#17, "Station to Station," David Bowie (1976)

*cracks knuckles* *leg lunge to the right* *leg lunge to the left* *cracks neck* <br>

Well, kids, we made it. The first David Bowie entry on this list. It’s one I’ve been waiting for pretty much since I started this list. I don’t want to oversell this. I can’t lay it all out here because while this is David’s first appearance on the list, it’s not his last. 


It is here where I’ll admit that I got into Bowie when I was in college, which I’ll remind you was in the late 90s and early 2000s, when I was really broke and before internet music was *really* a thing. And that phase was limited to consumption of the Basic Bowie Starter Kit: Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, and at the time, the Best of Bowie, but you can swap that imperfect collection out for any number of them that have been released since. Then I kind of let it simmer for a while. Years later, like, sort of all at once Pete and I set aside some time to Get Into Bowie. We bought all of the essential albums and binged accordingly. Ever since, we’ve been obsessives. And I think like a lot of people, his death had us consuming every Bowie Thing out there. We saw all the films, read all the books, took in all there was. 


Among the albums we used to Get Into Bowie was of course Station to Station, released right in the meaty part of his creative peak, in 1976. Rob Sheffield, with whom I have this one-sided relationship as a kindred Bowie spirit called “Station to Station” his best album. I think any time anyone declares any Bowie album his Best, it’s automatically a bold statement because most people will disagree with you (that’s just math). I don’t think I disagree with him but I also don’t agree with him. I don’t have a favorite Bowie album, I have three of them. Hunky Dory is a sentimental favorite, Lodger is the ultimate comfort food for me, and Station to Station I think of as his technical best. 


This is 100% ironic because it is His Cocaine Album. Most of the albums he released between 1971 and 1976 were cocaine albums, so it really says something that one of them is more cocaine than the others and Station to Station really is it. To the extent where famously, Bowie himself could not quite remember writing and recording it. “I quite liked it,” he’s said. Not only was he high on cocaine the entire time, but he refused to eat anything besides milk and red bell peppers, got heavy into Aleister Crowley, lost all his friends/business associates because they were exploiting him financially, all the while his marriage was unraveling. He also blamed living in Los Angeles for his being so unhappy, which is mean but makes me giggle a little. I don't know where Station to Station’s magic came from but it barely came from Bowie himself, which makes it all the more magical. 


The 2013 made-for-BBC documentary Five Years is one of mine and Pete’s favorite movies. Like, favorite overall. Not favorite music documentary, favorite movie. In discussing the trajectory of Bowie’s albums, Music Critic Charles Scharr Murray described the rollercoaster ride that was the three-album span of Diamond Dogs-Young Americans-Station to Station. Fairly crazy, Diamond Dogs was initially supposed to be a soundtrack to a planned roller skate musical version of George Orwell’s 1984*. He came and visited us back on earth by releasing a fairly straight album in the style of east coast United States soul music in Young Americans, which was quite successful lead by the title track single and groovy smash hit “Fame.” In Station to Station, we are back to not knowing what he’s talking about, but like, more so. Diamond Dogs has a plot. Station to Station is just fucking bananas. 


*At the On Bowie exhibit we got to see with Josie at the Brooklyn Museum when it came through, I got to see some of David’s storyboards for this musical, the idea for which was ultimately abandoned. It is an incredibly stupid idea and despite having all the confidence in the world in Bowie’s creative abilities at this time, I am quite glad it never came to fruition because I can’t picture it going well under any circumstances. 


Station to Station clocks in at 37:57, despite having only six tracks. The length of the title track, which I will get into shortly, brings the average way up, but that doesn’t mean that the other songs aren’t also very long, grand and mighty. Each of them. Six long songs, one LP. “Golden Years” is the lead single off the album that I think most non-Station to Stationheads are most likely to know this one well*. If you have not seen his “performance” of “Golden Years” on Soul Train, it is really something:

“TVC15” is an easy second-favorite on this album and is amazingly about Iggy Pop’s thinking then-girlfriend had been swallowed up by the TV during a coke mayhem party. You’d never guess the dark themes that inspired this song because it’s bouncy, frenetic, and almost cheerful. 


*Pete and I semi-recently rewatched Dead Man on Campus, the shockingly not-terrible, MTV produced 1998 major motion picture starring a dark-haired Mark-Paul Gosselaar in his first major post-Saved by the Bell role. We weren’t even aware such a thing existed and were adequately taken aback to hear Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Golden Years” over the opening credits. It’s as bad as I would have imagined even without the context of MM’s very publicly trying to convince America he was this generation’s Bowie, a concept so disgusting to my sensibilities, I want to walk a way for a minute to gather myself. 


As fabulous as the album is as a whole, the rest of it honestly pales in comparison to the epic, 10-plus-minute title track. There is a class of song into which “Station to Station” fits*. Usually five minutes or longer, that sounds like it’s several different songs that are cut up and sewn back together in a way that is cohesive and intense and makes perfect sense, even though there are segments brought together from clearly different songs. There are twists, turns, shit comes from out of nowhere and you can’t predict what happens next. They usually tell a convoluted and complicated story and a lot of times the lyrics trip over themselves as if there’s actually more to say despite the length of the song. Precious real estate is taken up by several different bridges and breaks but THOSE are necessary too and the writer did all they did to fit it all in given time allotted. There was just a shit load to say. I love these songs. I’m a sucker for them.


*I think this is an understatement. “Station to Station” *defines* the modern pop epic. Other examples include “Young Americans,” also by Bowie, “American Pie” by Don McLean, and “Cancelled” by the Electric Grandmother. 


