Neil Stewart looks at the Thin White Duke’s time in Berlin and the dark records he made here.
The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1976 – from the V&A exhibition ‘David Bowie is’
It’s the most famous salute in rock. Returning to London’s Victoria Station in May 1976, after a spell in Berlin, David Bowie, world-famous, stood up in the back of his open-top Mercedes and saluted the crowd: his right arm extended unbent, his hand flat palm-down.
Though he’s since denied this was a Nazi salute, Bowie had spoken so much of immersing himself in the occult, in Nazism, in the trappings if not the ideology of fascism that it was an understandable conclusion for onlookers to reach.
A few years before, Bowie had inhabited the persona of Major Tom, an astronaut cut adrift in space. Now, like the possessed astronauts of 1950s film The Quatermass Xperiment, the unwitting vectors to Earth of a lethal alien infection, people might have wondered: Bowie may have come home, but what had he brought with him?
“I am a photostat machine”
He’d gone there because of Christopher Isherwood. The author, who had lived in Berlin in the years before World War II, witnessing (and chronicling, in his diaries and his fiction) the rise of the Nazi party, had coined the phrase “I am a camera” to describe his working methods: a pure reportage, unmediated by his own opinions on what he saw. Bowie liked to paraphrase Isherwood’s axiom, satirizing his own ability to hop and distill genres as “photostatting.”
When Bowie met him backstage at an LA concert in the mid-1970s, he pumped Isherwood for information about the city, about the decadence of 1920s Weimar, and the gloom of the economic collapse of the ’30s — then as now, the downturn was blamed on outsiders and immigrants, xenophobia exploited by the Nazi party in its rise to power.
Station to Station, 1976 – from the V&A exhibition ‘David Bowie is’
It became clear to Bowie that his curiosity about the city could only be assuaged by a spell living there, but he’d have to wait until 1976 to get there. Split by a wall guarded by armed soldiers, the prosperous West Berlin was accessed via the East half, a Soviet-administered zone stuck, as it would be for nearly half a century after the end of World War II, in the Cold War doldrums.
Even before he took up his 18-month residence in Berlin, Bowie had developed the character he’d play there. For previous records and tours, he had created and played, variously, lone space cadet Major Tom, the outlandish Ziggy Stardust, the pop-culture vampire Aladdin Sane.
Now here was a new Bowie: pained, pared back, skeletal, his eyes glittering deep in a face made frightful by the near starvation diet he was on (famously he subsisted at this time on his own version of the four major food groups: cocaine, cigarettes, milk, and red peppers), a death mask brought to pained life by the Crowleyish magic alluded to in the lyrics of the first song this Thin White Duke character would sing, “Station to Station.”
“I really meant it so badly this time”
Station to Station (1976) was actually recorded in Los Angeles, where Bowie was living in 1975–6 after a stint in Santa Fe, filming Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. Despite its geographical separateness, it suits being matched, thematically, with Low (1977) and “Heroes” (1978) as part of the so-called Berlin Trilogy far more than does Lodger (1979), a record that’s scrappily enjoyable, but tonally and thematically very different from the preceding three records.
Lodger dabbles fairly dubiously in “world music” rather than exploring the esoteric any further; and while Low was conceived and “Heroes” recorded in Berlin, Lodger has no connection to the city; it’s Brian Eno’s contribution that binds these three records, rather than their forming a Berlin triptych.
Station to Station, though, prefigures some of the affectlessness and indecision that characterize the two “proper” Berlin records. The new character Bowie’s inhabiting is introduced in the very first line of the record — “The return of the Thin White Duke” — and we understand this is not a comeback, but a more esoteric return: a reverence, a haunting. This ten-minute title track is a sort of manifesto, filled with allusions to a secret knowledge, and paraphrases of terms from the poems of esotericist and self-proclaimed warlock Aleister Crowley.
Album cover for Station to Station, 1976
On the following “Golden Years,” Bowie pledges to “stick with you, baby, for a thousand years” and the air of the weird is such that you understand he might mean it quite literally, and be capable of it. (There’s another famous figure of the 20th century who had a lot to say on the topic of states that endure for a thousand years, which leads to a faintly worrying conclusion about what character might be singing this song.)
