On one of the front windows is a modest homage: a large portrait of David Bowie in his latter years, grinning madly.
DAVID BOWIE KNEW that if he didn’t kick his cocaine habit, it was going to kill him. He was struggling under the pressure of the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles, immersed in the occult, and living on a diet of milk and red peppers. His memory of recording his last album, Station to Station—an ambitious adrenaline rush of a record—was buried under a narcotic haze. He had been reeling from the scandal caused by a photograph of him raising his hand in a Nazi salute in London. He claims he was caught mid-wave. Deeply rattled and desperate for peace of mind, he needed somewhere new to go.
He fled to Berlin to face his inner demons, creating the best work of his career in the process. Known as The Berlin Trilogy, the albums Low, Heroes, and Lodger were released over a span of two years in a prolific burst of creativity, which some bands spend entire careers trying to achieve in vain. Not to mention the bastard sibling Bowie produced, The Idiot by Iggy Pop—a nightmarish delight in its own right. Bowie was an inadvertent Virgil, leading his audience into the very abyss of desolation and despair to the sound of a proto-electronic future.
In true Bowie fashion, he took to arguably the most extreme place to be isolated in: a city torn apart by the Cold War, whose only connection to the “democratic world” was a tenuous 110-mile stretch of road linking it to the border of Germany. West Berlin, with echoes of its once glorious past, was teeming with groundbreaking art of its own. The dynamic work of Die Brücke expressionists and the digital sheen of krautrock bands like Kraftwerk infused his music with a frenetic energy, pushing him to create sonic landscapes that were just as inventive and dramatic. He also relished the anonymity, using it is an opportunity to frequent dive bars and gay cabarets undisturbed.
There are companies that do tours of David Bowie’s favorite spots, but I didn’t take them because they were a little too steep for my indio wallet. In fact, I should be confined for the borderline insane knowledge of Bowie obscura I’ve gleaned from everything I could ever get my hands on. So instead, here I was, embarking on a fantastic voyage of my own.
Despite the city’s hard-earned reputation for parties straight out of Naked Lunch, its streets are surprisingly calm in the daytime. The Berlin Television Tower looms over the city, a retro-futuristic feature of the skyline that marks an effort to create iconography both East and West Berlin can proudly embrace. Otherwise, Berlin has changed drastically since Bowie and Iggy Pop drove around parking lots in circles, almost crashing in the same car over and over.
I began in Schöneberg, the quiet neighborhood where Bowie and Iggy Pop once shared a flat. I ran out of time trying to locate their former apartment, distracted by the boutique shops and gay bars around the area. It’s a visual architectural feast, where modern concrete blocks stand juxtaposed with the intricate faÇades of Gründerzeit buildings. In the adjacent area of Kreuzberg, I passed by the legendary punk venue SO36, where a roller skating match was being held. Another nearby neighborhood, Neukölln, was also the namesake of a song on Heroes. Many of the immigrants who arrived to find labor amidst Berlin’s growing economy came to settle here. These formerly poverty-ridden parts of Berlin have been revived as a culturally rich concentration of neighborhoods with an eclectic range of subcultures. The modest lifestyle must have been refreshing for an artist trying to get away from the indulgence of show business.
On an unassuming street a few blocks away from the Potsdamer Platz station, I searched for building number 38. From a distance, I could spot the flamboyant structure that housed the legendary Hansaton Studios, informally called “Hansa by the Wall.” Its triangular roof and Roman columns stood out from its rather corporate neighbors. The studio’s list of clientele is illustrious: R.E.M., Depeche Mode, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. On one of the front windows is a modest homage: a large portrait of David Bowie in his latter years, grinning madly.
The studio’s environment was conducive to the unusual process he undertook with producer Tony Visconti and his then-collaborator, pioneering soundsmith Brian Eno. They employed Eno’s Oblique Strategies, a deck of cards with esoteric statements like “Honor thy error as a hidden intention” and “Ask people to work against their better judgment.” These seemingly non sequitur commands were meant to break creative blocks, or at least prompt forays into new territories. The process, along with the ingenious recording techniques employed by Visconti, resulted in haunting, ambient soundscapes. The best of these, perhaps, is on the second half of Low: “Warszawa,” an electronic tragedy of Shakespearean proportions unlike anything Bowie had done before.
The inclusion of Low in The Berlin Trilogy is somewhat misleading; it was recorded primarily in France. Heroes was the only album that was fully recorded in Hansaton, which inspired one of the most enduring lines of Bowie’s career. The studio’s mixing room was famous for being under the vantage point of a watchtower from the other side of the border that ran right beside the building. While writing lyrics, Bowie watched Visconti kiss a German jazz singer in the shadow of the wall. It inspired one of Bowie’s most iconic lines: “I can remember / standing by the wall / and the guns shot above our heads / and we kissed as though nothing could fall.” This anthem about the radical potential of love still endures.
My favorite Bowie story, however, took place at the Reichstag, a massive marvel of Neo-Baroque architecture fronting a vast field. Here, he played for the 1987 Concert for Berlin, the wall standing only meters away from the crowd. On the other side of the border, a crowd of East Berliners gathered, eager to hear some hazy cosmic jive despite mounting tensions with the surrounding authorities.
Onstage, Bowie said in German, “We send our wishes to all our friends who are on the other side of the wall,” before breaking into Heroes. It was one of the most poignant performances of his career. Later that night, police suddenly blasted water guns into the crowd, resulting in over 200 arrests. The ensuing chaos captured in news reports showed how deprived people were of music, tired of clinging onto radio signals being broadcast from the other side. While it would be a stretch to say that Bowie was responsible for the wall’s collapse, the riot was a portent of events to come. A week later, Reagan said, “Tear down this wall!”
Then came the inevitable time for Bowie to find a new city. Lodger, the last of the trilogy, pales in comparison to the groundbreaking avant-pop of Low and the continued refinement of his newfound sound on Heroes. His collaborative partnership with Brian Eno was losing steam. Bowie went on a brief sabbatical in Kenya before setting up camp once more in New York. He followed up the trilogy with Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), imbued with the cosmopolitan spark of the Big Apple, where he was once again at large in the public eye. He followed that up with Let’s Dance, one of the biggest commercial successes of his career, somewhat disappointingly conventional compared to the masterpieces that preceded it. But really, who else ever really knew where he was going but the man himself?
As hallowed as Berlin is in the annals of David Bowie lore, he was still another stranger in a strange land that was caught up in its own political entanglings. The combination of a drastic change in environment, new technology, and a personal sea change broke new sonic grounds. He captured the jagged, fragmented nature of the times and the creative energy thriving in the underbelly of city life through innovative songwriting and recording techniques. The Berlin Trilogy is more than a portrait of a troubled man entrenched deep in the abyss he once merely gazed into; it’s a document of a city at the forefront of a crucial time in history, a potent sonic portrait of liberation and redemption. ■