Tag Archives: Berlin Trilogy

David Bowie’s Moss Garden and Ukiyo-e Ladies Playing Koto

15 Mar

Chikanobu Toyohara (1838-1912), Koto Player – Azuma

David Bowie’s instrumental piece “Moss Garden”, the second of the three instrumentals on side two of album “Heroes” released in 1977, is a serene, tranquil oasis of light in the desert of darkness which makes the majority of the album’s sound. Situated between the fellow two instrumentals, dark and foreboding “Sense of Doubt” and equally grim “Neuköln”, the “Moss Garden”, strange and serene, is like a ray of sun on a moody, cloudy spring day that appears for a moment and disappears quickly behind the clouds. Bowie plays the traditional Japanese string instrument koto on the track and Brian Eno plays the synthesizer. “Moss Garden” is a delightful five minutes and three seconds of lightness and meditative, ambient ethereal sounds. So, one cannot refer to “Heroes” as to a dark album, why, one eighth of the album is uplifting. And then there’s the song “Heroes” as well.

It’s been quite some time since I discovered Bowie’s Berlin era songs, but this song lingered in my memory, and I think the reason for that is the eastern sound of the koto. I mean, how many rock songs are coloured by far-east sounds like that? Listening to this instrumental piece made me think of all the Ukiyo-e prints where beautiful Japanese ladies dressed in vibrant clothes are playing koto and I found a few lovely examples which I am sharing in this post. A lot of these Japanese woodcut prints (or Ukiyo-e prints) were made by Chikanobu, an artist who worked mostly in the 1880s and 1890s, the last fruitful decades for the art of woodcuts and in his work he mostly focused on beautiful women doing everyday things. I really enjoy the elegant simplicity of the woodcut above; how the background is clear but the lady’s purple kimono stands out and the focus is solely on her and her koto; back to bare essentials. I also really love Hasegawa Settei’s portrayal of lady playing kimono.

Toyohara Chikanobu, Preparing to Play the Koto, from the series Ladies of the Tokugawa Period, 1895

Toshikata Mizuno (1866-1914), Thirty-six Selected Beauties – Playing Koto

Hasegawa Settei, A Japanese woman playing the koto, December 1878

Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912), Playing Koto, c 1890s

Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912), Koto Player at 11 a.m. – Scenes of the Twenty-four Hours, c 1890s

Moss gardens are a special variety of Japanese gardens, the continuous flow of unending moss coated ground lets the person slowly fall into the dreamy and meditative state, and allows the eye to wander from one variety of moss to the other, the nostrils to inhale the rich, green, primeval scent of this old and grateful plant. I imagine it rich with water after a rainy summer afternoon. “A moss garden presents the opportunity to observe differentiations of colour that have never been seen before. The tactile and optical characteristics of the moss gardens are softness, sponginess, submarine wateriness and unfathomability. They are the exact opposite of the pebble gardens with their appointed paths, boundaries and stone islands.” (Siegfried Wichmann; Japonism)

When life gets overwhelming, one can sit for hours in such a garden and easily sink into a meditative state, thoughts drifting and problems fading. In a similar way, Bowie’s move to Berlin with Iggy Pop in 1976 was his way of finding clarity, anonymity and inspiration: “I had approached the brink of drug induced calamity one too many times and it was essential to take some kind of positive action. For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity.“(Bowie with Rob Hughes and Stephen Dalton for Uncut Magazine) After the very depressing album “Low” released earlier the same year, 1977, album “Heroes” is the first step in the path of Bowie’s search for clarity and perhaps the song “Moss Garden” is the best expression of this new found quite, introspective feeling of serenity.

Keiko Yurimoto (1906-2000), Koto Player, c 1950

Berlin in the seventies was a grey, isolated and divided city with a world-weary self-regard. The youth suffered and junkies filled the subway stations, but a lot of bohemians, artists and musicians were drawn to that bleak, alienated and experimental atmosphere and relished in what the city had to offer. As Bowie said himself: “For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary-like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke; it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn’t care. Well, not about an English rock singer, anyway.” He was just another weirdo in the city and everyone left him alone. The product of his fascination with the city were three albums; Low, Heroes and Lodger – today known as Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy”, by far my favourite era of Bowie’s music. Bowie said himself about the Berlin Trilogy: “My complete being is within those three albums.” (Uncut magazine) Enough said. I don’t really understand or share the wild enthusiasm for Bowie’s glam rock Ziggy Stardust era, I mean those are some great songs, but the Berlin era is the real thing, it sounds as if the mood of the times and the city with its bleakness and political division is woven into the music, to me it sounds like Berlin breathing and living.

