INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Mojo SEPTEMBER 2016 - by David Buckley and Danny Eccleston
THAT OLD BLACK AND WHITE MAGIC
In October, a box set anthologises David Bowie's 1974-76, an era of soul-scouring metamorphosis concluding with one of his greatest albums. Over eight pages, David Buckley and Danny Eccleston summon the magickal, mechanistic madness of Station To Station - forty years young - while Chris O'Leary dusts off The Gouster, the "lost" 1974 LP that is unveiled at last.
In a year of departures, no one has left such a void as David Bowie, who passed two days after the release of Blackstar, on January 10. Some were quick to claim that the album itself was a deliberate valediction; indeed, that Bowie had recast his death as a final work of art. Had he not sung, on the sumptuous Dollar Days, "I'm trying too, I'm dying to" (officially 'to', but heard by many as 'too')?
Blackstar's emotional and psychic depths reminded aficionados of another David Bowie album. One recorded forty years previously, undoubtedly amongst his very best, and written and recorded likewise in the shadow of death.
In 1975, Bowie was, as he would later claim, 'psychically damaged' and had all but resigned himself to his demise. He was deeply unhappy, trapped in a place he hated, in a business he never wanted to be in, and in a cycle of such self-abuse that it is a stroke of luck we weren't writing David Jones's obituary after his ninth album, not his twenty-fifth.
Out of that perilous state came Station To Station: one track and just three minutes shorter than Blackstar. Like Blackstar it opened with a ten-minute title track that was in effect two songs in one. Both are essentially incantations: Blackstar conjuring visitations from science fiction, Islam, Peaky Blinders, the Grim Reaper himself; Station To Station a blank stare of anguish, using spell words to summon... what exactly?
They're Bowie's saddest albums. Just as Blackstar demands compassion for a sixty-eight-year-old who'd run out of road ("If I'll never see the English evergreens I'm running to / It's nothing to me / It's nothing to see"), Station To Station's Word On A Wing revealed a landlocked young man giving himself up to God because it's the only thing left to try. Even when it's numb and empty - Bowie the burnt-out case, mired in mysticism and mad ideologies - Station To Station feels haunted. Maybe that's why we come keep coming back to it.
By mid-1975, David Bowie was living in rented accommodation in Doheny Drive, Los Angeles: a comparatively small, cube-shaped house with an indoor swimming pool, two white sphinxes in the garden and a collection of occultist Egyptian objets d'art. Bowie would sit for long hours in his bedroom, the sun blocked out by drawn curtains. As black candles burned, the pop star would draw pentagrams on huge sheets of paper or the walls.
He had emerged from the filming of Nic Roeg's film The Man Who Fell To Earth a changed man. Roeg had told him there was a good chance the role would stay with him long after filming ended, and this indeed happened. Off-duty, Bowie was still channelling Thomas Jerome Newton's frozen demeanour and otherworldly starkness; he'd also adopted the clothes and the haircut he'd devised for the role. He was The Thin White Duke, his last and most desensitised alter ego.
He was also seriously questioning the value and future of rock music. "At the time I did Ziggy Stardust, all I had was a small cult audience in England from Hunky Dory. I think it was out of curiosity that I began wondering what it would be like to be a rock and roll star," he would tell Cameron Crowe. "So basically, I wrote a script and played it out as Ziggy Stardust on-stage and on record. Now, I'm all through with rock and roll. Finished."
Vast cocaine use didn't help. Bowie weighed well under seven stone and lived on a diet of red and green peppers washed down by milk straight from the carton. "I would keep a fridge fully stocked with this stuff," Bowie recalled in 1998, "and when I wasn't hallucinating I was sitting on the floor in the dark, lit by the little light inside the door, cutting up peppers with my knife and cramming them into my mouth... Meal times were 4am and 5pm... The curtains were always closed. Didn't want the LA sun spoiling the vibe of eternal now."
Producer Hugh Padgham, who worked with a saner Bowie much later, remembered PA Coco Schwab telling him that she would get up in the morning and find David slumped in a chair. She'd pick up a coke-smeared mirror and put it in front of his face to check he was still breathing.
