A New Career in a New Town: Finding David Bowie's Berlin

Through sites like GetYourGuide, fans can visit the places that inspired David Bowie's most innovative work — including "Heroes"

David Bowie
Photo: Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

David Bowie desperately needed a change of scenery in early 1976. In fact, his life depended on it. Since moving to Los Angeles two years earlier, he’d become mired in the city’s toxic hedonism and shamefully indulgent sycophants. Surviving on a diet of cocaine, red peppers and milk, his body grew frail and his mind slid dangerously close to psychosis as he stayed awake for days on end, ruminating on the occult and watching films repeatedly on loop. He overdosed on at least one occasion, narrowly avoiding death thanks to a quick-thinking friend who placed him in a warm bath. Interviews from the period reveal a distressingly detached man whose grasp on reality seemed to be slipping. “It was a dangerous period for me,” he admitted to Uncut in 2001. “I was at the end of my tether physically and emotionally and had serious doubts about my sanity.”

The back-to-back global success of Young Americans (featuring his first American No. 1, the John Lennon-backed “Fame”) and Station to Station had made him a major commercial force, but the cavalcade of theatrical personas — Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack and, most recently, the Thin White Duke — had left him with an identity crisis. The title of a 1975 Omnibus profile pegged him perfectly: Cracked Actor. The constant mask swapping left him seriously wondering “whether I was writing the characters or the characters were writing me.”

Stretched physically and creatively to his breaking point, Bowie believed he was heading towards the abyss. “It was like being in a car where the steering had gone out of control and you were going towards the edge of a cliff,” he told the BBC in 2005. “Whatever you did with the wheel, it was inevitable that you were going to go over the edge. I had almost resigned myself to the fact that [I was] not going to be able to stop, and that would be it. I started to get very, very worried for my life, and just had to get myself out of that situation… So I ended up in Berlin.”

The city would be both his savior and muse. Bowie’s time in the Germany allowed him to purge (most of) the noxious influences of L.A. — which he’d dub “the most vile piss-pot in the world” — and fostered some of his most daring musical achievements. The famous “Berlin Trilogy” banner is more a press tag than pre-conceived effort, but Bowie maintained a special fondness for the place for the rest of his life. “I can’t express the feeling of freedom I felt there,” he would later say. Though Berlin has undergone immense changes since he arrived in the fall of 1976, it’s possible for Bowie’s fans to still get a taste of the city he loved through tours provided by GetYourGuide.

Berlin had long been on Bowie’s shortlist of potential homes. As a student at Bromley Technical High School in the early ‘60s, he poured over the art of Max Reinhardt, Bertolt Brecht and Fritz Lang. “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,” he said in 2001. In particular, he was drawn to the work of the Die Brücke (“the bridge”) movement. “It was an artform that mirrored life not by event but by mood. This was where I felt my work was going.” His 1974 Diamond Dogs world tour boasted a $250,000 backdrop modeled after expressionism filmmaker Robert Wiene’s 1919 classic The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, but his fascination with German culture escalated exponentially during 1976’s Station to Station trek, when Christopher Isherwood paid him a visit backstage at the Inglewood Forum that February. The prototypical Englishman abroad regaled Bowie with tales of his time in Weimar Republic-era Germany, immortalized in his memoir, Goodbye to Berlin — later adapted into the Oscar-winning film, Cabaret. Though Isherwood maintained that Berlin was no longer the den of depravity, decadence and artistic freedom that it had been between world wars, Bowie heard enough to be intrigued. In less than a year, he was living within a mile of Isherwood’s former home.

Obviously, the Berlin of the ‘30s was mostly gone by the time Bowie arrived in late 1976. For a start, Allied troops had bombed much of the city into rubble during the war. What little remained was divided by the Berlin Wall, a grotesque and deadly symbol of the geo-political fault line between Eastern Communist repression and Western capitalism. Germany as a whole was bisected along similar lines, with West Berlin as a Democratic oasis administered by the Western Alliance deep within the Soviet controlled Eastern territory. “Berlin was a strange, singular place,” Bowie remembered. “After the Second World War, when it was just an island in the middle of East Germany, all of the industry and all of the big business moved out of Berlin, leaving behind factories and warehouses that were empty. So what happened is [that] students and artists moved in, so the whole place became like a workshop, and it was just a wonderful place to be for that.” The split city mirrored Bowie’s own fractured psyche. The artistic heritage stretched back to some of his formative influences and the “anarchistic vibe” of the left-wing socialists fueled his own renegade spirit. In short, it was the perfect place for him to be.

And he had company. He was joined by one Jim Osterberg, better known as Iggy Pop. They met face-to-face in September 1971 at Max’s Kansas City, the watering hole of choice for New York’s downtown rock coterie. Bowie had been a big fan of Pop’s pioneering punk group, the Stooges, which was in the process of disintegrating due to rampant drug use that crippled nearly all concerned. The band had been dropped by their label, but Bowie persuaded then-manager Tony DeFries to sign Pop as a client and helped secure a new deal.

Bowie would become something approaching Pop’s guardian angel, frequently appearing in times of trouble. When CBS Records was unhappy with Pop’s mix on Raw Power, Bowie was called in to clean it up. When Pop was in the midst of his court-appointed stay at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute in late 1974 following a drug-fueled altercation with the LAPD, Bowie was one of just two visitors. The pair met up again in February 1976, when the Station to Station tour passed through LA, and it was clear that Pop was in worse shape than even the exhausted and emaciated Bowie. Pop came on board for the remainder of the tour, officially as a backup singer, but primarily as a friend to Bowie.

Their bond, forged in misery, grew strong. “The friendship was basically that this guy salvaged me from certain professional and maybe personal annihilation — simple as that,” Pop told the New York Times in 2016. “A lot of people were curious about me, but only he was the one who had enough truly in common with me, and who actually really liked what I did and could get on board with it, and who also had decent enough intentions to help me out. He did a good thing. He resurrected me. He was more of a benefactor than a friend in a way most people think of friendship. He went a bit out of his way to bestow some good karma on me.”

