The Wall was probably the most famous structure that will ever stand in Berlin…and if a monument can be decommissioned, that is apparently what happened to it.
We Were Like a Museum Exhibit.
Title of a Wolf Vostell 1965 collage.
An older man, wearing a grey topcoat and knit cap, is walking through Berlin one winter morning. If you were to follow him, he would appear to be rambling for no obvious purpose, towards no apparent destination; just wending through neighborhoods, sometimes doubling back.
But if you were to watch his progress from the air, it would seem, over time, as though he was slowly stitching a pattern across the heart of the old city, making a fresh suture over an old scar.
We lived in a vacuum over a void.
Peter Schneider, on West Berlin.
Nothing was asked of West Berlin “beyond its own complicity in surviving.”
On the sunless, modestly-cold morning of the 8th of January, 2013, I walked the dog, made coffee, ate breakfast, checked the laptop. The blog, though not updated for a week, had some 20 new comments overnight; the twitter had at least as many notices; my mailbox was overflowing. I could only think the worst, and said to the dog: “Oh no, is he dead? And on his birthday, too.”
As it turned out, he had risen. At 5 AM GMT, Bowie’s website uploaded the video of “Where Are We Now?”, with the notice that one could buy the track on iTunes, as well as pre-order a new, unanticipated album. By the time the British workday started, the news had hit every media outlet, which gave Bowie’s return the treatment usually reserved for royal births and divorces. Each longitude of the Western Hemisphere woke up to the news in turn.
“It was his idea to just announce the album on his birthday and just watch the thing avalanche,” Tony Visconti told Rolling Stone. Bowie and Visconti had done a countdown in December, sending each other emails with subject lines like “two weeks eight hours.” At midnight in New York, Visconti sat at his computer to see “Where Are We Now?” pop up in the iTunes store. He’d produced the thing but couldn’t quite believe that it existed. It took about 15 minutes, he recalled, before fans realized what was happening and the first “holy shit!” posts appeared on message boards.
Bowie’s was among the first of the “surprise” album releases of the 2010s (MBV came later the same month, Beyoncé at the end of the year). Like the others (and a precursor, Radiohead’s The King of Limbs), The Next Day was a catalog artist gaming a broken system. Avoid the pointless hype cycle and throw a new album out into the world, generating scads of free press by leveraging the reputation that your former labels paid for.
Bowie pulled off his surprise because he only used musicians whom he knew and could trust (even then, he had them sign non-disclosure agreements) and he ran a tight ship: just Corinne Schwab and Bill Zysblat for logistics and finance; no office managers, no PR staff. At Sony, with whom he had a distribution relationship, he had no A&R supervision. The label was in the dark: Sony president Rob Stringer only learned Bowie had cut a new album in December 2012, when Bowie brought him into a studio to hear tracks. “Stringer said, ‘what about the PR campaign?’ and David said, ‘there is no PR campaign. We’re just going to drop it on 8 January’,” Visconti recalled. And so they did.
I became a rock star. It’s what I do. It’s not my whole life.
Bowie, to a friend in Berlin, ca. 1977.
It could have been the beginning of a really boring career. You know, the typical rock star life cycle. So fortunately for me my right lung collapsed…I felt a great sense of relief, as if once again I’d been left off the hook.
Brian Eno, to Ian MacDonald, 1977.
He said: I know what it’s like to be dead. He said…did he? Oh that’s very nice indeed.
John Lennon, demo, 1966.
Of the “lost years” between Bowie’s heart operation in July 2004 and the first Next Day sessions of May 2011, many know little. He had stopped emailing a lot of friends after his heart surgery, even Visconti: in late 2006, Visconti was startled when Bowie popped in during a Dean and Britta session in NYC (“as much as I wanted him to sing on a track, I was too shocked to make my mouth work“). In the late 2000s, however, Bowie and Visconti began having semi-monthly lunches, during which Bowie said he had no interest in writing new music.
It wasn’t as if Bowie was in hiding (ever so often, the paparazzi would nab a fresh photo of a downtown-walking Bowie, armed with ubiquitous laptop bag). He cut the occasional guest-vocal (see the past two months’ entries) and even was in a studio in 2008 to record new vocals and overdubs for a revision of “Time Will Crawl.” He issued a statement praising Barack Obama’s victory; he spoke to the press as late as 2010, telling the Observer what allegedly was on his iPod (Champion Jack Dupree’s “Junker’s Blues” and John Adams’ “El Nino,” among others); in a New York Times profile of Iman, he said “I’m not thinking of touring. I’m comfortable.”
