Bowie wept here

The Thin White Duke's Berlin years are all but mythic – the divided city birthed some of Bowie's darkest and most euphoric tracks. Dan Borden guides us through the clubs, bars and even bathhouses where nights were warm and the days were young.

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Dan Borden on the Thin White Duke’s West Berlin legacy.

Why Berlin? It’s a question expats get asked a lot – and often ask ourselves. When David Bowie touched down at Tempelhof in October 1976, Berlin was a refuge from the demands of his superstardom and raging cocaine habit. But, like us mortals, Bowie was also bewitched by the city’s twisted past and mythic icons.

In his latest album The Next Day, Bowie the shape-shifting musical genius morphs into something new, an urban archaeologist. His dirge-like single “Where Are We Now?” walks him through today’s Berlin digging for relics of his own past. He uncovers a changed city where he’s “a man lost in time… walking the dead”. “Bowie’s Berlin” has calcified into a cultural touchstone, just another in the long list of myth-soaked Lost Berlins. Christopher Isherwood’s Weimar metropolis was consumed by Allied firebombs, and East Germany’s Hauptstadt vanished in the pageantry of reunification, but 1970s West Berlin has quietly faded away, with Bowie a lone mourner.

Like those other good-old-bad-old days, Bowie’s Berlin existed under a dark shadow. While New York and London were toying with the theatrical nihilism of punk, West Berlin was a walled island surrounded by nuclear-armed enemies. Bowie and his cohorts, including Iggy Pop and Brian Eno, channelled the city’s very real angst into artistic liberation. Here are a few Berlin sites where their spirits linger.

Bowie’s Flat (Hauptstr. 155, Schöneberg)

Why would notorious hellraisers Bowie and Pop set up house on this dowdy Oma-Straße? Cheap rents. By late 1976, Bowie was going broke, at least by rock star standards. Plus, Isherwood had lived in Schöneberg, Marlene Dietrich’s birthplace was blocks away, and two doors down was an icon of Berlin’s newfound sexual freedom, Anderes Ufer (today Neues Ufer). This bar was Berlin’s first post-war gay establishment with windows visible to the street. One night, after a hostile drunk smashed the plate glass, Bowie ran downstairs, handed owner Gerhard Hoffmann a wad of cash and stood guard until the window was repaired. Today, the rambling seven-room flat is a dentist’s office.

Hansa Tonstudio (Köthener Str. 38, Tiergarden)

This legendary sound studio fills a retrofitted 1913 guild hall two blocks from Potsdamer Platz. When Bowie recorded Low and Heroes here, it was known as “Hansa by the Wall” because it sat up against the GDR’s concrete barricades. The sight of two lovers kissing under a nearby East German guard tower inspired Heroes’ immortal title track.

Die Brücke Museum (Bussardsteig 9, Dahlem)

Like many moody teens, young Bowie had embraced the jagged, angsty works of Germany’s Expressionist filmmakers and painters. Once living in Berlin, 30-year old Bowie took up painting and made regular pilgrimages to this small museum in Dahlem housing 400 works by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel and others.

Dschungel (Nürnbergerstr. 50-56, Schöneberg )

Though he revelled in his relative anonymity here, Bowie made the rounds of nightspots including SO36 and the Paris Bar. In “Where Are We Now ?”, Bowie eulogises the Dschungel, a club that defined nightlife in Bowie’s Berlin like Berghain today, though a lot smaller. It was housed in the elegant Tauentzienpalast (photo), a 1931 Bauhaus-style landmark around the corner from KaDeWe. The club closed its doors in May 1993 and the building is now the Ellington Hotel – as in Duke, who performed there.

Stadtbad Neukölln (Ganghoferstr. 3, Neukölln)

Ask Bowie’s ex-wife Angela why he moved to Berlin, she’ll tell you: Nazis. Bowie’s Hitler fascination culminated in Just a Gigolo, a film in which he plays a Prussian World War I vet who witnesses the Nazis’ rise and takes orders from Marlene Dietrich. Young proto-Fascist Bowie still haunts the tiled halls of this ornate 1911 Jugendstil bathhouse where several scenes were shot. David Bowie left Berlin after filming Gigolo in 1978, but he made a triumphant return in June 1987. Performing in front of the Reichstag, Bowie famously called out to illicit listeners in East Berlin, then launched into his ode to the Wall, “Heroes”. 

Originally published in issue #118, July/August.