By the end of 1975, David Bowie was riding high on the pop charts thanks to the album Station to Station which included the hit Golden Years. He had retired his famous glam characters, Ziggy Stardust and Halloween Jack, and was now the Thin White Duke, a slick emotionless crooner pumping out plastic soul. But while he was enjoying success on the charts, he was also completely strung out on cocaine. Living amidst the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles, Bowie’s cocaine use had reached ‘astronomical’ proportions and that, combined with the nastiness of the Thin White Duke persona, had left him a mental and physical wreck: “Life in LA had left me with an overwhelming sense of foreboding. I had approached the brink of drug induced calamity one too many times and it was essential to take some kind of positive action.”
So in 1976, desperate to get away from LA and the drugs, Bowie moved to Berlin, where he shared an apartment with Iggy Pop. There he enjoyed getting lost in the new city and culture, especially getting absorbed in the art scene and in particular the Die Brücke expressionist movement (the album covers for Heroes and Iggy Pop’s The Idiot were homages to Erich Heckel paintings). Bowie took up painting and became a serious art collector, a passion he would have for the rest of his life (his collection was recently auctioned off for £33 MILLION!). Musically, Bowie moved away from rock and found inspiration in the electronic sounds of the German dance music pioneers Kraftwerk. Over the next three years Bowie had a creative purple patch, releasing the albums Low, Heroes and Lodger, now known as his ‘Berlin trilogy’. Bowie embraced electronic, ambient and abstract sounds, experimented with new working methods and largely improvised his lyrics.
By the time his Berlin stay was over, Bowie had succeeded in kicking his drug habit and also the need to hide his personality with various stage personas. He finally figured out how to express himself honestly. As he said: “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.”
Bowie would continue to ‘go a little further’ for the rest of his career. Always exploring new arenas and never staying still, whether it be in music, film, fashion or art. Even suffering from the cancer that he knew would end his life, he worked on the off-broadway musical Lazarus (which initially was meant to involve aliens, fake Bob Dylan songs and Mariachi music … wait, what? Here’s a great article explaining it) and sang with a jazz ensemble on his final bittersweet album Blackstar. Bowie always made sure his feet were not quite touching the bottom, and that’s why we love him.
– Further reading: How the Berlin Trilogy saved David Bowie.
– My favourite track from the trilogy is Sound and Vision. Here’s a great tribute video using the song.
– This quote is taken from a interview with Bowie I found on YouTube, which you can watch here. Does anyone know what show/documentary it’s taken from?