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Music

How one “retreat song” helped David Bowie to get clean

David Bowie’s struggle with addiction is well documented. By the late 1970s, Bowie had been an international superstar for some time and, as is often the case with those propelled to stardom, had developed a penchant for illicit drug use and a stark dependency on them, particularly with cocaine.

Clearly, Bowie had to do something about his drug use. It’s said that when he would look in the mirror in the mid-70s, he would see his alter-egos Ziggy Stardust and The Thin White Duke staring back at him. Bowie’s cocaine use had gone too far, particularly during the recording of 1976’s Station to Station in Los Angeles. 

Bowie took it on himself to find solace somewhere where the public wasn’t constantly hassling him. He settled on Berlin as he felt he could enjoy a certain level of anonymity there, invigorating his songwriting and revelling in a space for him to get clean. Bowie has previously opened up on his time writing in Berlin, particularly on the first of his ‘Berlin Trilogy’ albums, Low, which spawned the track ‘Sound and Vision’.

“A very sad song for me is ‘Sound And Vision’,” Bowie once said. “I was trying very hard to drag myself out of an awful period of my life. I was locked in a room in Berlin, telling myself I was going to straighten up and not do drugs anymore. I was never going to drink again. Only some of it proved to be the case. It was the first time I knew I was killing myself, and [it was] time to do something about my physical condition. I had a few scares and thought, ‘Well, I got through that by the skin of my teeth.’ Serious haemorrhaging from the nose, passing out… awful stuff.”

He added elsewhere, “That was an ultimate retreat song; actually. […] It was just the idea of getting out of America, that depressing era I was going through. I was going through dreadful times. It was wanting to be put in a little cold room with omnipotent blue on the walls and blinds on the windows.”

‘Sound and Vision’ was released as the first single from Bowie’s 1977 album Low. The track is about as close as any song on Low to achieving a pop-orientated sound, contrasted by the dark and introspective lyrics, with Bowie clearly reflecting on the awful time he had experienced from being addicted to cocaine throughout the 1970s.

“I was a very different guy by then,” Bowie said of his time trying to get clean. “I mean, I’d gone through my major drug period, and Berlin was my way of escaping from that and trying to work out how you live without drugs. It’s very hard. You’re up and down all the time, vacillating constantly. It’s a very tough period to get through. So my concern with Low was not about the music. The music was literally expressing my physical and emotional state… and that was my worry. So the music was almost therapeutic. It was like, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve made an album, and it sounds like this.’ But it was a by-product of my life. It just sort of came out. I never spoke to the record company about it. I never talked to anybody about it. I just made this album… in a rehab state. A dreadful state really.”

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