Bowiemania has well and truly gripped the rockstar’s three big cities. In NYC the subway is awash with a publicity campaign for his new album, The Next Day. In London, where David Jones was born in Brixton and Ziggy Stardust on Heddon Street, tickets for an exhibtion about him and his style at the V and A are selling at a record breaking rate - 26,000 advance sales in a recent count. Meanwhile, global media has been focusing on Berlin, his sometime safe European home, and the myth of Bowie’s Berlin days has been gaining momentum with everyone from Mitte designer Claudia Skoda to the daughters of his old landlady being asked for an opinion.
When Berlin was calling me, the Bowie myth was, of course, along with currywurst, part of the Hauptstadt’s allure. Ziggy finding his way back to earth through Iggy. Heroes and the wall. The lodger in Schöneberg. Kraftwerk, Krautrock. Highs and lows with Eno in the Hansa studios, and a lust for life with Jimmy Osterberg. I didn’t come to live in Berlin to immitate Bowie. I wasn’t, as he was, looking for the “most arduous city”. The wall wasn’t there like a womb for me, as he described it, but I did relate to his expression that there was a tension and reality to Berlin that made it an exciting place to explore.
And Bowie was definitely part of the shadows that make up the city for me, along with Brecht and Dietrich, Lottie Lenya and Fritz Lang, Murnau and Marx, Max Rheinhardt and the Third Reich. The extraordinary and the evil; the decadent and the damned. Sometimes you do feel like you’re walking the dead here.
Since I’ve been in Berlin I haven’t ever consciously paid homage to Bowie, like I have in London with pilgrimage to the Ziggy Stardust phone box. Actually, that’s not true. I have stopped outside Hauptstraße 155 and toyed with the idea of knocking on the now owner’s door to poke inside. I’ve peered through the windows of the Ganymed restaurant and imagined Iggy and Bowie there smoking. And when I cycle past the library on Potsdamer Straße and imagine Wim Wenders’ angels, I think of David Bowie too on his bike on the way to Hansa Studios before Staatsbibliothek had even opened. On Bernauer Straße or Garten Straße, and while its still there on Mühlenstraße, I can’t stop the words “I remember standing by the wall... and we kissed as though nothing could fall” popping into my head.
But while the Bowie myth has him entrenched in the city between 1976-1979, living a life of anonymity with the Turkish community in West Berlin, he was really only here for a few months. In between frantic touring and promoting his albums, he dashed between Switzerland, Paris and New York, with scattered fragments in Berlin finding time to take his young son to the zoo in Charlottenburg.
He even failed to live his own dreams. His part in David Hemmings’ film Just A Gigolo, co-starring with Dietrich and set (and for Bowie filmed) in Berlin never had him hooked to his silver screen idol. They shot all her bits in Paris without him, even if it looks like they were in the same room. Only one of the so-called Berlin trilogy albums, “Heroes”, could really claim to have a genuine Berlin citizen’s stamp. And all those great shots of him playing live in the Christiane F movie? They’re from a gigs filmed in New York made to look like Berlin, and the crowd scenes were apparently filmed at an AC/DC show in Berlin.
After the global media frenzy of Berlin-Bowiemania that surrounded the release of Where Are We Now? everyone dug up Bowie’s past in Old Europe’s capital and analysed his lyrics for meaning. Potzdamer Platz was spelt wrong. There’s no way you could get a train from there in 1976-8 anyway. As Berlin expert Dave Rimmer told me, Bowie probably didn’t even go to the Dschungel on Nürnbergerstraße when he was living in Berlin because the club was on Winterfeldplatz then and hadn’t yet moved to its new address.
With The Next Day due for release, I trawled it on iTunes for more Berlin references. I couldn’t find any real traces of explicit Berlin Bowie ghosts, although the opening track sounds like a Georg Grosz picture looks, and there are a few guitar riffs that echo Low.
Where are We Now? occupies a strange place of stillness in the record. And it occurs to me that it’s not simply about him and his few months in the 1970s in the city. After all, he wasn’t here to cross his fingers for the 20,000 Böse Brücke refugees in 1989. It seems like it’s more about a nostalgia for how things could have been for Berlin, but haven’t turned out that way. The hopes of a new Berlin, a new age generally, have faltered. Berlin, the western part that is, was once a cartoon sketch of capitalism, an island in the middle of communism complete with a fantastic window display at KaDeWe. Now it is becoming a grotesque caricature with property developers, speculators, investors changing the city’s face - and rubbing out memories every day.
I’ve only been here for three and half years, and already I’m walking the dead in this ever-changing city. The green patch of grass that was once the people’s palace, where my daughter ran for the first time, is now a building site. Alexanderplatz (or at least the bit around the TV tower) which should be a heritage site of Cold War architecture is being turned into a shopping centre, the awesome proportions broken up by yet more luxury flats. East German statues have been dismantled and buried in the woods, or moved offstage. I sometimes wonder how I’d feel if I was a Berliner (east or west) seeing my past being removed like this.
It’s interesting though, that David Bowie chose to come to Berlin when he did. He wanted to forget his past and reinvent himself. He chose the city to help him rub out his extra-terrestial glamourous persona and find a new voice to replace it.
Is that what Berlin does best? Does it allow you to escape, be yourself or be free? “As long as there’s me, as long as there’s you”, as the man says. How did you get here and where are you now?
The Next Day is released in Germany on March 8, in the UK on March 11 and in the US March 12. (Maybe he does love Berlin the most, then.)
You can email mark on firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on twitter @deutschmarkuk