After changing persona from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane to Halloween Jack to Plastic Soul Guy, David Bowie decided to step into the phone booth one more time and emerge as The Thin White Duke, “A very Aryan fascist type” (as described in Peter Doggett’s book The Man Who Sold The World: David Bowie And The 1970s).
The real David Bowie had developed an enormous cocaine habit, lived on a diet of peppers and milk, and experienced life through a lens of psychic paranoia. According to Nicholas Pegg (another biographer), David remembered nothing about the recording sessions for Station to Station, noting that “I know it was in L. A. because I’ve read it was.” Guitarists Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick were also up to their noses in cocaine and recall very little about the recording experience.
Station to Station has been labeled a transitional album, as was Young Americans. The label “transitional album” is generally applied to situations where the album itself sucks but allegedly reveals a new and promising artistic direction. Bowie critics tend to be forgiving types, and very rarely dish out anything in the way of deserved, adverse criticism, so the “transitional” label gave them an out as well as an opportunity to concoct a variety of explanations for substandard performance without calling it substandard performance. One must always remember that David Bowie was a master at manipulating journalists, who generally adored him because he always gave them good copy.
Well, I certainly admire David Bowie and his many contributions to the arts, but he was as human as you or me, and in the immortal words of Jarvis Cocker, he had moments when he was “a fuck-up just like the rest of us.” My views are as follows: Young Americans just plain sucks, while Station to Station is . . . occasionally interesting but I don’t see much of a transitional connection between Station to Station and Low, and by this time the alternative persona act was getting tedious, a way for him to put off having to deal with his real-life problems.
And the various consequences of being a fuck-up.
David would eventually pull himself out of the muck and move on to record the so-called Berlin trilogy (so-called because only Heroes was entirely recorded in that city), exploring new sounds and lyrical modes thanks to the influences of Brian Eno, William Burroughs and Kraftwerk. I’ll cover the beginning of that transition in my review of Low, but first we’ll explore Station to Station, focusing on the quality of the listening experience and how it fits into Bowie’s artistic trajectory.
I will say upfront that Station to Station is a more exciting record than Young Americans. They may have been high on coke most of the time, but Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar kick ass on this record, ripping out the power every chance they get. One could make the argument that the backing band pretty much carried Bowie on this album, as his lyrical contributions are generally sub-par, his vocals occasionally unfocused and his choice of material in one specific instance highly questionable.
The title track opens this 6-song album (some have classified Station to Station as an EP, but at thirty-nine minutes, it’s longer than both Rubber Soul and Revolver). It’s a very revealing track that highlights both the talent of the musicians and the lack of compositional discipline. A good chunk of the 10-plus minutes is filled with wasted space and excessive repetition: the synthetic train engine sounds at the beginning of the track eat up over a minute, followed by forty-five seconds of band warm-up set to two lousy chords on an electric piano and a long sustained note on electric guitar. Once the band finally engages with a coherent beat, a simple Am-F-G chord pattern with a clever organ figure on the F-G is repeated ten fucking times, killing the cleverness of the figure and leading the listener to start humming the tune to Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” It takes three minutes and nineteen seconds for the Duke to make his entrance, so goddamnit, he better blow us the fuck away!
Nah. He sounds more than a little tipsy to me . . . and what the fuck is he talking about?
The return of the Thin White Duke
Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes
Here are we, one magical moment, such is the stuff
From where dreams are woven
Bending sound, dredging the ocean, lost in my circles
Here am I, flashing no color
Tall in this room overlooking the ocean
O . . . kay! “Get dat bum off da stage!” I hear someone yell in my imagination, but I’m more annoyed by the reappearance of that damned Am-F-G chord pattern and the now completely irritating organ figure. David’s voice becomes more and more campy as the verse proceeds, but great camp works in sync with campy lyrics, not with pure gibberish. I’m beginning to question the veracity of his claim that he couldn’t remember recording Station to Station, sensing that it was more a matter of not wanting to remember ludicrous performances like this one.