As the empty years went on, the Bowie enterprise began to seem like a carnival which had shuttered for the season but would never open again. Fan websites were reduced to announcing the occasional reissue, or the death of yet another old Bowie friend or collaborator (Lesley Duncan, Natasha Kornilof, Derek Fearnley, Guy Pelleart), or the doings of Bowie tribute bands. “I really don’t know what he’s up to at the moment,” his bassist Gail Ann Dorsey said in early 2010. “I wish I could…I just hope, as much as anyone else, as a fan of music, that he returns.”
Rumors circulated that Bowie was ailing, that he’d contracted terminal cancer. It got to the point where Noel Gallagher lamented in 2011 that “I know [Bowie] hasn’t been very well, but we need him,” and where Chuck Klosterman and Alex Pappademas began preparing a Bowie obituary in late June 2012, after Grantland‘s editor got a solid tip that Bowie was on his deathbed.
Almost with one impulse the congregation rose and stared while the three dead boys came marching up the aisle, Tom in the lead, Joe next, and Huck, a ruin of drooping rags, sneaking sheepishly in the rear! They had been hid in the unused gallery listening to their own funeral sermon!
Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
As it turned out, he rather liked being dead.
For all intents and purposes, he had stopped being David Bowie. He was just David Jones, a wealthy late-middle-aged landowner, art collector, expatriate and dad, gassing on to his wife and daughter about whatever history or biography book he was reading (it’s a near-universal rule that by the age of 60, all men become bores about history) and watching police shows, whether American (The Shield), British (Foyle’s War) or French (Spiral).
It was as though he’d decommissioned himself. Here was a man who still led a public life—attending various charity galas with Iman—but who was no longer public. His biographer Paul Trynka, whose book published in 2010, speculated that Bowie had pulled a slow-motion disappearing act in the 2000s, and had retired without letting anyone know. His absence felt louder each year; his blank refusal to play the game anymore could seem an affront to some fans. Bowie was always supposed to be there, on the margins or in the wings, reacting, stealing, sometimes embarrassing himself, sometimes creating the future. Then he just stopped.
Until something brought him back. In early autumn 2010, while in London recording the Kaiser Chiefs’ The Future Is Medieval, Visconti heard from Bowie out of the blue. “He said, when you get back, do you fancy doing some demos with me?” Visconti told the Daily Telegraph. “There was no preamble, no warning. It was really weird.”
“Schtum” was the subject line of an email Bowie sent the guitarist Gerry Leonard (it was a German-sounding word meaning “keep mum” whose origins lay in the criminal world of Fifties Britain—it’s the sort of word you’d expect Bowie to use in an email). Like Visconti, Leonard had no clue that Bowie was considering making a record. “I was like, whoa! he’s going to do something?”
And Sterling Campbell, the last of Bowie’s contacts, said “my relationship with David has always been like this—I just get a call out of nowhere and it’s great if it works out.” So he was used to sudden changes of face. “From what I understand, he didn’t even wanna think about music for a number of years,” he told the NME. “Then all of a sudden, he’s got 20 songs he wants to record.”
For a week in November 2010, Bowie, Leonard, Visconti and Campbell got together at 6/8 Studios in the East Village (they used Studio A, which you can rent for $50/hour today). For the first four days, Bowie brought in demos he’d made on eight- and 16-track digital recorders at home.
Because as it turned out, David Jones hadn’t shaken the habit of writing songs. To Visconti, “they were obviously things that had built up over the past 10 years, sketches he’d had all along,” complete with ideas for basslines and drum patterns. (“It seemed evident that he had been writing a lot—[it was as if] he was pulling ideas for songs from a hat,” Leonard concurred). Bowie would play a demo, had Leonard (back in his bandleader role from the Reality tour) transcribe a chord progression, and then asked the group to play their interpretation of his fledgling song.
On the last day, in a studio described variously as “a matchbox” and “a small grimy room,” they cut about a dozen full-band demos (Bowie played keyboards and sang guide vocals, mainly wordless melodies) on what Visconti called “a basic Pro Tools rig.” Bowie packed up, said his goodbyes. No one heard from him for another four months.
I wasn’t [in Berlin] for very long, only four months; one whole spring. But it was crazy. Really crazy. It was like a film of Fritz Lang’s. You had the feeling that all of life was being directed by Lang…There was a black cloud of hatred over the whole east end of the city…You felt the catastrophe coming.
