The Berlin of David Bowie

Speak of David Bowie and before long, Berlin is spoken of, almost before his native London or New York where he spent decades. It is his couple of years spent in Berlin that enthrall, inspire and puzzle fans. He produced arguably his greatest work while living here in the late seventies; putting out in quick succession, the three albums; Low, Heroes and Lodger, collectively known as the Berlin Trilogy in collaboration with Tony Visconti and Brian Eno, with his spiritual companion, Iggy Pop shadowing him. Bowie referred to those records, as his DNA. He also produced, The Idiot and Lust for Life, two of the greatest records in Iggy’s solo canon. Yet, Bowie’s presence in the city is not in bright lights, there are no statues, no plaques, no museums pointing the way to him; as usual, he is more elusive than that. But, he is of course still here, beautifully alluring in the eaves.

Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs, Young Americans and Station to Station ensured Bowie had only gone and conquered America, and as Elvis and Lennon learned, you don’t want to go doing a thing like that. Into the void, Bowie dove, scurrying about borrowed houses, sustained on a diet of milk and cocaine, or so goes the myth, there’s a lot of that about Bowie, the old myths. Yes, there is valid evidence on Alan Yentob’s 1975 documentary, Cracked Actor, where Bowie’s fragile state is apparently illuminated. Still, in one scene, he looks pretty content and well, wearing a large felt hat, motoring through the Californian desert, sitting in the back harmonising to Aretha Franklin’s Natural woman, gulping milk , Tony Mascia and Coco Schwab sitting up front like his auld pair, as they pass a wax museum, he grins “A wax museum in the desert, you’d think it would melt.” How much was he putting us on?

The Isolar world tour to support the album, Station to Station marked Bowie’s journey away from Los Angeles and towards Berlin. That record, in the words of Allan Jones, writing in Melody Maker in 1976, “captured the spiritual malaise of the decade.” Through it, Bowie was leaving the decadence and America behind and pointing towards the technological phenomenon of the Berlin LPs. The train was leaving town, Bowie was on it. On the opening track, he haunts the vocal -

Tall in this room overlooking the ocean
Here are we, one magical movement from Kether to Malkuth
There are you, drive like a demon from station to station

He’s taking the freight train from Kether, the celestial crown on the kabbalistic tree of life, to Malkuth, the most earthly of the kabbala’s ten stations -

It’s safer than a strange land
But I still care for myself
And I don’t stand in my own light
Lord, Lord, my prayer flies
Like a word on a wing
My prayer…

He wasn’t partying in LA, he told John Robinson, “I didn’t really use drugs for hedonistic purposes, I didn’t go out very much. I wasn’t getting totally out of it and going to clubs and all that; I’d never really done that to a major extent. i was really just working, I’d work days in a row without sleep. it wasn’t a joyful, euphoric kind of thing. I was driving myself to the point of insanity…I was in a fragile state at that time, it was time to get out of this terrible lifestyle that I had put myself into, and get healthy, it was time, to pull myself together.” Glenn Hughes, whose house he was staying in said, “David told me the thought his demon had caught up with him. He told me he had to get out of LA.

Whilst touring Station to Station, Bowie had met the writer Christopher Isherwood backstage at the Forum in Inglewood, California. Isherwood had lived in Berlin during the early 1930s, and the city became the backdrop to his works including Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye To Berlin — which became the basis of the 1972 film Cabaret. Bowie was fascinated by Isherwood’s memories of Berlin and coupled with his avid digesting of German expressionism, he began considering the city for his next destination. He began to Berlin as “the center of everything that is happening and will happen in Europe over the next few years”, he wished to, “experiment, to discover new forms of writing; to evolve, in fact, a new musical language.” Six months later he moved to Berlin. His assistant, Coco Schwab found him a modest, first floor apartment, above a car repair shop in an Art Nouveau building in the modest area of Schoneberg.

