The Story Behind The Song: David Bowie’s ‘The Jean Genie’ inspired by New York’s finest
David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane may well go down as one of the most iconic album covers of all time but beneath the starting exterior was another record full to the brim with glittered gasoline, ready to power Bowie’s rocket ship to stardom. One of the most memorable moments on the album was, of course, the pumping rock anthem, ‘The Jean Genie’.
Rather than an ode to a denim-clad deity, the track is instead a homage to New York City’s finest and Bowie nods his head to the sons and daughter of The Big Apple that inspired his soul. As we revisit Bowie’s ‘The Jean Genie’ we’re diving deep into The Story Behind The Song.
‘The Jean Genie’ may have been a furious album track on Aladdin Sane but was released some months before the LP. Shared in November of 1972, the track was another dousing of fuel to the already brightly-burning Bowie bonfire, as his persona Ziggy Stardust begun to capture the hearts and minds of those on both sides of the pond.
The song features all of Bowie’s regular players in the Spiders from Mars, Trevor Bolder, Mick Woodmansey and, of course, Mick Ronson, as well as Ken Scott on production. For it, the single is a slick and well-polished piece of glam rock gold, which signified a turning moment for Bowie. The singer had finally begun to go international.
Fame, in any grand sense, across the seas was still a little way over the horizon but as Bowie touched down in New York he became energised by the pulsating city. ‘The Jean Genie’ would be the first song he ever wrote in the Big Apple, a city very dear to the late singer’s heart, and remains as a tribute not only to two of its stars but the what the city represents.
During his now-iconic live album Santa Monica ’72, Bowie makes his first illusions as to who or what the song is about when he told the audience the song was about “a New York lady and a guy who lives in New York and he’s called The Jean Genie.” The lady in question was Cyrinda Foxe, a former Max Kansas City frequented who would work with Andy Warhol and as a publicist for MainMan.
Foxe would later go on to marry New York Dolls’ David Johansen before then marrying Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler. But before that, she was one of Bowie’s lovers. The singer was hanging out at her apartment one day when he decided to write he a song “for her amusement in her apartment. Sexy girl.” He later said in his 2005 book Moonage Daydream, “Starting out as a lightweight riff thing I had written one evening in NY for Cyrinda’s enjoyment, I developed the lyric to the otherwise wordless pumper.”
Foxe confirmed the chance happening in her own memoir suggesting that Bowie said to her “I want to write you a song. What do you want?”, to which Foxe replied “something like the Yardbirds.” There’s definitely a touch of the Yardbirds in the song but probably most akin to the track is Bo Diddley’s ‘I’m Your Man’ another “pumper” which the ‘Birds covered.
Bowie was so transfixed by Foxe as his muse he also made sure she was included in the Mick Rock-directed video for ‘The Jean Genie’ saying he saw the film starring “Ziggy as a kind of Hollywood street-rat” with a “consort of the Marilyn brand.” Foxe would take on the role of consort and become an idol for swathes of a generation.
As well as Foxe’s undoubted inspiration, Bowie also found icons prowling the underbelly of New York’s rock and roll scene. The Starman had always been an avid lover of music and had found refuge in the progressive sounds of the Velvet Underground—but there was another idol in his mind’s eye when he wrote ‘The Jean Genie’, the effervescent Iggy Pop.
Bowie and Pop had met at Max’s Kansas City in 1972 and the Thin White Duke would go on to work with the shirtless star on his most favourable albums, sitting behind the mixing desk and guiding Pop like no other. Their first musical collaboration would arrive in the form of The Stooges’ iconic album Raw Power.
The album would go down in history as one of the foundations of punk rock, as will Iggy Pop himself, but it was also the beginning of one of the most important friendships in rock and roll. Bowie was enamoured by New York life, rubbing shoulders with artists like Iggy and the inimitable Lou Reed just didn’t happen in London. When he saw Pop perform on stage his iconography, in Bowie’s mind at least, it was confirmed.
The Starman chose to immortalise him as the protagonist in this glam-rock anthem. While suggesting his Genie was “an Iggy-type persona” it’s hard to find any other comparison. With mentions of his slithering performances, razors, lasers, and the screams and bawls all featuring in the lyrics, the finger is pointed firmly at the chest-slashing on-stage maniac Iggy Pop had become.
Bowie had, for a long while, denied that there was any real connotation of literature in his titling of the Aladdin Sane album track but later he confirmed: “The title, of course, was a clumsy pun upon Jean Genet.” The legendary French writer was given his own tribute in the song’s title but he wasn’t the third subject of Bowie’s song.
That subject was New York (or America) itself. Bowie would describe the track’s lyrics as “a bit of a smorgasbord of imagined Americana.” It’s a bold statement given the powerful imagery included in the song, the idea of a sleazy and surly ruffian spending their time looking for cheap thrills and quick satisfaction. But to Bowie, New York was the epicentre of rock and roll.
Unlike many others in London at the time, when Clapton, Hendrix and co. were noodling through solos and dropping LSD, David Bowie was far more concerned with this band from NYC called the Velvet Underground. It would begin an infatuation with the city that would never truly subside. A place Bowie called home for many years it’s hard to ignore the city’s influence on his writing.
‘The Jean Genie’ is the swirling, scary and somewhat sickening embodiment of seventies New York City. As alive with treacherous and criminal vermin as it was creative energy. The city was like a shining beacon of what rock and roll meant to Bowie, he had based much of his album Ziggy Stardust on the city’s “street culture” and was now immersing himself in it all at once.
The track is one of Bowie’s finest, one of his most cherished by his fans and undoubtedly a powerful track on any album. But with it, Bowie showed his ability to write personal songs, deeply entrenched in friendship, lust and infatuation, and somehow marry that with rock and roll anthems people never got tired of. It was what made him an icon.