After the danger dissipated in Berlin, nothing was left.
At some point, he decided the demos were worth trying on a broader canvas. Bowie wanted to use the same crew to make backing tracks for a possible album, but with Campbell on tour with the B-52s in spring 2011, his Nineties drummer, Zachary Alford, instead got the nod. As did Gail Ann Dorsey. She hadn’t played bass on any Bowie album since Toy, in part because the producer was also an ace bassist, but Visconti told Dorsey that he wanted to concentrate on producing and not have to work in the rhythm section, too. David Torn, the “atmospheric” element of the Heathen and Reality albums, also came in.
Right at the start, the secret nearly leaked. Someone at the originally-booked NYC studio tipped off a freelance photographer, who called Bowie’s office asking to shoot the sessions. This prompted an eleventh-hour relocation to the Magic Shop on Crosby Street (conveniently, less than a ten-minute walk from Bowie’s home). Visconti was cagy to the studio about who he was recording, and Magic Shop owner Steve Rosenthal said “it’s not an exaggeration [that] we didn’t know what was going on until the day Bowie showed up.” (One assumes Bowie would have preferred to use his favorite NYC studio, Looking Glass Studios, but it had closed in 2009.) They would call Bowie’s project “The Secret” at the Magic Shop: “Is The Secret in today?”
Bowie and his musicians began recording on 3 May 2011, for about two weeks, in what would be “Block One” of the Next Day sessions. The players were all old hands: he knew their styles and what to expect from them (though he urged Dorsey to play fretless bass for the first time). It suggests he realized the new songs weren’t that dissimilar from his Heathen/Reality compositions, and that his new album could be like one he might have made in 2005. After all, he’d told both Leonard and Campbell during the Reality tour’s last leg that he was considering hustling the band into a studio right after the tour ended, in the hopes of cutting a road-hardened album like Earthling. Fate intervened.
The Next Day would be the most tentative, and the slowest-paced, album that he had ever made. Bowie kept stressing that the sessions were only an experiment, one he could well scrap. It was similar to how he’d pitched Low to his musicians in 1976. Yet Low had come together in about a month. The Next Day would take two years.
Alford described the sessions as being “matter of fact.” Bowie came in each morning, played them a home demo, then played the song’s full-band demo, then had the players start recording. (They were encouraged to ask him questions: the sessions had a seminar feel, with Bowie as a professor emeritus working with some former grad students.) There were no more than five takes for each song; they got through about two tracks a day.
They worked in the Magic Shop’s “live” room, Studio A, with no separation between instruments, barring some amp baffling. Bowie set up at a Baldwin piano, creating a work-station at which he could play a Korg Trinity (as on Reality), strum his old 12-string acoustic or use a digital mixer which he used to reference demos. Engineer Mario McNulty said Bowie and Visconti wanted a treated sound at the point of recording, so that in-studio playback would “sound like a record.” (This was Bowie’s long-preferred method—he’d been taken aback in early Young Americans sessions when he heard his untreated voice on tape for the first time in years). So McNulty, using the studio’s custom Neve 80 series wraparound 56-input console, applied EQ in each stereo channel and added generous compression on the vocal mikes, bass, guitar and drum tracks.
“Block One” produced about 20 tracks, of a variety of styles: Alford recalled cutting a “straight up country song,” while another was based on a blues riff, though the players were given the Eno-like instruction “not to make it sound like a blues.” Neither Bowie or Visconti were interested aping the sound of contemporary records (perhaps for the good: Bowie was talking up Mumford and Sons in the demo sessions), using instead for sonic context the Bowie back catalog and never-released outtakes, particularly from Lodger (see the upcoming “Born In a UFO”). Nine tracks from the session wound up on The Next Day or its bonus releases, but in May 2011, they were still only pieces of an ongoing experiment.
So began the album’s desultory creation. Bowie would take away tapes, book the occasional overdub session, then go away again. He visited Leonard in Woodstock, NY, that summer and the two of them did some songwriting (coming up with “Boss of Me” and “I’ll Take You There” after Leonard scrambled to find a Roland TR-808 drum machine).
Around September or October 2011, Bowie organized another rhythm section date (call it “Block Two”) at the Magic Shop. As Dorsey was now touring with Lenny Kravitz, the storied bassist Tony Levin came in play with Leonard, Torn and Alford.
It was much the same mood as the spring session: listen to demos, take notes, play a few takes, “I’ll call you later.” (The tracks getting their start in this block included “Where Are We Now?,” “Boss of Me,” “I’d Rather Be High” and “God Bless the Girl.”)
Around year-end 2011, there was a notable ebb in the album’s (already-tenuous) progress. Bowie was slowly working on lyrics and he’d spend over a year, in fits and starts, on his vocals. “In the beginning he was finding his voice,” Visconti said. “He’s not an opera singer, he doesn’t practice every day.”
Both Dorsey and Leonard said that around this time, they feared that Bowie might just deep-six the album, and keep silent for who knows how many more years. Brian Thorn, the Magic Shop’s assistant engineer, said “I had no idea if the album would even be released. I was prepared to sit on it for as long as I needed to.” Rosenthal summed up the general mood. “From beginning to end, this has not been a typical music business project. This has been like an art project that he’s created and is executing upon us all. I don’t think any of us really believed it was going to come out until we saw the song online.”
If there had been a period of indecision, a turning point came when Bowie called up Earl Slick to do what he’d done since 1974: add some “rock ‘n’ roll” guitar parts. Contacted in May, Slick turned up at the Magic Shop in July 2012. “He never let me hear the demos,” Slick told Rock et Folk. “I played where he needed me. I always worked like that with him.”
Along with overdubbing guitar on the likes of “Dirty Boys,” Slick also helped cut some fresh songs on the spot with Visconti on bass and the now-returned Sterling Campbell. This last session (call it “Block Three”) was the start of the likes of “Valentine’s Day” and “Born In a UFO.”
So after two years of sporadic sessions, Bowie and Visconti had about 30 tracks. Those still needing work were earmarked as future B-sides or bonus releases (most of which have come out by now). Having winnowed the prospective track list down to 20, Bowie played with the sequencing for months, pulling “God Bless the Girl” on and off and on again (he finally slotted it as a bonus track on the Japanese issue).
The final sequence wound up being a three-part movement (paralleling its three-block creation). Tracks 1 to 6 were the “hits,” 7-11 the weird shit; the remainder was a bitter old man’s coda.
Each Berlin is worlds distant from, and a stranger to, the other…indeed I have to admit that the Berlin of which I speak is actually not really Berlin anymore.
Georg Hermann, Kubinke, 1910.
Bowie came in one day and said, “I wrote a song about Berlin.” Visconti recalled.
He’d been kicking it around for some time, as Dorsey, who didn’t play in the song’s backing track sessions, recalled Bowie saying early on that he “had this idea of writing about his time in Berlin. That it was a very intense time for him.”
“Bowie in Berlin” had become, over the decades, among his most enduring characters, though at the time he’d taken pains to say that he was no longer playing a role. The rising critical eminence of the “Berlin” trilogy had wound up creating a myth as vivid as Ziggy Stardust’s.
It was Bowie singing “Heroes” at Hansa Tonstudio (which he’d portentously renamed “Hansa By The Wall” on the LP sleeve), setting off three microphones when moving to his apocalyptic register, while East German guards paced in their tower on the Wall. It was Bowie living with Iggy Pop on Hauptstraße, swapping clothes; Bowie biking around the city, unnoticed or ignored; making paintings of Pop and Yukio Mishima; dressing and wearing his hair as if he was an actor playing Christopher Isherwood in 1929; taking his breakfasts in the gay cafe down the street. Days at the Brücke-Museum, nights at the Dschungel or Chez Romy Haag.
The city was his sickbed, hospital, recovery ward, detox mansion; Berlin was where he went to vanish, and where he was found on the street seemingly every night, sometimes drinking himself oblivious in a bar. His estranged wife Angela thought it all ridiculous: he and Iggy dressing up like bohemian painters, or recreating scenes from Jules et Jim with Corinne Schwab; his label RCA found the work he made there indulgent, baffling and poor-selling, and wondered if he was sabotaging his career to reduce his ex-manager’s take of LP royalties.
But Berlin was reality, Bowie said, where America and Britain were fictions. John Lennon had once claimed that rock ‘n’ roll was real and everything else was unreal. Instead, Bowie had found rock ‘n’ roll to be the most unreal thing of all, a poison: Berlin was where he got free of it. He came out of the city in 1979 far different from the desperate man who’d taken refuge there in 1976. “David aged about 20 years in Berlin,” Mick Ronson once said.