Life in Berlin changed Bowie, Rory MacLean in his chapter on Bowie, in his fascinating book, Berlin, provides a delicious description of a day in the life of Bowie in West Berlin in the late seventies, “The cyclist swung off Hauptstrasse onto the deep, tree-lined streets. His bicycle tires thrummed on the cobbles. The warm air ruffled his hair. He pedaled past the buildings where Isherwood and Riefenstahl had lived. At a co-op cafe pale-faced students in PLO scarves looked up from their copy of Kierkegaard and ordered another espresso. Above them ‘US Army Go Home” was graffitied on the walls of a squat… At Brecht’s blitzed apartment block on Spichernstrasse he veered north, retracing the old playwright’s daily stroll to the Romaishces Cafe. Over coffee and chess — the cyclist had read — Brecht and Grosz had called for a new kind of art and gifted it to the world. Some mornings the cyclist turned left rather than right and rode south to where Ernst Kirchner — one of the fathers of Expressionism — had had his studio…the cyclist past the vacated bunkers, the demolished Sportpalast where Goebbels had declared Total War, the People’s Court where Hitler’s would be assassins had been sentenced to death. Templehof’s vast arrivals hall and cold stone eagles rose behind him…At Mie van der Rohe’s New National Gallery, built on the abandoned foundations of Speer’s Germania, he turned right to follow the canal..into Kothenerstrasse, avoiding the tracks of the trams which no longer ran, and glided towards the Wall. At the edge of no man’s land he coasted to a stop and rolled his bike into Hansa Sound Studio.” In this imaginative piece, I feel that Rory MacClean sums up better than anyone, the new Bowie, the Bowie who wrote in his diary, “I have now got the will . I will be and I will work. “

MacClean succintly puts it, “Many come to Berlin on a search, often for themselves. Bowie found himself in Berlin. He pulled away from addiction and shed his false personas.” Bowie said of the period, “Life in LA had left me with an overwhelming sense of foreboding. I had approached the brink of drug-induced calamity one too many times and it was essential to take positive action. Berlin was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke, it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn’t care. Well, not about an English rock singer…”

Alastair Mackay, writing in Uncut, says, “Bowie, enjoying his isolation in Berlin, remained enthralled by the electronic music of Neu! and Kraftwerk and was heavily under the influence of Eno. But the real sense you get from Heroes, is of an artist relaxing into a new identity…What you hear is a kind of alienated psyche music; European, and narrated, as ever, in the Mockney patois of Anthony Newley. There’s no denying the influence of the Cold War’s divided city on the mood. The three instrumentals on side two — Sense of Doubt, MossGarden and Neukoln — are like a soundtrack to the geopolitical anxieties of the day.”

Hansa’s Studio Two had been used as a dance hall by the Gestapo, and was known by Bowie as ‘The hall by the Wall’. “It was a Weimar ballroom,” he told Uncut in 2001, “utilised by Gestapo in the ’30s for their own little musical ‘soirées’. The studio itself was a relic. My first impressions were of the curtains surrounding the studio, and the darkness in the studio. It was not foreboding, just that the air was thick with a darker vibe. You have got to remember, we’re painting a picture based on our emotional disposition and you’re thinking: Germans, Nazis, the Wall, oppression. These things are hanging in the air, and when things get darker physically, you kind of think of darker themes too. Berlin was a rather dark, industrial place to work. There was one point when we wanted to see a bit of light and we asked them to open the curtains. There were these gigantic, heavy curtains and when they did that we saw the walk where the gunner is and that was a rather rude awakening. Although it gave us a cold slap in the face as to where we were, it also gave us a heavier resolve about the intensity of what we were doing.

All five albums that Bowie made during his time in Berlin are extraordinary pieces of work, but the one that is most firmly rooted in Berlin is “Heroes”. Tony Visconti, in his book, A New Career In A New Town, writes, “The music and lyrics on the album were informed by cultural and physical differences between East and West, the Russian Red Guards that could see into the studio, and the sheer scale of Berlin’s recent history all contributed to a darker, more claustrophobic atmosphere than that on Low.”