And the lyrics to “Stay” belie the song’s boldly imperative title: Over a titanic riff, Bowie explains, in a tone that falls somewhat short of imploring, “‘Stay’, that’s what I meant to say, or do something / But what I never say is ‘Stay this time’ — I really meant it so badly this time…” He concludes with a summary of unrequited love’s big dilemma: “You can never really tell when somebody wants something you want too…”
As Sane and Stardust, Bowie had been the exuberant showman; in the 1980s, he would become a supremely slick, hyperreal entertainer. The Thin White Duke, though, is confused, uncertain, a creature more than a character, someone who can neither express his feelings nor understand others’. And it’s not a persona, but a total inhabitation of the character: near-impossible to discern any difference between the Duke who sings these lines, the lost, bewildered alien Bowie plays in The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the ostensible human David Bowie interviewed for 1976 BBC documentary Cracked Actor, whose demeanor is totally antithetical to the description “personality.”
“Every chance that I get, I take it on the road”
He weighed something like 98 pounds. He was taking cocaine in such great quantities that whole days were lost to paranoid hallucinations of being snooped upon by minatory presences. He needed to get away from the hell of LA.
So, like a character in an early 20th-century novel, Bowie left for Europe for a rest cure, stopping off briefly in Switzerland (he didn’t like it; his semi-estranged wife Angie did, and stayed) before traveling on, in the summer of 1976, at last, to Berlin.
Bowie moved into a small Schöneberg apartment with his more-than-an-assistant Corinne Schwab — her presence one likely cause of Angie’s unwillingness to accompany the party — and his protégé Iggy Pop, whose Bowie-(co)-produced records The Idiot (1976) and Lust for Life (1977) are important fellows to Bowie’s Berlin trilogy.
The Thin White Duke, circa 1976
Bowie was in hiding: He wore a tweed cap, grew a moustache, put on weight — started, by going incognito, to resemble a normal human being. He slouched his way around museums, ate Turkish food in Kreuzberg, and crossed Checkpoint Charlie to visit the much less buoyant Eastern Bloc. He wasn’t a vampire. He wasn’t a ghoul. “He was very upbeat,” says his producer Tony Visconti. “He had a life! Not one of us,” he adds, and it must be said that accounts do vary on this particular matter, “was getting out of our skulls.”
What was Bowie looking for on these “sightseeing” trips? “Anything to do with Hitler,” he’d admit later. In this he was, surely not unwittingly, living up to the somewhat questionable lines he’d dropped into recent interviews: “I think I might have been a bloody good Hitler,” he’d told Rolling Stone, and he picked Playboy as the place to announce his belief that “Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars…I believe very strongly in fascism.”
Partly, of course, this is provocative rock-star posturing of a sort every other star has indulged in and very of-the-moment for 1976 (punk, with its safety-pinned Queen Elizabeth and anthems to anarchy, was scant months away); in other ways it taps into Bowie’s ongoing interests. The Occult and Nazism are intertwined. He already had a ghoulish interest in the one, as Station to Station evidences; why not the other?
Lou Reed might have titled an album Berlin and Wayne County a song, and Iggy Pop might have released the most concise sonic distillation of the city (“Nightclubbing,” written by Bowie, is a scathing gloss on endless nights out in the city), but it’s Bowie who allowed the city to take him over — who persuaded the city to let him photostat it.
In 1977, with producer Brian Eno, he made his strangest record yet, Low, a concept record about his experiences of life in the German capital, sketched in gossamer-fine songs and a series of doomy instrumentals.
“What’re you gonna say to the real me?”
On Low, Bowie’s voice, always mannered, loses all emotional register. “Be My Wife” has another bold title, and opens with a trilling vaudeville piano line reminiscent of “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” but the lyrics are, again, rather more opaque. “Sometimes you get so lonely,” he remarks conversationally, but he doesn’t sound lonely — he sounds bored. “Sometimes you get nowhere. I’ve lived all over the world. I’ve left every place.” The proposal itself: “Please be mine. Share my life. Stay with me. Be my wife.”
