John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

David Bowie’s “Young Americans”

Remembering the late great artist, who was making potent music right to the end.

By - Jan 11th, 2016 12:55 pm
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David Bowie

David Bowie

David Bowie was Elvis Presley handsome. He could have coasted, like many a pretty boy before and after him. But like Elvis, having that rare coincidence of physical beauty and outstanding talent insured he would be more than producer’s meal ticket or teen-zine heart throb.

He came at an interesting moment in pop history. The ‘60’s had over-ripened and indulgence of every sort was the order of the day. Our once dependably great pop charts, the ones that used to feature a bountiful mismatch of great music from various hotspots, were starting to buckle under the weight of arena-ready spectacles. By the ‘70s it was a time mullets, glitter, cocaine and ennui.

Bowie, at first glimpse, seemed to dovetail into that scene, although it must be admitted most were copying him to some degree. Beneath the troweled-on makeup and ever-escalating level of bizarre presentation, there was something basically sound in all of his music. Yes, he was well known for his ever-shifting personas and of-the-moment androgyny, but where those accoutrements seemed to make a lot of flash-in-the-glam opportunists easy to dismiss, with Bowie you always sensed a savvy and schooled musician who knew what he wanted and how to get it.

He had the edge on a lot of the competition as a songwriter, too. I always found his lyrics intriguing and funny. There was hipness that rose about four stories above the others, too. Who aside from the late lamented Lou Reed, could spit out a line like, “Don’t you lean on me man, cause you can’t afford the ticket,” as he did in “Suffragette City?” There are more than a few songwriters who would kill to have just one line that great, but Bowie never ran out of them.

When punk music arrived, he managed to somehow be both the problem and one of the often cited inspirations. Punk was a response to all things bloated and pretentious. In certain lights, you could accuse Bowie of both. His shows were high-concept and high budget in a way that anticipated the artists of the MTV generation. His music could be slick, although most often it kept a pretty basic rock and roll groove. And let’s face it, he spent a lot of his time in the avant garde artist’s colony of the day. Yet when punk happened, he was given a free pass. I think it was simply because he was so damn good at what he did.

Another stance he invented and is so important to many of today’s artists, was the spectral shift in identity throughout his career. He was very multi-media, you might say, making himself a piece of art that sang and played. Thanks to him we have Madonna, Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj. Your call on that trio and other shape-shifters  — but whether you love what they do or not, the math is simple: No Bowie, they’re not there.

On the move throughout his life, he had many periods where he seemed infallible. One particularly rich vein was struck when he recorded in Philadelphia and paid tribute to the chart-topping producers and artists in that town. Working with his regular producer, Tony Visconti, the resulting album and title track, “The Young Americans,” is rambunctious, celebratory and in this video, from The Dick Cavett show, utterly convincing. The lyrics:

They pulled in just behind the bridge
He lays her down, he frowns
Gee my life’s a funny thing, am I still too young?
He kissed her then and there
She took his ring, took his babies
It took him minutes, took her nowhere
Heaven knows, she’d have taken anything, but

All night
She wants the young American
Young American, young American, she wants the young American
All right
She wants the young American

Scanning life through the picture window
She finds the slinky vagabond
He coughs as he passes her Ford Mustang, but
Heaven forbid, she’ll take anything
But the freak, and his type, all for nothing
Misses a step and cuts his hand, but
Showing nothing, he swoops like a song
She cries where have all Papa’s heroes gone?

All night
She wants a young American
Young American, young American, she wants the young American
All right
She wants the young American

All the way from 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?”

All night
He wants the young American
Young American, young American, he wants the young American
All right
He wants the young American

Do you remember, your President Nixon?
Do you remember, the bills you have to pay
For even yesterday?

Have you have been an un-American?
Just you and your idol singing falsetto ’bout
Leather, leather everywhere, and
Not a myth left from the ghetto
Well, well, well, would you carry a razor
In case, just in case of depression?
Sit on your hands on a bus of survivors
Blushing at all the afro-Sheilas
Ain’t that close to love?
Well, ain’t that poster love?
Well, it ain’t that Barbie doll
Her heart’s been broken just like you have

All night
All night was a young American
Young American, young American, you want the young American
All right
All right you want the young American

You ain’t a pimp and you ain’t a hustler
A pimp’s got a Cadi and a lady got a Chrysler
Black’s got respect, and white’s got his Soul Train
Mama’s got cramps, and look at your hands ache
(I heard the news today, oh boy)
I got a suite and you got defeat
Ain’t there a man you can say no more?
And, ain’t there a woman I can sock on the jaw?
And, ain’t there a child I can hold without judging?
Ain’t there a pen that will write before they die?
Ain’t you proud that you’ve still got faces?
Ain’t there one damn song that can make me
Break down and cry?

All night
I want the young American
Young American, young American, I want the young American
All right
I want the young American, young American whoa whoa

Young American, young American
I want what you want
I want what you want
You want more
I want you
You want I
I want you
I want what you want
But you want what you want
You want I
I want you
And all I want is a young American
Young American

Published by Lyrics © EMI Music Publishing, Peermusic Publishing, Universal Music Publishing Group

Bowie died yesterday at age 69. He appealed to the high and low brow, never settling in anywhere near the middle. With surprising salutes coming in from the staid likes of David Cameron  and the Archbishop of Canterbury, he was the exotic bird that less exotic types could still relate to.

In this song Bowie asks, “”We live for just these twenty years, do we have to die for the fifty more?” He got almost that far, but seems to have gone on living right up to the end. His newest collection, called “Blackstar,” hit the streets as he was taking his last elegant bow. An amazing hat trick, by an amazing artist, who leaves this world and goes where? The best meme on the Facebook stream by far: “If you’re ever sad, just remember the world is 4.543 billion years old and you somehow managed to to exist at the same time as David Bowie.”

5 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: David Bowie’s “Young Americans””

  1. Howard Ellis says:

    Beautifully written.

    His lyricism forces the rest of us who aspire to our own place in the sun to go back and rethink, rewrite, rearrange.

    – H

  2. Randy says:

    With Bowie, you never knew what you were going to get. And I loved that.

  3. Brian says:

    Thank you David Bowie, and thank you Mr. Sieger. Quite the musician lineup on Young Americans, too. Luther Vandross, David Sanborn, and “I heard the news today, oh boy,” John Lennon.

  4. john kishline says:

    So well done John. He was always way ahead. In our own way, so were we.

  5. much appreciated, John, a tribute worthy of Bowie’s genius…
    though not a hardcore fan, I’ve long been a great admirer of his astonishing creativity–
    and never more than in the aftermath, watching video after video…
    and damn, what great bands!
    Long live the Starman!

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