Reissues: Word On a Wing

September 1, 2016

A good place as any to close the “reissues” series, which I hope you’ve enjoyed or tolerated. This is one of the essential Bowie songs of the Seventies, and as such it’s weird, beautiful and a touch over-the-top.

As the man said at the end of the past century, “1975, 1976, and a bit of 1974, and the first few weeks of 1977, were singularly the darkest days of my life. I found myself up to my neck in such negativity. And it was so steeped in awfulness that recall is nigh on impossible, certainly painful…unwittingly this song was therefore a signal of distress. I’m sure it was a call for help.

Back “live” at some point this month. Have a good rest of the summer.

Originally posted on 16 December 2010, it’s “Word On a Wing”:

Word On a Wing.
Word On a Wing (rehearsal, 1976).
Word On a Wing (live, 1976).
Word On a Wing (live, 1999).
Word On a Wing (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).

With God he has very suspicious relations; they sometimes remind me of the relations of two bears in one den.

Maxim Gorky, on Tolstoy.

The heart and hymn of Station to Station, “Word On a Wing” is a petition to God, though as prayers go it’s more of an opening negotiation, Bowie attempting to use God as leverage in some larger scheme. Hence its warring moods, suppliant and audacious (see Bowie offering his own “word” against the received Word of Christ or the petulant tone of lines like “just because I believe don’t mean I don’t think as well”). As in his love-as-confusion “Stay,” Bowie denies himself from achieving any connection, no matter how desperately he wants it. Here, he’s playing for greater stakes.

He was only nominally Christian. When John Lennon said the Beatles had meant more to British kids than Jesus Christ did, it was the likes of Bowie he was talking about.* This didn’t mean Bowie was spiritually empty: he’d spent his twenties looking for some sort of God figure that met his high standards, a path that took him from Beat existentialism to Tibetan Buddhism to whatever brew of cabbalist Gnosticism he was imbibing in 1975 (see “Station to Station”). “I had this religious fervor,” Bowie recalled in 1993. “I was just looking for some answers. Some secret. Some life force.”

“Word On a Wing,” closing the first side of Station to Station, was Bowie’s (apparently) open plea for salvation from God. He’d been tempted at the time by some sort of evangelical Protestantism, into which Bob Dylan would dive headfirst a few years later. As Bowie began writing “Word On a Wing” while filming The Man Who Fell to Earth, there was a parallel to Lennon’s “Help!”—-both songs are pleas for deliverance written while their composers were stuck on a movie set, paranoid and depressed, wondering what they’d become. In an NME interview in 1980, Bowie regarded his dalliance with Christianity as a nearly-consummated romance: “There was a point when I very nearly got suckered into that narrow sort of looking…finding the cross as the salvation of mankind.”

This sounded similar to how he’d described past relationships to journalists at the time: as an all-consuming passion that had threatened his sense of self. To bend the knee to God, to accept Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior, required humility, an acceptance that there are higher powers beyond your ken, to have faith and to not try to learn the trade secrets of the cosmos. Ultimately this wasn’t enough for Bowie; it was taking the sucker’s bet.

So like his reference to the Stations of the Cross in “Station to Station,” there was a touch of blasphemy in “Word On a Wing,” with Bowie using the imagery and musical trappings of Christian art for occult ends. Bowie crafted the song as white magic to set against the dark “Station to Station,” the two tracks spinning in parallel on an LP side, yin and yang in grooves (“Golden Years,” an ambiguous utopia, keeps them apart). The song was a “protection…something I needed to produce from within myself to safeguard myself against some of the situations that I felt were happening on the film set.”

He felt he needed protection. He’d been under siege by “dark forces” since 1974 (once throwing away a doll his cousin had given him for fear it was a Satanic totem), a predicament worsened upon moving to Los Angeles. When his wife Angela found a house on North Doheny Drive, Bowie wanted it cleansed. Following the instructions of the New York witch Walli Elmlark (which required “a few hundred dollars’ worth of books, talismans and assorted items from Hollywood’s comprehensive selection of fine occult emporia”), Angela performed an exorcism on the house, including the indoor swimming pool, a natural repository for demons.

Bowie was using Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense as a bulwark. Fortune, a British mystic of the early 20th Century, wrote that man had two Angels, a Dark Angel (which she likened to the subconscious, “a dark temptation from the depths of our lower selves…we think thoughts, or even do deeds, of which we never would have believed ourselves capable”) and a Bright Angel. The mystic’s goal is to summon the latter angel in times of “spiritual crisis, when the very self is being swept away,” she wrote. “The Higher Self comes to the rescue, ‘terrible as an army with banners’.” If successful, one has an expanded consciousness, a sense of calm, “like a ship hove-to, securely riding out the storm.”

Compare this to Bowie’s various public statements about “Word On a Wing,” that it was “something I needed to produce from within myself to safeguard myself” or “I wrote [it] when I felt very much at peace with the world….I wrote the whole thing as a hymn. What better way can a man give thanks for achieving something that he had dreamed of achieving, than doing it with a hymn?” “Word on a Wing” was his protective talisman encased in a song, much like the small crucifix he’d wear around his neck for decades.

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…was deeply uneasy about it; so uneasy that he included on Station to Station a song, “Word On a Wing,” which semi-seriously kept a line open to God in case the demons evoked elsewhere in the album should get out of hand.

Ian MacDonald, “White Lines, Black Magic.”

“Word On a Wing” starts in somber opening verses, which Bowie sings in his low register (on stage in 1976, he sang-spoke the lines, sounding like Lou Reed); it’s in B major, an unusual and remote key for a rock song. He cradles the words “sweet name, you’re born once again” as if he’s consoling God. All at once comes a jolting move to D-flat major (on “Lord, I kneel and offer you…”) which continues for over a dozen unsettled bars until the song steadies in D (“Lord! Lord, my prayer flies…”). The latter section builds to the ornate rise-and-fall phrase that closes the refrain, with Bowie and Geoff MacCormack sounding like woodwinds. And then a swift fall down to earth, back to B major to start another verse. Only after further struggle is “Word On a Wing” content to stay in D major, concluding on the home chord as a celestial soprano bears the song away from its fallen creator.

This voice was generated by the Chamberlin, the precursor to the Mellotron, whose appearance here is similar to its role on the instrumentals of Bowie’s next two albums, Low and “Heroes.” In particular “Sense of Doubt” on the latter, a track that ends ambiguously, either to “resolve itself via faith into religious commitment or be left unresolved, freestanding and wordless,” as Momus once said. It would be a wary response to “Word On a Wing.”

The Chamberlin’s just one of the gorgeous touches, along with the left-mixed vibraphone that’s a counterpart to Roy Bittan’s piano or the acoustic guitar fills. The heart of the song, however, is a work for voice—see the astonishing harmonies by Bowie and MacCormack in the refrains—and piano. Whatever led to Bittan playing on Station to Station, his presence on “Word On a Wing” seems ordained. There are the child’s steps of melody Bittan plays in the intro, his steady chording in the verses, the cascading notes under the “sweet name” section, the sprightly two-note punctuation of the “word on a wing” prayer. A fellow pilgrim, Bittan’s piano has a grace that Bowie desperately craves, much as he spurns it.

Recorded October-November 1975, Cherokee Studios, LA. Performed on the 1976 “Isolar” tour, and revived in 1999.

Top: Close-up of Elizabeth Frink’s Shepherd and Sheep, 1975 (Photo: Steve Rutherford.)

* The decline in British churchgoers, notable even in the war years, was a cause of national concern and as such the subject of several books, the wittiest of which was R.C. Churchill’s The English Sunday (1954): “The Bible itself, however, has ceased in general to be read in England. What, then, do we read instead? Apart from Sunday newspapers a good many people, of course, read nothing at all on Sundays.”

Reissues: Golden Years

April 11, 2016

As you likely know, Dennis Davis died last week, furthering this year’s ambition to be the worst year ever. In his honor, I’ve revived one of his first performances for Bowie, the “Golden Years” single, and included his isolated drum track (listen to the hi-hat!).

Though it was one of the huge Bowie Seventies hits, “Golden Years” can sometimes feel overlooked (was it because it was so rarely performed live)? My mother, a high school teacher, says most of her kids only know it because of A Knight’s Tale. Seems right.

