Sunday, October 24, 2010

David Bowie — Station to Station

Station to Station is the only album that has ever truly scared me. For all its electronic processing and sonic layering, it is a record in the vein of a singer/songwriter confessional. What makes it terrifying is the fact that the confessor is so strung out he has no idea what he's letting the audience in on. Every spin of Station to Station throws you into the mouth of madness, wrenched open in a silent shriek of pain and despair, and the soul Bowie put into the record has nothing at all to do with the kind of soul he thought he was putting into it.

Released on Jan. 23, 1976, exactly three months before the Ramones unleashed the bubbling punk movement and over a year before The Clash and the Sex Pistols would finally put the London scene on wax, Bowie bypassed punk altogether and laid damn near all the foundations for punk's late-'70s evolution into post-punk. Station to Station contains jagged guitars, fractured lyrics and a vacuum that sucks out all the air and leaves only a faint chill as your lungs collapse. (It's a sound Bowie would also implement on his friend Iggy Pop's albums to revive Pop's dead career; incidentally, Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis was later found dead from hanging with a copy of Pop's The Idiot still spinning on the record player.)

Bowie's forte before (and since) lied in his ability to craft complicated but appealing pop tunes within the time limits of commercial radio. So the prospect of an album of his opening with a 10-minute cut must have appealing not even to his most devoted fans. Yet the title track is one of the great works of late-'70s rock and one of the few lengthy pieces of the era not to suffer from bloat and showboating. Starting with the faint sound of a train, "Station to Station" kicks into gear before a haunting sustained guitar chord and two-note piano motif jump into the mix in a manner that actually makes the track seem quieter and more minimalistic than it was. The band slowly falls into place around a plodding riff that continues for several minutes, rising and falling in the void, lost and bedraggled.

At last, Bowie enters, spewing some of his most obtuse lyrics. Presenting his latest alter-ego, the Thin White Duke, via a re-introduction, Bowie inserts such oddball lines as "The European cannon is here" (yes, that kind of cannon). Yet the track chugs for so long that he starts to give himself away, he rousing cheer of "Drink! Drink! Raise your glass! Raise your glass high!" taking on a more ominous, desperate tone. And when he hits the lyric, "It's not the side-effects of the cocaine/I'm thinking that it must be love," the cracks form in the dike.

Some cite the next track, the disco tune "Golden Years," as the misfit among the rest of the album's darker textures, but it follows naturally from the title track, which fades into the nothingness it flirted with for 10 minutes. Consider this stanza:
Some of these days, and it won't be long
Gonna drive back down where you once belonged
In the back of a dream car twenty foot long
Don't cry my sweet, don't break my heart
Doing all right, but you gotta get smart
Wish upon, wish upon, day upon day, I believe oh lord
I believe, oh Lord, I believe all the way
Come get up my baby
Run for the shadows, run for the shadows, run for the shadows in these golden years
Just as the most raucous lyrics in the title track were the most revealing, so too does the party mentality of "Golden Years" belie the mounting horror of Bowie's existence. This song, more than any of the others, is the only one that even gives us the hint that the singer is aware he's falling apart. Instead of doing something about it, though, he tries to dismiss reality as the whispers of a bad trip, so he dances and snorts all the harder in an attempt to outpace creeping madness.

When Bowie slows down, as he does on "Word on a Wing," he achieves a genuine emotion absent from his earlier, more Brechtian efforts. As if the coming down from his coke high, Bowie bottoms out for the first time on the album. Bowie's most beautiful ballad since "Letter to Hermione," "Word on a Wing" contains several religious lyrics, even an entreaty to the Lord. Yet what make it so affecting is that Bowie sings with a defeated croon that suggests a scoundrel who already turned to his last refuge and found no quarter there either. Bowie later said that he'd never considered religion until this time in his life, but even in his moments of semi-belief, he cannot commit to total faith: "Just because I believe don't mean I don't think as well/Don't have to question everything in heaven or hell." The religious conviction may be in question, but the passion is not. Only halfway through the album, the star teeters on collapse

The second side of the album shows Bowie snorting another line and getting a jolt. Where the lengthy "Station to Station" led into the rave "Golden Years" on Side One, Side Two reverse the structure. With the adrenaline rush, Bowie jumps right into "TVC 15," a paranoid, pre-Videodrome rocker about a woman being devoured by a television. Layered with conflicting sounds, shouts and rhythms, "TVC 15" is an entire party mix tape in one song -- funky, rocking, danceable -- with gobbledygook for lyrics that the people in the club can ignore even as they reveal the depths of Bowie's (and Iggy Pop's, as the inspiration came from Pop's hallucination) fractured mind.

The second long track on the album, "Stay," follows, and it's as exhilarating as it is nightmarish. Four minutes shorter than the opening title track, "Stay" manages to contain even less of the actual star of the show than the instrumental workout of "Station to Station." Bowie sings plaintive lyrics to an unknown partner, but his delivery clashes with the spirit of the song. As he cries "stay," he drifts further and further away. The end of "Stay" morphs into an extended jam featuring fiery fretwork courtesy of lead guitarist Earl Slick. Ian Mathers, writing for the late and lamented Stylus magazine, dug into the darker implications of this structural breakdown, saying, "David has left the building, he’s gone to Berlin. He couldn’t take it anymore. The music grinds on inescapably, outlasting the man." This is partially true: by the end of "Stay," Bowie has at last collapsed, though he still has one more song to sing, but it would be too optimistic to say he'd left for Berlin. He still had a world tour ahead of him, one that would only accelerate his downward spiral. This isn't the sound of Bowie checking out to go detox; it's just the sound of him checking out.