Drug use fuelled the singer's exploration of the esoteric. He was investigating Kirlian photography, a technique developed by the Soviets to measure the flow of magnetism in the human body. He took a photo of the magnetic field surrounding his fingertip and his crucifix before and after snorting coke. The photograph, or one very like it, dated April 1975, was to be used over two decades later for the inside sleeve of Earthling.
"Every day of my life back then I was capable of staying up indefinitely," said Bowie in the 1990s. "By the end of the week my whole life would be transformed into this bizarre nihilistic fantasy world of oncoming doom, mythological characters and imminent totalitarianism. Quite the worst."
At one point Bowie rang his wife Angie in London, claiming he was being held in LA against his will by witches who wanted his semen so that they might be impregnated on the Witches' Sabbath. In fact, he was coked up with some female fans, but he still tried to exorcise the Doheny Drive house with instructions from rock-connected 'white witch' Walli Elmlark. According to Angie, an image of the devil was burned into the bottom of the indoor swimming pool after the event.
An unlikely time, then, for Bowie to record a great album, perhaps even his masterpiece.
Together with guitarists Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick, drummer Dennis Davis and bass player George Murray, plus E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan, Bowie entered Cherokee Studios, Hollywood, in the early autumn of 1975 to begin work on what would become Station To Station.
While his physical and mental condition was delicate, his commercial stock was higher than ever. Within six weeks, he was to have Number 1 singles on both sides of the Atlantic. In August Fame, the second single from Young Americans, reached Number 1 in the United States, but was then knocked off by John Denver's I'm Sorry before promptly regaining the Number 1 spot the week after. And, six years and sixty-three days after first entering the charts back in 1969, the reissued Space Oddity finally gave Bowie his first UK Number 1 single in November 1975.
Bowie himself admitted that he couldn't remember very much about recording Station To Station at all. One of his only memories is standing with Earl Slick in the studio and asking him to play a Chuck Berry riff in the same key throughout the opening of Station To Station. Apart from that, his mind is a blank. "I have only flashes of making it," Bowie would say much later. "I can't remember how I felt; I have no emotional geography."
Fortunately, Alomar was more compos mentis, and remembers the sessions with delight: "It was the height of our experimental time," said the guitarist. "It was one of the most glorious albums that I've ever done, and it was one of the longer ones. I think it might have taken two months. We experimented so much on it."
This time, there was no Tony Visconti ("I was six thousand miles away, recording someone else," said the producer. "Things just worked out this way") and Harry Maslin, the producer of Fame, remained in favour. Earl Slick felt uncomfortable sharing guitar duties with Alomar, but was dealing with it. "I had to calm him down a bit and say, Look, man, I'm in," said Alomar. "Stop even thinking about me." Yet the pair's competition adds something Young Americans didn't have: overload. With the addition of Bittan's multiple piano overdubs, everything was bigger, heavier, weirder.
Alomar concedes that Bowie "was doing far too much on Station To Station, but the coke use is driven by the inspiration. You're not going to stop doing it halfway through the album when everything you've done so far has been so fabulous! It doesn't make sense."
If nothing else, the drugs were enabling the musicians to get the job done: "The most disturbing thing that can happen in the studio is to have to go to sleep if you're on a roll," noted Alomar. "If there's a line of coke which is going to keep you awake until 8am so that you can do your guitar part, you do the line of coke."
The first track attempted by this collection of electrified individuals was Golden Years. Alomar remembers the song grew from Bowie fooling around with some chords on the piano, trying to recreate a glitzy On Broadway vibe.
"David goes to the piano and plays, 'They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway... Come de dum ma baby...' That's the kind of vibe he wanted. I play the opening guitar riff and he says, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, like that, do that, do that.'" [For the record, Earl Slick recalls it differently: "The riff at the beginning of Golden Years is mine. I kind of ripped it from an old song called Funky Broadway."]