David Bowie, Alienation and Avant Garde in 1970s Berlin

26 Oct

“The greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine.” – David Bowie

wir kinder vom bahnhof zoo 6

Berlin was a border between west and east; a world of Capitalism and a world of Communism; clashed between two European ideologies for four decades, Berlin had to turn in on itself, reinventing and reinterpreting the rich, yet louche past of Weimar Berlin, blending it with the grey landscape of concrete alienation. Isolated by the Cold War and divided by the wall, Berlin’s culture flourished in the clash of Political and Cultural values. Reveling in the cynical present of spies, dehumanising grey concrete buildings, government subsidies and anarchy, the city had a world-weary self regard. It was this bleak, heavy with despair atmosphere of unified collapse that attracted young bohemians to the city, promoting it as a cult destination because it was an alternative to both Capitalistic west and Communist East. Foreigners saw their own alienation mirrored in the city’s outsider status.

Berlin’s youth felt this alienation more than the other citizens. They absorbed all the boredom, alienation and negligence they felt, not only from their parents but from their surroundings of cruel concrete buildings in Kreuzberg, Schöneberg or the infamous ones in Gropiusstadt, from schools and authorities. Nobody cared for them. Or at least that’s how they felt. In schools, teachers were just doing their jobs and nothing else, nobody cared how were they, what are they thinking. They felt that Political clash more than their hard-working parents in the new west Berlin consumerist society that Capitalism was creating. Coming home with the sunset, their parents had little time for their sensitive teens, affected by the atmosphere in their wall divided city more than one could imagine, and already, at a tender age such as thirteen, drown into the eternal hell of heroin which seemed the only answer.

Gropiusstadt

Christiane F. is the best example of what living in the alienated environment of Gropiusstadt, among thousands of other people and not a single friend, can do to a child, especially when they find acceptance and attention they seek from their parents in places such as ‘Sound‘; an infamous discotheque on Kudamm where, among cherry juices, dance floors and David Bowie’s songs, heroin could also be found. Hippies in the 1960s took drugs because they were ‘doors to perception’; youth in the 1970s Berlin took them because they wanted to numb their senses, not sharpen them; by taking heroin they seemingly eliminated all the problems. The irresistible feeling of emptiness was something they could never get rid of. Where ever you went in Berlin; whether it’s a shabby flat in Gropiusstadt, a dance floor in Sound, Bahnhof Zoo with its smell of urine and male prostitutes leaned against the wall waiting for the customers; the endless feeling of alienation and void was always there.

Living in the clash of political ideologies and cultural experimentation, in a city divided by the wall, and numbed by its concrete buildings, youth oriented towards something that was above the shitty triviality they couldn’t handle; music. To Christiane F. and her friend, David Bowie was an idol, a hero. Christiane had all of his records and listened to him in the dreary and rainy Berlin days, gazing on the cloudy sky from the tenth floor. Bowie wasn’t above that at all, deep in a cocaine hell himself, he sought to find inspiration and new creative sources from that same spring of alienation that suffocated Christiane and her friends so badly. Seeing the life which awaits them; shitty flat and a crappy ten hour job, work around the clock in the shadow of the wall (Berliners thought the Cold war would never end), Berlin youth protested by immersing into a world of music and drugs. Taking heroin was a protest against the petty-bourgeois lives their parents led; there had to be something more. Christiane F, the most famous person from Berlin at the time, which only adds to its Zeitgeist, later came to symbolise the atmosphere of desolation and neglect that permeated Berlin at the time.

christiane f. bahnhof zoo

While the youth suffered and finally succumbed to the heavy and grey atmosphere of their suffocating city, many bohemians, artist and musicians found their inspiration in the very same atmosphere, most notably David Bowie. However, Lou Reed was inspired by this enigmatic city as early as in 1973. and the product was a concept album Berlin which dealt with themes of love and junkies. The album, although harshly criticised at the time it was released, is a grandiose and decadent masterpiece, and though it’s depressive, it is oddly beautiful in its darkness.

David Bowie and Iggy Pop came to Berlin in November 1976. drown to the city’s world-weary self-regard and the inspiration that emerged from the divided areas, the wall and the powerful political clash which only emphasised the culture. Bowie’s ‘Berlin era‘ is a defining postwar musical moment. In Berlin Bowie found what he was looking for in vain all those years; freedom, anonymity and new creative inspiration. He could be seen cycling around the city, especially in Schöneberg where he shared a flat with Iggy Pop. He enjoyed the comfort of privacy; people either haven’t noticed him at all, or if they did, they paid no attention what so ever. Still, Berliners were flattered that he chose to live among them in that wasteland. While other bohemian artists chose the rather more funky Kreuzberg, Bowie settled in Schöneberg on Hauptstrasse 155, an address he still hasn’t forgotten, recording his music in a studio ‘Hansa by the Wall‘, as he called it.

david bowie thin white duke

David Bowie emerged himself into Berlin life, loving the quirkiness of it. There were all sorts of crazy people there in those times; half crazy-half genious artists, ridiculously dressed girls and boys in nightclubs; Bowie was amazed and intrigued by these diversities and cultural flourishment in times of great political instability. The product of his fascination with the city were three albums; Low, Heroes and Lodger – today known as Bowie’s ‘Berlin Trilogy‘. Iggy Pop’s most notable achievement from the time was album Idiot (1977) which gained a cult status. Prelude to Bowie’s ‘Berlin Trilogy’, the album Station to Station (1976) foreshadows the following Euro-centric, electric music phase and marks the transition between Ziggy Stardust era and Berlin era.

