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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Station to Station

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1975 was, according to Bowie, the worst year of his life. After the dissolution of his company MainMan, which left him with very little of his earnings, he was left all alone in America. He moved to California, away from his homeland and family, mingled with a Californian crowd of aging Hippies, Hollywood kooks and other unsavory types, and developed some very unhealthy habits. The most unhealthy was his massive use of cocaine, which soon took toll on his body. He became even thinner and weirder looking than before, like a walking skeleton or a ghost.

His mind was no less afflicted. After years of changing himself by finding alien sounds to build a new identity around, he now felt lost. A year earlier he already announced that rock was essentially dead, as he could find no way for it to renew itself. He found the answer for a while in soul music, but the euphoric heights of his soul phase have subsided by the beginning of 75. This left a void, a void that was soon filled by darkness. Seeping in the bad vibes of mid-seventies California, he went back to dwell in the Occult books and black magic that influenced his 1970-71 records, only this time went deeper into it. This combination of drugs and black magic made him quite paranoid, and he spent long days just shut in his room.

Yet, in all that, some new and nutritious influences kept coming into his world. First and foremost, he found a new musical alien, a new sound that connected to what he felt inside and reinvigorated his creative juices. It came, of all places, from the industrial German city of Dusseldorf, where a few young kraut-rock musicians started to emulate the electronic sounds explored by avant-Garde composer Kerlheinz Stockhausen and turned them into pop music. The sound of Dusseldorf was known as motorik, a style that combined repetitive beats with electronic synthesizers, and its leading band was Kraftwerk, which shocked the rock world with their 1975 hit single `Autobahn` that imitated the sound of a car going down a German highway. Kraftwerk were the total antithesis of rock: instead of dressing in unkempt Hippie clothes they wore business suits, instead of moving with wild energy they stood motionless on stage, instead of using guitars and drums they used synthesizers, and instead of expressing soulful emotions they sang in the cool detached voice of a machine. So for rock fans it was hard to dig this sound, but for Bowie, this style fit perfectly with the dehumanized state he was in and which he claimed Western spirit was in. He already adopted some motorik into the Diamond Dogs album, but while there it symbolized the death of humanity, now he looked for it to provide him with a new artistic direction. Once again he found an alien that could pull him to his feet, once again there was a sound to build a new identity around. In the end of 1975 he went into the studio to record his new album, and the opening title track is a perfect encapsulation of his state at the time.

It opens with the sound of a train riding on the tracks, created with synthesizers in full motorik style. A minute in, the synthesizers are supplanted by a beat from the rhythm section to represent the rhythmic movement of the wheels, and an electric guitar blowing like a train`s horn. It sounds very reminiscent of Kraftwerk`s `Stratovarius`, but the beat is funkier and the guitar drives forward with more power, and we get our first taste of the unique electro-funk-rock hybrid that will typify Bowie`s subsequent albums. Three minutes into the record Bowie comes in, introducing his new identity:

The return of the Thin White Duke
Throwing darts in lovers` eyes

After disavowing characters in his previous album and trying to open up his heart, Bowie once again hides behind a mask. The Thin White Duke is basically what he saw in the mirror: a frighteningly skinny and pale man dressed stylishly like an aristocrat. But he also marks some sort of awakening, setting lovers' eyes to be once again directed towards a target.

Here are we, one magical moment
Such is the stuff from where dreams are woven

A bit of Shakespeare here. The Wizard Prospero in The Tempest creates a beautiful illusion for a small crowd, which keeps them beguiled until he is distracted and the illusion fades away. Prospero then reminds them that real life is like that as well, that "we are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep." Those magical moments are the thing that Bowie lives for, but the magical moment he and his fans knew during their glam and soul phases have faded. Can a new illusion be created?

Bending sound
Dredging the ocean, lost in my circle

Magical moments are harder to come by now. In the past, he had other worlds he could explore and borrow from, and thus break out of his old world into a new one. Now he feels like he has to dredge the ocean and bend sounds to come up with something new, which isn`t as exciting. Thus, he can`t really break out into another existence, but feels lost in his circle.

Here am I
Flashing no color, tall in this room
Overlooking the ocean

"Here am I." Where have we heard this before, sung in very much the same way? Oh right, it was on `Space Oddity`, at the moment when Major Tom realizes that he is lost and adrift in space. After all these years of changing identities he doesn`t know who he is anymore, and he is "flashing no color" as if everything blended into a colorless murk. After a few years of trying to leave his "room" (in Bowie songs, a symbol of his inner world) he now recedes back into it, and this time it seems to be a room on top of a tower in a lonely island, i.e. complete solitude.

Here are we
One magical movement
From Kether to Malkuth

Turning his back on humanity, he delves deep into mysticism and tries to connect higher realms to produce a new magical moment. This Kabbalah imagery echoes what he was doing in recent months, as he locked himself in and studied the Occult. But he is also saying something about humanity here, about the "we". Kether is the highest sphere in Kabbalah, representing the crown of godhood, while Malkuth is the lowest sphere, where the divine materializes into the kingdom of man. The magical movement is the flow from the divine into the human, a flow which we can all allegedly feel if we open ourselves to it.

There are you
You drive like a demon
From station to station

In every Bowie album until now, the opening track always reflected on the identity he assumed in his previous album, described it as being in a state of crisis (or, if we take the Ziggy imagery, a state of "fall"), and laid the ground for the creation of a new identity. Thus, he kept on living by his ch-ch-ch-changes credo. `Station to Station` does the same, but here it is the very lifestyle of ch-ch-ch-changes that is called into question. As he retreats into solitude and opens himself to the divine, he looks at his past and sees all the changes as a meaningless ride from station to station which makes no sense to him now. He always saw himself as striving for the heavens, but now he describes his life as a train ride, i.e. as something that remains on the same plane. The ch-ch-ch-changes turned out to be just a ride from station to station in a never ending circle.