March 1977: Rock singers David Bowie, right, and Iggy Pop in Germany
Iggy Pop with David Bowie in Germany, 1977. Evening Standard/Getty

After the tour wrapped in Paris in late May 1976, Bowie was due to move into his new home in Blonay, Switzerland and play the role of yet another rock star tax exile alongside his estranged wife, Angie, and young son, Duncan. But the suitcases were barely unpacked when he and Pop departed for Château d’Hérouville, just outside Paris. The estate-cum-studio had hosted Bowie’s sessions for Pin-Ups three years earlier. Now he aimed to rewrite his musical language, without the flashy theatricality of his past success. “I wanted to move out of the area of narrative and character,” he told Melody Maker in 1977. “I wanted generally to reevaluate what I was doing. I realized that I exhausted that particular environment and the effect of that environment upon my writing. I was afraid that if I continued to work in that environment I would begin repeating myself. I felt that that was the way I was heading.”

Naturally, he’d experiment on Pop first, just to get all the kinks worked out. Bowie oversaw sessions for Pop’s first solo album, refining his production techniques as he went. He freely copped to using his friend as “a guinea pig for what I wanted to do with sound,” but Pop recalled the partnership a little more generously. “I gave him an outlet for an overflow of talent and ideas,” he told Rolling Stone in 2007. “If he had a new idea and wasn’t sure how to approach it, he would write or arrange something in a similar manner for one of my projects.”

To help him realize this new musical vision, he’d need an equal collaborator. Pop, for all the friendship and demons they shared, didn’t fit the bill. So Bowie tapped Brian Eno, late of Roxy Music. Though they’d met in the flesh just a handful of times, both were very aware of the other’s work. In a sense, they’d operated on parallel artistic tracks — two titans of early ‘70s glam rock who’d yielded to their more intellectual pursuits in a stubborn attempt to avoid the boring repetition demanded by mainstream chart success. They had become reacquainted after one of Bowie’s London shows that May, when the pair talked into the early morning hours. Bowie in particular was impressed with Eno’s recent ambient experimentations on albums like Another Green World and Discreet Music, which thrilled Eno to no end. (“God, he must be smart!” he recalled thinking of Bowie in a 1999 Uncut interview.) It was then that they first seriously considered working together. Bowie had found, as he would later say, “a musical soul mate.”

Flush with new concepts, Bowie also needed an old friend who understood his creative shorthand. Early on in his partnership with Eno, he reached out to Tony Visconti, the Brooklyn-born musician and producer who had overseen his first major hit, “Space Oddity.” Though Visconti had a hand in recent albums like Diamond Dogs and Young Americans, they hadn’t completed an album together since the scattershot sessions for The Man Who Sold the World in 1970, marred by Bowie’s frequent and frustrating absences. This might explain why Visconti was slightly surprised when he received a call in June 1976 from Bowie — with Eno on the extension. “They told me they’d been writing songs for a couple of weeks and had ideas, one side [of the album] being conventional songs and the other an instrumental side based on Brian’s ambient music compositions,” he said in 2017. Briefed on the unusual nature of the project, they asked Visconti what he could bring to the table. The producer mentioned his new purchase, an early digital effects machine called the Eventide H910 Harmonizer. The device was just the second sold in the U.K., and a total mystery to Bowie and Eno. “What does it do?” they asked. Visconti struggled to come up with a simple answer, so he offered a much more compelling one: “It f—s with the fabric of time.”

That was all Bowie needed to hear; Visconti was in. “David then warned me that this album was going to be purely experimental and it might never be released if it didn’t turn out well. He asked me if I wouldn’t mind wasting a month of my life if that were the case. ‘A month in the studio with David Bowie and Brian Eno is not wasting a month of my life,’ was my response.”

American record producer Tony Visconti, 18th October 1972
Tony Visconti, 1972. Michael Putland/Getty

Sessions for Bowie and Pop’s albums continued simultaneously at Château d’Hérouville through the end of the summer, bolstered by the familiar instrumental lineup of guitarist Carlos Alomar, bassist George Murray, and drummer Dennis Davis. After a short stint at Musicland in Munich (where they were joined briefly by guitarist Phil Palmer), Bowie, Pop and Visconti decamped to Berlin for final mixing.

By the mid-‘70s, Bowie had become increasingly fascinated by the innovative sounds of German “kosmische musik,” often Anglicized to the unflattering nickname “Krautrock.” The most famous of these bands in the English-speaking world was Kraftwerk, who made an important impact on Bowie’s music of the era. He admired the group’s “singular determination to stand apart from stereotypical American chord sequences and their wholehearted embrace of a European sensibility displayed through their music.” He also loved the work of Tangerine Dream, and particularly Edgar Froese’s 1975 solo album Epsilon in Malaysian Pale. Froese hosted Bowie and Pop at his home in Berlin’s Schöneberg district upon their arrival, providing an entrée to a scene that included groups like Cluster, Neu! and Harmonia. Bowie eagerly devoured it all. At one point he approached German superproducer Konrad “Conny” Plank to oversee his new album, but Plank turned him down.

So it was Visconti who stood alongside Bowie as co-producer at Hansa Tonstudio, a former guildhall that had been turned into a recording facility in the ‘60s. First constructed in the early 1910s, the building bore witness to a wealth of history. Its magisterial Meistersaal concert hall had housed Expressionist art galleries, Nazi balls, guild meetings and chamber orchestras within its elegant wood-paneled walls. The exterior was still pockmarked with bullet holes from British bomb damage from World War II when Bowie and Co. arrived, and many of the expansive picture windows remained bricked up. In the basement, they found Nazi-era valves, stamped with swastikas.

Once the focal point of Berlin’s artistic community, Hansa was located in the ghostly no man’s land of Potsdammer Platz, literally in the shadow of the Berlin Wall — or the Anti-Fascist Protective Rampart, as it was known in the East. It had been constructed essentially overnight in August 1961 in an attempt to stop the flow of East Berliners fleeing into the economically booming West. “They said, ‘We built this wall to protect you from the bad Americans and their bad imperialist system,’” says East German-born Thilo Schmied, a sound engineer, musician and Bowie expert who runs the GetYourGuide affiliated Berlin Music Tours — the only company that takes fans inside Hansa. “That was how they sold it to us, but we knew it was wrong because everyone else could travel besides us.”

Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall ‘death strip’ at Potsdamer Platz, within sight of Hansa Studios. Herbert Maschke/ullstein bild via Getty

By the ‘70s, the Wall had been expanded to include a booby-trapped “death strip” patrolled by armed Soviet guards perched in elevated gun turrets. The guards’ orders were to shoot, and they often did. More than 100 people were shot to death as they tried in vain to flee. Just before Bowie’s arrival, an 18-year-old man named Dietmar Schwietzer was sprayed with 91 bullets.

Hansa’s proximity to “Die Mauer” earned it the nickname “The Hall by the Wall.” The bombed-out buildings, uncomfortably close guard towers, barbed wire and permanent sense of vague danger created a strange atmosphere for making music. “You felt like you were in a black-and-white film from the ’40s. You were expecting Humphrey Bogart to walk down the street any minute,” Visconti recalled in David Bowie: The Oral History. “It was a very bizarre situation. Every day we’d see military tanks in the street — really huge tanks that were almost 15 to 20 feet high, with big gun turrets at the front — and black jeeps that weren’t the standard military green. It was almost like being in a futuristic Arnold Schwarzenegger film, but this was happening in the ’70s. The city was surrounded by a moat that was mined. So if you fancied swimming across from East to West Berlin, you’d probably be either caught in barbed wire or exploded.”

The constant exposure to the brutality of totalitarian governments forced Bowie to confront what’s considered to be a brief public flirtation with fascism while in the midst of his personal nadir earlier that year. He’d raised eyebrows in a number of interviews by characterizing Adolf Hitler as “one of the first rock stars” (Playboy), insisting that he himself “might have been a bloody good Hitler” and “an excellent dictator” (Rolling Stone), and apparently proclaiming to the Swedish press that “Britain could benefit from a fascist leader.” He walked it back some in UK’s Daily Express newspaper, insisting that he was “not sinister” and “not that sort of force,” but scrutiny intensified when photos of Bowie offering what appeared to be a stiff-armed salute in the back of an open-topped black Mercedes-Benz at London’s Victoria Station made the front page of the New Musical Express under the headline “Heil and Farewell” in May 1976.

Though would strenuously deny that he’d made any sort of Nazi gesture (“That did not happen!” he told Melody Maker in October 1977. “I just waved! Believe me. On the life of my child, I waved. And that bastard caught me. In mid-wave, man….As if I’d be foolish enough to pull a stunt like that.”) at least one review of his Station to Station show at London’s Wembley Empire Pool a few days after the car incident noted “Nuremberg overtones” in the production.

Regardless of his intentions, artistic or otherwise, Berlin brought home the horror of Germany’s not-so-distant past. “I really had to face up to [that],” Bowie would later admit. “Suddenly I was in a situation where I was meeting young men of my age whose fathers had actually been SS men.”

He’s feelings about the Berlin Wall tumbled out in a new song, the only one on his new album that he actually wrote in Berlin. Called “Weeping Wall,” it was an instrumental piece, performed entirely by Bowie himself on synthesizers and percussion. A wordless chorus helped evoke the misery of those trapped in the East. “We arrived in Berlin being one track short for the album,” Visconti recalled. “David composed ‘Weeping Wall,’ obviously in sympathy with the sad people on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall. It was recorded very quickly, in just one day.”

Well into the project, Bowie believed that these freeform, playful sessions were merely for the purpose of recording demos that would form the basis of a more traditional album. Experimentation being a hit-or-miss process, he assumed that some of their unrefined work would be “pretty wishy-washy.” But as the dates continued, he became convinced that what they had was “vital and interesting.” One night in the fall of 1976, Visconti made a rough mix of their work so far. As Bowie looked on, sipping French wine and offering comments, he grew more and more enthusiastic. “When I had finished we sat together and played the entire album whilst making cassette copy for David,” Visconti remembered. “We were both quite pleased with our work and I had a few glasses of wine as well. When it was over I took the cassette out of the recorder and handed it to David. He gleefully waved it over his head and exclaimed, ‘We have an album!’”

It was an album unlike any he’d ever made. The first side contained short, spiky songs, fragmented but still identifiable as pop. But side two held something different entirely: sprawling, minimalist, largely lyric-less tracks that had far more in common with Another Green World than Ziggy Stardust. On one hand, that was no accident. The basic tracks for two instrumentals, “Warszawa” and “Art Decade,” were assembled by Eno and his famous EMS VCS 3 “suitcase synth” when Bowie was out of town, attending to the unpleasant legal proceedings to dissolve his partnership with manager Michael Lippman. But Bowie seemed well on his way towards making these atmospheric mood pieces on Station to Station. The closing track, “Subterraneans,” would not have been out of place on an Eno record, but Bowie originally recorded it back in December 1975 as a potential soundtrack for the film he was making, The Man Who Fell To Earth. (Director Nicolas Roeg vetoed it in favor of John Phillips’ folksy efforts.)

Though the melodies were plentiful, Bowie found himself suffering from a case of writer’s block during the sessions. He intended to craft lyrics to each of the songs on side one, but he came up short for two, “Speed of Life” and “A New Career in a New Town,” and chose to leave them both as instrumentals. “He couldn’t come up with more than one verse for some things,” Visconti explained, “which is why a lot of the tracks fade out.” The first three lyrical tracks on the album — “Breaking Glass,” “What in the World,” and “Sound and Vision,” find Bowie confined to a room, secluded but suffocated. “When I left [L.A.], I tried to find out more about the world. I discovered how little I knew, how little I have to say,” he told Rolling Stone in 1978. The instrumental tracks reveal a man “literally stuck for words.”

His troubled personal life further tied his tongue. In addition to his million-dollar lawsuit against his ex-manager, his marriage to wife Angie was in a tailspin. He would later characterize his mood during the sessions with a single word, one that would give the album its title: Low.

David Bowie Low album
Low.. Alamy

As he neared the end of his twenties, he put the finishing touches on his most adult work to date, one that eschewed personas and storytelling. Low was a highly personal snapshot of a moment on time, and the results pleased him. “Overall, I get a sense of real optimism through the veils of despair from Low,” he said in 2001. “I can hear myself really struggling to get well. Berlin was the first time in years that I had felt a joy of life and a great feeling of release and healing.”

The record company was significantly less pleased. “We knew that Low was going to cause a minor uproar,” Visconti admitted. Fresh off the gold-sellers like Station to Station and Young Americans, which had yielded soulful, danceable chart toppers, RCA didn’t know what to make of these wordless soundscapes. Though Bowie had completed the album in November 1976, the label waited more than three months to release it, forfeiting the lucrative Christmas market in the process. Label brass even wrote him a letter formally rejecting Low — which he then framed and kept on his wall at home. Another executive resorted to bribery, declaring that he would buy Bowie a mansion in Philadelphia if he was only just make another Philly soul-style hit like “Young Americans.”

But Bowie had other real estate opportunities in mind. Having worn out his welcome at Chez Froese, he and Pop checked into the thoroughly unimpressive Hotel Gehrus. This was just a temporary solution, and he dispatched his trusty assistant, Coco Schwab, to find them some permanent digs. However, there were some restrictions. Bowie’s efforts to untangle himself from unhappy managerial and marital deals had rendered him, in Visconti’s words, “almost bankrupt.” For the first time since the ‘60s, the cost of rent was a factor, so he instructed Schwab to lock down the biggest, cheapest place she could find, as fast as possible.

Within a few weeks she found a winner. It was one floor above an auto parts store in the lower-middle class residential neighborhood of Schöneberg. Home to the many Turkish immigrants recruited to replace the East German labor force following the construction of the Wall, it was worlds away from Bowie’s former homes in the opulent enclaves of Blonay and Hollywood. As he recalled in 1977, Schöneberg was somewhere to “force yourself to buy your own groceries.” The aggressively ordinary, down-at-the-heels district suited both his bank balance and his desire to live anonymously and simply. “This very not normal man moved to Germany and moved into an exceedingly normal part of town,” explained Berlin Music Tours’ Bowie expert Phillip Stratmann. Even the address was nondescript to an almost comical degree: 155 Hauptstrasse (“Main Street”), with “Jones,” his legal surname, on the doorbell — which seldom functioned.

View of of the house at 155 Hauptstrasse, where David Bowie resided during his stay, in Berlin, Germany, 14 February 2013
Bowie and Pop’s former apartment at 155 Hauptstrasse, Schöneberg. Jens Kalaene/picture alliance via Getty

Past the front door of this unassuming tenement block, one found a spacious seven-room apartment with high ceilings and Art Deco-framed windows. Here Bowie lived with Pop, Schwab, and 5-year-old Duncan. The dark, wood-paneled abode was relatively austere and functioned largely as a dormitory and oversized artist’s garret. The most luxe room was, predictably, Bowie’s own, done up with Tiffany lamps, elegant drapery, traditional Teutonic oil portraits, richly-woven rugs, and a wood burning fireplace. In addition to a functional home recording facility — a must for any ‘70s musician worth his coke — an additional room had been set aside to function as Bowie’s painting studio, crammed with easels, canvases and brushes, as well as books about his favorite German Expressionists. Soon the walls of 155 Hauptstrasse were adorned with Bowie’s own work, competing for space alongside giant Neo-Expressionist paintings by controversial Japanese author Yukio Mishima and massive photo-murals of Alpine scenes.

Bowie, who always considered himself a “hack painter” first and a musician second, continued his ad hoc art studies at Berlin’s Brücke Museum, named for the Die Brücke school of early 20th century German Expressionists he revered in his youth: Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. One of Heckel’s most famous works, Roquairol, provided inspiration for the cover to his roommate’s long-gestating solo album, which was finally readied for release in the spring of 1977.

Well-read fans assumed the title alluded to a Dostoyevsky novel, but Pop took Bowie’s choice of The Idiot at face value. “He’d always marvel at what a dick I was — how awkward I was in social situations and in all the things that you can do to make your career go better,” Pop recalled. “So finally he said, ‘Look, we’re going to call this album The Idiot.’…He’s the kind of guy who had obviously read The Idiot by Dostoyevsky, which I hadn’t, and he probably saw all the resonance of the term and its possibilities. But I think his basic thrust, when he suggested it, was just to insult me — ‘You f—ing idiot.’”

Their relationship began to take on the undertones of a semi-friendly fraternal rivalry. At the time, Bowie was reading a collection of letters between the Van Gogh brothers, Vincent and Theo. Friends say this is how they saw themselves: one genius artist and one slightly-less-than-genius artist. At home they’d bicker like siblings over stolen food in the fridge and clothing borrowed without permission. “Living in a Berlin apartment with Bowie and his friends was interesting,” Pop told Q magazine in January 2008. “Who did the chores? Well, I seem to remember doing a little hoovering. The big event of the week was Thursday night. Anyone who was still alive and able to crawl to the sofa would watch Starsky and Hutch.” When Pop finally opted to find his own lodgings, it was just across the hall at 155 Hauptstrasse.

They fell into an easy routine, often holding court over breakfast at Anderes Ufer (“The Other Side”), a gay-friendly establishment a few doors down from their apartment. At a time when most homosexual bars were essentially speakeasies hidden from view of the general public, Anderes Ufer had achieved a degree of local infamy as the first gay bar with windows open to the street. “Visibility was a big deal in the ‘70s,” says Dan Borden, whose tour for the GetYourGuide-affiliated Insight Cities Berlin Tours includes a drink at the historic locale, since renamed Neues Ufer (“The New Side”). He describes a night when vandals threw a brick through the front window. Within minutes, Bowie arrived to help them clean up, and paid in cash to have the damage repaired.

