INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Mojo NOVEMBER 2017 - by Mark Paytress
WALLS AND BRIDGES
A New Career In A New Town - a new box set collecting David Bowie's 'Berlin Years' - reflects a man in the act of careful reconstruction. But as Tony Visconti and Carlos Alomar and Hansa studio engineer Eduard Meyer reveal, the free city offered the Starman stark reality as well as an art playground. "Sometimes you need to be by yourself with your problems," they tell Mark Paytress. "Sometimes you just wanna shut up."
Early one morning, probably in October 1976, the doorbell rang at Eduard Meyer's apartment building, close to KaDeWe, the historic department store in the heart of West Berlin.
"It was Iggy Pop and David "It was Iggy Pop and David recalls the now-retired Hansa Studios recording engineer. "I think they'd spent the night in the park."
Meyer cooked up "a nice breakfast" then, as was his custom, invited both to sign his guest book. Iggy scrawled a slapdash "I was here", Bowie a cryptic "Could I interest you in a new Hoover?"
"That was because he'd felt like a vacuum-cleaner seller ringing someone's doorbell unannounced," Meyer explains. Bowie was amused by his new role. Freedom tasted good that Berlin morning.
David went to Berlin with Iggy for the isolation," insists Carlos Alomar, guitarist on Iggy Pop's two Berlin albums (The Idiot, Lust For Life) and Bowie's 'Berlin Trilogy' (Low, "Heroes", Lodger). "It was to humanise his condition, to say, I'd like to forget my world, go to a café, have a coffee and read the paper "They couldn't do that in America. Sometimes you need to be by yourself with your problems. Sometimes you just wanna shut up."
By 1976, Bowie especially needed to keep shtum. For years, this keen observer of politics and power, who'd sung of "bullshit faith" and the "Leper Messiah", had warned of a return of Fascism. Since 1975, his comments had grown more inflammatory and irresponsible. Provocations such as "I believe very strongly in Fascism" and "Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars" always make awkward headlines.
The hearty German breakfast was a positive sign. Life in Los Angeles' Hollywood Hills, his home since spring 1975, had rendered Bowie skeletal and vampiric, stupefied by a Cracked Actor's diet of milk, red peppers, "astronomical" cocaine use and superstrong Gitanes. Immersed in Nazi propaganda films and occult literature, he awaited the apocalypse.
It was as if Bowie's recent roles - an extraterrestrial in The Man Who Fell To Earth, and his own disciplined, disconnected Thin White Duke touring Station To Station in spring 1976 - had conspired to imprison him. Either that or his Method acting was too damn good.
Down on himself and the world, Bowie scapegoated LA. "The fucking place should be wiped off the face of the Earth," he said later. Always the stranger in a strange land, he yearned for a more conducive kind of alienation.
The catalyst for change was rekindling his friendship with Iggy Pop late in 1974, when he found the ex-Stooges frontman battling heroin addiction while confined, virtually alone, in a mental hospital. He invited 'Jimmy' on the spring '76 tour, during which time they curbed their drug use and made a detour to Moscow. Bowie resolved to produce Iggy Pop's first solo record. And they would move to Berlin. It was the heroin capital of the world and one-time centre of the Nazi universe. Smart move?
Berlin was an island city on the Cold War frontline, cut off by a concrete Wall - an actual manifestation of the Iron Curtain - that divided East from West, Communism from Capitalism. Pockmarked by bullets and misted in melancholy, its Western half had, since the late '60s, been considered a 'free city', subsidised by West Germany yet functioning in accordance with its own rules.
During their first days there, in early August '76, Iggy grew fascinated by the old-style vending machines he'd see fixed to walls. "One of them said 'Sand', so I thought, Wow, a sandwich!" he once told me. "So I put my Deutschmark in and a little door opened. It was a small bag of sand!"
It was an omen. Bowie, who'd long regarded recording tape as a canvas, was a keen believer in machines churning out the unexpected. This was his kind of place, spiritually flawed, unpredictable, prone to extremes. And, like other West German cities, Berlin would surely bring out the machine-like, rhythmic approach to sound he now demanded, guided by chance and experimentation. Just with more Bowie, more Berlin.
