Tag Archives: Iggy Pop

David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Expressionism – Berlin Years

26 Nov

When David Bowie and Iggy Pop came to Berlin in the late seventies, they were welcomed by a divided city, a city which flourished in its confinement, breathing and living in hustle of capitalism, at the same time suffocating in an alienation which was its own product.

wir-kinder-von-bahnhof-zoo-david-bowie

With Bowie’s arrival in Berlin, a period of cultural and artistic thriving started both for him and the city itself, which gleefully relived the glamour and decadence of its Weimar days.

Products of this fruitful, avant-garde, quite radical, sleek and modern, Europeanised, bohemian-aristocratic period of Bowie’s career were three albums; Low (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979), and The Idiot (1977) and Lust for Life (1977) for Iggy Pop respectively. Drawn in deeper and deeper in cocaine hell, fame and shallowness of Los Angeles, Bowie had wanted for some time a clean start, a departure from his old personas because things did took him ‘where the things are hollow’. Iggy Pop wasn’t in a good place as well. West Germany was a place to go. Bowie was drawn to Berlin; a city at the heart of the West-East ideological conflicts, with a rich yet drab cultural history.

1927-brigitte-helm-on-the-set-of-the-metropolis-1927-fritz-langBrigitte Helm on the set of the Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang)

Bowie spoke himself about the reasons behind his moving to Berlin: ‘Life in LA had left me with an overwhelming sense of foreboding. 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. 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.‘ (Uncut magazine, 1999)

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In order to understand Berlin as it was in the seventies, it is necessary to understand its history, especially its ‘golden era’ of the 1920s – the decadency and cultural richness of the era equals the ones in Bowie’s time in Berlin. Berlin underwent a lot of transformation and served as the background for many political events since it first became the capital of the German Reich in 1871; from the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II to the roaring twenties, with all the freedom and avant-garde that characterised the decade, then the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, World War II and the events after it, the beginning of the Cold War and the division itself, building of the infamous wall, heroin addicts at the Bahnhof Zoo, arrival of Western rock stars – Lou Reed, David Bowie and Iggy Pop, later Nick Cave, all the way to the fall of the Wall and today’s modern ‘clean’, commercial and capitalist face of Berlin. It’s a city that nurtured its own bleakness, greyness and almost aggressive modernity. It’s also a city that allowed Bowie his freedom and anonymity.

1908-ernst-ludwig-kirchner-street-dresdenKircher’s vibrant colours express the overwhelming bustle and frenzy of life in a big city, and the loneliness of an individual at the same time. A million people and not a single friend.

I especially felt this modernity and sense of alienation in places such as Potsdamer Platz, Bahnhof Zoo (can’t deny its legacy) and Alexanderplatz. I remember it well, last summer I was standing on Alexander Platz with greyness all around me and trams passing in different directions – I felt like I was in one of Kirchner’s paintings. I also enjoyed watching trains arriving to the Bahnhof Zoo, wondering about the boroughs they connect. Oh, I simply adore that urban Romanticism about Berlin!

1914-ernst-ludwig-kirchner-1880-1938-berlin-street-scene-1914-pastel-and-charcoal-on-beige-colored-corrugated-laid-paper-67-7-x-49-3-cm-stadel-museum-frankfurt-am-mainErnst Ludwig Kirchner, Berlin Street Scene, 1914: People crossing each other’s paths, walking directionless, waiting for tramways, chatting, gazing into distance, waiting for clients; careless, nervous, breathing an air of avant-garde.

In 1871, Berlin had only 800,000 inhabitants, in 1929 it had more than four million. Unlike London or Paris, Berlin wasn’t dotted with museums, churches and palaces, but was rather more ‘grey and uniform looking’.

Old Berlin consisted of six different boroughs: Mitte, Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg, Kreutzberg, Tiergarten and Wedding. In 1920, seven surrounding towns were incorporated:Charlottenburg, Spandau, Schöneberg, Wilmersdorf, Lichtenberg, Neuköln and Kopenick. ‘Greater Berlin’ was thus formed by artificially uniting the existing, established eastern sector with a new area of land. The resulting caesura remained visible and tangible, both in terms of the social structure of the city and the mentality of its inhabitants.’ (Berlin in the 20s, Rainer Metzger)

This is an interesting information because we know that both Marlene Dietrich and Blixa Bargeld were born in Schöneberg – the same part of Berlin that Bowie and Iggy lived in. Bowie also named his song: Neuköln. The point is, Berlin was different, a concrete jungle half-coated in avant-garde, half in junkies, misfits and eccentrics. Paris had a romantic flair, London had a certain quirkiness, but Berlin had the legacy of Expressionists and Anita Berber, and of course – Gropiusstadt.

