Saturday, November 28, 2009

"Their Defining Work" Presents David Bowie's Station to Station (1976): The Thin White Duke Emerges for a Masterpiece

As 1976 dawned, David Bowie was a pasty, emaciated puppet doll. A wandering wreck, yet also a glamorously suave embodiment of what a soul-emulating pop star should have been circa 1975 (if you think shallow, shape-shifting rockers should have been trying their hand at funky dance floor boogie that Latinos, gays and blacks were no doubt the prime target market of. And yeah you could say his British Honky/Cracker swindle worked, if you're one of the cynics). Mere skin and bones hanging on amidst layers of makeup, hair dye and fashionable tuxedo garb was what Bowie resembled. He was the Vegas show tune singer, gender irrelevant of course, but in a totally rock star way somehow. Lady Gaga's got nothing on Sir David, I'll make that abundantly clear. Wracked by a severe cocaine addiction, Bowie was in the midst of a career shift that offered a paradigm to his steadfast fans, ardent lovers of his alien/zeitgest-savvy rock star days in the guise of Ziggy Stardust. He was all of a sudden a soul man, getting down and dirty and jettisoning the glam rock flash of before. Good move commercially, since glam was all but faded away by 1975 and it turns out the continued mitosis of styles brought Bowie to another plain of greatness eventually. With the transformation, gone was the fey, almost parodying aura around Bowie, one that in my opinion made those formative years of commercial fame a bit more hollow and not as fertile artistically as other times in Bowie's career. Yes, it was the period most think of when they hear the name David Bowie. The Ziggy and the Spiders from Mars thing was rock & roll theatre, a campy exploitation of the dada-esque rock hit upon by Lou Reed & the Velvets. Bowie struck a pop music dream by singing knowingly of rock cliches, homosexual culture and gender bending while playing the part on stage too, with cross-dressing, makeup and flame red-dyed hair styled in a womanly mullet. Behind it all, Bowie was a master craftsman with enough courage and drive to make it as a star in any mode he chose to.

The ersatz of his sudden turn toward slick Philly R&B in 1974 confirmed the suspicions of those that saw the effeminate, bicurious antics of his 1972-73 days to be just a mere passing phase, artistically and stylistically. Bowie years later expressed regret at how he acknowledged his bisexuality in interviews, complaining about how it become too encompassing and overshadowed what he was really striving for. Hence, dropping most of the sexually charged homoerotica and coming on as the straight-laced ladies man. Bowie re-geared his persona toward being Mr. Soul, bringing in saxophones, sometimes strings and always huge black vocal choruses (including Luther Vandross in his early days). He ditched the glittery "fag-hag" look of his old band for what seemed like Las Vegas showbiz gravitas, masquerading as a serious journey into a previously thought alien genre for Bowie (we've all come to learn that nothing can really be alien for Bowie because he comes off as an alien himself and knows no boundaries. He could come out with a bossa nova album next- Todd Rundgren beat him to it 12 years ago- and I wouldn't be shocked in the slightest). But as it turns out, perhaps the ultimate chameleon Bowie wasn't masquerading nearly as much as he had with the Ziggy act. Critics grumbled that 1975's Young Americans was a blatant commercial overture, while some fans felt jilted by the huge change. Where was the amphetamine-fueled rock, prominently heard through his Mick Ronson days of "Sufragette City," "Panic in Detroit," "Lady Stardust" and the entire Pin Ups album for that matter? Where was the blase, totally chic cool for enjoyment? The shameless fun!? Well the answer was that it was all kaput, another shedding of self-created skin from Bowie. This newer Bowie music was overblown sure, but no less so than his novel fascinations surrounding Diamond Dogs, an album partly dedicated to exploring the world of George Orwell's novel 1984 through song. Diamond Dogs, save for "Rebel Rebel," sounded nondescript and phony high-minded, so it was written off as Bowie's worst album since his days when he was just known as David Jones.

