Illustration by Lena Valenzuela
The Thin White Duke hung out in Berlin in the 1970s. He recorded “Heroes” here. So what? Will the hype ever cease? Amid the sycophantic din surrounding the new Bowie exhibition (and the Bowie-centrism of this month), we give space to a lone dissenting voice.
The U-Bahn hushed as people’s eyes flashed with the news. They murmured to each other, looking around the carriage to see if there was a fellow appreciative traveller there, someone, probably, with acne poorly concealed by a lightning bolt inaccurately drawn on their pasty face. The news was in, right there up on the screen. Bowie was back and, heavens be praised, he had mentioned Berlin. This bore repeating. He had mentioned Berlin! This was like finding an original Da Vinci model helicopter with a strangely smiling woman tucked inside the backseat, or seeing a 65-year-old Pelé coming on as a sub to win the World Cup with a bicycle kick.
Bowie was back and half of Berlin went mental. So it is worth representing some of the lyrics of this astonishing comeback:
Twenty thousand people
Fingers are crossed
Just in case
Well, thank God for that; the world had really been waiting for one of its momentous moments of modern history to be boiled down to a para-rhyme as delivered by a bored geography teacher. Otherwise rational people started talking about going to have a final look at the outside of the Hansa studios, or smoking a fag by the plaque outside the old Dschungel as a kind of pilgrimage.
For a city with an artistic heritage so steeped and thick stretching back from Voltaire to Mark Twain, it was irritating to see everyone getting so worked up about a man who made a couple of good songs here spread across three albums that have got far too much Robert Fripp on them to ever be able to be considered passable.
Now, I accept that David Bowie was very important for a swathe of young men unsure of, or brutalised for, their sexuality, who were genuinely liberated by seeing him play on Top of the Pops for the first time. I am certain, too, that he also made it a lot easier for a whole other swathe of said young men to pick up girls by wearing thick, badly drawn eyeliner for the first time.
I am also a big fan of the fact that he refused to accept a knighthood, which shows that he has integrity: something that counts for a lot in an age when music has been turned into a mere marketing tool. But who is responsible for that then, eh? David Bowie is the stewed cabbage of rock. He reduces everything he touches to the sum of its parts. He took the sex, the grind and the slink out of funk and R‘n’B, he boiled the power and the vigour of psychedelic rock and left it bereft at the side of the plate, a soulless mush where the sharpness of one’s cheekbones is more important than the ability to create emotion or vigour. And he reduced Berlin to a poorly rendered cartoon of itself: a city of vapid and selfish catatonic shop dummies. Where George Grosz could sum up the city with a swish of his pencil, Bowie would render it a greying dirge.
When Bowie played in front of the Reichstag in 1987, the speakers were turned to face the East. The poor bastards, as if they didn’t have enough to deal with. The only saving grace was that his pompous self-regard and joylessly plodding stadium schtick was slightly better than Barclay James Harvest, who played for free in Treptow Park that same summer. As if life behind the Wall wasn’t grey enough.
Berlin is a beautifully ugly city where dirt and glamour clash together in a riot of people and ideas, and it stinks to see it being represented by a man who made accountants’ music for accountants. Music is about more than the colours on our backs. It is about the throbbing in our loins and the pain in our hearts.
So you can feel free to ignore the copyists and the collectors and the lazy references and the half-arsed throwaway lines of David Bowie. He certainly doesn’t represent the city I live in, and only half of that hallowed trilogy of albums that everyone was searching through their collections for to prove how much they had always loved him (though it turns out that they had never really bought them) was even recorded here in the first place.
In fact, David Bowie was perfectly represented on the screens of the U-Bahn as they announced the news of his new album last year. They were using his name to sell a few more papers. It was remarkably fitting.