David Bowie - Station to Station
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
I was trying to decide what to do for a Classic Music review when I decided I should check to see what Bowie we’ve already covered. I was amazed to see that until Scott McKeating took up the cause with his fine piece on Black Tie White Noise we had not done a classic review of any of Bowie’s work.
Personally, I’m a weird, possibly predictable kind of Bowie fan (and I’m of the opinion that we’re all Bowie fans, if we can just find the right album); I’m a Berlin Years guy. Sure, I like most of Bowie’s work, but the ones I own and throw on for pleasure tend to be the four astonishing LPs he made between 1977-9. So, seeing a gap, I immediately went mad with power and called dibs on all four (spread out over four months, naturally).
I’m sure at least some of our readers right now are disputing Station To Station’s right to be referred to as of a piece with the other three Berlin albums. It was recorded in Hollywood, for one thing, and rather than being part of Bowie’s attempt to cleanse himself of drugs and madness it represents the very nadir of those destructive tendencies. But it’s for that very reason that I feel I can’t discuss the Berlin albums without reference to Station To Station. It’s the cry of despair that spurred Bowie to clean himself up, and it deserves high praise whether grouped with Low, ”Heroes” and the undervalued Lodger or taken on its own.
It’s also fairly famous among Bowie fans, of course, for being the one record in his long, occasionally tortuous discography that Bowie himself does not remember making. Apparently except for a brief memory of instructing guitarist Earl Slick on what kind of guitar sound he wanted for the beginning of the title track, Bowie has as little idea how Station To Station came to be as any of us.
An extension of Young Americans’ “plastic soul” style, Station To Station is probably the furthest Bowie ever took his work in terms of combining Kraftwerk-style krautrock with funk and soul. This produced a sound that has elements of both styles, but one that doesn’t really sound like either of them. And just as few had anticipated Bowie’s approach, few copied it; the undeniably talented Talking Heads had probably heard Station To Station before, say, the Stop Making Sense tour, but for the most part this is an orphaned, abandoned style.
Which doesn’t mean it sounds anything but great, mind you. The epic, ten-minute title track opens the record, introducing the Thin White Duke “throwing darts in lovers’ eyes”, Bowie chanting out semi-mystical invocations; then, at six minutes, the track suddenly springs into action. The bass picks up and Bowie yelps out “it’s not the side effects of the cocaine / I’m thinking that it must be love”, obliquely acknowledging the hole he’s dug himself. It’s possibly the most infectiously funky four minutes of recorded music in Bowie’s career, certainly the most inexorably groovy; his mantra of “it’s too late / to be grateful / it’s too late / to be late again / it’s too late / to be hateful / the European cannon is here!” spurs on the music into a feverish intensity. Bowie was taking far too much cocaine at the time, and the effects of the stimulant are obvious on the more upbeat songs here. True, I thought it was much cooler when I thought he was singing about the “European canon”, but “Station To Station” is one of the few ten-minute songs I know of that I wish were twice as long. Its air of crazed, almost Weimar desperation, hedonism in the face of disaster, the fixed smile of the serious addict, pervades the rest of the album.
From this we go to one of Bowie’s most famous songs, and certainly the most famous from this four-album period, “Golden Years”. Sure, today the song often registers as cheesy, from the handclaps to every “whop, whop, whop”, but heard in the context of the album it’s chilling how easy it is to hear past the pop veneer: “Wish upon wish / day upon day / I believe oh Lord, I believe all the way… / there’s my baby, lost that’s all / once I’m beggin’ you, save her little soul”. Maybe, the song says, if we keep pretending things are okay, if we keep dancing, maybe it’ll come true. These are our golden years, our salad days: Given Bowie’s condition, that’s a terrifying thought. Just years before, he had started to fixate on the idea of demons out to get him; Angie Bowie reported later that when their house was given an exorcism the image of the devil appeared burned into the bottom of the indoor pool. All of Bowie’s pop nous couldn’t conceal the emptiness and terror at the center of his then-current existence, and the contrasts where that frenzied void shows through is key in making Station To Station so compelling.
