Bowie’s dead. Lou Reed’s dead. Iggy Pop’s the eternal survivor.
For three years in the seventies, David Bowie lived at Hauptstrasse 155 in West Berlin’s Schöneberg district—joined at times for creative sessions, and alcohol and heroin excess by Lou and Iggy. He produced three solo albums here which transformed the landscape of modern music: Heroes, Lodger and Low.
Bowie said of Berlin: “It’s a city that’s so easy to get lost in—and to find oneself, too.”
My evening doesn’t begin there but at another landmark with a Bowie connection: Zoo Station. The station’s place in pop-culture prominence sealed with the book and film “Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo”, based on the true story of a fourteen-year-old drug addict and prostitute who haunted the terminal. David Bowie starred in, and provided the film soundtrack.
I explain this to N. when I meet her off her train. German, but some years younger; her grasp of her own country’s history is sparse. Luckily I don’t have to explain who David Bowie is, but I do need to provide a brief bio of Lou Reed and Iggy.
She pulls a face when I explain Iggy Pop’s onstage antics.
“I don’t approve of people who cut themselves with glass,” she tells me. “Okay, I cut myself once.” She points to a tiny scar on her arm.
“Maybe you and Iggy would connect?” I suggest.
She shrugs and tosses back tresses of long blond hair, “Probably not.”
Zoo station also became a metaphor for West Berlin (people living enclosed by the wall, as if in a cage). After buying black coffee from a kiosk, we hang around a while; I’m trying to soak in the atmosphere, wondering how it was for the seventies drug addicts who spent time in and around the station.
“Romancing something that’s gone,” N. says. “If it ever existed.”
Zoo Station’s packed with busy commuters who free from work, rush by blindly, heading to who knows where. I get bumped, almost knocked down standing on the concourse, and N. suggests it’s not the best time for soaking atmosphere.
Giving up, holding hands, we make our way to the Europa Center where in the film Christine and Detlef run through like crazy people and vandalize a ticket booth. Right now it seems like any other aging mall; sauntering tourists drag bored kids. The most rebellious thing that occurs is when a child screams: “Zoo!” and throws her ice-cream on the floor. Maybe Bowie would approve?
We visit S036, the legendary venue in Kreuzberg Bowie and Iggy often frequented. Gritty, dark and too trendy, it’s a little early to get a feel for the place, but there’s a guitar band playing a shoegazing set with a subtle aura of menace. I wonder what Bowie did here? Did he perform here? Or just hang out? I’d like to ask someone, but my German isn’t good enough, and N. is too afraid of the too-cool looking barman. Still no closer to finding Bowie or getting a sense of how he might have lived in West Berlin, I order a whiskey and N. an orange juice.
“I don’t approve of drink or drugs,” she explains. “Or art that’s been created by people using either. That’s just me.”
I’m about to launch into a defense of artists under the influence creating works of significance, when our drinks arrive.
“Maybe you shouldn’t drink either,” she says. “I find every kind bad—alcohol, cigarettes, and all the other drugs. They seem to be only there to fuck people more up than they already are. They should all be forbidden. What do we need that for? For relaxing? There are other ways.”
“It’s the wrong thing to say to an alcoholic,” I tell her.
“Then why? Why do you drink?”
“I decided to live a different life to other people. I don’t need a pretense to stop.”
“I once told you I wanted to die,” she says. “I know that made you sad. I said it because it felt like I wasn’t important enough to go on living… and I think that is what you are telling me now. You are not important enough, and I am not important enough to live for. I don’t mind you worry about the future, also not about me and how I will change… but I don’t like it when you imply you would like to die; maybe I can understand now why you didn’t like it when I said that. So I will try to never say it to you again. I’m not sure what I would do if you were drunk. I don’t think I could deal with that so easily. I would feel personally hurt or even insulted if you felt like getting drunk, although I was always with you… that would be too much.”
There, I want to say. It cannot ever end in isolation. There’s the one thing that will stop it. I could find and lose myself in you. But I cannot tell her this.
Dark by the time we reach Bowie’s old apartment in Schöneberg, N. takes out an old LOMO camera, pulls me close to her, and snaps a photo of us in front of the apartment. Although the building itself has a nondescript facade, there’s still a wisp of Bohemia to the area. Weeks later, she sends me the print. I look at it sometimes when I want to travel in time, falling through darkness, returning to her side. She has on a long faux-fur rimmed coat and slim fit jeans. I like the way she dresses, a young, simplistic, feminine chic. Though his fashion missteps were the exception, there’s a wonderful photo of Bowie circa Hunky Dory era wearing trousers that would easily double as sleeping bags. I’m wearing a black coat which doesn’t quite keep out the wind’s chill, but seems to fit my Bowie pilgrimage. Trying to cut down wearing of dead animals, I have on vinyl sneakers. I vaguely wonder if Bowie would approve of vinyl sneakers?
N. and I make our way to a small vegetarian café a few streets away. Ordering a croissant, she nibbles on it and eats like a chipmunk with puffed cheeks. Embarrassed, noticing my gaze, she turns away and lifts a hand to cover her face. A song plays on the tinny lo-fi radio in the café.
“And you, you can be mean
I’ll drink all the time
‘Cause we’re lovers, and that is a fact.
Yes we’re lovers, and that is that
Though nothing will keep us together
We could steal time just for one day.”
Bowie in Berlin. He seems, at times, everywhere.