Saturday, 23 January 2016

FROM SPLENDID ISOLATION: DAVID BOWIE’S ‘STATION TO STATION’

Okay, 'Bowie still dead' may not seem an obvious news item. But its still hard to think of much else. So here's something about one of my favourite tracks of his...


”It's too late to be late again
”It's too late to be hateful
”The European canon is here”

Picture this... an album that acts as a transition between two seemingly incompatible styles, laid down quickly by a singer so strung out he later couldn't even remember anything involved. Actually, scratch that... it’s not so much in transition as occupying a kind of schizoid state, it’s rigidly black-and-white colour scheme as indicative as the jagged stripe of the now-iconic ‘Aladdin Sane’ cover.

Not, perhaps, the most promising of starts...

Bowie recorded ‘Station to Station’ late in 1975, between the Philadelphia Soul of ‘Young Americans’ and the Krautrock-influenced “Berlin trilogy” of ‘Low’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘Lodger’. The title suggests some kind of transference between the two places; and indeed, shortly after it was made Bowie abandoned Los Angeles for Europe. However, the album rarely bridges those styles, it mostly alternates between them – the white-boy funk of ‘Golden Years’, ‘TVC 15’ and ‘Stay’, American as eggs over easy, intercut with the Europe-inclined ‘Word On A Wing’ and the Nina Simone cover ‘Wild Is the Wind’.

Yet with the opening, title track the trains collide head-on. And “collide” is the operative word; at over ten minutes, twice the length of most of the other numbers, its construction is basically the two styles, the American and the European, crashing into one another. Surely this becomes the point where the centre cannot hold and all this falls apart? The point where the drug-addled, has-been star finally crashes and sinks somewhere mid-Atlantic.

But its the opposite. By bringing together white and black, it gives the album it's key, rending the rest of it (kind of) comprehensible. More than that, it creates one of Bowie’s finest tracks. As Benjamin Aspray has commented at PopMatters: “If Station to Station’ boils a career down to an album, then ‘Station to Station’ boils an album down to a song.” From hereon in, we can focus on this track alone and miss almost nothing.


Though joined only at the edges, the two sections oppose and mirror one other. In the lyrics you can almost match the antonyms off like a game of anti-snap; “lost in my circle” versus “I must become one in a million”; “dredging the oceans” versus “mountains on mountains”; and (most prosaic-sounding, but actually most important of all), “here am I” versus “here are we”.

This album is held to herald Bowie’s Krautrock era, and he said himself “’Low’
and its siblings were a direct follow-on from the title track”. Indeed, once in Berlin, Bowie would hang out with Harmonia until he'd absorbed their influence wholesale. But that came later... While still in LA, the yet-unseen Berlin came from films and other received images. As exmplified by the name of a predecessor band to Harmonia, Neu!, Krautrock took as its mission to break all connections with what had gone before. The emphasis here is all on the past - on German Expressionism, or the ‘Cabaret’ shtick of decadent Weimar. (That stark black-and-white aesthetic, for example, came from Expressionist cinema, to which he'd become almost as addicted as the drugs.) While once he'd mythologised America from Europe, now it's the reverse, and that past being his past just makes the images shine brighter:

”Once there were mountains on mountains
”And once there were sun-birds to soar with
”And once I could never be down”

It also revived Bowie’s earlier interest in the pre-rock world of chanson and cabaret music, which had already run to the extent of covering Jacques Brel and Kurl Weill songs. Hence the reference to “the European canon”, a classical term which seems strangely archaic applied to modern music. (Some internet discussion boards struggle valiantly to explain why cannons are suddenly being fired.)

The style is measured and almost intonatory, sounding almost restrained when set against the orgiastic excess of rock music. Though no more repetitive than most other kinds of popular music, its downtempo beat and lack of release makes it feel repetitive - glowering and oppressive, as if the music is stalking you.

When words are set to this, the result is imagery that accumulates rather than progresses; “here am I, flashing no colour, tall in this room overlooking the ocean”. Images are clipped and precise, too composed to sound like a rock song, too stark to sound like poetry. They build into the picture of a solitary figure, trapped within its own grandeur, a prisoner of his own device.

Then, just as you think the song must surely be over, it bursts into the euphoric funky soul of the final section, a juxtaposition about as arresting as seeing a statue suddenly break into dance. Live clips of the time show a stage sparsely lit, which then explodes with brightness as it reaches this half-way point. The words lose their composure and take on the rush of conversation – “it’s not the side effects of the cocaine, I’m thinking that it must be love” is less Brechtian bon mot and more like something you might have burbled in your ear at a nightclub.

