16.12.08

David Bowie and the Berlin Period

Bowie moves to Europe to produce a series of seminal recordings
David Bowie, 'Heroes' photoshoot, 1977
'I find that I have to put myself in those situations to produce any reasonable good writing. I've still got that same thing about when I get to a country or a situation and I have to put myself on a dangerous level, whether emotionally or mentally or physically, and it resolves in things like that: living in Berlin leading what is quite a spartan life for a person of my means, and in forcing myself to live according to the restrictions of that city.'

David Bowie speaking with Charles Shaar Murray in 1977.
The first time I lived alone was in my first year as an undergraduate in the city. Friends of mine cast themselves further afield, and in the first months I found myself feeling solitary and depressed. I was never more than eight train stations from someone I knew, but my mindset had changed and I became isolated within myself.

I found a new circle of friends in those first few months, some of whom I'm in touch with to this day. But while I adjusted, I began to realize something very simple and essential about myself. I started to see the ways in which everything I had ever done I had done alone. Up to that point in my life, all of my most treasured experiences, all of my most worthy rewards, were the result of being alone. And it was a thought that made me uncomfortable.

I have always felt myself to be a social person. It's difficult for me to comprehend what it might be like to live alone, or to be by myself for any long stretch of time. But when I moved to the city (a new career in a new town), I began to feel that I had always been somehow alone. It was difficult for me to define at the time, and still is now. But despite my warm and loving family, my fantastic group of friends, and all the others I had loved, I felt a sense of unalterable isolation; it was a sense of absence that placed a gap between me and those around me. As Ian Curtis of Joy Division once said, I felt I was 'touching from a distance, growing further all the time.' I always had the feeling when I was with someone that I was just as much with myself. I was always alone, even in company. And while this wasn't necessarily a bad thing, it was a major adjustment for me.

As a result, I began to read voraciously. I devoured Sartre's La Naus√©e and Camus' L'√ątranger for clues, followed by some of the major texts of existentialist philosophy. I began to look for a meaning and significance in my life which would somehow explain and justify this feeling of solitude. I read Dostoyevsky, Kafka and Primo Levi for a sense of protagonists cast adrift, attempting to attain something stable for themselves and their identities in confusing and hostile environments. I listened to The Holy Bible by the Manic Street Preachers, an album recorded in the city where I lived, and I found an adolescent solace in its desperate, nihilistic stance. I drew comfort from all of these things. And I still do.

But something special happened when I discovered David Bowie. He felt like an embodiment of so many of my anxieties, but expressed them in a joyous and liberating way. Like myself, Bowie had an enduring fascination with Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground, together with the American Beat movement of the 1950s. And I felt as though I could strongly relate to his position as an anonymous suburban lad thinking big and getting dramatic about it. It appealed to my inner-extrovert.

David Bowie, Thin White Duke in 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' (1976)'
I found in David Bowie a fantastic empty signifier, floating along as a blank canvas, ready and waiting for me to impose and inscribe my interests, influences and anxieties in one very convenient, stable and tangible space. He became something of an idol to me for awhile. Not simply someone to identify with, but an idea or an image that I would aspire to. What strikes me in retrospect was that the idea, or image, I saw in David Bowie was one of my own creation. In identifying with him I was ultimately identifying with those elements of myself that I wanted to cultivate, strengthen and embody.

But there was more. After listening to those early albums, from Hunky-Dory to Diamond Dogs, I began to relate even more strongly to the albums Bowie recorded in Berlin in and around 1977. Struck down by personal problems, ranging from drug addiction to a crumbling marriage, Bowie left success and celebrity in a paranoid and fractured Los Angeles to recuperate in Europe. The influence of Kraftwerk, Faust, and late-1970s electronica lead Bowie to Germany, where he found a small, modest apartment in its capital city, Berlin.

The intention was striking. Bowie, together with a number of close friends, would live in Berlin and incorporate himself into its culture. There he could walk the streets unrecognized, and frequent the shopfronts and late-night bars without fear of being accosted or surveyed. It was here that Bowie began to kick his cocaine habit and adjust to the newly-found solitude of being single again. He wrote, recorded, and released three albums during this period, commonly named together as the Berlin Trilogy (although Bowie and Brian Eno always preferred 'The Berlin Triptych').

It was these three albums that caught me cold and off-guard. They dragged me into them and re-moulded me as something else. It sounds almost absurd to say it, but after listening to them I can scarcely believe that I was the same person.

David Bowie in 'The Man Who Fell to Earth'
Beginning with the first album, Low, which became my favourite record of all time up to that point, I was completely locked into the music. Split between fragmented, eccentric pop-funk and vast claustrophobic electronica the album became the soundtrack of early-Adulthood. "Heroes" was a boisterous and thundering voice for my inner-existentialist, and allowed me to express an identity to myself that I was often barely aware of. While Lodger managed to contain a manifesto of alienation and confusion in one, sprawling - but surprisingly short - statement.

The Berlin records express closed physical spaces, solitude, and a heightened sense of alienation or even despair. But there is something infectious and exhilarating in the music that made these negative feelings essential and valid. The music provided a rhythm and a melody to a dark period in my life, and allowed me to work through and articulate a whole range of complex emotional feelings. And when I look back or listen to the music now, I vary between periods of finding the music numbing, or finding it new and vital. I think it depends on my mood. But I can always remember a time when this music was everything I had, and the only thing I needed. It was fun, joyous and exciting.

Looking back, I think the music helped me to integrate myself into the larger world. We all fear being alone, isolated from the rest of the world, and it's a thought that can stalk us our entire lives. There is no cure for this feeling of solitude, the feeling of being lonely and cast adrift. But there are ways to alleviate the sensation. For some, there are physical exercises that can be practiced and mastered, to make one feel not simply alone, but at one with oneself. Others find comfort in literature, or music, or a hobby.

Descartes once said 'Conquer yourself rather than the world,' and I can see the man's point. Reconciling differences within myself is an infinite and impossible task. But my awareness of this absurd position had put me in good stead. I now feel far more in touch with myself, and with the chaos and confusion that exists within me. I know that my existence is messy, uneven and often unpredictable, but I don't feel resigned to it - I feel it has given me a new sense of freedom and life. I even feel that I can be more present with other people now, family, friends and loved ones. I think that learning to be present when you are alone is excellent preparation for being present with others. And for this lesson, I have Bowie's Berlin albums to thank.

Thomas Jerome Seabrook, 'Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town'

A new book has been published: Thomas Jerome Seabrook's Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town. Aside from the author's startling name, which is almost exactly that of Bowie's protagonist in The Man Who Fell to Earth, Thomas Jerome Newton, the book appears to offer a number of fascinating insights. Beginning with Bowie's troubled time in Los Angeles recording Station to Station, the book traces the influences and motives of Bowie and those around him, and their decision to move to Berlin.

To quote the dust jacket, 'Bowie in Berlin tells the story of that period and those records, exploring Bowie's fascination with the city, unearthing his sources of inspiration, detailing his working methods, and teasing out the elusive meanings of the songs. Painstakingly researched and vividly written, the book casts a new light on the most creative and influential era in David Bowie's career.' You can read more about the book here.

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