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.
“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?
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”