The music does a 180 tempo-wise, turning into sort of an odd march, then flips again to something close to driving rock ‘n’ roll. The Duke continues to babble on and about fortune, the virtues of being grateful and European cannons, but once he passes out we FINALLY get some great music courtesy of Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar, who pair up on the instrumental passage with plenty of drive from the rhythm section of Dennis Davis and George Murray. “Go! Go! Go!” I yell, but fuck me if the Duke doesn’t get his ass off the floor and try to join in the fun. Initially I’m pissed, but after a few deep breaths, I realize that it took David Bowie eight minutes and thirty seconds to come up with a decent vocal—he sounds much better once Earl and Carlos lit the fire under him.
Bowie gave some explanations for the song’s lyrics that would strain the credulity of even the dumbest Trump voter. “First, there’s the content, which nobody’s actually been terribly clear about. The ‘Station to Station’ track itself is very much concerned with the stations of the cross.” I defy anyone to find references to a death sentence, Jesus stumbling while carrying the cross, having the sweat wiped off his face, getting nailed to a cross . . . and if this song was about the stations of the cross, why does the song open with the sounds of trains? Bowie further explained that all the references in the song were to the Kabbalah, a conveniently esoteric offshoot of Judaism with a definition that “varies according to the tradition and aims of those following it.” Even the most generous interpretation of Bowie’s spin can only result in only one verdict: while the religious stuff may have been on his mind when he wrote it, he failed to communicate anything meaningful in any meaningful way. Perhaps his self-image as an artist wouldn’t allow him to admit the song was as shallow as a puddle. This is Bowie trying to make something out of a whole lotta nothin’.
The most coherent set of lyrics comes in the form of “Golden Years,” the album’s biggest hit. It’s not “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” but has some catchy lines, and except for an insert concerning Bowie’s wavering desire to embrace Christianity, generally tracks the erotic glamour echoed in the music. That music is sort of a beefed-up version of the plastic soul of Young Americans, strengthened by the tight guitars of Slick and Alomar and the dry-virgin-level tightness of the band. David sheds the stupefaction that marked his stylistic approach on the opening track and delivers a passionate vocal that extends over most of his range, reminding us that when he’s on his game, he is a top-tier lead singer.
Regarding “Word on a Wing,” let’s hear what David had to say about the song in an interview with NME:
There were days of such psychological terror when making the Roeg film that I nearly started to approach my reborn, born again thing. It was the first time I’d really seriously thought about Christ and God in any depth, and ‘Word on a Wing’ was a protection. It did come as a complete revolt against elements that I found in the film. The passion in the song was genuine . . . something I needed to produce from within myself to safeguard myself against some of the situations I felt were happening on the film set.”
The shorter and more to-the-point explanation is Bowie’s admission that during the filming of The Man Who Fell to Earth he “was totally insecure with about 10 grams [of cocaine] a day in me. I was stoned out of my mind from beginning to end.” The result is a truly dreadful song where the Duke goes full drama queen while failing to sort out the many knots that formed within his head as he engages in a Hamlet-like struggle style whether or not to believe or not believe in a higher power. According to an unattributed quote on the song’s Wikipedia page, Bowie dismissed these Christian yearnings, explaining “There was a point when I very nearly got suckered into that narrow sort of looking . . . finding the cross as the salvation of mankind around the Roeg period.” To which I say, “Okay, but couldn’t you have written a more thoughtful, reflective piece about your crucible experience instead of whining aimlessly and unintelligibly for six fucking minutes?” “Word on a Wing” is not a total loss, however—I love the piano tone on this track.
“TVC 15” offers us the unusual premise of Iggy Pop hallucinating on who-knows-what and swearing to high heaven that the television was swallowing up his girlfriend. Now there’s an experience everyone can relate to! I can hear Graham Chapman now: “I mean, how many of us can honestly say that at one time or another we haven’t attended a drug-fueled soirée and watched in horror as the television set swallowed his date? I know I have!” Inspired by his buddy’s psychotropic vision, Bowie came up with a more believable story (at least to TNG fans) about the trials and tribulations of owning a holographic television. In his version, Iggy’s girlfriend enters the holodeck in the second verse, never to be seen again.
