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Why David Bowie and Iggy Pop chose Berlin over Los Angeles

“Well, both Iggy and I felt like it might be time to clean up, so — we were very smart about it — we went straight out of LA, to the heroin capital of Europe: Berlin,” Bowie chuckled to himself then quickly added, “but you know something? We were totally unaware of that.” The interviewer doesn’t believe Bowie, both of them laughing, the Starman attempts to reassure the interviewer that both him and Iggy Pop, moved to the divided city of Berlin, which was not only the heroin capital but also the art capital of the world, to get sober and maybe make an album, adding, “If we can’t write there, then we can’t write anywhere.” 

One would think it would be challenging to write music while getting sober. Despite Iggy Pop and Bowie having a relapse fairly early on, they eventually reached that goal — in one form or another. In this particular early relapse, Bowie, Iggy Pop and filmmaker and writer, Rory Maclean who would later recall the story, were in a car in a parking garage. The duo was extremely drunk, and Bowie ended driving up to 70mph around the garage and headed straight for a concrete wall while shouting “I’m going to end it all!” Thankfully, the car would run out of fuel before this could happen. It’s the stuff legends and myths are made of and, therefore, leaves us wondering whether this really happened or not.

Iggy and David’s trip to Berlin would reap not only sobriety but also some of the best art-rock albums ever produced. They transmogrified their pain and addiction into two of the most influential albums that had a massive influence on the post-punk and new wave that would follow and still influences bands to this day. Mez Sanders-Green, frontman of the punk band, LIFE, said in an interview with NME, about Bowie, “He was looking for a different outlet, I think those two albums were his way of growing while battling his demons. His lyrics are so potent and haunting, and he was expanding what he could offer, which you hear on both The Idiot, with its krautrock influences, and Lust For Life, which is a bit more rock n’ roll.”

Bowie’s Station To Station had come out in 1976, and due to his astronomical drug addiction to cocaine, he noted that he didn’t even remember making the album. The singers were both in Los Angeles and while in different places in their lives professionally, they were also in very similar places personally.

Bowie had already achieved a considerable amount more fame than Iggy Pop. The former Stooges man was on the streets, as one may have found Baudelaire in France in his final days; the singer hanging by a thread, hooked onto a life that was killing him, like the true nihilist punk he is at heart. Bowie, at the time, was fully immersed in his Thin White Duke character, a persona which resembled a ghostly post-world war two German soldier-turned-cabaret singer — a failed Nietzschean dissident who subsided on a strict diet of cocaine and milk. Despite their shared tasted for debauchery, music still ran through their veins and was ultimately the main reason for why they came together. Journalist, Nick Kent, said about their relationship, “Bowie’s main attraction to Iggy was the way that he could turn lyrics into a verbal form of jazz.”

As evident in the interview seen on the footage below, Bowie and Iggy Pop had an ‘incredibly smart’ idea to flee to Berlin to clean up and soak up the epicentre of the art world. In his own words, Bowie provides the explanation for their planned escape: “For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary-like situation. It 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, anyway.”

Iggy Pop, a zombie-like remnant ravaged from the one-street nights of shows with The Stooges, was desperate to solidify his place in the world as a ‘real artist’. Bowie was struggling to find inspiration for songwriting. Before moving to Berlin, he had taken a little detour to Switzerland to soak up all the expressionist art and classical music he could. Bowie needed something he could get behind and help produce, rather than carry the weight on his own shoulders. It is why many call the Iggy Pop and David Bowie relationship ‘the perfect marriage’.

The two albums that the ‘perfect marriage’ produced, are The Idiot and Lust For Life. These would serve as a great warm-up and launch pad for what would become Bowie’s ‘Berlin Trilogy.’ The ‘Changes’ singer said of his relationship with Iggy and the culmination of these albums: “Poor Iggy, in a way, became a guinea pig for what I wanted to do with sound. I didn’t have the material at the time, and I didn’t feel like writing at all. I felt much more like laying back and getting behind someone else’s work, so that album was opportune, creatively.”

Concurrently, Bowie had found his footing again in life and in the creative process. Renergised from his intensive studying of art and the enigmatic yet conflicted city of Berlin, Bowie had taken some ingredients and newfound tools he gathered from working with Iggy Pop on The Idiot and Lust For Life and applied them to some of his most seminal work, ‘the Berlin trilogy’, which he would eventually call the closest he’s ever gotten to mapping out his musical DNA. 

A Guardian article, written by Rory Maclean, who had hung out with Bowie in Berlin and worked with him on a film set during this time in Berlin, wrote, “he realised his goal was not simply to find a new way of making music, but rather to reinvent – or to come back to – himself. He no longer needed to adopt characters to sing his songs. He found the courage to throw away the props, costumes and stage sets. By the summer of 1977, Bowie was on a creative high. With producer Tony Visconti and friend Brian Eno, he began to make a new album. Over long sessions in the studio, he ate almost nothing, sailing home to Hauptstraße with Eno at dawn, breaking a raw egg into his mouth, and sleeping a few hours before returning to the studio.”

Maclean continues, “in those few months in Berlin, Bowie made his journey from addiction to independence, from celebrity paranoia to radical, unmasked messenger who told us, all the fat-skinny people, all the nobody people, that we were beautiful, that we too could be ourselves.”

Bowie’s Low, the first album of the trilogy and intricate part during Bowie’s attempt to kick his cocaine addiction, was full of anguish. Bowie elaborates on this point, “there’s oodles of pain in the Low album. That was my first attempt to kick cocaine, so that was an awful lot of pain. And I moved to Berlin to do it. I moved out of the coke centre of the world (Los Angeles) into the smack centre of the world. Thankfully, I didn’t have a feeling for smack, so it wasn’t a threat”. So, why did David Bowie and Iggy Pop move to Berlin? Like any good traveller will tell you; to find themselves.

Watch the interview with David Bowie as he recalls when he and Iggy Pop made the decision to escape to Berlin:

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