Friday, July 28, 2017

Bowie's Berlin

It is now four decades since Bowie moved to Berlin. It is scarcely possible to discern which parts of the city were the East and which were the West. Were one to visit the elegant properties in Prenzlauer Berg now, it would be hard to imagine that in Bowie’s time, they were crumbling, many still bearing the scars of the battle for Berlin as Soviet forces moved into to secure the defeat of Hitler. Indeed, Berlin is a city transformed. It is more than a quarter of a century since the wall fell. It is no longer a land-locked island of cultural mayhem and excess surrounded by grim austerity. And remarkably, some of the most attractive spots for people seeking Berlin property for sale are in exactly those areas which were once in the old East. Prenzlauer Berg is only one. Friedrichshain, now with some of the city's trendiest amenities, is another. And it is now hard to imagine that Mitte – reckoned these days to have the most expensive residential real estate in Berlin – was once in the communist sector.

It's so interesting that once Bowie left Berlin (some time in 1980), it took nearly 40 years for the aesthetic of the era to reemerge, a feat Bowie accomplished with The Next Day in 2013, in particular with the autobiographical "Where Are We Now?" In this Berlin tale, Bowie's outlook is that of an old(er) man reminiscing on wasted time, but more so it's a Venn Diagram of Berlin in the 70s, Bowie’s Berlin, and Berlin today. For the first time, perhaps, we see a Bowie with no disguise at all. He's very much a 66-year-old man, looking rather sadly into a past that's much longer than his future, lips barely moving over the remembered names.

In the song's video, Bowie is portrayed as a two-headed sack puppet; the other head is that of a young woman, who doesn't sing and isn't identified. My guess is that whoever she is, she's at least partly a symbol for Bowie’s somewhat opportunistic gender blurring, and for the promise of renewal. "As long as there's sun," he sings, "As long as there’s rain,” – as long as there’s life, in short, new music and art are possible. 

The Berlin of David Bowie’s era was a weird and particular place. The reunified city is profoundly different, but the strand which connects the Seventies with today is Berlin's irrepressible vibrancy and eagerness to embrace new things. It was those qualities that excited Bowie. It is those qualities that excite us now. In that respect, the city is the same as it ever was, the new millennium, the 70s, the war era of Cabaret, maintaining its sense of place; a sense, always black and white, of abstract minimalism.