“He travels all over the world, but you wouldn’t know it, because he doesn’t want you to,” Visconti said of Bowie today. An obvious question: did Bowie go back to Berlin in the late 2000s? Walk through Schöneberg again, visit Hansa, catch a train at Postdamer Platz? Stay in the hotel on Nürnberger Straße which was once the Dschungel? After all, his nostalgic drives through Brixton and Bromley in the early Nineties had sparked The Buddha of Suburbia. Did a similar visit inspire “Where Are We Now?”
Another speculation (offered by Momus): did Bowie and Visconti ever consider making his comeback record at Hansa? It would have made the perfect last turn of the circle, a lost man returning to the city he’d tried to get lost in, and maybe the symbolism was a bit too perfect. Plus, keeping the secret from a city of Germans would’ve been harder than doing so with a few New York engineers and his old touring band. After all, it was getting harder to go missing in Berlin these days.
Thomas Kunja, an East Berliner who escaped to West Berlin several years ago and now distributes Electrolux vacuum cleaners, knows exactly what they’ll buy. “A video recorder–half already have color TVs,” says Kunja. “And everybody will take a trip.” Why? “What do you do when you get out of jail? You run. You have to prove you’re really out with a trip west. After that, people need everything: a decent car, decent kitchen stuff, a decent rug. If only 1 percent of them want a decent vacuum cleaner, I’m going to be rich.”
Newsweek, “The Wealth of a Nation,” July 1990.
One night in 1997, I was at a party on the Upper West Side in NYC. A German man, standing alone, was looking offended by how dull the party was. I began talking to him, said I’d always wanted to go to Berlin. “Berlin?” he said, with some disgust. “Munich is where it is now. Berlin is dead! Dead!”
The Berlin of “Heroes” is deep in the grave now. The Wall is gone except for a few scruffily-maintained parks. The old city districts have been consolidated; some streets have new names. The battered, half-empty neighborhoods are being gentrified. Berlin’s even back to being a capital: Germany once again claiming the alien city on the Spree as its centerpiece, despite the fact that many Germans always have found Berlin a bit suspect, and some back in the early Cold War had wished the Russians had taken the whole place.
Agata Pyzik wrote in her Poor But Sexy that “Berlin is an Eastern city, by geography, spirit, architecture and expression. Yet it remains half-Western by politics and history.” During the Cold War, divided Berlin was a stage-set battlefield, the front line where the West and East sported their colors. The city itself was an island, a prison (West Berlin the little prison surrounded by the big prison), a mental ward. Berlin lived on its nerves, a city “so restless at night that even the animals in the zoo pace around,” as the British diplomat Harold Nicolson once said of it.
So where was it now? A creaky voice starts recounting a story, but it’s not much of a story—he forgets where he’s going after a line. “Had to get the train from Postdamer Platz,” he begins, not quite getting the accent right. A tourist, maybe. “You never knew...that I could do that,” with an air of faint amazement. It suggests he may be singing to a ghost, someone who didn’t outlive the Wall. The Postdamer Platz of “Heroes”-era Berlin was a wasteland, a stopped portal—the train station was a ghost stop on the S-bahn, a station that you only saw in passing (and which few East Germans ever saw). And today you can go underground and catch an eastbound train without giving it a second thought. Tens of thousands of people a day in Berlin perform what would have been impossible in 1989.
The man rummages up other names, as if seeing if anything rings a bell: the ghost’s not talking. The lost Dschungel club on Nürnberger Straße; even the department store KaDeWe (which would be like writing a song about post 9/11 New York and talking about Macy’s).
And 20,000 East Germans crossing Bösebrücke (again, it’s a tourist’s formal language—a German likely would have said Bornholmerstrasse) one autumn night in 1989, fingers crossed, fearing it might be a trap, that the guards will open fire on them. But no, out into the West they go, puncturing a hole in the Wall, soon followed by other holes, soon followed by no Wall at all.
Could it really have fallen apart so easily? The end of divided Berlin was like the end of Alice in Wonderland, with Alice standing up and saying “you’re nothing but a pack of cards!” and the Queen of Hearts howling in paper outrage. Maybe all that you ever needed to do was walk across the bridge, fingers crossed.
In the bars and clubs of  West Berlin things felt relentlessly trendy. I kept running into Blixa Bargeld everywhere. I remember going to a club (I think it was called the Beehive) and seeing people with miniature record players strapped to their heads. I’d never seen people that self-consciously Dada before anywhere!
The writer Christopher Isherwood went back to Berlin once after the war, in 1952, “to do one of those Berlin-revisited things for the Observer.” The city was still in shambles. “Everything was very much smashed up. They simply pushed the rubble to the sides of the streets. I wonder what became of that rubble?”
