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David Bowie - The Definitive Biography

Paul Trynka


Checkpoint Charlie, the fabled gateway between West and East Berlin. Tony Visconti, sitting alongside David Bowie and Iggy Pop, watches nervously as the guard scrutinises their passports, while his colleagues cradle their machine pistols ominously, all of them overseen by a low, glass-fronted watchtower. Suddenly, the guard calls for assistance: 'Friedrich, kommen Sie hier!' The party freezes, looking on as the second guard flips through the passports - both of the Prussian-grey-uniformed figures, sidearms at their hips, break into laughter.

Visconti steps out of the Mercedes, and the guards point out the passport photos. 'Iggy had this platinum hair, and Bambi eyes,' says the producer. 'Bowie had that dreadful curly perm from around Space Oddity.' The two remade, remodelled, crop-haired stars, far from home, are forced silently to endure the ridicule, before finally driving out to the east, with its ruined buildings, derelict train tracks, women sporting Fifties-style beehives, and the countryside beyond.

What might have surprised the guards even more was that for both rock stars, abandoning the hedonism, excess and silly haircuts of the West - ie, exactly those values being kept out at gunpoint at Checkpoint Charlie - had brought David Bowie and Iggy Pop to a new 'joy of life', as David put it. 'It was an education,' says Iggy Pop, 'always there was the idea, we're trying to learn something here. And to be pretty disciplined about it.'

In Berlin, play and so-called work were intertwined. It was a rare week that involved no recording or administration, but there were plenty of days when they could ramble however they chose. David and Iggy might spend such a day wandering around the antiques markets on Winterfeldtplatz, or bookshops and cafes down by St Matthias Kirche.

Iggy would often rise early and walk for five or eight miles; eventually he claimed to have explored every nook and cranny of the city. In winter, they'd sometimes take the S-Bahn train to the Wannsee, a lake resort on the Havel River, for long lunches under the glass roof, not far from the villa where senior Nazis mapped out the Final Solution. David showed Iggy how to prep a canvas or apply acrylic paint; both of them spent time on artwork. David completed a portrait of Iggy rendered in a convincing expressionist style reminiscent of the works they'd seen at the Brucke, a tiny, modern museum shaded by the pine trees of the Grunewald forest. Most of all, they'd simply walk, often dropping in on friends without warning just to say hello, like they used to back in the Sixties, before most people owned a phone.

Compared to their previous existence, this was a life of monk-like restraint. But both men were realistic about their regime. Occasional excess was acceptable, but heroin, Iggy's old bete noire, was out of bounds. One evening, David took a cab back home to the Hauptstrasse when the taxi driver mentioned he had 'the dooj' ready for his friend. David warned the cabbie, coldly, there would be dire consequences if any of 'the dooj' - heroin - should reach his friend, but didn't mention the incident to Iggy, careful not to appear too controlling. Both men tried every brand of German beer on offer, but in the city, rather than the omnipresent American drug scene, 'there was an artsy-crafty weekend drug culture,' says Iggy. 'So on the weekends we'd go meet an eccentric character who was interested in the arts, and maybe you'd have a little coke and get drunk and go till four in the morning to three or four clubs.'

Many locals knew who Bowie and Iggy were; but, naturally polite, they'd pretend not to recognise Bowie when they saw him in regular haunts, like the city's two Zip record stores. Instead, fans would sneak up to the cashier once David had left with a bag full of records and ask, 'Was hat Bowie gekauft?' (What did he buy?)

Visitors came and went regularly over this period, most of them staying at the Schlosshotel. [His wife] Angie was among the first, arriving soon after the completion of Low, in November 1976. It's difficult to pinpoint, from her point of view, the point at which she realised her marriage was irrevocably doomed, but her disdain for her husband and his friend's attempt to sort themselves out indicates their relationship was now poisoned by indifference and contempt.

'A lot of people love the idea of going and making nice to the people you've defeated so you can treat them like slaves. That was David's going to Berlin story: 'Let me lie with you in case there's something we didn't take from you that I haven't learnt yet' - it's pathetic.' Angie's distaste extended to Low, and [Iggy Pop's 1977 album] The Idiot, too. Unsurprisingly, the Bowie family Christmas, spent in Switzerland, would be their last together. Bowie was back in Berlin by January 8, 1977, for his 30th birthday, celebrated with Iggy and Romy Haag, the transgender cabaret performer. Low was released the next week.

Low's reception was oddly in context with the record's sleeve - the title and photo, of David in profile, made up a visual pun: low profile. [His record label] RCA's reaction to the album was simple incomprehension. As Robin Eggar, RCA's press officer at the time, remembers, the company didn't really know what to do with Low or Heroes. They only put them out because they were Bowie albums - and the attitude totally was, 'What are we going to do with this?' Equally, David's failure to promote the album meant press coverage was modest. Yet the myth that Low was greeted with widespread disdain is just that, for most reviewers realised this was a major event in Bowie's career. Tim Lott, the future Whitbread prize-winning novelist, spoke for many in declaring Low 'the most difficult piece of music Bowie has ever put his name to'. The writer ended his preview for Sounds with an appropriately fractured procession of adjectives, which ended: 'So. This album might be Bowie's best ever. Eno's best ever. A mechanical classic.'

