INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Creem APRIL 1976 - by Lester Bangs
CHICKENHEAD COMES HOME TO ROOST
David Bowie: Station To Station
It's tough having heroes. It's the hardest thing in the world. It's harder than being a hero. Heroes are generally expected to produce something or other to reconfirm their Mandarin-fingered clinch on the hotbuns of the bitch muse, which sometimes comes closer to resembling a set of clawmarks running down and off the edge of a shale precipice. At sunset, even. And that's no office party, kiddo. But hero-worshippers (fans) must live with the continually confirmed dread of hero-slippage and the humiliating personal compromises in your standards and plain good sense about, oh, two to three weeks after the new elpee masterwork first hits our turntables.
A very great man (I think it was the Isley Brothers) once said that the real bottom line truism re life on this planet is that it is merely a process of sequential disappointments. So there's no reason even to romanticise your betrayals. Just paying dues, kid. I get burned, therefore I exist. No words in the history of the rock poetic genre, from Dylan to Bernie Tomlin, ever said it better than Sandy Posey's pithy catalog in Born A Woman: "Born to be stepped on, lied to, cheated and treated like dirt." And are we not all in some sense women, the niggers of the world according to contemporary social commentators (I tried to get a call through to Toynbee to confirm this like a good journalist but the bastard had the nerve to fucking die in the same week, my week!)?
Yes, we are. A great many David Bowie fans felt burned, turned into veritable women (de-virilized, as Pope Paul would have it) when David released Young Americans. Why? Because, interestingly enough, they thought David was trying to turn himself into a nigger. I was not, however, one of these people.
Now, as any faithful reader of this magazine is probably aware, David Bowie has never been my hero. I always thought all that Ziggy Stardust homo-from-Aldebaran business was a crock of shit, especially coming from a guy who wouldn't even get in a goddam airplane. I thought he wrote the absolute worst lyrics I had ever heard from a major pop figure with the exception of Bernie Taupin; lines like "Time takes a cigarette and puts it in your mouth" and "screwed up eyes and screwed down hairdo / Like some cat from Japan," delivered with a face so straight it seemed like it would crack at a spontaneous word or gesture, seemed to me merely gauche. As for his music, he was as accomplished an eclectician (AKA thief) as Elton John, which means that though occasionally deposited onstage after seemingly being dipped in vats of green slime and pursued by Venusian crab boys, he had Showbiz Pro written all over him. A facade as brittle as it was icy, which I guess means that it was bound to crack or thaw, and whatever real artistic potency lay beneath would have to stand or evaporate.
Crack Bowie did, in the last year or so, and the result was Young Americans. It was not an album beloved of trad Bowiephiles, but for somebody like your reviewer, who never put any chips on the old chickenhead anyway, it was a perfectly acceptable piece of highly listenable product. More than that, in fact - it was a highly personal musical statement disguised as a shameless fling at the disco market, the drag perhaps utilised as an emotional red herring. Young Americans wasn't Bowie dilettanting around with soul music, it was the bridge between melancholy and outright depression, an honest statement from a deeply troubled, mentally shattered individual who even managed, for the most part, to skirt self-pity. Like many of his peers, Bowie has cracked - and for him it was good, because it made him cut the bullshit. Young Americans was his first human album since Hunky Dory, and in my opinion the best record he ever put out.
Till now. The first things to be said about Station To Station are that it sounds like he's got a real live band again (even if star guitarist Earl Slick did reportedly split between the sessions and the new tour), and that this is not a disco album either (though that's what the trades, and doubtless a lot of other people, are going to write it off as) but an honest attempt by a talented artist to take elements of rock, soul music, and his own idiosyncratic and occasionally pompous showtune/camp predilections, and rework this seemingly contradictory melange of styles into something new and powerful that doesn't have to cop either futuristic attitudes or licksfrom Anthony Newley and The Velvet Underground because he's found his own voice at last.
