The Thin White Duke
David Bowie had used fictional characters or adopted a range of personas throughout the earlier part of his career, from his earliest Deram recordings and 1969’s Space Oddity, through to Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and Halloween Jack and his dystopian gang the Diamond Dogs.
The opening lines of Station To Station – “The return of the Thin White Duke/Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes” – introduced Bowie’s darkest, bleakest persona to date, a figure dabbling in dark and alternative beliefs, flirting with fascist imagery, and blurring the line between fiction and what passed for the singer’s reality.
It’s OK as long as you’re really in control of the image, as a painter is, for instance. But when you’re using yourself as the image it’s never quite as simple as that. Because aspects of your own life get mixed into the image that you’re trying to project as a character, so it becomes a hybrid of reality and fantasy. And that is an extraordinary situation. Then the awareness that that’s not the real you, and you’re uncomfortable having to pretend that it is, makes you withdraw. And I withdrew, obviously through the use of drugs, as well, which didn’t help at all.
Telegraph Magazine, 14 December 1996
Nicolas Roeg had told Bowie that the character of Thomas Jerome Newton would stay with him long after the filming of The Man Who Fell To Earth ended. The prophesy came true, and Bowie used stills taken on set on the covers of his next two albums, Station To Station and Low, as well as retaining Newton’s hair and clothes.
Roeg had allowed Bowie to choose his own clothes for the film. At that time Bowie was in a relationship with costume designer Ola Hudson, who lived in Los Angeles with her two sons – one of whom, Saul, later found fame as Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash.
I kind of pulled the clothes out of Newton’s character and made them work for what I was doing next. Another girl comes into the picture, Ola Hudson – who in fact is Slash’s mum – she was my girlfriend, you see. I used to put him to bed at nights, little Slash. Who’d have guessed? Anyway, I got Ola involved as the wardrobe mistress of the film: she designed all the clothes for it, and she continued designing clothes for Station To Station as well.
It was extraordinary, and I must give Ola full credit for the all-black, very conservative look: ‘Nobody’s done that on stage before, that would be so cool. Why don’t you just take Newton on stage?’ Then I had an idea of the French matinee idol, with the waistcoat and all that.
Mojo, July 2002
Thomas Jerome Newton gave way to Bowie’s next role, that of a rootless, dispassionate, brutal megalomaniac: the Thin White Duke.
He was fucking smart, had incredible wit. But he was self-righteous and he was driven at the time by an obsession with the Third Reich, and he was viewing that shit at my house. He was so into the narcissism of Hitler. He didn’t want to be him, but he was fascinated by the Nazi movement. When you do cocaine it makes you very, very energetic. I would get out of the room when he would do this. You go into a trance on cocaine, and he would just watch reels and reels of film about the Nazis. He never did the arm-lifting thing, he was just fascinated.
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones
Bowie was undoubtedly in a dark place, and his obsession with the occult, Kabbalah and other beliefs came to the fore in the song ‘Station To Station’. But that album also contains hope, love and positivity. ‘Word On A Wing’ and ‘Golden Years’ contain direct pleas to God (“I believe, oh Lord, I believe all the way…”), and the closing ‘Wild Is The Wind’, although not a Bowie composition, is one of his clearest and unambiguous declarations of love.
Shortly after the release of Station To Station, Bowie claimed to have been working on his autobiography, titled The Return Of The Thin White Duke.
I’ve still not read an autobiography by a rock person that had the same degree of presumptuousness and arrogance that a rock & roll record used to have. So I’ve decided to write my autobiography as a way of life. It may be a series of books. I’m so incredibly methodical that I would be able to categorize each section and make it a bleedin’ encyclopedia. You know what I mean? David Bowie as the microcosm of all matter.
Rolling Stone, 12 February 1976
Rolling Stone provided some tantalising details of the book:
If the first chapter is any indication, The Return of the Thin White Duke is more telling of Bowie’s “fragmented mind” than of his life story. It is a series of sketchy self-portraits and isolated incidents apparently strung together in random, probably cutout order. Despite David’s enthusiasm, one suspects it may never outlast his abbreviated attention span. But it’s a good idea. At 29, Bowie’s life is already perfect fodder for an autobiography.
However, when asked about the book in 1990, Bowie claimed the autobiography was never written:
Thank God I didn’t start it then, it would have been something akin to Naked Lunch. No, I’m not too driven by the idea of what people are going to think of me when I’m dead. It’s not something that occupies my thoughts much. I’m far too interested in how I’m feeling about me and how my relations are with people in my immediate vicinity. I’m not really concerned with what the general public think of me, or my motives or my actions. I don’t really give a damn, and less and less as I get older. It really doesn’t occur to me that it’s something I should bother myself with.
Q magazine, April 1990
In re: the album’s content, I think that the pleas to God and declarations of love are more those of desperation/insincerity. In ‘Word On A Wing’, he sounds uncertain about whether he is actually willing to commit to God or not — almost reluctantly trying hard to fit in the scheme of things. ‘Wild Is The Wind’, on the other hand, is almost obsessive in its desire to ‘satisfy this hungriness’, and the meaning becomes hollow when looked at from the perspective of the Thin White Duke character being ‘a would-be romantic with absolutely no emotion but who spouted a lot of neo-romance’.
At least, that’s my cynical take on the album. 🙂
“Word On a Wing”, to me, is the offer of a man who has a great deal of pride and self-respect to serve God, but on terms which are agreeable to him. He still cares for himself and doesn’t stand in his own light. It is the approach of a little god to the big God, accepting the latter’s supreme authority but at the same time asserting some degree of independence and control over the relationship that he wants to build between them.
This theme is revisited in Blackstar, with the conversation the dying or deceased Bowie has with God. “You’re a flash in the pan, I’m the big I am”. “I am” is, of course, how God referred to himself in Exodus. God is asserting his primacy over Bowie whilst paradoxically acknowledging that Bowie has a certain god-like status.
Bought this when it came out. Never opened it, and still sealed. Many, many times I’ve been tempted to! Curious to know how much it’s valued at now (unopened/mint obvs.).