1976. I'm back in England, going to grad school. Living out of a suitcase, I'd had to reduce my record collection to home-made audiocassettes, played on a dinky tape deck. Every once in awhile, however, on trips to London I'd splurge on store-bought cassettes. ChangesOneBowie fairly leapt out of the bin at me. After all, I thought with some twisted logic, since I didn't own any of those great early 70s Bowie albums (Hunky Dory, Zigga Stardust, Aladdin Sane), wouldn't the greatest hits do as well?
Well -- as I have since learned -- the greatest hits never "do as well." But for those two years abroad, separated from my LPs, I played the few tapes I owned to death, and ChangesOneBowie was no exception. In fact it was a downright revelation. There I was, on my pilgrimage to the land that spawned the British Invasion, and what track did I fall in love with? The one where Mr. Glam Rock decided to transform himself into Soul Brother No. 33.
Recorded in Philly, with R&B luminaries like Luther Vandross aboard, "Young Americans" was Bowie's love letter to American soul music. (He had the good grace to describe his version 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.") Unlike a straightforward Hit Factory song, though, 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 love the edge of hysteria in Bowie's vocal, all gulps and pants and yips of fevered ecstasy. Those random phrases still worm 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!) 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.
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" -- you'd never get this gender confusion in an American soul, but we expected no less from Bowie, the crown prince of androgyny.
In the bridge, Bowie leans confiding into the mike for his own husky, half-spoken question: "Do you remember / Your President Nixon?" In 1976, that name still sent a chill through the room.
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?'" Ah, the American obsession with youth. It's a curious insight, coming from a man who himself cheated that equation, endlessly reinventing himself -- his own last fifty years were a remarkable second chapter, and third, and fourth . . . who'd ever have thought he'd find so many ways to remain artistically relevant?
In the final section, a random series of unanswered questions tumble out: "Ain't that close to love? /Well, ain't that poster love?" (I sing that to myself all the time, I swear.) And my favorite -- 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?"
It's a glorious mishmash, hardly a major artistic statement. It didn't make me homesick for America. Satire? Homage? I'm still not sure. But it didn't matter. There I was in grad school, writing paper after paper about what English literature "meant" -- but when I listened to "Young Americans," I didn't have to explain. It just was. I listened to it and listened to it, and now every beat is etched in my brain.
And I still love it.