The Thin White Duke: A Close Study of David Bowie’s Darkest Character

Good thing social media wasn’t around in 1976 when David Bowie went through one of his dark­est transformations–his career might not have sur­vived it. A few months ago Kanye West start­ed palling around with Trump­ism, MAGA hats, and folks like Can­dace Owens, and Twit­ter went bal­lis­tic and West kind of retreat­ed. But for a moment in 1976, as Polyphonic’s video essay reminds us, David Bowie toyed with actu­al fas­cism, say­ing in one inter­view:

“You’ve got to have an extreme right-wing front come up and sweep every­thing off its feet and tidy every­thing up,” he said in a con­tentious, weird, and most-prob­a­bly coke-addled inter­view in the NME. (You can read the full inter­view here at The Qui­etus, which will pro­vide some need­ed con­text.)

The inter­view came on the heels of Young Amer­i­cans, both his trib­ute to the Philly soul sound and a cri­tique of the “relent­less plas­tic soul” of Amer­i­can cul­ture. At the same time, Bowie was indulging in his inter­est in the occult and the teach­ings of Aleis­ter Crow­ley, a thread that winds its way through many of his songs, from the Space Odd­i­ty album onward. In a Play­boy inter­view he com­pared Hitler to rock stars long before side four of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. And in one ill advised moment, he seemed to be giv­ing the Nazi salute when he arrived at London’s Vic­to­ria Sta­tion. (Though Bowie lat­er called this peri­od of his life “ghast­ly,” he always insist­ed it was just the cam­era catch­ing him mid-wave.)

(For an in depth look at Bowie’s fas­cist fascination–with a side look at Eric Clapton’s much worse Enoch Pow­ell-sup­port­ing speech–check out this arti­cle.)

But for the chameleon rock star who seemed con­vinced rock music at the time was mori­bund, this might have all been at the ser­vice of a new Bowie char­ac­ter, the Thin White Duke, the man who dressed in black and white and struck a gaunt fig­ure. The man who once sung about “rock and roll sui­cide” and who broke up the band at the height of their fame, was now div­ing into him­self, run­ning for the shad­ows, as he exist­ed on a diet of milk, pep­pers, and cocaine. This could have been what Jung called the “shad­ow self.”

The whole peri­od would have been sad and pathet­ic if Bowie had deliv­ered up a crap album. But he didn’t. Sta­tion to Sta­tion–an allu­sion to the Kab­bal­ah Tree of Life–is a stone cold clas­sic, and is the pre­am­ble to the Berlin tril­o­gy. Polyphonic’s video essay spends most of its time dis­sect­ing the lyrics to the epic open­ing track, teas­ing out its occult ref­er­ences along with a psy­cho­log­i­cal por­trait of Bowie’s mind at the time.

“Sta­tion to Sta­tion” had no equal in Bowie’s cat­a­log for its breadth and obscurity…that is until Black­star, the sim­i­lar­ly long, mul­ti-part open­ing track to Bowie’s final album. He even wears the same blue and sil­ver striped leo­tard in the video for “Lazarus” that he wore in 1976; Bowie had returned to what Sta­tion to Sta­tion start­ed, before depart­ing for des­ti­na­tions beyond.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Bowie’s Top 100 Books

How David Bowie Turned His “Ade­quate” Voice into a Pow­er­ful Instru­ment: Hear Iso­lat­ed Vocal Tracks from “Life on Mars,” “Star­man,” “Mod­ern Love” “Under Pres­sure” & More

When David Bowie Became Niko­la Tes­la: Watch His Elec­tric Per­for­mance in The Pres­tige (2006)

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

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