Also, my thanks to the blog readers who came to my Iggy Pop panel last weekend: it was great meeting you all!

Originally posted 30 November 2010: run for the shadows.

Golden Years.
Golden Years (Dennis Davis drum track).
Golden Years (Soul Train).
Golden Years (live, 1983).
Golden Years (live, 1990).
Golden Years (live, 2000).

Having spent summer 1975 in New Mexico making The Man Who Fell to Earth, Bowie returned to Los Angeles in late August, already under pressure to follow up his #1 single. Disturbed by stories circulating about Bowie’s erratic behavior, RCA sent executives to the movie set to check on him. He told them to pack off. As “Fame” had done the trick, Bowie rounded up the same producer, Harry Maslin, and most of the same group—Carlos Alomar and Earl Slick on guitar and the drummer Dennis Davis, with the bassist George Murray recruited from Weldon Irvine’s jazz/funk outfit.

For a studio, Bowie and Maslin investigated Cherokee, which had opened the previous January in the former MGM studios on Fairfax Avenue. It swiftly had become one of LA’s premier studios, inheriting MGM clients like Frank Sinatra (see “Wild is the Wind”). Bowie sang in its cavernous Studio One, played a piano chord and said “this will do nicely.” Unlike Sigma Sound, where he’d cut most of Young Americans, Cherokee prided itself on space, tech and amenities—five studio rooms, 24-track consoles, 24-hour sessions, a fully-stocked bar in the lounge.

First order of business was a prospective single, “Golden Years,” a song he’d started writing in May before leaving for the film shoot. His friend Geoff MacCormack, for whom Bowie tried out the song, suggested a trombone-like WAH-wah-WAH tag for the refrains. At Cherokee, MacCormack added more embellishments like a “go-oh-oh-old” phrase as a tag for the bridge and a similarly descending “run for the shadows” hook. MacCormack even wound up filling in for Bowie on the falsetto for the bridge’s backing vocal (at :45, for example), which was torture for him to sing.

The last time Bowie followed up a career-altering hit he’d cut “The Prettiest Star” as an ill-fated sequel to “Space Oddity.” Time had made him sharper and cannier in his approach. “Golden Years” was both a natural response to “Fame,” keeping the latter’s icy disco sound, but also a swerve back towards the sounds of his early adolescence. He used the Diamonds’ “Happy Years,” a 1958 doo-wop hymn to teenagerdom, and two “Broadway” songs—the Drifters’ “On Broadway,” which Alomar recalled Bowie playing on piano during rehearsals and throwing in a “come buh-buh-buh baby” after each line, and Dyke and the Blazers’ “Funky Broadway,” which Slick raided for a few riffs.* Fittingly, Bowie wrote “Golden Years” with Elvis Presley’s vocal range in mind, although he never submitted the song to Elvis, as negotiations with his manager Col. Tom Parker went nowhere (though Bowie once told Dwight Yoakam, of all people, that Elvis had asked him to produce an album in 1977).

Yet any golden oldie he nicked was nearly unrecognizable, as it was blended with his interpretation of the sound of Kraftwerk and Neu!, heard in the conversation of guitars and its cycling progression: an F-sharp chord downshifting to E major on the third beat of each bar. Bowie described his aim years later when he talked of his love of Donna Summer’s records: “this incredible sound, half-Kraftwerk, half-American soul. An amazing incongruous juxtaposition.”

Cut in roughly ten days at the start of the Station to Station sessions, “Golden Years” was issued as a single less than two months later: it charted while Bowie was still at Cherokee finishing the album. Maslin said “Golden Years” came together with little fuss, especially by comparison to the endless number of retakes and overdubs on the rest of the album. The single was mixed full of small pleasures: Dennis Davis’ hi-hat lifts (right on the beat in the verse/refrains, he moves to slightly hang behind on the bridges) and other echo-slathered percussion (handclaps, vibraslap, melodica); Bowie and MacCormack’s “round-sounding” backing vocals via an old RCA mike Maslin dusted off. The dueling guitars—one right-mixed playing variations on the opening riff throughout while a left-mixed phased guitar (likely Alomar) keeps a gliding rhythm until moving, after the bridges, to a three-chord riff that echoes MacCormack’s “WAH-wah-WAH.”

Bowie played little games with the song structure, making the bridge either two or six bars. The longer bridge had the song’s only real progression, a run from G major (“nothing’s gonna touch you”) through A minor (“golden”) and an E minor seventh (“yeeeears”) capped off with a 2/4 bar: Bowie singing the descending “go-oh-oh-ollld” hook shadowed by a Murray bass slide he overlaid with Moog. He did the same to his lyric, altering phrasings and rhythms. In the third verse, he moves from a word-packed, near-rap to surge up to an F# on “all the WAY!”, then tumbles right into a fresh chorus hook, the harmonized “run for the shadows.”

Here’s my baby, lost that’s all

“Golden Years” opens as a blessing, with Bowie and MacCormack cooing the title phrase, and its opening verses are Bowie in huckster mode (see “Right”), singing sharply enunciated syllables stepping down in pitch. There’s the bustling consonance of “in walked luck and you looked in time” and an octave leap to “AN-gel”matched, four bars later, by a depths-dredging “yuh-uh-unnng.”

The promise of “golden years” isn’t communal here. The chance is offered only to one person: the hope of being sealed off in a limousine from the street. His life in Los Angeles added to the lyric’s anomie—long paranoid days in his mansion; making an appearance on Dinah Shore with the Fonz. Angela Bowie, busy with her own celebrity, said the song was Bowie’s blessing for her and perhaps it was, as there was a threat in it. You want fame? Here, take it: it will eat you up. Last night they loved you, opening doors and pulling some strings, Bowie sang, snarling out the gees. The following night, the doors could well be shut. A rap of materialist promises becomes a desperate prayer to God, followed by a murmured warning to run for the shadows. At first caressing the words “golden years,” Bowie began to put them to the rack, rattling consonants, rotting vowels—“years” was a strangled curse heard beneath the backing vocals (esp. at 2:58).

Its video complement was Bowie’s performance on Soul Train, where he’s a wraithlike spiv barely able to keep his balance, let alone mime his vocal. It’s as though he’s hearing the song for the first time, that he’s still in character from The Man Who Fell to Earth. It’s his loneliest, saddest television appearance: a crowd of magnificent strangers dance around him, as if communally denying his presence.

Recorded ca. late September 1975, released 17 November 1975 as RCA 2640 c/w “Can You Hear Me” (#8 UK, #10 US). For whatever reasons (its difficulty of singing, perhaps), he never performed “Golden Years” on the Isolar tour of 1976 (there’s one show at which he allegedly sang it, but no proof), waiting until 1983 to debut it live. He played it very sporadically thereafter: just a handful of times in 1990 and 2000.

Top: Peter Turnley, “San Diego, 1975.” (From the collection “The Other California.”)

*There’s of course the chance that Alomar and Slick, both of whom have admitted to not remembering much of the sessions, are confusing their respective “Broadway” songs.

Station To Station

December 23, 2010

Station to Station.
Station to Station (rehearsal, 1976).
Station to Station (live, 1976).
Station to Station (live, 1978).
Station to Station (’78 live edit, from Christiane F., 1981).
Station to Station (live, 1983).
Station to Station (live, 1990).
Station to Station (live, 2000).
Station to Station (live, 2004).

1. One of the many lies we tell children is that there’s no limit to the imagination. Of course there is. Even the most consuming and perceptive of minds reaches its borders and retreats. Expanding the mind is dog’s work, as grueling as it’s often fruitless; few attempt it, fewer succeed in it, and those who do often come out twisted and torn. In 1975, binging on cocaine, living in paranoid isolation and making a rock record, David Bowie succeeded.

Not sleeping for days, unable to turn off his mind, Bowie instead read, book after book: on the occult (Aleister Crowley, Pauwels and Bergier’s The Morning of the Magicians), on tarot and defensive magic (Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense), on the historic/symbolic obsessions of Nazis (Ravenscroft’s The Spear of Destiny), on numerology, on the secret history of Christianity, on UFOs, on the Kabbalah, on political conspiracies (it’s unknown whether Bowie picked up The Illuminatus! Trilogy, first published in 1975, but it sure seems like he did). He supplemented his diet with Krautrock records (especially Neu! and Kraftwerk’s Autobahn) and German Expressionist films.