Lott cited Sound and Vision as the pinnacle of the album; his verdict anticipated its success as a single, reaching No 3 in the UK (but stalling at 69 in the US). Its success further confused RCA, who were also, Eggar points out, intimidated by Bowie, accepting his refusal to tour the album without argument, and likewise caving in to his persuasion that the company should release Iggy's The Idiot, which came out on March 18, 1977.

David took over all the arrangements for Iggy's tour, calling in Hunt and Tony Sales, the sons of the comedian Soupy Sales. They'd earned their Musicians' Union cards when the drummer Hunt was 12 and the bassist Tony was 13, hung out with Frank Sinatra, the sax legend King Curtis and other hepcats, and recorded their first album with Todd Rundgren when Hunt was just 16. Loud, hell-raising and formidably talented, from the moment they arrived in Berlin in February, they ensured that David and Iggy's weekend debaucheries became seven-day affairs. Their routine normally involved a late breakfast at the Schlosshotel, rehearsals from 11 until 5, goulash for dinner, a quick sleep, then trips to Romy Haag's, or an old bar frequented by the SS, where patrons could use the phones on the table to find conversational or sexual partners, or clubs in Kreuzberg where, says Tony Sales, 'I saw a real-life re-enactment of that Doors LP cover, with a midget with an umbrella standing on the bar.'

In the brief, intense rehearsals at the old UFA film studios, filled with old filing cabinets crammed with film canisters and ancient Weimar and Nazi-era paperwork, through which all the band members riffled, the brothers watched the two oddly complementary singers chat, work and relax. 'It was two schoolboys hanging out; chums,' says Tony Sales. 'It was a very loving relationship in a sense. David was at a place where he needed to recharge and got behind Iggy - and in return that helped him, taking the pressure off being David Bowie.'

The brothers were among the first outsiders to see the two singers in their new hideout. As word had leaked out in the autumn that David had holed up with the ex-leader of the Stooges, rumours had started to spread. Back in 1976, supporters like the Iggy fanzine editor Harald Inhulsen were writing letters to fellow fans, speculating that David had kidnapped Iggy and was keeping him under his thumb. The implication that Iggy was being exploited as David's sex slave was widespread, entertaining, and has made its way into print. Iggy himself laughs, and denies such hanky-panky; even Angie Bowie, always prone to seeing her husband in the role of exploiter, believes otherwise, asking, with her unerring eye for practical detail, 'Who would be on the bottom?'

A more plausible interpretation for cynics was that Iggy's main purpose was to give David credibility, but by the time of The Idiot there was a selflessness to David's behaviour that, says Hunt Sales, is rare in the jaded world of rock music. 'David really loved him as a friend. Giving something to someone is not giving something and expecting something in return. You just give it.'

The centrepiece of Bowie's so-called Berlin trilogy [Low, Heroes and Lodger], Heroes was the only album of the three entirely recorded in Berlin. The city permeated both the sound and the ambience of the album, in a location that, according to Tony Visconti, was both a dream . . . and [a place] where everything said, 'We shouldn't be making a record here.'

It was Hansa Studios that best embodied Berlin's grandeur and menace. The main building, on the Kothenerstrasse, was built as the Meistersaal in 1910, a beautiful, stern clubhouse to showcase the skills of Berlin's master masons. But in 1976, it looked like a forlorn wreck, in a forgotten sector of the city. Its elegant Ionic pillars were bullet-scarred, the lofty pediment blown off, the upper windows bricked up, with pigeons roosting within; a quarter of its courtyarded block had simply collapsed. All around, streets retained their gap-toothed look, like Brixton in 1947, and from the second storey the section of the Wall leading up to Potsdamerplatz was clearly visible.

'This was clearly an ex-war zone,' says Visconti, 'and now it was an international boundary, which was really scary. We recorded 500ft from barbed wire, and a tall tower where you could see gun turrets, with foreign soldiers looking at us with binoculars.'

For all of the tiny crew, their time in Berlin during Heroes would result in a series of unforgettable images: the day that Visconti cropped Iggy and David's hair and they wandered around looking like old men; visits to an antiques shop whose proprietor had known Marlene Dietrich; the frenzied warehouse parties with local tearaways like the artist Martin Kippenberger; the day Visconti saw a huge black tank rumbling down the Kurfurstendamm; or the time [the Hansa sound engineer] Edu Meyer saw a guard on a DDR machine-gun post surveying them though his binoculars and attempted to dazzle him with an Anglepoise lamp, causing Bowie and Visconti to duck under the control desk, terrified.

But even in the act of creation, Bowie's joy was always controlled. In this, he was a complete contrast to Iggy, who would swing from euphoria to depression - indeed, just when Heroes was being completed, Iggy succumbed to a manic-depressive cocaine jag, for which David and his personal assistant Coco [Schwab] arranged an intervention, asking Barbara and Tim Dewitt to whisk him away to Capri. David was 'an educated thinker - so that would rescue him from the depressions', says Carlos [Alomar, Bowie's longtime guitarist]. But David also thought 'way too much'. His enjoyment of the now was always overshadowed by the thought it wouldn't last.

Later, describing this time in Berlin as one of the happiest periods in his life, David would pick up this poignant note. 'In some ways, sadly, [the three albums] really captured, unlike anything else in that time, a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come to pass.'

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