After 10 years, The Thin White Duke has returned. Bowie biographer Paul Trynka talks the man, the mystery and the life-changing Berlin period shaping his new music
A few years ago now – but still several years into the Mysterious Disappearance Of David Bowie – I was reclining in an Arne Jacobsen chair in the impeccably modernist New York Mark Hotel alongside Tony Visconti, as we listened to “Heroes” – the epochal track Visconti recorded with Bowie in Berlin’s Hansa Studios – blare out from a state-of-the-art sound system.
Years on, Visconti was still thrilled by the torrent of sound, pointing out intricate sonic details that magically pieced together the rush of emotions that Bowie, and friends such as Iggy Pop, had experienced in the pressure cooker of an isolated Berlin in 1976.
We listened to the tape for 40 or 50 minutes, before we touched on the subject of whether Visconti – who’d also produced Bowie’s underrated, elegant later albums Heathen and Reality – would ever work with the man again. Visconti sighed before replying “I don’t know. You never know.”
I stayed in touch with Visconti, as I had for years before, exchanging occasional emails. It was around the end of 2011 that, for the first time, no reply arrived to a question I’d sent him. In retrospect, it was probably about the time Visconti moved from a state of “don’t know” to “know”.
It had taken nearly 10 years.
But then, Bowie had been keeping Visconti guessing, like most of his collaborators, since they’d first worked together. Just as he’s done with his other treasured collaborators, the public.
The sheer mastery of Bowie’s control of pop music smoke and mirrors was demonstrated in stunning fashion last week on his 66th birthday, when the music he’d recorded in secret with Visconti was finally unleashed. Bypassing the usual channels, his new song Where Are We Now? monopolised the world’s media, and shot to No1 in the download charts.
It was an unthinkable change from just a few weeks before, and the speculation about his seemingly permanent disappearance after a heart attack on tour in Germany in June 2004. Few could have turned a rude reminder of mortality into a career event – yet, as ever, by keeping his counsel, and his cool, Bowie had managed to preserve his unrivalled mystique.
And in his absence he also accomplished his longed-for achievement of being a conventional, caring father: the near decade he’d spent tending to Lexi, his 13-year-old daughter, was some compensation for the fractured childhood of Duncan, his now-celebrated film director son.
A stealth missile from the Bowie void, Where Are We Now? contains messages on many levels. The first, and most arresting, is on mortality – his voice, once so swooping and effortless, is now cracked and aged, worn-in like vintage leather.
The sound – uncluttered, bittersweet – evokes both Heathen and Reality, but whereas those albums only hinted at a more careworn, reflective world view, here old age is addressed full-on. For the first time, Bowie references his past, namechecking old Berlin haunts – the Dschungel club where he cavorted with artist Martin Kippenberger, and the Schöneberg apartment he shared with Iggy Pop.
Using the Berlin Wall as a symbol, Bowie addresses the gulf between the ambitious 30-year-old, and the reflective senior citizen.
Heart of darkness
Throughout 2012, there was a constant hubbub about Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album seeing its 40th anniversary. In 2013, we will all be talking about The Next Day, the album released on 11 March trailing Where Are We Now?.
While Visconti promises there are forward-looking, upbeat tracks, the references through the album – and its “Heroes”-pillaging cover – hark back to what Bowie and Visconti describe as their landmark experience.
It’s not surprising that the Berlin years, what Bowie terms his ‘triptych’ of albums – Low, “Heroes” and Lodger – mainly recorded in the city, form a cornerstone of his personal mythology, as they have come to represent his (first) phoenix-like resurrection.
After shooting to longed-for fame with his Ziggy Stardust persona, Bowie had travelled deep into a personal heart of darkness in Los Angeles, provoked both by overwork and the shocking realisation after he’d split with Tony Defries – his manager and father figure – that he no longer owned the music he’d sacrificed so much for.
The man’s LA years became the stuff of legend, with an etiolated alien Bowie surviving on milk, red peppers and cocaine, and scrawling pentagrams on his window blinds to protect from the dark forces he believed were assailing him. “It was really bad,” says housemate and singer Glenn Hughes. “That drug really had him by the short and curlies.”
Yet where cocaine disrupted Hughes’s work, Bowie retained “this tremendous concentration”. When, around January 1976, Bowie discovered from his drug dealer, Freddie Sessler, that his one-time friend Iggy Pop was in an even worse drugs and failure-induced meltdown, Bowie hooked up with him to form a unique, mutual rescue pact.
They would abandon drugs and carve out new music together. Playing Iggy tapes of Kraftwerk and Neu!, Bowie suggested he produce an electronic album for him in Munich.
As it turned out, they would record the album mostly in Paris; and the magnificent, gothic result, The Idiot, would form a dry run for Low, started soon afterwards in the same studio and completed in Berlin, where Bowie had located a modest, cheap flat on the Hauptstrasse in Schöneberg, a low-key, area where writer Christopher Isherwood had lived in the Thirties, when it was famed for its gay residents and plentiful prostitutes.
It was months before the public realised Bowie had disappeared, even though it was during his stay in Berlin that he turned 30. He’d quit cocaine in favour of German beer, and went for long walks with Iggy, where they’d drop in on friends.
Bowie taught Iggy how to prep a canvas and paint. But most of all, the pair savoured anonymity. “The Wall was beautiful.
It created a wonderful island, ignored by everybody – where nobody bugged you,” recalls Iggy. Yet Bowie and Iggy were in the city to work, too. Visconti was the first outsider to be called in, initially to complete Iggy’s The Idiot. Bowie swiftly worked up a good part of Low with Visconti and his touring band, before his new ambient guru, Brian Eno, arrived from a recording session with German electronic band Harmonia. They made the first of the albums that Bowie would describe as being “in my DNA”.
“Heroes” was recorded in Berlin. Some of Bowie’s musicians, Carlos Alomar in particular, hated the city, with its spooky old hotels and pig-based diet, while others, namely Robert Fripp, were simply disorientated, recording a blizzard of music without having time to think. Which was entirely Bowie’s plan.
A key technique throughout his career was to take his musicians outside their comfort zone.
Low was met with bewilderment; RCA, says Visconti, wanted him to bin it; even Heroes – today a bona fide classic and a theme of the London Olympics – was only a minor hit on first release. It took the music industry and the public years to catch up with him.
Yet, along with Lodger, the neater, more art-rock affair recorded in Montreux, those albums would define a new genre and define the tonal palette of music for years to come.
Don’t look back
From then, of course, it was ever forward. It wasn’t until retirement, which was initially imposed on him by heart trouble, that Bowie had the luxury of looking back. It seemed he was never one to examine his past – but as in many areas of his life, he was a mass of contradictions.
Famous for his gender-bending, he longed for a conventional family life; celebrated for his meticulous planning, he was also a master of improvisation. And his seemingly effortless creativity was hard-won – the young David Jones transformed himself into a world famous artist via sheer, bloody hard work and determination.
Despite all those years of toil, many fans resented Bowie’s well-earned rest. But by treating us all mean, he’s kept us keen and, while the imminent V&A exhibition of Bowie costumes, artwork and ephemera looks to be stunning, Bowie’s people have suggested that there will be no tour and no promotion.
Some have speculated his album will be like Sinatra’s September Of My Years, an autumnal, epic retrospective. Visconti suggests we might find it radical and that it rocks, hard. But the reason 2013 will be the Year Of Bowie is that we don’t know. We never know.
Starman by Paul Trynka is out now (Sphere/Little Brown). ‘David Bowie Is’ is at the V&A from 23 March-28 July, in sponsored_longform with Gucci, sound experience by Sennheiser; www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/david-bowie-is/