So by the time he wrote “Station to Station,” mainly in the studio, Bowie’s mind was like a swath of exposed film in a camera whose shutter was stuck open. “Station to Station” inventories his obsessions, makes a mandala of his loose thoughts. The lyric often reads like grandiose gibberish and yet it hits upon the sublime. “Station to Station” seems the culmination of Bowie’s musical life; it’s his masterpiece, for better or worse. Bowie’s previous work seems like preludes to it, his subsequent music lives in its shadow.


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.

Ian MacDonald.

As a child in Bromley, Bowie had wanted to be an American. This was a fairly common aspiration among his generation, but Bowie took it seriously, as he did most things. The first public mention of David Robert Jones is the Bromley Kentish Times of 11 November 1960 (“Limey Kid Loves Yank Football”), in which the 13-year-old Jones is shown introducing American football into his London suburb, equipped with shoulder pads and a helmet that he received from the US Embassy. A few years later, Bowie and his friend George Underwood would walk around Bromley pretending they were Yanks, so as to better pull girls. And the first Bowie singles were fumbling attempts at code cracking—“Liza Jane,” a noisy ghost of an American Civil War-era ballad; “Take My Tip”’s milkbar beatnik vamp; Bowie’s attempts in “I Pity The Fool,” or “And I Say to Myself” to mimic a black American’s singing voice.

Now, in ’75, Bowie was living in America, feted by Americans, a regular guest star on American TV. He wasn’t just living in America: he was in Hollywood, in the westernmost reaches of an ungovernable, adolescent country. To get there, he had left behind seemingly everyone who had helped to form him—his wife, his child, his half-brother Terry, his mother, his old manager Ken Pitt, the mime Lindsay Kemp. His old fellow players: Hutch, Bolan, Ronno, Bolder and Woodmansey. To live in America, even as a guest or an observer, was for Bowie something like becoming an original Christian—divesting yourself of everything you own or love. And he was left with himself.

In the opening lines of “Station to Station,” Bowie paints himself as a Prospero in an exile of his own devising. Here am I,” Bowie sang. Tall in my room overlooking the ocean.” As uncanny, as wonderfully weird, as these first incantatory lines of “Station to Station” are, they ultimately suggest a diminished figure, a man reduced to his shadow. Bowie had once sung about exploring space, transcending time, becoming a rock god: now he’s confined to a room, casting spells that flash back on himself, pacing in his circle.


Oh, Mother Goose,
she’s on the skids.
Shoe ain’t happy,
neither are the kids.

Neil Young, “Ambulance Blues.”

For much of this time, Bowie was living as a guest in a mansion in Benedict Canyon, Hollywood. The stories of his confinement have piled up over the years, rumors and half-lies and intricate fictions. They make the fleshy center of most Bowie biographies, of course, because it’s the juicy stuff: Bowie was convinced someone was trying to kill him and kept a loaded gun in the house. Bowie saw UFOs daily, often at sunset. A groupie recalled him tracing swastikas on windows. He lit candles, drew pentagrams on the floors. He thought he was being tailed by the CIA, who sent undercover agents into his home in the guise of aspiring scriptwriters. Bowie stored his piss in jars in his refrigerator. He was convinced the Rolling Stones were talking to him via their LP covers. Bowie believed he was in a secret duel with Jimmy Page to become head warlock and chief Aleister Crowley acolyte. He thought he would be named Prime Minister of the UK after some transition to neo-Fascism.

Most of these tales weren’t true, but they could have been. Bowie was living in a fetid pool of rumors, echoes, junkie laments; he was holding court in a circle of vampires. Having staked his lot with the future, Bowie instead wound up shackled by the past, lost in the old heresies, the moonlit religions, tales from the plague years. The Sixties had churned much of this stuff up: it had risen to the surface in the wake of the failed revolutions, had been reborn in airport paperbacks, radio call-in programs, newspaper astrology columns.

So “Station to Station” is filled with the wrack of a dozen religions and cults. Flashing no color—the Golden Dawn Tattva, a meditational system. Does my face show some kind of glowKirlian photography, with which Bowie was enamored, photographing his fingertips before and after using cocaine. The European canon—a play on the Pāli Canon, a set of Theravadan Buddhist scriptures. The stations to stations themselves, both of the Cross and, perhaps, of the train trip Bowie had made across the USSR and Eastern Europe in 1973. Making sure white stains—an Aleister Crowley poem (who also, according to legend, once threw a dart at a pair of lovers). Drink to the men who protect you and I—fascist icons, or the seven world-bringing Archons of the Gnostics, or Buddhist lamas (Bowie reportedly telephoned his old mentor, Chimi Rinpoche (“Silly Boy Blue”) and begged him to come to Los Angeles to rescue him). And the reference to the 10 sephirot of the Kabbalistic tree of life, with Bowie falling from kether, the godhead, to malkuth, the material world, the sphere at the greatest remove from God.*

As such,”Station” is reminiscent of Bowie’s earlier “Quicksand,” another inventory of obsessions, another dalliance with Crowley and Nazi imagery. Yet the singer of “Quicksand” seems harrowed, terrified of going mad: the man singing “Station to Station” already is, or welcomes it.


Like over here, it’s bright young Americans, you know, the lilting phrase before the crashing crescendo. In England it’s a dirge—the days are all grey over there. It’s a bit worrying.

Bowie, interviewed in the NME, 1975.

The return of the Thin White Duke. Bowie’s agent of liberation from America was a wastrel aristocrat, some collateral descendant of minor royalty, roaming from city to city, leaving behind a string of rent boys and unpaid hotel bills. (A “thin white duke” could also be read as a line of cocaine, but really, about every line in the song could double as a coke metaphor.)

The visual inspiration for Bowie’s Thin White Duke character—emaciated, ghoulish, dapper—seems partly to have been Joel Grey’s Emcee from Cabaret. Most of all, though, the Duke seems like a disco-era Edward VIII, who Bowie mildly resembled. Like Bowie’s Duke, Edward VIII (who became a Duke after his abdication) had an air of shabby gentility, impeccable manners masking an amoral heart, and had the taint of Nazism—here the former king is reviewing SS troopers on a pleasant visit to Germany in 1937.

So Bowie spent some of America’s bicentennial year touring around the country in the guise of some rotten offspring of Junkers and counts, a walking revenge from the Old World. Even if Bowie had intended to curse or mock his adopted country, it hardly mattered, because the music he was performing was so compelling, so merciless in its precision and power. He opened nearly every show with “Station to Station,” making his audiences witnesses to a nightly communal exorcism.

Of course Bowie, like his old costume Ziggy, soon took it too far. When he returned to England in the summer of 1976, he gave interviews intimating that a great fascist power was coming soon to the UK, which he approved of, and called Hitler the first rock star. Rumors spread of Bowie giving a Nazi salute upon his arrival in Victoria Station (unconvincing video here), and biographers later dug up Bowie’s mother’s flirtation with the British Union of Fascists in the ’30s as evidence of original sin.

Bowie was tasting what was already in the air in Europe, a resurgence of interest in fascism and Nazism. The compromises and shames of the war, the allure of fascist imagery (often mixed with sadism), as seen in Bertolucci’s The Conformist, or Cavani’s The Night Porter, or Malle’s Lacombe Lucien, which treated Vichy collaborators with a measure of sympathy, culminating in Pasolini’s repellent fascist nightmare Salò, premiered at the same time Bowie was cutting Station. A year later, some British punks would be wearing swastikas on their clothing as a ready-made outrage.

Still, Bowie’s acts proved too outrageous even for the times (the Rock Against Racism coalition would cite Bowie as a main offender), and he spent the next few decades publicly repenting. Far from having escaped from delusions and bad magic in Los Angeles, Bowie had turned out to be an infected host, bringing his cocaine-fueled necromancy back to Europe.


Hermes teaches that the seven spheres of the stars enclose the soul of man like a prison…But man is a brother to those strong daemons who rule the spheres; he is a power like them, though he has forgotten this…For if the sun is at the center and not the earth, then there are no crystal spheres to hold us in; we have only and always fooled ourselves, we men, kept ourselves within the spheres which our own flawed and insufficient senses perceived, but which were never there at all.