"David introduced us to Kraftwerk, all that crazy electronic stuff," says Carlos Alomar. "We [Alomar, bassist George Murray, drummer Dennis Davis] loved it. It wasn't verse/chorus/bridge like American music." That was just as well, because Bowie had his own spin on Krautrock. "He wanted our funk rhythm section to be the electronic component of that kind of music."
After a brief stay at the Hotel Gerhus, a decaying villa near Grunewald Forest, Bowie took a seven-room, first floor apartment at 155 Hauptstrasse, on a wide, tree-lined thoroughfare in Schöneberg, south-west Berlin. Tangerine Dream's Edgar Froese helped find the place. Bowie's PA/companion Corinne 'Coco' Schwab and Iggy joined him, each taking a room. (Both would later move out to their own apartments in the 'Hinterhof ' at the back of the building.)
A fairly staid part of town (around twenty-five per cent of West Berliners were of pensionable age), Schöneberg - birthplace of Marlene Dietrich - nevertheless hosted a significant Turkish population, while the café next door to 155, a regular haunt, was a gateway to a wider, wilder gay scene.
"Berlin was a hipsters' city," says producer Tony Visconti, "a combination of Greenwich Village and Soho. That's because it was cheap to live there. Nobody wanted to live inside the Wall."
The city was also a haven for West Germans who wished to avoid military service, thanks to a legislative quirk. But hipster didn't necessarily mean happy. "It was basically a cordoned-off war zone with big black tanks roaming the streets," Visconti remembers. "I don't care how blasé you are - that's disturbing."
Freed from LA, yet still facing numerous management, financial and personal problems, Bowie seized everything that Berlin offered. "The atmosphere stimulated David," says Visconti. "He really did love it there."
The vibe got better still when, one day in August, again on Edgar Froese's advice, Bowie visited Hansa Studios in the grand Meistersaal building at 38 Köthenerstrasse. "David looked at the big hall and said, 'Wow, I must do something here'," remembers Eduard Meyer. But the room, originally a dancehall that could accommodate a hundred and twenty musicians, had already been booked out. Instead, Bowie and Visconti mixed The Idiot, recorded at the Château D'Hérouville outside Paris earlier that summer, at Hansa Studio 1 on the original Kurfürstendamm site.
It was October before they could get into the Big Hall By The Wall, as Bowie dubbed Studio 2. With backing tracks already put down at the Château in September, vocals for side one of Low were recorded there, as well as Weeping Wall and Subterraneans, destined for the mostly bleak and instrumental second side.
"Hansa was at the dead end of Berlin," says Meyer. "All the streets stopped at the Wall which was across the street. The building was one of probably four in the whole Kreuzberg district that wasn't flattened by bombs from England."
As the Hansa windows were flung open for air, only the guards who stood ominously on observation towers could hear Bowie's brooding new soundscapes.
Inside the vast room, heavy velvet curtains hung everywhere absorbing the sound. Bottled beer arrived by the crate, which was swiftly emptied by Bowie and Iggy. Determined to "deform" the sound, Bowie spent much of his time with Visconti in the control room, a brisk walk away.
"Hansa was a perfect place for a bit of industrial," says Carlos Alomar, "putting your head down and work, work, work."
Funtime, too. "One evening, when we were just about to finish, three ladies appeared at the door of the control room," Meyer remembers. "David turned to Jimmy [Iggy] and said, 'Select one of these ladies. I'll take the other two!'"
Once sessions were over, rock's odd couple would often hit the town, Bowie incognito in Burberry mac and cloth cap, hair boyishly neat and naturally mousy again. It was as if he was catching up on the student way of life he missed out on first time round.
Chez Romy Haag, in Schöneberg, where the decadent spirit of late-'20s Weimar could be re-experienced, was a favoured haunt. Bowie grew close to Haag, a stunning transgender cabaret artist and muse who he'd first met in April when the tour rolled into Berlin.
