Stationtostation: Why does Bowie’s 1976 masterpiece matter?

This post originally appeared on Medium on 14 January 2016, four days after Bowie’s death from cancer.

'Station to Station'

Station to Station: not my favourite Bowie album, perhaps, but it’s 38 minutes of compulsively listenable fascination, and easier to write about than its two Teutonic successors. Recorded in L.A. in late 1975, around the time ‘Fame’ hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, it’s commonly seen as a transition (inadvertently encouraged by the album sleeve image) between two better-known albums, Young Americans (recorded in late 1974 through early ’75) and Low (recorded in late 1976).

The prodigious rate at which he was not only making music but breaking boundaries remains deeply impressive to this day. Young Americans, Station to Station, Low and “Heroes” (released between 1975 and 1977) must be heard, ideally in chronological order and in quick succession, to be believed. As if launching himself with risky sincerity into blue-eyed soul on Young Americans wasn’t enough, within weeks of its success he was discarding compassionate Philadelphian warmth for detached but desperate European chill; and within weeks of that, his desperation turned into almost dangerously sanguine introspection on careening career high Low.

1976-’77 also saw him touring; recording “Heroes”, which, as well as containing the monumental title track, is generally deemed to be a maturation from Low; and producing two now-classic Iggy Pop LPs, re-establishing Iggy as a vital creative force. Sure, the cocaine probably helped, but that doesn’t make these two years any less astonishing; it would not be an exaggeration to say that Bowie did more in this time than most musicians could manage in their entire life.

Following are some fairly unstructured thoughts on Station to Station (best digested after listening to the album), followed by a brief appraisal of why it matters.

David Bowie Portrait
Bowie in ’76, possibly wondering why it matters

Station to Station was one of the greatest albums of 1976 despite containing only six songs. The first layer of its fascination is embodied by its multifarious symmetry. Exhibits A-D: the album title; three songs on each side; the side-enders’ titles being ‘Word on a Wing’ and ‘Wild is the Wind’; sections of the middle song on Side 2 (‘Stay’) melodically echoing the middle song on Side 1 (‘Golden Years’).

Bowie also double-tracks his baritone with his falsetto, which isn’t technically symmetry but adds to the general reflector effect. It isn’t long before we get a sense of the Manichean, from the repeated two-note piano melody – the first music on the record, after the chugging of train pistons and a feedback squall – and eventually from the bipartite structure of the title song itself. Indeed, ‘Station to Station’ does feel like Elton John’s ‘Funeral For a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding’ if John were fretting about the dangers of European federalism.

By this point, Bowie is mentally in Europe, not America. He’s no longer pretending he’s a unified, coherent entity; he seems to comprise openly separate entities, all speaking different languages. Communication and its frustrations are key themes throughout Station to Station. Between songs as well as within them, we find contradictions and conceptual tensions. He seems to ricochet from passive panic (“It’s too late” on ‘Station to Station’) to optimism and glad acceptance (“Don’t let me hear you say life’s | Taking you nowhere” on ‘Golden Years’) – but if he’s so optimistic, why does he keep exhorting his addressee to “run for the shadows”? Probably because the addressee is Bowie himself. He sings lead and backing vocals throughout the LP, giving the impression of an echo chamber devoid of the friendly voices of Luther Vandross, John Lennon et al that had adorned Young Americans. Here, we hear isolation. The music is full, but it is the music of Bowie’s mind, and not of community or history.

Bowie isolated
Bowie in concert in ’76

Generally speaking, Bowie had not pumped both exuberance and noirish angst into a given song before 1975. But on Station to Station, every track contains both sides of the dichotomy. The epic songs on Springsteen’s Born to Run, released mere weeks before work on Station to Station began, also encapsulated this paradox, which is possibly why Bowie poached Springsteen’s pianiste extraordinaire, Roy Bittan.

The Thin White Duke, Bowie’s new persona for Station to Station, is no Ziggy Stardust: he’s naked and comparatively defenceless. The apocalypse is not coming from without, but from within. Ziggy was Bowie – prelapsarian in reality – pretending to personify rockstar royalty in decline/sublimation, achieving rockstar royalty ‘in real life’ in the process. The Duke is Bowie – having becoming rockstar royalty – in precipitous physical and mental decline, and not hiding it very well. “Does my face show some kind of woe,” he says, not phrasing it like a question. Cracked actor indeed.

