In the heart of Berlin’s Mitte district, where Köthener Strasse and Bernburger Strasse intersect, there’s a piece of the Berlin Wall behind some chain link fencing. It’s a single grey panel of the monstrosity that once divided the city into two. A relic, it sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the modern buildings that surround it. It’s absurd. An oddity, much like the Wall itself, in whose shadows surreptitious meetings took place and forbidden lovers met, if only briefly, and kissed.
It was exactly this scene—a pair of lovers kissing by the Berlin Wall—that David Bowie witnessed through one of the windows at Hansa Studios, also on Köthener Strasse, just 150 feet up the road from the piece of the Wall that I’m gazing at. Somewhere here, Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti had a quick rendezvous with a backup singer—Antonia Maass—with whom he was having an affair. The scene worked its way into Bowie’s mind, and then into the lyrics that he was scribbling on a piece of paper. The song it inspired, “Heroes,” would be recorded in the same studio.
‘I can remember
Standing by the wall
And the guns, shot above our heads
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall’
I can almost hear Bowie crooning away in the background as I walk towards Hansa Studios, which is still in operation today. It’s impossible to miss the studio—there’s a huge hologram of Bowie on the side of the building. Seen at an angle, it’s a photograph of him with a finger on his lips. Seen head on, the British musician has his hands around his open mouth, as if he’s shouting something at you. As I edge closer, I observe something else there.
A laminated card that someone has taped below the hologram. It has a picture of Bowie on it, the lightning bolt that he made so popular on the cover of Aladdin Sane, and a couple of black stars, a nod to the last album he released, two days before his death on January 10, 2016. Along with it the words, “Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you. From Lambini x. Love you forever x.” I feel a curious touch of moisture in my eyes when I see this tribute, and am suddenly glad that I’m wearing sunglasses.
Later, I find myself a parking spot as close to Hauptstrasse 155, in the Schöneberg area. Between 1976 and 1978, Bowie lived on the first floor of this apartment building, sharing a flat with Iggy Pop. It was the home that he’d chosen as an escape. In Los Angeles, Bowie was a famous musician who couldn’t escape the trappings of his celebrity, and had developed a cocaine habit which was leading to his ruin. In Berlin, he was able to kick the vices that seemed to come with his rockstar status, was able to retreat into anonymity, and, because he was nearly bankrupt at the time, could also live frugally. The city (and his able assistant Corinne ‘Coco’ Schwab) helped him clean up his act, think straight, and inspired much of his Berlin trilogy—the albums Low, Heroes, and Lodger.
‘I wanted no distractions
Like every good boy should
Nothing will corrupt us
Nothing will compete
Thank god heaven left us
Standing on our feet
The lyrics of “Beauty and the Beast,” the first track on Heroes, is meant to reflect Bowie’s gratitude at having overcome the dark phase in his life. Gratitude not only for the life he led in Berlin, but for the city itself. Decades after he wrote the song, the city seems to have reciprocated with its own acknowledgement of how important and intrinsic to the city Bowie is. For the thousands of fans who flock to Hauptstrasse 155 every year in search of where Bowie lived, a plaque was put in place a few months after his death. Amongst the many details of Bowie’s time in the city, one line on the plaque stands out. It says, simply, “We can be heroes, just for one day.”
The tributes to Bowie, in combination with the impossibly hot day, have left me feeling a little drained. I’m grateful that my next stop is 10 steps away from where I’m standing. Back in the day, the Neues Ufer (New Shore) used to be an establishment called Anderes Ufer (Another Shore). It was famous for being one of the first café-cum-bars in Europe that was welcoming of the queer community, although, when it first opened, someone smashed in the venue’s glass window. Bowie is rumoured to have paid to have the window replaced, after which he and Iggy were Ufer regulars—always stopping by for a bite of breakfast, or a drink or two after work.
