Graded on a Curve:
David Bowie,
Station to Station

Come 1975, David Bowie was in very, very precarious shape. As a famous man (me) once said, Death is the icing on the birthday cake of Life, and Bowie was scooping off the icing with his fingers and licking them clean. Extremely paranoid, frazzled, and down to 17 pounds–due largely to his phenomenal intake of cocaine, which would have sufficed to wire Liechtenstein, and a diet that consisted solely of peppers and milk–Bowie was obsessed with the Black Arts, Naziism and fascism, and a hodgepodge of esoteric spiritual practices, and was convinced that someone, the ghost of Aleister Crowley or his future “Prancing in the Streets” duet partner Mick Jagger perhaps, was stealing his sperm.

You would think it a good time for rock’s greatest vampire–I don’t know whether anyone was really stealing his sperm, but he certainly stole his fair share of ideas from Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Brian Eno, the Krautrockers, etc.–to make a beeline for rehab, or at the very least the nearest Burger King (peppers and milk?) Instead he went into an LA studio–a town about which he would later say, “The fucking place should be wiped off the face of the earth”–and recorded Station to Station, one of the very best LPs of his career. Which is a miracle, especially when one takes into consideration Bowie’s claim of having virtually no recollection of making it.

Not only did Bowie create a new album, his tenth, he created a new persona–The Thin White Duke–to go with it. Bowie had learned from Ziggy Stardust–or perhaps his stint as a mime–to always hide behind a mask. He’d killed off glam-bam-thank-you-ma’am alien Ziggy Stardust before making Station to Station’s predecessor Young Americans, perhaps because the Zigster’s surname was filched by the opportunistic hack Alvin Stardust and Bowie didn’t want anyone thinking they were family. But he evidently felt naked singing Young Americans’ “plastic soul” as an anonymous plastic soul man, and figured it was high time he became somebody else.

In any event, The Thin White Duke was a suave, amoral, and aristocratic creature, mad perhaps but always elegantly attired in a tuxedo vest and crisp white shirt with his former spiky flame-hued do slicked back, and never to be seen without a pack of Gitanes. Bowie himself described The Thin White Duke as “a nasty character indeed.”

Much has been written about Station to Station’s Christian and Kabbalistic influences, but as for me, I don’t give a shit. Religion is voodoo to me, and I know nothing about voodoo, so if you want to learn more about the album’s mystical underpinnings, I recommend you consult a priest or rabbi. All I know is that the phrase “From Kether to Malkuth 1” appears in the title cut, so I looked both terms up and immediately knew that, so far as the Kabbalah went, Madonna was on her own. Personally, I don’t think it matters a whit whether you understand a word of what Bowie’s saying. Because I would never take a coke fiend’s word on anything, much less an esoteric spiritual practice, and Bowie was not only a coke fiend but a nutball of the sort who frequently let loose with such controversy-sparking zingers as, “Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars… quite as good as Jagger.” Why, that’s outrageous! As good a singer perhaps, but no way could Adolf match Mick when it came to shaking his little bum.

Me, I rank Station to Station at No.2 in a tie with Aladdin Sane amongst my favorite Bowie albums, although many call it his best while others write it off as a transitional work between the coke-eyed Philly soul of Young Americans and the Eno/Krautrock-influenced “Berlin Trilogy” that came later. All I know is that it contains some truly beautiful songs and perhaps Bowie’s finest vocal work ever, not to mention album opener and title track “Station to Station,” which at 10:15 remains the longest song Bowie has ever recorded, not to mention his most ambitious.

It opens with the chugging of a train, followed by a sustained guitar riff by Carlos Alomar and a simple but ominous piano figure by Roy Bittan (me, I wish he’d hired Aladdin Sane and Young Americans virtuoso Mike “Mad Piano” Garson for the gig, but you can’t always get what you want). Then the drums come in and a plodding but oddly pretty melody emerges, until finally Bowie enters to introduce his new persona, singing, “The return of the Thin White Duke/Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes.” Then the drums drop out and the melody gets really pretty, until the drums come back and a much faster, funkier and lengthy passage follows, with Bowie singing, “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine/I’m thinking that it must be love” and, more cryptically, “The European cannon are here.” “It’s too late” he keeps singing, over and over, while Bittan’s piano plays a jaunty mile a minute and hired gun and legendary guitar ace Earl Slick comes in with a truly killer guitar solo. And on and on goes the song in this vein, fast and danceable and very very funky. It’s a great tune, and my description doesn’t do it justice, and I’ll never forget hearing it the day it came out, listening to it on transistor radio at midnight under the covers of my bed in Littlestown, PA thinking, “Jesus Christ, that’s magnificent.” And in the trivia department, none other than The Melvins (with some help from Foetus’ J.G. Thirlwell) do a cover of “Station to Station” on their latest LP, 2013’s Everybody Loves Sausages, and (who would have thunk it?) it’s actually great!

