“It’s hard to be a saint in the City”, is one of Springsteen’s finest compositions, a narrative and vocal tour de force. Live in Bruce’s hands it was irresistible with Bittan central to the performance, but the album recording , “Greetings from Asbury park” had David Sancious on keyboards ( who would later go on to work with Peter Gabriel).
David had a NYC fixation in the early 70’s, the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed were established favourites of his. It is hardly surprising that the hottest emerging rock n roll act from NJ were drawn to his attention. I am a huge fan of both artists, but for me, this cover is a bit of a misfire. David’s vocal veers between fey and twee, his delivery of the lyrics unconvincing.
The provenance of the Bowie recording is legendarily obscure.
The Diamond Dogs-era version of ‘It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City’ was first released in the Rykodisc box set Sound + Vision on 19 September 1989 and In April 1998 it was included in the compilation The Best of David Bowie 1974/1979. Both collections described it as a Station To Station outtake. Bittan himself, and Slick, confirm Bittan’s presence at the Station to Station sessions, which are a matter of recorded record as Bittan appears on the album’s tracks. But….this has been denied by guitarist Carlos Alomar and producer Harry Maslin.
According to Tony Visconti, the recording likely dates from the Diamond Dogs era, but had further overdubs and was mixed at a later date. Visconti told Nicholas Pegg:
“The playing style is distinctly different from the Philly players and, forensically, that is why I am certain at least two backing tracks exist. I think the drummer is Aynsley Dunbar, and the bass player sounds like Herbie Flowers. David is quite capable of that kind of guitar work. The strings sound like mine in parts. Two new signal-processing devices are overused on this mix, the Eventide Digital Delay and the Eventide Instant Flanger. They had just been on the market for a few months before I mixed most of Diamond Dogs. The mix is a teeth-grinding coke mix, and I have been guilty of a few of those. It would seem that this was part of the Diamond Dogs recording sessions, but worked on later. The added instruments, vocals and mixing sound like a couple of years later, because of the sonic fingerprints.”
Visconti also claimed that a second version of the song was recorded during the Young Americans sessions in Philadelphia, but remains unreleased and that the Philly version was just a backing track and did not feature lead vocals.
Roy Bittan is the link between Springsteen and David. Bittan was staying at the Sunset Marquis in Los Angeles on the Born to Run tour in 1975. David’s guitar player, Earl Slick, was a friend of Bittan’s, and he had suggested Bittan for the “Station to Station” sessions. Slick invited to the studio where Bowie was recording the following day.
When he arrived the next day at the studio David asked him, ‘Do you know who Professor Longhair is?’ Bittan’s reply? ,’Know him? I saw him play at a little roadhouse in Houston about three weeks ago!’ he wound up doing an imitation of Professor Longhair interpreting a David Bowie song, beginning with ‘TVC 15’ and he wound up playing on every song besides “Wild Is the Wind” on the album over three days of recording. Bowie wanted Bittan for the Isolar 1 tour , but Bowie fired manager Lippman who also managed Slick in a row over touring money meaning that Slick was off the tour breaking the Bittan link. Furthermore E street band rehearsals were due to restart and the moment of opportunity passed, with Tony Kaye, ex of Yes, getting the gig as an unspectacular but competent alternative.
But the story does not end there. Immediately after Bittan finished touring with Bruce in 78 he was invited by Peter Gabriel to play on Gabriel’s second album. On guitar was Robert Fripp, who had then worked on “Heroes” resulting in Fripp returning to work with Bittan and Bowie on “Scary Monsters”.
And so a seemingly insignificant and often forgotten/unknown cover becomes a more important part of the Bowie story.
Drums: Clem Burke. synths; Dave Formula, piano; Roy Bittan, bass: Roger Waters, Lead guitar and vocals: Prince, Rhythm guitar and vocals: Buddy Holly