52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK SEVEN

Week 7: When Joni Met Jaco

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.


“Hejira”

Joni Mitchell

Album: Hejira

1976

Asylum Records


“Music expresses that which can not be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” Victor Hugo


During my senior year of high school my budding interest in jazz music had come full circle. I played drums alongside two electric violinists in, dare I say, an eclectic seven-piece jazz combo. I was enrolled in a full-year jazz studies course (something of a rarity for a high school), and I regularly raided the public library’s respectable jazz CD collection. With the limit set at ten albums per visit, I could walk away with more than enough to soak up in a week, and I ultimately pieced together a fairly comprehensive collection of “burned” albums.


It was in my senior year that I first gave hip-hop a chance. It was the year I seriously dove into Bob Dylan’s catalogue and it was the year I discovered Jaco Pastorius. For most, Jaco is hardly a household name, but rather his is a tragic tale in the music world–a master of his craft, a musicians musician, cut short in his prime by a tragedy that still puzzles his admirers.


Arguably one of the greatest electric bass players to have ever picked up the instrument, period, Jaco got his start in the light jazz fusion ensemble, Weather Report, but quickly established himself as a leading force, releasing two solo studio albums and collaborating with a number of artists in and outside of the jazz world. That this legend would die from injuries contracted in a mysterious bar brawl in Southern Florida, makes the story all the more tragic.


I first became privy to Jaco’s self-titled debut album one day when I entered the jazz practice room of my high school’s music department to find a number of my peers hovered around a stereo blasting Jaco’s rendition/mash-up of Herbie Hancock’s “Kuru/Speak Like a Child” through the room’s significant sound system. Awe was understood.


That afternoon I picked up the CD version of Jaco Pastorius at the bookstore and spent the evening listening as Jaco turned the fretless electric bass guitar into a lead instrument.


His ability of combining traditional bass lines with melodic, tender harmonic chords to create entire, unaccompanied compositions on the bass changed the game for bass players everywhere. Not to go overkill on the praise, but it’s fair to say that without Jaco’s contribution to music, Flea from The Red Hot Chili Pepper’s, The Minutemen’s Mike Watt, Vic Wooten, and other prolific masters of the instrument may have never found their way. He’s that important.


In 1976, as Pastorius unleashed his debut masterpiece, he also started what would end up being a four-record collaboration with folk singer Joni Mitchell, starting with her underrated album, Hejira.


I had grown up with Mitchell’s Blue and Court and Spark, easily the siren’s two greatest achievements, but was unfamiliar with her forays into the jazz world until I stumbled upon copies of Hejira and 1979’s Mingus at the aforementioned library’s audio/visual department.


I didn’t link the two artists until I actually played the album and instantly heard what had to be Jaco’s tender bass harmonics coupled with Mitchell’s equally tender vocals. The four tracks that Jaco played on–”Coyote,” “Hejira,” “Black Crow” and “Refuge of the Roads”–are in my opinion four of the greatest musical parings out there.


Two masters of their individual crafts producing music of such beauty; it was enough to leave me wide-eyed. While Joni can make her pipes weep with melancholy, Jaco figured out how to do the same on the fretless bass.


It makes sense that Mitchell sought out Jaco (or vice versa). Both have extremely distinct sounds, and Mitchell has always walked the fine line between folk and jazz with her music, eventually devoting whole records to the genre she adores (she name checks “strains of Benny Goodman” on Hejira’s title-track and would later pay her respects to Charles Mingus on Mingus).


While slightly flawed as a whole album, Hejira is definitely one of the Mitchell’s most fascinating efforts. Written almost entirely on the road as Mitchell drove from Maine to Southern California, the album, which gets its name from the Arabic word for ‘journey,’ invokes images of traveling alone by car through America, a spiritual journey documented by so many artists over the years.


