Why Bowie broke his 10-year silence with a trip back to Berlin

Fri, Jan 18, 2013, 00:00

REVOLVER: BRIAN BOYDon music

Of Berlin, David Bowie once said “The city has the strange ability to make you write only the important things – anything else you don’t mention.” It was perhaps no surprise that he returned to the city that he says “healed” him on Where Are We Now? – the gentle existential ballad which brought him back in from the creative cold.

Asked 10 years ago by a German newspaper if he could still remember his old address in Berlin, he instantly replied “Hauptstrasse 155 in Schoneberg. I will never forget it. They were important years.”

It was all Christopher Isherwood’s fault – another writer who re-discovered himself artistically in Berlin. Bowie was a huge fan of Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (which was the basis of the film Cabaret) and met Isherwood in Los Angeles at a time when the Bowie’s daily diet was milk, “astronomic” quantities of cocaine and Gitanes. He was strung-out, had weird notions of fascism and despite it all, was totally broke. It was Berlin or bust.

Once there, he cycled daily to the Hansa Studio and holed up in its Studio 2 – the “Big Hall by the Wall” as it is known. It was within the famed studio (which used to be a ballroom used for Nazi dinner-dances) that he composed and recorded arguably his best ever work. Berlin – and Hansa in particular – bled into Low, Heroes and Lodger – with the studio’s sinister atmosphere framing the trilogy of albums.

By helping him break a debilitating drug habit and overhauling his creative process the city helped him go from star to superstar. Post-Berlin it was all Scary Monsters and ever upwards commercially.

Which is why when he broke his 10-year silence (all had assumed he had retired due to health problems) he did so by hopping on a train at Potsdamer Platz and having a drink in the Dschungel club on Nurnberger Strasse. As the headline on the Berliner Zeitung newspaper read last week: “David Bowie Is Among Us Again”.

It’s not just Isherwood and Bowie who have travelled to the unofficial capital of Europe in search of change and brilliance. There’s something about the city – its history, its architecture, it’s people, its mood, its night-life – that is instantly appealing to the creative crowd.

Following the battering they got after the release of Rattle and Hum, U2 decamped to Hansa to dream it all up again with Achtung Baby and it’s perhaps no coincidence that their best-known song, One, was recorded in Hansa, as was Bowie’s best-known single Heroes and Depeche Mode’s best- known work, People Are People. Not forgetting Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life. China Girl is also a Hansa song.

Nick Cave found a new musical style while living in the city and recorded some of his best work in Hansa. But the Berlin of the 1970s and 80s isn’t there anymore.

Which is perhaps why Bowie’s old Berlin friends detect a poignancy in Where Are We Now? They talk about the feeling of homesickness and melancholy the song engenders and wonder why, almost 35 years after the event, Bowie has broken his long silence by what would normally be an artistic crime for him – looking backwards.

But then maybe the song is his own Goodbye To Berlin. “I didn’t plan to leave Berlin,” Bowie once said. “I just drifted away . . .”

Mixedbag

* As we’re speaking of him, love the new Nick Cave single, Jubilee Street.

* Morrissey and his love for UKIP. Irish blood indeed.