This month saw the release of David Bowie’s Who Can I Be Now? box set. This collection brings together three studio albums, two live albums, a compilation of b-sides, and the unfinished, unreleased album, The Gouster, all recorded between 1974 – 1976.
This ‘American era’ has always been my favourite Bowie period, a period which saw him descend into deep darkness, produce some truly sublime albums, before reemerging having rediscovered himself. All in the space of two years.
Personas and characters helped Bowie launch his career in the early seventies, but having found fame, during the mid-seventies, he would find himself almost losing his mind within them. During these years, Bowie would find himself in a very bad place as his cocaine addiction spiralled and the pressures of fame started to weigh heavily. But somehow he managed to get through them and here is a brief history of how he got there and how he got out.
Rewind back to 1969 for a second. A long, curly haired young man in flares is singing about some guy called Major Tom getting lost and lonely in space. And he would enjoy some success with the record, but it wasn’t until a couple of albums later that David Robert Jones (aka David Bowie) realised he could inhabit another persona; that with the aid of invented characters, he could literally become somebody else and fully unleash his creative expression.
Now fast forward a couple of years to 1972 and we see a red-haired, brow-less, booted, and jump-suited figure called Ziggy Stardust standing in front of us. This was a pretty bold move back then, nobody dressed like that. But it worked. And soon this Starman from Mars would save us all with rock ‘n’ roll. Bowie lived the part so much that, when he announced that the band was breaking up at Hammersmith Odeon in 1973, the audience was devastated at this act of Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide. But of course this was Ziggy talking not Bowie.
For the next album he created another, although less defined, character called Aladdin Sane. Bowie’s half brother, Terry, struggled with mental illness his whole life (a subject that preoccupied Bowie throughout his career). Aladdin Sane is a play on words of ‘A Lad Insane’ and the lightning bolt possibly signified a fractured personality (a motif that would perhaps soon prove prophetic). With this album Bowie abandoned the space-age glam rock of its predecessor and looked West across the Atlantic towards the more bluesy sound of The Stones.
The Jean Genie (1972)
Hang on to Yourself
Although recorded in London, Diamond Dogs, marks the beginning of what would be seen as Bowie’s ‘American Period’. This album was originally conceived, via the use of Burroughs-esque cut-up techniques and probably quite a lot of cocaine, as a rock-opera adaption of Orwell’s 1984. In the heart of its dystopian Hunger City (where ‘fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats’), Bowie became Halloween Jack (who looked a bit like Ziggy with an eye-patch). This is an amazing album, consistent, inventive, full of images of terrifying persecution and seductive yearning all set in some horrible, futuristic metropolis. Even after 42 years, Diamond Dogs still excites and unnerves.
By this time Bowie’s cocaine usage increased in order to keep up with his prolific mind. Anybody who saw the nervous, gaunt looking Bowie in Alan Yentob’s Cracked Actor documentary in 1974 could see that something was not right. This alien who had fallen to earth would soon fall further.
Diamond Dogs from Alan Yentob’s Cracked Actor (1974)
The next album was intended to be called The Gouster but remained unfinished and unreleased until now. Just as Bowie had swapped glam-rock for blues, so he now swapped jump suits for zoot suits and rock-opera for soul.
The character of the Gouster was conceived as soul man; a hipster, who unlike the previous personas was (or at least seemed to be) grounded on earth. Out of this character eventually came the Young Americans album in 1975. This is a stand-out album in its own right, but is made all the more impressive by the fact that Bowie threw himself into an unfamiliar genre, reshaped it, and subsequently influenced a new generation of white, “blue-eyed” soul artists.
But by now Bowie was already slipping further away from himself (whoever that was). After being inside the skin of his creations for years it seemed he was struggling to hang on to himself. Of course all that cocaine didn’t help either.
Young Americans (1974)
It’s Not the Side Effects of the Cocaine
By the time we get to 1976 Bowie had pretty much lost it. Occult obsessed and paranoid that witches were hunting him, he locked himself in a blacked out mansion in L.A. and kept bottled urine in the fridge. He had reduced himself to a mere seven stones and somehow survived on a diet of milk, peppers and cocaine. However, he eventually transitioned musically and personally through this darkness and created a landmark album along the way.
In many ways, Station to Station is an anomaly in Bowie’s back catalogue (it only has six tracks, one of which is a cover version and the title track is ten minutes long) and yet for me it remains his best, and one of his most underrated, albums.
It still amazes me that he survived mentally and physically enough during this period to produce such a sublime album. Bowie previously mentioned that he simply could not remember its recording due to his cocaine-adled condition.
This album sees Bowie abandoning the soul just as easily as he picked it up, and looking back towards a more European sound, merging funk with Krautrock.
The ten-minute title track (after a three-minute introduction) introduces Bowie’s then character of the Thin White Duke, who would exclaim (ironically) that: ‘It’s not the side-effects of the cocaine/I’m thinking that it must be love’. This was the personification of a European soul who had somehow gotten himself lost in America and wanted to get back home. Was this Bowie finally becoming Bowie?
It’s difficult to listen to the soul searching of Word on a Wing for example and not believe that Bowie, after many years of being different personas was finally trying become himself again: ‘Lord, I kneel and offer you/my word on a wing/And I’m trying hard to fit/among your scheme of things.’ Except it seemed he didn’t know how anymore.
Word on a Wing from VH1 Storytellers (1999)
Somehow Bowie managed to drag himself out of all this darkness and pain, find himself again beneath the layers of personas, and produce three of the best albums of his career.
He would flee to Berlin with Iggy Pop shortly after to hideout and clean up. Over the next few years he would help write and produce Iggy’s The Idiot and Lust for Life albums, as well as going on to record his own ‘Eno Trilogy’ which included the influential Low and “Heroes”, and the underrated Lodger.
R.I.P. Mr. Jones, you can be whoever you want to be now.