Towards the close of 1976, David Bowie left Los Angeles where celebrity, overwork and an engulfing paranoia fueled by a dizzying appetite for cocaine, had driven his world into free fall. The singer and actor, then known for his public persona Ziggy Stardust and the film The Man Who Fell to Earth crossed the Atlantic and escaped into the seductive anonymity of Berlin. “There was light at the end of the tunnel,” Bowie said of his arrival in the then divided city. “And it wasn't a train.”
Bowie, who died in January 2016, regarded the time between 1976 to 1979 as the most creative period of his life. It was in Berlin that Bowie created three albums: Low, Heroes and Lodger with collaborators including Brian Eno and Tony Visconti.
As Bowie embraced Berlin, the city returned the compliment; Berlin provided a creative haven for Bowie to reinvent himself. Ever the artistic chameleon, he would not have become the later Bowie without Berlin.
Berlin in the 70s
Separated from East Berlin by the Berlin Wall in the Cold War, the two Berlins, while within touching distance of each other, might as well have been different planets. In the 70s West Berlin was fertile ground for alternative subcultures and attracted creative folk from all across West Germany. In West Berlin you were exempt from compulsory military conscription: Rents were also cheap; communal squats had sprung up across the city and Krautrock, an impromptu disco culture uneasily counterbalanced with punk, was flourishing. Life for many Berliners took place almost exclusively after-hours.
Berlin is a city where past and present lessons and contradictions of history remain writ large. As one of Bowie's inspirations in Berlin, the English writer Christopher Isherwood described: “Here was the seething brew of history in the making.”
A new career in a new town
Like Isherwood, Bowie chose Schöneberg as his base—a then and still mainly Turkish working-class district of the city. Bowie's long term assistant Coco Schwab found him a simple first-floor apartment in an Art Nouveau building above an auto-garage. Bowie's sometime collaborator Iggy Pop, another victim of drugs and creative exhaustion, moved into the same building. The building on Hauptstrasse 155 still stands. There is a white plaque commemorating the singer on the wall outside and a growing local call to rename the street “David Bowie Strasse.”
In Bowie’s footsteps
Bowie's favorite local cafe, Neues Ufer , on Hauptstrasse 157, where he celebrated his 30th birthday, is next door. Relaxed and cozy, Neues Ufer ("New Shore") is one of the city’s oldest gay cafés and a good place to begin the day with strong coffee. Off Nollendorfplatz you can idle through the galleries and eccentric bookstores like Prinz Eisenherz on Motzstraße, and amble along the Landwehr Kanal. Bowie used to cycle here on an antiquated three-gear Raleigh bike.
The Bowie night life
Heading east into Kreuzberg will bring you to Café Exil on Paul-Lincke-Ufer 44a, now the Horváth restaurant, that was an early nocturnal haunt of Bowie's. Today the restaurant serves gourmet Austrian cuisine, but the high ceilings and wood paneled walls give a tantalizing taste of what it was like back in Bowie's day. Nearby around Oranienstrasse, between Heinrichplatz and Moritzplatz, the clothes may have changed—ever style-conscious Bowie used to dress in baggy trousers and wide shirts—but the edgy atmosphere still prevails as does the refreshing local Schultheiss pilsener. On Oranienstrasse one of Bowie's often-visited clubs SO36 is thankfully still thriving and was at the center of Berlin’s punk and new wave scene.
"We can be heroes, just for one day"
Heroes together with the album Low were recorded at the famous Hansa Studios, not far from the Potsdamer Platz on Köthener Strasse.
The song is about a young couple who are so determined to be together that they meet every day under the watch towers of the Berlin Wall. The story goes that during the recording of the song, Bowie wanted time alone with his thoughts to write lyrics. His producer Tony Visconti left the studio and walked towards Potsdamer Platz and met backing vocalist Antonia Maass by the Wall. At the time Visconti and Maas were lovers. As they kissed, unbeknownst to them, Bowie was watching from the studio window. Two hours later the song was finished.
The Berlin Wall at Potsdamer Platz is long gone, but if you jump onto the S-Bahn and head east, alighting at Warschauer Strasse in Friedrichshain, you will find a remaining mile-long stretch of it at the East Side Gallery, a memorial with over 100 paintings by international artists.
Art influences music
The dark, dense, ever-so eerie forest that is Grünewald stretches westwards like the palm of a hand reaching out of Berlin's periphery. Just before the forest is the Brücke Museum, a frequent haunt of Bowie's, who regularly visited accompanied by Coco Schwab. The museum has over 400 paintings and thousands of sculptures by members of the “Die Brücke” expressionist movement including Erich Heckel—the latter’s painting “Roquairol” inspired the cover artwork of Heroes.
Sometimes staying at Das Schlosshotel, an opulent mansion built in 1914 by an affluent confidante of Kaiser Wilhelm, Bowie and his friends would head to the fabled Forsthaus Paulsborn restaurant, an old game lodge next to Grünewaldsee Lake.
After Berlin, Bowie crossed the Atlantic to New York City, which would be his base for the rest of his life. But Berlin was never far away. Of the “Berlin Years” and the albums he made here Bowie reflected: “Nothing else came close. My complete being is within those three. They are my DNA.”
Words by Christopher Kanal
Photos of David Bowie: Masayoshi Sukita
Photos of Berlin: iStockphoto.com / TomasSereda and Eddygaleotti