The rubble was the pulverized bits of Wilhelmine and Weimar Berlin, all the cornices and stoops and windowpanes and picture frames of the lost city of Isherwood, Brecht, Sally Bowles and the Landauers, of a city bombed to pieces during the war. The detritus was swept up, dumped in piles, was carted off to form three great hills in the outskirts of Berlin. In the Grunewald Forest, the highest pile became Teufelsberg, on which the Germans planted trees and shrubs and built a ski jump. The Americans built a radar station atop it.
It’s how Berlin has always adapted: junk what’s been ruined, build over the rest. Most cities in the West would have likely tried to preserve the Wall, turn it into some city-long memorial park. The Germans chipped it down, hauled it off, sold some bits, threw some in the garbage. Berlin seems impervious to nostalgia, so it’s an inspired setting for a nostalgic Bowie song. Walking the dead, he sings, but he might as well have said walking on the dead, because the city has likely paved over thousands of bodies.
My friend Michael Dumiak, who’s from South Carolina, has lived in Berlin since the early 2000s. “You hear lots of Spanish and Italian and American English in the streets these days.The Bowie / Pop myth is strong here, but he wasn’t here that long, maybe didn’t need to, they already loved him so much here (see Christiane F.) I guess probably they wouldn’t bug him; it was a whole island city tense with military and full of arty misfits. And cheap. The place does make an impression on you. They’re gradually repainting everything—check it out while you still can!”
Or as regular commenter “Crayon to Crayon,” another current Berlin resident, says: “It’s an amazing city to be poor in. And it feels like you have far more freedom than in any other big city I’ve lived in…There is a palpable feeling that things are changing slowly for the worse as developers get their hands on more of the city and rents go up. But it is still 20 years ahead/behind of the rest of Germany and, say, London or Paris. I’m not planning on leaving any time soon.”
Even at the demo stage, Gerry Leonard was struck by a song known only as “067,” the file’s name on Bowie’s digital recorder.
“There are beautiful changes to it,” he said. “He had these chords on his keyboard. David is an amazing writer, but he’s not a schooled guy, he just goes by his ear.” Talking of song structures, Bowie would typically say “the middle bit” or “the other bit” when referring to a bridge or chorus.
Leonard took Bowie’s keyboard progression and transferred it to guitar, writing down chords as he went. There was a verse that slowly circled, like a man walking back and forth along a street—Fmaj7 (“had to get”) to Dm/G (“Potsdamer”). An odd seesaw movement—Db/Eb (“never knew that”), Eb/Db (“that I could”)—that hints at a vault into an Ab major key but instead sinks back to the home chord, F, now with a C bass note (“do that”). The verse sags off, but grandly: G/C (“just walking the”), Ebm/C (“dead”), closing on a C7 chord, the dominant chord of the song’s F major key, soon resolved by another return home to F.
Then there was a simple refrain, just descending F-Em-Dm-C. Another verse, but cut shorter; another refrain, but now opening up, blossoming into a lengthy outro that slightly altered the descending set of chords to F-Dm-C/E-C, repeating again and again to the fade.
It was a typical Bowie construction, as the song is odder than it may first appear to the ear. Its progression is a slow, listless struggle between F major and C major, with the former seeming to rule the verses and the latter the refrains, though their claims are far from settled. By contrast there’s a severity to its structure: a sense of not wanting to waste time. Take the slam right back to the verse after the refrain, where the ear expects a solo or a recapitulation of the intro sequence, or the no-nonsense move to the outro after the second refrain.
Bowie and Visconti kept the track sparse, particularly in the context of the other Next Day tracks: it’s just carried by Leonard’s lead guitar, Bowie’s piano and synthesizer lines (and some Henry Hey piano overdubs in the outro), Levin’s bass and Alford’s drums. At first just Alford’s drum pattern keeps the song moving forward, as Leonard and Bowie augment chords and Levin is a torpid foundation. The song only takes flight as it ends—Alford shifts to a martial snare pattern and Leonard starts to elaborate on pieces of Bowie’s vocal melody, arpeggiating chords and then moving down his guitar neck, wringing higher and higher-pitched notes, slowly weaving a line that’s more mournful than Bowie’s vocal. Words fail to do it justice: listen here.
People think you have to remove everything to make a nice habitat. This is not the best idea. The grasshopper likes the concrete here.
Ingo Kowarick, on Templehofer Field.