There's no evidence to support rumours that Golden Years was offered to Elvis Presley to cover; however, there was talk of collaboration around that time. "I would have loved working with him," said Bowie later. "He did send me a note once, 'All the best, and have a great tour.' I still have that note." It was for the best, because Golden Years turned out to be one of Bowie's greatest singles, telling the story in affected American jive of glamour and stardom through the eyes of nostalgia.
Stay resulted from a similar equation: cocaine, and a killer guitar riff.
"Stay was recorded very much in our cocaine frenzy," said Alomar. "That song I think David did on the guitar. He strummed a few chords for me, and then we gave it back to him. The rhythm section really liked that one, and then Earl Slick covered some of the lines I had laid down with a thicker sound." [Again, Slick feels that this underestimates the importance of his contribution.]
The brittle helplessness of Bowie's vocal on Stay exemplified the album's developing exploration of extreme mental states: extreme numbness to extreme rawness. But even closer to the precipice of emotional collapse is Word On A Wing. Here Bowie reaches out for catharsis in the form of a spiritual experience, the song exploding into life halfway through, with Bowie prostrate on the altar steps, hovering near some sort of rebirth scenario. "I wrote the whole thing as a hymn," Bowie told Melody Maker the following February. "Yes, I do feel like I am starting over again in a way." Equally extreme in its way was Bowie's cover of Dimitri Tiomkin's Wild Is The Wind. Here his singing is deliberately overblown, with each syllable stretched out to preposterous lengths - more Bassey than Bolan. "He loved the richness of his voice at the time," says Alomar.
In context, TVC 15 is light relief, a sci-fi sex riff leaking over from Thomas Jerome Newton and his bank of TV screens (Bowie wanted it "kind of loose and stupid", recalled Alomar). But it is the title track that makes explicit what was totally new on Station To Station: this heavy fusion of Krautrock and Kraftwerk with funk and pop, immanent in the thrilling, foreboding opening section with its metallic beat and desperate guitar sustains.
Alomar: "The rhythm section had already done their stuff and we were watching David with Earl Slick, trying to tell him what was going on: 'I know it's long - just keep playing!' He was trying to hold this note for about two minutes for that opening section. And we were saying, 'How the hell is he going to hold this note any longer? Plug in another amplifier! Just keep the chain of amplifiers going until the sound just keeps going.'"
Bowie's eerily double-tracked vocal outlines a present pregnant with occultist imagery: "Here am I, flashing no colour / Tall in this room overlooking the ocean / Here are we, one magical movement / From kether to malkulth." Although Bowie was partly referencing the Roman Catholic stations of the cross, kether (crown) and malkulth kingdom) are Hebrew words and are part of God's ten creative emanations or stations (called 'sephiroth') found in the 'Tree Of Life' of the Kabbalah, an ancient Jewish mystic tradition, mapping the connections of divine to the terrestrial, which entered later occult custom. (Bowie can be seen sketching multiple Trees Of Life in 1975 photographs by Steve Schapiro, clad in a black top with silver stripes; he wears something very similar in the 2015 video to his penultimate single, Lazarus.) Later in the song, "white stains" alludes to poems by the diabolist Aleister Crowley. Bowie would later joke that the whole album should have been called "Black Magic - The Musical!"
Bowie, by all accounts, declared himself pleased with the album, although he later said that he chickened out on the mix, giving it a more commercial sheen when he really ought to have left it more uncompromising. The following year he told Creem magazine that, while Young Americans had a sort of "pathetic dignity", the new album was "devoid of spirit, very steely. Even the love songs are detached, but I think it's fascinating. It's very much like me, or very much like I want to be."
The Return Of The Thin White Duke, as it was temporarily known, was in the can, and Bowie moved quickly on to another project: a soundtrack for The Man Who Fell To Earth. Recruiting strings arranger Paul Buckmaster, employing a Teac four-track plus various electronic rhythm boxes, he dived into another big bag of cocaine. When their recordings were rejected, the singer blamed new manager Michael Lippman and sacked him (it's likely he was seizing a convenient excuse), but Buckmaster concedes it was a tough sell: "I think Roeg got cold feet about it. I considered the music to be demo-ish and not final... You also have to remember our respective biochemical conditions, and these got worse as the weeks progressed. It's all rather shameful."
