Bowie in Berlin, By Thomas Jerome Seabrook

You won't learn much about Berlin, or indeed Bowie, but this book illuminates a fascinating creative period
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One of the great privileges of being an adolescent rock fan in the 1970s was the travelling you got to do. We went everywhere, and we did it in the most desirable company imaginable – a kind of teenage Grand Tour of cultural hotspots undertaken in inky monochrome and interesting clothes. Everything was paid for by somebody else and the only passport required for full participation in the trip was an active imagination, an involved pair of ears and the 40p cover price of NME, Melody Maker or Sounds. Our favourite rockers did the awkward bit – the travelling – on our behalf, while we sat at home in remote fen villages and pillioned their artistic journeys to Prague, Kingston, Marrakesh, Moscow and Berlin, as if vicarious citybreaking were the very essence of the creative life.

Mein Gott, Berlin was the one, though. It became the must-go destination of the artistically minded in the latter part of the decade, following an on-off three-year creative sojourn there by David Bowie and his associates. Hang out in West Berlin, either corporeally or imaginatively, and you really could claim to be on the front line of something. The city represented the cusp twixt East and West, not to mention the living metropolitan interface between ideology and modernism, sternness and frivolity. Somehow bad clothes looked good in Berlin.

Furthermore, in the lee of the Wall you might utter words like Bauhaus, Der Blaue Reite, Weltschmerz and kosmische, and not get punched in the face. Berlin was indeed the cradle of Zeitgeist (and you thought Zeitgeist was made up by the British media to pass the time while it awaited the moment to invest the word "iconic" with new utility). Above all, it was the place where you might chip at the residue of the Weimar Republic with an untrimmed pinky fingernail. Decadence meets the rise of Nazism, with a Soviet shadow throwing your westerly cheekbone into razored relief. Cool.

Bowie fetched up in Berlin in 1976 with Iggy Pop in tow. Both men were ostensibly in flight from the cokey miasma of the LA lifestyle, within which both were suffocating. In 21st-century parlance, both were looking to keep it real for a spell.

"I hold the same opinion as Günter Grass," Bowie told Vogue, name-dropping like the arty Trojan he has always been, "that Berlin is at the centre of everything that is happening and will happen in Europe over the next few years." In lots of ways he was right.

Seabrook's book is a nuts-and-bolts account of what transpired creatively as the two fugitives hunkered down with their Thomas Mann novels and sufficient RCA money to get drunk on a regular basis while recording five albums between them, with time left over to search for the hero inside. However, do not prise apart the book's expensively stiff pages in expectation of a schematic explication of late-20th-century Europe's impact on the American cultural imperium. Nor read it in the hope that the lid might lift at last on the essential natures of our arty Trojan and his self-harming chum. Don't even expect to get much sense of Berlin.

The book begins by insisting that "During the 1970s, David Bowie was British pop's most talismanic, chameleonic character" and finds a kind of apotheosis in sentences such as the one which launches page 203: "If he wasn't filming or working on music, he would stay in and work on his post-expressionist paintings and woodcuts."

Nevertheless, despite the solemn rock journalese, Bowie in Berlin does have its pleasures. Oh man, look at those cavemen go. And just listen to them drone on about themselves. Seabrook tries his best to put a distance between himself and Bowie's on-off attitude to personal responsibility (in particular with regard to his wife and young son), and he takes a sensible line regarding the singer's apparent weakness for the stylistic fancies of the Nazis. But in the end, you feel, it's the fundamental glamour of the creative cheekbone which really gets him going. That and producer Tony Visconti's Eventide Harmonizer, a kind of proto-sequencer which "fucks with the fabric of time".

For this is the very coin of the Bowie Thing: style is substance, novelty is soul. Low, Heroes and The Idiot were stylish and substantial records, both in themselves and in the manner of their making. You want the fragmented post-modern self rendered as bipedal art-work with a great soundtrack and a few interesting thoughts hoiked not-at-all-randomly from the bran-tub of German philosophy? You got it.

Bowie in Berlin takes nothing away from the mythology which has formed around events that took place in that city between 1976 and 1979, and it adds nothing at all to the understanding of its hero as a man. But it does a more than decent trade in the glimmerings which so appealed to home-bound fantasists at the time, from the drugs and the Harmonizer to Brian Eno's "Oblique Strategies" card-based creative inspiration system. To misappropriate John Berger: they're all splendid ways of seeing oneself.

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