1923-anita-berber-photographed-by-madame-dora-1923Anita Berber, looking like one of Klimt’s muses and a Biba girl at the same time.

What Berlin also possessed, both in the 1920s and in the 1970s, was a certain fragility, awareness of its own transience. In that decadent frenzy, anxiety and excitement, the city lived, breathed and sensed its own collapse, as the Einsturzende Neubauten would later sing. Carl Zuckmayer, a German writer who lived in 1920s Berlin, writes about this feeling: ‘The arts blossomed like a field awaiting the harvest. Hence the charm of the tragic genius that characterised the epoch and the works of many poets and artists cut off in their prime… I remember well how Max Reinhardt… once said: “What I love is this taste of transience on the tongue – every year might be the last year.” Rainer Metzger further adds: ‘Today it is clear just how accurate, vigilant and prophetic this awareness of its own fragility, prior to the events of 1933, turned out to be.‘ Berlin’s artistic and cultural life at the time was a landslide, its seeming excitement, energy and a need for fun and intoxication was simply a facade that hid the unrest that lay on the inside.

1977-child-in-berlin-david-bowieDavid Bowie, Child in Berlin, 1977

Berlin in the seventies still held many of these characteristics, except it didn’t just sense the catastrophe but lived in the middle of it. Now a wall divided the West and the East, and Bowie arrived just in time to sing of lovers standing by the wall and create a new sound that would soak up the atmosphere of the city like a sponge. A sense of transience still lingered though, as we all know, Bowie’s artistic periods and personas didn’t last long, and from the moment he came it was evident that he may be gone soon. How long would Berlin continue to inspire him? One, two albums? It turned out to be three. If I may say – some of the most beautiful out of all his entire oeuvre. Bowie later ‘called “Heroes”, and his three Berlin albums, his DNA.’ (*)

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Bowie’s divine Berlin era started as early as in the summer of 1976, when he started working on The Idiot with Iggy Pop, although his previous album Station to Station hints at a change that was soon to come, especially the ten minutes long title track, Bowie said himself: As far as the music goes, Low and its siblings were a direct follow-on from the title track Station To Station. It’s often struck me that there will usually be one track on any given album of mine, which will be a fair indicator of the intent of the following album. (Uncut magazine, 1999)

Iggy Pop said in this interview that The Idiot was inspired by the idea of Berlin, not the city itself yet, although they knew it was their next destination. That is so interesting because many times in art there’s a situation that the artist painted his reveries of a certain place, idealised visions of it, and not the realistic place itself. That’s the power of imagination.

Seeking spiritual and physical purification, and turning his interest from America to Europe again, Bowie found a new wellspring of creativity, imagination and happiness. Seems like those years served him good; not only did he produce three magnificent albums, and turned Berlin into a Mecca for the world of rock music, but also – found himself. He no longer needed a mask to hide himself, but rather found a way to express himself and go on stage as David Bowie.

1925-26-farewell-by-ernst-ludwig-kirchnerErnst Ludwig Kirchner, The Farewell, 1925-26

David Bowie loved Expressionism, and often visited Die Brücke Museum in Berlin, which was opened just nine years prior to his arrival. I remember reading somewhere that he loved watching twenty hour long Expressionistic films while travelling by train. He explained his love for the art movement in one interview:

Since my teenage years I had obsessed on the angst ridden, emotional work of the expressionists, both artists and film makers, and Berlin had been their spiritual home. This was the nub of Die Brucke movement, Max Rheinhardt, Brecht and where Metropolis and Caligari had originated. It was an art form that mirrored life not by event but by mood. This was where I felt my work was going. My attention had been swung back to Europe with the release of Kraftwerk’s Autobahn in 1974. The preponderance of electronic instruments convinced me that this was an area that I had to investigate a little further.‘ (Uncut magazine, 1999)

Did Bowie have Kirchner’s painting The Farewell in mind when he wrote lyrics for Sound and Vision? Just look at that beautiful vibrant electric blue outline on Kirchner’s figures of a woman with turquoise skin and a man in a brown-reddish coat. It really pierces your vision, and it’s imbued with almost a spiritual energy, just that single line would make a painting outstanding.

Blue, blue, electric blue
That’s the colour of my room
Where I will live
Blue, blue

Pale blinds drawn all day
Nothing to do, nothing to say
Blue, blue” (*)

1979-david-bowie-heroes-cover

Covers of Bowie’s album Heroes and Iggy Pop’s Idiot both have a similar theme, which draws direct influence from artists such as Erich Heckel, mentioned by Bowie in an interview as one of his favourites at the time, and also the photographs of Egon Schiele. Bowie and Pop’s interpretations of the older artworks possess the same modernity, chic avant-garde, almost robotic poses. The titles are interesting as well, Hero and Idiot, antonyms of a sort.

