David Bowie's Young Americans

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PHOTOGRAPHS BY JESSICA GRIFFIN

Marla Kanevsky can't remember who made the first call this year, but when the phone rang she got that same old feeling.

"I always think next time I won't do it," she says. "I won't get so excited. I won't start obsessing. But then Patti or Leslie are on the phone and it's the same thing all over again--David Bowie's going on tour. Nothing else matters."

She laughs, because now other things do matter. But the announcement of an impending Bowie concert still holds the power to tear her in two. She remembers an August night in 1974 when Bowie invited her to a party! The night David Bowie held her hand! And she wonders if this year she will finally meet him as an adult, as an equal, as a 43-year-old mom.

"I've met him, I think, seven times since 1974," she says. "And I always yell out, 'David, I'm a Sigma Kid!' even though I realize how pathetic that sounds. And if he talks to us, I am always just like, 'Can I take your picture, David? Can I have your autograph?' It's embarrassing."

Nearly 30 years later, Marla Kanevsky is still a fan. Not an ordinary fan--a super fan. "He has been there through it all," she says. "The death of my parents, the birth of my son, my husband's accident. Everything."

Just talking about all this reduces Kanevsky--or elevates her, if you're of such a mind--to tears. "I am such a wimp!" she hollers.

Oh, but she is so much more. She's much more than a Sigma Kid, too, though once you know her story it's easy to see why she still identifies herself as that 16-year-old girl from Lower Merion. To this day the Sigma Kids can lay claim to perhaps the most beautiful and bizarre fan-star interaction in rock 'n' roll history.

The Sigma Kids didn't just meet David Bowie. For one night they were his confidantes, his buds--underage kids for whom he bought wine and champagne! And fresh corned beef sandwiches! Sandwiches they were too nervous to eat! Yeah, and he played Young Americans for them--straight from the master tape--before RCA's label execs heard it and certainly before you heard it. You who weren't there to hear Bowie debut his version of the Philly Soul sound.

But here it is, as best it can be laid down, given the smoke and white powder and years that obscure this tale: the Sigma sessions and the Sigma Kids, a story that ends with Marla Kanevsky's entire superfan life.

Camping out for tickets seems like no big deal these days, but the Sigma Kids raised it to unparalleled heights.

They spent two weeks straight sleeping in the streets so they could do things like watch Bowie walk from the Barclay on Rittenhouse Square to his limo. Then they'd dash off to their cars, driving as fast as they could to reach Sigma Sound Studios before he got there.

"If he was already out of his limo when we were pulling up," remembers Patti Brett, "we would stop our cars in the middle of the street, get out and halt traffic just to say 'Hi' to him again."

Over time the Kids got friendly with the studio staff and the Bowie entourage, especially guitarist Carlos Alomar. Sometimes Bowie would chat with them.

He eventually learned their names: Marla, Patti, Leslie, Purple--about a dozen in all. No one remembers who made the announcement that Bowie had decided to throw a party for them when the sessions wrapped.

What they do remember is that they were led into the studio late at night, their hearts thudding in their chests.

Dagmar, a one-named rock photographer, documented the party. She remembers Marla Kanevsky because she was "a pretty little girl, and very emotional. You could see it was a very deep experience for her. She held Bowie's hand for a while. When he let go, she held hands with her friends."

Kanevsky herself doesn't remember much, except asking Bowie to marry her. "It's awful, isn't it? So cliche, but I think that's why I said it. It seemed like what I should say. He said something like, 'You'll have to speak to my wife about that, love.'"

For Bowie the night met two objectives: He got to reward some devoted fans, and he had a test audience for his new sonic experiment. The artist formerly known as Ziggy Stardust, the bisexual space alien rock star, had completed his transformation to white soul singer. These kids were his first listeners.

At the party, he sat down in the back of the studio and bit his nails. No one spoke while the album played. But after the last note sounded one of the Kids yelled, "Play it again!" That broke the ice.

The Kids got up and danced. Bowie did the bump.

Bowie's approximation of the Philly Soul sound broke him commercially. He ascended from the 3,000-seat Tower Theater in July 1974 to the 16,000-seat Spectrum in '75.

That's where stories about the Sigma Kids usually end, but their lives went on long after the party was over.