“Where Are We Now?” made an odd choice for a opening single, Visconti thought. He and other players took pains in pre-release interviews to stress how anomalous the song was, and that much of the rest of the album was uptempo, guitar-fattened and loud.
Issuing this as the first “new” Bowie song in a decade was a feinting maneuver, and perhaps even something of a macabre joke, much as how Bowie showed up at a 2005 awards show dressed as if he’d been in a car crash. If the world believed Bowie to be on death’s door, well, here he was croaking this somber song about his lost youth, as if he was dictating a will. Final curtain stuff. Yet even the fragility of his voice was an old trick. “That’s a vulnerable voice he has used time and time again,” Visconti noted, offering “Fantastic Voyage” as an earlier example. “It’s part of his technique, to sing that way. He put that voice on like he’s vulnerable, but he’s not frail.”
The ploy worked, for some. “Elegiac” was common in reviews, e.g.: “the only one that moved me was the elegiac “Where Are We Now?”, which has a haunting Berlin cabaret feel to it,” wrote Rod Dreher of the American Conservative, upon hearing the album. “It sounded good, but it also sounded right for a 66-year-old man. If you’re still trying to rock as hard at 66 as you did at 26 and even 36, you’re not maturing… not every genre is equally suited to one’s maturity. It’s just that Bowie sounds so much more — what’s the word? — credible on the brooding, pensive “Where Are We Now?” than on the harder stuff on the record.”
“Where Are We Now?” is the song Bowie is supposed to be singing at age 66. By this age, you are supposed to be left stranded in time, to be burdened by great sacks of memory. It’s what the young expect of the old; it’s the task they charge the old with. In a world where the past is considered an embarrassment, the old are left as the past’s sad representatives, sexless and voiceless ambassadors, fit for the young to ignore. “When they die, we will move forward,” the young say. The old die, and we don’t.
So there’s an irony in the song. Its lament is removed, abstract; its narrator isn’t “Bowie” as much as it’s the voice of a man whose Berlin memories seem to have been derived from a few old Time magazines and Wikipedia searches. Bowie took the title from his son’s movie Moon: there, “Where Are We Now?” is the start of a promotional film celebrating a beautiful future. In the song, Bowie asks a question he doesn’t answer, only offering the beautifully Zen the moment you know, you know you know.
The promise of the outro opens up the song, Bowie offering a promise of endurance against the fading memories of the verses. As long as there’s sun…as long as there’s fire. Yet Bowie never finishes the phrases. As long as these endure…well, what else will? Me and you, he finally says, but we’re not going to last much longer. Even the elements fade. One day the sun will wink out, and fire (usually a man-made thing, after all) will have gone well before that. A man looks at the ground and up in the sky for something that’ll be there after he’s gone. Yet the more he thinks about it, he’s not quite sure what will stand. The Wall was made of concrete, and look, they broke it down with chisels and hammers.
All that was left was to shoot a video. Bowie chose Tony Oursler, whom he’d worked with in the Nineties, and it was filmed in Oursler’s New York studio. In a cluttered loft, Bowie’s and Jacqueline Humphries’ faces are video-projected onto two lumpen mannequins sitting on a pommel horse, while playing on a screen behind them are film clips of contemporary Berlin—Haupstrasse, KaDeWe, Potsdamer Platz, the Reichstag. Bowie’s face looks like a sad turtle’s. He’s still lip-syncing, though it seems like his head’s been stuck in a fishbowl; he comes off like some misshapen laboratory transplant who’s still valiantly following directions. Humphries (an artist Bowie admired, as well as being Oursler’s wife) was chosen in part because she resembled Corinne Schwab, who might as well have been conjoined to Bowie during the Berlin years.
Bowie came up with the entire concept: the linked dummies, the piles of junk, what should be playing on the screen. “It was a crystal vision of what it was going to look like,” Oursler said. “It was really his conception. I was completely flattered that he wanted to come to my cave and fulfill this.”
Towards the end of the clip, you see the “real” Bowie at last, trim and impassive, wearing a “Song of Norway” t-shirt (perhaps referencing a film that his longago girlfriend, Hermione Farthingale, had acted in), watching the apparatus at work. It’s a visual analogue for the entire making of The Next Day: Bowie, having sorted through piles of discards (like the rubble of postwar Berlin), has finally set up a dummy figure and screens his “public” memories behind it, like he’s got an installation at the Whitney. It’s as if to say: here, this is your “Bowie” now, so take him: I’m staying on the sidelines.
