INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Mojo Ultimate Collectors Edition FEBRUARY 2007 - by Steve Malins
BOYS KEEP SWINGING
Musical sparring partners, drug buddies and flatmates, Bowie and Iggy Pop spent a riotous time together in Berlin.
In 1976, Fleet Street journalist Jean Rook famously described David Bowie as looking "terribly ill. Thin as a stick insect. And corpse pale, as if his lifeblood had all run up into his flaming hair." The singer was hooked on cocaine throughout his residency in Los Angeles, losing himself in a psychotic, twilight world of occultism and black magic. Stories circulated of Bowie's paranoia reaching such a peak that he believed his swimming pool required an exorcism and that witches wanted to steal his semen. Out of this fractured state, he created his strangest alter ego: The Thin White Duke, an icy, quasi-spiritual messiah with "no emotion at all".
Things were rough for Bowie, but at least with the release of 1976's Station To Station (which he doesn't actually remember recording) the singer was on top of his game artistically and remained a global superstar. Iggy Pop had spent the last few years in a far worse condition, living on friends' floors and virtually penniless since his drug intake had forced him out of Bowie's MainMan organisation in 1973.
By the middle of the decade he'd checked himself into LA's Neuro-psychiatric Institute, which is where Bowie found him. "I was in a mental hospital and Bowie came up one day, stoned out of his brain," recalled Iggy in 1976. According to the inmate, the first thing Bowie said was, 'Want some blow [cocaine]?'... I think I took a little, which is really unpleasant in there. And that's how we got back in touch."
The pair started recording together with Iggy on vocals and Bowie playing all the instruments, and they were also travelling companions on the Station To Station tour. Not surprisingly, they got into a few scrapes, including a high-profile drug bust on March 21, 1976 for, of all thing, possession of marijuana. They were released on bail and no charges were pressed. The following month, Bowie and Iggy were detained on the Russian/Polish border after a trip to Moscow and Bowie was questioned about Nazi memorabilia he had with him. The singer talked his way out of it, explaining that he was doing some research for a German film, but got into more trouble in May when some observers claimed he gave a Nazi salute from an open-top limo during his home-coming arrival at London's Victoria Station. It was a very confused and troubled man who retreated to a new home in Switzerland in the summer of 1976.
As usual Bowie turned to his work for therapy, co-writing and producing Iggy Pop's The Idiot at the Chateau d'Hérouville in Paris only a month after the Station To Station tour ended. They finished it in Berlin and, as Bowie hated his new Lake Geneva residence, the dysfunctional duo decided to remain in the strange East/West borderland of the German metropolis. Iggy and Bowie moved into a dark, wood-panelled, seven-room apartment over a car repair shop at Haupstrasse 155, a tree-lined dual carriageway in the Schöneberg district of West Berlin. Gone was the flame-headed LA freak, replaced by an unremarkable-looking chap with brown hair and a moustache who traded limousines for walking or cycling around the city.
Bowie spent time with his son Zowie - "to him I'm dad - the man in the next bedroom who has breakfast with him every morning" - and hung out with Iggy in the local restaurants, coming face-to-face with the reality of the neo-Nazis when they attacked a nearby Turkish cafe. Ignored by local Berliners, the anonymous rock stars also visited art galleries and museums, including the Brücke Museum of Expressionist Art, where Erich Heckel's painting Roquairol provided the inspiration for Iggy Pop's twisted gestures on the sleeve of The Idiot.
The Detroit singer also recalls, "When we practised for The Idiot tour, we had an entire screening room in the old UFA Studios where they made all the movie greats. You know, like Metropolis. Fritz Lang worked there before the Nazis took it over. They had these wonderful German Expressionist films in cans rotting because they couldn't figure out the politics of who should get them. You could smell the films going slowly bad."
Although Bowie and Iggy had rid themselves of the corrupting atmosphere of Los Angeles, they were far from clean. Bowie played piano on The Idiot tour and later confessed: "The drug use was unbelievable and I knew it was killing me, so that was the difficult side of it. But the playing was fun." Remarkably, these shows were the first time he'd seen Iggy Pop perform on stage. "I couldn't get over his energy and commitment to savage realism," Bowie said in 2002. "It was just not the same Jim that I knew, though - a rather lonely and quiet guy with a drug problem, horn-rimmed glasses and a huge appetite for reading. When he was straight he was one of the sweetest guys you could wish to be and talk with. But when stoned, oh, what a mess. Well... we both were."
In 1976, a coked-up Bowie smashed his open-top Mercedes into a car belonging to a drug dealer, repeatedly ramming it for ten minutes or so. For most of his Berlin sojourn he drank heavily, collapsing one night with an irregular heartbeat after an argument with his wife Angie. As Iggy later put it: "The Berlin police have a totally laissez-faire attitude toward, shall we say, 'cult behaviour'. And it's such an alcoholic city - someone is always swaying down the street."
Bowie's disintegrating relationship with his wife (there was a brief affair with Berlin's transsexual cabaret star Romy Haag, until she spilled the beans to the press) and a legal dispute with ex-manager Michael Lippman meant that the latter half of 1976 and early '77 was a painful time for the singer. Brian Eno, who started work with him on the Low album, encountered a man "who was pretty much living at the edge of his nervous system, very tense. He was very, very upset. I felt desperately sorry for him... But as often happens when you're going through traumatic life situations, your work becomes one of the only places where you can escape and take control."
Bowie's Berlin period was indeed prolific and arguably his artistic peak, comprising two solo albums (Low and "Heroes") plus production and co-writing for Iggy Pop on The Idiot and Lust For Life. In a typical moment of improvisation, according to Iggy his English buddy wrote Lust For Life's title track "in Berlin, in front of the TV, on a ukulele... he cribbed the rhythm off this army forces network theme, which was a guy tapping out the beat on a Morse code key. Ever the sharp mimic, David picked up the nearest available instrument and started strumming."
Although his 1979 album Lodger forms the final part of what Bowie has dubbed the Berlin Trilogy, it was actually recorded in Switzerland, and by that time its creator had moved back there too. "I had not intended to leave Berlin, I just drifted away," he said years later. "Maybe I was getting better. It was an irreplaceable, unmissable experience... I just can't express the feeling of freedom I felt there."