1975: Los Angeles – part three
David Bowie’s first feature film, The Man Who Fell To Earth, was shot from 2 June to 25 August 1975. The majority of the shoot took place in New Mexico, at locations in Albuquerque, White Sands, Artesia and Fenton Lake.
Bowie appears to have mostly stayed clean on the set, having made a pledge to director Nic Roeg not to use cocaine, although he did lapse on occasion. He was reportedly a committed cast member, learning his lines and always showing up on time.
David vowed to Nic, ‘No drug use,’ [and he was] clear as a bell, focused, friendly and professional and leading the team…
You can see it clearly because of Tony Richmond’s brilliant cinematography. Look at David: his skin is luminescent. He’s gorgeous, angelic, heavenly. He was absolutely perfect as the man from another planet.
Variety, 11 January 2016
During downtime, Bowie wrote music on the set, some of which he intended to be used for the film’s soundtrack. He also read voraciously, and claimed to have taken 400 books to New Mexico. He wrote lyrics and short stories, and planned his autobiography, tentatively titled The Return of the Thin White Duke.
It was a nightmare time because cocaine is a very spiteful bedfellow. And it really takes it out of you. If you really want to lose all your friends and all of the relationships that you ever held dear, that’s the drug to do it with. Cocaine severs any link you have with another human being. And that’s the one thing that really came home to me in the mid-Seventies – what I was doing to all my relationships. I didn’t have anyone left who could get anywhere near me…
But it wasn’t only the drugs. It was also because of my spiritual state of mind. I had never been so near an abyss of total abandonment. When they say that one felt like a shell, an empty shell, I can really understand that. I felt that any of life’s intrusions would crush that shell very easily. I felt totally, absolutely alone. And I probably was alone because I pretty much had abandoned God.
Arena, May/June 1993
After finishing work on The Man Who Fell To Earth in August 1975, Bowie returned to Los Angeles and moved to a new home, at 1349 Stone Canyon Road in Bel Air.
There began one of Bowie’s lowest periods, as his cocaine addiction spiralled still further, and his physical and mental health went into a sharp decline.
I weighed 90lb. Some of the photos I’ve seen of myself – which fortunately have never been published – I cannot believe I survived. I look so ill. It makes me start to see these pictures. I was a walking skeleton. I was surviving on green and red peppers and drinking milk…
There was something in them which my body needed, I guess. I knew I was in trouble in LA. All my dealers were there and I had to get out.
Q magazine, October 2003
Bowie’s dealer at this time was Freddy Sessler, who supplied pure Merck pharmaceutical cocaine to a number of LA’s stars.
I had certainly collected a motley crew of people who would keep turning up at the house. A lot of dealers. Real scum. And I knew I had to change the environment and be in a place where I wasn’t considered a rock star.
Arena, May/June 1993
Against the odds, in addition to starring in The Man Who Fell To Earth, in 1975 Bowie also wrote and recorded one of his greatest artistic triumphs, the Station To Station album. He later claimed to remember barely anything of its creation.
I would say a lot of the time I spent in America in the ’70s is really hard to remember, in a way that I’ve not seen happen to too many other artists. I was flying out there – really in a bad way. So I listen to Station To Station as a piece of work by an entirely different person.
Q magazine, February 1997
The album was made in Los Angeles between September and early December 1975. The majority of the recording took place at Cherokee Studios in West Hollywood, Los Angeles.
According to producer Harry Maslin, “We started at 10 or 11 at night and went to anywhere from eight in the morning to whatever, 36 hours later.” Bowie later said not all of the work was productive, however.
You retain a superficial hold on reality so that you can get through the things that you know are absolutely necessary for your survival. But when that starts to break up, which inevitably it does – around late 1975 everything was starting to break up – I would work at songs for hours and hours and days and days and then realise after a few days that I had done absolutely nothing.
I thought I had been working and working, but I had only been rewriting the first four bars or something. And I hadn’t got anywhere. I couldn’t believe it! I had been working on it for a week! I hadn’t got past four bars! And I would realise that I had been changing those four bars around, doing them backwards, splitting them up and doing the end first. An obsession with detail had taken over.
Arena, May/June 1993
The album contains some of Bowie’s darkest lyrics. The opening lines set the tone: “The return of the Thin White Duke, throwing darts in lovers’ eyes”. Yet it also contains love songs, and on ‘Word On A Wing’, a prayer to God for salvation.
‘Word On A Wing’ I wrote when I felt very much at peace with the world. I had established my own environment with my own people for the first time. I wrote the whole thing as a hymn. What better way can a man give thanks for achieving something that he had dreamed of achieving, than doing it with a hymn?
Melody Maker, 28 February 1976
On the title track he also famously sang: “It’s not the side effects of the cocaine/I’m thinking that it must be love.” Bowie was not the only heavy user at the sessions. According to Geoff MacCormack, who sang backing vocals on the album: “Everyone was wandering around with chains round their necks with little coke spoons.”
The first song from Station To Station to be unveiled was ‘Golden Years’, which Bowie performed on the African-American TV show Soul Train on 3 November 1975.
Bowie lip-synced on the show, which was broadcast on 3 January 1976. He was interviewed before the performances, and took questions from the audience.
He later revealed he was drunk during the Soul Train appearance, which led him to forget some of his lyrics. He also gave disjointed and abrupt answers during the interview segment.
I wasn’t even buoyant enough to feel apologetic. I mean I really was a little shit in that way, I hadn’t bothered to learn it. And the MC of the show, who was a really charming guy, took me to one side after the third or fourth take and said, ‘You know there are kids lining up to do this show who have fought their whole lives to try and get a record and come on here?’ And I know that at the time it made no impression on me, his little speech, which was absolutely necessary. And I just screwed up the lyrics.
Strange Fascination, David Buckley
1975 ended with more turbulence. He had recorded music for The Man Who Fell To Earth’s soundtrack, which was rejected by Nic Roeg. He also terminated Michael Lippman’s management contract.
I spent most of my time working with him during the middle of the night. Most of these exchanges went well. But the week before Christmas I was totally unable to communicate with him. I do recall dramatically erratic behaviour, when I was cut off from seeing him. He would not come out of his house – a house he rented in Bel Air. From my personal observations he was overworked and under a lot of pressure… and unable to accept the realities of certain facts. It would manifest itself by him remaining incommunicable.
Crawdaddy, February 1978
Bowie spent Christmas 1975 in Jamaica, holidaying with his wife and son before beginning rehearsals for a world tour in the new year.