She paints pictures of desert landscapes, old highway motels, and on one of the album’s great standout tracks, “Amelia,” airplane vapor trails which she tags as “a hexagram of the heavens.” She’s always had a way with words.

While music journalist Ron Rosenbaum gives a strong argument for “Amelia” being Mitchell’s strongest and most intriguing song to date at Slate.com, I’ve always been moved by “Hejira,” that epic title-track that makes the best use of the Jaco/Joni marriage of sound.


On “Hejira,” Mitchell sings of “comfort in melancholy” while Jaco meanders in and out of her verses fingering his six string with the same warmth that Mitchell calls upon with her vocals and lyrics.


The beauty of jazz music has always been its language of improvisation. Most jazz standards are based around a series of simple notes. The players muse on the bridge and then each go off into their worlds playing off each other the way people share thoughts in a conversation. It’s a musical art-form that finds its finest moments in the surprises that can arise. Put a group of masters in a room and listen to the magic unfold.


On “Hejira” Mitchell sings, “I see something of myself in everyone / Just at this moment in the world.” When listening to “Hejira,” and the other three Jaco/Joni tracks on the album, it’s hard not to deny that the two artists found an instant connection in the studio. The fruit of this pairing is, in my mind, the heart of what makes Hejira such an incredible album to return to again and again. Lyrically, I still favor Blue and Court and Spark for giving the world lines like,


Oh I could drink a case of you darling

Still I’d be on my feet

–“Case of You”


I used to count lovers like railroad cars

I counted them on my side

Lately I don’t count on nothing

I just let things slide


–“Just Like This Train”


I stumbled upon Hejira shortly after diving into Jaco, (not to mention Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson) and found the connection between both geniuses to be serendipitous (this was before I relied on the Internet for musical fact checking to aid my listening habits). Liner notes would confirm that what I was hearing was, in fact, Jaco, but I had no doubt in my mind.


Later on that year I stumbled upon a forgotten Herbie Hancock homage record to George and Ira Gershwin,
Gershwin’s World (1998), which features, among a number of beautiful collaborations, a Mitchell guest vocal spot on “The Man I Love.” I played it for my father who I knew was a longtime Joni fan, and he knew the minute her lush pipes poured into the microphone who it was.

Jaco and Joni have musical voices that are completely their own. While you can hear Joni’s influences on countless modern day singer songwriters, not to mention her contemporaries, Jaco’s presence still carries strong in and out of the jazz world. Both are unmistakable to ear.


Later that year I discovered Martin Scorsese’s concert film, The Last Waltz, a moving swan song performance from Bob Dylan’s great backing band,The Band and was pleasantly surprised to find Joni performing Hejira’s opener “Coyote.” It was eerie how Hejira linked together a number of my musical explorations of the time. While now I credit resources like Allmusic.com or Wikipedia as terribly informative fact-checking sites for exploring musical range, their absence that year provided me with countless surprises of collaborations that changed my perception of the music world. Suddenly jazz wasn’t just some side genre that only the hip or the old dug, but rather a music that was without genre boundaries.


Miles Davis’ foray into funk and rock, Steely Dan’s fusion of jazz instrumentation, and Joni’s pining to walk the line between folk/rock/pop/jazz were all part of a musical awakening that year. It cemented the notion that music is a universal language and while we can typecast and catalogue it into genres and sub-genres, its ultimately a form of expression that is completely unpredictable.


Advertisements

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Day 2

Christmas Holiday Getaway: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Day 2

Taxi Cab Confessions—Bus to Malacca—A Mosque—Curry Under the Finger Nails—A Disappointing Chinatown—David Byrne—Strange Fruit—Tales From Kampung Baru Night Market: First Night— Hookah and Tim Allen—The Durian Nightcap

When making plans for Kuala Lumpur, I gave myself an extra day to venture out of the city. I knew the main focus of this trip would be KL and all its glory, but what about the rest of Peninsular Malaysia? I went through my Lonely Planet, talked with a friend who traveled in Malaysia last fall, and ultimately settled on the former colonial port town of Malacca, from which the Straights of Malacca are named.

