Sound + Vision box set cover artworkWritten by: Bruce Springsteen
Recorded: 1973, 1974
Producer: David Bowie

Released: 19 September 1989


David Bowie: vocals, guitar
Mike Garson: piano
Herbie Flowers: bass guitar
Aynsley Dunbar: drums
Unknown: strings

David Bowie recorded a version of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City’ during the Diamond Dogs sessions, and again while making Young Americans.

Bowie first saw Springsteen performing a mostly acoustic set on 5 February 1973, when the New Jersey singer was supporting Biff Rose at Max’s Kansas City in New York. Bowie was unimpressed until, towards the end of the set, Springsteen picked up an electric guitar, brought on his band, and began to rock out.

I used to go and see him. I hated him as a solo artist, when he came on and did this Bob Dylan thing. It was awful, so cringe-making. He’d sit there with his guitar and be folky, have these slow philosophical raps in between the songs. As soon as the band came on, it was like a different performer and he was just marvelous.
David Bowie
Musician, August 1987

‘It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City’ originally appeared on Springsteen’s 1973 debut album Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J, which Bowie acquired shortly after the New York show. He covered two songs from the album – ‘Growin’ Up’ and ‘It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City’. Bowie also produced a version of ‘Spirit In The Night’ for the Astronettes.

The precise date of the recording of ‘It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City’ is unclear. Upon its release in 1989 it was listed as a Station To Station outtake, a claim 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.

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.
Tony Visconti
The Complete David Bowie, Nicholas Pegg

Visconti also claimed that a second version of the song was recorded during the Young Americans sessions in Philadelphia, but remains unreleased. The Philly version was just a backing track and did not feature lead vocals.

Bowie and Springsteen did meet at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia on 25 November 1974. The New Jersey singer was brought to the sessions by DJ Ed Sciaky at the suggestion of Tony Visconti.

Springsteen came down to hear what we were doing with his stuff. He was very shy. I remember sitting in the corridor with him, talking about his lifestyle, which was very Dylanesque – you know, moving from town to town with a guitar on his back, all that kind of thing. Anyway, he didn’t like what we were doing, I remember that. At least, he didn’t express much enthusiasm. I guess he must have thought it was all kind of odd. I was in another universe at the time. I’ve got this extraordinarily strange photograph of us all – I look like I’m made out of wax.
David Bowie, 1997
One Step Up/Two Step Back album liner notes

During the meeting Bowie told Springsteen about his first impression at the Max’s Kansas City show in 1973, but declined to play him the cover version he had recently recorded.

I didn’t want to play [‘It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City’] to him because I wasn’t happy with it anyway. And I was out of my wig. I just couldn’t relate to him at all. It was a bad time for us to have met. I could see that he was thinking, ‘Who is this weird guy?’ And I was thinking, ‘What do I say to normal people?’
David Bowie
Musician, August 1987

While hosting the 1979 BBC radio show Star Special, in which he selected some of his favourite songs, Bowie included ‘It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City’, saying of it: “After I heard this track I never rode the subway again… it’s called ‘Saint In the City’. That really scared the living ones out of me, that.”

The release

David Bowie’s 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.

In April 1998 it was included in the compilation The Best of David Bowie 1974/1979. Both collections erroneously described it as a Station To Station outtake.

Sound + Vision was reissued by EMI on 2 December 2003. Although it had a different tracklisting from the Ryko version, it did contain ‘It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City’.

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