Is David Bowie overrated

The Brit with a Berlin muzzle

In this gallery: 5 images

Hauptstrasse 155, Berlin, Schöneberg district. It is difficult to imagine that a feeling of freedom can arise in this forbidding old building block. The five-storey building is wedged between other old buildings, the facade was chipped off at some point, the loud, multi-lane main street runs in front of the house, and the sun rarely gets into the back yard. But David Bowie once said of this address in an interview: "I'll never forget it. Those were very important years in Berlin. It was liberating for me in so many ways to live in Berlin."

Together with his assistant Coco Schwab and the rock musician Iggy Pop, he lived in seven rooms on the first floor, and did not pay a rent of 500 euros for it. There was a well-equipped kitchen with a large oak table that was used to serve a goose for Christmas 1976. In one room there was a stereo and an armchair, in the other there were mattresses. There is another way to live more beautifully.

Phantom pain in Berlin

Bowie spent less than two years in the city, from August 1976 to the spring of 1978. Nevertheless, a phantom pain rushes through Berlin when, as these days, a comprehensive exhibition about the artist opens in the Martin-Gropius-Bau. Something, someone is missing: David Bowie at the retrospective dedicated to him, which is coming to Berlin from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on May 20th.

Hardly any other artist has influenced the city as much as the Briton. It brought her worldwide renown at a time when no one perceived the west of the divided city as a place of inspiration. It was David Bowie who put West Berlin on the map of pop culture production. After all, he created three groundbreaking records here: "Low", "Heroe" and "Lodger". Today they are titled the Berlin Trilogy and mark a creative period that Bowie connoisseurs like to call his most important - and in which David Bowie wrote his greatest evergreen, which never became a real commercial hit: "Heroes", the story of two Lovers in the shadow of the Berlin Wall.

Where Are We Now?

David Bowie himself went on a musical search last year. In his single "Where Are We Now?" he remembered places like Potsdamer Platz, the KaDeWe department store and the Dschungel club on Nürnberger Strasse.

At 155 Hauptstrasse, nothing reminds of its famous ex-resident, no sign, no sign. Any form of veneration ricochets off this building. On the ground floor, physiotherapy, a tattoo parlor and a music bar vie for walk-in customers. An extended family of Arab origin is said to be living on the first floor. Nonetheless, a woman in a faux leopard jacket walks through the back yard and looks up at the windows on the first floor, as if looking for something. It is not difficult to understand that she is probably tracing the spirit of a tenant who has long since moved out.

But David Bowie has already followed the footsteps of others in Berlin. He followed Christopher Isherwood into the half-world of the gay people, whom Isherwood mystified with "Goodbye to Berlin" - the book about the early 1930s on the basis of which the world-wide success "Cabaret" was born. Isherwood lived on Nollendorfstrasse in the late 1920s, a 20-minute walk from Hauptstrasse.

Propagated freedom of movement

Not far from there, Bowie found his own Sally Bowles, the Lebegirl from "Cabaret": Romy Haag, a travesty artist. The native Dutchwoman had a nightclub on Fuggerstrasse and probably had a liaison with the singer. Allegedly, he should not have been particularly pleased when she went to the press without his knowledge.

If you visit Fuggerstraße 33 today, you will find a sex bar disguised as a disco. In Connection, homosexual men live out the freedom of movement that Bowie once propagated. There is a dance floor upstairs as an alibi, then things get down to business in the basement.

Preserved flair

Another restaurant preserves the flair from Bowie's days. Two houses away from his previous apartment, at number 157, the "Other Shore" had just opened at the time - the first gay bar in Berlin with large windows facing the street and no lowered blinds. The message was clear: "We don't want to hide any longer." Bowie was often a guest here, drinking coffee and smoking Gitanes. One night, when the window was smashed by a drunk, Bowie knocked on the door, gave the bartender money, and waited with him for the glasses to arrive. In the "Other Shore", which is now called "New Shore" after a change of ownership, they still celebrate Bowie's birthday on January 8th every year, even if the old furniture has long been disposed of.

Other places only indirectly refer to the Brit's biography in Berlin. Bowie stopped by the Brücke Museum several times, paid homage to the Expressionists and bought a preliminary study for Emil Nolde's "The Three Kings" and Ernst Heckel's color woodcut "White Horses" - "at unbelievable prices" from the gallery owner Artur Vogdt, as he later said in an interview known.

Everyday life with anecdotes

The singer cycled through the city, took the bus, and the Berliners did not press him anywhere - a quality that Bowie valued very much. He led a reasonably normal life. However, it was peppered with all the more spectacular anecdotes: When David Bowie saw a drug dealer on Kurfürstendamm who had set him up once, he drove into the man's car in his black Mercedes - over and over again, for minutes. Or: In 1978 Bowie went to the opening of the Kreuzberg punk club SO 36 - in a fine white suit and tinted sunglasses. And: Bowie simply threw Iggy Pop out of the shared apartment because he was constantly piling groceries from the refrigerator that the Briton had bought in the delicatessen department of the KaDeWe.

Of course, there are also stories to tell from the Hansa studios on Köthener Straße. At that time the studios were within sight of the wall, barely 50 meters away from the watchtowers of the GDR border guards. One evening, while the singer was practicing a song - the windows were wide open - he noticed the border guards on the towers - and turned the studio spotlight on the soldiers.

It was in this studio that David Bowie recorded "Heroes" in the Meistersaal, a ballroom from the 1920s where, years later, bands like Depeche Mode, U2 and REM sought to capture the same energy. Thilo Schmied says about this place and the city around it: "It was an adventure playground."

"Get that junkie out of here!"

Schmied organizes the so-called Berlin Music Tours, which lead to many places in local pop history, including Hauptstraße 155 or the Hansa studios. He is also very familiar with Bowie's time in Berlin. Drugs were always forbidden in Bowie's studio. A case of Schultheiss beer was allowed, otherwise Bowie worked relatively abstinent.

Perhaps the musician was still aware of the rejection he experienced in Conny Plank's house. Bowie actually wanted to record in the studio of the legendary Krautrock producer when he visited him in 1976 in Plank, south of Cologne, probably under the influence of drug intoxication from Los Angeles. Plank's wife is said to have only said at the time: "Get this junkie out of here!"

From then on it went into the nightlife of West Berlin without regular drug deliries. To the "Other Shore" or to the Exil restaurant on Paul-Lincke-Ufer, where the Horváth is located today - an upscale restaurant with Austrian cuisine. Bowie especially appreciated the smoking room in the back room, which of course no longer exists.

Legends from the Masters' Hall

Thilo Schmied stands in the middle of the Meistersaal, this fabulous place in the Hansa Studios. The smell of polish rises in the nose, the parquet shines, two Italian tourists take their pictures in the hall, which has nothing in common with the ambience from Bowie times. Back then, nets hung under the blankets to catch the crumbling plaster.

Who knows what would have become of the studios without the singer. At least not the kind of legend that still fascinates people today. Without Bowie, it would have gone down in the annals for collaborations with other artists - for Roland Kaiser, Mireille Mathieu and Engelbert. Berlin cannot thank David Bowie enough for that either. (Ulf Lippitz, DER STANDARD, album, May 17, 2014)