Nothing about the Thin White Duke, the last of Bowie’s characters or personas, makes sense.
There’s no story line to him, as there is with Ziggy, just the one song, “Station to Station.” And what an odd song it is: There seems to be a narrator in the first two lines (“The return of the Thin White Duke/Throwing darts in lovers’ eyes”). In lines 3-9, the TWD begins by addressing a listener (“Here are we”), but by line 6, he is alone again (“Here am I”), then in line 8, it’s “we” again, and in line 9, “you” enters, and then after the reiteration of the narrator’s lines, it’s “I” and “you” again.
It’s as if Bowie couldn’t control the TWD, even here, in his one song.
There were just too many perspectives to juggle. And this I think is how things were for Bowie in 1975. There was still a David Jones in there somewhere, who was presenting himself as David Bowie, and playing Thomas Jerome Newton, and trying to create a new persona so he could face the world post-LA.
Bowie seems to have been hell-bent on self-destruction during this period. As part of this perverse project, he creates a persona fashioned to repulse.
Not that there is anything in the TWD’s one song that is repellant. The TWD persona emerged in style and interviews.
Bowie had met Christopher Isherwood, an English writer who was attracted to Berlin because in the 1930s it was a place he could safely enjoy with his lover, poet W. H. Auden. He evacuated himself as the Nazis gained power. Had Bowie lived in Germany when transportation to the death camps began, he could have been sent to a concentration camp for any of at least three reasons: bisexuality, miscegenation, and familial history of mental illness.
Isherwood’s Berlin Stories provided the inspiration for Cabaret, which may in turn have inspired Bowie to end Station to Station with “Wild is the Wind,” a song that his friend Nina Simone performed with great feeling. (Nina Simone was foremost a singer, but she was also a black activist. Bowie befriended her during a slump in both their lives, and although Simone died in 2003, her website is still updated. When Bowie died, someone took the trouble to say that Simone considered him to be “a close and trusted friend and ally.”)
Bowie’s black and white suit and the stark staging of the Station to Station tour were perhaps intended to recapture the look of Berlin in 1930s newsreels, a black-and-white world.
The TWD is not a starman; he is a time traveler. If the TWD had been a connoisseur of decadent Berlin nightlife, he would have been fine. But to be a very “Aryan” looking guy in 1930s Berlin was a dangerous look. And because the TWD wasn’t in the music, Bowie started talking. I think it is clear that the outlandish things Bowie said were the persona talking. When you read these words: “I think that morals should be straightened (emphasis added) up for a start. They’re disgusting,” you know Bowie isn’t doing the talking. We don’t believe that when Ziggy sang “Five Years” that Bowie believed we had five years left to live, do we?
Another hint: From the Cameron Crowe 1976 Playboy interview: “Last question. Do you believe and stand by everything you’ve said? BOWIE: Everything but the inflammatory remarks.”
The most thorough examination of the TWD’s views I’ve found is by Arad Alper, “Taking It All the Right Way: Was David Bowie a Fascist?” I was so glad to find this because I had been putting off writing this post because everything about Bowie – actions and words -prior to and after the TWD repudiates what he said in the interviews.
By 1980, when Bowie – not the TWD – talked to NME, I think he was genuine here:
“I was in the depths of mythology. I had found King Arthur. It was not as you probably know because… I mean, this whole racist thing which came up, quite inevitably and rightly, but – and I know this sounds terribly naive – but none of that had actually occurred to me, inasmuch as I’d been working and still do work with black musicians for the past six or seven years. And we’d all talk about it together – about the Arthurian period, about the magical side of the whole Nazi campaign, and about the mythology involved.”
The Nazi mythology was fantastical, involving as it did Atlantis, hollow earth, grails and arks and holy spears, round tables, bizarre archaeology, expeditions to Tibet, and Hitler’s persuasive powers a result of his being an accomplished wizard. And of course Alistair Crowley’s name pops up, sometimes as a British agent; others, a double agent.
Nazi occultism has been a source for all manner of entertainments, from Raiders of the Lost Ark to appearances of occult-obsessed Nazis in superhero comic books, villains in video games, not to mention sensationalist histories. Not surprising then that during his isolated existence in LA that Bowie would have indulged his imaginings of “Himmler’s sacred realm/Of dream reality.”
Battle of [for] Britain/The Letter[s]
One more speculation before we leave the TWD and Dion Fortune.
Fortune loved Glastonbury and describes its spiritual power in Avalon of the Heart. She would have tolerated no Nazi nonsense about the Holy Grail. It’s in Glastonbury, and that is where it belongs. It’s a pity that Bowie didn’t put down Psychic Self-Defense and read Avalon of the Heart. Then again, he might not have recognized Violet Firth, its author, as the real name of Dion Fortune. (The book is now available with Fortune as the author. There may have been a 1971 issue with Dion Fortune as author.)
Not all the occult activity in WWII was in Germany. Occultists were active in Britain as well, but they were true to the tenets of occultism, working below the radar as it were. Doreen Valiente, the mother of modern witchcraft in England, was one of the Bletchley Park codebreakers. Although there is no suggestion that she used magic to break codes, it’s an intriguing idea. I don’t know when the Bletchley codebreakers were first mentioned by name in the press.
During WWII, Fortune encouraged occultists throughout Britain to launch a psychic defense against the enemy, asking them to unite and use their magical forces to repel an invasion. Each week she would send instructions for a meditation to be performed as a certain time by magicians throughout Britain with the aim of establishing a psychic barrier to a physical invasion by the Nazis. The name of the book that tells of these efforts: The Magical Battle of Britain: The War Letters of Dion Fortune. You can read a fairly large chunk of it on Google Books.
Fortune clearly took the occultism of the Nazis very seriously indeed and considered WWII a fight between good magic and evil magic.
Bowie wouldn’t have known of this in the 1970s. The Magical Battle of Britain was first published in 1993.
The lyrics don’t seem relevant, but I wonder if the song title “Battle for Britain (The Letter)” on Earthling was a little nod to Fortune.
And as it happened, the Nazis never did set foot on the mainland of the British Isles.