Picture taken on February 14, 2013 shows a cafe at Hauptstrasse in Berlin, that was the favorite cafe of British musician David Bowie when he stayed in Berlin from 1976 to 1978
Neues Ufer today. JENS KALAENE/DPA/AFP via Getty

When they wanted to go further afield, Bowie would dispatch Pop to scout out a new neighborhood to explore on foot. “We used to get lost,” said Bowie. “I like to go out and get lost and be in places made of wood, just to wash every shred of America off. Taking a walk was like taking a shower.” Together they’d visit record shops and galleries, browse markets, or just camp at cafes and discuss politics, art, literature and music — everyone’s but their own. They went to the cinema regularly, delighting in German art house movies and the latest from New Hollywood directors. A screening of Taxi Driver prompted Pop to spontaneously shave his head into a Mohawk, and the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder inspired Bowie to grow a mustache.

Though it may have disguised his famous face to a small degree, it wasn’t enough to stop fellow passengers on Berlin’s S-Bahn/U-Bahn public transport system to wonder if Ziggy Stardust was in their midst. Even so, he remained largely unencumbered by celebrity. “[Berlin] was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity,” he said in 2001. “For some reason, Berliners just didn’t care. Well, not about an English rock singer, anyway.”

Occasionally, Bowie and his entourage made trips across the Iron Curtain into East Berlin. Their passage through the infamous Checkpoint Charlie was made easier by Pop’s girlfriend at the time, Esther Friedmann, the daughter of a local diplomat. “When you went into East Berlin you were going about 30 years into the past,” Visconti recalled in David Bowie: The Oral History. “Because it was a Communist territory there were no brand names but they had billboards with a picture of a fish saying, ‘Eat Fish’ [or a] picture of a milk bottle [that said] ‘Drink Milk’ in German. There were no products in a Communist country then. The women were dressed as if it were the ’50s: they had narrow skirts, beehive hairdos, and stiletto heels. It was a most bizarre situation.”

Their destination was usually the Berliner Ensemble, the theatre gifted to legendary dramatist Bertolt Brecht by the East German government. Bowie and the author of The Threepenny Opera had reverse trajectories, though several decades apart. When the Nazis gained power in 1933, Brecht fled his homeland, where his Jewish heritage and Communist sympathies made him a political target. He settled in Hollywood, where he earned fame and fortune as a screenwriter, before being persuaded to return to the newly formed GDR in 1949, with the theatre dangled as bait. There he served the Berliner Ensemble’s head-writer until his death in 1956. For Bowie, a devoted Brecht fan, the chance to see the master’s plays performed in the venue where they premiered, by Bretch-trained actors like Bernard Minetti, was irresistible. Though he didn’t speak German, he marveled over the sets and staging, not to mention the musical performances. After the shows, Bowie and his friends — including a B.E. singer with whom he had become romantically involved — would often venture next door to Ganymede, one of the few privately owned restaurants in East Berlin.

While they didn’t funnel illicit substances into their body with quite the same fervor that they did in Los Angeles, Bowie and Pop were not exactly monks in Berlin. “If there wasn’t enough to do, I knew some bad people, and I’d get stoned or drunk,” Pop told Blender in 2003. “Sometimes I’d do the bad stuff with Bowie, and the good stuff with the bad people.” During an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music, he sketched out their weekly schedule thus: “Two days for bingeing for old time’s sake; two more days for recovery; and that left three days to do any other activity.”

Berlin was certainly the place to party. Allied occupation forces were particularly lax in regard to prostitution regulations, closing hours or anything else that might inhibit a good time. Chief among their many watering holes was the backroom of the Exile restaurant, which Bowie would describe as “like another living room, except the company was always changing,” and the Paris Bar, famous in the ‘70s for allowing cash-strapped painters to pay their tab with art. Some clubs they frequented, like formative punk venue S.O. 36 and early electronic hub Metropole, were on the cutting edge of musical artistry, but they mostly favored places that maintained their 1920s Weimar Republic aesthetic. It was in one of these cabaret venues that Tony Visconti met jazz vocalist Antonia Maass. Though he was married at the time to pop singer Mary Hopkin, the two began a clandestine relationship.

Bowie had also begun an affair by this time with a Dutch performer named Romy Haag, who ran her own cabaret theater in Schöneberg. They’d first met in April 1976, when the Station to Station tour came through Berlin, and Bowie was so taken with Haag that he nearly missed his show the following day in Hamburg. In Haag he found a lover and a kindred artistic spirit, though sometimes he borrowed ideas a little too liberally. “Romy flew into a rage one night and threw David out in the street because she said he was stealing her ideas from her show at her club,” friend Jayne County claimed in The Oral History. “He took all the images, gestures, and staging from her act and Romy was furious.”

British rock singer and actor David Bowie sits and holds a cigarette with Dutch actor Romy Haag at the club L'Alcazar, following his concert at the Pavilion, Paris, France, May 18, 1976
David Bowie and Romy Haag soon after they met in the spring of 1976. Pictorial Parade/Getty

Angie Bowie, an infrequent visitor at 155 Hauptstrasse, was also furious with her soon-to-be ex-husband’s shenanigans in Berlin, “that wretched cesspool of a city.” She was — perhaps understandably — jealous of his relationship with Haag, whom she described in her memoir as “some star struck little West Berlin hermaphrodite,” but she was even more aggravated by Coco Schwab, her husband’s “gatekeeper and assassin…[who] did his dirty work for him and took all the consequences.” She issued Bowie an ultimatum: her or me. He answered her by asking for a divorce. Angie left the apartment in a rage, but not before gathering up Schwab’s clothes and tossing them out the window onto the street below. “For David and me,” she wrote, “that was the end.”