This historical port city once served as the landing point for the Dutch and Portuguese to make their claims of parts of Malaysia for trade in the East Indies. The city, which is protected under UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, was written up as having a surprisingly European feel with all the diversity of modern day Malaysia. Situated a mere two hours south of KL by bus, it seemed like the perfect day trip and a chance to be near the coast.

I woke up twenty minutes before my alarm was set to chime due in part to an older Australian lady who checked into the mixed-dorm room at dawn and made all kind of ruckus. I would later run into said woman after showering, while I was applying my contacts at the communal sink and mirror.

“Oh my, you’re a tall boy, aren’t you?” she said padding my shoulders, mid left contact lens application.


I made casual small talk, trying to be friendly though I was not quite awake and ultimately granted her the podium. I gathered from her rambling story that she was on an extended two-four month tour of Southeast Asia, solo, and had just come down from Thailand where she told me she has many friends. The woman seemed friendly enough, albeit a bit chatty for 7:00 in the morning. I’m always impressed at the older travelers you meet in hostels, which are no longer globally type-casted as Youth Hostels. Most older wanderers either fall into the category of veteran travelers who favor lively hostel settings to lonely hotel rooms or of travel newbies who seem to be touring to fulfill the “better late than never” mentality.

As I gathered my day pack and was heading out of the dark dorm room, I passed her in the long hostel corridor heading towards our slumbering room in a long white nightgown with two shopping bags full of 7-11 goods. I pitied the sleeping souls who were about to awake to plastic bag wake-up call she was surely going to issue onto the fellow travelers.

I caught a taxi to the bus station and was pleasantly surprised to find the driver spoke perfect English and was instantly curious to talk to me. The man was from KL, originally, but had spent much of his life working on a freight-shipping vessel that took him all over the world. He instantly had an opinion of Chicago, a city he had stayed in back in the 70s after living in New York City with a brother for six months.

He told me that I would like Malacca and recommended that I take advantage of the seafood offerings. I told him that wouldn’t be a problem.

He seemed excited to talk about world travel and I got the feeling that while he was happy in KL with his family and his job (he hinted to making a decent living working as a driver and owning a shop on the side) he enjoyed the freedom of his shipping days, particularly pulling into foreign ports. It was obvious that man had a number of stories he was dying to share but sadly the cab ride only lasted ten minutes.

The bus to Malacca was uneventful, though the scenery shifted from the suburban sprawl of KL to lush rolling green hills and palm trees that seemed to go on forever in every direction. The main bus terminal for Malacca was actually outside of the town’s center, which meant I had to find a local bus to take me into the town. Here’s where the trip started to get interesting.

The local bus fare rang up to about 20 US cents and my carriage to the city looked like it had seen better days. Aboard were several Muslim women in headscarves, including one woman’s daughter who navigated her way around some melted pocket chocolate for the majority of the ride. A loud Chinese gentleman made his presence known early on and continued to chat with people around him (his is the louder voice heard in the video below).

I reached the city center and instantly realized that this was a hot spot for tourism. In the city’s main square, which is situated around the Christ Church that was built by Dutch settlers circa the mid 18th century, there were countless Chinese and Indian tourists with cameras perusing the local market and pricing the many bicycle rickshaws that run tours of the city.

The rickshaws were especially fun to watch. Most were ornately decorated with colorful flowers, umbrellas and many were outfitted with some sort of make-shift speaker system that blasted obnoxious Western and Eastern pop music, as if the drivers were competing for loudest bike. One nervous-looking older Western couple seemed unsure of their rickshaw choice as they were pedaled away to Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World” blaring from the sleigh’s florally vibrant canopy.

