David Bowie's Berlin: A Musical Tour of the City

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When David Bowie moved from Los Angeles to Berlin in late 1976, the relationship between the music icon and the German capital would become the stuff of legend. The city became a backdrop for his reinvention (or reintroduction to himself, as it’s often cited). On his arrival, Bowie was in the throes of a serious drug addiction; it was why he left L.A. in the first place. But he had ‘a great feeling of release and healing’ that came from living in Berlin; ‘it’s a city that’s so easy to ‘get lost’ in – and find oneself, too,’ he later said.

By taking himself away from the trappings of fame, to a place where he could live in relative anonymity, Bowie began working on some new music. And the historical, cultural and social landscape of Berlin at that time helped to shape these works. The ‘Berlin Trilogy,’ which refers to the three studio albums – Low, Heroes and Lodger – that Bowie recorded after he moved to the capital, contain ‘some of the most innovative music in the artist’s influential canon’ (Rolling Stone, 2016).

Even today, the spots that he frequented still carry with them Bowie’s unmistakable signature. If you’re staying with us in Berlin, here’s where you’ll find some of the starman’s old haunts.

Hansa Studios
Köthener Strasse 38, Kreuzberg
First stop on your musical tour of Bowie’s Berlin? The legendary Hansa studios of course. It’s where he wrote the song ‘Heroes’ and recorded the album Low. At this time, the studio overlooked the Berlin Wall; Bowie supposedly found inspiration for the lyrics to ‘Heroes’ when he observed Tony Visconti – his producer at the time – and a girlfriend kissing by the wall. You can book a tour of Hansa Studios, but you’ll need to reserve your place ahead of schedule. Iggy Pop, Depeche Mode, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and the Manic Street Preachers (to name a few) have all recorded there too, so as you can probably guess, it’s a popular tourist destination for music lovers.

Haupstrasse 155
Schöneberg
With its unassuming façade, you’d be mistaken for walking straight past this place. But in fact, it’s the apartment that Bowie shared with Iggy Pop during his time in Berlin. When news broke of Bowie’s death in January 2016, the front of the building was strewn with flowers, candles and photos to commemorate the star. And ever since then, people have been petitioning for the street name to be changed to ‘David Bowie Strasse’ (which we’re all for, by the way).
A few doors down, you’ll find Café Neues Ufer. Bowie would visit this unpretentious, cosy caff – which is also one of the city’s oldest gay cafés – on the regular, and today you’ll find photos of the British icon plastered all over its walls.

Paris Bar
Kantstrasse 152, Charlottenburg
Whilst Bowie lived modestly during his time in Berlin, he and Iggy would occasionally splash out with a visit to Paris Bar; an upscale French restaurant in the Charlottenburg district. Located just 5 minutes on foot from Savignyplatz station, it continues to serve up excellent French cuisine to locals and tourists alike. The restaurant is also where Iggy Pop’s notorious Rolling Stone interview took place – yes, the one that ended with him crawling out of the bar after one too many.

Brücke Museum
Bussardsteig 9, Dahlem
The Brücke Museum, which first opened in 1967 – just nine years prior to Bowie’s arrival in Berlin – is home to the world’s largest collection of works by Die Brücke (The Bridge) group. Formed in 1905, the group’s founding members (Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Fritz Bleyl, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Erich Heckel) went on to become some of the most important artists associated with German expressionism. At large, Die Brücke had a huge impact on the evolution of modern art in the 20th century.
Bowie often visited the museum with his assistant Coco Schwab, where the pair would take in the paintings, drawings and sculptures housed in this single-storey building and its gardens. The musician’s fascination with expressionism had begun much earlier though, when he was still in his teens. He had ‘obsessed on the angst ridden, emotional work of the expressionists, both artists and film makers, and on their spiritual home; Berlin.’ Incorporating it into his work, Bowie – along with his producer Tony Visconti and friend Brian Eno – created what he called ‘expressionist mood pieces’ during his time in the capital.
It is a little further out, but if you really want to see one of the things that captured Bowie’s imagination – before, during and after his stint in Berlin – you should make a concerted effort to visit the museum. The nearest station is Podbielskiallee (on underground line 3); you can walk from here (it’ll take you 25 minutes or so), or hop on a bus and get off at the stop Clayallee/Pücklerstrasse – a 5 minute walk away.

Potsdamer Platz
Mitte
By the 1920s and 30s, Potsdamer Platz had become the busiest traffic centre in Europe – think of it as the German equivalent of London’s Piccadilly Circus. But in the 70s – when Bowie was living in the city – the Berlin Wall had divided it in two; it became a desolate patch of land, surrounded by GDR watchtowers. Today, Potsdamer Platz is a shiny new commercial centre with shops, restaurants and entertainment facilities; Bowie referenced it in his 2013 song ‘Where Are We Now?’

Neukölln
There wasn’t a lot going on in Neukölln during the 70s, but Bowie apparently enjoyed visiting the area anyway; the song ‘Neuköln,’ from the 1977 album Heroes, is an homage to the borough. This instrumental ‘mood piece,’ which was written by Bowie and Brian Eno, is thought to reflect the rootlessness and isolation of the Turkish immigrants who made up a large proportion of the area’s population. In their book David Bowie: An Illustrated Record, authors Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray describe the song as ‘the Cold War viewed through a bubble of blood…[its final section] boom(s) out across a harbour of solitude, as if lost in fog.’
Today, there’s a lot more to see and do in Neukölln. It’s got an artsy, bohemian feel and, as one  of Berlin’s most international districts, it’s culturally diverse. If you happen to be there on a Saturday, make a stop off at Schillermarkt; a quaint farmer’s market held just outside a picturesque church in Herrfurthplatz. There are plenty of cafes, bars and restaurants too, and if you’re looking for quirky souvenirs, Neukölln is the place to find them. There are some choice vintage shops that specialise in rare, quality pieces in the area; Let Them Eat Cake and Neuzwei – which are both located on Weserstrasse – are definitely worth a visit.

Though Berlin has changed a lot since the 70s, there’s still a thriving arts scene – beckoning rebels, kooks and pretty things from all over the world. In spite of the political turmoil centred around its past, alternative culture has always been woven into the fabric of the city; it’s what drew Bowie in the first place. He later moved back to the U.S. (to New York this time around), but the legacy of his Berlin years would come to be viewed as a definitive chapter in his career.