“Golden Years” is a slightly harder edged return of sorts to the funk and soul of Young Americans. It opens with a cool guitar riff, hand claps, and snazzy finger snaps, then the drums and Bowie come in simultaneously, Bowie repeating “Golden years” before singing “Don’t let me hear life’s taking you nowhere,” then in a great falsetto, “Aaaannngel.” There are lots of neat vocal “whop whop whops,” as well as plenty of funky guitar licks, while Bowie sings, “Last night they loved you/Opening doors/And pulling some strings, aaannngel” and “I’ll stick with you baby for a thousand years/Nothing’s gonna touch you in these golden years.”

I love the line about the “Dream car 20-foot long” and I was amused to learn that Bowie said he wrote it for The King, Elvis Presley. Who wisely rejected it, too bad for us, as it most likely would have been one great overweight, jewel-encrusted howl. In any event I’ll stand “Golden Years” up against any white funk song this side of Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music,” what with its bondage-tight groove and Bowie going back and forth from a deep-throated croon to a million-dollar falsetto, not to mention the great bit of whistling (is it Bowie? or an uncredited professional whistler they brought in for the occasion?) that occurs near the end.

Then comes “Word on a Wing,” a song that never fails to make me swoon, it’s so beautiful. It’s an almost lackadaisical mid-tempo love song, perhaps to the Lord perhaps not, that opens with some mellotron and a simple piano, before guitar and drums come in and Bowie sings, “In this age of grand illusion you walked into my life out of my dreams/I don’t need another change, still you forced away into my scheme of things” to some soaring guitar and pretty piano. Bowie’s vocals (he overdubs himself at times) are moving and grow more urgent as the song proceeds, and the song is more complex than it sounds at first, with lots of changes in tempo. But it retains its lovely mood throughout, whether it be the slow passage where Bowie sings with a faint quaver, “Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing/And I’m trying hard to fit among your scheme of things,” or the faster, repetitive section where Bowie sings “Ooh, ready to shape the scheme of things” over and over again. The song ends with a distant angelic vocal, which either supports the theory that the song is being sung to the Lord, or an angel just happened to stop by the studio (perhaps to do a line or two) and Bowie knew an opportunity when he saw one.

I recall seeing Bowie perform “TVC15” on Saturday Night Live about a 1,000 years ago–my recollection’s a bit hazy, seeing as I was drunk and stoned and all, but I think he was wearing a purple dress–but little did I know then that the song was based on a real event, namely a drug-crazed evening Bowie spent with Iggy “TV Eye” Pop, who at some point hallucinated his girlfriend crawling into the television set. She probably just went out for a burger–Bowie’s complete larder, if you’ll recall, consisted solely of cow juice and peppers–but hey, that’s what 15 grams of coke will do to you.

The song has a lighter feel than anything else on the album, which is not to say it’s a throwaway. In fact it’s great; it opens with a few drum beats, some very jaunty piano, and Bowie singing “Oh oh oh oh oh… oh oh oh oh oh” before letting out a “Woooooo!” and singing “Up every evening ’bout half eight or nine/I give my complete attention to a very good friend of mine/He’s quadraphonic, he’s a, he’s got more channels/So hologramic, oh my TVC15.” The song is relentlessly upbeat and funky, what with its chukka-chukka guitar and Bittan’s ever-perky piano plinking, but is indisputably a rock tune and funny to boot. Here our parents told us that watching too much TV was bad for you, but never in our wildest imaginings did we think it could swallow girlfriends. Bowie spends the rest of the song praying for her to come back, and even considers crawling inside to be with her (“One of these nights I may just/Jump down that rainbow way, be with my baby”). Meanwhile the beat continues relentlessly on, in a long, long fadeout that never grows tedious.

