I always had a soft spot for ‘Young Americans’, Bowie’s 1975 blue-eyed soul album. An early version of that album – called ‘The Gouster’ – is now included in box set ‘Who Can I Be Now? [1974-1976]’. While most of the tracks already appeared elsewhere, I had never heard the slightly rougher take on Can You Hear Me before. So there I sat, during my early train ride to work. With eyes all watery from the sensitive phrasing of the very first line: “Once we were lovers.”
Overall, the delicacies of Bowie’s vocal performance seem to be invented on the spot. Especially when compared to the delivery he later greenlighted for ‘Young Americans’. There’s a bit of hiss in the background. And even on Bowie’s voice, hoarse from cocaine addiction. Moreover, the a capella ending, strings and timpani of the final version are missing, … And yet, it all adds to the emotional radiance of the song.
“Life has surface noise”
The triumph of this rendition is that it’s NOT crystal-clear. There is some surface noise. Which makes me think of that great quote by the legendary John Peel: “Somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don’t have any surface noise. I said, ‘Listen, mate, life has surface noise.'”
From Carlos to Cass
On a side note, Carlos Alomar’s classy guitar fill right after the line “closer than others, I was your…” was already in place. Now, I don’t know whether that melodic trick was a trope he found in the records that influenced him. But the fact is that it lives on. The other day, I discovered a similar figure in the chorus of Opposite House, a mellotron-heavy song on the excellent ‘Mangy Love’ (2016) by Cass McCombs. Check it out!
How Can You Hear Me was born
And just before you go, enjoy the ‘Young Americans’ version of Can You Hear Me: