David Bowie's New Song: Back In Berlin, At Least In Spirit

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David Bowie's surprise new song deals heavily with the time he spent in Berlin as a young musician, a brief period that has become part of the German capital's identity. But what does the melancholy tune reveal about his memories of the city?

Photo Gallery: David Bowie's Comeback Photos
Getty Images/ Michael Ochs Archives

Music fans around the world got a special surprise this week with the unexpected release of a new single by rock legend David Bowie, but perhaps nowhere were they more excited than in Berlin.

The track, entitled "Where Are We Now?" is about Bowie's time in the divided German capital in the late 1970s, when he lived in the Schöneberg district with fellow rocker Iggy Pop, and worked with Brian Eno to produce some of the most memorable music of his career. They came to escape the glamor and drugs in Los Angeles and New York with limited success, and their escapades in West Berlin helped establish the city's reputation as a scrappy artist's haven. And what could say "cool" better than "Bowie was here"?

Released on Tuesday, the artist's 66th birthday, it is Bowie's first new song in a decade, and a complete surprise to the music industry after his near complete retreat from public life. Along with the announcement of a new studio album, "The Next Day," to be released in March, it was classic Bowie showmanship that ignited a major buzz on Twitter, Facebook and news sites about the influential artist's comeback. Even more exciting for Germans, though, is the fact that it reveals just what a great impact their beloved city appears to have had on him.

"David Bowie Pays Homage to Berlin," mass-circulation daily Bild raved. "David Bowie is Among Us Again," wrote the Berliner Zeitung. "David Bowie Is Back, and Singing About Berlin," gushed the city's Der Tagesspiegel newspaper.

'He Still Has a Presence Here'

"It's really cool that Bowie is addressing his time in Berlin. It's a great city," says Berlin native Thilo Schmied, a Bowie aficionado who has been leading tours about the capital's rock and pop history with Fritz Music Tours for some eight years. "I think what fascinated him about Berlin was the past, even before the Nazis, the golden era when everything was possible culturally and artistically."

Schmied says that it is the period between 1976 and 1978 when David Bowie and Iggy Pop intermittently stayed in Berlin that most interests people taking the tour. During that time Bowie recorded three albums -- "Low," "Heroes" and "Lodger" -- which he later dubbed his "Berlin Trilogy," even though the latter album was actually produced in Switzerland and New York. Much of the work that he and Iggy Pop did in West Berlin was at the now legendary Hansa Studio, next to the Berlin Wall, where a litany of artists including U2, Depeche Mode, David Byrne and Nick Cave have also recorded.

"He still has a presence here, and that's why so many people want to come and see where David Bowie recorded," a studio employee said on Wednesday. With the release of "Where Are We Now?", a fresh wave of Bowie fans may soon be making the pilgrimage to Berlin and the studio, he registered with a typically sarcastic Berliner expletive.

David Bowie - Where Are We Now?
Mehr Videos von David Bowie gibt es hier auf tape.tv!
A Creative Source

The new song was recorded in New York with long-time collaborator Tony Visconti, with whom Bowie also worked in Berlin. It is soft and spare, with an elegiac quality that makes it clear Bowie is grappling with the past. The video, directed by Tony Oursler, features Bowie's face, along with that of a mysterious woman, superimposed onto a Siamese twin doll. A projector beams black and white video footage of Berlin onto a screen in the background. According to Bowie's website, the scene that surrounds the two is footage of the auto repair shop located below his former Berlin apartment.

Bowie sings about the old haunts where he and friends used to hang out, like the now defunct bar Dschungel on Nürnbergerstrasse. Another lyric, in which he refers to taking a train from Potsdamer Platz -- an impossibility when Berlin was divided -- raises the question of whether the song was inspired by a more recent visit to the city. Along his path down memory lane, he's "just walking the dead," Bowie sings.

"Berlin was always a creative source for him," Romy Haag, a German entertainer who was linked romantically to Bowie in the 1970s, told Bild. "One can sense his homesickness and how good he felt here."

'Very, Very Depressing'

But another friend from that era disagrees. Watching the video, Claudia Skoda says she felt "unsettled." The German fashion designer, who says she was "good friends" with Bowie during his Berlin years, spending many evenings frequenting places like Dschungel or going out for Chinese food, found it all a bit too sad.

"It's somehow very, very depressing," she says. "I have the feeling he's not doing well right now and is perhaps a bit melancholy and thinking back on what Berlin was to him."

A number of media have recently reported on suspicions that Bowie, who suffered a heart attack in 2004, may be seriously ill. Following the release of the song, however, both his management and record label remained tight-lipped, not responding to interview requests. There is also no word about whether the new album will be accompanied by a tour. His website simply says: "David is the kind of artist who writes and performs what he wants when he wants … when he has something to say as opposed to something to sell. Today he definitely has something to say."

Regardless whether Bowie returns to the German capital on tour, this week Berliners can bask in the glow of his attention once again. "We were proud back then that he'd come to the city, too," says Skoda. "That was something special."

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