A DAT tape of the 'lost' soundtrack remains in Buckmaster's archive awaiting future release. Only a backwards bass line would eventually find its way on to vinyl, as part of Subterraneans on Bowie's next album, Low.
Bowie was arguably almost unmanageable by this stage. And with the Lippman sacking prompting an expensive law suit, he was once again in money trouble. His efforts at record promotion were also eccentric. In autumn 1975 he recorded a slot for the high-rating Soul Train, messing up the words to his new single, Golden Years. "I wasn't even buoyant enough to feel apologetic," explained Bowie, recounting the incident in 2000. "I mean I really was a little shit in that way."
And yet there was no denying Golden Years. The first single off the new album, it was a transatlantic Top 10 hit and, early in 1976, Station To Station became his biggest American album to date, going all the way to Number 3.
Bowie took the stage for the first date of the Station To Station tour, otherwise known as the White Light Tour, or Isolar, in Vancouver on February 2, 1976. For the tour, Bowie christened his new band Raw Moon. He retained Alomar, Davis and Murray. Tony Kaye, who had worked with Yes, was this year's keyboard maestro, and an inventive twenty-one-year-old Canadian, Stacey Heydon, replaced Earl Slick after the hot-tempered guitarist fell out with tour manager Pat Gibbons over finances ("My relationship with David just vaporised," said Slick).
After the baroque plans for the Diamond Dogs tour, this would be positively minimal, but not without theatrical flourishes. Unencumbered by stage props, gadgets and visual chicanery, Bowie would enter bathed in blinding white light, dressed in white shirt, white gloves and black waistcoat, playing the Thin White Duke to audiences on the verge of hysteria as the tour progressed through North America.
If 1973 was Bowie's highwater mark in the UK, then the American tour of early 1976 performed the same function for the US. On a few dates Bowie revealed one new song, Sister Midnight, which he later gave away to Iggy Pop. A funked-up song with a great tumbling riff by Alomar, it possessed a crunchingly mechanistic, walking-paced groove. This, in microcosm, was Bowie's objective for the tour: to marry funkiness with the disciplined beats emanating from Germany. Bowie even considered having Kraftwerk as the tour's opening act until he realised that they needed a whole bank of synths and keyboards - in other words, too much equipment for a run of short one-nighters. Instead, before he took the stage, Bowie had their latest offering, Radioactivity, played while an excerpt from the surrealist Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel film, Un Chien Andalou (1928) was projected.
The White Light tour worked its way through the States that February and March - shows that could have easily been the best Bowie played anywhere. On February 6, he triumphed at the same venue, the San Francisco Cow Palace, where three years before he had drawn a pitiful crowd, and the guest lists for his Los Angeles Inglewood Forum shows on February 8, 9 and 11 were stellar: David Hockney, Christopher Isherwood, Patti Smith, Elton John, Rod Stewart and Britt Ekland, Herbie Hancock, Ray Bradbury, Carly Simon, Henry Winkler, Alice Cooper, Ringo Starr and Linda Ronstadt. Bowie's star had never shone harder, despite his parlous mental state.
Meanwhile, he'd picked up a shadow: Iggy Pop. During the latter's hospitalisation in 1975, Bowie had been his first visitor. "We trooped into the hospital with a load of drugs for him," said Bowie in 2002. "This was very much a leave-your-drugs-at-the-door hospital. We were out of our minds, all of us." Now Iggy was feeling himself back into music with a cheerleading role on the tour.
They were headed to continental Europe - the spiritual home of Bowie's new music - in April and to the UK in May, but on the way the singer was rocked by two huge PR calamities. The first was a high-profile drugs bust on March 21 after the show in Springfield Massachusetts. Bowie, along with Iggy Pop and two friends, was charged with possession of 8oz of marijuana. Released on two thousand dollars bail, with no charges eventually pressed, he had had a very lucky escape, given what they could have found. Then, in early April 1976, returning from Moscow with Iggy Pop, Bowie was detained by customs officers on the Russian/Polish border when a cache of Nazi memorabilia was found in his possession.