Bowie busied himself by going on the road — not for his own album but Pop’s. He volunteered to accompany The Idiot tour as a humble keyboard player alongside guitarist Ricky Gardiner and brothers Tony and Hunt Sales on bass and drums respectively. After some rehearsals at a derelict film studio in the Berlin suburb of Babelsberg, the group kicked off their six-week global trek in March. “I never enjoyed a tour so much,” Bowie later said, “because I had no responsibilities … I just had to sit there, drink a bit, have a cigarette, wink at the band…”

Upon their return to Berlin in April, the pair began work on Pop’s latest solo work. Gardiner arrived a few weeks later to assist in the writing and found that the two friends had a sketched out a number of ideas. The strongest of these was “Lust for Life,” composed primarily by Bowie on the ukulele during one of their Starsky and Hutch viewing sessions. “[The Armed Forces Network] would broadcast an ID when they came on the air, a representation of a radio tower, and it made a signal sound, ‘beep-beep-beep, beep-beep-ba-beep,’” Pop told Q magazine in 2013. “And we went, ‘A-ha, we’ll take that!’ David grabbed his ukulele, worked out the chords, and away we went.” Gardiner, for his part, contributed the catchy two-chord riff that would form the basis of “The Passenger,” a portrait of Pop, both car-less and license-less, being driven around the United States and Europe in Bowie’s automobile.

By May the group headed to Hansa Tonstudio, where they were joined by the Sales brothers and Carlos Alomar, who acted as musical director. Their base of operations was the cavernous Studio 2, the famous Meistersaal, which still looked much as it had during its prior incarnation as a turn-of-the-century concert hall. Contact with the producers and engineers, located down the hall in the cramped control room, was made possible through use of closed circuit cameras. Pop took great pleasure in leaping on a chair and making faces into the lens, to the amusement — and occasional terror — of whoever was watching on the other side.

Picture taken on February 14, 2013 shows the interior of the Hansa-Tonstudios recording studio in Berlin
Inside the Meistersaal today. JENS KALAENE/DPA/AFP via Getty

Sessions for what ultimately became Lust for Life wrapped in June, by which time Bowie was keen to continue his own projects in the studio. Along with Visconti, he sought to build on the experimentation that had made Low such a radical departure, but months living as a West Berliner had a transformative effect on him. The emotional dark cloud that characterized the prior album had lifted, and Bowie later described his mood at the time as “good — buoyant, even.” Eno had reentered the fold, and the two developed a private language of surreal comedy routines and silly voices modeled after the double act Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. “We hardly ever have a conversation in any other voice,” Eno admitted in 2005, often leading to “schoolboy giggling fits.”

To prime the creative pump, they employed Oblique Strategies, a set of cards developed by Eno and Berlin-born artist Peter Schmidt, designed to spark unorthodox approaches to problem solving. Each card bore an obtuse (sometimes inscrutable) suggestion, which sent the two co-conspirators veering off into unexpected directions. Dead ends were a common hazard, but occasionally it yielded a fascinating discovery. This was the case for the instrumental track “Sense of Doubt,” recorded after both Bowie and Eno each pulled a card and kept the directive secret from one another. “It was like a game,” Eno told Interview in 1978. “We took turns working on it; he’d do one overdub and I’d do the next. The idea was that each was to observe his Oblique Strategy as closely as he could. And as it turned out they were entirely opposed to one another. Effectively mine said, ‘Try to make everything as similar as possible.’ . . . and his said, ‘Emphasize differences.’”

Having enlisted the familiar rhythm section of Carlos Alomar, George Murray and Dennis Davis, the instrumental beds fell into place quickly, often in half an hour or less. They were usually culled from group jam sessions on the former Meistersaal stage. The new tracks had a much more rock ‘n’ roll feel, thanks in large part to the work of Eno’s former collaborator, Robert Fripp. The King Crimson guitarist began his marathon overdubbing session immediately after touching down in Germany after a lengthy transatlantic flight. “I made the connection to Berlin, caught a taxi to my hotel, which I believe was the former SS headquarters, dumped my stuff, got myself together, and then went to Hansa Studios by the Wall for about quarter to six in the evening, jet-lagged, pretty sleepless,” he breathlessly recalls in The Oral History. Fripp asked to hear the songs they wanted him to work on, but Bowie mischievously refused, instructing him only to “play with total abandonment, and in a way that he would never consider playing on his own albums.” So Fripp plugged into Eno’s VCS3 briefcase synth and let ‘er rip, reacting in real time to the playback tape. The first thing he heard was the backing for what became “Beauty and the Beast,” the first of six songs he tackled during the sessions. “What you hear on record is what I played after hearing it for the first time without anything being said,” he told MOJO in 2015.

According to legend, Fripp completed all of his guitar overdubs in one six-hour burst. More conservative accounts have this spread out over two days, but either way the results are impressive. By his own estimation, the most inspired solos were recorded “before I learned the chords. It’s an immediate reaction to what I’m hearing for the first time.”

Raw spontaneity was paramount, and Bowie’s lyrics were written in much the same manner. “Most of my vocals were first takes, some written as I sang,” he told Uncut in 1999. “I would put the headphones on, stand at the mic, listen to a verse, jot down some key words that came into mind, then take. Then I would repeat the same process for the next section, etc. It was something that I learnt from working with Iggy and I thought a very effective way of breaking normality in the lyric.” Songs like “Joe the Lion” are spur-of-the-moment stream of consciousness, while other tracks had lyrics plotted out over “10 to 15 minutes at most.”

The words that popped out of his subconscious often reflected his adopted home and the new friends he made there. The title for the instrumental “V-2 Schneider” name checks Kraftwerk cofounder Florian Schneider, who offered his own lyrical nod to Bowie and Pop on “Trans-Europe Express” earlier that year. “Neuklon,” another instrumental, takes its name from the Berlin district where Edgar Froese had lived. In Bowie’s own mind it represented “the area of Berlin where the Turks are shackled in bad conditions.” The Turkish influence, abundant in Bowie’s own Schöneberg neighborhood, can also be heard on “The Secret Life of Arabia,” the finale of the album in progress. Other songs had more personal meanings; critics would speculate that “Blackout” alluded to a Bowie’s collapse and brief hospitalization while in Berlin, and that one line — “Someone’s back in town, the chips are down” — referenced Angie Bowie, who was visiting the city around the same period.

