In many ways, the legend of David Bowie and Iggy Pop in Berlin is the stuff of sitcom fodder. Picture two renegade junkies trying to purge their daemons in a desolate divided city ravaged by the echoing howls of history, failing in the search for sobriety, sizzling up cheap sausages in a Hinterhof by day and acquiescing to the horrors of addiction by night, tearing through the crumbling streets in Bowie’s car at breakneck speeds and failing to avoid the flirtation of a dive bar’s flickering neon winks. It is a twisted fantasy of folie, fuck-about and artistic zeniths akin to the mashed-up imaginings of Irving Walsh and William S. Burroughs directed by Danny Boyle and David Lynch in a surrealist collaboration.
Remarkably, aside from the stories of two lairy musical mavericks holed up in a city of spies and a debauched ever-growing demimonde, the overarching finale would be a sucker punch to the comedy that epitomises the sheer subversive force of music. The final curve of the narrative would be the toppling of the Berlin Wall and it would be soundtracked by the insurmountable wave of euphoria that is ‘Heroes’ and the sanguine future for Germany that it represented.
In truth, this is naturally an idealised fiction and a few strict academics would argue that attributing the sledgehammer blow that brought down the wall to David Bowie would have more than a touch of glossy-eyed naivety to it. However, there is nothing that emboldens naivety more than music and no city in the world that embodies rock ‘n’ roll quite like Berlin. History needs a narrative and when it comes to the fall of the Berlin Wall, culture is the angle that wins out and Bowie is the hero who lands the lead role, whether that be inadvertently or otherwise.
From the confines of a modest first-floor apartment in the tree-lined thoroughfares of Schöneberg, Bowie and Iggy somehow pieced their lives back together in an achingly slow transition that seemed to trade glamour for destitution quicker than it traded cocaine for cuppas. Berlin might have been an inexplicable city to retreat to in terms of the search for sobriety, but it did imbue both artists with new creative impetus. “Both Iggy and I thought it might be time to clean up,” Bowie told MTV in 1997, “So we were very smart in our decision. We went straight out of L.A. to the heroin capital of Europe.”
Artistically, however, the city was primed for their muses to pillage. “There was conflict and tension in the air, and we thought ‘God if we can’t write in this place we can’t write anywhere’… and we thought we’d clean up as well! Which to a greater extent we did.”
At the time, both Iggy and Bowie were broke. But during their time in Berlin, they landed on creative windfalls that now reside as some of the greatest works of the era. Bowie’s 1977 iconic single ‘Heroes’ typifies this. It is a song about two lovers separated by the wall.
As producer Tony Visconti recalled to the BBC, ‘Heroes’ was essentially jammed out as Bowie and his cohorts crafted a cacophony of sounds waiting for a melody to make itself known, with the intent of later conjuring lyrics to paint over the top of it. “One day David announced that he had the lyrics written for ‘Heroes’ but he had to write a few more verses. And that day Antonia Maass, who sang backing vocals on ‘Beauty and the Beast’, was in the studio,” he said.
Adding: “David couldn’t concentrate with us in the studio so he said [to Visconti and Maas] ‘would you two mind taking a walk?’ but it wasn’t a great place to walk around. So, we walked around the back of the studio and we could see the control room and I guess we were visible too because Antonia and I shared a little kiss by the wall. We go back to the studio and David is smiling. He had a sort of cat who ate the cream sort of smile and I said, ‘what’s up?’ and he said well we saw you kiss by the wall and it made it into the song.”
There is perhaps no more befitting lyrical tableau in music than: “I, I can remember / Standing by the wall / And the guns shot above our heads / and we kissed as though nothing could fall.” Whilst the verse may have been crafted from the comfort of the studio it is a vignette with the humanised weight of realism and history. Ultimately, it speaks of a truth that even stiffed-lipped historians would not besmirch: that although art might not literally topple regimes, it has a way of permeating circumstance with the transcendence of human experiences. The wall was a literal symbol for division and oppression and Bowie helped to illuminate this fact with an assegai of unity elucidated with poignancy in one simple verse.
While this was back in 1977, way before the Berlin wall fell on the 9th of November 1989, it helped to seed the discussion that would eventually topple it. As Bowie said of his time in Berlin, he “felt a joy of life and a great feeling of release and healing,” this upsurge of exultant redemption would be crystalised in the cackle of ‘Heroes’ and offer the same salvation for the denizens on either side of the iron curtain in an adrenalised sonic balm.
Ten years later, in 1987, the song would land in its blooming summer and deal a more exacting blow. Bowie played a concert in East Berlin near the Reichstag. A crowd of 70,000 gathered. As Bowie rallied through a triumphant set, an amassment of revellers began to build in the west. From the far side of the wall, a crowd was heard.
“It was like a double concert where the wall was the division,” Bowie recalled in an interview with The Atlantic. “And we would hear them cheering and singing along from the other side. God, even now I get choked up. It was breaking my heart. I’d never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again. When we did ‘Heroes’ it really felt anthemic, almost like a prayer.”
As the concert gloriously sprinted towards a fever pitched crescendo a chant of “THE WALL MUST FALL” rang out and momentarily Berlin was united in a harmonious symphony of song. In a panicked frenzy, the authorities trying to police the orgiastic melee began to brandish bully clubs against the revellers and in an ironic twist landed the blow that would quash the regime. Suddenly, the great wall seemed ridiculous and from naïve beginnings, the red tape of politics was eviscerated in a perfunctory declaration of unity. While I have mentioned that championing Bowie as the conquering hero of the Berlin Wall, as being a little bit glossy-eyed, there is undoubtedly nothing that makes the bastards of this world look stupider than the great boon of art.
Bowie returned to Berlin in 1989 and basked in the sanguine glory of a united city in a wave of eudemonia that ‘Heroes’ and his ’87 concerts foretold. When he died in 2016, the German government officially thanked Bowie for his contribution, commenting: “Good-bye, David Bowie. You are now among Heroes. Thank you for helping bring down the wall.” Not bad for a couple of renegade junkies trying to clean up.