“WHITE LINES, BLACK MAGIC” David’s Dark Doings – And How He Escaped To Tell The Tale: David Bowie’s Station To Station and the “Berlin Trilogy”.

By Ian MacDonald. First published in Uncut Magazine, October, 1998.

“I ran across a monster who was sleeping by a tree. And I looked and frowned and the monster was me” (David Bowie, “The Width Of A Circle”, 1971)

EMI’s latest batch of mid-price Bowie reissues, discs released at full price in 1990-1, consists of the 1976-8 sequence, Station To Station, Low, “Heroes”, and Stage. It might have been truer to his career to have made a foursome of Low, “Heroes”, Stage and Lodger – the “Berlin Trilogy” plus their complimentary live album – and to have corralled Station To Station with his other “American” albums, David Live and Young Americans. Never mind. As it happens, EMI’s decision highlights a little understood juncture in Bowie’s development: the transition between the two The Man Who Fell To Earth albums, Station To Station and Low.

Bowie’s modus operandi during the Seventies was transformation, acting out the suburban dream of escape into glamorous “otherness” – hence his popularity among a very specific audience segment (and the total blank he registered with those for whom escape was not an issue). This method held good until Young Americans, even though that album’s associated transformation – white boy on Soul Train – was less the usual Brechtian device than an identity-crisis on the part of the artist (or the Actor, as he then referred to himself). Uprooted from his native context in the cultural artifice of Europe, isolated in a largely unironic and cultureless alien land, Bowie was forced back on himself, a self he didn’t much like. Weary of the artistic transformations which were now getting too close to home, he fended off self-examination with mental diversion, reading obsessively from a portable library and deadening his growing sense of emotional emptiness with cocaine and booze. David Live is, in effect, a station-stop in this journey on the old Oblivion Express, an evening’s snapshot of Bowie’s deepening malaise.

With Station To Station – its title partly suggested by Bowie’s 1973-6 touring schedule which, due to his fear of flying, mostly consisted of travel by train-the Oblivion Express reached another halt. But, this time, Bowie, rarely one to repeat himself, refused another David Live stop-over. Instead, he got off the damned train. A sonic “dark night of the soul”, Station to Station is to Bowie what On The Beach is to Neil Young’s album, rooted in the folk-blues tradition of American “authenticity”, remains too musically raw for wide appeal, whereas Station, if only superficially, is one of Bowie’s most glamorous discs. However, the superficial view of Station to Station doesn’t tell half the inner story of the album, a recherché work which, despite being recorded at Cherokee Studios in the hyper-American suburb of Hollywood, is essentially European.

The key to the transition between Station To Station and Low (whose covers both employ images from Nicolas Roeg’s the Man Who Fell To Earth) is that it does not coincide with Bowie’s usual sort of artistic transformation: the persona swap. Bowie’s final mask, the Thin White Duke, travels no further than Station to Station. There’s no mask, no persona in Low. Just a rather gaunt young man in a “styleless” dufflecoat, looking sideways to the viewer as if in a police mugshot.

Some would say that this is merely because Bowie then ceased touring for a while (appearing live only as Iggy Pop’s keyboard player), and consequently had no need to invent a new stage character. In truth, Bowie’s temporary low profile, coded in the cover of Low itself, was forced on him at a time when an interlude of retreat for recuperation and regrouping was the only alternative to a full-scale crack-up during the recording of Station to Station, a period of which he claims to recall almost nothing. Mental breakdown still appeared to be impending in May, 1976 when, returning to Britain from his sojourn in America, a seemingly stoned Bowie acknowledged the British press corps at Victoria Station with what most of those present took to be a Nazi salute.

Britain was then witnessing the electoral rise of the neo-fascist National Front, and Bowie’s proclaimed ambition to be the country’s fascist dictator was naturally, those of us who were fans chose to read Bowie’s stance as ironic. Neither was wholly correct. Like Neil Young’s republicanism, Bowie’s brand of fascism, while it embraced irony, was basically serious; or was taken seriously by a certain hermetic compartment of his mind, wherein it dwelt. The rest of him – what passed for the normal lad from Brixton – was deeply uneasy about it; so uneasy that he included on Station To Station a song open to God in case the demons evoked elsewhere in the album should get out of hand.

