An extract from the chapter on David Bowie, and ‘Heroes’
A dozen doves wheeled overhead, their bellies flashing white in the clear spring sunshine. The cyclist ducked through their weaving circle and swung off Hauptstrasse onto the deep, tree-lined streets. His bicycle tyres thrummed on the cobbles. The warm air ruffled his hair. He pedalled past the buildings where Isherwood and Riefenstahl had lived. At a co-op cafe pale-faced students in PLO scarves looked up from their copy of Kierkegaard and ordered another espresso. Above them ‘US-Army Go Home’ was graffitied on the walls of a squat. Beyond them a Bolivian busker played the panpipes. At Brecht’s blitzed apartment block on Spichernstrasse he veered north, retracing the old playwright’s daily stroll to the Romanisches Cafe. Over coffee and chess – the cyclist had read – Brecht and Grosz had called for a new kind of art, and gifted it to the world.
Some mornings the cyclist turned left rather than right and rode south to where Ernst Kirchner – one of the fathers of Expressionism – had had his studio. As he coasted along Kornerstrasse, he thought of Kirchner’s struggle to free himself from older, established forces. Kirchner had built a bridge – Die Brucke – between the past and the present, until the Nazis tore it down and destroyed 600 of his paintings, driving him to suicide.
The three-gear Raleigh carried the cyclist past places forever haunted by absence: the vacated bunkers, the demolished Sportspalast where Goebbels had declared Total War, the Peoples’ Court where Hitler’s would-be assassins had been sentenced to death. Each ride through the divided city made the cyclist feel more whole, each pedal-push carrying him through space, through time, both back to his core and toward his future. In those days Berlin seemed to stand at the centre of everything that had happened, and would happen in Europe. His bicycle exhilarated him, lifting his heart, at once grounding and freeing him in his adopted, pulsing new home. ‘I have really now got the will. I will be and I will work,’ he wrote in his diary.
At Mies van der Rohe’s New National Gallery, built on the abandoned foundations of Speer’s Germania, he turned right to follow the canal. Along the bank a stagger of arguing drunks fell into a fist fight. The cyclist swept past them into Kothenerstrasse, avoiding the tracks of the trams which no longer ran, and glided towards the Wall. At the edge of no man’s land he coasted to a stop, and rolled his bike into the Hansa Sound Studio, to record ‘Heroes’…