Malacca is a charming city that does truly have a European feel to it. It’s a bit overrun by tourists but there are still untouched sections of the village that are perfect for the more ambitious walker. Malacca’s most obvious connection to Europe comes not from the Dutch and Portuguese architecture but rather from the fact that the city is built around a series of canals and river boardwalks, all of which flow into the Straights.

I checked out the usual sights–the aforementioned Christ Church, a Portuguese fort, a shipping vessel turned museum on water, and the Stadhuy town hall. The most striking sights were the two major Mosques in Malacca, the Tranquerah and Kampung Hulu Mosque, both fully active and quite beautiful.

At the Kampung Hulu Mosque I came across a Muslim man throwing buckets of water on a car parked outside the Mosque entrance. I watched for a good ten minutes from across the street as the man would casually walk out with a plastic pale full of water, throw the contents all over the car’s hood and windshield, all while mumbling something to the driver. He would then return to the Mosque’s cleansing pool to refill. I’m not sure if the car wash was out of anger for her parking choice or if he was truly cleansing the woman’s Nissan hatchback.

Inside the Mosque I did my best to keep myself out of sight, out of mind. The aforementioned water thrower was very kind and told me to meander around even before I had a chance to ask. There were men conversing on the outside porch, a woman and her kids were in a small female prayer room off to the side and one long-haired man was praying near a large drum situated above the main entrance gate.

After wandering around Malacca’s Indian neighborhood I found a small restaurant that looked promising, that is to say there were a number of people eating at long, communal tables.

The food was served on large banana leaves and not a single person was seen using a fork. Custom calls for using your right hand to scoop the food into your mouth, usually by taking clumps of rice or bread to soak up the sauces. The technique is a lot harder than it sounds as you must rely partially on gravity to help drop the food from the hand to the mouth.

I ordered banana leaf rice, which includes rice or freshly baked nan bread and FOUR different side dishes, which are spooned onto the leaf by a man carrying a giant metal tiffin set. Later another more flesh oriented waiter comes around with various meat, vegetable and fish dishes that have already been prepared and portioned out for guests. I was given a fork without even asking for one but decided to do like the locals and dove in, my left hand sitting idle to the side.

Picking up the rice proved to be harder than I had thought, especially after a waiter poured a hefty portion of steaming lentils over the then nicely clumped rice, as if to challenge my competence. The experience felt primitive in a good way.

After I gorged myself on spicy curried lamb and fresh fish, cucumber salad, lentils, and various stewed vegetables I headed back out to explore. My stomach was full, my pores were sweating turmeric and there was a good deal of curry getting cozy under the fingernails.

After seeking out Malacca’s other notable Mosque I headed towards Jonker Street, also known as Malacca’s Chinatown. The main drag was flooded with window shoppers and was clearly the one part of the city that was truly overrun by tourists.

Tacky gift shops ran most of the street. Every restaurant advertised chicken rice ball, the unofficial delicacy of Malacca’s Chinatown. One thing I’ve noticed having lived in East Asia for the past seven months is how locals here are drawn towards anything that is advertised as being a specialty. Long lines immediately constitute a place as being, “a must-visit” and hype goes a long way.

Taiwan’s many regions and cities are all famous for one or more items that one must either buy or see when visiting. If you visit say, for example, the port city of Keelung north of Taipei it is expected that you seek out the Keelung sandwich, a greasy donut like submarine roll that is slathered with mayonnaise, sprinkled with diced cucumber, green tomatoes, and given a helping serving of hard-boiled eggs and Chinese sausage. It doesn’t matter if said sight or delicacy is good or not, it’s expected that as a tourists you must make the pilgrimage to seek it out. The same applied to Jonker Street, particularly with the Chicken Rice Ball. At one particularly restaurant it looked as if an entire tour bus of Chinese tourists had been dropped off in front of the building and were waiting to taste what this place (most likely written up in a guide of some sorts) had to offer.