Bowie’s fascination with Nazism was never conventionally political. Rather, it was one aspect of a personal cosmology traceable in cryptic songs like “Cygnet Committee” (Space Oddity, 1969), “The Supermen” (The Man Who Sold The World, 1971), “Big Brother” (Diamond Dogs, 1974), but most explicitly in “Oh! You Pretty Things” and – particularly – “Quicksand” on Hunky Dory (1972): “I’m closer to the Golden Dawn/Immersed in Crowley’s uniform/Of imagery/I’m living in a silent film/Portraying Himmler’s sacred realm/Of dream reality.” Eagerly absorbed from the omnivorous reading with which the self-taught Bowie, insecure in his intellect, then shored up his self-esteem, this personal cosmology was rooted in the Gnostic myth of the Fall, viz: we human beings are born into this world from a higher dimension (“heaven”) which we forget upon entering the sphere of material existence. Hence, homo sapiens is a half-finished thing living in a state of waking sleep he calls reality, but which is actually a kind of delusion. Only those “awake” on the physical plane, the “enlightened” ones, see reality as it truly is. As such, they are supermen. Now that “home sapiens have outgrown their use”, such mental supermen are set to inherit the earth.

As a young man, Bowie was impatiently obsessed with the inefficiency of our unenlightened minds (“We’re today’s scrambled creatures, looked in tomorrow’s double feature”). As a result, he viewed the majority, unaware as they were of their plight, with a blend of tolerant irony and frank contempt (“the mice in their million hordes”). Elaborating on the Gnostic myth, he cross-bred Nietzsche’s Superman – “The Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud” is a sort of pop Zarathustra – with esoteric motifs in the writing of Madame Blavatsky and the teaching of the Armenian mystic, Gurdjeff. Both allude extensively to mysterious “Masters”: enlightened super-beings who supposedly guide human affairs from mountain fastnesses in Tibet and the Hindou Kush (“the men who protect you and I”). Blavatsky’s writing, along with those of Eliphas Levi, gave birth to the late 19th-century Occult Revival which in Britain produced the magical society called The Golden Dawn, whence Aleister Crowley emerged, and which in Germany created the occult basis of Nazism, epitomised in Himmler’s vision of his SS as an Arthurian company of immortals, incarnated to bring order to the physical plane. Though he made plenty of pro-Hitler statements around 1975-6, Bowie ultimately remained sane enough to distinguish the ideal of an order-bringing élite from the Nazi reality. He was, he would occasionally claim, a Nietzschean, his “fascism” being conceptually benign (if nonetheless arrogant). He favoured a New Order not of domination, but of enlightenment: rule of the “asleep” by the “awake”. The main snag was that he was doing too many drugs. Imbibed along with piles of prime Colombian, books like Pauwel and Bergier’s The Morning Of The Magicians (1971) and Trevor Ravenscroft’s The Spear Of Destiny (1973) had, by 1975, led Bowie into a remote headspace where even UFO’s were part of the plot.

During the LA sessions for Station To Station, the Fuhrerling (as Bowie drolly refers to himself in a demo of “Candidate” on the 1990 reissue of Diamond Dogs) was archetypally “torn between the light and dark”. At one point the journalist, Cameron Crowe, found him burning black tapers in the seeming aftermath of some ritual magic that had gone wrong. “Been having a little trouble with the neighbours,” said Bowie, evidently not referring to the people in the apartment next door. Michael Lippman, a friend of Bowie’s during this period, remembers him describing strange nightmares. Lippman gave him a gold cross. Bowie later asked him for a mezuzah (a parchment in a glass tube, inscribed with the divine name Shaddai, which Orthodox Jews keep nailed to their door to ward off evil).

The title track of the album is packed with occult references and allusions to the Gnostic myth of the Fall. A mention of White Stains, Crowley’s very obscure first book, shows how deeply Bowie delved into the golden Dawn background; indeed, the lyric suggests that he also studied The Tree Of Life by Crowley’s pupil, Israel Regardie, a brilliant treatise on the magical use of the 13th century Jewish mystical system, Quabala. In Quabalistic language, the Gnostic myth of the Fall can be expressed as “one magical movement from kether to malkuth” (Kether being the sphere of the Godhead, or Crown of Creation, and Malkuth being the sphere of the physical world, aka the kingdom). These spheres (sephiroth) lie at opposite ends of the glyph known as the Tree of Life, which Bowie is seen drawing on the back of EMI’s reissue of Station to Station.