Bowie permanently set up home in Los Angeles, but that turned out to be a mistake when it came to curbing his drug habits. L.A. was a place where he could still run his successful singing business and pursue acting on the side, a second endeavor which eventually became a respectable practice for the guy (he had trained in France in the realms theatre and mime during a sojourn away from the music biz in 1968). Much more professional sounding than even Diamond Dogs was Young Americans, which even though it delivered knockout blows like the immortal acid funk of "Fame" and the title track, lacked any real artistic backbone and even when it imitated bedroom soul quite well- such as on the sultry "Can You Hear Me?"- it felt like Bowie was playing the slimy Anglo spinster or the plastic mannequin standing in for an Al Green at the Mirage or something (or the Stardust? How fitting). But many jumped the gun by claiming Bowie was headed into that "Fat Elvis" avenue of complete artistic neutering. Many were openly blabbing on about how David could have been just a little more avant-garde and challenging with Young Americans and about how he was merely trying to lay down an LP that was just too friggin' easy and conservative. And that's generally the right way to contextualize Young Americans, despite its inoffensive, barrier-friendly music sowing the seeds for upsetting the Bowie fandom- a motley crue, loyal and dedicated and made up of salacious teenyboppers, gays n' bis alike, giddy pubescent girls and self-appointed rebels ascribing to "rock cred" and harping on it all scholarly much like a grade school teacher scribbles important notes to remember for math on a chalkboard (just watch 2000's Almost Famous for a cinematic depiction of that history lesson). Bowie was constantly stoned out of his eyeballs at this point it should be remembered. His dalliance with the white powder of magic was first detailed on "Aladdin Sane" where he equated the cocaine urge to some sort of madness, best captured by Mike Garson's sadistic piano equivalent to Ornette Coleman's free jazz. Of course, as Bowie often does in an oddly English mannerism, he hid the real anguish inside, bottled up and very private like any good Englishman trying to save face.

David has never been a staunchly confessional, openly honest Bob Dylan follower, unless he was taking on that emotion for artistic license or juxtaposing it for a song like "Song for Bob Dylan" on 1971's Hunky Dory. But like a true artist, he did it within yet another character, a comic book type creation that Aladdin Sane represented. The 1975-76 period apparently has been largely absent from the man's memory banks ever since and the coke psychosis may explain for his provocative behaviour that included calling on the need for a Fascist leader to guide England and a disturbing fondness for Nazi imagery and lore. He often appeared scatological, paranoid and unfocused when on TV, which was often despite the number of times Bowie would hole up in his mansion in a Howard Hughes state of shambles. Just try and check Youtube for his slightly inebriated Soul Train appearance and his interview on The Dick Cavett Show in this time frame. Knowingly (unknowingly?), David even guested on a Cher TV special to duet with her, a real middle of the road strategy as by then Cher was far removed from the world of hip music. In '75, Bowie was at the point where a drug dependency becomes not just a self-medicating must-have but a source for fantasy and pure delusion as he was often hallucinating falling dead bodies outside his house. These irrational- not for him at the time- fears kept him cooped up for days at a time while he snorted cocaine and it is rumoured he once stayed awake for 9 straight days, subsisting on nothing but milk and red peppers as he often did back then. Overdoses occasionally, inevitably you would think, befell the man but all of this was covered up quite tidily. This went on until he left L.A. for Berlin in 1977 to clean up. But at the height of his physical decline, he weighed a gaunt 110 pounds, looking as close to death as any rock star can get. Very little of the recording process for Station to Station is remembered by anyone, as cocaine was a drug leaned upon by most in order to get work done without the fatigue a human would normally undergo in such long hour sessions. Back from the Young Americans instrumentalists are former James Brown guitarist Carlos Alomar, bassist George Murray and drummer Dennis Davis. Also used on keyboards alongside Bowie is E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan.

Earl Slick provides the album's most revelatory role on lead guitar, emanating noises and distortion from his axe that predates post-punk and sounds like the merging point between noise rock guitar and Hendrix. Coming in January 1976, it became a big commercial success- his highest charting album in the US in fact, peakn at #3- and drew the approval of critics who had previously been divided on Bowie. Even tough critic and Bowie doubter Lester Bangs called it his first masterpiece, lapping up the unexpected spaced out funk it provided (no doubt Lester's propensity for alcohol, pharmaceuticals, speed and pills enhanced the experience). It was an achievement that gave Bowie perhaps his biggest role as inspiration for the post-punk and new wave acts to come. My goodness, think of all those "New Romantics" from 80s synth-pop and where they got their whole sly, baritone croon and gender neutral appeal from. It's not as much owed to the Ziggy Stardust guise as it is to the Thin White Duke guise. Station to Station bridged the gap between Young Americans and the Berlin trilogy, started off by the electronically sub-terrain of Low. The first cut on Station to Station is the title one, a 10-minute, guitar-ravaged frightener that right away foreshadows the icy paranoia now creeping into Bowie's music. By dehumanizing the R&B with a bit of Krautrock frigidness, Bowie touches on something truly enthralling and wholly different. "Station to Station" begins with train sound effects melding into the guitar feedback of Slick. It appears to be a song exploring the black magic of Aleister Crowley, Hermetic Qabalah and gnosticism. The whole concept of "The Thin White Duke" Bowie is confirmed in the fact he introduces himself by that moniker on the first line of the album. It made for quite a nickname, not only because it's catchy but because it really captures the image of the emaciated Bowie.

