[21 October 2010]
In Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, David Bowie plays a reticent, eccentric billionaire who happens to be an alien from outer space. A still from the film provides the cover art for Bowie’s 1976 Station to Station, which EMI just re-released as a 3-CD Special Edition and 5-CD/DVD plus 3-LP Deluxe Edition. The still comes from a scene where the alien leads Rip Torn into a spaceship he’s developed. Torn, playing the top scientist of Bowie’s World Enterprises Corporation, immediately dismisses the vessel’s capacity for cosmic travel. Bowie is taken aback, but presses on. “Do you trust me?,” he asks, as the two approach a glowing orb, presumably the ship’s power source. Torn responds frankly, “I want to.” It reads as Torn being unsettled and defensive, but onscreen, it’s Bowie who’s more vulnerable. Torn quips jokingly, “Per ardua ad astra,” which Bowie doesn’t recognize as the Royal Air Force’s Latin motto—after claiming to have been born in Britain.
It’s a poignant moment, not only for Bowie’s fish-out-of-water character, but also for the fish-out-of-water artist himself. His rise to prominence came only after rolling through a mini-Rolodex of alter-egos in the late sixties and early seventies, and even when he found one that suited him—an extraterrestrial rock star, gaining a name on Ziggy Stardust then another on Aladdin Sane—it was an identity in crisis. Besides being a prototype for the Man Who Fell to Earth character, right down to his carrot-top mop, this role embodied a sort of psychedelic unease. He filled glam rock shoes without feeling comfortable in them, lacking the cocksure virility of similar personas like Mick Jagger and Marc Bolan. Perhaps he was simply restless, but neither costume nor genre remained static very long for Bowie.
No album in his repertoire embodies this unrest more than Station to Station. Preceding the beloved pop art of his so-called Berlin Trilogy and following the spotty “plastic soul” experiment of Young Americans (which itself was an escape from a glam rock well run dry), it is Bowie’s Revolver: a show of versatility that seized his best songwriting before his style became turned from composite to cohesive. It’s no mere transitional refuse, the way throwaway tracks from Space Oddity and Diamond Dogs are. After assembling an almost miraculously talented ensemble of studio rockers, the former Ziggy Stardust—now the fascist-chic Thin White Duke—snorted a boatload of cocaine and made a modern masterpiece.
If Station to Station boils a career down to an album, then “Station to Station” boils an album down to a song. Starting from a spare, foreboding two-note piano dirge, it builds to rapturous R&B as the Duke attempts to fill an emotional void with stimulants. The change of tempo halfway through is one of the great moments of rock history. Who didn’t lose their shit when they first heard the kit kick in right before the lament, “Once there were mountains on mountains / And once there were sunbirds to soar with / And once I could never be down”? It was every bit as devastating as “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”, only it chose catharsis over forlorn abandon. It also prophesied the future: By roping in the spookiness of dub and the dissonance of Krautrock, and streamlining them for maximum theater, he basically invented post-punk before punk was even over.
Then there were “Golden Years” and “Stay”, Bowie’s final attempts at straight-up black music. The former begs an imagined lover to join him—on the dancefloor, or in bed, it’s unclear—for fear that if she doesn’t, his transient high spirits will run out. Hi-hats tap away as the refrain of “Golden years” desperately denies that these years are anything but. “Stay”, meanwhile, is more Funkadelic than outright funk, poised as it is between melodrama and space jam. “Stay / That’s what I meant to say or do something,” the Duke insists. “But what I never say is stay this time.” His brittle croon is a battered shell of “Golden Years”’ silky-smoothness, as if the charade has finally given away to despair. That Bowie could, within the mode of soul, represent two connected but distinct psychic states, reflects something too often overlooked by the cliché of Bowie-as-musical-chameleon: his formidable artistic depth.
