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In the footsteps of David Bowie: A cultural history and guide to Bowie’s bohemian Berlin

@TomTaylorFO

When David Bowie tragically passed away back in 2016, he was heralded as a beacon for the disillusioned, the disenfranchised and those who simply didn’t know their place in the world until they entered the wild bohemian universe that he had burst into brilliance. If that world was a city, it would be Berlin. Of all the places that Bowie resided on his wayfaring trip around the globe and beyond, Berlin is the one most synonymous with ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’. It was in Berlin that he found his footing in the music industry, crafted his iconic trilogy and somehow found some sort of sobriety. It was a city made in his image, he slipped into it like a glass slipper, and it has held the aura of ‘The Starman’ ever since.

In 1976, the divided city of Berlin was welcoming to nobody but spies. Thus, to understand why Bowie ventured there we must first get into his mindset. Decadence and madness ruled the roust for him in the mid-1970s in a way that is only comparable to some fevered feudal lord of old. Behind an artistic purple patch was a cocaine addiction measurable by the tonne, a bizarre exclusive diet of bell-peppers and milk befitting of a cable TV documentary, and an unwavering obsession with the Third Reich. On top of this caustic confluence of cocaine side-effects, was what Bowie believed to be a harrowing attack by demonic hell beasts, most notably in the form of his friend, musical collaborator and apparent phantasm, Deep Purples’ Glenn Hughes.

All of these factors culminated in the consummation of the creative colossus that is the Thin White Duke, the skeletal, pallid character, with the complexion of an Alaskan Vampire and the sartorial style of a gothic Jean-Paul Belmondo. The Thin White Duke was the agent of divine madness that Bowie used to devastating effect during the hedonistic decade. The albums he produced in the era may well represent a zenith, but they took a hefty toll on the Starman. 

Away from the provocative remarks and scintillating music was an undeniably wacky symptom of substance abuse that requires a far less judicious approach of analysis. “He felt the pool in his LA home was haunted. He felt the devil was in the pool,” Glenn Hughes explains. “The wind was howling, [and the pool started to] bubble like a Jacuzzi […] I swear to you I have a pool, and I have never seen it bubble before. That pool was fucking bubbling.”

His friend Iggy Pop had already been institutionalised and was permanently on the feared brink of returning to the dreaded white cloaks of 1970s mental facilities. The moment that Bowie had the devil exorcised from his own swimming pool by a witch was the sobering eureka of realisation and he knew he had to get the hell out of Los Angeles and leave its gaudy glare and cocaine grip behind. Rather than abscond with Iggy to a safe haven of greenery, incense and John Denver records, he headed to Berlin, the heroin capital of Europe.

“It just seemed like such a romantic, historically interesting place,” Bowie said of his decision to move there with Iggy… It wasn’t… to put it bluntly. It was a bullet holed hellscape still howled by its dark history. Playing out on its streets was the lingering ghoul of World War II, beleaguered by spies, division and oppression it was the remaining stronghold of a dower past amid a Germany that had moved on. Without a doubt, propaganda had made it seem more dangerous and the opulent austerity of the city was echoed around the globe as the brutalist and feted 70s dystopia conquered the allusion of the flowering 60s in a crumbling concrete sprawl. However, albeit the comic book STASI horror show may well have been a fallacy, the grey malaise to the place crammed with obvious spies in naff gabardine suits pretending to sell newspapers, the rank food and rotten walls was just as bad. To put it another way, it was basically Victorian.

But, as Bowie sensed, beneath this monochrome veneer was a kaleidoscopic bohemia that has always been there and always will be. The Nazi’s used the phrase ‘Berlinerluft’ to describe what they perceived to be an alkaline chemical present in the air in Berlin. They saw this as the only feasible explanation for the ‘excessive self-liberation’ that the city enjoyed. They believed it was alkane chemicals making the Berliners ‘perverts’. It is a ludicrous truth in the pages of history; however, the evidence was empirical; people were seemingly going wild on the sweet air blessed by a favourable Ph scale. Amid the despair of the 1930s, the city was still a cocktail shaker of decadence and dumbfounding sights. Weirdly, such hedonism does indeed still seem to come so naturally to Berlin, there is nothing inauthentic about it. The Berlinerluft was in full effect in Bowie’s day as he huffed it down, and it still is now. 

(Credit: Christian Reister)

It was this inextinguishable zeitgeist that Bowie sensed and indeed thrived on. As he continued when explaining his choice to shack up there: “You had the Christopher Isherwood thing and it being the gateway to Europe with all the artforms going in and out of there, and dada being there, and the Baader-Meinhof and all that. We felt 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’d get cleaned up.”