Album cover for Low, 1977
The video clip for the song takes place in a white void and features a Bowie who can’t play his guitar, can’t mime to the words, can barely stand or walk properly he’s so disconnected. It is as if we are onlookers rather than viewers, peeping into an old-fashioned sanitarium to see one of the deluded inhabitants miming to the song in his head.
Later live revisitations — reanimations, one might say — of Low-era songs are, maybe aptly, disastrous: A jaunty “Be My Wife” recorded in 2003 for the A Reality Tour live album is unnerving for its suggestion that Bowie, notorious for claiming he has no memory of recording Station to Station, has himself forgotten the original chilling delivery.
“The first half of Low was all about me,” Bowie explained. This is deeply unnerving, since for many of the songs, he sounds like someone losing the will to even form words. Gawky, stammering “Breaking Glass” features only a few lines of lyrics amid the tense guitar work, cataclysmic enormous drums, and blaring synths that hurtle from the right speaker to the left; “Don’t look at the carpet,” Bowie warns, his phrasing weirdly jerky. “I drew something awful on it” — and we’re back in the suffocating LA house Bowie was too frightened to leave in 1975, consulting the tarot cards, drawing pentagrams on the walls.
“So deep in your room,” he croons on “What in the World,” “you never leave your room. What’re you gonna say to the real me?” After so many transformations and personae, we don’t know who that is any more; nor, by the sounds, does he. On the beautiful “Sound and Vision,” cascading synths and chirpy doo-wop vocals make up a lyric-free intro more than half the song’s full length — then give way to the murmur of a character who sits at home, “pale blinds drawn all day, nothing to do, nothing to say…I will sit right down, waiting for the gift of sound and vision.”
Five record-company-worrying instrumentals complete Low — they are, according to Bowie, “an observation in musical terms of my reaction to seeing the East Bloc.” Encouraged into these ambient sonic experiments by collaborator Brian Eno, Bowie created the upbeat harmonica-led “A New Career in a New Town,” the altogether more catastrophic “Warszawa” (no more potent wordless music evocation of ruins of bombed cities can be imagined), and the sighing, autumnal “Subterraneans,” said by Bowie to be about “people who got trapped in East Berlin after the separation.” Here, at last, over these mesmerically melancholic sounds, he sings again — not in English, not words, but some fictive language, some East Bloc creole Bowie ventriloquizes, moving for its utter obscurity.
Having first achieved mainstream success in 1969 (with “Space Oddity”), Bowie had pursued an approximately pop career for the first half of the 1970s — almost self-parodyingly so when he made his very contrived “plastic soul” record Young Americans. With Low, he traded commerce in for art, vocals for instruments, three-minute pop songs for anti-love songs (his record label, bewildered, released “Be My Wife” as a single; it didn’t bother the charts).
Back home in London, punk had arrived — snotty, instantaneous, ferocious. Low’s mannered, distant, emotionless soundscapes were the antithesis of punk. Yet it worked: “Sound and Vision,” the depressive’s murmur, reached no. 3 in the charts in March 1977 — Bowie’s biggest hit in half a decade.
“I wanted to — believe me — I wanted to be good”
Album cover for “Heroes”, 1977. Photo: Masayoshi Sukita
Low drifts out softly: Bowie delivers a last couplet in his mock-Balkan language, and the synths pulse away to nothing. The followup record, “Heroes”, conceived and recorded in West Berlin, begins altogether more dynamically, with various instruments locking in around a repeated two-note piano motif, over which a robotic hum builds to a crescendo. On the last beat, here’s Bowie, blasting back to life, “Weaving down a byroad, singing The Song” — same as he always did.
As if recognizing the momentarily paralyzing effect on his audience of this latest transfiguration, he lambasts them, “Smile, at least! You can’t say no to the Beauty and the Beast.” He’s both, here: the interiority and self-questioning of Low seem dispelled, replaced with confidence to the point of brashness — though there are some hints at the old esoterica (he’s either addressing the listener as “Weakling’ or “Liebling” [‘darling’] on this track — I defy you to pick out which) as well as the possibility it’s lingering self-doubt that makes him put the record’s title in distancing, undercutting quote marks.
