Crash Course for the Ravers
Album: Station to Station, 1976
Prior Level of Acquaintance: Moderate
Three-Word Review: Huge, harrowing, holy
At the end of my last Bowie Crash Course post, I confessed that I had never listened to Station to Station. I was wrong. I had previously heard every song on the album – but because the darn thing starts out “The return of the Thin White Duke,” I’d always assumed I’d heard the sequel without the original.
Puts me in mind of a hymn with which Bowie was surely familiar, willingly or not. Or possibly this version is more apropos.
And did those feet in ancient times – the return of the Thin White Duke. What’s implied before that permits us to jump right in in the middle? This ever-insightful blog has some good suggestions, but I’m also willing to embrace the mystery.
I’d also stationed myself alongside Station to Station when I saw Christiane F., aka A Film So Depressing It Could Only Be German. Set around the time of Station to Station’s release, Christiane F. features several Bowie hits among scenes of harrowing drug use and the wasting of young lives. No wonder he/the filmmakers chose “Station to Station” and “TVC15” among the soundtrack numbers.
Notably, though, Christiane F. was made in 1980-81, by which time Bowie had kicked the coke and was holding down a Broadway gig eight performances a week. So though he plays himself in the film, it’s a version of himself from a far less functional time. Was that particular return of the Thin White Duke strange for him, I wonder? Or just another acting challenge?
If I mention that my undergrad degrees are essentially in opera and religion, it may not surprise you that by far my favorite Station to Station track is “Word on a Wing.” For one thing, it’s just gorgeous to listen to, though I find the original recording oddly crowded – piano! whispering! backing vocals! electronics! If anyone locates the equivalent of Let It Be Naked for this song, it will rank among my top Bowie tracks, full stop. (This one’s not bad.)
By Bowie’s own admission, “Word on a Wing” is a hymn/prayer: where “Jerusalem” suggests the building of the Holy Land in English pastures, “Word on a Wing” begs for the rebuilding of the singer’s self from his own personal ruins and confusion. The speaker boxes with God, refusing to let go of his intellectual challenge, yet hoping to find some chink for himself in a safer, holier “scheme of things.”
In his 2002 VH1 Storytellers episode, Bowie described the song’s genesis with a dose of self-deprecating humor followed by a heart-wrenchingly vulnerable excavation of it.