Despite what was by most accounts a colourful nightlife, Carlos Alomar cautions against an overly romantic interpretation of Bowie's exile. "It was a very sad period for David," he says. "I don't want to put it in some glamorous place. He was fighting for his marriage, his son; his business was horrible, the touring exhausting and taking every bit of money that he had. Nobody looks at the loneliness. It's loneliness that allows you to dive back into yourself and see if you can find your inner strength."
Over Christmas 1976, Eduard Meyer was invited to 155 Hauptstrasse for a seasonal goose. "Coco cooked it, and we ate sitting around a large wooden table," Meyer remembers. Aside from the odd mattress on the floor, he said, every room was virtually empty. Only David's, with its bed, cassette player and an artist's easel complete with unfinished canvas, was furnished, albeit partially.
Bowie's Berlin aesthetic was austere, but black humour was permissible. During a trip into the Eastern sector, Bowie visited the site of Hitler's Bunker, where he was unable to resist a furtive Nazi salute for photographer Andy Kent, who captured the moment for (private) posterity.
Hours were spent at the Brücke Museum near Grunewald Forest. Home to the largest collection of German Expressionist art, the Brücke was a refuge and a revelation. In the vigorous brushstrokes and often jarring colours of artists such as Kirchner, Nolde and Heckel, Bowie saw something of himself, the confrontation-seeking iconoclast. Back at 155, Bowie painted numerous canvases, the best an Expressionist-style portrait of the Japanese philosopher/artist Yukio Mishima. He hung it above his bed.
The Brücke influence was acknowledged on the cover artwork for The Idiot and later "Heroes", both based on a 1917 work, Roquairol, by Erich Heckel. The original image was a study in madness, and its title strangely evocative of "rock'n'roll". In 1937, the painter's work was declared 'Degenerate Art' by the Nazi Party.
By early 1977, Bowie had started describing himself as "a Generalist", probably shorthand for Renaissance Man Bowie. Unlike the verbose Thin White Duke, The Generalist was more circumspect. Low appeared in January 1977 with barely a promotional murmur. On March 1, Iggy took off on a six-week transatlantic tour to promote The Idiot. Bowie, flat-capped, sat modestly at the keyboard.
The title track, inspired by an illicit affair between Tony Visconti and backing singer Antonia Maass (an assertion she later contested), and conducted in the shadow of the Wall, is the era's masterpiece, an evocation of the power of Now, nothingness, fatalism, rolled out over a slow-burn wash of mesmerising Krautrock sound. Bowie's vocal, among his very best, was poised delicately between heroic and hysterical.
"I was on a beach in Barbados for much of the "Heroes" sessions," says Meyer. "But I arrived back in time to hear the first playback of the "Heroes" backing track. They all knew it was fantastic."
The song could not be topped. After filming Just A Gigolo, early in 1978, Bowie said goodbye to Berlin and toured the world. "There was a definite change in David after Berlin," says Carlos Alomar. "He was stronger, had some sobriety, and was far more mentally acute. Sometimes you gotta take a step back in order to move forward."
But Berlin never left Bowie. After completing the first leg of the tour, he stopped off in London to record a tub-thumping reinterpretation of Brecht/Weill's Alabama Song. "That was twisted!" Alomar says. "David wanted it circus-like, I saw it as a German beer-drinkers' song."
Three years later, Bowie was back at Hansa for a day recording songs for a BBC television production of Brecht's Baal. "He looked very healthy," remembers Meyer, "much better than when I first saw him in 1976." By this time, bands were beginning to turn up at Hansa hoping to emulate the 'Bowie in Berlin' vibe. Siouxsie & The Banshees came; so did U2, for 1991's Achtung Baby. And, Meyer adds, "lots of bands from Finland".
On January 8, 2013, David Bowie crashed out of semi-retirement by releasing his first new song in a decade. Where Are We Now?, a meditation on his Berlin days, name-checked the old hangouts with a restrained-but-pained melancholy. Some heard a man coming to terms with his own mortality. Others, pointing to the title, suggested that just as Bowie's genius never deserted him, neither did his fears for the world.