Before heading off the England for grad school in 1975, I spent weeks compiling audiocassettes of my must-have music, praying a dinky tape deck could replace my stereo system and shelves of vinyl. At the last minute, I ran to the nearest record store (remember those?) and supplemented my homemade mixtapes with a handful of new cassettes, impulse buys of completely new-to-me albums I hoped would help tide me over. Linda Ronstadt's Greatest Hits, for some reason, and Maria Muldaur's Waitress in a Donut Shop. Dylan's Nashville Skyline. Stevie Wonder's Innervisions. The soundtrack to The Harder They Come. Frank Zappa's Hot Rats. Rod Stewart's Every Picture Tells a Story. Steve Miller's The Joker. J.J. Cale's Naturally. Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water (probably because the store didn't have Bookends, the one I really wanted). And -- one of the most random purchases of the day -- David Bowie's Young Americans.
An odd assortment, eh? But, separated from my LP collection, I played those tapes to death over the next two years, and I'll always have a special fondness for every track. (Because -- remember audiocassettes? -- we listened to tapes straight through; it was such a pain to fast-forward or back up.)
Even today, I can't listen to "Young Americans" without smiling.
My main reference point for Bowie up till then had been the glorious "Space Oddity" -- imagine my surprise to hear Mr. Glam Rock transformed into Soul Brother No. 33. Recorded in Philly, with R&B luminaries like Luther Vandross aboard, Young Americans (both song and album) was Bowie's homage to American soul music. In typically Bowie fashion, he never took this too seriously, describing his imitation as "plastic soul," or "the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey." (The British talent for self-deprecation, in full flower.)
On top of that, the lyrics made absolutely no sense. It was like switching channels at random while watching late-night TV, a surreal montage of Life In These United States. I was hardly surprised when someone told me that Bowie wrote this after a 3-day coke binge. Of course!
But oh, the slick smooth hustle of that beat, underlaid with gospel choir back-up singers and David Sanborn's sizzling sax -- I just can't resist it. I love the edge of hysteria in Bowie's vocal, all gulps and pant and howls of ecstasy. Those random phrases still worm into into my head at the strangest moments, and once they do, I'm on that soul train for days.
Phrases like: "They pulled in just behind the bri-idge, he la-ays her down, / He frowns, / 'Gee-ee my life's a funny thing, am I still too young?'" (Calling James Dean!) Later on in verse two, she gets her own bit of non sequitur dialogue, as for no reason at all "She cries 'Where have all Papa's heroes gone?'"
In the bridge, Bowie leans confiding into the mike for his own husky, half-spoken question: "Do you remember / Your President Nixon?" In 1975, that name still sent a chill through the room. Yet the riddling follow-up -- "Do you remember the bills you have to pay? / Or even yesterday?" -- I always assumed it meant that our society was still paying the price for the Nixon era, but now I wonder if I'm giving Bowie more satiric credit than he deserves.
And that other haunting question, from verse three: "All the way from Washington [remember the March on Washington]? / Her bread-winner begs off the bathroom floor / 'We live for just these twenty years / Do we have to die for the fifty more?'" I often ask myself that question. Was Bowie really clever enough to skewer America's obsession with youth way back then?
Still, there are a few flashes of real poetry. That sexy line "She took his ring, took his babies" in verse one; later on, "Sit on your hands on a bus of survivors / Blushing at all the Afro-Sheeners." I don't know what that really says about race relations in America, but I see it. And later on, he blurs the race lines even further, scatting "Black's got respect, and white's got his soul train." No one knows where they stand any more.
It's a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world all right, and Bowie keeps shifting the ground under our feet. In the first chorus, he sighs, "All night /She wants the young American" but later it's "He wants the young American," and then it's "you" and finally it's "I." Or as he babbles in the drawn-out, chaotic ending, "You want it, I want you, you want I, I want you want" -- who knows where desire begins or ends?
It's a mash-up all right -- dig the part when the backing singers quote the Beatles "A Day in the Life" -- "I heard the news today, oh boy." Along with his soul obsession, Bowie was in the middle of a John Lennon phase -- the YA LP also featured a Lennon-Bowie collaboration, "Fame," and Bowie's cover of Lennon's "Across the Universe." Let's throw it all in while we're at it!
My favorite questions, though, come in that final section: "Ain't that close to love? /Well, ain't that poster love?" (I sing that to myself all the time, I swear.) And that prescient statement of gender role confusion: "Ain't there a man who can say no more? / And, ain't there a woman I can sock on the jaw?" (Ah, the British pronunciation of "jawr"...)
But the best is that dramatic moment when the instruments stop, the echo switches on, and Bowie drops to his knees to wail in his best James Brown voice: "Ain't there one damn song that can make me / Break down and cry?"
Beat, beat, wait for it -- and with a great keyboard gliassando the instruments rush in, the hustle picks up again, and we're back on the dance floor. Ah, a bizarre and wonderful song indeed.