***

(Mis)communication and confusion pervade the album; even when clarity and confidence burst through, doubt is waiting in the wings. Everyone praises Bowie’s vocal on album closer ‘Wild is the Wind’, but ‘Word on a Wing’, which builds on his references to angels in ‘Golden Years’ (and to the Stations of the Cross alluded to in the title track), really is a vocal powerhouse. Ending Side 1 of the LP, it sums up the Manichean dichotomies at the album’s centre – darkness/light, rational/religious, doubt/belief – in an act of desperate faith. “A protection,” he would say of the song in later years. “Something I needed to produce from within myself to safeguard myself against some of the situations that I felt were happening.” An inelegant explanation of one of Bowie’s most elegant compositions, the statement nonetheless contextualises Bowie’s six-minute plea to be rid of the “grand illusion” (or “grand delusion”, but the effect of a fickle, faithless world is the same) that surrounds him.

“Does my prayer fit in with your scheme of things?” he asks God politely, seeming to eschew his own erstwhile flirtation with the Nietzschean superman idea only to claim loudly, in the song’s bridge, to be “ready to shake the scheme of things”. So – is he praying? Or is he asserting his own “scheme”? Does he even know? The song seems to end in prayer, borne out by the choral organ and the angelic backing vocals.

But Side 2 kicks off with the decidedly secular ‘TVC 15’, most of whose lyrics are indecipherable without a lyric sheet, which doesn’t matter too much when the music’s this enjoyable. It resumes the album’s key theme of communication. The music and lyrics of Station to Station probe the very concept and (f)utility of communication; c.f. Young Americans, which was simply a committed attempt at communicating volumes – about black music, about white music, about the exultations and limitations of each as well as the irrelevance of said limitations when you’re having fun – through generally impenetrable lyrics.

'Young Americans'
Bowie 1975 LP ‘Young Americans’

Ultimately, the album presents the problem of progression and momentum (hinted at by the album title, the breathless typography on the album cover, the chugging pistons on the title track that “drive like a demon”, the vast majority of the music itself) counterposed against the stasis, confusion and miscommunication explored in the lyrics. In other words, it presents the problem of life itself. ‘Stay’, the Earl Slick / Carlos Alomar showcase, again exemplifies Bowie’s frustrations with communication. “I really meant it so badly this time,” he pleads. “You can never really tell when somebody wants something you want too.”

***

Bowie appears to have achieved some sort of temporary peace in the final track, seeking refuge in another’s work, which makes sense – his own five songs have been too dense, intense and difficult to afford Bowie (and us) a breather. The song may feel at first like a misfit, but it coheres with the album: the opening lyric (“Love me love me love me love me, say you do”) suggests that the communication is as important as, if not more important than, the sentiment itself.

The wildness of the wind (Bowie’s romance with his addressee) is something he’s wishing for, not something he has. Throughout the album, he’s seemed so alone, so uncomfortable in his own skin, that by ‘Wild is the Wind’ not only does it sound like he has no lover, it sounds like he’s never had one. The album’s tone begins to make sense, and for the first time we feel, rather than simply understanding, his loneliness. The backing vocals are no longer there. “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine | I’m thinking that it must be love”, he sang on the title track, and although the non sequitur about the “European cannon” seemed to make a nonsense of this line at the time, his audible terror that “it must be love” now slides into focus: Bowie is too far gone to be anything other than panicked at the prospect of real intimacy. Which might be why he’s hiding in someone else’s song.

“Don’t you know you’re life itself? | Like the leaf clings to the tree | Oh my darling, cling to me | For we’re like creatures of the wind | For wild is the wind”. Why do I find his delivery of this soppy line so poignant? Maybe because the whirlwind of his imagined love is a world away from the whirlwind of confusion and cocaine that’s been swirling ‘round his desolate isolation for the last 35 minutes.

David Bowie Laughing Gnostic Anik Blaise Portrait
“The man who knows not how to smile”. If you can read French, you’ll find the text above the photo amusing and germane.

 

Why does any of this matter?

Partly because Bowie expressed profound loneliness without having to spell it out, which makes the album one of the most subtle, captivating pictures of loneliness (and therefore of humanity) we have.

Partly because few other albums, if any, have tackled the theme of communication (with oneself, with another, with God) so concisely, so catchily and so cathartically.

Partly because it’s worth trying to unpack why certain albums are so listenable.

Partly because the album is one of Bowie’s unmitigated successes, which makes it notable for obvious reasons.

Partly because the album doesn’t get enough press, coming between two more prominent records.

Partly because despite (or perhaps thanks to) the obfuscations, the obscure lyrics, the confusion and the chaos, the album offers a piercingly clear portrait of David Bowie circa 1976, and such a jolt of poignant clarity is how many of us are trying to plug the gap in the wake of his death.

Partly because it’s fun.

***

Bowie stylish
Bowie in 1976, almost unbelievably stylish

David Bowie.

Reading his name, several days after the fact, he doesn’t feel dead. Many of us haven’t felt like this since October 2013, when liver disease carted Lou Reed away. Reading the words ‘David Bowie’, one thinks not of the past, not of a historical figure, but of a present presence with the promise of future dynamism. It may be a while ‘til that is no longer the case.

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