bob Dylan's infamous "Royal Albert Hall" concert in which someone shouted "Judas!" (who was decidedly not Bowie; he couldn't understand why everyone was so angry at this wonderful new music); he collaborated with John Lennon in the 1970s, who co-wrote Bowie's first American #1 hit, "Fame," he even sang a duet with Bing Crosby on "Little Drummer Boy" in a 1977 Christmas special.
He was gracious with his time & talent: He wrote Mott The Hoople's comeback hit, the glorious "All The Young Dudes"; he produced Lou Reed's finest album, Transformer; he co-wrote & co-produced Iggy Pop's signature "Lust For Life"; he co-wrote the classic "Under Pressure" with Queen, the hook of which would go onto power Vanilla Ice's "Ice, Ice Baby" (despite Vanilla's denial); he had a major hit with Mick Jagger on a cover of the old Motown song "Dancing In The Street"; he co-headlined a major 1990s tour with Nine Inch Nails; he collaborated a little over a decade later with a group he had heavily influenced, Arcade Fire. He even wrote a song for Elvis Presley, who passed on it. Bowie decided to record it himself: "Golden Years."
He covered virtually everyone imaginable in the last 40 years of rock music: Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, The Who, The Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen, Iggy Pop, Jonathan Richman, The Pixies, & many, many more. There are even events that defy the above categorization--how Joy Division initially named themselves Warsaw after an instrumental song on Low; how he spent the 1990s collaborating with seemingly anyone who would have him (Al B. Sure!, Lenny Kravitz, Pet Shop Boys, Placebo, etc.); how Kurt Cobain breathed new life into "The Man Who Sold The World," in his last major performance before killing himself.
If David Bowie was the rare artist who could be all things to all people, it was only because he was all things to himself, a kaleidoscope of sound+vision who influenced all who heard him.
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I wish I could find a way to tie everything back to "Young Americans," but I can only be led back to the stubborn, careening chords of "Time":
Perhaps you're smiling now
Smiling through this darkness
But all I have to give
Is guilt for dreaming
We should be home by now.
Goodnight, David. & thank you for everything.