Thursday, 29 March 2007
From Kether to Malkuth...
It's hard to quantify the degree to which the career of an artist like David Bowie dwarfs those of all but a small handful of artists who've emerged since he made his last truly great LP (Scary Monsters & Super Creeps) in 1980. Constraints of time preclude anything like the sort of length required remotely to do the man and his work justice here. I can only hope to offer a mere taster of the depth and resonance avaliable to the interested and committed - if I can use the term without raising too many eyebrows - virgin. Accordingly, I'll just give an outline of one song which might hint, part for whole, at the sheer grandeur and ambition that characterises so much of his output. To today's ears (mine, incidentally, included), made flighty by shuffle play, our imaginations stunted by the hi-jacking of music promotion by MTV and its fetish for the lowest common denominators of visual literalism (invariably, tits and ass), a song that clocks in at just over ten minutes, drawing its inspiration from (amongst other things) the bible, cocaine-abuse, Shakespeare's The Tempest, Aleister Crowley, Tattva symbolism and whose cinematic scope is derived solely from the emotive and descriptive power of words and music, the magnificence of 'Station to Station' might well be off the radar. But I offer this up anyway, in hope....
I'd planned to write something myself on this, but there's really little point when a paraphrase of Ian MacDonald's brief but exhaustive essay "White Lines, Black Magic: Bowie's Dark Doings" (in The People's Music - I tried, but couldn't find it online...) is sufficient for our purposes here. The reputation of the critic is usually a fairly reliable index of the import of the artist - Samuel Johnson had his Boswell, Radiohead have our Tim - so it's fitting that Ian MacDonald, the most elegant, precise and thorough rock writer I've had the pleasure of reading, should have been working on a book about Bowie right up until his sad and untimely death.
The younger Bowie, "self-taught" and "insecure in his intellect", had dabbled in Buddhism but by the time he'd acquired stardom in the guise of Ziggy Stardust, it was a veritable philosophical rag bag that shaped his outlook; a pronounced vein of Nietzsche ("you've gotta make way for the Homo superior" he sings in 'Oh You Pretty things' on 1971's Hunky Dory) and Gnosticism in particular, including a belief in the myth of the fall (and, for once, that's not a cue for a dig at Claire-uh Nasir-uh...) In short, as described by Mr. MacDonald;
human beings are born into this world from a higher dimension ('heaven') which we forget upon entering the sphere of material existence. Hence [we] are ... a half-finished thing living in a state of waking sleep [we] call reality, but which is actually a kind of delusion. Only...the 'enlightened' ones see reality as it truly is.
It's no accident that the ethereal Bowie, his entire persona and demeanour redolent of just such an elect, had attracted the attention of film director Nic Roeg, who cast him as Thomas Jerome Newton, the stranded alien wunderkind, in The Man Who Fell To Earth. Filmed in New Mexico shortly before the Station to Station sessions, there can have been few greater conflations of actor and role. Add to this alienation Bowie's already fragile and fragmented ego, and his astonishing ability to 'become' the characters through which he presented his songs, an increasing interest in these Occult themes, particularly the same Arthurian legends that had inspired the Nazis, and you have a recipe for a certain degree of estrangement from reality. Compound all *that* with the debilitating pressures of stardom and touring and, perhaps most pertinently, the shitload of cocaine consumed in tandem with an eschewing of almost all the other usual forms of bodily nourishment and it's fair to say that by the time he came to record Station in 1975, David was, physically and mentally, in a pretty bad way. Far more than having merely summoned them up, Bowie's personal demons were now beginning to make themselves known to him in person, ("I've been 'avin' some trouble with the neighbours", he told a telephone interviewer from the music press who'd asked what the strange noises he could hear in the background to their conversation were) to the extent that when his friend Michael Lippman gave him a gold crucifix, he was asked (presumably as a belt and braces measure) also to provide him with a mezuzah ("a parchment in a glass tube, inscribed with the divine name Shaddai, which Orthodox Jews" use "to ward off evil")
Consequently, Station to Station (1976) is his "dark night of the soul" and the hinge on which Bowie's career pivots. The Thin White Duke is the last of Bowie's overt characters. Gaunt, chain-smoking Gitanes with a flame of henna and peroxide hair, it is, for me, his most visually exquisite look; white shirt, black waistcoat and trousers, he is graphically and literally (as he sang in 'Quicksand') "torn between the light and dark". Musically too, his synthesis of 'black' soul music and 'white' European art music (he'd absorbed the synthesizer sounds of Kraftwerk and Brian Eno and would pursue these more fully in the albums that followed) But Bowie is at a more profound crossroads than merely one of career or image. He seems to be fighting for his very soul at times.