Seems he thought of the sephiroth as stations – “standing places”, as in the Stations Of the Cross (which have their own occult interpretation). Sadly there are 14 Stations Of The Cross but only 10 sephiroth. (The Christian sign of the cross, though does “map” onto the Tree..) The song, “Station to Station”, also has a Shakespearean resonance. Prospero the magician (and incognito duke) in Shakespeare’s most mysterious play, The Tempest, surrounds himself with books, among which is his occult Grimoire. At the end of the play, he abjures magic and “drowns” his book of spells. In “Station To Station”, the Thin White Duke – Bowie as a cocaine-frozen Prospero lost in his (magic) circle, tall in his room overlooking the ocean (Prospero’s Island “cell” transported to the coast by Los Angeles) – despairingly reviews his repertoire of illusions. “Such is the stuff from where dreams are woven,” he muses, not quite quoting Prospero (“We are such stuff/As dreams are made on”). Clearly, illusion is no longer what he wants.

Station to Station – like Plastic Ono Band, like Todd, like On the Beach – is an exorcism: an exorcism of self, of the mind, of the past. By 1976, Bowie had nearly had enough of his “magic” – the theatrical “grand illusion” by which he’d lived since 1972. Thus, he “flashes no colour” – another magical allusion, this time to the so-called Tattva symbols which use “flashing” complimentary colours to after consciousness, ushering the magical aspirant into the Astral Plane of heightened vision. Decoded: Bowie has travelled the Astral (or ascended the tree Of Life); now he wants to come down to earth, to love. (Hence the cover image of the soundproof chamber in The Man Who Fell To Earth.)

One could easily continue for another thousand words in this vein about “Station To Station”. (Let alone the rest of the record. Bowie; “It’s the nearest album to a magical treatise that I’ve written”). Yet none of this symbolism would matter if the artist were not in control of it; and if it didn’t crack, via the desperate drunken grandiloquence of the song’s bridge (“Once there were mountains on mountains”), into the naked-and-wired stamped of its epic, up-tempo release, driven by that magnificent late Seventies rhythm section of Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis, and George Murray, and lit by the elemental fire-scream of Earl Slick’s hysterical guitar. Those who accuse Bowie of lacking feeling should listen closely to this transition: the quavering, hopeless-to-hopeful vulnerability of the couplet, “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine/I’m thinking that it must be love.” This is a deeply unhappy human being, harried by his own incandescently gifted mind.

In fact, Bowie didn’t cast his grimoire into the ocean after station To Station. He hedged his commercial bets by mixing the album “big”, and made plans to tour it in Europe. He was still half in his mystic-fascist Thin White Duke persona when he “returned”, like some parallel universe Duke of Windsor, to Britain in May, 1976 (and he would certainly have been aware that the Nazi salute is identical to the occult sign of the Zelator grade in the Golden Dawn system). Yet he went on, soon after this, to move to a roughhouse Turkish suburb of Berlin, there to kick the white powder, clean up his mind/body, and start a new career in a new town.

The artistic transformation between Station to Station and Low was an inner one, not a career move, it happened to Bowie himself, not to Bowie the Actor. In Berlin, the sons of real SS men sorted his head out. In Berlin, he saw neo-nazis beat up Turkish immigrants. In Berlin, low in the aftermath of heavy drugs and Hollywood glamour, he forced himself to live like an everyday person, buying his own groceries. The nightmare of the Thin White Duke faded, chased away by hours of laughter with his new cohort, Eno, the first person Bowie worked with who could keep up with him. He finished Low (another album one could write thousands of words about) and mixed it, as he claims he intended to mix Station To Station, “dry”: close, compressed, and with a gate on the snare so vicious that it became the first drum-sound people outside the studio-world actually noticed.

What happened to the private cosmology, to the magical Nietzschean? Bowie has lately conceded “a need to vacillate between atheism or a kind of Gnosticism”. On his 1997 tour, he played, of all things “Quicksand”.

Think on, secret thinkers.

Ian MacDonald’s excellent music writings are collected in the book – The People’s Music (2003) and if you haven’t read it – and you like the Beatles (who doesn’t?!) I very much recommend his Revolution In The Head, perhaps the template for Chris O’Leary’s excellent long form studies of Bowie, song by song, Rebel Rebel and Ashes To Ashes

ian macdonald the people's music

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