David Bowie had an immense and long-lasting impact on me and I’ve been revisiting his music (even more than usual) lately as it has been 5 years since his passing on.
I first dove into Bowie because of Nirvana (I know, I know). Nirvana was the first band that I discovered early for myself, and that music has also shaped much of my own aesthetic. Their cover of Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” on their Unplugged album immediately caught my fascination. I had known about Bowie and knew of him from “Let’s Dance” and his role as the Goblin King in Labyrinth, of course.
But as a child in the ’80s and then a pre-teen and eventual teen in the ’90s, Bowie’s 80’s music was reminiscent of what I felt we were all pushing against. His ’70s material was almost off-limits in the same way KISS or Black Sabbath was to me… there was something secretive and occultist and just weird to my Southern conservative Baptist straight-laced white boy type. Nirvana was almost a bridge too far (indeed, a high school teacher spent a number of days having us analyze why Nirvana’s music was so terrible and destructive to “Western Culture” … turns out that turned us all on).
When I started doing a deep dive on Bowie because of Nirvana’s (masterful) cover in 1994, the persona had been reinvented again and he was associating with Trent Reznor and moving away from his 80’s MTV friendliness into industrial rock. I was just beginning to explore this area myself and Nine Inch Nails played a big part in that (I bought one of their t-shirts around this time having never heard them, but figured I should give them a listen). That led to me first experiencing Bowie through Earthling, which is a weird way to hop into Bowie.
Eventually, I explored his 70’s material (and then his 60’s works) and was blown away. Where had Low and the Berlin Trilogy been all my life? Ziggy is an amazing piece of work, of course. Hunky Dory is still one of my favorites. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) comes just before Let’s Dance and hints at what would become industrial rock in the ’90s. It was all a revelation.
Station To Station was in there, plodding along with its otherworldliness. It took me some time to even listen all the way through in one sitting. It was only after I also earnestly began studying religion (modern and especially ancient versions) that I was finally brave (?) enough to hop in and attempt Station To Station.
I try to “read” music as literature. Now Station To Station is one of my favorite Bowie albums and this write-up from 10 years ago is one of the most effective descriptions of this piece of art…
Bowie constructs the most grandiose of love songs, the most overblown, epic ballads, mouthing hollow romantic clichés as if, by saying the lines with enough simulated passion, he will actually come to feel them. And yet, of course, all of this is just a construct, too- he knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s not a cynical act, because the desire to feel remains genuine- in its way, this is as stark and troubled a record as anything from Neil Young’s contemporaneous ditch trilogy, the musical polish and role-play only thinly veiling a soul on the edge, battling with addiction and paranoia and with what he, at least, genuinely believed were dark mystical forces just waiting to drag him forever into the abyss. “It’s the nearest album to a magical treatise that I’ve written,” Bowie has said, though perhaps a ritual spell of protection would be a more accurate description.