But "Station to Station" is an inauspicious beginning because the album really takes off with the heady funk afterward, starting with the tremendous, well-remembered "Golden Years." A tongue-twister lyrically, "Golden Years" features sensational singing and lyrics from Bowie while the demented funk is spliced with eerie whistling, finger snaps and echo chamber effects. Bowie also produces some deceptively omnipresent harmony vocals amidst a rhythm track that in 1976 James Brown would've killed for (after all, his single "Hot" ripped off the central riff from "Fame," which was first developed in Bowie's stage roofraiser cover of "Footstompin'" from his turning point 1974 tour). The dramatic "Word on a Wing" is Bowie finally learning the ropes of being a captivating balladeer, with synthesizer energy giving it that Eurocentric slant. Bowie later admitted the song was written to channel his feelings of despair in his coke-addled state filming The Man Who Fell to Earth. The lyrics, and Bowie's later chronicling, indicate a man desperate for salvation, feeling that perhaps wearing a silver cross can save him. Bowie claims he nearly went as far as having a Christian rebirth, hoping it could help him fend off the psychological trauma his cocaine psychosis was causing him. He even speculated in 1999 that "Word on a Wing" was "a call for help" during his darkest hours. A purely kooky and unforgettable funk scorcher is "TVC 15," a charged up, nervy version of what Bowie started on Young Americans. Featuring chunky metallic guitar from Slick as well as Bowie's keen vocals, "TVC 15" is a five-star recording all the way. What begins as a loungish sort of jazz pop becomes a screeching cacophony of funk with Slick's rachety guitars wailing out in the far background. "TVC 15" is a song that goes through so many different sections that it's hard to classify it by verse-coda-bridge-chorus or any of that standard categorization. The subject matter was supposedly inspired by Iggy Pop, an equally troubled rock singer back then that Bowie continually helped keep alive and grounded in the 70s, hallucinating the TV at Bowie's home trying to swallow his girlfriend alive. As if it was possible, things get stranger with "Stay," a cavalcade of Slick's ferocious guitar leads, Alomar's guitar funk scratch, Latin rhythms and Bowie's operatic melody line. Call "Stay" disco for moody punks, as the post-punk acts explored musical areas much like "Stay" and later on, bands like Joy Division, Pylon and Gang of Four found a way to incorporate the restless dance potential Bowie managed to cash in on (indeed he has always taken interest in combining the exhilaration of R&B with the mechanical Sturm und Drang of electronica and kraut rock).

Running over 6 minutes, like many of the tracks here, "Stay" is positively chilling, with rambling lyrics that convey the kind of emotional incoherence and disenchantment. The cocaine madness jamming is wild, untamed and would make good use for any depiction of a dystopian world that Bowie has always hinted at in his more unconventional, serious work. On top of the instrumentation tackling funk and hard rock all at once, there is Bowie providing swirling melletron backing (eat your fuckin' heart out "Space Oddity"!). "Stay" may or may not be a love song- the lyrics indicate yes, the overall atmosphere of the song would say otherwise I'd say. Bowie eases up on the crazy for the seventh and final selection, a cover of the 1957 composition "Wild is the Wind," recorded by Johnny Mathis for a film of the same name. Nina Simone's 1966 cover was likely how Bowie became aware of the tune, being a noted admirer of Simone's. However deprived of sanity Bowie seemed, no matter how zoned out or fashionably insane he was, he still uses "Wild as the Wind" to demonstrate how his vocals had come a long way since the trendy, novelty start to his career. Bowie the vocalist is in top shape on "Wild is the Wind," singing as if to the heavens in a passionate falsetto mixed in with his elegantly suave baritone croon. The song rarely hits the feverish highs of the other songs, giving a soothing, calming influence to an otherwise schizophrenic album. Bowie's vocals are arresting throughout Station to Station but only on "Wild is the Wind" do they truly take the role as the dominant instrument. Rather than coming off as cheesy or showy and mainstream like he did on his previous release, "Wild is the Wind" is one of the genuinely time halting moments in the canon of Mr. Bowie. An enchanted, lullaby kind of track but still a lonesome, longing way to end the album. Station to Station led to artistic discoveries throughout the late 70s, a second golden age for Bowie with Brian Eno serving as creative partner and producer through the albums Low, "Heroes," and Lodger. Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) in 1980 arguably ended this phase as Bowie went off to try and conquer the dance pop market, although in a much shallower way than he had done in the mid-70s. With the exception of Let's Dance, the David Bowie of 1983-1991 was a pretty underwhelming, banal artist whose movie career was more promising frankly. Station to Station is the barometer for all his future releases and a real trip through the demonic life Bowie was leading at the time. In all his cocaine enslaved glory, you can understand the large critical reputation Bowie commands today with a few listens to this wonderful album.

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