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A Berlin oddity

Released in January, David Bowie's first single in 10 years is a reflective meditation on the time he spent in Berlin in the late '70s. With the follow-up album due this month, we take a tour of the city that inspired some of his finest work

  • A Berlin oddity
  • A Berlin oddity
  • A Berlin oddity
  • A Berlin oddity
  • A Berlin oddity
  • A Berlin oddity
  • A Berlin oddity
  • A Berlin oddity

Words Laura Martin

Had to get the train, From Potsdamer Platz..." sings David Bowie on the haunting 'Where Are We Now?', his first new song for 10 years. The lyrics are packed with references to Berlin, from the Dschungel nightclub, Berlin's answer to Studio 54, to Bösebrücke, the bridge that used to house the border crossing between east and west.

Bowie lived in Berlin from 1976 to 1979, sharing a flat in Schöneberg with his friend Iggy Pop. Bowie has said of this period, "It was the first time in years that I had felt a joy of life and a great feeling of release and healing. It's a city that's so easy to get lost in - and to find oneself, too."

He was a man badly in need of some healing. The last couple of years, which had been largely spent in the United States, had seen Bowie indulge in excessive drug use - he was in his own words, frequently "out of his mind".

According to Paul Trynka, author of Starman: David Bowie - The Definitive Biography: "Berlin was a new start for Bowie; he'd lived in a pressure cooker for years, and this was a city where he could act like a student, spend time with his friends, absorb new art and culture - and re-make his own music from the ground up."

The music he made during this period is the reason that Bowie's time in Berlin resonates today. There's a strong argument that the years he spent there were his most musically creative, eclipsing even the Ziggy Stardust years - the main reason is the Berlin Trilogy, three critically acclaimed albums made with the help of guru-like producer Brian Eno. And both his new single and new album show that Bowie himself is looking back to the glory days. The Next Day, the album that is released this month, has a sleeve that plays with the imagery from 1977's Heroes, the most famous of the Berlin albums.

It's not just Bowie who is looking back on his Berlin days. British producers Altered Image and Berlin-based Egoli Tossell Film are currently in the early stages of co-producing a biopic about the singer's time in Germany with Iggy, called Lust For Life. And no doubt there will also be plenty of references to Berlin in a new exhibition at London's V&A Museum, opening on 23 March - it's the first museum retrospective for the man who brought the compelling, androgynous Ziggy Stardust into the world, and features 300 objects ranging from original costumes to handwritten lyrics and Bowie's own instruments.

But perhaps the best way to get a sense of what made Bowie tick back then is to go yourself. Not only does the city still have the freewheeling, accept-all vibe that you can imagine the Thin White Duke revelling in, but it is still possible to visit many of the locations that were a part of his time in the city.

Hansa Tonstudios 

No trip to Bowie's Berlin could start anywhere other than where the magic happened: Hansa Tonstudios, where Bowie recorded all his music in the city. He called it "The Big Hall by the Wall", due to its proximity to the Berlin Wall, and 'Heroes' was created in Studio 2, the Meistersaal ("The Masters Hall"). It's an impressive building with huge, regal columns lining the entrance - originally built in 1910 as a music hall and ballroom, it weathered damage in World War II to be transformed into studios in the mid '60s. Bowie, Iggy Pop, Depeche Mode and U2 have all since recorded there. While guests won't get a chance to fiddle with knobs on the control desks like Bowie's esteemed producer Tony Visconti, they can step through its hallowed doors to get the full history of the impressive studios as part of Fritz Music Tours, with prices starting from €19 (www.musictours-berlin.com).

Hauptstrasse And Cafes 

Struggling for cash, Bowie chose to make his home in the relatively unfashionable area of Schöneberg, in south-west Berlin, where he and Iggy Pop lodged in a flat above a car-parts showroom in Hauptstrasse (number 155 for the superfans). It's a nondescript building, and today the entrance to the block is flanked by a tattoo parlour and a physiotherapist's office with nothing to commemorate the fact that rock'n'roll genius once resided here.

