‘Religion is for people who fear hell,
spirituality is for people who have been there.’
The day David Bowie’s death was announced via Facebook was awful, from waking up to the news, but made more tolerable by people posting their favourite Bowie songs; the ones that meant the most to them. Mine is Word On A Wing and I love this version of it, from VH1 Storytellers, which David introduces by relating how one of his most profoundly spiritual lyrics came from his darkest place, in the depths of his mid-70s addiction. “Unwittingly,” he says, “this song was a signal of distress. I’m sure that it was a call for help.”
“Word On A Wing I can’t talk about,” Bowie told the NME, provocatively, in 1980. “There were days of such psychological terror when making the Roeg film that I nearly started to approach my reborn, born again thing.
It was the first time I’d really seriously thought about Christ and God in any depth and Word On A Wing was a protection. It did come as a complete revolt against elements that I found in the film. The passion in the song was genuine. It was also around that time that I started thinking about wearing this (fingers small silver cross hanging on his chest) again, which is now almost a left-over from that period.
I wear it, I’m not sure why I wear it now even. But at the time I really needed this. Hmmm (laughs), we’re getting into heavy waters… but yes, the song was something I needed to produce from within myself to safeguard myself against some of the situations that I felt were happening on the film set.”
Bowie thought he needed protection, perhaps from a coven of Satanic black witches who were trying to steal his semen in order to breed a devil child (you know, like in Rosemary’s Baby?) but certainly from a demonic entity in the swimming pool of his rented Los Angeles pad. According to his biographer, Mark Spitz, Bowie asked Cherry Vanilla – a loyal friend during his most paranoid phase – if she knew anyone who could help and so made contact with a white witch who taught classes in magic at the New York School of Occult Arts and Sciences. Walli Elmlark liked to wear a “floor length clingy high necked long sleeved black jersey, and a floor length chiffon over dress that floats around me like a mysterious mist of motion.” With her long black hair, complete with dyed green streak highlights, she certainly looked the part of a wise, witchy woman.
Either she was summonsed to Bowie’s Los Angeles residence, where Walli exorcised the swimming pool, and/or she talked him through it on the phone. It’s not entirely clear because the relevant passage in Angie Bowie’s scurrilous memoir, Backstage Passes: Life on the Wild Side with David Bowie, is beyond the scope of Google! However, Angie was there (and how extraordinary was it that she was on British TV when her ex-husband died!) and she can confirm: ‘At a certain point in the ritual, the pool began to bubble. It bubbled vigorously — perhaps ‘thrashed’ is a better term – in a manner inconsistent with any explanation involving filters and the like.’ Mark Spitz says: ‘Elmlark wrote a series of spells and incantations out for Bowie and remained on call for Bowie as he continued to wrestle with the forces of darkness.’ She also gave him a long reading list.
As Ian MacDonald explains in his indispensable essay, David Bowie: White Lines, Black Magic, our hero customarily stayed up all night, wired, reading all sorts of esoteric literature, but he became obsessed with Dion Fortune’s, Psychic Self-Defence. This is hilarious in the internet age, when we can all see the Explanatory Note that prefaces the book: ‘There are some practical steps that you can take to restore the balance in your life. Please consider the following: …2. Keep away from all drugs… 4. Keep to a healthy diet, get plenty of sleep and fresh air, and take physical exercise.’ Legendarily, the Thin White Duke largely subsisted on a diet of milk, red peppers and cocaine. Lots of cocaine.
Much has been made of Bowie’s association with Crowley, but as as Peter–R. Koenig suggests in his essay, The Laughing Gnostic — David Bowie and the Occult, while ‘Bowie’s keywords, ‘Aleister Crowley’ and ‘the Golden Dawn’ show us where to dig deeper to understand his symbolism’, he was hardly a devotee of Thelema. As a randy young man, Bowie may well have been interested in taboo-busting ‘sex magick’ and he did have sex with under age girls, but he didn’t take Crowley too seriously, dismissing him as a ‘charlatan’ in later interviews while asserting his preference for the works of Edward Waite (who is best known as the co-creator of the Rider-Waite & Waite-Smith Tarot decks).
As Koenig says, ‘in the early 1970s, there were as many occult bookstores around as health food shops’ and, in reading around, if not through practice, Bowie evidently did pick up an understanding of the workings of the Tree of Life glyph, as the lyrics to the song, Station to Station, profess with their allusion to ‘one magical movement from Kether and Malkuth.’ This is the journey of manifestation, the lightning flash that travels down from the Supernals, touching each of the ten sephiroth to become grounded in the garden of our mundane consensus reality. Other lyrical allusions to the Tree in that song are often missed: ‘Here am I, flashing no colour,’ is surely a reference to the colours attributed to each sephiroth; the only one to have no colour is Kether, the Crown, which is surrounded by infinite brilliance of Ain Soph Aour. (The staging of Station To Station made great use of brilliant white light.) The phrase that follows, ‘Tall in this room overlooking the ocean,’ sounds a lot like a Tarot card, The Tower, which is usually depicted as having been struck by lightning that forces sudden and unexpected ch-ch-ch-changes. (Bowie painted his own tarot cards.) When, in that song, Bowie declaims, ‘the European canon is here,’ he refers not to an arsenal, but the Western esoteric tradition of Hermetic Kabbalah, which developed in Europe after the Renaissance.
Emaciated and aloof, the alienated persona that emerged on the set of The Man Who Fell To Earth – where Bowie impersonated an alien chiefly by pretending to be himself – was, as the Actor – Bowie referred to himself as ‘the Actor’ during this period, when he actually was an actor, but before he became The Dame – later admitted, “an isolationist, very much on his own, with no commitment to any society at all.” The mirrors all around him weren’t just the ones he snorted white lines from: as above, so below, but which way is up? Stylistically, he was not so much the man who fell to Earth as an Übermensch who emanated via a blinding flash of lightning. The photograph on the album cover was taken on the set of the film and The Duke went out to promote Station To Station wearing Thomas Jerome Newton’s black waistcoat and white shirt that were put together for him by The Man Who Fell To Earth’s costume designer, Ola Hudson, who had a son, then eight years old, who grew up to be the guitarist in Guns & Roses!
Given the level of madness that surrounded the project, it’s amazing that Station To Station got made – Bowie later stated that he couldn’t remember recording the album at all, although “I know it was in L.A. because I’ve read it was” – never mind that it’s a masterpiece. Bowie claimed the record was made by “an entirely different person,” yet it is an archetypal Bowie record and for many fans, it’s our fave Dave rave. His ability to produce some of his best work while out of his mind differentiates David Bowie from any other pop star who ever snorted a line of coke, probably. He is perhaps the sole exception to the rule that, when cocaine erodes the sensitivities, boring and irrelevant art ensues. In most cases, pop stars come up with their best ideas before they achieve material success. Then, once the cash comes flooding in, providing the wherewithal to cultivate a cocaine habit, they soon lose touch with what made them special in the first place and swiftly become irrelevant. But Mr Bowie went the other way. Even when coked off his chump and working on auto pilot, David Bowie was brilliant. When he got sober and went mainstream… ah!
By the time they got around to making Station To Station, the rhythm section led by Carlos Alomar (guitar), with George Murray on bass and Dennis Davis on drums, that gelled over Young Americans and was to comprise the core of Bowie’s band for the next decade had become so adept that they could move their funk in any direction, even while their leader was driving blind. Not that your man was the only one getting sniffed up in the studio. Earl Slick joined the festivities to build the bombast of the title track: “The feedback at the beginning was me and David going through two sets of Marshall stacks in the live room at Cherokee Studios. It was two in the morning, and we were just feeding back like two crazy guys.” Sounds intense doesn’t it? Still, as Ben Graham said in his review of its 35th anniversary re-release in September 2010, ‘Station To Station is far from the work of an artist in decline. Rather, it extends the Philly funk of Young Americans into weirder, colder territory, and marks the beginning of the period of radical musical reinvention and rigorous introspection that would continue through the Berlin period.’
At bowiesongs, they reckon that another factor in the album’s successful completion was Word On A Wing, ‘a talisman encased in a song’ that closes side one of the vinyl LP. Frank Cottrell Boyce – whose favourite Bowie song it is – describes Word On A Wing as ‘this breathless, passionate, theologically very straightforward hymn: ‘Lord I kneel and over you my word on a wing, I’m trying hard to fit into your scheme of things.” How straightforward it is may be a matter of opinion – bowiesongs insists that, ‘as prayers go it’s rather opaque and quietly defiant, more of an opening negotiation tactic than a submission to a higher power:’ ‘Just because I believe, don’t mean I don’t think as well, but I don’t have to question everything in heaven or hell,’ croons the Duke. So, however conventionally devout, Word On A Wing is definitely a payer, concerned with the redemptive power of faith.
What is a hymn if not a love song? For me, this song continues to evoke a certain person who has been absent from my life for more than twenty years, but I still think of just about every day, so forcibly did she intrude upon my scheme of things. Of course, Bowie would have no problem with my interpretation, or anyone’s. Above all, the Actor understood that art is only given meaning, finally, by those whom it affects. This is but one of the paradoxes presented by Word On A Wing, the shaft of brilliant light in the darkness of what is undeniably a heavy record, from David Bowie’s darkest daze.