Surrounded by Expressionistic art and other artists and musicians, Bowie was just another weirdo in the town and everybody left him alone and that’s what he liked. Freedom and liberal atmosphere suited Bowie and provided him with peace for new blossoming ideas. This free and sometimes amateurish spirit of West Berlin is well described by Wolfgang Muller – ‘There was this open, liberal atmosphere… People really didn’t care. A friend of mine once laid down on Oranienstraße, on the street, and cars just slowly drove around her.‘ In the middle of the Cold war, this ‘outsider status‘ city had a magnetic charisma and attracted artists with its bleak, liberal, magically alienated, decadent and experimental atmosphere; the same atmosphere that pervades David Bowie’s albums from his Berlin trilogy.

wir kinder vom bahnhof zoo 5

At the time Bowie arrived in Berlin, the smell of cultural blossoming was permeating the air. Still neglected and desolated, Berlin was a place ideal for artistic experimentation and soon many bohemians, visionaries or simply young people protesting against the Capitalist culture that invaded the rest of Germany, found shelter in cheap flats on the west side of the wall. In the 1970s the party never stopped in this ‘cabaret wasteland‘; discotheques, cafes, gigs, numerous art happenings, music scene; all of these things created the atmosphere of endless possibilities and experimentation. ‘You could meet anybody and everybody. That was the change.‘, Muller also said. A change was in the air, and David Bowie acted as a catalyst.

Berlin provided unique opportunities for wanna-be artists and bohemians. It was a place of refuge for the people who disagreed with the pressure to make everything economically viable; a sentiment that was shared all across west Germany. The wall had its advantages, as 0n the western side the alternative way of life was developing. Although Berlin still continues to attract people who want to experiment, that liberal, free, untouched by capitalism or consumerism spirit is long gone. Art has succumbed to money, experimentation and alternative gave place to financial security and complete westernisation. Still, ‘Ars longa, vita brevis.‘; perhaps Bowie’s ‘Berlin trilogy‘, Iggy Pop’s Idiot and the infamous Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo are the last testaments to the old experimental, liberal and Avant-garde Berlin.

CHRISTIANE F

West Berlin allowed Bowie and Iggy Pop to distance themselves from British and American music expectations, to leap into the unknown areas of music, and using experimental techniques, they drew inspiration from city’s world-weary self regard, creating thin, alienated sound that would become almost symbolic for Berlin’s Zeitgeist of the 1970s. Bowie’s song Heroes has since became almost iconic, in adition to being featured in the movie Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, the song crystallized the life in Berlin, telling a tale of two lovers walking by the wall. Also, one song on the same album has a name Neuköln which is the name of another Berlin district, though it’s actually written with two ‘L’.

Out of all three Bowie’s Berlin era albums, ‘Heroes‘ is the one that reflects the Zeitgeist of the Cold war and the divided city the most; it stands as a deeply passionate and positive artistic testament to Bowie’s time spent in Berlin, with its dark and atmospheric instrumentals such as Sense of Doubt and V-2 Schneider. Relative optimism of the album distinguishes it from the previous, melancholic and slightly disturbing ‘Low’.

wir kinder vom bahnhof zoo 51

wir kinder vom bahnhof zoo 52

David Bowie definitely had an impact on Berlin’s culture and music scene in the late 1970s. In those times Berlin was nowhere; a divided city which Bowie added glamour to, and absorbing its decadent spirit he also directed it into a cultural extravaganza. However, at the time when Bowie’s ‘Berlin era‘ was at its peak, a new musical style was developing, and soon, by the time Nick Cave arrived in West Berlin in 1983, the cultural landscape was totally different. Punk, Post-Punk and Industrial bands sprouted from the fertile ground Bowie had set for them, influencing and encouraging a whole new generation whose music and cultural tastes were shaped by late 70s decadency in the shadow of the wall. Even in the early 1980s Bowie’s influence resonated through the city. Bands such as Müller’s Die Tödliche Doris, Malaria! and most importantly Blixa Bargeld’s Einstürzende Neubauten created a musical language and style that Berlin could call its own.