The Story of David Bowie’s Young Americans

March 20, 2020

Cocaine, no sleep and deep soul.
‘His eyes didn’t look healthy but his voice might be better than on any other album’ – pianist Mike Garson and guitarist Carlos Alomar recall the sessions that featured soul greats like Luther Vandross and visitors John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen

It wasn’t just the alien eyes, the golden disc embedded in his forehead or the shock of Martian mullet – the creature known as Ziggy Stardust had a strange pulse too, a vibration in his veins that no earthly drug could have given him. Pianist Mike Garson, drawn from the jazz world to bring jagged avant-garde shapes to 1973’s Aladdin Sane, saw it in him as they travelled together on Ziggy’s farewell tour, gazing out at America through tinted glass with a mixture of awe, infatuation and hunger. Ziggy’s bloodstream, he saw, was sucking in soul.

“I remember driving in the limos with him at that period of time and he’d have the headphones on listening to Aretha Franklin,” Garson says today. “He was already sucked into that universe. He told me that when he grew up in the Fifties and Sixties in London, he loved those black soul groups.

He loved Little Richard, he thought he was a god. It was absolutely in him, like you can’t believe. He was consumed by that music. You see him in the limo listening, and you could see it going in his body, the feel of ‘Natural Woman’ by Aretha. It was like he was being infused.”

Within two years of Ziggy’s onstage demise at the Hammersmith Apollo in July 1973, David Bowie’s deep soul infusions would culminate in Young Americans, his legendary “plastic soul” record released 45 years ago next month (7 March).

Those rock historians who dismiss the album as a white elephant among Bowie’s 1970s output, a throwaway transition record between the sci-fi glam years and the Thin White Duke era of Station to Station, underestimate its significance. Because this was Bowie’s first display of true fearlessness, rock’s most celebrated shape-shifter attempting his first real post-fame metamorphosis.

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