Robert Fripp, Brian Eno and David Bowie pose for a portrait in the studio where they are recorded "Heroes" in 1977 in Berlin, Germany
Robert Fripp, Brian Eno and David Bowie pose inside Hansa Studios during sessions for ‘Heroes,’ 1977. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

However, one song left him again stuck for words. Early in the sessions it had taken the form of a plodding rocker, with echoes of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man.” Layers of Fripp’s soaring guitar arcs and Eno’s synth washes transformed it into something else entirely, an otherworldly anthem of triumph. For a time it remained an instrumental, but as the vocal dates progressed Bowie sought to develop it. Per his usual practice, he worked out the lyrics in the studio, shortly before he was due to record. In need of inspiration, he stared out of Hansa’s control room window. It was a decidedly gloomy scene. The looming Berlin Wall dominated the view, so close that tape playbacks regularly attracted the attention of the gun-toting Soviet officers in a nearby guard turret.

Then Bowie spotted some joy in the unsettling tableau: a couple sharing a tender embrace beneath the wall. It reminded him of Otto Mueller’s Lovers Between Garden Walls, one of his favorite paintings in the Die Brücke Museum. Energized, he continued writing.

For years Bowie claimed that an anonymous couple had inspired his words. Decades later that he finally admitted that the lovers were actually the still-married Tony Visconti and his secret girlfriend, Antonia Maass, who had stopped by the studio control room that day to visit. “Our conversation, albeit a quiet one, was distracting him,” Visconti recalled in 2017. “[Bowie] asked us to literally ‘Take a walk’ so he could finish the lyrics. The area around the studio only had a few shops and a coffee house and it was late evening… Antonia and I had a coffee and walked around a bit but didn’t go very far as it felt unsafe. We stopped beneath the control room windows to look at the Wall. We had a little chat about it that somehow turned into a little snog.” When they returned to the control room, Bowie flashed a knowing grin. “Obviously the song was finished,” says Visconti. “Coco [Schwab] whispered to me, ‘You two are in the song.’ Verse five to be precise.”

He called it the song “Heroes.”

More than just a play off a favorite Neu! song, the title reflected his cautiously optimistic mood after walking himself back from the edge of personal oblivion. “The only heroic act one can f—king well pull out of the bag in a situation like that is to get on with life from the very simple pleasure of remaining alive,” he said soon after the song’s release. “Despite every attempt being made to kill you.”

Visconti repaid the lyrical tribute by devising an innovative way for his friend to record the vocals. “The luxurious sound of the big hall, the studio where we recorded the band, was crying out to be part of David’s vocals,” he would later explain. “I told him I had an idea that would allow the room to sound progressively bigger as he sang.” The producer set up three separate microphones at different locations within the Meistersaal live room: the first just a few inches from where Bowie stood, another 20 feet away and the last 50 feet away. On each he attached a “noise gate” device, which mutes a microphone until the sound crosses a volume threshold. This allowed Bowie’s performance to grow in intensity, beginning with the imitate crooning of the first verse up to the impassioned howl of the last. The blend of both sonic and emotional crescendos forged a recording for the ages.

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“Heroes” would serve as the title track to his next album, released to widespread acclaim and high sales in October 1977. It would also be the creative high point of his years in Germany. His next album, Lodger — the third of Bowie’s so-called “Berlin Trilogy” — was primarily recorded in New York City and Montreux, Switzerland between the fall of 1978 and the spring of 1979. Elements of his time in Berlin manage to peek through — “Yassassin” is imbued with the Turkish influence found in Bowie’s Schöneberg neighborhood, and the gender-bending “Boys Keep Swinging” video is right out of Romy Haag’s cabaret — but Bowie’s influences and aims had started to shift. Even Eno would admit that their once fruitful collaboration was starting to “peter out.”

The same can be said about Bowie’s time in Berlin, which came to an unplanned, and somewhat ignoble, end following the production of Just a Gigolo in late 1977. Directed by British actor David Hemmings, best known as the lead in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, the film was a Weimar Republic period piece, described by one of Bowie’s friends as “a knock-off German attempt at Cabaret, financed by German dentists’ tax write-offs.” Bowie himself was more blunt in later years, calling it simply “an atrocious movie.”

On paper, it seemed like a fair concept. Bowie was cast to play a shell-shocked Prussian soldier who struggled to reintegrate into post-World War I Berlin. His costars included a trio of silver screen sirens who had all been coaxed out of varying degrees of retirement: one-time Alfred Hitchcock star Kim Novak, Austrian actress Maria Schell and, most thrillingly, Marlene Dietrich, taking her first speaking part in two decades.

Bowie freely admitted that he accepted this, his second major acting role, because “Marlene Dietrich was dangled in front of me,” but they never got the chance to act opposite one another. Dietrich’s relationship with her native Berlin was a difficult one since she accepted American citizenship immediately prior to the outbreak of World War II, and many of her former countrymen branded her a traitor. Her sole West German homecoming was a 1960 tour with bandleader Burt Bacharach, an occasion marred by protesters and multiple bomb threats. Dietrich was so traumatized that she vowed never to return to her homeland. Producers for Just a Gigolo were unable to persuade her otherwise and she shot her scenes in Paris, without Bowie.

Despite this colossal disappointment, and major script deficiencies, a bemused Bowie made the best of his situation. “I had a wonderful time making that movie because by the second week we looked around at each other and said, ‘This is a pile of s—, so let’s have a good time!’” he said in 1987. “So we had a good time.” By the time shooting wrapped it had become the most expensive film ever produced in post-war Germany, but money wasn’t enough to make it good. Just a Gigolo was despised upon its release in 1978, and even two theatrical re-cuts couldn’t salvage it. Bowie, recalling the King of Rock’s many cinematic misfires, remembered it as “my 32 Elvis movies contained in one.”

Thankfully, Bowie had other things to keep him occupied. Unlike Low, he chose to promote “Heroes” in 1978 with a global tour, his first in two years. He kept the memory of Berlin alive on the road by incorporating the Brecht composition “Alabama Song,” from his 1930 opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Bowie was so taken with the tune that he recorded it during the tour’s London stop, and seriously considered making it his new single, but it was ultimately shelved for several years.

He would return to Brecht again in 1981, when he performed the title role in Baal for a BBC television production. Despite the Beeb’s reputation for having the best studios in the world, Bowie preferred to record the soundtrack album in Berlin at Hansa, reuniting briefly with Visconti and much of the team responsible for Low and “Heroes.”

