16. Station to Station (1976)
That Is a Fact: Sniff, sniff. Oh … hello, frightening Thin White Duke. I didn’t see you standing in that cloud of pearly white cocaine! Bowie’s last blowout and most unforgiving character pit stop — created for 1976’s Station to Station — makes any listener feel slightly deranged thinking about the artist creating this record (how didn’t he die?). The ’70s really were his Golden Years (stop swearing if you disagree), and by 1976 he’d fallen madly in love with cocaine. Numbed by the stuff he carried on, primed with the world’s imminent end, claiming to have no memory of recording the album in the first place. Songs like “Word on a Wing” were a cry for help: “Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing, and I’m trying hard to fit among your scheme of things.” Christ, it’s got that cartwheel-away-from-the-burning-house feeling to it, doesn’t it? It sways from an outrageous high to a walloping low. Firing on all cylinders during recording, days rolling into nights, and once the clock struck 12, the engines at Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles started gurgling.
Sound and Vision: Looking like he got stepped on by a large shoe with a spiky rubber sole, the protruding blonde, nail-Thin White Duke appears out of the darkness! “Behold! I have been living on a diet of red peppers, cocaine, and milk!” Motivated by 1920s Berlin, and Lindsay Kemp’s film The Man Who Fell to Earth featuring Bowie, it’s stark and opaque just like a bad hallucinatory trip. While it represents a black-and-white still image from the movie (when his character climbs into the spaceship) – a protruding thorn trampled by the weight of the world seems more fitting.
Someone’s Back in Town: Co-produced by former engineer to Dionne Warwick and Carly Simon, Pretty Woman producer Harry Maslin worked closely with Bowie in 1975 on “Fame” (with John Lennon) and “Across the Universe – and he’s back on Station to Station. Without Maslin, that “rounded”bit of the backing vocals on “Golden Years” might not have happened – he suggested using an old RCA microphone. As far as the band goes, newcomer George Murray joins the ranks as bassist, and after working for the first time with Bowie on Young Americans, drummer Dennis Davis and gifted guitarist Carlos Alomar return, shaping Alomar for 10 more albums with Bowie.
Ch-Ch-Changes: As if some of that cocaine residue has the ability to seep into your nostrils, throat, and ears every time you hear this album, you can almost feel his high when you hit play. Exploring inner anguish and reflecting on mortality and misery, each line finds Bowie drenched in the painstaking sinister devotion to the persona of Thin White Duke, a huge transformation from Ziggy. Young Americans gave him the tools to re-program the soul and funk gears onto a krautrock track. Even if “TVC-15” drives a riling guitar and piano-punching storytelling of the “transition” to a “transmission” fueled by Iggy Pop’s supposed drug-induced hallucinations might seem normal, its surge into “Stay” fuses the Americana-funk with a cluster of cataclysmic European sounds.
In a Most Peculiar Way: Tell me how he made that 10-minute marathon title track high on cocaine! It’s a goddang miracle he made it out alive, probably survived on the back of baring his soul to the reaper – as Station to Station finds Bowie turning to face his demons head-on. That’s not to say drugs are cool, kids; that’s to say a little part of Bowie had to die so that the Thin White Duke could live. I expect it’s true that “Nothing’s gonna touch you in these golden years.”
After All: Station to Station moves as its name implies, a trek from the semi-sane to the utterly demented (with the potency of a musical genius travelling somewhere in between). He’s caught in passage of time where cries for help are reinforced with righteous funk rock. A man whose ideals are toppling over like building blocks is telling us to “Run for the shadows” over an intoxicating underbelly of finger-snapping funk, mere minutes before Davis’ fraught and fearless drumming pierces through the dimmed darkness on “Stay”. Perhaps to let the light of hope shine in just a little, “Light is so vague when it brings someone new/ This time tomorrow I’ll know what to do.” But it’s that 10-minute title track that bursts apart like the rubber burning under the wheels of a racecar. Though he’s undeniably gone off the rails on this album, Bowie isn’t burnt out — he’s on fire.