John Crowley, The Solitudes.

What was at the root of it all? As MacDonald suggested, since the mid-’60s, Bowie had been moving towards some form of Gnosticism—a belief that we were born elsewhere, in a higher realm, and have fallen into this world, conquered by what a nameless Gnostic prophet termed “love and sleep,” with only a self-elected few aware of the true nature of things. Gnosticism lies behind Bowie’s early Tibetan songs (“Karma Man,” “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud”), his generational changing-of-the-guard songs like “Oh! You Pretty Things,” the Teutonic cod-myths of “The Supermen,” and culminates in the dream journals “Quicksand” and its monolithic successor “Station to Station.”

Yet “Station” is also the end. The iciness of Bowie’s singing in its early sections, the sense of confinement and the joy of an eventual escape, with release only coming from renouncing magic and getting out of town, suggests that the promises of Gnosticism—the belief that somewhere in us is a fragment of the original, true God, that the material world is a prison without a lock—wound up not being enough for Bowie. He had unlocked doors that led to further doors, he translated symbols into further symbols, and he came out of it all as lost as he began. What if there was nothing, after all? What if all there was was the world, its sordid histories, its empty words?

All that remained certain was work. However outlandish his imagination grew, however much he punished his body, Bowie still was able, night after night, to slavishly craft his music. “Station to Station,” a transcription of a man shaking off madness, is also a near-perfect studio recording. Most crack-ups happen off screen, with unusable studio tapes or half-finished manuscripts their only evidence, but Bowie’s was mixed as brightly as an ELO record.


Like a child, playing with sound.

Harry Maslin, on David Bowie.

“Station to Station” opens with a minute of train noises, a juddering and whistling that wends from right to left speaker: Bowie’s tribute to Kraftwerk’s Autobahn, which started with a car engine revving to life. It’s an ironic tribute. Bowie’s response to a West German car on the sparkling Autobahn, driving through the Ruhr valley in purring bliss, is the ominous iron sound of the locomotive, which, not so far off in the European past, had meant troop movements and mass deportations. The train intro, later reproduced on stage with synthesizers, was taken from a sound-effects LP, with producer Harry Maslin and Bowie first equalizing the recording, then doctoring it with phasing methods.

As the train fades into the distance, a single note on Earl Slick’s guitar bleeds into feedback. A rhythm assembles in arithmetic: four quiet beats, a metronomic two-note piano pattern (which, eventually bolstered by guitar tracks, underlies much of the opening section), a trio of notes repeated on bass. Carlos Alomar offers minimalist arpeggios, a ghostly organ plays chords, and then, with four kicks of Dennis Davis’ bass drum, the song lurches to life.

Alomar, as he had with most of Station to Station, served as Bowie’s creative interpreter, especially in the opening section, layering in guitars once the rhythm tracks were completed. Earl Slick, called on to provide the guitar feedback that hangs like a metallic cloud over much of the opening, struggled at first. Slick “was trying to hold this note for about two minutes for that opening section,” Alomar later told David Buckley, and kept being defeated by the limits of sound, unable to sustain guitar notes for that long. The solution was, as Alomar recalled, “Plug in another amplifier! Just keep the chain of amplifiers going until the sound just keeps going.” So Slick and Bowie eventually played via a “row of amps chained together,” six in all, each amp with a different effect, with a single microphone to capture the din. For the final mix, Maslin took some of Bowie and Slick’s guitar tracks and merged them together, along with additional Alomar overdubs.

Set in cut time in A minor, the opening section is built on a five-bar repeat (the band, like Bowie, going in a circle): three bars of A minor, centered on the two-note pattern originally played on piano, then a roller-coaster ride over two bars (F to G), capped off each time with an octave leap-and-drop in the bass. A six-bar “thin white duke” section opens and closes the sequence, but otherwise, the entire section is nothing but the repeated five-bar pattern, with Bowie’s vocal sometimes flowing against the song structure (so for instance, “dreams are/wo-ven” bridges over the end of one pattern repeat and the start of the next). Bowie’s vocal is precise down to its basic elements, with Bowie ending verses either harshly (a dental fricative like “mal-kuth“) or with a caress (‘wo-ven, “Ohh-cean”), and often acting out his lines (singing “bending sound” with an extended half note and a fall over four tones).


Have you sought fortune, evasive and shy?

After Bowie quietly sings “white stains” and Alomar’s guitar dances for three more bars, the world opens up. A key change and a slamming shift to 4/4 begins the middle section, essentially a 21-bar bridge. In MacDonald’s words, there’s a “drunken grandiloquence” to this part of the song, an audible sense of escape from the bad mojo of Los Angeles. With a romping piano line (the two-note water torture finally over) and Bowie’s soaring, waltzing vocal, almost entirely consisting of triplets (“once-there-were moun-tains-on /mount-ains-and once-there-were/sun-birds-to soar-with-and…”)

After two-bar break (drum fills, a spray of piano notes, a tongue-twister (‘wonder-who-wonder who-wonder when“)), comes the peak of the section and the song, Bowie offering a question, a toast, and a command, each of his lines followed by a rapid chord progression over six beats, from station to station, C/D/E/A/E/F#m, leading to the G chord that starts the next phrase. At the end of this, there’s a seamless move (only a bar of 5/4 lets on that another change is coming) to the final section, which opens with Bowie’s best lines in the song, if not his life:


It’s not the side-effects of the cocaine!
I’m thinking that it must be love.

On stage, Bowie typically hurled out these lines—as a joke, a defiance, a happy mockery of romance. But the way Bowie originally sings them on the record is the first human moment of the song. His voice hiccups on “cocaine” and it croaks out “love,” as if he’s so unaware of the latter that he can’t conceive of how to properly say the word.

And the more resigned the lyric grows—it’s too late for hate, for hope, for anything, really—the more elated the music becomes. Roy Bittan’s piano dances, Dennis Davis and George Murray slam down the foundation, Slick and Alomar drag race. Bowie gets caught up in it—rushing through his lines, savoring the repetitive locomotive sounds of “the European canon is here.” The song ends in a long vamp, a romp; it’s a retreat by a deliriously happy army.


This is from back in the Seventies. Well, my Seventies, they weren’t necessarily your Seventies.

David Bowie, introducing “Station to Station,” Atlantic City, 2004.

Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, NY, 23 March 1976. Rather than with train noises, this version opens with a four-minute-plus Stacy Heydon guitar fusillade, part “Flight of the Bumblebee,” part surf music, part heavy metal, finally brought to a close by the Duke’s belated appearance. The band, mainly the same unit that cut the studio version, aims here for pure power, all subjugation and spectacle. Bowie already delivers the “side effects of the cocaine” line with bravado. The Duke returns in the outro, which becomes the template for every subsequent live version. On the Station to Station reissue.

Tower Theatre, Philadephia, 28-29 May 1978. From a mammoth synth train reproduction to the young Adrian Belew staking his claim as the song’s definitive guitarist to a Bowie vocal that’s all sinew, it’s arguably the song’s finest performance. The band uses the key change as a signal to rocket off: there’s an intense communal joy to this music, and even Bowie gets carried away by it. This is the recording used in the 1981 German film Christiane F., as mimed by Bowie’s then-current band (with G.E. Smith on lead guitar). In the film, the audience seems mainly comprised of kids coming off bad highs; the enigmatic junkie Christiane makes her way to the stage and stares at Bowie as if she’s far older than he is. Later on Stage.

Pacific National Exhibition Colosseum, Vancouver, 11-12 September 1983. By this point, the Thin White Duke, drained of menace, had been incorporated into the menagerie of official Bowie personae, which in the ’80s were a sort of Super Friends contingent Bowie would bring out when given musical cues. This is the least essential version of “Station” by a long shot, with twinkling keyboard fills, a superfluous brass section, and a Bowie vocal that, while still sturdy, veers into Anthony Newley-isms on certain lines. Later on Serious Moonlight.

Tokyo Dome, 19 May 1990. For the greatest-hits tour, it’s Belew again, now with a decade of prog rock under his belt, so what were once habits are now vices. Somewhat akin to the ’76 version, with an emphasis on brute force. Bowie comes in on rhythm guitar towards the end.

