As we all know, during his heyday David Bowie was a stickler for enacting his own artistic vision. So singular was the Starman’s pursuit of creative control that when he didn’t get his way, Bowie would be seriously put out.
Thankfully, due to Bowie’s Midas touch in the seventies, the artist rarely had to compromise but one time in his career when the singer did begrudgingly give way was on the cover of his 1975 soul record Young Americans.
The album remains one of Bowie’s more divisive records. Standing out as his most deliberate attempt to hijack American culture, the Starman was keen to go one step further with the artwork for Young Americans and draft in one of the United States’ most beloved painters, Norman Rockwell.
Now famed for his influence over Lana Del Rey’s recent album, the painter was initially selected by Bowie as the man to take his new album to the next level. Rockwell is well beloved for his Americana style and his intention to celebrate his country in everything he does. Be it images of George and Martha Washington or World War II or civil rights movements, Rpockwell always delivered a slice of American pie.
Bowie was keen to have the celebrated painter, who completed most of his work in the ‘40s and ‘50s, paint the cover of his album with a portrait of himself. It was an idea that centred on the juxtaposition of Bowie’s sexuality and liberal freedom with Rockwell’s conservative tone and nature.
“I really wanted Norman Rockwell to do an album cover for me. Still do. I originally wanted him for the cover of Young Americans. I got his phone number and called him up. Very quaint,” said the Thin White Duke in The Bowie Bible.
“His wife answered and I said, ‘Hello, this is David Bowie,’ and so on. I asked if he could paint the cover. His wife said in this quavering, elderly voice, ‘I’m sorry, but Norman needs at least six months for his portraits.’ So I had to pass, but I thought the experience was lovely. What a craftsman. Too bad I don’t have the same painstaking passion. I’d rather just get my ideas out of my system as fast as I can.”
Instead of Rockwell, Bowie settled for some different inspiration as he looked to his own team and the talent of Toni Basil. Not only would Basil have a hit with ‘Hey Mickey!’ but her shoot with After Dark magazine would also inspire the final artwork for David Bowie’s Young Americans. The shoot had been inspired by 1940s glamour shots of the time, and Bowie traded off one mid-century influence for another though the levels between them may have been quite sizeable. It didn’t matter and Young Americans went on to become one of David Bowie’s most celebrated, if not debated, albums of his illustrious back catalogue.
Listen below to the full record.