The Wire FEBRUARY 2015 - by Biba Kopf


David Bowie's road to Berlin began far from heroically with the stiff-armed salute he flashed at photographers and fans from the back of the open-top Mercedes car that picked him up on his return from the Cannes Film Festival in May 1976. Despite the photo evidence, which showed a dyed blond Bowie dressed in black sieg heiling London like he'd just conquered it, he quickly denied having any Nazi sympathies. The pictures, he protested, sneakily caught him at the wrong angle. The man who fell to earth had just hit the ground head-first, but he was already seeing the world at an odd tilt long before he crash-landed on the rebound and staggered to his feet in West Berlin.

There he stayed on for two years, both of them golden, yielding the so-called Berlin trilogy commonly held to contain some of his most adventurous music, as well as Iggy Pop's two comeback albums The Idiot and Lust For Life, both of which he cowrote and played on, and reams of paintings inspired by his love of early twentieth century German expressionism. This extraordinary burst of productivity was all the more remarkable considering Bowie had moved to Berlin to convalesce from the previous two years' work consolidating his big time breakthrough in the US on the back of two massive hit albums, Young Americans and Station To Station. Adding to the workload, he also found time to make his major film debut playing Thomas Jerome Newton in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth, the Cannes premiere of which started his retreat to Berlin. His U.S. campaign victories were achieved at great cost, namely the cocaine habit that kept him awake through it, and his slowly disintegrating marriage.

West Berlin in the late 1970s was hardly the best refuge for a recovering addict arriving with Iggy Pop as his travelling companion, even if the local hard drug of choice was heroin rather than cocaine. It might have been a gleaming capitalist show window of consumer democracy isolated two-hundred kilometres inside communist East Germany, but for all its cosmetic front, from its postwar division in 1945 until the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it was a city in a coma, kept alive by a drip-feed of West German government subsidies encouraging people to live there. God knows what Bowie was looking for when he made it his new home, but on the evidence amassed in German broadsheet journalist Tobias Rüther's book, he didn't find much to add to the impressions he brought with him. Most come from the usual sources: Christopher Isherwood's Berlin novels, Cabaret, German silent films, Bertolt Brecht, and so on. Steep the lot in some spy versus spy tension and you've pretty much got the battery of images and mood enhancers that he fed into his Berlin trilogy.

What's new is his foregrounding of electronics as the best means to calibrate the many shades of desolation compounded from images of his own psychoses projected onto the gloomy East European backdrops he and Iggy viewed from a train window on their transcontinental rail trip to Moscow. The Cold War tensions evoked by the instrumentals making up two thirds of his first Berlin album Low (much of it prerecorded in France) are evocative snapshots of grey landscapes disappearing in the distance. But "Heroes" nails the cocktail of artificially induced euphoria of West Berlin's consumer showcase status and its lingering melancholia of wartime loss. And in Boys Keep Swinging on the third album Lodger, he finally pays homage to the Christopher Isherwood/Cabaret fiction of Berlin as a decadent playground.

But where are the Germans in Bowie's German trilogy? Bowie recorded the albums with producer Tony Visconti, Brian Eno and his regular backing group, with Robert Fripp as special guest. Throughout the book, Bowie pays lip-service to his love of Kraftwerk and Neu! but aside from backing singers there are no significant German contributions to the trilogy. At one point he did ask Neu!'s Michael Rother to take part but perhaps bowing to his London record company fears of weird Germans making Bowie's new weird music even weirder, he dropped the invitation.

And what did Bowie get from the city itself when he was making these albums? Rüther is as baffled as the rest of us. His examination of Bowie's interest in the painters making up Die Brücke group is highly illuminating, not only for what it says about the album cover photographs of "Heroes" and Iggy's The Idiot. Otherwise the strongest part of the book is the way Rüther uses German philosopher Ernst Bloch's theory of time to reveal the way Bowie had locked himself in a Berlin timezone of his own devising. Simply put, Bloch says each person's timezone is their own cultural construct of family and historical memories, all progressing along their own timelines. Bowie's is a kind of between-state blurred together from childhood memories of war and its aftermath, readings of Isherwood, a real-time affair with transgender singer Romy Haag, and so on. In this context, his Berlin hosts can humour Bowie wanting to talk about the war. Indeed, the photo showing him in a black leather greatcoat attempting to stare out an East German guard at the Neue Wache in late 1970s East Berlin is more sitcom farcical than offensive. David Bowie has always been a bit of a dick. It's a wonder his music most always makes us forget that fact.