As silly as it sounds, silly can work when you fully embrace the silliness, and Bowie does exactly that in “TVC 15.” Playing the role of a holographic American TV addict complete with a slurred vocal delivered in a country accent somewhere between Elvis and Carl Perkins, Bowie integrates his personal experience in the drug scene with a self-deprecating perspective on the absurdity of drug culture norms:
Maybe if I pray every, each night I sit there pleading
“Send back my dream test baby, she’s my main feature”
My TVC one five, he, he just stares back unblinking
So hologramic, oh my TVC one five
He stares unblinking at the TVC 15, and the TVC 15 returns the favor, both trapped in an eternal loop of shared mindlessness: a sci-fi translation of Cheech and Chong’s “Dave’s Not Here” skit. The rollicking blues piano helps set a tongue-in-cheek tone, and David lives up to the demands of comedy by achieving a near-perfect balance between discipline and playfulness in his narrative. It’s a fun song, free of pretension and the slightest trace of the Thin White Duke.
As far as “Stay” is concerned . . . give me an instrumental version and it might be my favorite track on the album. The band shines here, with Earl and Carlos in full command of phrasing and rhythm. The supporting music is as sexy as fuck, a perfect background for erotic posing and rough but loving foreplay.
If only I could blot out Bowie’s vocal. He’s just fine in the verses, delivering his lines in his natural voice with a touch of shakiness reflecting the fear of vulnerability described in the lyrics. I loathe it when he shifts to what I’ll call his Judy Garland voice in the chorus, as he sounds like a drag queen making fun of drag queens and I LOVE A GREAT DRAG QUEEN.
I also take great exception to the muddled view of romance in the lyrics, especially the chorus wrap-up line: “‘Cause you can never really tell when somebody wants something you want too.”
Oh, bullshit. I suppose that’s true if you have your head up your ass and lack the courtesy and the courage to give the object of your desires the truth about who you are and what you want. “Oh, but people don’t do that!” you reply. “They should!” I scream back. I hate to be religious on any subject, but when it comes to the necessity of clear, open, honest communication regarding sex, I’m Joan of Fucking Arc.
Ahem. I will return to my role as critic and give Bowie and the Boys a slightly tilted thumbs up for their performance on “Stay.”
The thumb flips in the other direction for the closing track, a cover of “Wild Is the Wind.” Bowie was (as am I) a great admirer of Nina Simone, and after meeting her in L. A. was “inspired” to record the Tiomkin-Washington classic that Simone covered in both live and studio recordings. It’s one thing to admire a great singer and a great song, but I’ve never understood the motivation to express one’s admiration by attempting a cover. That’s how we wound up with hundreds of shitty versions of “Yesterday!” Compared to either of Simone’s versions, Bowie’s rendition is pretty thin soup, all gloss and no substance.
David Bowie thought Station to Station (and Low) were “great, damned good albums.” As artists have a poor track record of objectivity when it comes to their own work, we can safely ignore his opinion. Brian Eno had a similar view, calling it “one of the great records of all time.” Well, of course he would say that—Station to Station has many of the qualities of a Roxy Music album and he’s certainly not going to knock an album that he claimed led directly to Low, an album where he was a featured contributor. And as for the generally adoring summaries from mainstream critics . . . let’s just say I’m not impressed and highly skeptical about the motivation behind those reviews.
Station to Station is the work of a guy who was pretty fucked up at the time. The mixture of drugs and music is one of those wildly unpredictable variables that can result in a great album or a total disaster. Station to Station is somewhere in the middle—the band performed exceptionally well, and when Bowie showed up, he reminded listeners just how good he could be. Balance that with muddled lyrics, sloppy vocals and the unnecessary distraction of the Thin White Duke and it’s hard to view Station to Station as anywhere close to great or deny that his immersion in the L. A. drug scene compromised his better judgment.
The connections to Low are tenuous at best, and as a listening experience, Station to Station simply doesn’t measure up to Bowie’s best work.