Tag: Nicolas Roeg

David Bowie: Enter the Duke – Station to Station at 40

David Bowie Station to Station

David Bowie Station to Station at 40

Having looked at the film that spawned him, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Jokerside sneaks a look at David Bowie’s last great character, the Thin White Duke who was anchored in the extraordinary 1976 album Station to Station.

IN 1975 THE THIN WHITE DUKE WALKED FROM NEW MEXICO INTO THE CHEROKEE RECORDING STUDIO IN LOS ANGELES, DRAGGING DAVID BOWIE WITH HIM. The Duke would prove to be Bowie’s last great ‘character’ creation, a personality immersed in a concept album, but one of such magnitude it was no doubt part of the reason the artist retreated from major persona changes ass the 1980s drew near.

To mark the 40th anniversary of the album carried by that dapper, fascistic, enigma Jokerside looked at The Man Who Fell to Earth. Not only Bowie’s first major film role, but the glint of hope that broke through the drug-addled malaise that had brought him to the door of the dark and arcane, giving him just enough strength to assemble one of his greatest records; a 38 minute biography of struggle and a call for change.

In 1975, Bowie had talked of personal cost of assuming the Ziggy persona, not his first alter-ego but the first that could sustain a globe-straddling phenomenon. Bowie had in part become Ziggy, a character defined by excess and in that assumed position Ziggy had entered the United States. As a pre-fabricated star on the scale of Elton John, it was a constant performance. Within months Ziggy had morphed into Aladdin Sane, he of the more familiar lightning bolt make-up, popularly thought of as Ziggy on Tour. The album that followed lacked the concept cohesion of The Rise and Fall but was breathtakingly expansive, already foreshadowing the disco glam of Diamond Dogs and the plastic soul that would follow in 1975’s Young Americans. 1975 was also the year, on the back of Diamond Dogs, before the release of Young Americans Bowie also declared rock n’ roll a “toothless old woman”. Well, he steered clear of rock for a good few months.

America

“In this age of grand illusion”

But what a difference a couple of years made. Aladdin Sane showed how quickly the America that Bowie couldn’t take to had almost instantly informed his writing, recorded in bursts between legs of Bowie’s first American tour. At the tail-end of ‘75, having been consumed by and a consumer of New York and Los Angeles, Station to Station would both compounded his American adventure and set him on a path back to Europe. The album that emerged in January 1976 wasn’t just a break but also a cathartic expression of Bowie’s persona and measured record of his transition from the soul infused and drug ravaged Young Americans period through to the Europe that would foster his ground-breaking Berlin trilogy. The worst, the best, the necessary change.

And to carry that change, a new persona developed from the wake of filming Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. One of the most involved, impenetrable and controversial of his career. So, just who was the Thin White Duke?

David Bowie Station to Station at 40

The Thin White Duke

“Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes…”

In context, the character of Thomas Jerome Newton outstayed his welcome following the wrap of The Man Who Fell to Earth in late summer 1975. Mostly tellingly, in Bowie’s fractured mind. It wasn’t just the “side effects of the cocaine” but part of a long slide that had seen Bowie vacate New York, sink deep into ancient philosophies in Los Angeles and subsist almost entirely on dairy products. Much of this period is difficult to tie down to fact, between Cameron Crowe’s infamous interviews and countless recollections from friends, Angie Bowie and the singer himself; an unreliable witness at the time, and particularly when he had an interviewer to play up to. Relocating to New Mexico to film The Man Who Fell to Earth was a form of “purification”. It was a glance back from the brink that consequently Bowie took to the recording studio for the first time in nine months to express as much the legacy of his recent interests as the alien that stayed within him. Despite the break and the subsequent work that would appear, Bowie’s last notable studio session (he had some failed dabbling with Iggy Pop in the interim) had been to record Across the Universe and Fame with Carlos Alomar and John Lennon. And although Bowie would refer to the latter as “a nasty little song” it certainly laid some groundwork for Station to Station.

So a steep task and fractured mind confronted Bowie, and the character of the Thin White Duke developed in response. It wasn’t Newton totally, that passive outsider, unable to resist. The Duke was less passive, more snarling, more insightful and self-analysing. The Thin White Duke has been variously described as aristocratic, Aryan and zombie. Many sporadic TV appearances throughout 1975 show a frosty, cold, wry and occasionally disorientated Bowie. One highlight is the wonderfully terse satellite link interview with Russell Harty – glossing over, chiding and ribbing in equal measure. He’s mostly articulate when not pausing, a dead-eyed stare levelled to the middle distance. There were controversial comments made during the period, including those connected to fascism, but later strongly dismissed by Bowie.

And unlike many other of his other personas, a lot of confusion arises from Bowie’s considerable backtracking after the event. It’s certain that the Thin White Duke ran throughout 1976, anchored around the recording and quick release of Station to Station. And it’s certain that this is the persona Bowie remembered least about. A fascinating transitory character, often overshadowed by the recordings either side, there was a root of the Duke’s soul-searching in Young Americans and a significant hangover in the influential Low, a record that also still unmistakably carried the profile of Thomas Jerome Newton on its punning cover as the Duke faded from view. Continue reading “David Bowie: Enter the Duke – Station to Station at 40”

David Bowie: The Man Who Fell to Earth – Station to Station at 40

David Bowie Station to Station at 40

David Bowie Station to Station at 40

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.

Cracked

“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. Continue reading “David Bowie: The Man Who Fell to Earth – Station to Station at 40”

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