how chicago's black youth inspired an unreleased david bowie album
Bowie named the scrapped project after a little-known South Side subculture.
This past Friday, Parlophone released Who Can I Be Now?, a collection of David Bowie's studio recordings and live performances between 1974 and 1976. Included in the 12-disc box set, which can be streamed here, is The Gouster (disc four), a previously unreleased album which would later evolve into Bowie's 1975 Young Americans LP. Though updated versions of four of the album's seven tracks eventually found their way onto the Young Americans track listing, the soulful groundwork of The Gouster provides a clearer picture of Bowie's influences during this era. "We weren't 'young, gifted and black'" writes producer Tony Visconti in the album's liner notes, "but we sure as hell wanted to make a killer soul album."
But what, exactly, is a Gouster? Visconti writes, "David knew it as a type of dress code worn by African American teens in the 60's, in Chicago. In the context of the album its meaning was... an attitude of pride and hipness." According to Chicago soul historian Ayana Contreras, there were two prominent style tribes among black male teenagers growing up in the South Side during the early 60s: the Ivy Leaguers and the Gousters. "Gousters were considered kinda like hoods," writes Contreras, "whereas Ivy Leaguers at least looked like they kept their noses clean."
In contrast to the Ivy Leaguers' collegiate formality, the Gousters adopted a more relaxed style, often wearing pleated trousers, baggy long-collared shirts, and newsboy caps. The Gousters were known for their killer dance moves — such as the Gouster Bop and the Gouster Walk — which they often showed off at iconic Chicago institutions of the era like the Pershing Hotel's Budland club. Unfortunately, there isn't much photographic evidence of this once-prominent South Side subculture. Historians often point to the fashion in the 1975 blaxploitation film Cooley High as the closest pop cultural representation of the Gouster.
It isn't entirely clear why Bowie scrapped The Gouster in favor of Young Americans. But perhaps, in the grand scheme of music history, it was wise to not totally co-opt Gouster style. Hopefully, the album's unearthing will lead to a more comprehensive conversation about this oft-forgotten subculture, which lent such a heavy hand in shaping Bowie's soulful reinvention.
Text Salvatore Maicki