“Stay”–which Alomar said was recorded in a “cocaine frenzy”–is both a rock-funk hybrid and a showcase for Earl Slick, whose guitar work throughout is nothing less than hair-raising. Accompanied at the beginning by a funky bass line and congas, Slick plays some sharp riffs from what sounds like a thousand miles away, then suddenly he’s in your face and letting out a series of feedback roars and the drums come in for real. Then the beat gets real funky, Slick continues to play some amazing feedback, and Bowie sings, “This week dragged past me so slowly/The days fell on their knees/Maybe I’ll take something to help me/Hope someone takes after me.” David, I know the feeling.

Meanwhile, Alomar’s funk riffs are impeccable, and the rhythmn section is spot on as Bowie sings the almost impenetrable chorus (“Stay–that’s what I meant to say or do something/But what I never say is stay this time/I really meant to so bad this time/’Cause you can never really tell when somebody/Wants something you want too”). At about the four-minute mark Bowie leaves–probably to drink some milk or do a bump or 60 of blow in the studio john–and the song continues on with Alomar and Slick engaging in a pure dead brilliant guitar duel, sort of like “Free Bird” only without the bib overalls and Rebel yells.

Album closer “Wild Is the Wind” is a cover of a Ned Washington and Dimitri Tiomkin–whoever they are–tune recorded by Nina Simone way back in 1966, when Bowie was still dabbling in mime, a lucrative career choice that he bravely gave up to become a poor rock star. “Wild Is the Wind” is indescribably beautiful–a mid-tempo love song with no big shifts in tempo or volume that features some nice guitar work and a laid-back rhythmn section (with the exception of the occasional prominent cymbal crash and one great drum roll) over which Bowie croons, pleads, and draws out words (“Yoooouuuuu touch me”), turning the song into the most moving vocal performance of his entire career.

“Like the leaf clings to the tree,” he sings, “Oh, my darling, cling to me/For we’re like creatures of the wind/ And wild is the wind,” and plastic, nasty, amoral or whatever you want to call Bowie’s Thin White Duke, he is creating something truly passionate, whether he’s faking it or not. (It’s all so very “Oscar Wilde.”) Bowie’s take on the song is far more lush than the stripped-down Simone version, and I actually prefer Bowie’s, as moving as Simone’s rendition is. I didn’t care much for this tune in my wasted youth because I thought it was too hokey and didn’t have any cool guitar solos or nuthin’, but now when I listen to Bowie’s parting line (“Wiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiild issssss the wiiiiiiiiiiiind!!!”) I’m moved beyond words and into a realm of pure dumb awe.

After Station to Station, Bowie would skedaddle from accursed LA for that great city of exiles Berlin, hang out with (and suck the creative blood from) an equally gaunt Brian Eno, and create some fine albums that I like a lot but will never love, at least not the way I love Station to Station. Bowie has always been a chilly creature–with a few exceptions, one being his great cameo on Extras, where he sang a song about Ricky Gervais that was totally hilarious–but I find the Berlin Trilogy downright frigid. To paraphrase Bowie, “This ain’t rock’n’roll/This is glacialcide.”

As for the Bowie of the mid-eighties, he made me want to cry, especially when he came out with such undiluted dreck as “Modern Love” and “Let’s Dance.” (Todd Haynes’ 1998 film Velvet Goldmine does a great job of imaginatively capturing the transformation of Bowie from artistic genius to panderer to the lowest common denominator.)

But that’s the way of the world. Heroes come and heroes go, and I stopped listening to Bowie at around the same time I first saw him dancing in the streets with fellow pap star Mick Jagger, although I check in regularly to see what he’s up to every five years or so. But it doesn’t much matter. David Bowie gave us a shitload of great songs, weirded us out with his chameleon-like character shifts, and made us happy with his many brilliant albums. And very few of them make me happier than Station to Station, which is like a train that never stops, never takes on passengers, but passes some really beautiful landscapes–landscapes so beautiful, in fact, that they’re not real, but the dreams of a man in a mask.


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  • Joe Como

    I’m pretty sure Bowie never got down to SEVENTEEN pounds, no matter how much coke he snorted. Do you have an editor?

    And “Let’s Dance” was brilliant, you old curmudgeon.


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