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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