This month marks both the 74th anniversary of David Bowie’s birth and the fifth anniversary of his death. In honor of the occasion, the Bowie camp released previously unheard covers of Bob Dylan’s “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” and John Lennon’s “Mother” that were cut in 1998 for projects that never came to fruition. The Dylan song was just months old at the time, but Bowie already flagged it as a classic worthy of a reinterpretation.
Bowie recorded many covers throughout his long career. Sometimes he was putting his own spin on classics like the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” or the Velvet Underground’s “White Light/White Heat,” while other times he was exposing his fans to songs they may have never heard before, like Jacques Brel’s “My Death” or Ron Davies’ “It Ain’t Easy.”
In 1973, at the height of his Ziggy Stardust fame, Bowie recorded the Pin Ups covers album as a way to honor his favorite Sixties acts like the Easybeats, the Kinks, the Who, and the Yardbirds. It’s easily his least-beloved record of the Seventies, but that didn’t stop him from looking for other songs to make his own.
Shortly after Pin Ups was finished, he came across Bruce Springsteen’s debut LP Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. The album tanked in America despite a promotional campaign that called Springsteen the “New Dylan,” but Bowie loved what he heard and covered “Growin’ Up” during the early sessions for Diamond Dogs with Ronnie Wood on guitar. Later that year, during the sessions for Young Americans, he cut another Greetings track, “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City.”
Young Americans was recorded at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia, and Bowie invited Springsteen over to check out the sessions. “I took the Greyhound bus down to Philadelphia,” Springsteen said in 2016. “That’s how early on it was.”
Writer Mike McGrath was present at the session, and he described it in a 1974 article for The Drummer titled “Bowie Meets Springsteen.” “Bruce is stylishly attired in a stained brown leather jacket with about seventeen zippers and a pair of hoodlum jeans,” he wrote. “He looked like he just fell out of a bus station, which he had. Said Bruce of his odyssey, ‘That ride had a real cast of characters… every bus has a serviceman, an old lady in a brown coat with one of these little black things on her head, and the drunk who falls out next to you.'”
Bowie explained to Springsteen that he saw him play at Max’s Kansas City a couple years back and knew he had to cover at least one of his songs. They then discussed their annoyance with fans that dive onstage during their sets and the pitiful sound at the Spectrum arena in Philadelphia. “Everybody who ever played there warned me how terrible it was,” Bowie said. “I don’t think you can get good sound there, but we’ll try.”
According to the article, Springsteen left the studio at 5 a.m. without hearing Bowie’s take on “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” because Bowie didn’t feel it was ready yet. The world finally got to hear it in 1989 when Bowie included it on his Sound + Vision box set. The next year, he released the “Growin’ Up” cover on a re-release of Pin Ups. You can hear it right here.
Springsteen himself never played a Bowie song until the launch of the River tour at Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center on January 16th, 2016, when he tackled “Rebel Rebel.” It was six days after Bowie died. “Over here on E Street, we’re feeling the great loss of David Bowie,” Springsteen said shortly after the news hit. “David was a visionary artist and an early supporter of our music. Always changing and ahead of the curve, he was an artist whose excellence you aspired to. He will be sorely missed.”