I still remember the moment I realized his old flat was just around the corner from mine at Hauptstrasse 155 in Schöneberg. It was a run-down, nondescript building with a dark courtyard that showed no signs of having once been home to music royalty, yet it had a strange hold on me. Every time I walked by a Bowie tune would run through my head like an automatic jukebox with just one artist. Yesterday, as I saw footage of crowds gathering at the doorstep to pay their respects, the jukebox started up again, from the guitar riff at the beginning of Ziggy Stardust to the echos of Changes.
The Berlin Trilogy
In fact, Bowie’s music is an integral part of the city, just as the city inspired some of his best work. Flat sharing with Iggy Pop in Schöneberg in the mid 70s, he was at his most productive during this period working with Brian Eno against the backdrop of Krautrock and the Cold War. The Berlin Wall, so close to Hansa Tonstudio where he recorded, the sense of isolation in West Berlin, and the news of East Germans attempting escape – the city is omnipresent in the three albums from this period, often referred to as the Berlin Trilogy. Like the Beatles, he even translated a few tracks into German (he also recorded Space Oddity in Italian, but we won’t go into that): When I Live My Dream, Love You Till Tuesday, and the most well-known, Heroes, or Helden.
Writing on the wall
This track is of particular importance to Berlin, to which Bowie returned in 1987 to perform at the Concert for Berlin held in front of the Reichstag. The city was still divided, but the mood of defiance was permeating the wall: people gathered on the other side to catch the music drifting over and the concert was broadcast on radio transmitted across the border. “Wir schicken unsere besten Wünsche an all unsere Freunde, die auf der anderen Seite der Mauer sind. (We send our wishes to all our friends on the other side of the wall),” said Bowie, not knowing how many were actually listening. His performance of Heroes to a certain extent changed history – fearing the force of the music as a destabilizing threat, the next day authorities in the East cracked down on the crowd that had gathered for the final day of the concerts, using violence to attack and arrest people at what had been a peaceful gathering. This was thought to have played a crucial role in turning the people against the state and two years later, the Berlin Wall finally came down.
Bowie’s music touched the lives of Berliners in many ways, capturing the Zeitgeist of the West, lending a sense of defiance to those in the East, and for adopted Berliners like myself, becoming a soundtrack to the isolation and anonymity that can seem to engulf the city. As one man paying tribute at Hauptstrasse 155 last night put it, “He even died in style – made a last record, celebrated his birthday, then went off to space.”