Bowie's interest in fascism would become a long-term stain on his credibility, but its nature and extent is debated and debatable. It was certainly consistent with his new role - an adjunct to the Thin White Duke's cold Teutonic aura - but he'd toyed with the concept of the Superman before (Hunky Dory's Quicksand), and there was crossover between a fascination for the occult and the power fixation of fascism.
A couple of weeks after the customs incident, following a gig on April 26 in Stockholm, Bowie was reported in the press as saying, "I believe Britain could benefit from a fascist leader. After all, fascism is really nationalism." In an interview in 1975 he had reflected, "There will be a political figure in the not too distant future who'll sweep through this part of the world like early rock'n'roll did. You've got to have an extreme right front come up and sweep everything off its feet and tidy everything up. Then you can get a new form of liberalism."
It wasn't the first time Bowie had linked rock and the political right. In an interview with Cameron Crowe for Playboy in 1974, he'd said, "Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars. Look at some of the films and see how he moved. I think he was quite as good as Jagger."
However, the day that has gone down in Bowie folklore isMay 2 1976. Bowie arrived at Victoria Station in London, where he was to be picked up by an open-top Merc. Shaky archive footage exists of Bowie waving and smiling to a huge crowd of fans, a few giving him the victory sign and screaming their adulation. The film then shows Bowie standing in the back of the limo and, for a split second, raising his hand in a furtive but straight-armed manner. It might have been a Nazi salute; it looked a lot more like a little wave, or even a sort of air-punch. The NME printed a photograph of Bowie under the heading 'Heil and Farewell' but the paper did not mention a salute in the accompanying text and Bowie himself always claimed that the photographer merely caught him mid-wave.
In the crowd that day was the seventeen-year-old Gary Webb, soon to be pop star Gary Numan. He remembers no Nazi salute nor any fan on the day mentioning the like: "Think about it. If a photographer takes a whole motor-driven film of someone doing a wave, you will get a Nazi salute at the end of each arm-sweep. All you need is some dickhead at some music paper or whatever to try to make an issue out of it and it looks bad."
There's no doubt, however, that Bowie's political comments were at best naïve and poorly timed. In the mid '70s, Britain saw a growth in support for extreme right-wing organisations such as the British Movement and the National Front. But according to White Light bandleader Carlos Alomar, Bowie was never a fascist, or a Nazi. It was just so much verbiage.
"It was all just talk," said the guitarist. "He is what he reads and at that time in his life, he was reading so much bullshit. We're both kind of preachy. I'm more preachy on the religious side, he's more an expounder of information. He'll pick a subject no one knows anything about and expound on it for about an hour so that you're not interrupted. Those types of conversation - Nazism, the baroque, architecture of the urn of the century - that's David talking. I don't put too much weight on any of that; he likes to talk."
Controversy aside, the six shows between May 3 and 8 at Wembley Empire Pool, Bowie's first in the UK for almost three years, were hugely successful. Numan led a mass cavalry charge of fans at one show, knocking over a security guard, to jump down from the top tier of the auditorium. After climbing along the backs of the chairs nearest the stage, Numan led his throng to the front. "I threw my little glo-stick at him and it hit him during The Jean Genie," recollects Numan. "He bent over and picked it up. I thought I was going to wet myself!"
An emotional Bowie left the stage in tears that first night at Wembley. Melody Maker's headline for their live review ran: "THE EXILE RETURNS TO A MESSIAH'S WELCOME".
The Station To Station tour ended in Paris on May 18. Bowie had survived it, turning in some of the best live performances of his career. But he was uncomfortable as a rock star, on any level at all. None of the clichés applied: he wasn't animalistic or macho, he didn't play straight rock'n'roll and he wasn't interested in performing as per the rules of the rock spectacle.
He also knew that he had to break away from the US, and from the regular, easily sourced cocaine that was killing him. Without seeking professional medical help, Bowie determined to kick his drug habit with his friend Iggy Pop back in Europe, and to find a new way of relating to the rock business. His Berlin years awaited.