Instead, step down the road to Hauptstrasse 157, and popular gay cafe, Neues Ufer, where Bowie would visit for breakfast in the mornings and a whisky in the evenings. It's a fitting place to stop off and raise a glass to the portrait of the Thin White Duke that still adorns the wall. Another favourite was Cafe Exil (Paul-Lincke Ufer 44a), where he would hang out with local bohemians - it's now a high-end restaurant called Horváth. The historic Filmbühne Wien and Cafe Wien (Kurfürstendamm 26) is where Bowie danced the tango with American actress Kim Novak in the cult film Just A Gigolo. The Wien venues are no longer and the space is due to re-open shortly as Berlin's flagship Apple store.

The Dschungel And SO36 

Bowie liked to let offsteam with Iggy, Lou Reed and Mick Jagger in The Dschungel, a louche disco in an elegant Art Deco building which had once hosted Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington durings its days as the Badewanne.

These days it's changed again, to the swanky Hotel Ellington (www.ellington-hotel.com). You'll find a more raucous scene at another Bowie favourite, the SO36 club (www.so36.de). Back in the day, Bowie would be entertained by Krautrock bands or risque cabaret acts; you wonder what he'd make of today's Dancing With Tears In Your Eyes, a night devoted to '80s classics; or My Ugly X, a bad taste party. The SO36 does, however, host loud local bands.

The Brücke Museum 

Modern Berlin has more than 400 galleries, most of which are in hipster neighbourhoods like Kreuzberg; Bowie's favourite, however, was the Brücke Museum (www.bruecke-museum.de), a small place out in the pretty Grunewald area by the forest. The Brücke were a group of bohemian artists that formed in Dresden in 1905, initially meeting in a former butcher's shop, which became the scene of casual love-making and freeform art. The group's bold, suggestive paintings, often of nudes and city streets, had a major role in the creation of the European Expressionist - and were a major influence on Bowie, who himself was painting prolifically at the time, including dark portraits of himself and Iggy.

Gerhus Hotel 

Another favourite spot was Grunewald's Gerhus, a grandiose but decaying hotel that Bowie often recommended to visitors - despite them complaining about its shabbiness. The hotel has now changed its name to Schlosshotel (www.schlosshotelberlin.com), and been given a five-star boutique makeover - it's not exactly a place for throwing TVs out of windows; more a place to listen to the Berlin Trilogy in a fluffy bathrobe.

The Comedown 

If city life gets too much, it's best to make like Bowie and Iggy on one of their "quiet" days. Head out on the S-Bahn to Lake Wannsee, a picturesque 30-minute journey which passes three lakes and the botanical gardens, where the two friends enjoyed lunching. One of the area's best restaurants today is Die Eselin, just a 10-minute walk over the Wannsee bridge. The modern European food is excellent, and there's a pretty terrace (set three-course menu €38, www.dieeselin.de). Here, it's easy to feel like heroes - if just for one day.

Dissecting Bowie's New Video

The video for 'Where Are We Now?', the single released in January, is full of shots of Berlin, and lyrics relating to the city

The video opens with a shot of an art studio-cum-flat, a garage that Bowie used to live above, before moving on to grainy pseudo- '70s footage of the Berlin Wall. That's followed by Potsdamer Platz - once the centre of the cabaret-era nightlife scene but now a commercial hub.

Then comes Fernsehturm, the city's tallest building, which used to be an East Berlin television tower in the days of the GDR and is now a revolving restaurant. After whizzing around the back of the city's old parliament, The Bundestag, the video name-drops the now-defunct Dschungel on Nürnberger Strasse, a West Berlin Studio 54, where Bowie used to hang out with the likes of Mick Jagger, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop.

Following that, it's another name-check, this time about a man lost in time near KaDeWe, which sounds dreamy unless you know that it's a department store. Then there follows a shot of the city's cathedral, Dom, and then the Brandenburg Gate, probably the city's most recognisable landmark. Next is Bösebrücke, which was one of the city's seven border crossings back when Berlin was divided. It was where, as Bowie sings, 20,000 East Germans crossed over into West Germany in an hour when the wall came down in 1989.


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