“Golden Years” was a top ten single on both sides of the Atlantic, and continues to get radio play. Bowie’s ballads, meanwhile, were and continue to be polarizing. Young Americans was nimble enough, and had enough flagrant nods to the Beatles for rockists to overlook its tawdry LA sound. “Words on a Wing” and “Wild Is the Wind”, though, were irreconcilable. Their loss. While Hunky Dory, especially “Life on Mars?” and “Changes”, proved Bowie could do camp, “Words on a Wing” is camp in the truest sense of the word, as defined by Susan Sontag: it’s so androgynous, so maudlin and triumphant, so passionately earnest, that it rises above fulsomeness and achieves genuine beauty. “Wild Is the Wind” does the same, silencing all doubts that this scrawny, wan Brit could really sing, by covering the Nina Simone version, not the Johnny Mathis.
But nothing tops “TVC15”. Like the melodica at the start of “Golden Years”, the saloon piano leading into “TVC15” promises yet another genre exercise, but it isn’t long before classification is futile. (Although I do like Robert Christgau’s noble attempt when he claimed it combined “Lou Reed, disco, and Huey Smith.”) Squealing guitars pulsate behind Bowie at his most delightfully affected, as he yelps the nightmarish tale of a carnivorous television. Structurally, the track—which, at five-and-a-half minutes, is modest for the album—sashays from Motown to spaghetti Western gallop, ends at musical theater and starts over again without the slightest fragmentation. It all converges as a sort of post-Phil Spector Wall of Sound, prefiguring the three albums that followed: Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger, otherwise known as the Berlin trilogy.
As I reviewed this record, hearing “TVC15” was revelatory. I last listened to it when I was going through my Bowie phase in high school, and I remembered liking it, but I didn’t remember how densely dream-like it was. As if anticipating that everyone else forgot, too, the Deluxe Edition includes a surround sound mix from producer Harry Maslin. Usually these Dolby/DTS remasters are tertiary box set fodder, barely distinguishable from the stereo originals. Not here: Maslin doesn’t so much remaster Station to Station as reconfigure it. Guitars step out front and take on a life of their own. Cowbells and echoed vocals beam in via satellite. Bowie’s voice sounds somehow fuller and more nuanced. Never before has his music sounded so polyvocal, and never again would you doubt—if you ever did—that Bowie was a wizard in the studio.
The only snag in Bowie’s studio-centrism was translating his new material to the stage. This becomes fairly apparent on the two live discs included in the Station to Station Special Edition, recorded at Uniondale’s Nassau Coliseum in 1976. Not that this previously unreleased material is in any way inessential. On the contrary, it surpasses some of the recordings on the market for decades now, including the effete Santa Monica ‘72 from a few years ago. But to fit the aesthetic cornucopia of Station to Station into a live setting, the Thin White Duke cut it down to its hard rock essentials, for lack of any better ideas. It never quite worked for his cover of “Waiting for the Man”, one of his live staples, the same way it doesn’t quite fit other Velvet Underground classics on Lou Reed’s Rock and Roll Animal. It also doesn’t work for “Station to Station”, which sounds rushed, or “Fame”, which plods where it should strut, or “TVC15”, which becomes a sleazy sing-along. “Word on a Wing” and “Stay” were born arena-ready, so they survive onstage as exact replicas of their recorded counterparts. Otherwise, it’s the innovative rendering of older crowd-pleasers—particularly the George Thorogood-like stomp of “The Jean Genie” and a high-velocity “Panic in Detroit” (which, like “TVC15”, was based on a story Bowie heard from his friend Iggy Pop)—which make the Special Edition worth seeking out.
Then again, there’s no good reason anyone shouldn’t consider getting their hands on either of these handsome packages. For long-time fans, it’s a no-brainer. For those who never really liked Station to Station, well, you should reconsider. For those who want to get into Bowie and don’t know where to start, this is your best bet. I know your friends recommended one of the Berliners, probably Low. Or maybe they gave you a burnt copy of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. All hard to dismiss, but consider this. Bowie is defined by two things, mainly: constant flux and the anxiety it breeds. (Look at the video below for evidence of the latter.) Station to Station, with its track-by-track stylistic changes, and pervasive mood of existential crisis, reflects this immeasurably. It’s also, quite simply, a damn good record. What more convincing do you need?