And the two sections combine into something so much more than the sum of their parts. Like a sweet and sour, each taste is richer through being juxtaposed with the other. Some call it transitional, some call it completely unique in Bowie’s repertoire. Some call it commercial and some experimental. Quite often, the same people call it all those things at the very same time...

It’s often a few listens in before you realise, in a perfect irony, the words to the two halves are effectively swapped – like an exchange of prisoners. It’s the stark ‘European’ section in which Bowie describes his situation in LA, then its the funk which arrives to announce “the European canon is here!”

Indeed, for much of the first half, Bowie is simply reporting the facts of his life in LA. He really did live alone in a big house overlooking the ocean. Heavy cocaine use had driven him to a state of near-complete psychosis and paranoia. (One of his delusions being that witches were breaking in to steal his urine. Or, according to others, his semen. Perhaps the witches weren't that choosy.)

The key to the song is perhaps in the opening line (and original title) “the return of the Thin White Duke”. This was of course Bowie’s latest character, to replace and supplant Ziggy and Major Tom. But this is the first we have heard of him - how can he be returning? In the sense of coming around, rejoining the world, escaping the prison his life in LA had become.


Bowie was at the time obsessed with occultism, and the line “from Kether to Malkuth” relates to sephiroths (to you and me, points) on the Kaballic tree of life. (He can be seen sketching this out on the original back cover.) Kether, which translates to ‘Crown’, is the apex of Kaballa, the divine essence transcending the merely human - just as the crown goes above the head. Malkuth means ‘Kingdom’ and occupies the base of the tree; relating to matter or Earth. It’s the only sephiroth held to not directly emanate from God.

Yet in which direction is this “magical movement”? The Kaballa is based on the expectation the adherent will attempt to climb the tree, in the quest for divinity. Bowie is doing it the other way around, reversing down a one-way street, descending to Malkuth. This is the inverse of what he sung about in ‘Space Oddity’ – the journey of a man back from beyond, into the arms of ground control. Live,he would often accompany the line with a downward hand movement. “I must be only one in a million” means “I must become only one in a million” – end my splendid isolation.

And what’s bringing him back is the power of love – but love in a strangely pure sense. Love songs tend to be descriptive (“and then she kissed me”) or seductive (“love, love me do”). But when Bowie sings “I won’t let the day pass without her” there’s one slight snag - as yet, there’s no actual herLike Berlin, she’s a creation of his imagination he’s hoping will manifest itself. Still stuck up the Kaballic tree, he is only able to conceive of the Earth he wants to rejoin. He wonders “who will connect me with love?”, as if love comes before the lover - a mental state which then needs a physical person to connect to, like lightning aiming at a rod. (Ironically, in telephony a station-to-station call is one where “the caller is willing to talk to anyone who answers”.)

Bowie is tapping into an ancient idea of art, that it is not a device for recording events but an act of sympathetic magic which aims to change the life of the artist. (“Such is the stuff from which dreams are woven.”) He is singing not to any lover, hoping to enchant them. The Thin White Duke is throwing darts in his own eyes. He hopes to reacquaint himself with love, to emerge from his drug-induced stupor, simply by singing about himself as a lover, inventing a character which he can them inhabit. (Compare to ‘Soul Love’, “all I have is my love of love.”)

Bowie once wrote a song called ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’. We tend to want rock stars to follow the road of excess, crash their cars and generally sacrifice themselves, become beautiful corpses to look good on our posters. It’s a salacious tabloid desire, to see them burn up for our entertainment, so we might feel a bit better about sticking with our moribund day jobs. Yet what if they pass through that road of excess, make it out the other side? Even in ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’, death is ultimately rejected.

‘Station to Station’ came out of a direct and personal need, a missing person notice written about it's own author, a spell cast over himself that might lead to his return. That urgency, that compulsion, is a large part of its appeal. Yet if it’s a spell he wrote for himself, it’s not a spell that need just be applied to himself. It’s quite genuinely life-affirming. I have never, you understand, found myself trapped in a big house overlooking the Pacific Ocean and a life of coke-addled paranoia. Witches are not, to the best of my knowledge, after my semen. But I like the idea that, were I ever in such a place, there’s a magic spell waiting to free me.

Let's drink to the men who protect you and I.

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