No wonder, then, that the album ends with a cover, allowing Bowie to give himself a rest from writing anything else as he falls apart. Yet the power of "Wild is the Wind" eclipses the Johnny Mathis original and the Nina Simone. Dimitri Thomkin and Ned Washington's spare lyrics are stretched even further apart, backed up by a simple drum beat and an ephemeral guitar lick. Even then, Bowie cannot stay with the band, throwing too many words into one line and slowing down to a crawl in others. It's the kind of song you expect to hear not in the stadiums where Bowie played before and after but in a damp, poorly lit nightclub on a Wednesday night, a sustained note of fatalism for all the people who couldn't even make it to the weekend to drink away their sorrows. By now, the nerves are dead, and the cocaine no longer has the effect. Only when he snorts enough of the stuff that he turns ashy and pale himself can he even feel. The Thin White Duke is back, but not for long.

Somehow, Station to Station stayed on the charts in both the UK and the US, where it actually placed higher than in Bowie's homeland. "Golden Years" surely got people to the record store, but the album is so out there, so desperate, so musically adventurous that it surprises me it stayed on the charts for months -- I played the album today for my mom, who had, as every heterosexual woman who grew up in the '70s, a mad crush on David Bowie. She only recognized "Golden Years." Maybe those who snatched up the album, like its maker, were just too far gone to realize what was being communicated in it.

Lester Bangs didn't miss it, though. Far from a Bowie fan, Bangs had been impressed by the dated Young Americans, but he piled on the praise for this. "[Station to Station is] an honest attempt by a talented artist to take elements of rock, soul music, and his own idiosyncratic and occasionally pompous showtune/camp predilections, and rework this seemingly contradictory melange of styles into something new and powerful." So strung-out and sped-up is Bowie that the titles printed on the album cover are blurred, spitting out "STATIONTOSTATIONDAVID-BOWIE," and in that desperation Bangs, as he always did, found the darkness that mirrored his own. At last, for the hardest man in rock to please, Bowie had proven himself.

Following the album's release, Bowie embarked on his largest world tour yet, revealing yet another side to the artist's endless reinvention in the form of minimalism: in place of an opening act was a screening of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali's short, surreal masterpiece Un Chien Andalou, and the show itself featured an unadorned band on a vast, mostly empty stage as a white light pulsated throughout the show. It's a miracle the concerts never became a farewell tour ending with a roadie discovering the star face-down in a pool of his own nose-blood. Amazingly, the tour went amazingly, and the recent remaster of Station to Station -- which is noticeably quieter than previous mixes but gives greater weight and clarity to the spaces between the jagged instrumentation -- comes with a fantastically cleaned-up version of the legendary bootleg of Bowie's show at the Nassau Coliseum. It's a white-hot performance that shows the touring band not only capturing the conflicting sounds of the album but enhancing them and retro-fitting them to old hits. (I was amused by Bowie's cover of the Velvet Underground's "Waiting For the Man," not only because Bowie never came closer to becoming his idol Lou Reed but because the line "$26 in my hand" is so inadequate for Bowie's drug of choice and the amount he buys: 26 bucks wouldn't buy enough coke for Bowie to get ready for the proper amount of coke he'd bought with thousands of dollars.)

Looking back now, many casual fans would say that Bowie had already peaked, that he'd recorded most of his hits and wouldn't come back until the '80s, when he presided over the New Wave and synthpop groups like a fashionable godfather. I, however, think that, while Bowie had made some great albums by this point and had established himself as the dominant pop star of the decade, Station to Station was his first masterpiece, and the launchpad for four subsequent classics through 1980's Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). Bowie always seemed comfortable in anyone's skin except his own, but he'd never been able to fully incorporate his two favorite influences: Lou Reed, and -- in much broader terms -- black music like blues and funk. With the Krautrock-flavored Berlin trilogy ahead of him, Station to Station announced a shift from removed Brechtian overtones into outright mechanization, yet he somehow finally made the raw power of the Velvets and the gripping, emotional heft of funk and R&B work in his new sound. There is no reason why the album should work, not from the lyrical standpoint of spiraling out of control and being too-revealing, not from the musical standpoint of throwing together electronic minimalism, disco, funk and acid rock. And yet, it does, and the fascinating, psychologically repellent results keep me coming back for more than with any Bowie album. For a time I considered Low, his subsequent album and a better mix of the darker thoughts here with the lighter side that sobriety and Brian Eno would bring, but not even that album holds me like this one. This, as much as John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, is the sound of fame eating a man's soul. John Lennon fought back through primal therapy and won. Here, David Bowie isn't so lucky.


  1. This and Low have been playing on my iPod constantly over the last few weeks. I have to admit I never looked that deeply at the lyrics of "Golden Years" to see how well it fit thematically with the rest of the record - what a great surprise!

  2. Station to Station is one of my all-time favorite Bowie albums. In fact, anything he did from The Man Who Sold the World to Scary Monsters is essential. My favorite Bowie album is Hunky Dory with Aladdin Sane in second and Low in third. My least favorite is definitely Tonight.