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When Bowie Moved To Berlin: Killing The Duke To Save The Man

Music | May 5, 2019

David Bowie performing in Tokyo's NHK HALL on the Low & Heroes Tour, December 1978. Source: (Photo by Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images)

The "Berlin Trilogy" -- Low (1977), Heroes (1977), and Lodger (1979) -- by David Bowie consists of three albums made while he was attempting to re-engage with the world. Living in Los Angeles in 1975 and 1976 had led David Bowie down a path of excess that sounds both opulent and terrifying. Adopting the debonair but aloof persona of the "Thin White Duke," the mid-'70s Bowie got by on a diet of cocaine, red peppers, and milk, bringing on a cocaine psychosis that threatened to destroy him. The Thin White Duke was a cynical character, singing love songs without sincerity and known for public fascistic statements. Bowie, ever prone to reinvention, sought an escape from LA and the person he’d become.

After experimenting in Switzerland and France Bowie found himself firmly ensconced in Berlin, a city still divided by the Berlin Wall. From 1977 to 1979 Bowie would record three albums that fed off the energy of Berlin, and its residents' indifference to him, while he was getting sober and finding the joy in life. 


Bowie Saw Berlin As A 'Sanctuary City'

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Initially, Bowie got up to the same kind of trouble in Berlin that he did in Los Angeles. Joined by his close friend and musical partner Iggy Pop, Bowie partied all night, went clubbing in the city’s seediest bars, and even stole his drug dealers car. He and Pop allegedly drove the car through their hotel's parking lot at 70 mph until it ran out of gas. Shortly after that Bowie began kicking cocaine. Bowie told Uncut that no matter how kooky he was, Berliners just didn’t care:

Life in LA had left me with an overwhelming sense of foreboding. I had approached the brink of drug induced calamity one too many times and it was essential to take some kind of positive action. For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke; it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn't care. Well, not about an English rock singer anyway.

He Used Art To Get Sober

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Rather than go through a support system Bowie tasked his assistant, Coco Schwab, with helping him get on his feet. She rented him a simple apartment in Berlin and had the walls painted a harsh white to resemble that of an art gallery. She also had blank canvases shipped to his home along with oil paint so he could work out his demons rather than give in to them as he had in Los Angeles.

Bowie and Schwab began going to the Brücke Museum regularly, where the singer developed a taste for expressionist paintings. Through their art, the singer became reinvigorated with painting and music. 

Berlin Made Bowie Into A Normal Person, Sort Of

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Even though Bowie had a multi-faceted career spanning 50 plus years, he’s always going to be remembered as Ziggy Stardust, a rock 'n roll alien who came from outer space to blow our minds. While living in Germany he discovered that no one around him cared who he was, and they weren’t impressed with his garish fashion choices no matter how outlandish they became.

According to The Guardian, one night while at a cabaret Bowie climbed on stage to sing a few Frank Sinatra songs and the audience asked him to stop. Bowie soon started dressing down and became less outlandish in his clothing choices. His time in Berlin gave him the confidence to let his art do the talking. 

Bowie And His Cohorts Created A New Musical Language

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Although he’d begun his sonic exploration with 1976s “Station to Station,” Bowie leaned into experimentation with the Berlin Trilogy. Embracing ambient music, Eastern European sounds, and a kind of one and done approach to a song, Bowie, producer Tony Visconti, and collaborator Brian Eno made an album that serves as the blueprint for new wave, electronic music, and post-punk.

When Bowie presented RCA with Low, the first album in the trilogy, the label were aghast at what they heard. The second half of the album is completely instrumental save for the track “Warszawa” where Bowie essentially yowls through an Eventide Harmonizer creating an inhuman sound. In spite of their worries, the album hit number 2 on the UK charts and number 11 on the US Billboard top 200. 

Bowie Was Eating Well, Despite What Brian Eno Claims

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One story about Bowie’s time in Berlin that’s perpetuated by Brian Eno is that he and the singer would go yachting in the morning and that after they returned Bowie would eat a single raw egg as his meal for the day. However, in an interview with Uncut Bowie says this isn’t true: 

I was eating extremely well as my drug intake was practically zero. I would eat a couple of raw eggs to start the day or finish it, with pretty big meals in between. Lots of meat and veg, thanks mum. Brian would start his day with a cup full of boiling water into which he would cut huge lumps of garlic. He was no fun to do backing vocals with on the same mike.

The Singer Fell Head Over Heels For Germany

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After settling in Berlin, Bowie felt that it was the place he’d call home even after finishing this experimental phase of his career. However filming requirements caused him to stay on the move and he found himself gravitating towards New York. He told Uncut that his time in Berlin was the happiest of his life: 

I had not intended to leave Berlin, I just drifted away. Maybe I was getting better. It was an irreplaceable, unmissable experience and probably the happiest time in my life up until that point. Coco, Jim and I had so many great times. But I just can't express the feeling of freedom I felt there. Some days the three of us would jump into the car and drive like crazy through East Germany and head down to the Black Forest, stopping off at any small village that caught our eye. Just go for days at a time. Or we'd take long all afternoon lunches at the Wannsee on winter days. The place had a glass roof and was surrounded by trees and still exuded an atmosphere of the long gone Berlin of the twenties. At night we'd hang with the intellectuals and beats at the Exile restaurant in Kreutzberg. In the back they had this smoky room with a billiard table and it was sort of like another living room except the company was always changing.

Bowie Felt That The Berlin Trilogy Was His “DNA”

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Even after he moved to New York to find a new career in a new town, Bowie knew that the music he recorded in Berlin was his most important work, that it served as a cipher for which to understand the rest of his work. He told Uncut:  

For whatever reason, for whatever confluence of circumstances, Tony, Brian and I created a powerful, anguished, sometimes euphoric language of sounds. In some ways, sadly, they really captured unlike anything else in that time, a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come to pass. It is some of the best work that the three of us have ever done. Nothing else sounded like those albums. Nothing else came close. If I never made another album it really wouldn't matter now, my complete being is within those three. They are my DNA.

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Berlin | Brian Eno | David Bowie | Iggy Pop

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.