Bowie & Berlin: A Love Affair That Changed Everything
As I walked out of my apartment yesterday, January 11th, it seemed like the city of Berlin itself had begun to mourn the death of David Bowie. As the opening strains of “Changes” blasted through my headphones, I found myself squinting through a thick and sudden layer of fog that blanketed the streets. I waded in and out of cafes that were blaring various artifacts from his five-decade career, all of which were filled with patrons who matched my sense of shock and heartache. Berlin is a more somber city than most to begin with, and yesterday it was almost unbearable.
But the reaction was to be expected. Bowie and Berlin have a deep and meaningful history with each other, one whose legacy is clearly felt to this day. And, as callous as it may be to call my circumstances “good timing,” I felt that I was given a special opportunity to be here on the day that Bowie returned to the stars. Berlin was more than just a home for him: It was a creative force that exerted enormous change on his very being, and it was a city that was never quite the same after his brief stay. And so to honor him the only way I knew how, I revisited the ghosts of Bowie’s Berlin.
Bowie first came to Berlin in 1976. At the time it was West Berlin, the city still cleaved in two halves by the Wall, decades away from the hedonistic party capital that it is today. He arrived not as a tourist, but out of desperation; he had nearly obliterated himself with a cocaine addiction that’s the stuff of legend. His sanity had reached a breaking point, resulting in PR nightmares like babbling an admiration of “Hitler as a rock star” and the benefits of fascism. “I was out of my mind, totally crazed,” he admitted years later.
But he didn’t come here alone. He was joined by Iggy Pop, his friend (and rumored lover) whom he set up in a joined flat in his building. Pop’s solo career became a pet project for Bowie, who engineered both The Idiot and Lust for Life, two albums that are both regarded as essential classics of the era. But he was perhaps more importantly joined by his longtime producer Tony Visconti, and fellow musician Brian Eno. This melting pot of creative genius produced a remarkable three album run that became “the Berlin Trilogy,” a set of records that altered the course of music itself.
The first stop on my journey was the Hansa Tonstudio in the hip neighborhood of Kreuzberg, the sound studio where all the above records were created. I was alone; only a handful of flowers were scattered about the door. It’s now a commercial building with multiple office spaces, though the original recording space remains inside and is still in use. The sparseness of this mourning space matched the tone of the Berlin Trilogy: cold, isolating pieces of music that were spliced with the occasional glimmer of warmth.
Bowie immersed himself in the German music scene while he was here. He was listening to a lot of Kraftwerk, Neu!, and Can, bands that exemplified the unique sounds coming out of the still war-torn country. The electronic edge of Kraftwerk in particular set his and Eno’s gears moving, creating synthesizer-based ambient sounds that were revolutionary for 1976. Listening to Low, the first album they made here, gives no indication of its time period; it still sounds like it could have been written today. Visconti famously said that the electronics they used “fucked with the fabric of time.”
It wasn’t all synth-y futurism in these records, Bowie made bare the influence that bleak Berlin had on him. The achingly beautiful “Warszawa” was written after seeing the desolation of the Soviet-run regions nearby; “Art Decade” is about a single street in the city, which Bowie gloomily described in the liner notes as “a city cut off from its world, art and culture, dying with no hope of retribution.”
Doom and dourness aside, the most famous output from his Berlin period remains one of the most uplifting—but still dark—pieces of music in recorded history. Heroes, the second Berlin album, is the city personified. It reflects Cold War paranoia, the horrors of the backlash of war, and the triumph of the human spirit in the wake of both. Memories of war stood right outside their recording space; the Hansa Tonstudio is located a mere 500 yards from where the Wall once stood, and Visconti mentioned that “Red Guards would look into our control room window with powerful binoculars.”
The title track has been utilized in every imaginable way, from a cover in Moulin Rouge! to cheesy scenes in teen romances; but, its original connotation is the most powerful of all. While looking out the window of the Hansa Tonstudio, Bowie reportedly watched two lovers meet from opposite sides of the Wall, unable to truly be together. This story is made manifest in the song’s lyrics, and together with his deafening vocal performance it made for a heart-wrenching love ballad for the ages. It provided direct context for listeners across the Western world, unable to imagine the human rights atrocities taking place in Berlin, and yet its hopeful message provided a much-needed glimmer of light for the millions of Berliners experiencing the story firsthand.
Always in need of reinvention, Bowie left Berlin after the completion of 1979’s Lodger, but his presence was irrevocable. Having such a high-profile visitor thrust a spotlight back on overlooked Berlin during the 1980’s, but his return in 1987 for the Concert for Berlin proved the catalyst for real action. Performing a mammoth concert staged at the Reichstag, the German parliament, Bowie’s full set was broadcast across the city, including to the still cut-off East Berlin. People on the other side gathered to hear his heartfelt performance of “Heroes,” one that Bowie later said “was one of the most emotional I’ve ever done.”
His performance hit home. The next day, East Berliners began rioting in the streets, resulting in a brutal police crackdown. The very next week, President Reagan addressed Berlin with his famous call to Soviet Premiere Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Though a variety of factors were at play, Bowie’s message of hope and reunion, written for Berlin, had become the city’s call to arms. The Wall fell within two years of that performance.
And so I should have expected to hear that song as I approached Bowie’s former residence, 155 Hauptstraße in the Schöneberg neighborhood. Why wouldn’t they play it? But hearing it while taking in the veritable mountain of flowers, candles, records, and pictures of Bowie’s face pasted all over his former residence was too much. I burst into open sobs, joining the hundreds of Berliners all around me who were also too emotional to comprehend the passing of such a man.
Bowie truly loved it here, enough to revisit his old haunts in his 2013 ballad “Where Are We Now?,” wearily recalling his strolls through Potsdamer Platz and Nürnberger Straße. And if 1987’s Concert for Berlin wasn’t proof enough, last night showed me just how much the city of Berlin still loves him, and always will. He came to this city during its darkest hour and created one of the most life-affirming pieces of music in its honor. For Bowie, a man whose legacy is built on myth, one of his greatest legends was his love affair with Berlin.