Music is wonder work. For me, the charming of a tune, the hatching of rhythm, the whimsical concoction of lyrics are akin to a miracle. More than any other art, music is mysterious and unfixed, hanging in the air for a heartbeat, its every performance changed by mood, instruments, even weather conditions.
I understand the workings of the other arts. I can imagine how Berlin’s great 19th-century architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel reshaped his youthful sketches into the city’s Altes Museum, how graphic artist Käthe Kollwitz transformed her doctor husband’s weeping patients into haunting engravings, how Wim Wenders devised the cinematic angels in Wings of Desire (1987). But how could Beethoven have heard the “Ode to Joy”?
When I was 20 years old I watched David Bowie create a song. In the Berlin studio where five months earlier he’d recorded Heroes, Bowie sat down at the piano with only the inkling of an idea and – in less than an hour – enchanted a tune out of the air as if by magic. In those few minutes, and over the months we then worked together (on a film in which he was starring and I was assistant director), I began to understand how the creative spirit can transform the world.
In the mid-1970s Bowie had come to Berlin to reinvent himself. Over the previous five years, he had conjured himself into the world’s first, great postmodern pop star. He had created androgynous Ziggy Stardust only to discard him for Aladdin Sane and then the Thin White Duke. With every transformation Bowie had become less able to separate himself from his creations. “That was when it all started to go sour,” he said, describing his professional life as an act. “My whole personality was affected . . . I really did have doubts about my sanity.”
In Berlin he shed the self-imposed masks and remade himself as an ordinary man. He dressed in baggy trousers and dowdy shirts and enjoyed the Berliners’ lack of interest in him. No one bothered him on the street. One night, on a whim, he climbed on to a cabaret stage to perform a few Sinatra songs. The local audience, with their infamous terseness, 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”. Berlin was for him “a city that’s so easy to ‘get lost’ in – and to ‘find’ oneself too”.
Today, riffs of Bowie’s Berlin still echo along the city’s streets. Dschungel, the club that defined nightlife in 1970s West Berlin, and of which he sings in his 2013 single “Where Are We Now?”, is now the elegant, modernist, four-star Ellington Hotel. The stylish Paris Bar, where he and his flatmate Iggy Pop celebrated birthdays, continues to serve the best steak frites in town.
Devoted fans replay his hits on their iPhones outside Hansa Tonstudio where he recorded the albums Low and Heroes. Others linger at cafés in his leafy former neighbourhood of Schöneberg, basking in the sunshine, flashing the neon wristbands that were the entry tickets to last night’s clubs, and imagining that he’s still in his apartment on Hauptstrasse, reading Nietzsche beneath his portrait of the Japanese author Yukio Mishima.
For me, one memory endures indelibly from those days. It was a first Christmas together: Bowie and my boss with partners, children and add-ons like me. At the secluded Forsthaus Paulsborn in the Grunewald, the deep and dark urban forest that hugs the city’s western fringe, we ate and drank too much and Bowie gave me a copy of Fritz Lang’s biography. At the end of the happy evening I followed him downstairs to the huge, ceramic bathroom where, as we stood before the urinals, we sang Buddy Holly songs together.
Throughout the years, the Forsthaus Paulsborn has remained one of Berlin’s most atmospheric, hidden restaurants. Far from touristy parts of the city, the forest lodge restaurant specialises in game. In high summer, meals – or shady walks around nearby Grunewaldsee lake – are refreshed by a traditional Berliner Weisse, a light wheat beer sweetened with raspberry or woodruff syrup. Unfortunately, singing is no longer encouraged in the lavatories.
Talent is a gift bestowed on an artist, and he or she must labour in its service. The fruit of their toil is then offered to us all, and it in turn can awaken our individual gift or dream. Hence the importance of visits to places of inspiration, and transformation. Among the most poignant for Bowie-watchers is the Brücke Museum, which he frequented to gaze at the works of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Emil Nolde and Erich Heckel, whose “Roquairol”, with its stark depiction of lunacy, would become the model for Iggy Pop’s tortured pose on the cover of The Idiot. To this day, the expressionists’ rough, bold strokes, and melancholic mood capture a sense of the ephemeral, as they did Bowie’s imagination. On one visit to the museum, he stared for almost an hour at Otto Mueller’s “Lovers between Garden Walls”, a portrait of a first world war parting, and began to reimagine it for a later, colder war and Wall. The quiet, compact and out-of-the-way museum is often overlooked in the rush to tick off the city’s better known, but no more inspiring, institutions.
