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The fans who fell to Earth

The city is still experiencing the David Bowie exhibition at Martin-Gropius-Bau (on through August 24), but some Berliners take it a step further and live it. Diehards, collectors, lookalikes and former stalkers: meet Berlin’s Bowie nuts.

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Photo by Michal Andrysiak

Diehards, collectors, lookalikes and former stalkers: meet Berlin’s Bowie nuts. We talked to them about their obsession.

The teen Bowistin:

Nelly P. was born in 1972 in Wilmersdorf, West Berlin. Following her amateur dramatics as a teenage Bowie devotee, she pursued a career in theatre, studying acting in Berlin before moving to London to complete an MA. Now a part-time actress, businesswoman and loving mother, she lives in Berlin with her eight-year-old son.

“The first time I saw him was in the film Labyrinth and I fell totally in love with him! I saw it at the cinema with my friend and the next day at school we couldn’t stop talking about him, about his tight stockings, about how you could see everything… for us, it was so erotic.

Through the film I became introduced to his music and as soon as I heard it I was completely hooked. I needed to find out more, so I bought every book I could find on him. The best was the David Bowie Black Book, but it was in English. Until then I had been very bad at English in school, but I sat down with that book, translating every single word from English to German. I quickly became top of the class.

Then I heard the news: he was coming to play in Berlin! It was 1987, I was 14 years old and it was my first concert. When I received the ticket it was like holding something holy. He played at the Reichstag with Genesis and Eurythmics, but I didn’t care about them at all, all I wanted to see was Bowie.

The concert was HUGE, there were people everywhere, including people from the East who had gathered on the other side of the Wall and he greeted them! He said: “…und dann Gruß noch der Leute hinter den Mauer” in his really sweet German, and then he sang “Heroes”. It was like magic. My father had insisted on chaperoning me and he made us leave before the concert finished because he wanted to “avoid the crowds” – I was really, really angry with him for a long time after that.

I saw Bowie again when he played at the Deutschlandhalle – the place no longer exists but it’s the venue you see in Christiane F., so it felt very authentic – and then at Neue Welt. I waited for him at the exit. He walked straight to his car without looking up, but I wasn’t disappointed – I ran through the street following his car. It felt amazing.

My younger sister also caught the Bowie bug. We didn’t call ourselves “Bowie fans”, it sounded lame, so we called ourselves “Bowisten”. We were delighted to realise that Bowie had once lived in Berlin – that seems obvious now, but back then, without the internet, it was like insider’s knowledge. We desperately wanted to know where exactly Bowie had lived, but my books didn’t give the address, only hints, mentioning that he lived around 20 minutes away from Hansa Studios above some kind of tool shop.

We set off with our bikes from Wilmersdorf where we lived at that time, riding to Hansa where West Berlin met the Wall, and we criss-crossed the streets looking for somewhere that fit the vague description in my book. When we found a block of spacious apartments over a hardware store, we knew it must be the right place. We spoke excitedly about what it must have been like when Bowie and Iggy Pop lived there, we were so proud of our discovery – it was our secret! In reality we were on Yorckstraße, not Hauptstraße, so we weren’t far away, but it wasn’t the right building. Somehow that didn’t matter – to us, it was Bowie’s house.

When I turned 16 and was finally allowed to travel alone, I boarded a train for Montreux. I had read in a music magazine that David Bowie was living in the Swiss city, so with little more than a small rucksack, a toothbrush and one set of clothes, I set off to find him. I ran around the city, asking everyone where David Bowie lived in my bad French, especially in Asian restaurants – I knew Bowie loved Asian food… Of course I was hoping I would meet him, in my fantasy he would already know who I was and we would go out, but the main thing for me was just to find him. I knew I was too shy to ring his doorbell, but I thought perhaps I would leave him a letter.

I went to Mountain Studios and eventually got to speak to a producer. He said he couldn’t tell me where the house was and that Bowie had finished recording and left. Most heartbreaking of all, he told me that if I had been there a month before I probably would have met him in the studio.

David Bowie totally influenced my life. His songs were so complex that unravelling them was a journey in itself, an almost spiritual thing. Through Bowie’s music I became enamoured with English culture and the English language, even moving to London…

Today, I look at that time as a growing-up experience. David Bowie is a part of my past. I actually gave away all my David Bowie albums a few weeks ago. I have all these songs and all these memories in my head, I don’t really need to listen to them anymore.

The doppelgänger:

A natural-born Bowie lookalike with the nom de plume to match, multimedia artist and art director Alexandra Moon-Age was born in Sydney in 1987. She studied theatre and art before moving to London. With a creative career spanning performance, music, painting and fashion, Moon-Age has recently moved to Berlin – the natural choice, where her Ziggy-inspired getups fit right in.

“It was love at first sight. I was about nine when I first saw Labyrinth and I just couldn’t believe how he was dressed.

The first album I heard was Ziggy Stardust and I became obsessed. David Bowie is the first member of the opposite sex I felt really attracted to. Since then, everything I’ve done has been influenced by him.

What’s so amazing about Bowie is the way he tried so many different things. He participated in Beckenham Arts Lab, he performed mime, he painted, he acted, all that beside the costumes and the music. I have tried to mimic all of that in my own life, from theatre school to painting and drawing, and later in London when I did fashion styling and made music.

Now that I am in Berlin I am working to fuse all of these things together, mixing stage performance, music videos, choreographed dance, audio-visuals, strange instruments and interactive transformative costumes… all inspired by Bowie.

My fashion style is totally influenced by Bowie, particularly the Ziggy Stardust era. I got into anything colourful, garish and louder than life. I love big platform shoes, jumpsuits, giant hats, feather boas. There is something super sexy about pretending to be Bowie. It’s the androgyny: pretending to be a guy, pretending to be a girl.

