The last few days have seen mourners congregating to pay their respects to David Bowie in his birthplace of Brixton, adopted home of New York, and also at Hauptstraße 155, Berlin, where he lived during an intensely creative period of his career, with one Iggy Pop as his flatmate. Bowie’s former home, to which he relocated in 1976 determined to get clean from cocaine, lies in the district of Schöneberg, the centre of gay life in Berlin. With producers Brian Eno and Tony Visconti, in the setting of the beautiful Hansa Tonstudio, Bowie crafted the albums which became known as the Berlin Trilogy, and are regarded today as among his best.
Low captured Bowie’s struggle to rid himself of his addiction with some of his most emotional work, as well as the killing off of his Thin White Duke persona and glam-rock era that had gone before. “Heroes” is more optimistic, completing his transition to an avant-garde style of rock thriving in Berlin, a beating cosmopolitan heart in the vacuum of the Eastern Bloc. The trilogy ends with Lodger, a gateway record to the poppier work Bowie would go on to do on the outlandish Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), and with Nile Rodgers on Let’s Dance.
Of course, this all took place in West Berlin—a capitalist enclave bricked off from the Communist world by the Berlin Wall. The instrumentals on Low and “Heroes” tapped into the city’s Zeitgeist with weird, experimental sounds evocative of the Cold War paranoia and the pain wrought by its division. These have had broad influence, from the composer Philip Glass and his symphonies “Low” and “Heroes”, to Joy Division, originally named Warsaw after the Low track ‘Warszawa’.
For many Berliners, it is the title track from “Heroes” which speaks the most to their city. The lyrics tell a classic story of underdog lovers separated by the Wall, longing for the day when they can transcend it all, and indeed be “heroes”. It’s also one of Bowie’s most powerful vocal performances—every howl and yelp speaks of the unbeatable will on both sides of the wall to overcome the divisions keeping them apart. This is even more the case on the version he recorded in German, which I dare you to seek out and try not to be moved.
At a 1987 concert in West Berlin, Bowie’s dedication of the song to all Berliners, including those listening on pirate radio just metres away in the East, added fuel to their fire of longing for freedom and unity within their city. It’s because of this concert that the German government’s thanks to Bowie for “helping to bring down the wall” is no overblown statement. It was an earthquake that shook the foundations of the Wall, even if there’s no evidence indicating the song was on the Politburo’s playlist in the weeks leading up to its fall in 1989.
Today, Berlin still yields many reminders and symbols of its divided past, some of which Bowie referenced in 2013’s ‘Where Are We Now?’. Schöneberg could be set to gain another, with a petition calling for the street where he lived to be renamed in his honour gaining popularity. At his old haunts, and in the shadow of the remains of the Wall at the East Side Gallery, there will always be a part of David Bowie in Berlin.
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