No expat star has left such an indelible impression on Berlin as David Bowie. When the British musician arrived in the enclave of West Berlin in 1976, he found himself in a divided city. Subcultures were emerging, drugs were rife and there was little glamour. But away from the hype and flashbulbs, Bowie flourished during these influential years.
Following a wild phase in LA, Bowie was artistically burned out. His longing for peace and a deep enthusiasm for the Weimar era and its artists, particularly Bertolt Brecht and the ‘Die Brücke’ expressionists, drew him to the Hauptstadt.
In 1976 he moved to Schöneberg, hung out in discotheques, bars and cafés, befriended Berlin’s underground royalty and stayed until 1978, during which time he produced three albums: Heroes, Low and Lodger, which went down in music history as the ‘Berlin Trilogy’.
Keen to retrace the steps of Ziggy Stardust himself? tipBerlin‘s Jacek Slaski rounds up 12 things to know about Bowie in Berlin.
1. The Hauptstraße apartment
Hauptstraße 155, Schöneberg: an inconspicuous building, then as now. When Bowie moved to West Berlin in 1976, he found the large, empty apartment there and made it his home for two years. Although he probably never really furnished it – the rooms remained sparse, and his circle usually ate out or at friends’ houses.
For a while Bowie had a famous roommate, Iggy Pop, until the godfather of punk was instructed to leave again for stealing food from the fridge. And so the Stooges frontman relocated to a smaller place in the building behind.
2. Hansa Studios
The Meistersaal in Kreuzberg, not far from Potsdamer Platz, had become an important venue for Berlin’s creative community in the 1920s. Readings were held here, chamber music was played, a gallery lay below, and Austrian satirist Karl Kraus gave lectures.
The Nazis also used the building for concerts, and after the war there were revues, balls and cabaret. It wasn’t until 1961 that the space was used for recording: first for the Ariola label, then from 1976 onwards, Hansa Tonstudios.
This was the start of the now legendary success story of the studio at Köthener Straße 38, where, alongside David Bowie with his Berlin albums, U2, Depeche Mode, Nick Cave, Jack White, Nina Hagen and Eartha Kitt recorded important works.
3. The Berlin Trilogy
David Bowie came to Berlin seeking respite from all-consuming hype and addiction, but also to forge new musical paths. He was already enthusiastic about German avant-garde pioneers Neu!, Kraftwerk and Can, and he began dabbling with electronic sounds in partnership with Brian Eno.
The technological quantum leap took place in Berlin, with Bowie’s lyrics inspired by the gloomy, detached mood of the walled city. His records Low and Heroes are among the most important of his career.
4. Romy Haag and new Berlin friends
Despite the presence of Iggy Pop and an international network of acquaintances, collaborators and cooperating musicians, Bowie made new friends during his time in Berlin.
He often met with club owner and underground queen Romy Haag as a guest at her restaurant Chez Romy. Berlin fashion designer Claudia Skoda and her friends were also part of Bowie’s new Berlin circle, while he also maintained friendly relations with Wolf-Dieter Trewer, a former sailor and his landlord.
5. West Berlin bars, discos und cafés
Memorable discotheques and bars were thin on the ground in 1970s West Berlin. Bowie frequented the queer café Anderes Ufer, now known as Neues Ufer. He danced at Dschungel and dined at Oswald Wiener’s Restaurant Exil in Kreuzberg.
He was seen at Chez Haag, and Paris Bar in Charlottenburg’s Kantstrasse. But his favourite place was arguably the Brücke-Museum. Bowie was particularly enamoured with the expressionist paintings of Brücke artists Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Erich Heckel.
6. Fame and glory in Berlin
Don’t kid yourself – Bowie’s time in Berlin was significant, but not actually that long. In fact, the third and final instalment of his famous ‘Berlin Trilogy’ wasn’t even recorded here: Lodger was produced mainly in Switzerland and the USA.
Nevertheless, Bowie always returned to his former adopted country from later homes in London and New York, and was received as a Berliner of honour at concerts, with only Nick Cave garnering similar levels of adulation.
Bowie’s concert in the summer of 1987 at the Reichstag was a major event and his last appearance in the divided city.
7. The final Berlin concert in 2003
David Bowie’s last-ever Berlin performance took place in 2003, stopping at Max-Schmeling-Halle as part of his ‘Reality’ tour on November 3. At the age of 56, he was already a forerunner of the pop revolution and an established legend, but few would have thought this would be his last gig in Berlin.
In 2004 he performed at the Hurricane Festival, but ill health prevented him from playing any further concerts. He spent the last decade of his life in seclusion and only returned in 2013, then finally 2016, with new albums.
8. Where Are We Now?
After years of silence, Bowie returned with a bang. On his 66th birthday – January 8, 2013 – he announced that The Next Day would be his new album. On the same day, he released the digital pre-single Where Are We Now?.
In the song he reflects on his Berlin years with arguably his most personal and biographical lyrics. He mentions KaDeWe, Potsdamer Platz, Dschungel in Nürnberger Straße and the Bösebrücke bridge between Wedding and Prenzlauer Berg.
9. The big exhibition
Although he wasn’t to return to Berlin in person, a spectacular exhibition of Bowie’s life and work brought his legend back into the spotlight. Opening first at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, the Bowie show, packed with costumes, instruments, videos, pictures, posters and sound installations, was a huge success.
At Martin-Gropius-Bau, the exhibition focused particularly on his time in Berlin. Many artefacts from the era were on display, including items relating to music recordings alongside Bowie’s Berlin front door keys.
The show’s curator, Victoria Broackes, said in a 2014 interview that Bowie was at his happiest during the Berlin years, overcoming addiction and reaching new creative heights. “Here he succeeded in banishing his demons”, she was quoted as saying.
10. A star is mourned
David Bowie died on January 10 2016, two days after his 69th birthday. In Berlin, overwhelmed by the occasion, hundreds gathered outside his former home in Schöneberg to lay flowers, photos and candles on his doorstep. Bowie’s songs played from loudspeakers for an impromptu and emotional singalong.
When local station radioeins counted down the 100 most iconic Berlin anthems of all time in the summer of 2017, the hundred-strong jury voted Heroes into first place.
11. Ziggy in Berlin
In addition to athletes, politicians and film stars, legendary musicians also have a place at Madame Tussauds. In autumn 2017, an alien being appeared at the Berlin branch of the waxworks empire. Ziggy Stardust had landed.
Not a must for every Bowie fan, but the only opportunity for a selfie with the man who fell to earth.
12. A hero’s plaque
Who knows if Berlin’s mayor at the time, Klaus Schütz (SPD), gave even a passing thought to the fact that an English pop star – a drug-addicted, sexually ambivalent one, no less – lived in Schöneberg.
When the official Berlin commemorative plaque was unveiled in 2018 at the former home of David Bowie at 155 Hauptstraße, Berlin’s then-mayor Michael Müller (SPD) was, at least, on hand to utter the remarkable words: “You have to imagine that David Bowie came to West Berlin in 1976 to get off drugs”.
In fact, 1976 was not a drug-free period in West Berlin. 1978 saw the publication of infamous novel Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, and soon afterwards, a film adaptation of the tragic tale of a young Berlin addict, to which Bowie contributed the soundtrack. Berlin’s dark fame as the heroin capital of Europe was thus sealed. David Bowie was unfazed; he got clean and moved on.
Original text by Jacek Slaski
Reckon you know everything about the man who fell to earth? Try Exberliner’s ultimate Bowie quiz.