The force that had pushed him towards the creative heights of the semi-mythical Berlin Trilogy had lead him elsewhere, but he regularly looked back at the period with fondness. “For whatever reason, for whatever confluence of circumstances, Tony, Brian and I created a powerful, anguished, sometimes euphoric language of sounds,” he recalled in 2001. “Nothing else sounded like those albums. Nothing else came close. If I never made another album it really wouldn’t matter now; my complete being is within those three. They are my DNA.”

Berlin had become inextricably linked with the Bowie’s legacy. Then, a decade after the release of Low and ‘Heroes,’ he repaid the favor. His Glass Spider tour, a gargantuan theatrical production in support of 1987’s Never Let Me Down,included a performance at the Concert for Berlin, a three-day outdoor festival held on the grounds of the Reichstag. Formerly the seat of the government, the once-proud building had become a ruined relic of unified Germany. Enhancing the symbolism, the structure sat uncomfortably close to the Berlin Wall, a sign of the divided times.

David Bowie in concert 1987 - Zuschauer
The stage at the Reichstag, June 1987. Chris Hoffmann/picture alliance via Getty

The concerts were clearly audible to those in the Soviet sector, where Western music was treated as an ideological threat. While the GDR was powerless to stop broadcasts from across the Wall, sale and purchase of the Devil’s music was strictly prohibited. Rock-loving East Berliners were obviously not allowed to attend the increasingly political Concert for Berlin festivities, but they could hear it with crystal clarity thanks to the efforts of festival organizers who helpfully pointed public address speakers their way.

By the time Bowie took the stage on the evening of June 6th, somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 East Berliners gathered as close as possible to the Wall. “We kind of heard that a few of the East Berliners might actually get the chance to hear the thing, but we didn’t realize in what numbers they would,” he told Performing Songwriter in 2003. “And there were thousands on the other side that had come close to the Wall. So it was like a double concert where the wall was the division. And we would hear them cheering and singing along from the other side.”

It wasn’t long before the East Berlin assembly turned violent. The Stasi unleashed mounted police tasked with dispersing the crowd by savage force. The true number assaulted by water canons, stun guns and nightsticks will never be known, but the figure is devastatingly high. In defiance, those assembled chanted a new slogan: “Down with the wall!” It was the first time a mob had dared shout such treasonous thoughts in public.

Just a few hundred meters away, Bowie continued his performance while 140,000 Westerners watched transfixed. Thought he couldn’t see what was happening on the other side of the Wall, the sounds of brutality gave him a pretty good indication. In German, he offered words of support to the victims of oppression so tantalizingly near but beyond aid. “We send our wishes to all our friends who are on the other side of the Wall,” he said, shortly before launching into one of his greatest musical treasures. Berlin had given him “Heroes,” and now he was giving it back.

On this summer night, the song sounded “almost like a prayer,” he recalled. “That’s the town where it was written, and that’s the particular situation that it was written about. It was just extraordinary.” The lyrics, penned exactly a decade earlier, seemed almost clairvoyant.

I can remember

Standing, by the wall

And the guns, shot above our heads

And we kissed, as though nothing could fall

And the shame, was on the other side…

Fans on both the West and the East sang along. “It was one of the most emotional performances I’ve ever done. I was in tears,” Bowie remembered years later. “God, even now I get choked up. It was breaking my heart. I’d never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again.”

Both Bowie and Berlin were destined for bright futures that seemed practically unimaginable that night at the Reichstag. Less than three years later, the Wall was demolished. A newly reunified Germany became a beacon of peace across the globe, and one of Europe’s greatest economic success stories. Bowie’s role in the fall of the Wall has often been overstated, but his performance in the divided city made him a hero to generations of Berliners.

Bowie married supermodel Iman in 1992, and together they welcomed daughter Alexandria eight years later. Shuttling between homes in New York City and London, Bowie appeared to be enjoying a life of domestic bliss — or at least as close to it as a rebellious musical changeling could ever hope to achieve. By the dawn of the 21st century, he seemed to be sliding towards semi-retirement. A tour supporting 2003’s Reality was abruptly cut short when Bowie suffered a heart attack on the road, requiring an emergency angioplasty to repair a blocked artery. Aside from a handful of guest appearances, Bowie never played a concert again. For nearly 10 years he released no new music, and was seldom seen in public.

Then, on Jan. 8, 2013, Bowie celebrated his 66th birthday by giving his fans a gift. A new song, “Where Are We Now,” was released without warning or fanfare. Music lovers across the world rejoiced, but the track had special significance for Berlin’s Bowie faithful.

“Where Are We Now” finds Bowie revisiting the city, only to find that it barely resembles the place he’d loved in the prime of his life. “Had to get the train from Potsdamer Platz,” he sings, “You never knew that I could do that.” Indeed, this was never something he could have done in the ‘70s. A busy transit hub prior to World War II, Potsdamer Platz station stood abandoned during Bowie’s Berlin era, caught in the death strip between East and West that lay just outside Hansa. The station reopened after the fall of the Wall, marking just one of the many ways Berlin had changed for the better. But the passage of time gave Bowie a twinge of nostalgia as he mourned a past that was undeniably troubled but still his own.

But the shock of change is balanced by the shock of recognition, and “Where Are We Now” brims with an assortment of happy memories. Nights at the Dschungel, a favored night club where he would dance with Pop, and trips to the glamorous KaDeWe department store come flooding back. The music video, directed by Tony Oursler, features footage of Bowie’s old Berlin stomping grounds, including his former apartment in Schöneberg.

David Bowie Berlin Plaque
Plaque honoring David Bowie at his former home in Berlin. Bildquelleullstein bild via Getty

Today, 155 Hauptstrasse is firmly cemented in rock legend. The humble doorway is a musical Mecca and the final stop on any Berlin Bowie tour. Soon after his death on Jan. 10, 2016, a porcelain plaque was placed on the building, bearing the words of hope he’d written years before: We could be heroes, just for one day.

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