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Berlin has been shaped by the revolutionary music created there. From Kurt Weil to Bertolt Brecht, Lou Reed to Iggy Pop, Nick Cave to the techno DJs currently dominating the scene, the capital’s landscape has been formed by musicians, and none more so than David Bowie. His three years in Berlin living with Iggy have passed into rock folklore, and much of Bowie’s Berlin remains intact.
In January of this year, the legend astounded the music scene with his first single release in over a decade. The poignantly named ‘Where Are We Now?’ is a haunting retelling of Bowie’s time living in Berlin, a time which irreversibly shaped his life and to which he owes his trilogy of albums, Low, Heroes, and Lodger.
Arriving in 1976, Bowie set up residence in Schöneberg, and painted all seven rooms of his apartment black. At this time Berlin was unravelling; its inner conflicts and unresolved urban identity fascinated Bowie, and he spent his nights wandering the streets, getting high on this “city full of bars with sad and disappointed people”. Bowie’s Berlin was the original, cool Berlin, long before East Berlin’s Mitte and Friedrichshain districts became tourist hotspots. With its spooky glamour and dusty horizon, Berlin held a peculiar frontier atmosphere that could only be found in parts of London or New York, and for Bowie it was “the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could ever imagine”.
The heart of his 1970s Berlin experience is to be found in the Hansa Studio, the place where Bowie spent so much time recording. From the former studio control room you could once catch a glimpse of the communist East, and Bowie and his producer Tony Visconti would gaze out at the wall, locking eyes with the border guards. The inspiration for the track ‘Heroes’ came at one of these moments, when Bowie spotted a couple kissing by the wall; he saw a love story, conducted in the shadow of the oppressive structure. The studio was punctured with bullet holes and stood just metres away from Potsdamer Platz, now a soulless business district, but then a sealed-off no man’s land.
Other haunts included the café Anderes Ufer, where Bowie would spend time with Iggy Pop, the nightclub Chez Romy Haag, run by Butch transsexual Edouard Frans Verbaarsschott, and Dschungel, a cocktail bar mentioned in ‘Where Are We Now?’. “Sitting in the Dschungel, on Nürnberger Strasse/ A man lost in time/ Near KaDEWE”.
Bowie had come from LA exhausted by drugs and fame, and spent two years becoming a part of Berlin’s fabric. “Everyone in West Berlin thought they had seen Bowie,” said Jim Rakete, a leading German photographer and journalist, “Either cycling past or eating a hamburger.” West Berliners were flattered that he had chosen to live among them at such a difficult time, but what they didn’t realise was that Bowie was just as damaged as the city, addicted to cocaine, living on very little each day and happy to be left alone. Berlin was offering an alternative to both the communist east and the capitalist west and this acted as a magnet for young bohemians; a lifestyle perfect for the ruined pop star. Avoiding the funkier Kreuzberg, Bowie lived at the unfashionable 155 Hauptstrasse in Schöneberg, and allowed himself to be nourished by the strange nature of enclaved city. Thio Schmied, a sound engineer at Hansa said, “Whenever he went into a record store, the word would spread and people would gather outside.” Bowie loved Berlin, and Berlin loved him.
“I will never forget it,” Bowie said, “They were very important years.”
By Susie Dickey
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham