Why David Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’ Doesn’t Have the Cover He Wanted
David Bowie is one of the quintessential artists of 1970s rock. Norman Rockwell was among the most popular American painters of the 20th century. While both artists are admired within their fields, Bowie was edgy in a way Rockwell never was.
At least, that’s the popular perception. However, they crossed paths once. Find out how Bowie wanted to collaborate with Rockwell.
David Bowie’s attempt at an Americana album cover
Rockwell was an American artist who’s primary concern was his country. Everything from George and Martha Washington to World War II to the civil rights movement is portrayed in his work. Bowie apparently wanted to capitalize on the association between Rockwell and the U.S. when he created his album Young Americans.
According to The Bowie Bible, Bowie wanted Rockwell to paint the cover of his album Young Americans. Such a move could have potentially been very provocative on Bowie’s part. Juxtaposing Bowie, a symbol of sexual freedom, with Rockwell, a symbol of 1940s and 1950s Americana, may have come across as incongruous.
Why David Bowie couldn’t work with Norman Rockwell
Bowie recalled telephoning Rockwell only for his wife to pick up the phone. He described the experience as “very quaint.” Bowie said he wanted the album cover for Young Americans to be a portrait of himself painted by Rockwell.
Bowie’s idea made sense. After all, Rockwell painted numerous famous people from his day, including Robert F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. Rockwell had previously painted the cover of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper’s album The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield & Al Kooper, reports Vanity Fair. However, Rockwell needed six months to paint the portrait and Bowie was not willing to wait that long.
Bowie still had fond memories of the experience. He complimented Rockwell as a painter and his willingness to work on one portrait for six months. “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.”
The final cover for ‘Young Americans’
Bowie still wanted the album cover to be a portrait, but a Rockwell portrait was out of the question. Instead, he looked for inspiration for his album from a very different American artist: Toni Basil. AllMusic reports Basil is a one-hit-wonder known for her single “Mickey.” She also worked as a choreographer for Bowie.
According to The Bowie Bible, it wasn’t Basil’s music or choreography which inspired the Young Americans album cover. Rather, the inspiration was a photo of Basil used as the cover of an issue of After Dark magazine. The image of Basil was modeled on 1940s Hollywood glamor photographs. The cover of Young Americans is a far cry from a Rockwell painting but it was still rooted in mid-century American art.
Bowie was very different from Rockwell as an artist. That doesn’t mean Bowie didn’t appreciate him. This sort of eclecticism is part of what made Bowie a legend.