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Last update on November 02, 2020

Imagine sharing a flat with Iggy Pop in Berlin in 1976 – now that was the expat life. We look at David Bowie’s sojourn in the city that he immortalized in the song Heroes.

David Bowie (born David Robert Jones in London on 8 April 1947) almost became a monk.

In the 1960s he and a friend delved into the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. “I was ready to take my vow,” he told an English talk show.

His fellow student advised him to become a musician, which says a lot about the quality of Bowie’s friends.

Making musical history

Bowie has written musical history and influenced generations of young musicians. He understood how to perform like no other. He was the first in the pop business to bring characters onto the stage in stylized performances which contributed substantially to his fame.

The experimental 1970s offered Bowie the best opportunities to live up to his showmanship. He broke radically with the hippy generation and its demands for authenticity and straight stage appearances. His unique stage personae ranged from the androgynous to the mystically feminine all the way to sadistic-erotic leather fetishism.

According to some reports, he created the different characters because he was too shy to appear on stage as himself. He became a master at allegories rich in association and graphic egocentricity. His best-known character is Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy gave him a successful breakthrough and which he promptly killed off on stage during the last concert of his first world tour. Even today, never standing still and always turning towards new pastures remain traits of Bowie’s career.

Time for a change

His place of residence changed often, with Bowie moving whenever he became bored with a city. In search of new inspiration, he came to Berlin in 1976 with Iggy Pop after periods in New York and Los Angeles. Both moved into a big apartment in an old building in the district of Schöneberg. Bowie painted all ten rooms black. At this time he was heavily dependent on cocaine but overcame his addiction in Berlin.

Berlin fascinated Bowie. The inner conflicts of the city, its unresolved urban identity suited his own mood. Through Bowie’s eyes, Berlin at the time was “the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine.” The peculiar frontier atmosphere, which hung over the whole city, could only be found in parts of London or New York. Days and nights he strolled through the district, getting high on this “city full of bars with sad and disappointed people.”

Immortalising the Wall

They were made with musician and record producer Brian Eno, who was living in the city at the same time and who was friends with Bowie. Bowie himself dubbed the three albums his Berlin trilogy. While moving from city to city he has always written songs. “What I felt about the place came in the music,” said Bowie in a television interview. In Berlin, he wrote his hymn Heroes, a song that describes a love story conducted in the shadow of the Wall. It went on to become one of his most successful hits. In addition to his Heroes album he also recorded Low and Lodger during his time in Berlin.

The city also provided Bowie with inspiration outside of music. It was here that he first began to busy himself with art. The museum devoted to a group of four German expressionist artists whose movement was known as “die Bruecke” (the Bridge) was one of Bowie’s favorite places in Berlin, along with the KaDeWe department store and the walk around the Wannsee lake.

By now Bowie has made well over 20 albums, but the Berlin years belong to the most important period of his musical career. His exile there has already become a part of the city’s mythology, from which a new crowd of creative people look to draw inspiration. If only aspiring musicians could still afford ten-room flats in Schöneberg.

Photo credit: AVRO