On the 40th anniversary of Station to Station, Jokerside prepares to stare into the abyss of Bowie’s difficult and ever-rewarding 1976 album with a dart-like glance at the Thin White Duke persona that spun from the cracked actor’s first major film role in The Man Who Fell to Earth…
THIS WEEKEND MARKS THE 40TH ANNIVERSARY OF STATION TO STATION’S RELEASE, JUST UNDER TWO WEEKS SINCE DAVID BOWIE LEFT THE PLANET. Left, that is, after an incredible career. The extent of Bowie’s output post-death, the legacy of a meticulously detailed artist, will take many years if not eternity to unravel. Bowie’s swansong album Blackstar appears to pose riddle and mystery unseen since his peak of persona swapping in the 1970s. Come the 1980s his interest in persona had abated although he retained the power to innovate and reinvent. Surely a good reason for that shift from a period that had produced in rapid succession Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dog’s Halloween Jack and others through the early 1970s fell at the feet of his last major character. The all-pervasive horror of the persona that dominated 1976. The Thin White Duke, who would become synonymous with what Bowie later called “the darkest days of my life”
Station to Station emerged barely a year after the Year of the Diamond Dog, a furious tour of his dystopian bridge between glam and disco soul between June 1974 and… Well, by the end of 1974 it had morphed into the Philly Dogs tour and then side-stepped into soul alongside his new LP Young Americans. That lurch to the unexpected and commercial laid out the immediate and ongoing importance of America Bowie’s his life. The Young Americans sessions were completed in two stints, one a drug fuelled and productive run that producer Tony Visconti was happy to pick up and return to the UK to mix. Bowie though would return to the studio in early 1975 for two last minute additions that not only broke Bowie and Visconti’s relationship for two albums but also diluted Young American’s soul and made it his most overtly Beatles album – or specifically Lennon, with one of Bowie’s better if melodramatic covers as he took on the cosmically simplistic Across the Universe before the simplistically catchy album closer Fame found him in duet with the former Beatle.
Escape to LA
“I lifted you up once”
He wouldn’t return to the studio to any meaningful degree for nine months – a length of time that was extraordinary during Bowie’s most prolific period. But things were afoot. In the mid-1970s three years of relentless touring and the sacking of his long-term manager Tony DeFries left a smacked out Bowie staring the need for relocation in the face while holed up in a hotel in Los Angeles. New York had closed in on him, although its dying throes had not only pushed him and Lennon onto tape but thrown up a meeting with director Nicolas Roeg who was narrowing the cast for his film of Walter Tevis’ short novel The Man Who Fell to Earth. Well, it was a meeting that somehow materialised after Bowie arrived eight hours late then, assuming Roeg wouldn’t have waited, busied himself with other things until he returned home in the early hours to find the director sat at his kitchen table.
“My life is not secret… But it is private”
“I’ve always been aware of how dubious a position it is to stay in [Los Angeles] for any length of time” said Bowie in the BBC’s Cracked Actor documentary, a year before his first major film role opened the city up to him. Sporadic visits from his ever valuable assistant Coco Schwab and ever more estranged wife Angie found them both concerned for his health, although this dark portion of his life remains smattered with only sparing facts. Angie later recalled the frantic phone call from her husband, shouting that he had been kidnapped by wizards and witches and recalls him requesting an exorcism. None of that is proven, but it’s clear that during his slide into drug addled paranoia Bowie had drifted towards the dark arts in the heat of LA. ‘Paranoid delusion’ is a phrase that pops up again and again but there was certainly a great deal of peculiar behaviour in a pattern that no one could break. Except it seems, The Man who Fell to Earth. The “Spaced out space man”.
The Man who Fell to Earth (1976)
“Leave my mind alone”
Spells, incantations and late nights spent drawing pentangles by candlelight, while moving between buildings that cast different slants on ancient philosophies from Egyptian mythology to Kabbalah – philosophies that Bowie later described as “misleading in life”. It takes something to get out of that. Fortunately, once Roeg and Bowie finally got to meet, their rapport was instant.