Bowie now has “this kind of cross between a John Hurt look and like George Smiley…a wounded arty kind of anonymous spook look,” as Dumiak told me, which I found an inspired observation. Bowie as the spy who stayed out in the cold, someone like Bill Nighy’s Johnny Worricker, an old British spy who’s become a man of honor just by standing still while the world corroded around him.
Things go on and become other things. The whole character of the country has changed beyond recognition since my childhood. One always thinks everything’s got worse—and in most respects it has—but that’s meaningless. What does one mean when one says that things are getting worse? It’s becoming more like the future, that’s all. It’s just moving ahead. The future will be infinitely “worse” than the present; and in that future, the future will be immeasurably “worse” than the future that we can see. Naturally.
It is the evening of the 8th of January, 1977. Bowie and Iggy Pop, Romy Haag and Corinne Schwab are in a West Berlin nightclub to celebrate Bowie’s 30th birthday.
A few photographs, taken by Andrew Kent, are all that remain of that night. Bowie and Iggy, as often in Berlin, sport near-identical outfits; Haag is the most beautiful woman in the room. The look of the club, the Sally Bowles costumes of the waitresses, even the texture and lighting of the photographs, all seem meant to invoke a common memory of decadent Weimar cabaret.
But the expressions on Bowie and Schwab and Pop are something else. They look gleeful, even goofy; they seem like kids on holiday, or students taking a semester abroad and seeing how far their dollars and pounds will go in a battered city.
A German interviewer, around the turn of the century, asked Bowie where he’d lived in Berlin, and Bowie said immediately: “Hauptstrasse 155 in Schöneberg.” The interviewer was startled. “You still remember it after 25 years?.” “I will never forget it,” Bowie said to him. “They were very important years.”
Haag, upon hearing “Where Are They Now?,” said Bowie sounded homesick. He’d only lived in Berlin for little more than a year, once you account for his tours and travels in the late Seventies. But Berlin was the place he’d run away to, and it was the city he had to leave when he had to get back to work, to get things done. Berlin was the last place he was young.
It is the morning of the 8th of January 2013. David Bowie is 66, and has released a new song.
Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. September 2011, The Magic Shop, Soho, NYC; (vocals, overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop and Human Worldwide, NYC. Released 8 January 2013 as an MP3 file (886443826403) (UK #6).
Sources: Over 30 articles and TV/radio interviews provided information and quotes for this piece; the most valuable included Alexis Petridis and Kate Connolly’s features in The Guardian (12 January 2013), Andy Greene’s interviews of most of The Next Day musicians for Rolling Stone in January-February 2013 and Jerome Soligny’s similar work in Rock et Folk (March 2013), Barry Nicolson’s in-depth chronology/interviews for the NME (2 March 2013), Gerry Leonard’s wonderful songwriting seminar at Xmusic in Dublin, 31 March 2013; Simon Goddard and David Buckley’s pieces in the March 2013 issues of, respectively, Q and Mojo.
I’m indebted to the personal recollections of past and present Berliners Momus, Crayon and, especially, Dumiak, to whom this entry is dedicated.
Photos: top to bottom: Dennis Skley, “Time Isn’t Passing,” 2012; Michael Dumiak, “map of former geisterbahnhoefe [ghost stations]”; Bundesarchiv Bild, “Crowds crossing the Bösebrücke at the Bornholmer Straße border crossing on 18 November 1989″; Montecruz Foto, “Mira la nada: Turistas en el Tacheles, Berlin 2010”; John Spooner, “Berlin Wall, 1978”; Chris Carter, “TG at Checkpoint Charlie, 1980”; Georgie Pauwels, “Sky Over Berlin,” 2013.
David Bowie Archive, “Gasmask Street Poster, 1979”; Raphaël Thiémard, “Fall der Mauer, 1989”; Urbanartcore.eu, “Guy Fawkes in Berlin, 2012”; ‘Kadrik,’ “May Day, Berlin, 2012”; Matthias Rhomberg, “Ghost Station [Nordbahnhof], 2010”; Rolf B., “Berlin Gropiusbau Landing, 1977”; ; H. Fuller, “Madchen auf Demo,” 2010; Rainer Wieczorek, “Neuköllnerstrasse,” 1977; Dschungel, ca. early 198os (unknown photog); ‘Michael’, “Bahnhof Schoeneberg Wannseebahn,” 2010; Andrew Kent, Bowie’s 30th birthday, 1977; Jimmy King, Next Day sleeve photo; Bowie listening to playback at Hansa, 1977.