“Word On A Wing”, the next track and the end of side one, is the closest Bowie gets to salvation on Station To Station. A believer’s hymn, sung by a man desperate to find something to cling to, it swings between examining faith in a cynical light (“it’s safer than a strange land / But I still care for myself / And I don’t stand in my own light”) and showing Bowie fully embracing it, especially in this extraordinary passage:
In this age of grand delusion
You walked into my life out of my dreams
I don't need another change
Still you forced a way into my scheme of things
You say we're growing
Growing heart and soul…
Sweet name, you're born once again for me
Sweet name, you're born once again for me
Oh sweet name
I call you again
You're born once again for me
Just because I believe
Don't mean I don't think as well
Don't have to question everything in heaven or hell
The strain in his voice is apparent, and the rest of the LP will deny the hard-earned peace Bowie exhibits here, but for one song, at least, it sounds like he’s found an answer for himself. What Bowie’s faith, then or now, consists of and what it means to him is of course unknown to me, but if there’s anything on Station To Station that I think is really an expression of the “true” Bowie it’s this. When he sings “Lord, I’m trying hard to fit among your scheme of things” it doesn’t sound like sarcasm or mock piety; it sounds genuine.
Aside from the lyrical content, the song itself is also fairly amazing. Roy Bittan did the piano work all over Station To Station, and it’s on “Word On A Wing” that he really shines. The gentle percussion and bass support Bittan’s work, and since as with every track here except for “Golden Years” it’s a fairly lengthy track, the band stretches out into bliss. It’s possibly the forgotten gem lurking on Bowie’s major albums.
But then when we flip over to side two, and “TVC15”, the deathmarch/party has started again. Bowie sounds more manic here than ever before, spouting a shaggy dog story about his demonic TV eating his girlfriend and Bowie’s wish to join her. The song, all five and a half minutes of it, is just an excuse for the extended outro vamp, the band kicking into overdrive and Bowie repeating the chorus like a speed addict denied sleep for a week, fervid and drawn in harsh halogen light; Bowie putting on a show for himself of how happy he is. Its works musically, but it’s the weak spot of the album, effective in context only for the juxtaposition between it and the last two tracks.
“Stay”, at first listen, is more a riff than a song. Bowie sounds completely drained after “TVC15”, at the point of emotional paralysis, reeling and disoriented: “ Stay / that's what I meant to say or do something / but what I never say is stay this time / I really meant it so badly this time / 'cause you can never really tell when somebody / wants something you want too”. There’s another prolonged ending, Bowie collapses and the guitars take over, boasting one of the best riffs found on a non-Mick Ronson Bowie album. It turns vicious: David has left the building, he’s gone to Berlin. He couldn’t take it anymore. The music grinds on inescapably, outlasting the man. “Stay” isn’t the finest depiction of the mental wilderness Bowie inhabited during this time, it would take until ”Heroes” and “Blackout” for him to have the distance necessary for that, but it has the same emotional weight and if anything is the more harrowing of the two.
There’s one track left, Bowie’s genius rendition/demolition of “Wild Is The Wind”. To compare it to, say, Nina Simone’s version or Cat Power’s is both pointless and fruitless; Bowie might as well be singing a different song. He sounds completely alien, stretching out each word and syllable to, and then past, their breaking points. Alienation drips off of his performance, and the music (although, like all the backing tracks here, quite good) wisely stays in the background, slightly lysergic. “Wild Is The Wind” ends Station To Station on a paradoxical note: it’s clearly a love song, and could be read as being a happy ending, Bowie finding refuge in some sort of Other, whether human or divine. But his delivery of lines like “you’re spring to me / All things to me / Don’t you know you’re life itself?” make it abundantly clear that whatever he is singing to is gone, leaving him bereft.
Station To Station is an album of collapse, of Bowie losing his grip once and for all on his life but crucially also realizing his loss and somehow, through the haze, turning it into great art. The album sounds as though once it was completed Bowie had only two options: A cure for his condition, or death. To fix things, he would have to get clean and somehow come to grips with the aching sadness and utter desolation that pervades Station To Station. From his current sane, healthy condition it might seem inevitable that he would succeed, but a listen to this album reveals that failure wasn’t such an unlikely outcome. But Bowie escaped to Berlin, and so Station To Station thankfully remains merely one of his best, and oddest, albums.