Three decades later, the Sigma Kids arrive at Doobie's at 22nd and Lombard to down a few brews and reminisce. Patti Brett, a Sigma Kid who has run Doobie's for her mom since 1985, jams a bunch of tables together. A big, brassy blond, she changes from her work clothes into a black dress, lets her hair down and stands resplendent in bawdy maiden chic.

It's a happy night, complete with a special guest star. Carlos Alomar, David Bowie's long-time right-hand man, is taking a night train from New York. While the Kids have interacted with Bowie only on rare occasions since 1974, most of them hurried, Alomar has become a friend.

Before everyone else arrives, Brett and Leslie Radowill, both 46, look at pictures of Bowie going in and out of the studio in a variety of funky berets and glasses, flared trousers and shirts that billow around his skeletal frame. But they remember little in the way of specifics.

"It's frustrating," says Brett.

"Well, we smoked a lot of pot--and I know what pot does to brain cells," replies Radowill.

Not long afterward, Marla Kanevsky arrives with her emotions in tow. A pretty woman in the midst of the Weight Watchers program, she has shed about 30 pounds. Still she hides her face behind big dollops of brown hair and keeps her sunglasses on indoors.

She brings a journal describing the Sigma Studio experience and a sweet, strange petition she circulated in 1975 urging the singer to stop using drugs. The teenager wrote of the physical "ch-ch-ch-changes" Bowie had gone through that year, his cocaine-fueled drop to a reportedly corpse-like 80 pounds.

"Remember I was just 16," she says. "I was a kid."

Then she cries for a moment, right there at the table.

Life has not been terribly kind to Kanevsky. In 1979 doctors discovered that her mother's back pain was evidence of a cancer that eventually killed her. (Lodger was the icy Bowie album of the moment.) About a year later, her father--who owned A&H; Food Distributor in West Philadelphia--died from a massive heart attack. (The album was, fittingly, Scary Monsters.)

Her future husband Paul--also a Bowie fan--supported her throughout these ordeals. Together they tried opening a deli, but the business failed and they lost most of the insurance money they had received from her parents' deaths.

In 1991, when Bowie came to the Tower with his then-band Tin Machine, Paul got into a car accident before the show. He seemed unhurt, but the next day he went to a doctor. Almost a dozen years later he walks with a cane and can't stand for long periods of time, making it impossible to pursue his career as a chef.

Kanevsky and her husband have a child, Zane, now 14, who is named after a lyric from Bowie's "All the Madmen."

"I always said I would pop a kid out and sit him in front of a speaker," she says. "That's pretty much what happened."

Kanevsky works as a teacher's assistant in Mays Landing, N.J., where she lives. The family scrapes by on her meager salary and Paul's disability checks.

Of the dozen or so people invited into the studio that August night, only Kanevsky, Radowill and Brett continue to orbit, as a group, around Bowie. Phone calls among them--sporadic between albums--surge when the singer hits the road. They see far fewer shows than they used to, and they don't camp out for seats anymore. They'll see the local shows and maybe catch a gig in New York, but that's it.

They have adult responsibilities. Radowill is unmarried and childless but tends to an elderly father. Brett got married a few years ago and has two stepchildren.

Still, some things don't change.

At one point Brett announces she's won a seat in a raffle to see Bowie perform on A&E;'s Live by Request, a two-hour TV concert.

"I'm sorry," she says. "I didn't want to make anyone jealous."

"Oh no," Radowill and Kanevsky respond in forced tones. "Have a great time!"

(A week later Kanevsky gets on the phone and confesses her jealousy. "I feel so out of the loop," she says.)

With Bowie back on tour, it seems a time of confession for Kanevsky. She says her Bowie fandom feels like an addiction--confesses that she loves her family and her job, yet something is missing.

She cries--a lot. But she doesn't seem like a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Rather, she seems nervous about a breakthrough.

"I have attended about 75 concerts, and what has it gotten me?" she asks. "I had a good time, but for some reason I always expected more."

Soon Alomar arrives in a bright summery shirt, like an arpeggio in cotton, and the troops head outside for an impromptu photo session. Kanevsky tries to hide in the back, her head bobbing above a sea of shoulders like a swimmer risen from the depths. She's lost a lot of weight, but she doesn't see it.

Carlos Alomar served as Bowie's guitarist from 1974 to 1987, toured with him again in 1995 and plays on one track from Bowie's current disc, Heathen.