Thus, in the summer of 1976, he decided enough was enough in maddening L.A. and it was time to reignite the realm of Marlene Dietrich, Max Ernst and Parisian tag-alongs like Edith Piaf. Perhaps, he might even help to bring about euphoric reunification (with ‘Heroes’ he really did). Together Bowie and Iggy wandered the tree-lined thoroughfares of Schöneberg on the outskirts of the Grunewald Forest and decided it was high tide that they moved out of the decaying Hotel Gerhus before the roof caved in on them or they contracted scurvies from their diet of cheap sausages. 

Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream helped him to find his own place, an unassuming ground floor apartment at 155 Hauptsrasse and his assimilation into West Berlin life was complete. Therein Bowie slept under a giant portrait of the Japanese novelist, actor and nationalist civilian militia, Yukio Mishima, for a few hours a day and raced around to various flickering neon lights by night at breakneck speeds ala Iggy Pop’s classic ‘The Passenger’. 

By October came around, and the tree-lined streets no longer celebrated the sun with their own flowering party poppers, he was ready to get to work. West Berlin’s Hansa study loomed large and Bowie was far from ready to leave the world of Berlin. As Tony Visconti recalls: “[It] was a hipsters city. Because it was cheap to live there. Nobody wanted to live inside the Wall.” What’s more, it had an added benefit for the renegade duo, as guitarist Carlos Alomar states: “David went to Berlin with Iggy for isolation. It was to humanise his condition, to say, ‘I’d like to forget my world, go to a café, have a coffee and read the newspaper.’ They couldn’t do that in America. Sometimes you just need to be by yourself with your problems. Sometimes you just wanna shut up.”

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This is a tale ratified by Mark Reeder, the man who arrived pretty much the day after Bowie left and began building an underground punk empire. He told me: “As for Bowie living here, it apparently didn’t make that much of an impact to the city at first, all that came later. He was embraced by the art, fashion and music circles though, but nothing much more. He was basically left alone and allowed to live a normal life, free from freaky followers, paparazzi and autograph hunters. His presence here was magnified only after he had left. Beyond Berlin’s borders, I believe Bowie undoubtedly put the city on the musical map though, as Berlin wasn’t known as a musical city before Bowie’s arrival. It was all about politics, the Cold War, East versus West. Bowie inadvertently drew attention to Berlin, by making Heroes here. The poignant wall-themed song sparked the imagination. Other artists wanted to come to Berlin and record in the Hansa Studios.”

First, however, before all that could happen, he had to make a record. As it happens, he made three masterpieces and the city (even though they weren’t all made exclusively in Berlin) was deeply entwined with every one of them. As Visconti remarks: “The atmosphere stimulated David. He really did love it there.” Low remains the ultimate soundtrack to a stroll around the city, with its brooding foreboding synths, wild industrial soundscape and moments of frenzied guitar excitement. 

His output would eventually culminate in ‘Heroes’, a track that perfectly encapsulated Berlin at that time. 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 in one simple verse. 

(Credit: Alamy)

While this was back in 1977, way before the Berlin wall fell on November 9th, 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 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.

Bowie returned to Berlin in 1989 and basked in the sanguine glory of a united city experiencing a windfall 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.

It is this boon that remains in Berlin; the days of oppression and austerity seem a million miles away as the city resides as some sort of weird declaration that art really can be a sustainable subversive force for good. The underground scenes have shuffled onto the streets and the old neon winks that Iggy and Bowie succumbed to beam like beacons all around. The question of what remains of Bowie’s time and what relics should be visited almost seem redundant, they are everywhere and nowhere, he was in it for the scene and the salve of being able to read his Viz mags in peace. Hansa studios still receive flocks of artists and visitors, 155 Hauptsrasse still stands, and all the places he weaves through on ‘Where Are We Now?’ makes for a hell of a day out, but it is the untouched Berlinerluft he left behind that remains most notable. 

As Reeder who still lives there now told us: “it’s an on-growing, ever-developing process. New artists and projects are springing up all the time. The same kind of people who have always come to Berlin, still come to Berlin. The misfits of society. The shirkers and draft dodgers, the gay guys, the crazies and weird arty types. They discover themselves and their creative potential here. They also meet like-minded people everywhere and pool their creativity, forming bands, or making techno.” The cracks have been patched and the scars of the past have thankfully healed, while the alkane air is still there to be huffed at its galleries, bars, historical sites, cafés and dodgy dungeon Parcels gigs aplenty. 

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