I wandered around for another hour or so snapping pictures and popping in various shops. There were a number of cool antique stalls selling relics of the old Malaysia, particularly cool hard currency from yesteryears. Still, all goodies were being sold for antique prices.

Eventually, I made my way back to the Christ Church where the city bus had dropped me off. At around 4PM there were already a number of travelers waiting to get back to the central bus station for a return to either KL or possibly down south to Singapore. It should be noted that the city bus ride TO Malacca’s center took roughly 20 minutes or so. The trip back to the bus station during Malacca’s “rush hour” would’ve taken up to an hour, maybe longer, according to the ticket seller and another passenger who spoke perfect English. Understandable considering Malacca’s tight European streets aren’t made for giant busses and hundreds motorbikes to share.

Knowing that I had to be back for the 5PM bus back to KL that I had already bought a ticket for, I jumped off the bus and walked to a cab stand of sorts to flag a taxi to the station.

The first driver who saw me instantly flagged me over and started his engine. He gave me a good price up front to get me to the station and assured me that I would definitely make my bus.

“No problem. We fly there. You’ll see,” he said.

The driver was friendly in a casual sort of way, jumping right into the basic precursors to small talk. I told him where I was from in the States, what I was doing in Taiwan, and why I had come to his country. While he hadn’t traveled to Chicago, the city’s reputation preceded him. He even referenced John Dillinger, which may or may not be a result of the recent Johnny Depp Dillinger film, considering the biggest gangster reference linked to Chicago is always Al Capone.

We chatted about Malacca and K.L. His name, I would learn, was Pak Frankee and besides driving the taxi (which he said was merely a part-time gig for supplementing his income) he ran boat trips over the Malacca Strait into Indonesia, ran a hostel in Malacca and also conducted jungle tours of the Cameroon Highlands in inner-Southwest Malaysia. Like the driver before him who had taken me to the bus station in KL, it was clear this man had his share of stories to share. One in particular caught my attention instantly.

“Do you know David Byrne? Musician. From America,” the driver said, as my ears perked up with intrigue.

“Well, it just so happens…” I said, carrying on about my lifelong admiration for Byrne and Talking Heads.

Turns out Pak Frankee once gave David Byrne a ride from Kuala Lumpur into the Cameroon Highlands for a jungle trek to record orangutan sounds. While he couldn’t recall the exact year he said he thought it was in the early-80s, right around the time Byrne was wrapping up Talking Heads’ masterpiece, Remain in LIght, as well as 1981s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, his “recorded-sound collaboration with Brian Eno that prominently features found sounds recorded around the world and paired with synthesizer symphonies.

Frankee told me that Byrne (who was also accompanied by his girlfriend at the time) was “down to earth,” his words, and that he was very interested in learning about Frankee’s life and the history of the region.

The story was too bizarre to be made up (and Byrne is too abstract an artist for Frankee to just make the story up, had he said say, Michael Jackson or Jon Bon Jovi, I might have called his bluff). The ride to the bus station was enjoyable and when I was let off a part of me wanted to find out more. He gave me his card and told me that if I were ever back in Malaysia that I should call him out for a tour. I will take him up on this offer should I ever return.

After a long and rainy bus ride back to KL through rush hour traffic, I met Stuart at the hostel and we set out for a late dinner at the nearby Kampung Baru night market that the proprietor of the hostel told me was a must-eat destination.

Night markets in Asia just might be the single greatest culinary offering to the world. They are bustling havens where eating is not merely a refueling for the body but rather an exploration for the taste buds. While I am spoiled here in Taiwan with the plentiful night markets at my disposal, the Kampung Baru market ended up being the highlight of my trip to Malaysia and would be the one constant throughout the rest of my time in KL.

The market, which runs the length of three fairly unassuming streets in Chow Kit is an amalgamation of different cuisines, often all sharing the same roof. A fruit and meat market lies at its entrance offering a multitude of bizarre fruit choices, including one that both Stuart and I were virgins to.

