Haunted by Isherwood's shade, the British musician flirted with fascism, then became a hero to the youth of the communist East
Crises are good for art – political as well as private. Those who balance on the edge of the abyss need to keep their wits about them, looking not only down but ahead.
In the late summer of 1976, the mentally and physically exhausted David Bowie moves to West Berlin. For three years, he lives at 155 Hauptstrasse in Schöneberg, an unobtrusive district in the American Sector. Apartments are in short supply, but Bowie finds a loft with seven large rooms on the first floor of an art nouveau building near Tempelhof Airport. Next door is a gay bar; Marlene Dietrich was born around the corner.
Berlin is really only an episode in the life of the English pop star. But in the life of the divided city this episode has evolved into a myth that is constantly conjured up in articles, films and guided tours: Bowie arrives from Los Angeles, where his dissolute lifestyle had almost robbed him of his sanity and his health. In exile here, at the age of 30 he reaches the maturity he requires to become a fully rounded artist. He paints, he writes, he makes a film with Marlene Dietrich and, in the Hansa Studio right next to the Wall, he produces the most courageous music of his life. In the Berlin albums Low and Heroes of 1977, which he makes together with Brian Eno, he adopts the sound of the electronic avant garde. And, little by little, he falls silent. It is the most radical abandonment of hit-parade music that a superstar has ever ventured. Imagine a Robbie Williams, who has followed in the Sinatra tradition as Bowie once did, bringing out a record in which he no longer sings, but improvises on the synthesiser and celebrates his psychoses and phobias as part of the Cold War. That gives you some idea of David Bowie in Berlin.
But Bowie hasn’t emigrated just in order to revolutionise pop music – even though he regards German bands such as Kraftwerk or Neu! as the most innovative in the entire world during the mid-1970s. What tempts him there is the Expressionist Berlin of his childhood dreams. Bowie grew up with silent movies such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. He was deeply influenced by the aesthetics of Brechtian theatre. In Schöneberg the pop star grows an artist’s beard; he goes to the Brücke Museum in Grunewald to study the pictures of his idols Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel and Otto Mueller. It is on their Expressionist motifs that Bowie models the record cover of Heroes and the scenery for his eponymous world tour.
Above all, though, in Berlin Bowie makes himself at home among the stage props of past epochs. For in his new home the post-war era is still a reality. Less than 500 metres from Bowie’s flat in Schöneberg is the courthouse where the men who plotted to kill Hitler on 20 July, 1944, were tried. After the war, the same building housed the Allied control council and later the headquarters of Allied air security. Every day, Bowie bicycles past it on his way to the Hansa Studio. The latter is right next to the Wall, by the flattened site of Potsdamer Platz, the pre-war hub of Berlin. His son Zowie attends the British Forces’ school. Bowie himself often crosses the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie to visit East Berlin, where he eats at the Ganymede Restaurant next to Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble. After the artificial worlds of Hollywood, where Bowie had lived since 1975, Berlin must have been a kind of historical shock therapy. The historian Timothy Garton Ash, who studied in West Berlin at about the same time, once came up with this formula to describe his journeys from England to the Eastern bloc: “I flew British Airways. Departure: 1983. Arrival: 1945.” David Bowie must have felt rather like this, too.
“Berlin had to live up to its Isherwood myth,” writes Garton Ash about the 1970s in his memoir The File, which documents many of the romantic illusions that surround Bowie in Berlin from the point of view of a sceptical scholar. The parallels are curious: Garton Ash comes to the city in 1978 to write a doctoral dissertation about “Berlin under Hitler”; he lives in a similar art nouveau building and even frequents the same fashionable dives: Exil, a restaurant in the bohemian area of Kreuzberg, the Paris Bar near the Zoo Station, and the drag club Chez Romy Haag. Garton Ash’s memoir is haunted by the same types as Bowie’s songs: elderly aristocratic Prussian ladies, pale correspondents from Oxford in run-down bedsits – a world straight out of Christopher Isherwood. Before his move to Berlin, Bowie had encountered the author of Goodbye to Berlin in February 1976 in Los Angeles and grilled him about what it had been like at the end of the Weimar Republic with the Nazis on the march. Isherwood’s boarding house from Goodbye to Berlin had been in the Nollendorfstrasse, a 10-minute bicycle ride for Bowie. He even finds his Sally Bowles in the transsexual Romy Haag.
