Introducing the Thin White Duke: David Bowie’s masterpiece ‘Station to Station’
By 1975-1976, David Bowie had been to America and fully absorbed the culture which informed and developed his ’75 Young Americans album. Even at this point, the media and much of the public did not understand David Bowie. His chameleonic tendencies left too much up to the imagination. Station To Station came out in 1976, which saw a more sinister version of the plastic soul character he had channelled in Young Americans. This would culminate into his ‘Thin White Duke’ character which, really, only was around for Station To Station. It’s no surprise that this was the case, as he was really dancing with the devil at that point; Bowie had taken art and method acting to the extreme. He had developed a nasty cocaine habit which would chemically push him to his limits.
The Thin White Duke was the young American who became so cynical and, eventually, so disillusioned with the States that he began setting his sights on the new post-punk and krautrock movement in Europe and, more specifically, Germany, with a little sprinkle of fascism added. Bands such as Neu! and Kraftwerk were presenting a new strand of music and culture. The genius of Bowie’s chameleonic essence is not that he creates absolutely brand new things out of thin air. The fundamental difference between Bowie and other artists is that he constantly kept a finger on the pulse, his eyes were open, and he was willing to soak up any new kind of art, language, dance, music, etc. His Berlin Trilogy: Low, Heroes, and Lodger, would be the destination he was headed for and Station to Station was the necessary step in between, an exorcism of sorts.
Station to Station’s musical DNA comprised of funk, soul, disco and a creeping Europeanism style of goth rock. This new musical direction for Bowie was very antithetical to the American heartland; it was a conscious move to get back to Europe – Station to Station is the prologue to the Berlin trilogy.
Despite Bowie’s mental condition at the time, the albumis impeccably clean. Music critics have continuously praised its production quality as perfect. Bowie is in his best form, vocally and his lyrics are some of the most captivating words he has ever written. Having said all this, Bowie could never recall making this album and, in reflection, perhaps he chose not to remember. Living in Los Angeles at the time, he was at his wit’s end; his cocaine addiction was worsening, and the plastic limelight was wearing him thin. As he would comment years later, “The fucking place should be wiped off the face of the earth.” The cracks were beginning to show in Bowie as he made the album, which would eventually cause him to move to Berlin by the end of the year. Bowie was able to capture the essence of his disillusionment with LA, and his own psychosis brought on by addiction, specifically in the song ‘Golden Years.’ At the same time, an instant classic and the leading single, it is undoubtedly the darkest song on the record, ironically so, as it is the grooviest one. “Run for the shadows in these golden years.”
The album was co-produced by Bowie and Harry Maslin, and the recording sessions would effectively solidify Bowie’s band for the rest of the decade. Longtime collaborator and guitar player extraordinaire would comment on the album, “It was one of the most glorious albums that I’ve ever done … we experimented so much on it.” Despite all the seeming turmoil in Bowie’s life at the time, it is a mark of genius that he was able to leave his strife at the door when he walked into the studio. Alomar adds, “When we were in work mode, it was always about the work,” he says. “If it was fueled by coke or by whatever, David was always able to manage the decision-making. And it was always the same concern for him: ‘What are the lyrics, and what am I going to talk about?”
“Here are we, one magical movement from Kether to Malkuth”, sings Bowie on the 10-minute long title track. To understand how a song like ‘Station to Station’ came together is almost unfathomable. His lyrics are especially esoteric on this one; Bowie would bring back his influence of Nietzche, which who he first referenced on ‘Quicksand’ on Hunky Dory. Nietzche had extolled a kind of superman figure, which always resonated with Bowie, and this may explain the extremities of his decisions.
Reports of the time say that Bowie had really gone to the extreme in his character and he inhabited a sort of strange but beautiful and pure spiritual world, yet he was studying the occult, saying things like “this country needs fascism”, even providing the Nazi salute at one point, and of course, doing cocaine. He dropped down to 90 pounds at one point; he was surrounded by black candles and old Egyptian artefacts. Bowie was attempting to transcend to another realm, literally. This is why Station to Station has its name: he is referring to going from one Station to the next, perhaps through a spiritual realm, psychically or otherwise.
According to Songfacts, “The song is in four movements, and the lyrics reflect Bowie’s preoccupations with the influential occultist Aleister Crowley, Hermetic Qabalah and Gnosticism. The title is a reference to the Stations of the Cross, a series of 14 images depicting the crucifixion of Jesus.”
The only other song on the record that bears similarities to the spiritual nature of ‘Station to Station’, would be ‘Word on a Wing’. The lyrics point to a lover, however, in Bowie’s usual mystical fashion, he makes it a little more ambiguous than that, providing the song with a quality of religious grace. The song itself is mostly based around a piano melody, whereas the rest of the tracks are certainly constructed from Alomar and Earl Slick’s crazy guitar licks.
Overall, Station to Station really is one of its kind, and there are none like it. Mostly because it required Bowie to inhabit a space that almost pushed him too far over the edge, and therefore, not many will go to. It wasn’t just the drugs, however. Bowie, when he was alive, had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and art and how he might fuse different genres and philosophical ideas together.
The last track on the album, ‘Wild is the Wind’, is a nice transition to what would come later. Some have said that the song should have been included on Low. I would like to think that Station to Station holds a special place for ‘Wild is the Wind’, and maybe Bowie was able to manage some peace of mind by the time he sang the last line of the lyric of this achingly beautiful song.