“Station to Station” starts with an imitation of an actual train. I’m fairly certain it’s generated by instruments, but it sounds very much like a train leaving a station. That fades and a guitar begins wailing and you get two notes on a piano back and forth which sounds more musical and less literally like a train but still like a train. Then the bass and drums start and again the train resonance continues but it’s even further deconstructed. This goes on, repetitively until--I swear to you--the 3:19 mark, when Bowie’s vocals start with “the return of the Thin White Duke, throwing darts in lovers’ eyes.” The haunting vocals continue and it sounds very grim and dark but it’s nonsense. He’s not even telling you the story of a man who’s returning to Europe (who you never knew left or why his return to Europe was significant). It’s a lot of mystical gobbledygook. But the song’s progression is what is so interesting about it. Because that pace of the three-minute introduction continues for several more minutes and then, again like a train, it speeds up when he begins with “once there were mountains on mountains and once there were sunbirds to soar with and once I could never be down” and he’s not just talking about the scenery on the train but I think he’s also talking about the scenery on the train. I picture him clearing a tunnel to reveal mountains in Switzerland or Germany at this point. Then it speeds up again, with everyone’s favorite line “it’s not the side effects of the cocaine, I’m thinking that it must be love.” This part of the song is quite jaunty. I would almost describe it as boogie-woogie. Really. Also in “Station to Station” are several mid-song instances of the glissando, which as I mentioned in my post about “Freedom! 90” is one of my very favorite things on earth. By the time we finish, it’s repetitive and fast and there are so many people playing so many instruments so well and it’s machine-like and I love it. 


Nobody knows exactly what this song is trying to say, including Bowie himself. We’re aware of *themes*, particularly the mysticism stuff that I don’t understand. He at one point says “I’m thinking that it must be love” and then later “Should I believe that I've been stricken? Does my face show some kind of glow?” which gives the impression that he might be talking about romantic love but he’s not. This part is either about religion or cocaine or he’s making a connection between religion and cocaine but none of us can ever know for sure and it’s so sexy and mysterious. One somewhat troubling feature of this song is that it is the introduction to this Thin White Duke personna. The Thin White Duke who is a fascist European aristocrat. When the cocaine cloud lifted slightly, Bowie disavowed any interest in or endorsement in fascism and even made reference in later songs like “It’s No Game” on Scary Monsters where he said “to be insulted by these fascists, it’s so degrading.” Cocaine is a hell of a drug. 


Remember the 2016 Republican National Convention? I do. It felt a very dark time, despite the fact that it only seemed to be a harbinger of something scary if really unlikely to unfold. And then the thing unfolded and it was really scary, making the summer of 2016 look a little quaint by comparison. If you think about it, it really ended up being a microcosm of what eventually became the Trump administration. They couldn’t get any mainstream republicans to speak or even really show up (how times have changed). Obviously any notable celebrities wouldn’t show up, but they found some people and it ended up being a veritable freakshow of hate. It’s like--nobody knew what they were doing or how to give a stirring speech, which didn’t bode well for their ability to govern a country or bring people together--but they were given the keys to the kingdom anyway. Limped along without anything blowing up, but it didn’t go remotely well either and if given more time, something would certainly blow up. It was set in Cleveland, a city in which many of my friends live and everyone was on edge that something horrible and violent would happen. God, I remember it like it was yesterday. 


In the initial hours, a lot of us were watching it closely to see what would happen. I think the doors technically opened shortly after noon on a weekday and I was still at work and unable to watch any live feeds, but thanks to the miracle of social media, I was able to keep one eye on the goings-on. A friend identified “a Bowie song” something the house musicians were playing, one of whom was perennial RNC journeyman feature GE Smith*, formerly of Saturday Night Live and Bowie’s backing band in the early 80s. Appalled, I asked which song and it was indeed “Station to Station,” about which my friend and I shared a laugh and I believe his words were “someone should tell GE that Bowie’s interest in fascism was due to the cocaine psychosis.” It’s also a very odd choice because the song itself is so dark and ominous I don’t understand why you would want to strike that mood at a political convention unless you’re a crazy self-aware version of today’s Republican party. 


*Everybody hates GE Smith for this. If it makes a difference to you, he claims he is not a Republican. I think he just likes money. 


That night, I listened to that album on the way home, the title track multiple times in a row. I watched the first night of the RNC and it was worse than I even imagined. Pete had a nightmare that someone was beating him with golf clubs. As the ill-fated 2016 election continued and got worse and darker, I had Station to Station on heavy rotation. It indulged my dark and apocalyptic feelings, particularly while drunk. I would watch the AMAZING live performance from Nassau in the year it was released and marvel at the stark and sterile beauty of the Thin White Duke looking near death and impossibly beautiful and powerful at the same time. Then, Trump won and it got worse and my Station to Station obsession just intensified. That December, I had a two-week business trip in Los Angeles which a lot of people know very well how miserable those trips made me and I would listen to “Station to Station” every night before bed and every morning before leaving the hotel room to deal with people and be exhausted and stressed and eat terrible food. 


Even though this song and the album in general just exudes misery, it does not make me miserable to listen to or remind me of bad times. I kind of love the feeling at this point because it feels like misery-play instead of misery-misery? Given that “Station to Station” is literally about a fascist and even though this was all conceived in the fog of the aforementioned cocaine psychosis, it was still technically play-acting. It’s so glam, so indulgent, so power-drunk, it helps me cope with real troubling tendencies among people in power, some 45 years (!!) after the song was released. “Drink to the men who protect you and I,” indeed. Just so long as they’re made up men.