Jones Beach Theatre, Wantagh, NY, 4 June 2004. Bowie’s second-to-last (to date) American concert, with Earl Slick back on lead guitar after nearly three decades and the excellent Gail Ann Dorsey enveloping Bowie’s vocals. Though it’s possibly one of the last times Bowie will ever perform “Station,” it’s a youthful-sounding, muscular performance, with no claims made and no debts collected.

10. Sephirah Kether. The Crown, The Summit, 1.

The tree-top at last! Here we are at the very apex of the Middle Pillar where we can make no further progress on the Tree of Life unless we leave it altogether into the Nothing above, or fall back to Malkuth and start all over again.

William G. Gray, The Ladder of Lights (1968).

In February 1976, taking a break from his ongoing tour, Bowie went back to Los Angeles, packed up everything he owned, and shipped it to Switzerland. He was going to live there, partly on advice from his accountants, who wanted him to go into tax exile, and partly because he wanted to get as far away from Los Angeles as humanly possible. On 28 March, he left New York via ocean liner, heading for Italy. He was casting his lot with Europe, burrowing back into history, going back to the weary Old World, rededicating himself to the European canon—he was done with being an American. Of course Bowie would return to the US again, and he’s lived in New York for over a decade now. But whenever he returned it would be on his own terms.

John Lennon had proclaimed the ’60s dream over in 1970, but Bowie had, in his odd way, remained a believer for far longer. Tom Carson wrote, some 20 years ago: That is, [Bowie] took it for granted that the music would always be consequential and associated with radical impulses towards change. Even his most revisionist Seventies work depended for its point and urgency on having those Sixties assumptions constant in the background. It’s hardly unprecedented…for a figure originally perceived as breaking with tradition to be understood in the long run as that tradition’s last upholder—which, in relation to Sixties utopianism, was just what Bowie was.

There’s a real pain, a sense of a grand disillusion, underlying much of “Station to Station,” an abdication in a song, an imaginative disarmament. Retreating to Europe and a hoped-for anonymity, Bowie would spend the next few years breaking apart his music while trying to piece together himself again. He would go on to make some of his finest records, certainly some of his most popular. But “Station to Station” is the terminus, if not of some utopian or Gnostic dream, perhaps at least a belief that such dreams were viable. If you were to draft a map of Bowie’s complete works, “Station to Station,” plotted somewhere near the margins, would be marked: here he went no further.

Recorded October-November 1975.

Ian MacDonald’s 1999 article, “White Lines, Black Magic” originally published in Uncut, is one of the finest pieces written about Bowie in this era, and this essay is in hock to it. Available in the collection The People’s Music. Other sources: Marc Spitz’s Bowie (Spitz uncovered the “Yank Football” article), Hugo Wilcken’s Low, Richard Cromelin’s “The Return of the Thin White Duke,” in the March 1976 Circus, David Buckley’s Strange Facscination and liner notes to the reisssued StoS, Tom Carson’s essay on Bowie in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll (1992 edition).

Top to bottom: Bowie in New Mexico, summer 1975 (Geoff MacCormack); the infamous return to Victoria Station, May 1976; Bowie in Cherokee Studios, fall 1975; Bowie drawing the tree of life (first used as back cover of the Ryko StoS reissue) ca. late 1975; newspaper ad for the Isolar tour, 1976. Otherwise, stills from Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, filmed summer 1975, released 1976.

* At the time of its release, I doubt few knew what Bowie was singing about here, though he always accompanied the line on stage with a hand movement sliding from “top” to “bottom.” Robert Matthew-Walker, apparently lacking a lyric sheet, thought Bowie had just made up the words “kettner” and “malkuth.” I originally heard “Melkur,” which is a Doctor Who monster.

Word On a Wing

December 16, 2010

Word On a Wing.
Word On a Wing (rehearsal, 1976).
Word On a Wing (live, 1976).
Word On a Wing (live, 1999).
Word On a Wing (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).

With God he has very suspicious relations; they sometimes remind me of the relations of two bears in one den.

Maxim Gorky, on Tolstoy.

The heart and hymn of Station to Station, “Word On a Wing” is a petition to God, though as prayers go it’s rather opaque and quietly defiant, more of an opening negotiation tactic than a submission to a higher power. As much as he’s considering giving himself up to God, Bowie also seems as though he’s attempting to use God as leverage in some larger scheme.

Hence the warring moods of “Word On a Wing,” which is in turns suppliant (“I’m trying hard to fit among your scheme of things,” “‘just as long as I can walk, I’ll walk beside you, I’m alive in you”) and audacious (Bowie offering his own “word” against the received Word of Christ, or the argumentative tone of lines like “just because I believe don’t mean I don’t think as well“). Like the other love songs on Station to Station, the icy “Wild Is the Wind” and the love-as-confusion “Stay,” the singer seems to deny himself achieving any connection, no matter how desperately he wants it. Here, though, Bowie’s playing for far greater stakes.

Bowie, like many of his era, class and country, was only nominally Christian*; when John Lennon said that the Beatles meant more to British kids than Christ did, it was the likes of Bowie he was talking about. Bowie’s only spiritual efforts had been his brief dedication to Buddhism in the mid-’60s. So “Word On a Wing,” closing the first side of Station to Station, seemed a mild shock at the time. It’s the fruit of a period when, for the first time in his life, Bowie seriously thought about God. He told the NME that he wrote “Word On a Wing” while filming The Man Who Fell to Earth, so there’s a parallel to Lennon’s “Help!”—both songs are pleas for deliverance, written while their composers were stuck on a movie set, paranoid and depressed, wondering what they had become.

And like Bowie’s use of the Stations of the Cross in “Station to Station,” there’s even a blasphemous tone to “Word On a Wing,” with the imagery and musical trappings of Christian culture being used for occult ends. “Word” is white magic set against the necromancy of “Station to Station,” with the two tracks circling around each other on a single LP side, like yin and yang (“Golden Years,” an ambiguous utopia, separates them).

Bowie once called “Word On a Wing” a “protection…something I needed to produce from within myself to safeguard myself against some of the situations that I felt were happening on the film set.” Bowie thought he needed protection. Around this time he allegedly hired a white witch in New York to help him combat what he described, in a paranoiac moment, as a coven of Satanic witches trying to steal his semen in order to breed a devil child (the perils of doing cocaine and watching Rosemary’s Baby once too often). The witch, one Walli Elmlark, came to Los Angeles and performed an exorcism on Bowie’s house (including the pool, a natural repository for demons) and gave him a list of counter-spells and protective incantations. “Word On a Wing,” a talisman encased in a song, was another buttress.**

In 1975, at the depths of his isolation and despair, Bowie had considered converting to some form of evangelical Christianity, as Bob Dylan would do a few years later, but at some point Bowie pulled back. Recalling the period in the NME interview five years later, Bowie seemed to regard this temptation as one would a failed, if nearly-consummated, romance. “There was a point when I very nearly got suckered into that narrow sort of looking…finding the cross as the salvation of mankind.

Still, Bowie would wear a crucifix around his neck for decades to come, and he left as his solitary witness “Word On a Wing,” a song whose ironies and compromised origins don’t detract from its beauty (along with “Life on Mars?” it’s one of the most melodically gorgeous pieces Bowie ever wrote) and the sustained commitment of Bowie’s performance. The song moves from the somber, weary acceptance of the early verses, which Bowie sings in his low register, to move to lovely assurance, the way Bowie cradles the words “sweet name, you’re born once again,” to the ornate, rising and falling phrase in the final chorus (“my prayer flies like a word on a wing”), with Bowie and his fellow singer Geoff MacCormack sounding like woodwinds. The track ends with a celestial soprano bearing the song away from its fallen creator (it’s actually a Chamberlin, the precursor to the Mellotron).

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…was deeply uneasy about it; so uneasy that he included on Station to Station a song, “Word On a Wing,” which semi-seriously kept a line open to God in case the demons evoked elsewhere in the album should get out of hand.

Ian MacDonald, “White Lines, Black Magic.”

