photos: Alejandro Arretureta
Now that over a year has passed since the death of David Bowie, one might expect that the international music audience would learn to live with this loss and just move on. But we're far from that - apart from the obvious fact that the trend of tattooing the Blackstar symbol does not seem to be disappearing any time soon, there's still no one who could even compare with David. Who could be such a genuine role model for so many different people. Who could record a catchy pop tune and still remain an unblemished rock'n'roll icon.
The admirable, yet silent dignity of Bowie’s final years, together with his incessant creative pursuits, always rich in fascinating cultural references, forces one to simply marvel at the intricate structure of the whole career. For it is clearly the acting part of it, namely the appearance in 1976 “The Man Who Fell to Earth” , that is the key to grasping the essence of the music video for “Blackstar”, and also “Lazarus” – the Broadway musical which Bowie was working on.
Last January, a lot of people experienced an overwhelming sense of confusion and disbelief. Not only did we lose a man who influenced the way we viewed the world, but also, just two days before that, we got another stunning glimpse at his genius. Literally, the last chance to genuinely appreciate the man.
What his longtime producer, Tony Visconti, described as Bowie’s death “being no different from his life – a work of art”, could be well seen as the final realization of Ziggy Stardust’s fate – we got to know him as the rock messiah after all.
However, particularly after an untimely death, the fans tend to long rather for the man behind the mask than his enigmatical inventions. However, over the past ten years, Bowie has given his fanbase practically no access into his personal life, preferring to have associates such as Visconti speak on his behalf. There has been, however, a certain point in history that saw David as candid and human, as never before.
In 1976, worn by cocaine addiction and LA stardom, and determined to live in an entirely new environment, David moved to the city of West Berlin. The sobering reality of buying his own groceries had a surprisingly grounding effect on a man who had been doted on hand and foot since rising to stardom. But that was only the beginning.
The most spectacular of Bowie’s reinventions required the least makeup and fancy costumes. Everyone’s favorite alien finally felt a sense of relief, and to some extent anonymity. As it turned out, those were the required conditions to create his, as he put it himself, DNA – namely three albums constituting The Berlin Trilogy: “Low”, “Heroes”, and “Lodger”.
Few places serve better for the purpose of getting to know the real David Jones. Berlin might have been called one of the biggest construction sites of all times, but if you know where to look, you can still experience this city following his footsteps.
And luckily, for this quest, we have David’s blessing. He guides us through some of the places that were closest to his heart in the 2013 music video for “Where Are We Now” such as the famous KaDeWe department store. And, if you find that soundtrack a tad too wistful in the current state of events, another Berlin anthem, though much less obvious in its lyrics, is Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger”. The two were inseparable while immersing in the culture of their newly adopted country, and this particular track is allegedly about taking the S1 all the way down to Wannsee.
It is utterly riveting to be able to look at the known surroundings in a new, Bowie-themed manner. The kind people of Berlin are aware of the legacy and make the experience very accessible. You can literally book a trip to Hansa Studios and look through the same window at the Meistersaal that Bowie did when he saw the lovers kissing by the wall, an occurrence which led him to write one of the most powerful lyrics in history.
Brücke Museum, the expressionist gallery that Bowie frequently visited, is also still open. As the story has it, he used to take everyone to see the works of the early 20th century movement. Can anyone think of a better recommendation than “David Bowie would advise you to go there”?
There is no need to schedule anything if you just want to see the place where he and Pop lived, Hauptstrasse 155 in Schöneberg. When I went there, three weeks after Bowie’s death, the entrance was still tightly surrounded by flowers. Neues Ufer, a bar where Bowie used to hang on a regular basis, now embellished with photographs of him, is just a few steps away. Don’t think Berlin stripped Bowie completely off his lavish preferences – on special occasions, he and Iggy would venture a bit farther to the Paris Bar – a quite costly place in Charlottenburg, which you can still check out.
Who knows, maybe this quasi-pilgrimage can lead to your own reinvention. And don’t worry if your soul searching journey won’t be an instant success. Bowie’s initial Berlin project involved starring as a male hooker in a movie so bad that neither his nor Marlene Dietrich’s name could save it. I don’t know how much of his self-realization has Bowie attained while partying in Kotti’s famous SO36, but you can still see how it works out for you. Unluckily, the other favorite venues are long gone: Chez Romy Haag is home to another sex club, and the Dschungel has turned into the Ellington Hotel.
Would Bowie still like to stroll on Kurfurstendamm that’s now adorned with Tesla, Apple Store, and three Starbucks coffee shops? Would he ever raise his hand to sing at the karaoke in Mauerpark? And if he still travelled on a bike, what if he had it stolen? The only thing we can do is wonder.
Let’s treasure the fact that we live in a city that was so special to him and appreciate how it continues to startle humbled newcomers and leaves them grateful for the experience. Just like Bowie has always done with his art.
- Michalina Gorajek is a Berlin based writer.
- She can transform any content in English or Polish into a real good read. She's currently honing her German skills to make it a trifecta.
- You can find out more and read her work at the The Grass Harp
- She also curates the Music to Love Berlin playlist - you should check it out!