Photo c/o Stuart Wallace

The small, hard fruit called salak looks like a medium garlic clove that has been covered with reptile skin, creating something that is truly unique to Southeast Asia, possibly only in Malaysia. The taste was bitter sweet, with a hint of banana, which is why, I suppose, one online blogger referred to the fruit as “a banana wrapped in a snakeskin”. I ate what I could but was ultimately more excited about the prospects of trying a new fruit than the actual flavors the salak had to offer.

For our proper dinner we settled on the first open-air seating establishment we could find that smelled good and more importantly had people eating. Our first stop was commenced with a toast of teh tarik frothy tea and two steamy bowls of peasant soup–one with the always good base of oxtail, the other a sour seafood stew.

Moving on with bellies not quite content, we stopped at a place across the street that sold grilled whole fish of the mysterious family. Served with a bit of spicy soy on the side, the fish was fresh with a nice hint of smokiness. By this time it was about 9:45 and the places around us were packed with locals socializing and eating.

Afterwards, we moved to a larger open-air food bazaar that had a large projection screen TV playing local KL channels. It makes sense that the satay man and his makeshift habachi grill was set up at the market’s entrance, and it makes even more sense that without thinking we ordered up fifteen pieces of the mixed variety. At pocket change prices, these glorious skewered offerings were more like meat lollipops.

We ordered some regular hot tea (which we found out would be sweet nevertheless) and sat near a hookah stall in the corner while Tim Allen’s 1994 “everyday man becomes Santa Claus” family comedy, The Santa Claus was projected onto the large screen for the mostly Muslim audience to enjoy.

We shared a fruit-flavored nargila, which used a piece of fresh pineapple as the base for the tobacco and coals to burn, over conversation and the reality that yeah, we’re sitting in Kuala Lumpur, smoking, eating skewered meat and looking at the Petronas Towers lighting the distant sky to comfort us. The scene was perfect and we knew that we would return again, and as it turns out, again until we both left the city.

After a couple of hours we decided to head back, first insisting on stopping at an equally bustling stall across the way that sold freshly baked, sweet rodi bread with a standard yellow curry for dipping. On the walk home we tested our stomach’s durability one last time with a night cap of “The King of Fruits” and a staple of Malaysia: the durian.

Photo c/o The Internet

The durian is the kind of fruit that makes you wonder, “who ever thought to eat it this bizarre alien fruit?” For starters, the fruit’s spiky exterior shell places it nicely in the “treacherous-poke-your-eye-out” genus of weird Asian super fruit. The fleshy interior, which has the feel of three-day-old pudding skin, emits an odor that can be best described as ass meets rot. Still, the taste is something truly unique and dare I say, besides the mess involved with eating this fruit, it’s pretty good. I had had durian in Taiwan but Malaysia is where it reigns king and the quality and freshness was unprecedented.

Content and exuding funkiness from our pores, we returned to the hostel, checked email and eventually crashed for some much needed rest before another adventure in KL the following, Christmas Day!

To be continued…


52 Weeks, 52 Moments in Music: WEEK SIX

Week Six

Music has the magical ability to link with personal experiences and be burned into your psyche forever. Musical deja vu is a beautiful thing and for me, it is something that I always try to explore. What is it about certain songs that make them stick with you through life? How do songs, albums or even snippets of lyrics cling to people, their memories and experiences in life. Through this project, which I will update on a weekly basis, I hope to explore the musical moments that have stuck with me over the years and get to the essence of what makes them memorable. It’s a chance to explore my old (and new) favorites and hopefully shed a new light on what makes them so unique. 52 weeks, 52 moments in music that shaped who I am today.