The album and its title track open with a white noise approximation of a train travelling across the stereo soundstage, immediately establishing Bowie's literal and spiritual rootlessness -he travelled by train due to fear of flying and carried a library of several thousand books, presumably mostly of the nature described above, with him at all times. MacDonald sees him as a latterday Prospero, the "Thin White Duke, making sure white stains" [White Stains was Aleister Crowley's obscure first book] the (black) magician with his vast library, magic circles and bizarre Tattva symbols (the use of flashing lights to attain higher consciousness), trapped in his rented West Coast apartment;
Here are we
One magical moment
Such is the stuff from where dreams are woven,
Here am I
Flashing no colour [Tattva for not so good?]
Tall in my room overlooking the ocean...
The stations Bowie alludes to are deep with resonance - the railway variety that this habitual, disparate personality had been physically hurtling through, the manifold personalities he'd assumed - we can feel in the panoramic sweep of the music, the train-like grinding of the rhythm section all of these transitions. But the most explicit journey here is, as MacDonald suggests, that which Bowie hopes to make up (or down?) the Tree of Life. Postulated by Crowley disciple Israel Regardie, the Tree of Life marked the journey from Malkuth (the sphere of the physical world) to Kether (the sphere of the godhead). So, it's a fascinating inversion of this spiritual path that Bowie signifies when he sings:
Here am I
One magical movement
From Kether to Malkuth
The song pivots on the achingly beautiful observation,
Once there were mountains on mountains
Once there were sun birds to soar with
And once I could never be down
For here is Bowie, no longer "driv[ing] [or being driven?] like a demon from station to station", impelled to keep "searching and searching and oh what will I be believing", but now poised to leap off the train that he'd been riding to oblivion with a single hope and the simplest of questions remaining "who will connect me with love?":
It is, as MacDonald attests, one of the most heart-rending lines ever sung in pop as Bowie's tormented, intense spiritual search finally comes to rest against the buffers of simple human warmth and empathy:
It's not the side effects of the cocaine,
I'm thinking that it must be love
"Wonder who, wonder who, wonder when?" Ponders Bowie. With a directness and humanity that would begin to reassert itself in his work from this point on, Bowie seeks empathy with his listeners,
Have you sought fortune,
Evasive and shy?
Well, it's not where I've just come from mate - it's here, he seems to suggest. In the aching obviousness of love, a simplicity reinforced by Earl Slick's almost-by-the-numbers Chuck Berry-esque solo whose rock cliche's are both apposite and transcendant as Bowie, simultaneously resigned but renewed through the transformative power of the music, croons to the fade,
It's too late to be hateful,
It's too late to be grateful
Still yearning, still restless, but the demons seem to be fading. And, perhaps anticipating his escape from his personal nightmare in LA to a fecund new career in Berlin, Bowie seems to have sighted a distant coast of hope;
The European Canon is here
It's an exhilarating listen, still.
Bowie was never quite the same after this - much as he did great work. He still wears a crucifix to this day, he says, to honour the good friend who pulled him out of the mess he'd got into. Lippman, possibly? Or a higher power? Regardless, the trajectory of the rest of his career has followed the same downward spiral - in Tree of Life terms - from godhead to human. This is why I think most ardent and true fans of the man don't find the lesser work - be it Jazzin' for Blue Jean or Tin Machine - as disappointing as sterner critics might. That work, along with the mensch Bowie has become, was forged in the dark crucible of Station to Station.
Forget the work.
Behold the man!
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