“Word On a Wing” offers ascension via key changes: the song starts in B major, an unusual and remote key, for two verses (perhaps to counter the odd choice of key, the chord progression is straight I-IV-V), with Bowie initially singing the root note, B, and so paralleling the bass. With the chorus, there’s a move to D-flat (on “Lord, I kneel and offer you…”), then a shift to D major for the second part of the chorus (on “Lord, Lord, my prayer flies…“), then a slip back to B major at the start of the final verse, whose lyric is a medley of the previous verses. (There’s far more to come, with a move back to D for a bridge, then another spell of D-flat, with the song finally ending in D, concluding on the tonic.)

As lovely as the accompaniment on “Word On a Wing” is, the song is essentially a work for solo voice and piano. Whatever random elements had led to Roy Bittan playing on Station to Station (no one remembers how it happened—Earl Slick, who had played with Bittan, once said he had suggested him, while other reports have it that Bittan happened to be staying in the same LA hotel as Bowie), Bittan’s presence on “Word On a Wing” seems destined. From the child’s steps of a melody in the intro to the steady chording in the verses, from the cascading notes flowing under Bowie singing the “sweet name” section to the sprightly two-note interjection that caps the “word on a wing” prayer, Bittan’s piano is Bowie’s guide, confidant and fellow pilgrim; it’s granted a divinity that the singer craves as much as he spurns. A beautiful struggle, a wondrous song.

Recorded October-November 1975. Performed on the 1976 “Isolar” tour, and revived in 1999.

Top: Close-up of Elizabeth Frink’s Shepherd and Sheep, 1975 (Photo: Steve Rutherford.)

* The decline in British churchgoers, notable even in the war years, was a cause of national concern and as such the subject of several books, the wittiest of which was R.C. Churchill’s The English Sunday (1954): “The Bible itself, however, has ceased in general to be read in England. What, then, do we read instead? Apart from Sunday newspapers a good many people, of course, read nothing at all on Sundays.”

** While many of Bowie’s reported adventures in Los Angeles at this time seem, in retrospect, to have been only tall tales or bad dreams, Marc Spitz confirmed a great part of this bizarre story via interviews with Angie Bowie, Cherry Vanilla and Timothy Green Beckley.


December 14, 2010

Stay (Dinah!, 1976).
Stay (live, 1976).
Stay (Musikladen, 1978).
Stay (live, 1983).
Stay (live, 1990).
Stay ’97.
Stay (live, 1997).
Stay (Musique Plus, 1999).
Stay (live at the BBC, 2000).
Stay (live, 2002).

“Stay” is equivocation bracketed by extravagances: its roll call of an intro and, most of all, its two-and-a-half-minute outro, where Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar’s guitars war, underpinned by a George Murray bassline that could support a Buick.

Recorded in what Alomar later described as a “cocaine frenzy,” “Stay” was in great part the doing of Bowie’s rhythm section—Alomar, Murray and Dennis Davis. Davis and Alomar were veterans of the great jazz-funk unit The Roy Ayers Ubiquity, and at times “Stay” seems like a lost Ayers track with vocal overdubs by an android. During the Station to Station sessions, Bowie had played a shell of “Stay” on guitar, some chords and the vocal melody, for the trio, who, after some jamming, “gave [the song] back to him,” Alomar said, adding that he wrote out a chart that served as the basis for the completed track.

So a group effort created the jittery intricacy of “Stay,” in which a relentless, shaky funk beat (it always seems on the cusp of shifting to a different rhythm, and there’s a measure of 3/4 for the last bar of each verse) supports a harmonic structure built of primarily ninth chords (fuller-sounding, yet also more dissonant)—the verse is G9-A9-C9-F9, for instance. Further twists are overlaid upon this foundation, like a Bowie vocal line laced with slow triplets (“change-in-the weather,” “hap-pened-to you,” “make me de-light”).

Bowie, in his three verses, keeps to a narrow melodic range, to the point where Bowie seems as much reciting his lines as he is singing them, then he offers a disjunctive, barely-there melody in the chorus, with wide melodic intervals (e.g., a seventh in “never say is/stay this time”), odd, even random-seeming emphases (take the way Bowie darts out the title phrase just as the chorus kicks in) and a generally distant, abstracted tone.

Over this Bowie set a lyric in which an alienated singer seems barely capable of, or only vaguely interested in, trying to land the object of his desire. Phrases of the modern pick-up scene, offered in the verses, come across as bizarre and awkward, as if Bowie’s sounding them out phonetically, while the chorus is an after-the-fact confession, the singer admitting to himself that this time he actually meant it, but, as always, failed to respond, and it ends with a line seemingly out of The Man Who Fell to Earth, which Bowie sings in such a knotty way that it becomes a twisted defiance: “cause you can never real/ly tell..when/some..body/wants…something/you want too/ooo.

Bowie’s distracted presence is nearly beside the point here, though, as in “Stay” it’s as though he’s guesting on his own record: a squalling Slick solo overshadows his verses, and Bowie disappears completely by the four-minute mark (playing “Stay” on tour, Bowie sometimes would stand, arms crossed and looking bemused, while his guitarists wailed on). It’s a showcase for the backing band, and during the intro, over 9 four-bar repeats, the group assembles. First Alomar’s solitary guitar, mixed in the right channel, offers a coiled spring of a riff, then Davis and Murray give the downbeat, followed by two repeats in which colors are added: congas, shakers and a droning keyboard line by Roy Bittan. On the fifth repeat, Murray and Davis begin echoing the guitar riff, while Earl Slick tears in, mixed in the left channel. Finally the track coalesces as the players prepare for the verse, with Slick getting a brief solo before, with a sweep, Bowie comes on stage at last.

Robert Matthew-Walker wrote that “Stay” melodically quotes from most of the other songs on Station to Station, which, if so (I admit I don’t really hear this), suggests that the track was one of the final pieces recorded, and makes “Stay” serve as something of a recapitulation in the context of the record (it’s the middle track on Side B). The ruthless sound of the guitars, especially in the outro, was owed in part to Slick overdubbing over tracks Alomar initially had laid down.

Recorded September-November 1975. On Station to Station and released as a US single in July 1976 (RCA PB 10736, c/w “Word On a Wing”—with the exception of the title track, every song on the Station to Station LP also appeared on a single). Seemingly designed for a road workout, “Stay” was a constant of many Bowie tours (allowing guitarists Stacey Heydon, Adrian Belew and Reeves Gabrels to show off their chops, for good and ill).

Top: Robert Plant surveys the conquered city from the balcony of the Continental Hyatt House, Los Angeles, 1975. (Peter Simon.)

Wild Is the Wind

December 9, 2010

Wild Is the Wind (Johnny Mathis, 1957).
Wild Is the Wind (Nina Simone, 1964).
Wild Is the Wind (Bowie, 1976).
Wild Is the Wind (Bowie, single video edit, 1981).
Wild Is the Wind (Bowie, live, 1983).
Wild Is the Wind (Bowie and Mike Garson, live, 2000).
Wild Is the Wind (Bowie, broadcast, 2000).
Wild Is the Wind (Bowie, live, 2006).

I used to run into Warren from time to time during the 1970s. Once, at a nightclub called Reno Sweeney, we watched an entertainer named Genevieve White. This was just a few years after the Fillmore East had closed. Maybe Warren and I had thought the Fillmore, and all it represented, was going to be definitive for our generation, and here we were in a nightclub. Genevieve White had just sung a song called “Romance Is On the Rise.”

“Romance is coming back, Warren,” I said.

“You know what’s coming back?” Warren said. “Everything. And then it’s going away for good.”

George W.S. Trow, Within the Context of No Context.

Station to Station is sometimes described as the work of a Howard Hughes-style obsessive, with Bowie locking himself in the studio and, fueled by cocaine, driving his musicians to play for days on end. The stories, some of which are even true, have inspired the album’s reputation of necromancy and manic isolation. Yet Station to Station wasn’t a secret black mass either: it came together fairly quickly (two months of work at most) and often seems to have been a typical Hollywood rock star production, with occasional studio visits by the likes of Ron Wood, Rolling Stone‘s Cameron Crowe, Bobby Womack and Frank Sinatra.

Sinatra, recording at Cherokee Studios in the same period*, came by and heard some Station to Station playbacks, and his reported enthusiasm for Bowie’s version of Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington’s “Wild Is the Wind” likely ensured its inclusion on the album, though Bowie already was justifiably proud of his performance. He’d been wanting to record the song since 1972, he told Crowe at the time. “This has a good European feel,” he said, listening to the finished track. “It feels like a bridge to the future.”