“Station to Station”
David Bowie
Album: Station to Station
1976
RCA Records

The title track to David Bowie’s 1976 album, Station to Station begins with the sounds of train bursting into motion. The hush of the locomotion, presumably pulling away from a its station of origin, pans from the right to left channel and is eventually coupled with a restrained frenzy of distorted guitar and synthesizer sonic waves and a menacing clang of heavily-fingered piano keys. The thumping bass line enters, as does the echoed thunder of sparsely-played tom tom drums and a twangy rhythm guitar. A simple organ riff joins the fold and a shortly after the song’s third minute we are introduced to the ring leader of this slow-burning melee of sound.


The return of the Thin White Duke

Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes

Here are we one magical moment

Such is the stuff from

Where dreams are woven


Station to Station is one of the great milestone records in the history of rock and roll. For David Bowie it was the record that bridged two of the artist’s most vibrant creative periods during the 1970s; for rock music as a whole it was the spark needed to merge a polished sound from America’s respectively growing soul and disco scene with the ambitious budding art rock scene happening in Europe. For me, it was an album that instantly changed all my pre-conceived notions about Bowie the lavishly-costumed performer and musician and granted me a portal into a side of the artist’s canon that literally shook my perceptions of music.


At six tracks, Station is one of Bowie’s more concise efforts to date, but it still manages to pack the punches. Its title track remains his longest song to date, clocking in at over 10 minutes, and is one of those songs that I never tire from listening to. It unfolds like a symphony, rising from dark and mysterious to groovy, eventually culminating in a amalgamation of disco, funk, soul, Krautrock, early techno, glam and pretty much anything other sound Bowie had lying dormant in his inner-psyche. It’s a track that I’ve listened to in too many different settings to count, under various mental states and it remains one of the most fascinating offerings Bowie has ever released.


Recorded during Bowie’s coke-fueled soirée in Los Angeles from 1975-1976 while Bowie was filming Nicolas Roeg’s great science-fiction film, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Station to Station is an album that both excuses drug use for the sake of art while also affirming the notion that drug use can rip apart the inner psyche. Summed up: Bowie almost died making this album but it was this waltz to a dark place that helped produce this masterpiece and was the catalyst the artist needed to flee hellish L.A. for Western and Eastern Europe to start his much-lauded “Berlin Trilogy” of records. In an interview Bowie once said of Los Angeles during the mid-70s: “The fucking place should be wiped off the face of the earth”


It’s safe to say my fascination with Bowie’s late 1970s period–beginning with 76’s Station to Station, spanning the “Berlin Trilogy” of Low, ‘heroes’ & Lodger, and finishing with 1980s spectacular Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)–is unending. Bowie has often said in interviews that he seldom recollects anything from the Station sessions (most musicians involved are also fuzzy when it comes to memories from the studio). The rock and roll rumor mill spins out yarns painting Bowie as a skeleton of a man, living off various dairy products and copious amounts of easy to get L.A. coke. There are notes of paranoia fueling the recording of the album. Magic and the black arts were both weighing heavily on Bowie’s mind and soul, as was an unhealthy interest in the occult and German philosophy. Still despite everything pulling Bowie deeper and deeper into madness (and a likely “rock and roll” demise) he managed to gather some of the finest musicians of the time, including a number of his previous musical peers (most notably dueling guitarists Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar, the latter playing extensively on Bowie’s “Berlin” albums) and assembled an unprecedented shortlist of songs that to this day remain gems in Bowie’s extensive repertoire.


My true gateway to Bowie’s music came during my junior year of university. Before departing for a semester abroad in Salamanca, Spain, I coaxed a high-school friend into swapping music with me, most notably his digital Bowie discography. I already had a piquing interest in Bowie before this chance meeting of digital piracy/musical exploration. For those who still doubt the benefits of music downloading in the digital age understand this: there are some musicians or artists out there who should be explored in lumps, preferably through a chronologcial survey of their canon. Bowie, Bob Dylan, Talking Heads, Prince, to name a few giants that come to mind, evolved over their musical evolution in a way that was often unexpected, not always without its flaws but always fascinating. To listen to these transformations from early to late is such a rewarding gift for a music enthusiast.