Not as physically tall as the novel suggested, and one day Jurassic Park et all scribe and then actor Michael Crichton fitted, nor as nameable as Peter O’Toole or bankable for initial financiers Columbia as Robert Redford. But it was Cracked Actor that convinced Roeg of what his casting director Maggie Abbot already felt. Bowie had “Just the charisma the character required”. His addled ‘performance’ for the BBC in the back of a limo, dwelling on the fly in his milk, would inform the film to such a degree that the same driver was ‘cast’, the same limo driven – a canny move to keep a dislocated but functional Bowie at ease. On that level, The Man Who Fell to Earth presented a highly specific biography. Bowie’s Actor persona was a subtle one, passing less obviously through the early- to mid-1970s, but found a train buffer in stranded alien Thomas Jerome Newton. Like the album that followed Bowie would later confess to having little clue about what was going on, but the film served to capture his utter desolate separation from reality while helping bring him back from the brink.
“They always seem to lead such interesting lives, people who travel”
Bowie legendarily arrived for the main shoot in Albuquerque, having undertaken the 800 mile trip from LA by train with 400 books in tow (Bowie was worried his ‘friends’ in New York would steal them). The 11 week shoot from June 1975 certainly gave Bowie a new lease on reality. What he approvingly described as a “puritanical” land cleansed him, although it couldn’t prevent some inherently odd behaviour on set (including missing scenes due to milk poisoning that greatly disconcerted an actor who was almost solely living on dairy products. And cocaine.).
Loving the alien
“If you don’t mind me saying so, I think you’re too thin. You’re too thin. You’re too thin”
The film’s Newton is the only member of his race that we really meet, presumably the last in a human disguise that cuts a disconcerting and unnatural frame. He has a distinct physicality in a physical film, something that is compounded by Newton’s lack of aging through a timespan which sees those around him ravaged by time and excess. But his incredibly light frame is just one reason why Bowie was supremely cast.
Bowie sets an unsettling, jerky but calm performance from the opening, when Newton slides down the scree into the entropying emptiness of human tat and waste to rest by the hardware, tech, loan and defiantly not pawn store. When we see him minutes later, almost fully developed, finding the patent lawyer who will mastermind his millions, Holst’s Mars, Bringer of War & Venus, Bringer of Peace plays. And not for the last time. From there branches a study of the adverse effect of earth, or specifically humans on him. When the ultimate alien finds assimilation utterly impossible. Throughout most of it, particularly when sedated by alcohol near the end, his is a passive and ghostly presence. The bathroom reveal of his alien form, with reptilian, unblinking green eyes and smooth head, accentuates Bowie’s gaunt look, but is strangely less disconcerting. The same goes for the flashes of liquid-drenched sex on another planet when set against depraved sex on Earth. Roeg doesn’t drop any chance to keep the reality as disconcerting as the extra-terrestrial is mundane. When asked by the only human to know the truth where he comes from newton replies, “Well, I’m no astronomer but… Somewhere down there”
“You’ll be able to replace your antiquated sound equipment and buy some of mine. At cost naturally”
It’s a solid, but unremarkable cast that Roeg assembled around Bowie. It’s Newton’s difficulty with motion that leads him into the arms of Mary Lou in the small Texan hotel he soon holds up in. it’s the relationship that breaks Newton, through church and human activity as much as sex and gin, just as everyone who comes into contact with him is damaged. It’s when Mary Lou drags him to church that he drifts from unprecedented happiness through landscapes and landscape paintings to the vivid recollection of his planet and the family he left behind. But while Candy Clark’s Mary Lou, and then later Rip Torn’s Nathan Bryce fulfil the script, their performances don’t add the weight that’s oddly necessary against Bowie’s charismatic feather. Perhaps it’s the light story, perhaps the relentless message of desolation, the propulsion of time.
“The strange thing about television is that it doesn’t tell you everything”
Villains wind in and out, over time. Newton’s sympathetic lawyer gained, trusted then lost, while Bryce’s morals are sketched out with effectively light touches. Newton’s real mistake, evidenced by the end, is to get involved. Nothing he alters has a real impact beyond abstract numbers, except on him and the people around him. There’s little effect suggested on other companies and the benefits of his glorious patents are really only seen in capturing tawdry sex. Everything is rotten from the outset, and everything can be dismissed later by loosely pitched and homicidal rivals. His commercial downfall was a simple “overreliance on innovation” – and simply a part of the cycle of consumerism.
“This is modern America and we’re going to keep it that way”
But the real rogue, the cause of everything but solution to the film comes in the form of media. In a laughably brilliant move, reinforcing the mundanity that sits alongside the supernatural, Newton tells Bryce that it was terrestrial television broadcasts that presented the water-filled Earth to his drought-blighted planet. It’s the end of a long riddle set by televisions and sound systems from near the start of the film, or perhaps it’s just the beginning.
