Bowie in Berlin, Part 1

It is the spring of 2003, midway through my first year in graduate school, and my friend Nathan has earlier that day acquired a used vinyl copy of David Bowie’s Station to Station from Amoeba Music. Some months later, we are driving down Sunset Boulevard listening to the song “Negativland” from New!’s 1972 debut album. Again, an ominous quasi-industrial noise, something like a jackhammer, leads off the track. Again, a muffled guitar squeals in the background, defiantly on its own trip as Michael Rother’s plodding baseline and Klaus Dinger’s motorik-beat propel the song forward. Again I explain, “This is the sound of postmodernism. . .”

Julian Knox, David Bowie and Romanticism, pp. 117-118

Bowie’s Berlin period is both famous and misunderstood. Well before the end of 1976 Bowie’s cocaine addiction had led him in and out of psychosis, dropped him to 90 lbs. on a diet of peppers and milk, and pushed him to the point of death. He knew he had to leave the United States and its easy availability of drugs just to save his life. In late 1976, he and his wife Angie moved to Switzerland, where they purchased a house. The couple was largely estranged by this point, alternating their time spent in the house rather than living together, and Bowie eventually moved to Berlin to share an apartment with Iggy Pop, whose career was floundering after the breakup of the Stooges.

Check out the iTunes playlist for David Bowie and Romanticism.

Bowie’s work after moving to Europe included co-writing and producing two albums for Iggy, both in 1977: The Idiot (recorded in Switzerland, final mixing in Berlin) and Lust for Life (Berlin). These albums most famously produced the songs “China Girl,” a later hit for David Bowie rerecorded for the album Let’s Dance (1983), and “Lust for Life,” Pop’s signature song. Bowie wrote music and Pop lyrics on both songs. Bowie then teamed up with Tony Visconti as producer and Brian Eno as collaborator on the albums Low (1977) and “Heroes” (1977).

Bowie wrapped up his work at the Hansa studio in Berlin with the soundtrack for his performance of Brecht’s Baal (1981). Lodger (1979), typically mentioned as the last of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, and the last album on which he collaborated with Brian Eno until 1995’s 1. Outside, was recorded in Switzerland and New York, not Berlin.

Watch “Station to Station” live on YouTube.

Julian Knox’s “Too Late to be Late Again: David Bowie, the Late 1970s, and Romanticism,” chapter 6 of David Bowie and Romanticism, explores the arrival of the “European canon” in Bowie’s music from Station to Station through the Berlin Trilogy to Scary Monsters against the background of German electronica, German Romanticism, Byron, and Coleridge — and his own personal life and growth.

Bowie’s Romanticism in this chapter is described as “a philosophy of artistic creation as self-disclosure, not through purportedly unfiltered, unmediated ‘sincerity,’ but rather through permutation and flux. . . [which] lies at the heart of a major strand of Romantic aesthetics, articulated by Coleridge in his appraisal of Shakespeare-as-Proteus: ‘to become by the power of Imagination another thing–Proteus, a river, a lion, yet still the God felt to be there'” (p. 122). Read more in David Bowie and Romanticism. Pick up a copy in The Bookstore or ask your local, college, or university library to order it.

Julian Knox is Assistant Professor of English at Georgia College & State University, where he teaches Romanticism, the eighteenth century, and Victorian literature, and where he coordinates the M.A. Program in Literature.

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