Exberliner’s music editor meditates on Bowie, rebirth and Berlin.
Can I begin an essay on David Bowie with an anecdote about Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside? At a Tito Puente concert in 1981, the post-punk semiotics autodidact turned lite-funketeer propositioned Kraftwerk about recording “The Sweetest Girl” with lovers rock icon Gregory Isaacs. But, of course, Kraftwerk didn’t like reggae; they may have been the only Germans who didn’t.
The sense I get is that David Bowie suffered a similar set of false assumptions about the Continent he’d leave for. He loved krautrock – both he and collaborator Brian Eno were convinced it was the future of pop – but listening to the music of his not-really-accurately- named Berlin Trilogy, he never got at its essence. Which might have been German reggae! Not that it wasn’t easy for this man, falling away from Earth, to live in a world of geopolitical delusion. Didn’t he briefly flirt with the National Front before moving to Germany?
When Bowie moved with Iggy Pop to Berlin in late 1976, he was just off his commercial peak, a period during which he made sure that every rock star bigger than him was absorbed into his orbit, from Lennon to Elton to Mick the Lips, with whom he had probably had a longstanding affair (and from whom he had learned considerable financial acumen). Jagger had also pioneered the concept of rock star as aristocrat, a model Bowie’s alienation prevented him from entirely aping, though he would make a go of it.
He had been a vaguely pathetic wannabe for so long – from the mid-1960s of “The Laughing Gnome” to the Kubrick-esque Moon-faddish “Space Oddity” to the comedown Nietzscheisms of The Man Who Sold the World, that when he found himself ahead of the ball on proto-punk and glam, with a shit-hot guitarist in Mick Ronson, a sound visionary in Tony Visconti, and a hungry, hungry handler in Tony Defries, he was as downbeat as he was ambitious.
After all, with Ziggy Stardust, he had to pretend he was famous before he became so and when he finally broke through it was with an ambitious rip-off of “Over the Rainbow” that meditated on its own ambition. That song was “Starman” and, anticipating Berlin, after all those years of chasing rainbows, he never seemed entirely comfortable with being one. So he inhaled a lot of stardust.
The phantasies that led to glam rock presented themselves as insecurities: the young dude was obsessed, even at his height, with dystopia. So was Judy Garland, for that matter, paeans to optimism aside – and her daughter Liza did both Berlin and glam first in Cabaret.
Bowie claims to have forgotten years during his addiction, but he is incredibly lucid in interviews during that period. In a dark funk, he fired his Spiders, ditching glam for… dark funk. It expanded his audience. He has no memory of recording 1976’s Station to Station, a prog-flecked record coming together at the birth of punk that only made him bigger.
When he finally attempted to leave it all behind and record an album that truly reflected Bowie Music, it had Iggy Pop’s name on it. 1977’s Bowie-produced The Idiot is his greatest record – an anticipatory summing up that gives a slap to the 1960s and a finger to the incipient 1980s. He waited until Low was already out to release it, lest he be thought derivative of himself.
When he wanted to go commercial, Iggy would be the front man as well: Lust for Life, released later that year, is a pop album, but then Elvis had to go and die and his record company let the record do the same.
The Idiot was mostly recorded in France and Munich. Low was more a Swiss album (Bowie’s initial choice for exile was considerably tonier than walled-in Schöneberg). “Heroes”, whose cover, like The Idiot’s, was based on Erich Heckel’s “Roquairol”, is the only truly “Berlin” of his Berlin albums. Recorded at Kreuzberg’s Hansa Studios, the Kraut influences are more Berlin Kosmische, and probably the result of Eno’s palling around with Cluster, though both Neu! and Kraftwerk are name-checked in song titles.
Like the earlier “TVC15”, which Bowie performed in the film Christiane F. (with NYC standing in for BLN), “Heroes,” the song, minus Robert Fripp’s guitar and Bowie’s dramatic delivery, is essentially boogie music, a look back in resignation to Bowie’s youthful aesthetic interests. The lyrics, which were inspired by Visconti cheating on his wife, came to represent political liberation. Which reflects the confluence of rock and Berlin’s paradoxes quite nicely.
So is there anything David Bowie has to teach the Exberliner reader? He came here to dry out, while most expats arrive here to fuck themselves up. Of course, when you’re the biggest rock star in the world, drying out is a relative measure (“And I/I’ll drink all the time.”). Bowie did not arrive in Berlin to learn from its decadence, and decadence was not merely an ideology to be absorbed by not working, as with the petty dissolution that Australian youth wrote of in his notorious New York Times article in 2012. At his Low-est, Bowie was prolific, and not in spite of it.
Despite the influence of his machinations here, Bowie made a choice to sit out punk. Post-Berlin, on 1980’s Scary Monsters, Bowie’s punkest album and tentative poke back at the mainstream, the scariness felt like another role (and like “Heroes”, it’s a nostalgic release, with its “Ashes to Ashes” pierrot and Bruce Springsteen’s pianist).
Berlin would take to punk, but it would take a decade and Berlin’s early punk was pretty arty. Then again, so was CBGB’s. Perhaps Bowie had his hand in there, as well. Life is a cabaret, even if the stage is your mirror and the next act has yet to be written. In peroxide. And on MTV.
Originally published in issue #127, May 2014.