From the moment he asks Mary Lou, “perhaps you could arrange to bring me a TV” he’s interlocked with her and them. And soon, he’s watching multiple television streams at once. At its most overt, it’s blatant juxtaposition from Mutiny on the Bounty to Elvis to big cats hunting and mating – all in a film that plays fast and loose with visuals and sound.
Sound and Vision
“Per aspera ad astra”
During the long and often preoccupied film, the other stand-out aside from Bowie’s passive performance is Roeg’s visualisation and layering. Almost as soon as the film’s opened with the foreign body plummeting from the sky, whoops and whistles predict the start of Bowie’s subsequent album Station to Station. But as soon as Newton passes a stationery train with gratuitous sound of a speeding locomotive bellowing out, the visuals and soundtrack are disconnected. Later a car would be overlaid with the soundtrack of the western that Newton is watching. Mary Lou’s need to see Newton again, set against a woman evaluating love on the small screen.
“If you could just prove who you really are, you’d be free!”
Roeg plays many visual tricks to convey the steady degradation of life, both personal and general. The second half of the film finds Newton trading Mary Lou for Bryce, including the space vehicle money shot that would provide the Station to Station album cover. It’s when his World Enterprises has neared its potential, and Newton’s ready to venture into space that the betrayal of the capitalist society he exploited catches up with him, tearing him from the jaws of possible victory. The control then used on him, alcohol, is the one already much used by friends and lovers. If ever a film’s been sponsored by gin. It’s a surreal anaesthetic, in the luxurious apartment impossible deep in a hotel, filled with white coats.
“We saw your planet on television”
Newton, although unchanged, is a shell. He’s inadvertently ripped further away from his origins in a morass of bureaucratic guesswork. It’s surprising how, come the end of the film, Newton’s situation has developed so far from the early juxtaposition of Newton’s fascinated discomfort at a Japanese restaurant with Nathan Bryce’s ethically dubious sex life.
Newton after all isn’t alone in his failure to assimilate. Mary Lou is the poster for the stark effect of alcohol and excess across the decades, following her windfall pay-off from Newton. Her only saving grace, after telling Bryce “poor Tommy, we haven’t helped him much have we”, comes from her telling Newton, after their quite amusing reintroduction, that she’s no longer in love with him. And even that catharsis is robbed in just one of the film’s bittersweet comedic moments when his final present is thrown away.
The Christian analogy is thinly veiled but not alone under Roeg’s adaptation. Newton’s Judas, Bryce, has to sit with his guilt, in a world where little carries much consequence or staying power. “I may not seem solvent any more, but I still have money” says the inebriated Newton at the end, offering to cross Bryce’s palm with more silver. When the still pleasantly articulate but lost Newton tips his head, having had enough, all hope of his mission and saving is planet lost. Although whether he knows or cares is unclear.
Roeg leaves much unexplained, from Newton’s alien powers and his Christ-like appearance to Bryce with the pleading and chastening, “Don’t be suspicious” that proves his ultimate message, to the alien’s physical disguise. Amid the pointless experimentation, all taken with good grace, to the surreal confinement and eventual, inevitable exit when all interest in him has just faded away like so many businesses, bank accounts and relationships before it. Even when his disguise is fused over his eyes, it all seems glossed over. Disarmingly glossed over.
“What happens to you when you drink?”
“I see things”
“We’d have probably treated you the same if you came over to our place” says the matter of fact Newton to Bryce. Whether he’s aware of the implications, the extent of his fall or the cost, it’s a satisfying message that somehow allows Bryce to track him down. A record Newton didn’t make for Bryce, but one that his wife could pick up on their world. One that we all know she will never receive. Come the end, The Man who Fell to Earth doesn’t break its mould to offer any hope.
And yet somehow, it still manages to contain one of the most wonderfully dismissive replies in cinematic history. “I’ve thought about you once or twice”
When the film wrapped Roeg spent the next nine months editing, but Newton hung around Bowie a good while longer. There’s a general consensus that Bowie had morphed into alien to some degree during production, although what emerged afterwards was not the Newton seen on screen. Given a boost and semblance of realisation by the film, just enough to break his dark cycle, a new persona dragged Bowie back into the Cherokee Recording Studio in Los Angeles in October 1975 – his first notable time in a studio for nine months. The Thin White Duke was ready to express himself.