‘Joe the lion
Went to the bar
A couple of drinks on the house an’ he said
“Tell you who you are if you nail me to my car”
Thanks for hesitating
This is the kiss off’
It’s hard to walk into a bar that David Bowie was known to frequent without these lyrics floating about in my head. If I could break into song without embarrassing myself, I would. Entering the Neues Ufer has lifted my spirit. It’s ever-so-slightly dingy—as though the furniture and the bar counter have stayed the same since Bowie last knocked back a cold one there. It’s a summer day and the patrons of the bar sit outside, sunning themselves. I head inside and find a spot that allows me a view of the Bowie mural that Sydney-based artist Brad Robson painted on the wall. Just below the portrait is a glass case with various types of cake on display. Amongst the various bottles behind the bar are a few ceramic busts of Bowie. I settle on a glass of rosé, and in between sips I walk around looking at the various portraits and photographs of Bowie that adorn the walls. A little over 40 years after Bowie was a Neues Ufer regular, the whole place is a tribute to him—and a celebration of all that he stood for.
While Bowie led a quiet life in Berlin, dressing in dowdy clothes and hanging out at dive bars, there was still something of the rockstar in him. He might have enjoyed the fact that no one in Berlin cared who he was, or where he went, or what he did, but every now and again, he yearned for the good life. And it was on such days that he treated himself to a night out at the Paris Bar, known to serve some of the finest and most expensive steak frites in town. This is where music journalist Chris Hodenfield interviewed Bowie and Pop for his famous ‘Bad Boys In Berlin’ piece for Rolling Stone magazine, and where Pop got so drunk that he rolled around in the ice outside the bar.
‘Oh you, you walk on past
Your lips cut a smile on your face
(Your scalding face) to the cage, to the cage
She was a beauty in a cage’
The Paris Bar is located at Kantstrasse 152, in Charlottenberg. It’s one of the upmarket areas in the city, with the Kurfürstendamm, Berlin’s equivalent of the Champs de Elysees just around the corner. I see many beautiful and well-dressed men and women walking right past me, as I settle into a seat at a table on the sidewalk. It’s too early in the day for me to wolf down a €80/`6,350 steak, Paris Bar’s famous signature dish. So I settle for another glass of rosé, and spend some time people watching. When it gets too hot, I take a look inside the bar, which is covered from ceiling to floor with photographs and original artwork. There’s a signed picture of Yves Saint-Laurent, and paintings by German artist Martin Kippenberger. When Michel Würthle, the owner of the bar, found himself in financial trouble, he sold one of Kippenberger’s paintings for a couple of million, saving one of Bowie’s favourite Berlin haunts. Since I’ve had the chance to experience one of the only ‘glam’ spots in the city that Bowie frequented, I am thankful that he did.
Bowie might not have lived in Berlin since the late 1970s, but his connection to the city, and its influence on him has endured. On January 8, 2013, his 66th birthday, he released “Where Are We Now?” a single from his 24th studio album, The Next Day. The lyrics and the music video take us from Potsdamer Platz, the geographical city centre, to the KaDeWe, Berlin’s oldest shopping mall, and the Dschungel club on Nürnberger Strasse, where Bowie was famously told to get off stage after belting out a couple of Frank Sinatra numbers to an unimpressed audience. I drive down Nürnberger Strasse, where the old Dschungel has since been replaced by the swanky four-star Ellington Hotel. I think of changing times.
See, back in 2014, (like Bowie once did) I walked through Berlin, lost and wondering where I was at that point in my life. I’d sauntered down Oranienstrasse, wandered past Checkpoint Charlie, and then, without warning, found myself at the Martin Gropius Bau, where a massive David Bowie exhibition was temporarily on display. It remains, till this day, one of the biggest coincidences to have ever occurred in my life. I bought tickets to it, and spent the next few hours a little less lost. I took it as a sign that life would turn out alright after all.
Twenty thousand people
Cross Böse Brücke
Fingers are crossed…’
… Bowie sings in “Where Are We Now.” On November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. The Böse Brücke, or the ‘bad bridge,’ was the first place where people were able to cross freely between East Berlin and West Berlin. As they made their way over the bridge, they had their fingers crossed, with hope for a better future. Hope that things would be all right. A feeling, I imagine as I walk over the bridge, similar to the sentiment that Bowie harboured, when he moved to Berlin back in the day. And a feeling that resonates with many who cross over to the other side, after having endured hard times.
Vaishali Dinakaran is a writer and journalist based in Berlin. She and her husband have a habit of driving around Europe at the drop of a hat, sometimes for no apparent reason other than that there are roads.