If you go through Bowie’s catalogue of records during the 1970s, Station to Station seems like a natural way to divide his most lucrative decade.


Following closely on the heels of Bowie’s foray into Philly soul and disco sounds, the flawed but catchy Young Americans, Station seems to develop partially on the sound that Bowie was cultivating on Americans, while also adding enough needed experimentation to prove that he, in fact, had a lot more up his sleeve. The big musical jolt would follow with 1977s Low, an album so dear to my heart that I will eventually get around to adding it to this project.


“Station to Station” as a track has taken on many incarnations in my life. There was a seldom a time the track didn’t manage to make it onto a series of car mix CDs circulating the stereo in my Toyota. Like so many of Bowie’s tunes, I am always brought back to Salamanca, Spain. As I walked the streets my soundtrack was often set to Bowie, as my Iberian stint somehow became the environment where I fully-discovered his music. “Station to Station” was (and still is) a favorite track to run to as its slow-building crescendo coincides perfectly with the gradual ascension to full-on sprinting that runners plan during routes.


Lyrically the track is a window into the intrigue surrounding Bowie’s mental state of mind at the time. There are references to the Jewish Kabbalah, read as the crown and base of the tree of life:


Here are we

One magical movement

from Kether to Malkuth


Bowie references love and loss, possibly a sign of the times, most notably his separation from his wife and disconnection with his son while also referencing is physical and mental state:


It’s not the side-effects of the cocaine

I’m thinking that it must be love


Towards the end he finally gets to the point of the song and the album of its origin when he croons: “It’s too late / The European canon is here.”


It is widely known that Europe was beckoning Bowie, particularly through the music and art coming out of the East. His retreat to Europe, leaving behind L.A. was ultimately his saving grace. He has often said that he would have died in L.A. had he continued his lifestyle. That he also coaxed friend and musical influence Iggy Pop to join him in Europe, only moistens the intrigue of this period of musical exploration. Whether or not Bowie predicted or really knew what would ensue, musically, in the coming years of his career is up for debate, however, he knew that the art and changing tides in Eastern Europe would play an important role in the future of rock and roll. He, of course, wanted to be along for the ride.


My interest in this period of Bowie’s life would later lead to the reading of various accounts of the recording of this album, most notably Thomas Seabrook’s detailed book, Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in Town. I still listen to Station to Station on a semi-regular basis. It’s title tracks is one of the truly great epic songs in rock and roll. As for the rest of the album, Bowie’s at his finest.


“Golden Years” took everything that was good about Young Americans and fused it together with the twisted grooves that would find their way to “Station to Station.” “Word on a Wing” is a heartbreaking ballad of sorts that tests Bowie’s vocal prowess and ultimately showcases a range seldom heard. “TVC-15” feels like a Warren Zevon song was blasted into space and collided with disco tunes that time forgot. “Wild is the Wind” is a noteworthy cover that is reminiscent of Bowie’s earlier days. Then there’s “Stay,” which, besides featuring one of the truly great guitar riffs in rock and roll, is a sly number that would make Maggot Brain era Funkadelic envious.


Station to Station will always be a favorite in Bowie’s rich catalogue. Other venture and efforts would do more with this new found sound, most notably Low, however, it was Station that served as the jumping off point for Bowie’s major changes in the latter half of the century. Bowie released eleven near-flawless records in the 1970s, a feat that few artists working today could accomplish, especially when you consider that along the way he changed the sound and vision from album to album, station to station. After discovering Station to Station and the subsequent “Berlin Trilogy” I was officially hooked on Bowie, an unhealthy musical obsession that holds strong even today. Friends often scoff and wonder where this interest came from. They clearly haven’t listened to “Station to Station,” from its mesmerizing train whistle prelude to its coda, funk/disco/rock nirvana.

“Stay” featuring Adrian Belew