Bowie in Berlin

It’s Christmas Day in Berlin in 1977. Seated at the table are David Bowie and the film-maker David Hemmings, along with various partners, children and add-ons like me. At a secluded restaurant in the Grunewald, the deep and dark urban forest that hugs the city’s western fringe, we eat and drink too much and Bowie gives me a copy of Fritz Lang’s biography, which one day will help me to write a book about Berlin.

In return, I gift him a retro Japanese “space jet” model made of tin. Just right for a wannabe alien. At the end of the happy evening, I follow him downstairs to the huge, ceramic lavatory where – as we stand before the urinals – we sing Buddy Holly songs together, or at least a line and a half from Little Richard’s Good Golly Miss Molly.

When Bowie moved from Los Angeles to Berlin in late 1976, he’d been on the edge of physical and mental collapse. At first, he fell back on old habits, cruising around the divided city with flatmate Iggy Pop, drinking KöPi at Joe’s Beer House, stumbling into gutters and transvestite bars, clubbing at the Dschungel and the Unlimited. One night, Iggy sat in the passenger seat as Bowie rammed their dealer’s car again and again, for five crazed minutes. He then drove around their hotel’s underground car park, pushing 70mph, screaming above the screech of the tyres that he wanted to end it all by driving into a concrete wall. Until his car ran out of fuel and the two friends collapsed in hysterics.

To defeat his demons, Bowie needed space and stability. His estranged wife Angie no longer provided it. For much of the time, she kept their son Zowie (later Duncan Jones) away from him, in London or Switzerland. So his assistant Coco Schwab found him a modest, first floor apartment in an art nouveau building in the leafy Berlin area of Schöneberg.

Coco – the devoted, unsung heroine of Bowie’s career – had its walls painted white as a private gallery for his dark images. She ordered in blank canvases and tubes of oil paint. She read Nietzsche beside him, beneath the fluorescent portrait he painted of Japanese author Yukio Mishima. Above all, she went with him to the Brücke Museum, to gaze at the works of Kirchner, Kollwitz and Heckel. The expressionists’ rough, bold strokes and melancholic mood captured a sense of the ephemeral, as well as Bowie’s imagination.

In the capital of reinvention, and in Coco’s care, Bowie began to edge away from cocaine psychosis, finding his way out of his life of excess, remaking himself as an ordinary man. He dressed in baggy trousers and dowdy shirts, and enjoyed the Berliners’ disinterest in him. No one bothered him on the street, unlike in star-struck LA. One night on a whim, he climbed onto a cabaret stage to perform a few Frank Sinatra songs. The local audience shrugged and asked him to step down. They had come to see a different act. Away from the limelight, he composed, painted and, for the first time in years, “felt a joy of life and a great feeling of release and healing”, as he put it.

He realised his goal was not simply to find a new way of making music, but rather to reinvent – or to come back to – himself. He no longer needed to adopt characters to sing his songs. He found the courage to throw away the props, costumes and stage sets. By the summer of 1977, Bowie was on a creative high. With producer Tony Visconti and friend Brian Eno, he began to make a new album. Over long sessions in the studio, he ate almost nothing, sailing home to Hauptstraße with Eno at dawn, breaking a raw egg into his mouth, and sleeping a few hours before returning to the studio.

One of the first songs recorded that summer had been an instrumental track until, alone at the piano, Bowie began to sketch out some lyrics, eventually making it the title track and calling it “Heroes”. Visconti rigged up three microphones with electronic “gates”. The first mic was 20cm from Bowie, the second 6m away, the third 15m away across the vast, dark hall. The gates were set to open when Bowie sang above a certain volume, forcing him to gradually lift his voice from a whisper to a shout, using the room’s natural echo.

As Visconti adjusted the levels, Bowie continued to write the lyrics, then asked to be left alone with his thoughts and the piano. Visconti slipped out and walked along Köthenerstraße to meet his lover. From the Hansa Sound Studio control room, Bowie saw them kiss, by the Wall.

Two hours later, the final lyric was recorded. “Heroes” became Berlin’s rock anthem, a droning, courageous wall of sound, fired with deep emotion, hammered by a clanging, metallic rhythm – produced in part by Visconti hitting a studio ashtray. Bowie called “Heroes”, and his three Berlin albums, his DNA. Time and again, it would be named one of pop’s greatest and most original singles.

Of course, there were moments of delicious madness both in Berlin and afterwards. At his 31st birthday party with Iggy and Eno, at the Lützower Lampe when the much-loved 60-year-old drag queen Viola was encouraged to sit on my knee and croon German love songs in my ear. Bowie went home with the only “real” girl in the place that night.

I had come to Berlin to work as the assistant director on Just a Gigolo, a film starring Bowie and Marlene Dietrich. As the only native English-speakers on the picture, we (Bowie, Coco, Hemmings and I) naturally gravitated toward each other. We spent many evenings together in Bowie’s Hauptstraße apartment. He would play records and demo tapes for us and others, explaining how musicians and groups come together then break up in the pursuit of creative goals, likening the process to the Die Brücke expressionists; the Beatles and John Lennon; Roxy Music and Brian Eno; Der Blaue Reiter group and Kandinsky. He introduced me to Brecht, spoke of “quadrants and quantum leaps, creation and process” – and even discussed the pitfalls of Warner Brothers’ $15m offer for a Ziggy Stardust rock musical.
“I am a generalist!” he told me one day on the set, meaning he was a Renaissance man, skilled in different fields and mediums. “Then why are you most associated with rock’n’roll?” I asked. “It is only a front,” he laughed.

Fast forward to Earls Court in London – the final venue of the European leg of the Isolar II tour. It’s June 1978 and 18,000 fans are whistling and wailing for the intermission to end. They clap their hands, stamp their feet and holler for Bowie to return. He has performed live for 1.5m people in 43 cities over the previous 14 weeks. Behind the stage, along a concrete corridor, their starman sits in silence, dressed in snakeskin drapecoat and huge baggy white trousers, watching Coronation Street. It’s his routine to catch an episode on video during the break: to let him get his breath, to occupy his mind but not engage it, to help him hold on to the stratospheric high from the concert’s first half.
In those few months in Berlin, Bowie made his journey from addiction to independence, from celebrity paranoia to radical, unmasked messenger who told us, all the fat-skinny people, all the nobody people, that we were beautiful, that we too could be ourselves.

January 13, 2016