And on the cover, Bowie — positively healthy, normal, compared to his gaunt look of the previous year — sits awkward as a creature from Schiele, his hands held at strange Expressionist angles near his face, a pose suggestive not of any warlockian spell-crafting, but of a person so drained of affect he simply can’t think what else to do with them. (His inspiration for the pose came from the distortions in works of art he’d seen at the Brücke Museum, by Erich Heckel and others.)
There are songs again, but even these are skewed and distorted. “Blackout” seems to have been written less with the help of Burroughs’ cut-up method and more with the aid of a Magimix. If a verse like “The weather’s grim, ice on the stages / Me, I’m Robin Hood and I puff on my cigarette / Panthers are stalking, steaming, screaming” reads weirdly, that’s nothing to what Bowie can do to the word “screaming,” equipping it with several additional syllables as it’s torn from him.
The way he sings these songs — imploring, exhorting — is as far from Low’s minimal, abashed quality as possible…yet no less strange. The melodies aren’t ones you can hum along with; nor are the guitar lines, from Robert Fripp’s celebrated yowling “circular” motif on “’Heroes’” to the otherworldly sleaziness of those on “Blackout.”
Only final track “The Secret Life of Arabia” is really a “pop” song at all, its handclaps and long fadeout a nod forward to some of the glorious pop music Bowie would make in the 1980s (“Modern Love,” “Let’s Dance”). Here, though, a pop song of any sort is utterly incongruous, tucked away at the end of the album after another bank of surreal, moody instrumentals — notably “Neukölln,” on which, over pizzicato strings and Addams Family synths, a saxophone squalls in torment, croaking and squonking out over a dead and broken landscape.
Cut-up lyrics for “Blackout,” from “Heroes”, 1977 – from the V&A exhibition ‘David Bowie is’
And there’s the record’s vocal centerpiece, “‘Heroes’”, a damp squib in 1977 (it stalled at No. 24 in the UK charts), but increasingly seen as one of Bowie’s most remarkable songs. Myth has grown up around the song: Bowie is said to have composed this story of two lovers divided by the Berlin Wall while he was himself “standing by the Wall,” as the lyrics describe; Tony Visconti, who produced “Heroes”, has proclaimed himself and his then girlfriend Antonia Maas the two lovers so immortalized.
There’s something to be said, too, about the direct relationship between the vintage of the song and the fading of its original ironic or skewering intent: 35 years after its release, this howl of outrage and despair was used to introduce the British athletes at the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games. One hopes that Bowie, who declined an invitation to perform at the event, was amused.
All we seem to hear now is the aspirational power in the refrain “We can be heroes,” which Bowie screams at larynx-shredding intensity, unrecognizable from the cold murmur of Low just the year before — but that conveniently elides over the rather more circumspect lyric, which alludes to the doomed lovers of 1984 (a recurring motif of Bowie’s work throughout the 1970s) and seems to suggest a suicide pact as a way the separated couple can outwit the dictatorial regime that’s sundered them: “We are nothing,” he sings on the song’s fade, “and nothing can help us.” Hardly an Olympian’s pep talk.
More remarkable is the end of the Berlin story. Either on the Wall itself or elsewhere in the city, as he hunted down those ghosts of Nazism, Bowie saw his own name as graffiti, the last two letters converted to a swastika. In an instant, the romance of fascism — the thought he himself might have been “a bloody good Hitler” — dissipated.
Certain things, he must have realized, because the veiled references to Nazism (if not the occult) virtually vanish after his spell in Berlin, you can’t be a tourist in. Unlike thematic intent, photostatting doesn’t always reduce symbols to the illegible, but promulgate and promote them instead.
And that salute? “That didn’t happen,” Bowie swore to Melody Maker, a year after the incident at Victoria Station. “I just waved. On the life of my child, I waved.”
This story was written by Neil Stewart and originally appeared at Slow Travel Berlin, who publish in-depth dispatches from the city, run intimate tours and creative workshops, and have produced their own companion guide full of insider tips.