The expats of the ’70s lived in the ever-lengthening shadows of yesterday’s world. How bewildering it must have been to come to a city so steeped in its own myth. And what fun it was: you call me Isherwood, I’ll call you Spender. But in Berlin Bowie didn’t just slip into Herr Issyvoo’s costume. Ever since 1972, when his fantasy figure of Ziggy Stardust had sold countless thousands of records and unleashed mass hysteria, he had been obsessed with Nazism. In East Berlin he visits the remains of Hitler’s bunker. “I think I might have been a bloody good Hitler,” he tells the American music magazine Rolling Stone in February 1976. “I’d be an excellent dictator. Very eccentric and quite mad.” He constantly talks in this vein, often voluntarily, during this period. Later, he genuinely regrets these interviews, claiming that he wasn’t in his right mind at the time. Yet even though Bowie has always played games with the media, deliberately cultivating his unpredictable, quicksilver image, he simply talks about Hitler a little too often to dismiss it as ironical. Bowie, an avid reader of Nietzsche, is fascinated by the dramatisation of power as practised by the Nazis. In February 1976 he goes on tour as the “Thin White Duke”, performing on a black-and-white stage beneath a cathedral of light worthy of Albert Speer. “It is the theatricality of Nazism rather than the ideology that attracts Bowie,” according to the British scholar Nick Stevenson, who explains it by reference to the “Male Fantasies” of the German sociologist Klaus Theweleit. The narcissistic Führer figure of the “Thin White Duke” suppresses any feminine need for warmth and intimacy by iron self-discipline. That is one way to come to terms with all the problems that had beset
Bowie in Los Angeles and which he himself had caused by his unnatural cult of stardom and drugs.
And so the pop star goes on talking through his hat: “Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars,” he says in a conversation with Playboy that appears in September 1976, by which time Bowie is already living in West Berlin. “I’d adore to be Prime Minister. And, yes, I believe very strongly in fascism. The only way we can speed up the sort of liberalism that’s hanging foul in the air at the moment is to speed up the progress of a right-wing, totally dictatorial tyranny and get it over as fast as possible. People have always responded with greater efficiency under a regimental leadership. A liberal wastes time saying, ‘Well, now, what ideas have you got?’ Show them what to do, for God’s sake. If you don’t, nothing will get done.”
In those days, however, Bowie was not alone with such insights. In the mid-’70s many Britons see their country on the way to becoming a Weimar Republic. Strikes, inflation, budget deficits – today we know that Great Britain was never on the brink of catastrophe, but people felt and talked differently at the time. When, in the winter of 1973-74, the miners go on strike, the Heath government announces a three-day week and a campaign to save energy called “SOS – Switch Off Something”. A highly civilised European country in the last quarter of the 20th century that has to ban floodlights and illuminated advertisements, that can hardly heat its offices and public buildings, that switches off TV programmes at 10.30pm. It must have been frightening, and humiliating too.
In July 1974 – Bowie is at his most megalomaniac on tour in America, accompanied by conspicuous consumption of electricity – General Sir Walter Walker writes a letter to the editor of the Daily Telegraph: “The country yearns for a leader.” Sir Walter is a former supreme commander of Nato forces in Northern Europe, besides leading the “Unison Committee for Action”, a group of bankers, barristers, businessmen, soldiers and politicians. So parts of the English establishment are playing with fire. Sir Walter thinks aloud about a coup d’état. “The patience of some of us is beginning to wear thin,” he threatens one journalist. Margaret Thatcher, soon to be Prime Minister, puts herself at the head of such protest groups – not to overthrow the political system, but to do away with the welfare state. She is loyal to Queen and country, but even so the historian EH Carr compares her with Adolf Hitler.
It was a time when such harsh comparisons with the Nazis were common, and Bowie finds himself in the thick of it. As he returns from America to England on 2 May 1976 and greets his fans at Victoria Station with a raised left arm, the tabloid press describes this as a Hitler salute. In the context of this fatalistic mood, in which political rhetoric is completely over the top, Bowie’s outbursts about fascism no longer seem so weird. All around him there are experts talking like this, too. It isn’t the current British situation that worries EH Carr, but what had happened in Germany in the ’30s. The economic commentator Peter Jay blames the budget deficit and the inflation on the oil crisis, just as Germany had suffered from reparations after the First World War. A whiff of Weimar is in the air.
One can only speculate about how intensively David Bowie was concerned about the condition of England in the mid-’70s. He had spent most of the two years before his move to Berlin not at home, but in the United States. But he definitely enjoys the double-edged atmosphere that surrounds him, because it kindles his imagination. In Hollywood he is supposed to have lived on milk, four packets of Gitanes a day and quantities of drugs. Now, after the party, he has found himself the perfect precipice.
