Berlin is never less inviting than it is today. Awakening to the news of David Jones’ death, I suddenly become even more unamenable to staying here. In theory, being near the same Hauptstraße flat he inhabited in the 70s (occasionally with Iggy Pop) should lend me some sense of comfort. But it only makes me feel lonelier, more homesick for London, the only nexus where Bowie’s energy is at its purest. And having just finished eliciting an interview from him about Blackstar, his grimmest, most experimental record to date, I am particularly blindsided. It was only two weeks ago that I had been given an audience with the Thin White Duke. And while, sure, he was starting to look his age, nothing about him appeared to have the mark of death.
Yet Bowie was hitting us all over the head with the macabre imagery of his swan song, braying out the final forty-one minutes and seventeen seconds of his oeuvre before croaking. In the barrage of articles I pored over that morning while drinking coffee made by Italian émigrés, the album would suddenly receive far more due than it did during the promotional buildup to its release, and now it was heralded as a masterpiece. A shame, that. That death is what it takes to achieve legitimacy in this life. It was, as most music journalists called it, “a parting gift to fans.” Yes, had Bowie lasted another few years, Blackstar might never have gotten its acclaim in the moment. After all, its dark overtones didn’t scream, “chart-friendly.” And when I asked him if it still felt liberating to go into the studio all these decades later, knowing that he had complete autonomy to make whatever he wanted, he glibly replied, “Liberation is relative.” That it is.
In this moment, to me, Schöneberg was a prison riddled with the aesthetic and feeling of what could only be tantamount to a portrait of Bowie’s cancer-ridden lungs and liver. The debris of the previous evening’s snowfall was sodden with a blackness as menacing as headlines like, “Detained, Female and Dying: Why Prisons Must Treat Women’s Medical Needs.” As I walked to the coffee shop near the Airbnb that the magazine had agreed to reimburse me for once I had completed my interview with Massive Attack, an advert for Blackstar stopped me in my tracks. I truly couldn’t believe he was gone, had returned to whatever planet he was originally from. Leaving the rest of us here to float in space without him.
Before I had left his apartment on Lafayette Street in SoHo, Bowie had managed to affect me with a statement even more powerful than his music. “Abigail,” he called in that way that suggested the pitch of a shout, but was still somehow subdued. I was walking toward the door, but turned back to say, “Yes, Mr. Bowie?” I had refused to address him informally. It simply didn’t feel right. He let his lips curve slightly upward into a smile. “If you want to play music, you should do it.” That’s the last thing he said before telepathically forcing me out and closing the door behind me, and I had never even verbalized my long dormant dream of starting a band in the vein of Bikini Kill and Hole. Felt that this genre could never gain traction in the current marketplace. And while, sure, it’s not exactly a far reach to assume a music critic might have aspirations of her own in this arena, it was as though Bowie had stared deeply into my soul to see what was in it. And hearing his encouragement rekindled within me something I had long tried to suppress since turning thirty–official over the hill age for trying to be anything other than what you were, least of all in an industry as age-conscious of females as music.
Sure, when I had a break between deadlines, I would still “tinker around” on my guitar or keyboard, but that was the extent of my pursuit. Why did Bowie have to reinstate within me this yearning I had finally made peace with suppressing? And with his expiry, I suddenly felt I owed it to him more than ever to fulfill whatever potential I might have, even if it meant falling embarrassingly backward the way Madonna did at the BRIT Awards the previous year.
With my coffee and article reading exhausted, it occurs to me to go to the one place with the, to me, most import with regard to Bowie’s brief, but prolific three years in the city, from ’77 to ’79. “Heroes,” a guilty pleasure favorite of mine because of how cliche it is as a preferred choice, was recorded at Hansa Studios. And though the Potsdamer Platz area is much changed since Bowie’s time–commercialized to the umpteenth degree with its outdoor mall feel and overimposing buildings–I am determined to envision myself in Bowie’s Potsdamer Platz. Feeling moved enough by the tension of the Cold War to come up with this twentieth century Romeo and Juliet tale of a man and a woman so in love with one another that they would meet each day at the Berlin Wall, underneath a gun turret, it seems that the romance of the lyrics go over most listeners’ heads. Divided by the politics of East and West, the risk, to these two lovers, didn’t matter. When Bowie revealed that the song was actually about his then married producer Tony Visconti and a German girl he had fallen in love with, I was shocked–here I thought it had been pure imagination, but then, I suppose, nothing ever is when it comes to the backstory behind an artist’s work. Of course, the source of his inspiration would have been too scandalous to unearth to the public at the time. People could only forgive John Lennon of such infidelities. I, however, could forgive Visconti of being a typical Italian cad if it meant that without his philandering, the world might never have known “Heroes.”
After I stood in front of the studio smoking a cigarette in the freezing cold for what I felt to be a reverent amount of time, I was pulled next to the Brücke Museum, a jaunty forty-minute train ride. But it was worth it. It was where Bowie’s mind entered a new consciousness, one not so coke-addled from his L.A. days. Where he could roam free amid the Ernst Ludwig Kirchners and the Karl Schmidt-Rottluffs to his heart’s–or rather, brain’s–content. I had arrived about two hours before closing, just in time to absorb what I needed to.
When I returned to the Kreuzberg area, I knew what I would have to do next: go to SO36. Likened by many to the CBGB of Berlin in its heyday, unlike CBGB, it was still actually open. In the small hours of the night, I was alone among the other revelers, the other potential and likely Bowie worshippers. But I had never felt more at one with the humanity that surrounded me. And I don’t think it was necessarily just the ecstasy inducing the sentiment.
The next afternoon, on January 11, I opened my eyes anew. This was the day that marked my true New Year. The day I had resolved to stay in Berlin and experience my own musical renaissance. Shit, naissance. I would give up writing about music and actually fucking make it. Maybe Daddy G from Massive Attack could help me get started. It could be a sort of Bowie/Iggy Pop revival. In its own twenty-first century sort of way.