Station to Station
I love Station to Station the album, but I am here today to talk about “Station to Station” the song. My favorite Bowie song, like my favorite Bowie album, changes from moment to moment depending on a complex set of factors, chief among them being what I happen to be listening to at the time. The wheel probably lands on “Rock’n’Roll Suicide” more than any other song, but “Station to Station” has been getting a great deal of play around my place lately, so it is often my favorite for at least 10 minutes at a time.
Length is one of the defining characteristics of “Station to Station”; at approximately 10:10, is one of the longer songs in the Bowie oeuvre. But of course it is really many songs in one. In my research I have identified eight different movements:
0:00-1:13 This is the intro. It starts as a wash of white noise, under which a chugging rhythm that resembles the sound of a train emerges. At :30 a whistle is heard, and though there is no voice saying “All aboard!” (except perhaps in my head), the meaning is clear enough: We are in for a journey. I always quite enjoy this part, because it means the next 10 minutes will be unusually pleasurable ones. After that the rhythm speeds up, dopplers, and the sound of the train’s wheels can be clearly heard. At 1:04 a single guitar note becomes audible, feeding back and distorting into a more solid tone, and a very subtle rhythm track kicks in, leading to…
1:14 This is where the song begins in earnest, with two alternating piano chords played in a mechanical, purposely jerky fashion. It is the sound of long-dormant machinery whirring into action, of a factory populated by robots who are perfectly functional but not entirely sane. This brief section is jarring, anxiety-producing, lasting all of six seconds until at…
1:20 The bass comes in, playing a repeated three-note figure that has a much more warm and human sound to it, and at this point I can feel myself relax, often exhaling audibly. The bass is joined by a skittering rhythm guitar part and a booming drum, and we’re off.
1:51 Here the band locks into a slow, relentless funk groove with a guitar thrust that is repeated three times, then answered by a keyboard line that sounds almost like a melodica. This may in fact be my favorite part of the song; I could listen to it approximately forever. But it lasts about for about a minute and a half, until at
3:16 we hear David’s voice for the first time, crooning the immortal words “The return of the Thin White Duke / throwing darts in lovers’ eyes.” Much has been made of this Thin White Duke character, often cited along with Ziggy Stardust as one of the dramatic personae David famously adopted in the 70s. I think this idea is a tad overblown. The TWD is not much of a “character” really; I tend to think it was just three words that David thought sounded cool together. True, Bowie himself was extremely thin at the time, and tremendously white, and has always been an aristocrat; so the suit fits, but I’m not sure it amounts to more than that.
Next the groove returns, this time with words: “Here are we, one magical moment / Such is the stuff from where dreams are woven.” I don’t want to get too deep into analysis of the lyrics here – there are plenty of places where you can find that – but to me this song is one of the more successful examples of Bowie’s semi-random process of lyric generation. It doesn’t scan especially well on the page, but in context the effect is dazzling.
This section concludes with the second return of the Thin White Duke, this time not just throwing darts in lovers’ eyes, but also “making sure white stains” – apparently a reference to a book by Aleister Crowley. (The work of Crowley and other occultists was as much a part of Bowie’s diet at the time as cocaine – of which more later.)
5:16 After a brief lull, the drums announce the beginning of a new phase; the effect is not unlike a rocket shedding its successive stages as it shoots into the sky. The pace picks up considerably here, driven by piano and guitar; the words are more upbeat, with mentions of “mountains on mountains” and “sunbirds to soar with,” though with a wistful quality as these things are apparently no more. “Drink to the men who protect you and I,” says David, sounding suddenly like a politician up for re-election. “Drink drink drain your glass raise your glass high.” But we all know that Bowie’s preferred refreshment of this era did not come in a glass; and now that we’re almost six minutes into the song, it’s about time for a little bump, no?
6:00 The band upshifts another gear as David announces, “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine / I’m thinking that it must be love.” This is a rare moment of lyrical transparency from our chameleon friend; it was no secret he was a Bolivian marching powder enthusiast – reportedly his cocaine consumption in the mid-70s rivaled that of anyone, anywhere, at any time – but this is the only direct reference to it in song that I can think of. Still, I’m not entirely convinced that it’s not the side effects of the cocaine; it’s quite possible that it is. Which begs the question, if cocaine causes you to produce a “Station to Station,” is it really so bad? I have already posted at length about this subject, and don’t wish to do so again. Suffice it to to say that I am told David suffered terribly from his addiction, and I believe it. But if that’s what he had to do to bring us these messages from another plane, I can’t say I’m sorry he did it.
The peak of the song lasts from about 6:00 to 6:10; after that, we’re informed, “It’s too late” for many things – to be hateful, grateful, etc. – because “the European cannon is here.” Whatever that is. (The Bowie johnson, perhaps?)
7:16 Everything from here on is coda, really, with many repetitions of the “It’s too late” refrain as the music sails off into the stratosphere. “Station to Station” has no true ending, just a fadeout, which even more than most fadeouts suggests that the song will be continuing on into infinity…or at least until the drugs run out. (In live versions the Thin White Duke returns yet again to close the proceedings, lending a rather more sinister quality.) And before you know it, here come the delicious opening bars of “Golden Years”…but that is a topic for another time.
Well done, Mr. Bill.
There was another cocaine reference in the song “Sweet Thing:”
“Lights in the snowstorm/Freezing your brain/Do you think that your face looks the same?”
Glad you are on the Bowie beat for a while. He’s still got it.