After the news we had to wake up to today, I’ve decided to write this article. I’ll be presenting you David Bowie’s Berlin. His house, his studio, his favorite bars and some super useful information you’ll find in this guide. All with addresses, maps and photos.
In the 3 years David Bowie lived in Berlin in the 70s recording the “Berlin Trilogy”, he left his mark on the city. When I say “Berlin Trilogy” I’m referring to Low (1977), Heroes (1977), and Lodger (1979).
Lots of cities are famous for their art and culture but just a few special ones come with their own soundtrack, right? From Lou Reed to Iggy Pop, Atari Teenage Riot to Depeche Mode, Nick Cave to all the minimal techno DJs… Berlin’s image is shaped by the creative and unique music created in the city. And this is not new for me or for you.
But for a lucky generation who lived in here in the late 70s, the spirit of David Bowie dominates the air of Berlin more than any other artist. At the very peak of his career in the late 70s, Bowie moved to Berlin mainly to get away from drugs and crazy fame. Bowie played, lived and loved in this city while he worked on 3 albums.
David Bowie’s years in Berlin were together with Iggy Pop in an apartment in Schöneberg. Next to it is Bowie’s favorite gay-friendly bar that exists until today. But let’s start this guide properly.
What to see, where to go at David Bowie’s Berlin
A Visit to Hansa Studios
David Bowie recorded at the famous Hansa Studios. The studio is not far from the reconstructed Potsdamer Platz, but for the story I’m about to tell you, please imagine the wall instead of the giants skyscrappers made of glass.
Heroes is one of Bowie’s most famous songs. It tells the story of a young couple who are so driven to be together that they would meet every day under a gun turret on The Berlin Wall.
Bowie found the inspiration for the lyrics on the affair between his Tony Visconti, his producer at the time, and backup singer Antonia Maass, who would kiss “by the wall” in front of Bowie as he looked out of the Hansa Studio window during a smoke break.
Bowie didn’t say anything about Visconti’s role in inspiring Heroes until 2003, when he confessed to Performing Songwriter magazine:
“I’m allowed to talk about it now. I wasn’t at the time. I always said it was a couple of lovers by the Berlin Wall that prompted the idea. Actually, it was Tony Visconti and his girlfriend. Tony was married at the time. And I could never say who it was (laughs). But I can now say that the lovers were Tony and a German girl that he’d met whilst we were in Berlin. I did ask his permission if I could say that. I think possibly the marriage was in the last few months, and it was very touching because I could see that Tony was very much in love with this girl, and it was that relationship which sort of motivated the song.”
At Hansa Studios Bowie recorded only 2 of his world famous Berlin Trilogy, the last album as just composed in the city but was produced with Brian Eno in Switzerland and New York City. So from Heroes, Low and Lodge, only the first two are part of this historical place.
Another cool story about the albums Bowie did here in Berlin is the story about the song Warszawa that we tell you all about it here at “David Bowie’s Warsaw: How Warszawa Came to Be”. A super interesting story that later changed the perception of how people saw Poland’s Capital Warsaw.
Hansa Studios – which used to overlook the Wall – remains operational and it is exceptionally relaxed about letting people visit. Who would have thought, huh?
I never manage to get inside but I know people who did. There are tours that can take you into the oak-panelled Tonstudio 2, the studio where Bowie recorded Low and Heroes and produced The Idiot for Iggy Pop.
David Bowie’s flat and his favorite bar
David Bowie used to live on Haupstrasse 155 in Schöneberg. We even wrote an article just about where he used to live in Berlin. He shared his flat with Iggy Pop and both of them spent load of time on a nice gay-friendly cafe next door. Anderes Ufer back in the day and Neues Ufer now.
This place is still open and you can sit down, drink something and admire the permanent exhibition of Bowie’s photos on the wall. I have to add that Neues Ufer hold the title of worst coffee I had in a long time, so make sure you skip the espresso.
Bonus Video: Below you can see a short video from my visit to the small memorial people did in front of his house on Haupstrasse, 155 in Berlin.
Where David Bowie used to hang out
Not a lot changed since the days of Bowie and Iggy in S036, the mythical venue in the heart of Kreuzberg the pair were regulars. David Bowie’s Berlin seems far in the past but the reality is that, even though Berlin is changing, somethings takes longer to change.