Musically, I’ve always been a fan of Bowie’s Berlin era. Even though I like Bowie’s earlier stuff as well, this period endlessly captivates me, not just because the songs are so peculiar, strange and beautiful, but also because of the cult of the city itself, and also because it’s Bowie’s most-honest, most-himself phase up to that point. Songs from Low, Heroes, Lodger, The Idiot and Lust for Life are anomalies in a world of rock music, created in a specific place at a specific time. Berlin was never the same again. Back then, it was strange, unexplored and politically unstable. Then came capitalism, and they’ve created a seemingly clean and safe, but slightly soulless environment, which is just what tourists want. They don’t want to feel the real thing, or see junkies or live art, they want to take a photo standing in front of Brandenburger Tor. I can’t help it wonder, would Bowie chose Berlin as his artistic destination knowing the city as it is today?

1914-photograph-of-egon-schiele

Musically, Bowie and Pop’s albums from their Berlin eras convey that specific atmosphere of Berlin at the time, and that grey, modern and grim appearance of the city. As if their music responded to the scenery around them. Listening to tracks such as V-Schneider or Sense of Doubt you can picture the massive monstrous building of Gropiusstadt, or U-Bahns and Strassenbahns arriving at a station, you can feel the November coldness and bare trees in Mitte, tall soulless buildings, escalators at Europa Centar, never ending traffic jams…

1917-roquairol-erich-heckel-1917-or-the-idiot-iggy-popErich Heckel, Roquairol, 1917

And now some lyrics. Iggy Pop and David Bowie co-wrote Sister Midnight:

Calling Sister Midnight
You’ve got me reaching for the moon
Calling Sister Midnight
You’ve got me playing the fool
Calling Sister Midnight
Calling Sister Midnight
Can you hear me call
Can you hear me well
Can you hear me at all
Calling Sister Midnight
I’m an Idiot for you
Calling Sister Midnight
I’m a breakage inside.

1977-iggy-pop-the-idiot-released-on-18th-march-1977

David Bowie’s song ‘What in a World’:

You’re just a little girl with grey eyes

So deep in your room,
You never leave your room
Something deep inside of me
Yearning deep inside of me
Talking through the gloom
What in the world can you do
What in the world can you do
I’m in the mood for your love
For your love
For your love” (*)

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Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in a Nightclub

6 Dec

Nightclub in Paris. 1887. Absinthe. Garish lightning. Harmony of orange, yellow and indigo. Clinking sound of glasses. Distant laugh. Air is heavy with smell of cigarettes, perfume and sweat. Twenty-three years old Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Across him sits thirty-four years old Vincent. A few light, sensitive strokes in pastel and Henri creates the most lyrical and most emotional portrait of van Gogh ever.

1887. Portrait of Vincent van Gogh, by Henri de Toulouse-LautrecPortrait of Vincent van Gogh, by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1887

Henri and Vincent met in February 1886, soon after Vincent arrived from Antwerpen where he stayed with his brother Theo, and despite their different temperaments and origins, they soon befriended. Both of them attended painting course in studio of Ferdinand Cormon and both of them were outsiders. As soon as talkative Henri noticed Vincent’s strange and wistful personality, he approached him and undoubtedly helped him to make friends with other young painters at the studio, such as Emile Bernard, Charles Laval, Eugene Boch and Louis Anquetin who soon became Vincent’s friends as well.

One evening in 1887, Henri and Vincent were sitting in a nightclub, probably the last ones to stay out drinking. With only few pastel strokes on cardboard, Henri captured the manic and passionate personality of this interesting red-haired stranger. This portrait, impressionistic but not quite, is the most emotionally charged portrait of van Gogh, and it managed to capture something that Vincent himself never did; physical accuracy. Henri precisely drew Vincent’s hooked nose and thin, light, almost nonexistent eyebrows: traits common in van Gogh’s family. At the same time he captured his rich inner life, his intensity, excitement and anxiety, his outsider chic. Intense yellow and purple-blue colours and striking brushstroke, as if they were taken in a hurry, all bring intensity to van Gogh’s appearance and his very position in that nightclub, dressed in battered clothes, sitting in silence, with a glass of absinthe in front of him. Henri drew Vincent as everyone saw his; as a wild animal waiting to jump at every second.

As I am writing this, a picture of David Bowie and Iggy Pop in a nightclub in Berlin in the late 1970s comes to my mind. Iggy is to be blamed though, and his song ‘Nightclubbing‘ from the album The Idiot (1977):

”Nightclubbing we’re nightclubbing
We’re what’s happening
Nightclubbing we’re nightclubbing
We’re an ice machine
We see people brand new people
They’re something to see
When we’re nightclubbing
Bright-white clubbing
Oh isn’t it wild?”

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.