The album that fell to earth
75. The birthday that we celebrated without him. I read a lot about Bowie lately, and watched the incredibly well done documentation “Five Years”. Even watched it twice. It made me wonder why Bowie’s music is so surprisingly underrepresented in my collection. This is sort of my only Bowie album. I don’t count that “Christiane F” soundtrack.
Part of the reason is probably that I was born in the wrong year. Seriously. I was simply born too late to have been old enough to appreciate the first eight or nine albums. Maybe it would have been different if my parents had been into Bowie – but they were probably already too old. Bowie kind of slipped through our generation gap.
Even if. It’s not like I had this really cool relationship with them. When I was fifteen I used to go out whenever I wanted and spent more time at my favorite club than with my parents. This might seem totally normal to most people, but back then, in a relatively small town in Germany – going out dancing until three in the morning was anything but normal, and it wasn’t even legal at that age.
Every night at 10pm some poor guy would walk around the club with a flashlight to look for kids below 16 who would have to head home, asking for IDs, and of course they always found a few. Not as many as you’d think though. A lot of them actually left shortly before ten. Not because they were so eager to observe the the age restrictions – they just didn’t want to be singled out by that guy to be escorted to the exit doors, that was just too embarrassing.
In spite of my young age I was already a regular at the place. I loved it. And the music, of course. I kept walking over to the DJ booth asking who’s this and what’s that, really polite as I didn’t want to piss the guy off. He liked my deep interest in music and started to invite me to his DJ booth – just before 10pm so the guy with the flashlight wouldn’t send me home.
They played all kinds of music, and people were dancing like crazy. Back then you danced to whatever you considered to be great music. Some stuff got played almost every time I was there. The long medley on the Doors Live album. Hendrix’ “Machine Gun” or “Who Knows” off the “Band Of Gypsys” album. Some German music of course, Can would be played sometimes, or some more obscure heavy stuff like Birth Control’s “Gamma Ray”. They even sometimes played the whole seventeen minutes of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”. It seemed as if anything below ten minutes wasn’t worth considering.
One of my favorite songs back then was the title track of this album. “Station To Station”. Just over ten minutes, so it definitely qualified. They’d play all of it, even the train noises and feedback in the beginning – it gave the more expressive dancers on the floor an opportunity to do some extra-expressive moves. So fey. I liked these long songs, there was more stuff to discover, instead of one idea going on for three and a half minutes you got a dozen ideas in ten. Things were changing and evolving, instead of a walk around the block you went on a really cool journey.
All of this doesn’t explain why this is the only Bowie album I own. To be absolutely honest – I didn’t even buy it back then. Didn’t have the money. It entered the collection just a few years ago. Had to have it. I really like a lot of his music. I think that “Ashes To Ashes” and “Sound And Vision” are among the greatest songs ever, just like “Heroes” and “Space Oddity”. Of course they are.
I have this slight suspicion that I am not the only one that has a deep respect for Bowie’s work without necessarily owning a large number of his albums to document it. I also think that this might be quite common among artists that have never really been led by anything else than their artistic vision. In a world that has increasingly turned things upside down, not looking at album sales as an indicator of artistry and appreciation but looking at artist and repertoire as a way to aim for high sales, Bowie simply never followed suit. Even when he was hugely successful and turned into a global superstar it was still mostly a result of what he did and not the main purpose.
Yes, according to Nile Rodgers he had been hired by Bowie to “make hit records” – but you can’t call “Let’s Dance” a sellout (anymore). And when Bowie was confronted with all that superstardom he quickly got alienated by it and chose to put an end to it.
Today, it’s easy to identify him as one of the greatest of all time. No one has done what he was able to do: constantly reinventing himself, continuously evolving and expanding his horizon, discovering and incorporating different styles of music, different ways of creating it – and all the while keeping it all together, creating a strangely coherent body of work. Everything he did was an expression of himself, not a reflection or an imitation.