He says he thought the Sigma Kids' behavior was a little weird at first. But the Kids told him they wanted to be close to David, and Alomar helped. He used Radowill's Instamatic to take photographs inside the studio, smuggled out tapes of the day's sessions and even invited them back to his hotel room where he and his wife, backup singer Robin Clark, became friends with this curious assemblage of young Americans.

As Bowie moved from the tuneful but meat 'n' potatoes rock of the Ziggy years, his new rhythm guitarist--who had played with James Brown--was his connection to the music that would help his soul experiment work.

Alomar says he still hangs out with the Kids on occasion because they are "campy, silly and fun."

"Usually, people who sleep in front of a studio--it's about fucking," he says. "But with them it was about devotion."

Though the Kids clearly had crushes on Bowie, there was no Sigma sex that August--only fidelity.

Brett has the ticket stubs to the more than 120 Bowie concerts she's attended. She lost two jobs while following Bowie on tour, one as recently as 1995, but she'll tell you--with conviction--that it was worth it. "This is the choice we made," she says.

Radowill raises more profound questions: "How would my life be different if I wasn't a David Bowie fan?" she asks. "Would I be married? Would I have children? Would I have gone to college?"

A story like this, which deals in behavior bordering on the obsessive, must necessarily include some words from a psychiatrist. Those words are coming. But that doesn't mean something very powerful didn't occur in 1974, something that was felt both inside and outside the studio.

Former WMMR DJ Ed Sciaky watched Bowie record "Win" for Young Americans at Sigma.

"He'd sing three lines, then have the engineer play them back, keeping the first line every time," says Sciaky. "It was spectacular, watching him work like a painter, hitting every line the way he wanted."

Around 7 a.m., Bowie asked the engineer to play the whole track from start to finish, twice. After the second listen, he nodded and said quietly, "That's it. It's done."

As if on cue, the Kids outside started applauding--hooting and hollering up at the studio windows.

"It was eerie," says Sciaky. "I don't know how they could have heard any of the music, let alone responded to what Bowie said. It was probably some kind of coincidence, but it felt like they knew, they heard, they were connected. Bowie looked stunned."

Bowie has often told interviewers that he retains only fragmentary memories of 1974, '75 and '76, his cocaine years. When he returned to Sigma for a radio special in 1997, he signed his gold Young Americans album: "With fondest memories (I would imagine), David Bowie."

The night that made local legends of the Sigma Kids may have left only small, residual traces in their idol's memory. But the Kids mean enough to Bowie that when Alomar arranged an impromptu reunion in 1995, the singer hung around even when his handlers tried to get him to leave.

The meeting occurred in a tented area just behind the stage of Bowie's Outside tour. The singer joked with them about their advancing ages. Brett grabbed Bowie's graying goatee and said, "You've gotten a little older yourself there, mister."

It was a wonderful moment--the walls torn down, the star Brett once worshipped now a person just like her and just as ripe for ridicule. Kanevsky couldn't believe Brett said it, though, and yelled at her to stop.

"Marla!" Brett replied. "He's a person."

Marla Kanevsky earns just under $11,000 a year as a paraprofessional assisting five- and six-year-olds with disabilities, both mental and physical, sometimes in basic tasks like going to the bathroom.

"She's got the most unbelievable patience," says her co-worker Kathy Watkins. "Some of these kids act out all day long, and Marla soothes them and gets them focused. She's the best of us."

Kanevsky's colleagues encourage her to attend college. The district would reimburse her for classes, but it's a no-go. The confidence isn't there. She tried photography school, but it didn't stick. Her work life has included a series of casino jobs, including cage cashier.

Between class hours and before- and after-school day care, Kanevsky works from 7 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., five days a week. Often she brings in photographs from the Sigma sessions and her more recent Bowie meetings. She has plenty of them. At the reunion in 1995 Bowie got down on one knee and sang the "Zane, Zane, Zane" refrain from "All the Madmen" to her son. But all she could think to do was ask for another autograph, another picture.

When Bowie started his Internet service, Bowienet, he assumed the screen name "Sailor" and sometimes even responded to Kanevsky's missives. She thanked him for a brief meeting outside a 2000 New York City gig; he said it was his pleasure. She invited him to Zane's bar mitzvah.