The Wall moved Bowie and changed him. On his three-gear Raleigh, he cycled alongside it, as can today’s visitors (thankfully no longer surrounded by a quarter of a million Soviet troops). At the flashpoint of the world, where a single shot could have escalated into nuclear war, Bowie found a place of calm and learnt to write about important things. He evolved a more coherent vision for himself and a new age. He captured and defined its quintessence, speaking for, even embodying, a confused generation that had lost hope in ideals and dreams.
In 1977, Bowie had watched Iggy Pop come up with the words for “China Girl” while standing at the microphone. In Berlin after recording his new album’s instrumental tracks, Bowie emulated the spontaneous method, combining it with William S Burroughs’s fragmentation technique, jotting down a line or two and then improvising as the tape rolled. Words never came before music, hence sound never simply echoed its meaning. At the piano, he began to sketch out its lyrics, making it the title track, calling it “Heroes”. His bursts of inspiration were followed by periods of contemplation. Halfway through the song, he asked to be left alone with his thoughts and his piano. His producer Tony Visconti slipped out of the building, walked towards Potsdamer Platz, which was then carved in two, and met backing vocalist Antonia Maass. Maass was Visconti’s lover. From the studio window Bowie saw them kiss, by the Wall. Two hours later the final lyric was recorded. Bowie and Visconti added the backing vocals. “Heroes”, with its reference to border guards shooting above the heads of a young couple, became Berlin’s rock anthem, a courageous wall of sound, fired with deep emotion, hammered by a clanging, metallic rhythm, produced in part by Visconti hitting a studio ashtray.
Hansa isn’t open to the public, except on a private tour with Thilo Schmied, Berlin’s most music-savvy independent guide. His tour shows where Bowie worked, Nick Cave pondered and U2 partied. As well as reliving Berlin’s past pop glory, Schmied also opens doors to the city’s breathless contemporary club scene, with small hours excursions to S036 and the Knaack Club.
Bowie has called “Heroes” – and his three Berlin albums – his DNA. Time and again it has been named as one of modern music’s greatest and most original singles. Ten years after its recording, the song may even have helped to bring down the Wall.
In 1987, Bowie returned to the divided city to perform for a crowd of 70,000 fans, their sparklers and candles glittering around the Reichstag. Towards the end of the show he read aloud a message in German. “We send our best wishes to all our friends who are on the other side of the Wall.”
Then he sang “Heroes”.
On the other side of the hateful divide, hundreds of young East Berliners strained to hear echoes of the concert. They caught sight of stage lights flashing off blank, bullet-marked walls. They heard Bowie greet them. They listened to his song. Their song. Berlin’s song. “We can be heroes, just for one day,” he sang in a daring, ironic elegy to both the divided world and his past life.
As “Heroes” reached its climax some of the East German crowd pushed towards the Brandenburg Gate, whistling and chanting, “Down with the Wall”. They threw insults and bottles at the Volkspolizei, rising together in a rare moment of protest. On stage Bowie heard the cheers from the other side. He was in tears.
“It was one of the most emotional performances I’ve ever done,” he said later. “It was breaking my heart. I’d never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again . . . It was just extraordinary.”
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 who had dreamt of a new world of equals, that we were beautiful, that we could be ourselves. Today the Wall is gone, and children’s laughter echoes along narrow, naked parks where it once stood, but the music – and the wonder – remain in what is now Europe’s most extraordinary, transformed, creative capital.
Rory MacLean is author of ‘Berlin: Imagine a City’, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on February 13
Ellington Hotel, Nürnberger Strasse 5055, ellington-hotel.com
Paris Bar, Kantstrasse 152, parisbar.net
Hansa Tonstudio, Köthener Strasse 38, entry by arrangement with Thilo Schmied at musictours-berlin.com
Forsthaus Paulsborn, Hüttenweg 90, forsthaus-paulsborn.de
Brücke Museum, Bussardsteig 9, bruecke-museum.de
David Bowie’s old apartment is at Hauptstrasse 155 but is not open to visitors