All of this – supposedly – in spite of (and maybe partly because of) his drug habits. Reading up on how this album was created you immediately run across stories about how he was basically continuously under the influence of some pretty serious drugs. What I find peculiar is what guitarist Pedro Alomar had to say about that – stating that “if it was fueled by coke or by whatever, David was always able to manage the decision-making”. If. And it wasn’t the first time Bowie and Alomar had worked together closely on an album.
The same was said about his lead role in “The Man Who Fell To Earth” which had been shot just before this album was created. Bowie himself remarked that he had been “stoned out of [his] mind from beginning to end” while his co-star Candy Clark said that there was a clear “no drugs” rule on the set and that Bowie had fully respected that.
A lot of things he did and said and surrounded himself with are easily attributed to drug use, and it’s probably pointless to wonder whether the massive problems he had with his wife, former managers and life in Los Angeles in general were roots or results of his drug habits. But regarding “Station To Station” I tend to listen to Alomar who seems like a very sensible and clear-headed, professional musician who said that all of this was left outside when they entered the studio.
Outside it must have been a different story altogether. He said a lot of strange things back then, about his sexual orientation for example, or – even worse – when he was flirting with Fascism. His lyrics on “Station To Station” (the song) are full of images referencing the Stations of the Cross, Kabbala, the strange world of Aleister Crowley, all mixed up and cryptic enough to let even the Wikipedia entry about the lyrics of the song make your head spin.
I can’t say that I ever really cared very much. Half of the lyrics are about the strange things that were going on in his head, the other half about the strange things that were going on in his life, both personal and as a musician. In the seventies, that was anything but unusual. Plus, I was just totally into the music. The wailing feedback of Earl Slick’s guitar, the cool bass theme, the whole Art Rock Disco thing that was such a strange combination of elements, making it danceable without letting this be the purpose.
Two more songs off this album I remember hearing back then, “Golden Years” and “TVC-15”. Both of them may have been reasons why Bowie somehow didn’t fascinate me enough to add his work to my then still small record collection (apart from the lack of money). I liked the rhythm and the funkiness of “Golden Years” but I thought that the doo-wop elements sounded as if someone was a little embarrassed to talk about love, and then there was this air of regret or even irony in it that kept the song at a certain distance from me. “TVC-15” on the other hand was a little too weird for me, a bit too stiff with more theatre/comedy elements than I would have appreciated, like a fragment of a stage piece torn out of context.
This distance is still there – partly because I found it much easier to grow closer other songs on the album. I thought that the guitars on “Stay” were really cool and that this song and even “Word On A Wing” felt much clearer and solid. Even the religiousness of “Word On A Wing” didn’t put me off. I guess we all start to wonder whether approaching God might be a good idea when things get really, really bad.
Apart from the title track, my absolute favorite on this album is “Wild Is The Wind” with its unexpected serenity and calm. It’s such a surprise after all the contradictions and strange theories, the regret and the struggles – all is good at the end, even if it’s kind of an open end, the thin white duke sailing off on an unexpectedly romantic statement.
The question remains. Why just this one album? The three Berlin releases clearly are the kind of stuff that must have appealed to me back then as much as they do today, so why? Part of it probably was due to my path leading to the US while his was heading back to Europe after “Station To Station”. For a while I lived in rural Georgia and you can bet your butt that the local radio stations didn’t play any Bowie. And after returning to Germany it didn’t take long until I discovered that strange little guy from Minneapolis. Opposite directions twice, I guess. Station to station for me as well.
When I started this project I was thinking that after writing about them I would probably return most of the albums to their slots on the shelf for the last time. It’s not entirely true though. I don’t really want to write about music that I don’t mind never hearing again. I want to spend my time with the albums that I hope to return to again. Just like this one. And I am quite sure that it won’t be the only Bowie album for much longer. Album to album.
Release for review:
DAVID BOWIE – STATION TO STATION – RCA – APL 1-1327, 26.21611