"How sweet of you," he wrote. "Can't make it but what a lovely thought."

Her husband's back injury has made it easier for Kanevsky to sit closer to Bowie when he's on stage. They are often able to score early admittance and special seating for Bowie's general admission shows. But as she says through still more tears, "I just know the other fans think we're trying to get over, but I would never see Bowie again if it meant my husband wouldn't have to be in pain."

David Bowie might seem like a small thing to give up, but not for Marla Kanevsky. That she can even conceive such a thing may mean she's finally shedding the role of Sigma Kid after all these years. At one point she even throws down the gauntlet and asks if a reporter can find out why she's devoted so much of her time and energy to the pursuit of David Bowie.

Dr. David Roat, a psychiatrist on Penn's faculty, says that when someone has a seminal event in life, like the Kids at Sigma did, "Energy may remain tied up in it. Whenever things go badly, they return there. It's similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, but they become fixated on a good experience."

Losing her parents so soon after the event may have sent Kanevsky spiraling backward, to Sigma and to a time when the world seemed filled with limitless possibilities. Continued personal and financial troubles kept her there.

Roat says Kanevsky's capacity to show regret signals that she may be closer to embracing her life. He even says that continued attempts to get Bowie's attention may be a good sign.

"When someone has a powerful experience before they are old enough to process it, they might try to repeat it in some more controllable way. It's an attempt to gain some kind of mastery. For her to finally have a real conversation with Bowie outside the fan-star dynamic might be the best thing for her. She might finally be able to put him on the shelf where he belongs, shed her adolescence and get on with her life."

Kanevsky's life is perhaps not so bad as her tears suggest. Last month, before she went home to celebrate her son's graduation, she took part in the school's yearly class picture ritual.

One child, Jamie, has a condition called Fragile X syndrome. The slightest change in his routine, like a photograph session with his teachers, brings on tears and panicked, downcast eyes.

Kanevsky approached Jamie, knelt in front of him, touched his shoulders and spoke in a soft, soothing voice.

"We've had that child in school for a few years now," says Maureen Minton, another co-worker. "That's the first picture we ever got where he smiled and looked into the camera. It was Marla. She's such a wonderful person, but she doesn't always see the beauty in herself."

Once Kanevsky calmed the child she performed her usual maneuver: She stood in the back and hid her body.

"I don't know what I expect from Bowie," she says later. "But just once I would like to meet him and have some conversation other than 'You're so great.' I want to speak to him like an adult. And I think I'm ready. After all these years I believe I could finally have a mature meeting with him."

Steve Volk (svolk@philadelphiaweekly.com) was five years old when Young Americans was recorded at Philadelphia's Sigma Sound Studios.

Young Americans

the Album

When David Bowie came to the Tower Theater in 1974 on his Diamond Dogs tour, he fell in love with the city and its sound: Gamble and Huff classics like "Back Stabbers" and "For the Love of Money."

Ironically, the album that emerged from Bowie's obsession features no Philadelphia musicians. Michael Tarsia of Sigma Sound Studios remembers one bassist saying he wasn't going to "give this skinny white kid" his sound. So Bowie drafted what was then considered the "B" team, lucking into Carlos Alomar, a then-unknown Luther Vandross and saxophonist David Sanborn.

But Bowie brought his own vocals to record, and most were laid down in one take. For all of Ziggy's charisma, he sounded nasal and thin. On Young Americans, Bowie showcased a range that encompassed both dusky baritone and creamy falsetto.

"Right" and "Fascination" offer slippery funk, and the title track soars over the boundary separating gritty soul from Beatles-styled pop. But it's the slow stuff where Bowie really gets down to cases.

"Can You Hear Me" stands among his best ballads ever. And "Somebody up There Likes Me" would raise a sweat on any singer's neck, whether he be Al Green or Daryl Hall.

The album the Sigma Kids first heard was very different than what Bowie released. "Fame" and "Across the Universe" were recorded later in an impromptu session in New York with John Lennon that bumped out a couple of sweeping, romantic gems.

At some point Bowie got it in his head to pitch Young Americans to the press as "plastic soul," a tag that revealed more about his own insecurities than it did about the music he'd made. In fact, he became the first white artist to perform on Soul Train--just one odd highlight in a spectacularly strange career.

--S.V.

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