Bowie later called his lead vocal on “Wild Is the Wind” one of his finest vocal performances, and the track does seem like the culmination of Bowie’s decade-long efforts to determine how best to deploy his voice: the reedy, sometimes-Cockney singer of David Bowie seems leagues away from the apocalyptic crooner of “Wild Is the Wind.”

By comparison, the original version of “Wild Is the Wind” by Johnny Mathis, used on the soundtrack of the same-titled 1957 Anthony Quinn Western, is a lark. Barely two minutes long, the Mathis version is working to keep a timetable, with Mathis tumbling through the verses; his vocal, fine but without much nuance, chases the melody and is kept aloft by lush waves of strings.

Bowie saw potential for obsessiveness and grandeur in “Wild Is the Wind”: the essential moodiness of Tiomkin’s music, with its constant shifts from major to minor, and the desperation in its lyric (“with your kiss my life begins”) deserving of an equally extravagant vocal. He found his inspiration in Nina Simone, who had performed “Wild Is the Wind” at Carnegie Hall in March 1964. There Simone (who Bowie had met in Los Angeles during his exile) snakes and burrows through the song over seven minutes—where Mathis had sung “my love is like the wind” as though he was reading a greeting card, Simone intends to embody the element for a time.

Bowie seems determined to outdo Simone’s renovations to the vocal: there’s a three-bar tortuous “you—ooo—oooh—ooh kiss me,” he hollows out vowels and elongates consonants into trills of sound (“willlllllllld is the winnnnnnnnnd”), there’s the dramatic plunge into the depths on another “you kiss me,” and Bowie’s final, increasingly manic, repetitions of the title line, the last ending with a sustained high B eventually subsiding to A. The vocal is on such a grandiose scale that no actual human being seems deserving of its efforts—it’s a monumental performance seemingly intended for a monument itself.

The accompaniment is as restrained as Bowie is over-the-top; it’s centered on multiple-tracked acoustic guitars (reminiscent of “Quicksand”) and features elegant lead work by Earl Slick and fine support by George Murray and Dennis Davis (whose tom fill after Bowie’s a capella “don’t you know you’re life itself?” gives the propulsion to move into the final choruses). Magnificent stuff—the best cover Bowie recorded in his life.

Recorded September-October 1975, and sequenced to end Station to Station. Released as a single in November 1981 (RCA BOW 10, #24 UK) to promote the sorta-hits compilation ChangesTwoBowie. Performed occasionally on the 1983 tour and in 2000, where a performance was taped on 23 June for TFI Friday. A performance from the Black Ball charity show in New York in November 2006 is also Bowie’s last public musical performance to date.

Top: Mary Ellen Mark, “Henry Miller and Twinka, Los Angeles, 1975.”

Echoes of the wind: Cat Power, George Michael, TV On the Radio, Bat for Lashes.

* According to this Sinatra sessionography, it seems most likely that Sinatra’s visit coincided with his 24 October 1975 session, where the Chairman recorded a John Denver Christmas song. Also, according to Marc Spitz’s Bowie, DB sang harmony on a Sinatra track during these sessions, though I’ve seen no other reference to this.

TVC 15

December 7, 2010

TVC 15.
TVC 15 (rehearsal, 1976).
TVC 15 (live, 1976).
TVC 15 (live (video fragment), 1976).
TVC 15 (live, 1978).
TVC 15 (Saturday Night Live, with Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias, 1979).
TVC 15 (Live Aid, 1985).
TVC 15 (live, 1990).

The strange thing about television is that it doesn’t tell you everything. It shows you everything about life on Earth, but the true mysteries remain. Perhaps it’s in the nature of television. Just waves in space.

Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie), The Man Who Fell To Earth.

And, in her living room, her husband sat before the TV set, an enraptured child, listening to, following with devout attention, the nightly report from Whale’s Mouth. Watching the new, the next world.

Philip K. Dick, Lies, Inc.

“TVC 15” is an avant-garde novelty song, a joke delivered in a series of abrasions. Bowie’s mordant sense of humor hasn’t been this visible since Hunky Dory. Inspired by Iggy Pop’s dream of a TV devouring his girlfriend, “TVC 15” also likely came out of Bowie’s work on The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which Bowie’s extraterrestrial character fills rooms with televisions, sometimes a dozen, and sits watching them all, each on a different channel (an image lifted by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons for Watchmen a decade later).

Despite the references to quadraphonic sound and hologramic televisions, “TVC 15” is at heart a parody of the ’50s-’60s teenage death ballad, with the same scenario as “Teen Angel,” “Endless Sleep” or “Last Kiss”: the narrator recalls how his girl perished, usually in some horrible, inexplicable way, and now he’s all alone, wondering whether or not to join her in death.

So in “TVC 15” the singer brings his girlfriend over to watch his new TV set, which at first bores her, then transfixes her, then consumes her: she crawls in through the screen, and he’s left with the choice of mourning her forever or “jump[ing] down that rainbow way” himself. The teen death song usually offers some reassurance from the afterlife—the dead girlfriend calling the boy’s name, etc.—but here the TVC 15 “just stares back unblinking.”My baby’s in there someplace,” is the singer’s meager hope.

Bowie, playing the revivalist, outfits the track in early rock ‘n’ roll trappings, from the I-IV-V chord progression of its verses (with F minor swapped in for F in a bar, when Bowie first sings “TVC 15”) to Roy Bittan’s piano, seemingly airlifted from ’50s New Orleans (Robert Christgau once described “TVC 15” as Huey “Piano” Smith & the Clowns crossed with Lou Reed), to an opening “oh-OH-oh-OH-OH” line nicked from the Yardbirds’ “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl.”

The televisor is ‘real.’ It is immediate, it has dimension. It tells you what to think and blasts it in. It must be right. It seems so right…It grows you any shape it wishes. It is an environment as real as the world. It becomes and is the truth.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451.

Television as a malevolent artificial intelligence, offering a more compelling reality than the actual one, is nearly as common as UFOs in postwar science-fiction—take the four-wall TV “parlors” and their besotted viewers in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or the demagogic/theocratic TV talk show hosts who populate Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron and Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Dick’s work in particular is full of associations of TV with grotesque evil, such as the gruesome passage in Lies, Inc. where a politician on TV transforms into a monster who consumes a series of eyeballs.)

Sure, some of it was just SF novelists belittling the new competition, but these books generally predicted how the 20th Century would play out. Before few others, writers like Bradbury sensed that television, far from being a modest evolution from radio and film, was a radically new creation, one that would rewire the human brain (though TV seems, in retrospect, to have just been pre-op for the Internet’s more aggressive surgery), would erode the old verities and would remake society in its own circus-house image. This transformation is what the human race, apparently, had always wanted, like our age-old dreams of flying. For many years now, television has been fairly indistinguishable from the alleged “real” world. The leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012 is campaigning by starring in her own reality TV show: this is completely unsurprising, and is likely setting a precedent.

Bowie, born in 1947, had seen television evolve from the genteel incarnation of his childhood, where TV was a glorified wireless set—a large wooden box with an 8″ black-and-white screen that showed only one government-run channel a few hours a day (there even was a “toddlers’ truce” of no programming aired during the hour that young children were typically put to bed)— to become, by 1975 and especially in the U.S., an omnipresent box in every home and hotel room, a unblinking electric eye, offering a visual compost heap, churning old Hollywood films, riots, images of man and animals in nature, kung-fu exhibitions and cereal ads into a ceaseless stream of images and noises. So “TVC 15” is just Bowie expanding the map—of course the TV of the future would be even more compelling, more intoxicating, have more channels, be more diabolical; its reality would be finer and purer.

(And in turn, Bowie’s scenario of someone who, by turning on the TV, lets inside his home forces that destroy his life, would inspire, perhaps subconsciously, two films of the following decade—David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (one notorious scene, when James Woods makes out with Debbie Harry via a pulsating TV screen, is pure “TVC 15”), and Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist, where, coming full circle to Iggy Pop’s nightmare, a girl is claimed by a TV set.)

