Where was he then? Bowie relives odyssey in Seventies Berlin


Tony Paterson
Friday 08 March 2013 19:34
David Bowie strikes a pose at Cannes in 1983
David Bowie strikes a pose at Cannes in 1983

Berlin’s much vaunted love affair with David Bowie has been given a new lease of life with the release of the singer’s first album in a decade, featuring a track dedicated to his time in the once-divided Cold War city at the end of the 1970s.

Bowie’s Berlin song, “Where Are We Now”, has been given hours of air time on the German capital’s radio stations since its advance release as a single in January.

Today it was being given more wall-to-wall exposure to mark the launch of the song’s parent album, The Next Day.

Berlin’s Inforadio news and current affairs station was one of the many broadcasters to heap praise on the album.

“Bowie fans might have expected this to be the 66-year-old rock star’s last throw. But it’s so fresh it sounds as if he has just picked up where he left off 10 years ago,” it remarked.

“Where Are We Now” recalls Bowie’s stay in West Berlin from 1976 to 1979. The single was released with a moody video showing the artist at the apartment where he once lived, and walking past remnants of the Berlin Wall. It also alludes to the dramatic fall of the Wall on the night of 9 November 1989.

Bowie was a drawn and emaciated 29-year-old who sported an Elvis hair style when he arrived in West Berlin 37 years ago. He was seeking anonymity and trying to kick the drink and cocaine habits he had formed in Los Angeles, which were threatening to turn him into yet another rock’n’roll casualty.

At the time, capitalist West Berlin was a haven of alternative culture and radical protest. It was also a magnet for youngsters, who could avoid compulsory military service by moving to a divided city that was outside the jurisdiction of the West German government, and controlled by the Western Allies and the Soviet Union.

“I never felt freer than I did in Berlin,” Bowie once remarked.

The musician lived with Iggy Pop and Brian Eno in the city’s mostly middle-class Schöneberg district and hung out at one of Europe’s first openly gay bars a few doors down the street. Bowie recorded three of his most highly acclaimed albums, including “Heroes”, at the city’s Hansa studios nearby.

“I spent most of my time with Iggy and basically we tried to get away from the state we were in when we lived in the US,” he said in an interview with the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel.

The singer eventually settled in New York. But the legend of Bowie’s Berlin lives on and fascinates many of the millions of visitors who have been flocking to the German capital in ever increasing numbers since the fall of the Wall.

Berlin has not yet copied Hamburg, where a Beatles museum celebrates the Fab Four’s time in the city in the early 1960s, but it is moving in that direction with Bowie. The rock star has been given massive media coverage, the city’s clubs have been hosting “Bowie nights” and visitors can even go on Bowie walking tours of the city.

The DJ Mike West who runs “Berlin Bowie Walk” takes visitors to all the places where the “Thin White Duke” lived, sang and hung out. He said there were many reasons why Bowie chose Berlin, including an interest in the history of the Weimar Republic and Krautrock bands such as Kraftwerk. “Berliners are very proud of Bowie and the fact that he created his best music here,” he said.

Yet not all aspects of Bowie’s Berlin legend live up to expectations. The star’s former apartment is now inhabited by a large immigrant family whose members say they have absolutely no interest in David Bowie. And a one-room pub, called “Seventies”, on the ground floor of the building had hoped to cash in on Bowie mythology, but fans stole all its Bowie photographs. The owner has since decided to install gaming machines instead.

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