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“Station to Station” Live, 1976

So, there’s this guy on YouTube who goes by the name Nacho who makes high-quality “fake” videos. Actually, “fake” is the wrong word— they are real videos that aren’t official. Some of them are quite well done, and this is a good example. I’m not going to regurgitate Nacho’s notes about how he came across the footage he used to pair with the audio, but it’s worth reading if you open the video in YouTube. The value here is that there is very little video documentation of Bowie’s 1976 tour and his whole Thin White Duke period. Bowie didn’t do a video for “Station to Station,” or, for that matter any of the songs off the album of the same name, despite it being generally regarded as one of his best. (OK, ok, he did do a video of “Wild is the Wind,” but he did that years after it appeared on Station to Station).

“Station to Station” ranks somewhere on my list of favorite Bowie songs. It has many of the qualities I like in Bowie songs— obscure lyrics, twists and turns within the song, weird special sound effects. It’s one of Bowie’s handful of songs-within-a-songs, which is a technique he tends to save for epics. “Memory of a Free Festival,” “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise) and “Blackstar” are three other such songs, which also rank up there for me. (On the other hand, so is Tin Machine’s terrible “Stateside,” but we’ll forget about that).

Back to this particular video— included is footage of concertgoers milling about before the concert itself. The footage is grainy and not moving in real time. I find something disconcerting about these images— like we’re watching ghosts. Bowie, too, seems ghostly. There’s one point where a guy in a candy striped jacked appears and smiles to the camera. Probably just a guy out to have a good time at a concert, but I don’t know— he seems kinda creepy. Like someone out of The Shining. The Thin White Duke seems kinda creepy. 1976 seems kinda creepy. And all that seems to work with the song.

It is also almost fitting (though unfortunate) that little footage of the Duke exists because the persona itself was supposed to be remote and inaccessible. This was the time Bowie was in the deepest throes of his cocaine addiction. He was also exploring both ideas — and imagery— having to do with fascism, as well as comparing political demagoguery to rock-and roll-stardom. To say Bowie was mixed up at this time is an understatement — while overtly saying that the Duke was supposed to be “an Aryan type,” the song in which he is introduced (this song) delves into Jewish mysticism. As does the album cover, or at least the back cover in which Bowie is depreciated sketching the tree of life from Kabbalah (don’t ask me anything more about that because I know very little about Kabbalah). In the process, Bowie made some embarrassing statements that sounded pro-fascist and became embroiled in controversy about supposedly giving a Nazi salute (a claim he always denied).

Fast forward to Blackstar and Bowie revisited some of what he was grappling with on Station to Station and during his Duke phase. He conspicuously wore the same striped outfit in the Lazarus video that he wore on the back album cover of Station to Station. There are some other connections, but one observation I haven’t read elsewhere is that the Bowie of 2013-2016 was even more remote than the Bowie of 1976. He stopped touring, stopped giving interviews and, though he appeared in a few videos for The Next Day and Blackstar, ditched the accessible persona of the early 2000s that I think of as “Jonesie.” Perhaps he released, especially during his last year, that like 1976 he was actually close to death. In any case, after years of refuting fascism and making it clear that while some of his songs explore cults of personality that he is actually against, Bowie’s last persona was not a resurrected Thin White Duke.

So Nacho’s video is one of the few opportunities we have to see the Duke in action.

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