The return of the Thin White Duke
Throwing darts
In lovers` eyes
The return of the Thin White Duke,
Making sure white stains

The Thin White Duke is not just a representation of his look, as we claimed above. It is also an identity with a certain ideology. If all the changes had blurred his soul to the point that it is "flashing no color", then he will impose a color on himself. "The return of the Thin White Duke" means that the European he always was has reawakened and realized that he doesn`t belong in America. Musically, it means that after losing himself in black soul and funk, he will get out of it by being whiter than white, the kind of white that actually leaves stains. The funk in this album recedes to the background, as if it is the skin he is trying to shed. The driving force of the music is white rock, with a hint of German electronics.

"White stains" has another connotation. It is also the name of a poetic book by Occultist Aleister Crowley, and its mention brings another dimension into the previous lines. We realize that "Kether" and "Malkuth" are probably taken not from Kabbalah but from Goetia, the practice of summoning angels and demons, which Crowley had a big part in popularizing. Goetia involves painting the floor with some shapes and colors, among them what is known as the Magical Circle, and the spheres are parts of the circle. So the spiritual world, it appears, is also lost in its circle, and the demons too are driving aimlessly from station to station. Nothing, it seems, can take us out of this loop.

But then, the train stops, as we are getting off of this station-to-station ride to look for something more solid. The music picks up tempo, and becomes a bar room song.

Once there were mountains on mountains
And once there were sunbirds to soar with
And once I could never be down

After describing the present, Bowie now remembers the glorious past, when he would climb spiritual mountains and soar with sunbirds to the heavens. The sunbird is a mythological creature known for its ability to die and come back to life in a new form and is a perfect metaphor for Bowie`s ability to regenerate and come back in a new identity once the old one has decayed, but it is an ability he fears he has now lost. As long as he could keep regenerating he knew that he could never be down, but now that there are no more mountains to climb or sunbirds to soar with he is stuck in the depression and cannot get out of it.

Got to keep searching and searching
And oh, what will I be believing
And who will connect me with love?

Wonder who wonder who
Wonder when

Still, he isn`t losing hope. He knows that answers are out there, that there are identities that can "connect him with love", bring back the sense of authenticity and communal love he knew with Ziggy. He is excited to know it can come back, and wonders when it will happen and who will be the alien that will take him there.

Have you sought fortune evasive and shy?
Drink to the men who protect you and I
Drink drink drain your glass
Raise your glass high

But he is not there yet, so all he can do is drown his anguish in alcohol and drink in honor of people who are more successful.

It`s not the side-effects of the cocaine
I`m thinking that it must be love
It`s too late
- to be grateful
It`s too late
- to be late again
It`s too late
- to be hateful
The European canon is here

Suddenly, there is an answer. He feels the reawakening of something real, of a sensation that comes from love and not generated by drugs. Such things take over you without noticing, and by the time you figure out how you feel about them it is already too late: you are hooked. The music speeds up yet again, as we feel the rush coming back into his life.

I must be only one in a million
I won`t let the day pass
Without her
It`s too late
- to be grateful
It`s too late
- to be late again
It`s too late
- to be hateful
The European canon is here

The love he feels is described as a love for a woman, but she is just a personification of his new fascination: contemporary European culture, reawakened after decades of American rule. The title of "Thin White Duke" posits him as a European aristocrat, reconnecting with the glorious past of the European canon. The music is still an American fusion of funk and rock, but the motorik sound takes it on a trip to Europe.

Should I believe that I`ve been stricken?
Does my face show
Some kind of glow?
It`s too late
- to be grateful
It`s too late
- to be late again
It`s too late
- to be hateful
The European canon is here, yes it`s here

Bowie is revived. Through this combination of rock, funk (the stuff of his previous albums), Europeanism and mysticism, he has found a new sunbird to soar with. Once again he feels like he has been struck by divinity, glowing like a star to create something the world can bask in. But beware: there is a heavy dose of irony in this last part. As he told us in the first part, this lifestyle of changes has led to a crisis of identity, and it is probably the very thing he should ditch. He forgot about it as he drank his sorrow away in the second part, and when love hit he felt that everything`s fine again and he is ready for the new change. Committed to his lifestyle of ch-ch-ch-changes, he embraces the new magical moment and sings verses that express joy, but he doesn`t sound very joyful. Actually, when listening to the music we realize that we are back on the train, moving at a greater speed than before but still simply traveling from station to station. There is none of the ecstasy of `Moonage Daydream` or `Rebel Rebel` here – it sounds like he is trying to regenerate it, but failing. Still, he is used to making these changes, and it is too late for him to get out of it. The opening title track of Station to Station, like `Space Oddity` before it, shows our hero giving into his old habits and consequently getting lost. The rest of the album will keep this new identity that he found, but will also convey the wish to get off this station-to-station ride and find a more stable lifestyle.

This epic piece, the longest in the Bowie canon, was a center-piece in the 1976 White Light tour. Many people who attended that tour say that Bowie has never been more amazing on stage, but alas, footage of that did not surface yet. The 1978 performance gives some idea of what it must have been like.

One Bowie fan who told us about it was Christiane F., the girl whose story of teenage descent into heroin shocked the world in the 1970s. Part of the book tells of her experiences watching Bowie`s 1976 performance, specifically `Station to Station`. When the book was adapted to screen in 1981, Bowie was approached to recreate the performance. The problem is it isn`t the Thin White Duke - the clothes are 1980, the soundtrack is from a 1978 show. It`s still a good scene, though.

The 1983 rendition was also excellent.

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