SO36 was the Berlin’s version of New York’s CBGBs. Today the area around Oranienstrasse, between Görli and Mortizplatz reminds a lot of those hectic days, when Kreuzberg was a Turkish enclave behind the Wall.
Amazing street-art share the space with designer shops as surviving examples of the district’s working class roots. Put also a pinch of punk rock into this pot.
You can almost touch the thick atmosphere and the lack of anything too corporate over the area. An admirable collection of old family business, button stores, record shops and flower shops.
We’ll always have Paris
For such famous fellows, David Bowie and Iggy Pop lived relatively modestly in Berlin. But when they wanted to splurge, they often went to Paris Bar, a very expensive French cafe in Charlottenburg.
This restaurant is where the notorious Rolling Stone interview happened. The interview where the journalist described the cafe as a scene from Degas’ The Absinthe Drinkers and Iggy Pop got so wasted that he ended up rolling around in the ice outside.
The classy Paris Bar continues to serve the *best steak frites in town.
*according to Bowie
First as Dschungel, now as Ellington Hotel
One special factor about why Bowie loved Berlin so much was the fact that nobody cared about him here. He dressed in baggy trousers and dowdy shirts and enjoyed the Berliners’ lack of interest in him. David Bowie’s Berlin was all about the freedom that was denied to him in LA. No one bothered him on the street.
There was one night, on a impulse, he crawled on to a cabaret stage to sing a few Sinatra songs. The audience, with their bad reputation for being tolerant, shrugged and demanded him to step down.
Well, what do you want? They had come to see a different act, right? Berlin was for Bowie “a city that’s so easy to ‘get lost’ in – and to ‘find’ oneself too”.
Where are we now?
And speaking of where are we now, a cool tip for people interested in Bowie and the history of Berlin is to take a moment to visit places like Platz des 9. November 1989 – the place where the wall fell back in 1989 and part of the lyrics of this new David Bowie’s song called “Where are we now?”. The Bösebrücke in Bornholmerstr is mentioned by Bowie when he sings:
“Twenty thousand people
Fingers are crossed
Just in case
Walking the dead”
And if you’re going all the way up north, please mind the area around with loads of cherry trees at Bornholmerstrasse. Besides being one of the nicest places in Berlin during spring, with pink and white cherry flowers all over you, it is very curious the reason why the cherry trees are there.
Years ago, in the 90s, a Japanese TV show asked for donations to plant cherry trees where the wall used to be. The Japanese people were dazzled by the unification of both sides of this amazing city called Berlin. And who can blame them? Those people contributed over a million dollars to plant almost 10.000 trees into different areas of the city.
Neukölln and Neuköln
Neukölln is now one of the trendiest areas in Berlin, but back in the 70s not a lot was going on there. Bowie for some unknown reason – at least to me – liked a lot this side of town. The story I heard is that he used to like to take the bus and explore what was then West-Berlin. He used to take the train to the U-Bahn station Neukölln and walk without direction from there.
He liked the area so much that he even have an instrumental song called Neuköln, with just one L. This instrumental piece was written by David Bowie and Brian Eno for the album Heroes and can be described as a mood piece.
I believe that Neuköln is his way to interpret the nostalgia and loneliness of the Turkish immigrants who made up a large proportion of the area’s population – and still do. Some people describe it as the Cold War being viewed through a bubble of blood. Guess you will have to listen to it and see which one makes more sense.
This is our last stop on this tour of David Bowie’s Berlin. If you’re ever in town, talk to me on our facebook group and maybe we can do some of these places together.
David Bowie’s house gets a memorial plaque
There is a memorial plaque in front of the house where David Bowie lived with his friend Iggy Pop. It was there that Bowie wrote his Berlin Trilogy, the way that critics and fans called the albums Low, Heroes and Lodger.
The white porcelain panel stands in front of Haupstrasse 155 and it was unveiled by Michael Muller, the mayor of Berlin. He even mentioned how Heroes was the unofficial anthem to Berlin. We were there during the week is was unveiled and you can see how it looks here.
Also, we are looking forward to see how, by 2021, the street where his old apartment stands could be renamed David Bowie Strasse. By law, the streets in Schöneberg can only be named after a person five years after the person’s death. Let’s hope this really happens!
David Bowie is such an inspiration to me and today, 11th of January of 2016, is the day when his death was announced to the world. Whatever I can do to keep him alive, I’ll do!
Cover picture by Andrew Kent.