The defining track on the album was lead single, “Heroes”, it was to to become a anthem for the divided city. It’s constant fascination lies in it’s open interpretation, but the lyrics

I remember
Standing by the wall
And the guns, shot above our heads
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall

firmly rooted it in Berlin and the insane situation in which people had to live.

Visconti writes, “The couple’s kiss in the shadows of the Berlin Wall famously inspired the lyrics of the title track. After a few days of lead vocals David decided to have a go at “Heroes”. He had to write the lyrics first and it seemed to be taking a long time. Antonia was visiting and our conversation, albeit a quiet one, was distracting him. He asked us to literally ‘take a walk’ so he could finish the lyrics. The area around the studio only had a few shops and a coffee house and it was late evening. It was kind of bleak. The control room window faced a forsaken empty lot sometimes used as a gypsy encampment, with the ubiquitous Wall looming in the distance. Antonia and I had a coffee and walked around a bit but didn’t go very far as it felt unsafe. We stopped beneath the control room window to look at the Wall. We had a little chat about it that somehow turned into a little snog. We chatted some more and then returned to the studio.”

Heroes became a Berlin anthem. Bowie returned to the city almost thirty years after writing it, MacClean eloquently describes that night , “In June 1987, his driver drove him past the old Hauptstasse apartment, by the Brucke Musuem and Hansa, to a stage in front of the Reichstag. As night fell, her performed to 70,000 fans, their candles and sparklers glittering around the Platz der Republik. Towards the end of the show, he read a message in German, ‘We send our wishes to all our Friends who are on the other side of the Wall’ . Then he sang ‘Heroes’. On the other side of the hateful divide, hundreds of young East Berliners strained to hear the echoes of the concert. They caught sight of stage lights flashing off blank, bullet marked walls. They heard Bowie greet them. They listened to his song. Their song. Berlin’s song. As ‘Heroes’ reached its climax some of the East German crowd pushed towards the Brandenburg gate, whistling and chanting, ‘Down with the Wall’. They threw insults and bottles and the Volkspolizei, rising together against the thugs in a rare moment of protest. On stage Bowie hard the tears from the other side. He was in tears.”

“It was one of the most emotional performances I have ever done, he said later, It was breaking my hear…that’s the town where it was written, and that’s the particular situation that it was written about. It was just extraordinary.

So, where is Bowie in Berlin? On the physical level, there is Hauptstrasse 155, you can stand across the road and look over at it, and imagine back, to young Bowie and Pop, barely in their 30s, strutting in their East Berlin duds down to Neues Ufer for a beer, which you can do too. There is Hansa, which for a princely sum, you can get a tour of; there is the Brucke museum where you can walk in the footsteps of Bowie gazing at the works of Kirchner, Kollwitz and Heckel.

But much of Berlin is steeped with Bowie, or Bowie is steeped in Berlin; stick on your headphones, listen to the album Heroes and wander Neukolln the open streets and through the crowds spilling out of the shopfronts — chatting, laughing, eating, drinking, smoking and cavorting, Explore the tree lined avenues of Schoneberg, diving in and out of the book, antique and junk stores listening to Sound and Vision. Embrace the sonic experimentation of Eno on the second half of Low, and wander about the Wall at Nordbahnhof and through the quiet cobblestreets of Prenzlaeur Berg with Warszawa, Art Decade, Weeping Wall and Subterraneans. Go to Potsdamer Platz and listen to Heroes and Where are We Now?. Ride the U-Bahn listening to Lust for Life, The Passenger, Success and Tonight; and you’ll find Bowie permeates the city in that willow the wisp enchanting way of his.

Originally published at on July 21, 2019.

Freelance Writer —, The Start Up, Noteworthy, Slackjaw, MuddyUm, PS I Love You, Hotpress, Atlas Obscura

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