“It’s all a vast creation
putting on a face that’s new”
I always feel a tinge of fear when an album begins with the title track. I know it’s going to open strong – it would be odd to name the album after a mediocre song. But if the best material is over by the sixth minute, is the rest simply going to disappoint?
Young Americans opens fucking strong. Although it doesn’t sound like it on the surface, it is a subtle critique of America’s obsession with youth and potential. A culture that, in Bowie’s words, “live[s] for just these twenty years” but has to “die for the fifty more”. It is about the college football star; the cheerleader; the self-made-man, and the bleakness that follows a life obsessed with youth. It is about the stark reality that the American dream is open only to a lucky few.
Without listening hard, though, you tend to notice only the music – the sax though and the backing vocals. The level of funk from a white dude is astonishing. Full disclosure, apparently the backing vocals were a late edition, suggested by Luther Vandross. Still, I can’t imagine the song without the ““Alllllllllllllrights” and the “wooheewwwhooooowhoooooos”.
Bowie sings The lyrics “well, well, well – would you carry a razor/In case, just in case of depression” and “aint that close to love?” in a soul crushing falsetto. Well, it’s only soul crushing if you’re a musician, and you get jealous of such a consistently original musician. Important aside: the line “all the way from WASHINGTON” is one of those lyrics you find yourself singing at random intervals.
But there are also other songs on the album. Win could be so boring. But then, the chorus kicks in – with it’s odd 4/5 time signature, and more of that Vandross influenced soulful backing vox – and it’s saved. A favourite line of mine that seems to fit with Bowie’s use of the cut-up method on this track is “secret thinkers sometimes thinking aloud”.
The funk backing vocals are particularly prevalent on Fascination, which are recorded over the top of prevalent bass and porn-video guitar. When it began, it occurred to me for the first time that I was running, and fast. I dared not check, but I felt that it might be faster than ever before. I decided that, if I could, I would follow in the tradition of yesterday’s cemetery run, and make 10kms for the third night in a row.
And then Right started. This one is as porn-fitting as Fascination, but without the payoff. The lyrics “takin’ it all the right way” suggest to me that perhaps this is what Bowie had in mind. Without the visuals, though, it’s incredibly boring. Somebody Up There Likes Me is okay, but the album pretty much deflates at this point, except for the stuff Lennon is involved in – the cover of Across the Universe, and the co-written Fame.
The pleasant surprise was the bonus track on the 91 re-issue that didn’t make the cut on the original, Who Can I Be Now. This track carries with it much of the introspection of Bowie’s early tunes, but with the background of his already chameleonic career.
The lyrics “If it’s all a vast creation/Putting on a face that’s new/Someone has to see, a role for him and me/Someone might as well be you” illustrate that constant reinvention can result in a crisis of identity. The line “Nobody can break their bondage. Everybody feels their chains” suggests that, despite your success, you might never escape your self-consciousness. Here, Bowie – I have a shoulder for you to cry on. Oh, waitwaitwai- thanks, you’ve left a lightning-bolt imprint on my shirt.
It’s Gonna Be Me is just about an active but hollow sex life. It’s a common theme found on the albums of touring musicians, highlighting the inability to form real relationships: “There was no rain to check me”. And then, there’s John I’m Only Dancing, with it’s 500th appearance as a bonus track. Seriously, it’s been on the last three albums. And it’s not that good.
The album ended about ¾ of the way through my run. I checked my phone, which told me that I was still pushing a speed of about 11kph. I knew it wouldn’t stay that fast, but I resolved to keep it as quick as I could. Thankfully, the portion to come was downhill.
I ran past the hospital, and watched two people in wheelchairs eyeing me off. It occurred to me how insulting it is to run healthily past a place full of sick people. That made me run a little faster still.
A few encounters with traffic lights slowed me down a little, but I touched the pole I stopped at last time and again checked my phone. Total distance: 10.2km. Speed: 10.67kph. The whole thing was over in less than 58 minutes. The feeling was triumphant.
It was then I noticed my left knee was seizing up. I stretched my leg, then tried swinging it, hoping I could revive it. The swing cut off half way up, when the pain shot up through me like an Aladdin Sane lightning bolt. I went back to stretching, until I felt I could walk.
I marched with knees high the rest of the way back to the apartment, because I have this habit of lazily falling on my left leg when I get tired. Despite my concern that I was goose-walking in a racially diverse area, the march helped substantially, and by the time I got inside the pain lessened substantially.
I thought about tomorrow, and reluctantly decided to take the day off. If I hadn’t felt any pain during the run, I figured I probably better play it safe. The question that remained, though, was whether I could run the day after that.