“TVC 15″‘ sets its hooks against its disturbances. Four sets of eight-bar verses* offer noise experiments in miniature, with each bar of each verse sounding as if it’s starting the song anew: it’s like a series of first takes spliced together in a run. Bowie starts each bar on the same note, while guitars grind and lurch upward but are set back in place four beats later, their efforts like an engine failing to get in second gear (Carlos Alomar later described it as a drone: “the music would stay in one place and just keep going”). Yet over this Bowie’s vocal is generally buoyant, even loopy, as if he’s telling you the best story he’s ever heard, and maybe it is. Finally breaking free of its verses’ orbit, the song moves into its earworm of a chorus, a mild disco “tran-sition!….trans-mission!” sequence over eight bars of F7 and A7 that, once it falls back home to C major, becomes a chanted “Oh my TVC 15! oh-oh! TVC 15!,” Bowie’s mantra/ad jingle, set against first a vicious guitar riff and then a cascading Bittan piano figure. The title line, hinting at the future “I want my MTV” slogan, is so enticing that all thoughts of the vanished girl disappear—this is a valentine for a television set, and a passionate one.

The mix, with the standard Station to Station layout of two guitars set in opposing channels, is murky and dense in places, suggesting radio signals eating into each other’s airspace. The backing vocal beneath Bowie’s lead sometimes echoes him a beat late, or hums a different tune, sometimes whispers a barely audible line; multiple saxophone overdubs (Bowie and producer Harry Maslin) bay through the chorus like foghorns. It all makes a happy chaos, suggesting that Bowie’s recounting his tale after having been swallowed up by his television; he ends his terrestrial life in a flux of sound.

Recorded September-November 1975. Released on Station to Station and also as a single c/w “We Are the Dead” in April 1976 (RCA 2682, #33 UK). Performed on the 1976, 1978 and 1990 tours, and an inspired choice to kick off Bowie’s Live Aid set in 1985. Bowie’s “TVC 15” with Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias for Saturday Night Live in late 1979, with Bowie wearing a tight pencil skirt and high heels, and featuring a pink toy poodle with a television monitor in its mouth, remains one of the odder musical performances ever shown on American television.

* In most subsequent live performances, Bowie broke up this long run of verses, usually moving the chorus to after the second verse.

Golden Years

November 30, 2010

Golden Years.
Golden Years (Dennis Davis isolated drum track).
Golden Years (Soul Train).
Golden Years (live, 1983).
Golden Years (live, 1990).
Golden Years (live, 2000).

Cut in a few days at the start of the Station to Station sessions, “Golden Years” was issued as a single just weeks later: it charted while Bowie was still enisled in Cherokee Studios in Los Angeles finishing off the record. Harry Maslin, who produced it, recalled that “Golden Years” came together with little fuss, in contrast to the seemingly endless revisions needed for most of Station to Station.

“Golden Years,” which would be Bowie’s last US hit until the ’80s, seems like a self-compilation in a single, a consolidation of strengths. Structurally similar to “Rebel Rebel” in that it’s built on a continual chord change (here, it’s F-sharp shifting to E, a move repeated in nearly every bar of the verses and choruses), its smooth, metallic disco sound seems a natural extension of “Fame”‘s anomic funk.

Still, it’s not just “Son of ‘Fame’,” as it’s structurally and lyrically more nuanced than the earlier single. “Golden Years” opens as a blessing, its title phrase whispered and cooed, and its opening verses find Bowie in huckster mode, his vocal a series of considered appeals: “don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere!” he begins, a run of sharp monosyllables slowly descending in tone; the swaggering consonance of “in walked luck and you looked in time“; the paralleling of the highest and lowest notes of the song—Bowie’s octave leap to “AN-gel,” matched, four bars later, with the low “days are yuh-uh-ung.”

This is music for a fraudulent boom time, an advertisement placed in the gold rush. But the offer of “golden years” is entirely individual, not communal—the promise is made to one person, to be anointed, put in the back of a limousine and sealed off from the street. It’s not so much the promise of riches as it is of removal: nothing’s gonna touch you; never look back. Yet “Golden Years,” as it continues, seems to erode while the singer watches. A rap of materialist promises becomes a sudden prayer to God, followed by Bowie murmuring “run for the shadows” over and over again. And where Bowie once caressed the words “golden years,” now he pinches them, drags them out, distorts them—“years” in particular becomes a strangled curse.

Said to be written for either Ava Cherry or Angela Bowie, both of whom Bowie was leaving, the lyric’s likely as much derived from Bowie’s exile in Hollywood—long days alone and paranoid in his mansion, occasional nights appearing on TV, taking karate lessons with the Fonz: hooray success. Last night they loved you, Bowie sings, opening doors and pulling some strings; the tacit follow-up being that the following night the door could be shut. The essential video complement is Bowie’s performance of “Golden Years” on Soul Train, where Bowie is a wraithlike spiv who’s barely able to mime the words (it’s as if he’s hearing the song for the first time, and he still seems in character from The Man Who Fell to Earth) while the audience dances beneath him, as if communally denying his presence.

Here’s my baby, lost that’s all

Bowie had written some of “Golden Years” in LA in May 1975, before he left for New Mexico to spend the summer filming The Man Who Fell To Earth. His friend and collaborator Geoff MacCormack, for whom Bowie played an early version of the song, suggested the wAH-wah-WAH tag after each chorus phrase. The opening guitar riff’s been claimed by both Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar, Station to Station‘s dueling guitarists.

Its influences seem to have been “Broadway” songs: the Drifters’ “On Broadway” (Alomar recalled Bowie playing “On Broadway” on piano and putting his own vocal hook into it: “they say the neon lights are bright, on Broadway…come get up my baby”) and Dyke and the Blazers’ “Funky Broadway,” from which Slick said he pilfered some of the guitar riffs.* The earlier rock/R&B influences seem fitting when you consider that Bowie wrote the song with Elvis Presley’s vocal range in mind (this version, by the impressionist Stevie Riks, offers a look into a parallel universe where Presley and Bowie dueted on the song), though apparently Bowie never officially submitted the song to Elvis, as negotiations with Col. Tom Parker had petered out.

Bowie kept “Golden Years,” with its minimal chord changes and identical verse/choruses, from “Fame’s” flirtations with monotony by constantly toying with its structure. So after opening with an 8-bar chorus, an 8-bar verse is followed by a 2-bar bridge and a 4-bar chorus. Another 8-bar verse is followed by the bridge now extended to 6 bars and with new harmonic material (the song’s knottiest chord progression, G-C-Am-A#o7**-Bm-Em7, on “nothing’s gonna touch you in these/golden years”). A  2/4 bar (over which Bowie sings a descending “Go-oh-ollld”) leads into another 4-bar chorus, and Bowie follows this with verse variations—first delivering a word-packed, near-monotone, almost-rap vocal, a run of sixteenth and eighth notes (ending with a surge up to F# on “believe oh Lord, I believe all-The-WAY”), then offering something of an alternate chorus, the repeated “run for the shadows.”

The final track offers layers of hooks and pleasures, from Dennis Davis’ expert timekeeping and the various percussive fills pushed up in the mix (handclaps, castanets, snaps, shakers) to Bowie’s rich, cool, layered vocals (“Maslin achieved the “round” quality of the backing voices by using an old, neglected RCA mike”***) to the continually dueling guitars—one mixed in the right channel playing variations on the opening riff throughout much of the song, while the other keeps a shimmering rhythm going in the left channel, and eventually crafts a three-chord riff (MacCormack’s “wAH-wah-WAH”) at the end of verses/choruses. (An acoustic guitar, possibly Bowie, is mixed in as well).

Recorded September 1975, released November 1975 as RCA 2640 c/w “Can You Hear Me” (#8 UK, #10 US). Bowie seems not overly fond of it: he never performed “Golden Years” on the “Station to Station” tour, waiting until 1983 to debut it live, and he’s only played it sporadically since, a handful of times in 1990 and 2000.

Top: Peter Turnley, “San Diego, 1975.” (From the collection “The Other California.“)

*There’s of course the chance that Alomar and Slick, both of whom have admitted to not remembering much of the sessions, are confusing their respective “Broadway” songs.

** According to the Low/Station to Station songbook, 1977. The oddest chord–the A-sharp diminished seventh–is sometimes replaced on tab sheets with a B minor seventh.

*** From Richard Cromelin’s “The Return of the Thin White Duke,” Circus, March 1976.