Night Music: David Bowie, “Young Americans”

Do you remember President Nixon. Or the bills you have to pay?

We finally watched Twenty Feet from Stardom, the documentary about backup singers that was a must-see hit a couple of years ago. It’s pretty delightful, and also sad, as the women who learned to sing in church eventually see their bigger dreams of solo success fizzle.

The movie finally settles on Darlene Love’s compelling story for its big emotional finish, and that’s fine, but it also downplays the success story of Luther Van Dross, who can be seen in this video from New Years—as 1974 turns into 1975—backing up David Bowie on Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Years Eve. Vandross is the chubby fellow on the left.

Vandross successfully escaped the gravity of the background singer role and had a successful solo career as a singer and producer, unlike the stories featured in the movie. That’s a sign that the movie is more a charming story than truth telling, but it’s worth seeing just to spend time with Love, the Blossoms, Merry Clayton, Claudia Lennear, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega and many others. Their stories are really interesting, and inevitably tell a richer story than the one the movie chooses to focus on.

This clip is for Luther Vandross and yesterday, the day after David Bowie’s birthday. It is cool, a synonym for awesome.

9 thoughts on “Night Music: David Bowie, “Young Americans”

  1. It’s funny that you led with that quote from Young Americans, Peter. I hated that line then and I hate it now, demonstrating as it does a contempt for his audience. I can just see David, fretting and wondering which bills he will pay and which ones have to wait. This is the sort of thing that justified the English version of punk. As for Nixon, what courage David displayed kicking a recently deceased horse. I also take exception to “is there a woman I can sock on the jaw.” I know many women who would kick his ass if he tried. BTW, when David and Iman showed up at Will Regan’s club (he’s my friend that lived with her, he has owned many nightclubs in NYC), Will said to Bowie “If you have any trouble with her, I’ve got the owner’s manual.” Now THAT’S a line that belongs in a song.

  2. I always liked the Nixon line, which was written at the same time Nixon was resigning, for its sound. It’s smooth and plain spoken, and isn’t, I don’t think, kicking Nixon so much as reminding us all that we have our flaws and failures. And the bills to pay, I think, were meant as moral bills, not financial ones, though maybe there is some playing with both images.

    The song is also about striving, and the sock on the jaw line is in a series of boasts about his (aspirational) success. He could have chosen a better image, but I don’t see the contempt you’re seeing Gene.

  3. Nixon was a lying fucked up asshole. Just one of many stupid arrogant overlords presented by the Republican Party. Remember, I lived in California during his attempt to unseat Brown Sr, and when Reagan did and fucked up the state the same as he fucked up the country economically. Trace Wood wrote a brilliant analysis about the illusion of financial success that Reagan is credited with.

    Nixon liked ketchup on his cottage cheese (Peter, I know you must have seen John Water’s “Tricia’s Wedding”). That says everything. So does David Eisenhower being totally immersed in Strat O Matic during the Nixon meltdown.

  4. Knocking Nixon is like knocking Mussolini, you’re not taking any chances. Young Americans came out in 1975. Bowie shows his contempt by in effect stating that his his audience doesn’t remember 1) Nixon, 2) their bills, moral or fiscal, and 3) yesterday. Also by the “took him minutes, took her nowhere” line. But David Bowie is morally superior because clearly he does remember, and I’m sure he just takes HOURS to come, and because when he has taken her to paradise, after all that ecstasy, he wants to punch her in the jaw. He always wrote some cringe-inducing lyrics, such as “screwed up eyes and screwed down hairdo, like some cat from Japan.” I mean, ouch.

  5. Like I said, I don’t think the line knocks Nixon so much as reminds us he was one of ours, we voted for him, but I’m not a Bowie-phile. I’ve always found his style mostly impeccable and mostly opportunistic. Which is why I like him most in short doses. I’m a suburban boy who values sincerity, at least sometimes, and we don’t find that often in Bowie.

    But the “took him minutes, took her nowhere” line is super clever. It is kitchen sink drama in just a few words, that leads to a fine couplet and riposte. Also kitchen sink, but totally earned by the craft.

    Young Americans was released in 1975, but the clip was from New Years leading out of 1974, and the song was written months before that. The Nixon line is clearly not about actually remembering, but rather remembering the price that was paid. For me, too, that is clever and smart, which is a virtue, if not the ultimate virtue.

    I agree that Bowie’s lyrics aren’t trustworthy, and I won’t defend the sock on the jaw line. It doesn’t have to be offensive, but it surely could be. The line there is not clear.

    But I’m not convinced he’s condescending for the most part. I could be wrong about that.

  6. I agree with Peter. And, sorry for the rant, but I get so incensed at Nixon and Reagan. Especially Reagan. But, when the right suggests Obama has the most corrupt administration ever (they say that) I think, uh, Agnew and John Mitchell went to jail and Nixon resigned, all because of crimes they committed. I think that wins the prize until further notice.

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