I dressed as Bowie for parties or just for myself. I was once at a party in the wee hours, my friend took me into her room and gave me an immaculate Jareth makeover. she put on “Magic Dance” and I came out of the bedroom and launched into this impersonation, everyone went crazy… Then friends in Australia were organising a Bowie-themed night and I couldn’t attend in person, so I decided to make a video and play Bowie through the ages. The film was screened at the party and we put it online.

Not long afterward, I got a call from the manager of Bowie’s website: he asked me if he could include the video. Yes, David Bowie has seen it! I attended the exhibition four times in London, once dressed as Bowie, and I’m so stoked that I’ll get to see it again at the Martin-Gropius- Bau… yes, most probably dressed up as Bowie!

The collector:

DJ, musician, producer and record collector Ragnar was born in West Germany in 1973. He now performs in the industrial band Gerechtigkeits Liga. The owner of Berlin’s largest David Bowie record collection, with 130 discs, he also organises and DJs at Bowie-themed club nights – the next one is on July 19 at Berghain Kantine.

I grew up in southwest Berlin and Bowie was always there in the background, on the radio and TV. The first record I bought was “China Girl” as a seven-inch in 1984. I bought it because it’s a great song, but I first became aware of it because of the video. It made quite an impact because it had a half-naked girl in it; that obviously gets your attention as a teenage boy! My collection of Bowie records has slowly grown ever since.

I’m a record collector so I collect records in general, but I have more records by David Bowie than any other single artist, around 130 on vinyl and some more on CD. Many of these are different pressings from different countries with different covers. It’s a good field because there is simply so much stuff out there. A lot of the records were bought during my time in London in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

When I was around 13 years old, I watched Christiane F. and it made a big impression on me, I still like it a lot. I was here during the late 1970s and early 1980s – I was too young to experience it properly, but I had a sense of it. This film really captured the atmosphere of the time, a Berlin that was free and experimental but also dark and drug-riddled. The use of Bowie’s music in the film really captures this. When I listen to Low I can see the S-Bahn trains go by, the dirt in Schöneberg, the filthy public toilets.

The Berlin trilogy is without doubt my three favourite records. They show influences from krautrock and the mark of Brian Eno’s production. As a musician and sound engineer for 22 years, I really appreciate the sense of experimentation on these records, the synthesisers, the effects and the unconventional use of instruments. I really love “Look Back in Anger” because it’s just so strange. “Sense of Doubt” is also amazing – it’s really evocative of Berlin, of the trains, it’s really an industrial track.

I have been DJing and putting on parties since 1994, particularly at goth clubs, and I have often played David Bowie and it has always gone down very well. This led naturally to starting a Bowie night with DJane Ina of Panic in Berlin – we’re both massive Bowie fans, and we were surprised that there weren’t already any Bowie-themed nights. The first was in February at Berghain Kantine and it went really well, so we will put on another on July 19.

Bowie has had a lot more influence on all of us than we realise. He took what was new and innovative in culture, gave it a twist and got it on TV. In the late 1980s and early 1990s I really dressed up, I wore make-up and I had big hair. I wasn’t even very aware of Bowie at that time, but I honestly don’t know if that would have been possible without him. That’s what is so remarkable about him – he put little revolutions into pop songs.

The Ossi guide:

A child of the GDR, music tour guide and Bowie aficionado Thilo Schmied was born in 1973 in former East Berlin. A pop-rocker and professional musician in the early 1990s, Schmied subsequently worked as an audio engineer, promoter, booker and talent scout before beginning Berlin Music Tours in 2005. His most popular one: the Bowie in Berlin tour.

I grew up in East Berlin near the Wall at Fischerinsel, a stone’s throw from Checkpoint Charlie and Hansa Studios. We couldn’t travel to concerts, but we listened to the West German radio and that’s how my passion for music started.

When I first heard “Ashes to Ashes”, I must have been 10 or 11 years old. I couldn’t understand the words, but that didn’t matter, that was the first real contact I had with music and from then on, everything changed.

You couldn’t buy these kinds of records in the GDR and the black market was incredibly expensive, but there were other ways. Our grandparents could travel to the West to visit relatives, so they would smuggle us back records and music magazines. We also had a strong culture of taping music off the radio and sharing the tapes, but all the same it was illegal and not without danger.

As a teenager in the late 1980s I became a musician, though not a very successful one [laughs]. I was a singer in a pop-rock band, and the music was definitely influenced by Bowie (and Depeche Mode!).

Bowie lived in West Berlin, but he and his music played a very particular role in the GDR as well. In 1987, it was the 750th anniversary of the establishment of Berlin and celebrations were held on both sides of the divided city. In the GDR the regime held demonstrations with Erich Honecker greeting the people, but in the West they had these big pop and rock concerts at the Reichstag. It was right by the Wall, and they kindly turned the PA so we on the Eastern side could listen.

I was there with thousands of others, a 14-year-old kid, when David Bowie played. He greeted us and sang “Heroes”, the Berlin anthem, and the kids were joking with the border guards – “Let us go over there for just a minute, we’ll come back, we promise” – but they started beating and arresting people. Everyone was shouting, “The Wall must go! The Wall must go!” It was the first time something like that had happened in the 1980s. Bowie obviously didn’t bring down the Wall, but it was a moment that made people aware that if they want to change things, they had to come out and demonstrate.

I never planned on becoming a music tour guide, it just happened this way. But I’m now able to talk all day to people from all over the world about the music that I am passionate about and the music that has inspired me, and for that I am totally thankful.