This is the first Bowie album without a lyric sheet, and I'm glad, because aside from previously voiced reservations I've always agreed with Fats Domino that it's more fun to figure them out for yourself. The first line on the album is the worst: "The return of the thin white duke / Throwing darts in lovers' eyes." Somehow, back in Rock Critics' Training School, when they told me about "pop poetry," I didn't and still don't think that they were talking about this, which is not only pretentious and mildly unpleasant, but I am currently wrestling with a terrible paranoia that this is Bowie talking about himself, I have a nightmare vision in my mind of him opening the set in his new tour by striding out onstage slowly, with a pained look in his eyes and one spotlight following him, mouthing these words. And, quite frankly, that idea terrifies me. Because if it's true, it means he's still as big an idiot as he used to be and needs a little more cocaine to straighten him out.
But I'm really not worried. Because you can always ignore the lyrics if you want, since this is one of the best guitar albums since Rock N Roll Animal, it has a wail and throb that won't let up and rolls roughshod over the words. So who gives a shit what TVC 15 means, it's a great piece of rock 'n' roll. And when words do appear out of the instrumental propulsion like swimmers caught in a rip tide and not sure whether they wanna call for the lifeguard or just enjoy it, well, at those moments dear reader, I know you're not going to believe this but those words usually make sense! In fact, in (for Bowie) relatively simple, unconvoluted language, they bespeak a transition from the deep depression of the best of Young Americans (and here's a case of scientific proof that depression should never be knocked or avoided, it's a means to an end of division from self, AKA remission) to a beautiful, swelling, intensely romantic melancholy in which the divided consciousness may not only have kissed and made up with itself but even managed to begin the leap towards recognising that other human beings actually exist! And can be loved for something besides the extent to which they feed themselves to the artist's narcissism.
Specific examples of this remission are not hard to come by: "Blending sound, dredging the ocean / Lost in my circle [the dude - I'm perfectly serious about all this - admitting how fucked up his head was before in spite of all secular glories]... there are you, drive like a demon / from station to station [could describe the compulsiveness and dissatisfaction of pursuit of random depersonalised experience, be it sexual or otherwise... go ahead, tell me I'm full of shit or projecting, I don't care, this review isn't designed to sell albums]... it's not the sad effects of the cocaine / I'm thinking that it must be love / It's too late to be grateful / It's too late to be hateful / It's too late to be late again [in other words I recognise personal fear, destruction and anguish, but I'm not blaming anything or anybody, and can even forgive myself - the main thing is that I got my baby and work to be done now]."
Which is something worth saying. Golden Years continues in this vein ("Don't let me hear you say life's taking you nowhere," etc.), and the whistling's an especially nice touch, particularly since it comes off neither corny nor campy (same thing, in my book). Nor do the ballads that end each side, where Bowie, who had just about convinced us all that he'd blown his voice for good on Young Americans (I always figured the vocal track was the one reason the single never made top ten), uses his limited apparatus with beautiful control, pulling off enormously lush, romantic performances ("Oh, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing") that will make your head swim with their richness rather than (as I'd've bet money on before) embarrassing the hell out of anybody within earshot. Lines like "Don't have to question everything in heaven or hell," along with the melodic mood that is their context, can be intensely moving according to your mood, and it doesn't even matter that Wild Is The Wind is an old Dmitri Tiomkin movie theme - even if Bowie did it for camp reasons and to indulge a personal idiosyncrasy, it doesn't sound like he did, it sounds right with the rest of the album.
Which is so impressive, such a great rocker and so promising of durability even exceeding Young Americans, that I'm going to go out on a limb and say that I think that Bowie has finally produced his (first) masterpiece. To hell with Ziggy Stardust, which amounted to starring Judy Garland in The Reluctant Astronaut, fuck trying to be George Orwell and William Burroughs when you've only read half of Nova Express - this and Young Americans are the first albums he's made which don't sound like scams. Bowie has dropped his pretensions, or most of them at any rate, and in doing that I believe he's finally become an artist instead of a poseur, style collector and (admittedly always great, excepting Raw Power) producer. He'll still never have a shot at becoming my hero, because he's neither funny nor black enough but I can hardly wait to hear what he's going to have to say next.