The party on the precipice – that’s Berlin, even in the mid-’70s. But it is no longer a matter of nightclub brawls, strikes and Nazi rallies, but survival in a fortified city in the middle of the Cold War. When Bowie arrives, the tensions have relaxed, thanks to Willy Brandt’s treaties with the Eastern bloc, and conditions have improved. West Berliners’ freedom to travel has improved, thanks to the Four Power agreement of 1971. For the first time for almost 20 years, Berliners on either side of the Wall can phone one another. The days of blocked transit routes, ultimatums, chicanery and blockades seem to be over. Yet the status of the city is still problematic, and that will not change until reunification in 1990. Do the Western sectors belong to the Federal Republic? Or is Berlin as a whole a self-contained political entity, as the Kremlin has always demanded? In the Cold War these are vital questions, because East and West confront one another at the Wall as nowhere else. And as long as those who try to escape from East Berlin are still shot at, as long as searches of vehicles on the transit routes by the East German police continue to increase, Berlin will never be able to relax.
Bowie may have sensed this and succeeded in transforming the uncertainty of the situation into artistic energy. It is brinkmanship, a familiar Cold War tactic. Whether Bowie craved the feeling of living on the edge is a question that the New Musical Express puts to him in October 1977, just as his album Heroes appears. Baader-Meinhof terrorism was then reaching a climax in that “German autumn”. “That’s exactly right,” Bowie replies. “I find that I have to put myself in those situations to produce any reasonable good writing. I’ve still got that same thing about when I get to a country or a situation and I have to put myself on a dangerous level, whether emotionally or mentally or physically, and it resolves in things like that: living in Berlin leading what is quite a Spartan life for a person of my means, and in forcing myself to live according to the restrictions of that city.”
And this pop star, who has come to the scene of his childhood dreams in order to turn them into reality, who has moved to the capital of the very Weimar Republic that his native England increasingly resembled – this David Bowie comes down to earth in Berlin with a jolt. He suddenly finds himself surrounded by young people of his own age whose fathers really were in the SS, he says later. And that helped to wake him up. At the Wall, Bowie found his own name among the graffiti – the last two letters formed a swastika. He was not best pleased.
In the shadow of this graffiti-covered Wall, Bowie wrote his most celebrated Berlin song, Heroes. It concerns a pair of lovers who meet every day under the noses of the East German border police. Bowie sings: “I, I can remember / Standing, by the Wall / And the guns shot above our heads / And we kissed as though nothing could fall / And the shame was on the other side/ Oh we can beat them for ever and ever / Then we could be Heroes just for one day.” No other pop song about the Wall comes near it. When President Kennedy came to West Berlin in June 1963, he bequeathed to the city four words: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Bowie bequeaths his temporary home this song – and its sentiments are exactly the same. Sometime in 1978, however, he is off again. Healed and chilled out, he moves on to New York.
One more time, though, he is able to feel like a Berliner. On 6 June 1987, David Bowie performs in front of the Reichstag, next to the Wall. Before an audience of 70,000, he reads out a message in German: “We send our best wishes to all our friends who are on the other side of the Wall.” Then he sings Heroes. On the other side of the Wall, as near as possible to the Reichstag, hundreds of young East Berliners strain to hear echoes of the concert. They listen as Bowie greets them. And they listen to his song. Their song. Many of them charge towards the Brandenburg Gate. Troops and police bar their way. Stones and empty beer cans are thrown. Over the next two evenings, when the Eurythmics and finally Genesis give their “Concert for Berlin”, the crowds in East Berlin grows bigger and the riots become more violent. In their internal reports, the Stasi record the deteriorating situation night after night: human chains are formed, in total “158 persons detained. They are mainly young adults born between 1964 and 1969. 25 young women were detained. Some of their behaviour was aggressive.” And then the Stasi report states: “Loud whistling and chanting (including for the first time ‘Down with the Wall’) in response to police actions.” The West Berlin tabloid press reports that the chanting had already been heard – on the evening when Bowie performs Heroes.
The last time that young East Berliners had demanded “Down with the Wall” had been in Alexanderplatz on 7 October 1977, the week before Bowie brought out his album Heroes. Then, too, a rock concert had unleashed riots; hundreds were arrested. There are unconfirmed reports that three people were killed, two of them policemen.
Ten years later, something happens on the streets of East Berlin that will soon become unstoppable. It is getting noisier in the capital of the GDR. “The assembled youth were overwhelmingly decadent in appearance,” the Stasi report. “Tests in the Charité hospital confirm that the maximum decibel level has been substantially exceeded. The Charité has a particular need for silence.” This funereal silence is now over. “Pigs”, “Down with the Wall”, “Russians out!” the decadent mob yells. The Wall has only another two years to go. That June in East Berlin, a few of the heroes emerged who would shortly bring it down. They have a David Bowie song on their lips.