The rocker's hugely acclaimed new comeback album, which is full of tributes to the three years he spent living in Berlin in the late 1970s, was released first in the former Cold War frontier town he once called home.
David Bowie's The Next Day pays homage to Berlin period
David Bowie's spookily ageless face glares down from posters all across Berlin in stark monochrome, searching for ghosts from his distant past. Ever since Bowie spent three years in self-imposed exile there in the late 1970s, the once-divided city has been synonymous with pop musicians taking bold, arty, edgy risks with their careers.
So it is fitting that the British rock icon's hugely acclaimed comeback album The Next Day, which is full of explicit homages to his Berlin period, should be released first in the former Cold War frontier town he once called home.
Ending almost a decade of health scares and media silence, the 66-year-old Bowie resurfaced without warning in January with the achingly nostalgic ballad Where Are We Now? The lyric paid homage to some of his old Berlin haunts, including the Dschungel nightclub and the iconic KaDeWe department store at the heart of old West Berlin, where Bowie and his fellow rock exile Iggy Pop used to shop for chocolate and caviar.
But there are many more Berlin ghosts haunting The Next Day. The cover is a reworking of Heroes, Bowie's 1977 masterpiece, which was recorded in the grand ballroom of Hansa Ton studios in the shadow of the old Berlin Wall. Bookended by Low and Lodger, Heroes marked the peak of Bowie's so-called "Berlin trilogy", on which he abandoned the theatrical glamour of his early career to forge a new musical language of sublimely chilly electronica and emotionally intense art-rock in a city full of dreamers, deviants and decadent dandies.
Recorded in collaboration with the studio alchemist Brian Eno and the longtime producer Tony Visconti, Bowie's dazzling Berlin albums mapped out both the real and imaginary future of rock. Judging by the dystopian avant-punk and sci-fi jazz threads running through The Next Day, which was again produced by Visconti, Bowie is now drawing inspiration from his own influential late 1970s canon.
"Tony, Brian and I created a powerful, anguished, sometimes euphoric language of sounds," Bowie told me in an interview last decade, shortly before he dropped off the media radar. "It is some of the best work that the three of us have ever done. 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 clearly left its mark on Bowie. But 35 years later, has Bowie left his mark on Berlin? Stroll past the anonymous apartment at 155 Hauptstrasse in the genteel Schoeneberg district, where the singer lived between 1976 and 1979, and there is no discreet memorial plaque like there is for other famous former residents such as Marlene Dietrich or Christopher Isherwood. But a portrait of the singer now hangs in his former local cafe, the Neues Ufer, two doors away. Occasionally, Bowie-themed walking tours pass by to pay homage.
Bowie eventually left Berlin for New York but his legacy lives on. After him, an army of foreign artists and musicians flooded the city's cheap apartments and grungy dive bars. The Australian cult singer Nick Cave spent most of the 1980s living there, recording several albums at Hansa. Depeche Mode, U2, the Pixies, Snow Patrol, REM and many others followed soon afterwards.
More than 30 years later, the city has changed enormously, most notably after the wall came down in 1989, signalling the collapse of East Germany. With the nation reunified and Berlin's capital status restored, the city's buzzy artistic underground has mostly shifted into the graffiti-covered ex-Communist East. Bowie's old Schoeneberg home is now sleepy and gentrified, the Dschungel club a cellar jazz bar. Hansa studio remains in business, though chiefly as a corporate party venue.
However, beneath this shiny surface makeover, traces of Bowie's bohemian Berlin survive. The singer's former regular haunts in the eternally grungy quarter of Kreuzberg, the Café Exil and SO36 rock club, both remain open. And nestled in the leafy western suburb of Grunewald is a boutique museum dedicated to Die Bruecke, a group of early 20th century Expressionist painters beloved by Bowie. One of them, Erich Heckel, inspired the angular pose on the cover of Heroes as well as on Iggy Pop's 1977 album The Idiot. A movie about the pair's shared Berlin period is now in production.
Most importantly, the former landlocked island city remains a magnet for young musicians, aspiring artists and decadent deviants from across the globe, all drawn by low rents, cheap studios and legendary nightlife. While the romantic, mysterious, edgy Berlin of Bowie's self-imposed exile may be more mythic than real nowadays, it remains a powerful myth. He may have left the city decades ago, but Bowie's spirit still lingers in the shadowy folds between history and legend.
The Next Day is released worldwide today