Thilo Schmied is lost in thought, mulling over the days when David Bowie fell in love with Berlin, and Berlin fell in love with him. “Whenever he went into a record store, the word would spread and people would gather outside, and when he came out with his purchases, they’d dash inside and ask the sales people what he had bought.”
Schmied, a sound engineer, now offers tours of the Hansa studio, the place where Bowie spent so much of the fertile period which saw the recording of his Berlin trilogy of albums, Low, Heroes and Lodger. The studio’s mahogany-paneled former ballroom — where Heroes was recorded — remains the destination for many fans seeking to get to the heart of Bowie’s mid-1970s Berlin experience.
Visitors are also taken to the former studio control room whose window once offered a view into communist East Germany, where Bowie and his producer Tony Visconti would look at the border guards looking back at them; the same window from which Bowie says he saw a couple making out at the wall, giving him the inspiration for the track Heroes.
“You will have to use your imaginations,” says Schmied sadly, showing the group a photograph of the old view. The window is now blocked by a redbrick firewall.
The Hansa studio was known to the singer as the Hall by the Wall. Bowie has talked affectionately of cycle rides there from the tenement flat he rented. The studio, where he finished Low and recorded Heroes, was pockmarked with wartime bullet holes and made for a strangely isolated edifice. It stood just meters away from the Wall and the sealed-off Potsdamer Platz, then in no man’s land. Today it is pressed up against new office blocks.
The facade and Ionic columns have, like much of post cold war Berlin, been thoroughly scrubbed and all traces of the Wall have gone, save for a bit of bumpy cobbled paving to mark its path. Potsdamer Platz is buzzing once more and as we know from Bowie’s Where Are We Now?, released so unexpectedly last week, the trains are also running there again. This corner of Berlin, remembered to such elegiac effect in Bowie’s new work, is brighter, more prosperous and more efficient. But it hasn’t quite got the charisma of the 70s.
“That was an unrepeatable time of Sturm und Drang,” says Jim Rakete, a leading German photographer and photojournalist who met Bowie in Berlin at the time and photographed him backstage, producing some of the most iconic images of Bowie’s Berlin days.
“When he first got in touch with Berlin he was ready to explode,” he said. “He was as broke as the city was, and people typically lived on just a couple of bucks a day. Bowie would drive around the city and no one would recognize him.”
Bowie arrived from LA in 1976, exhausted from drugs and fame, and would stay for two years, getting to know the works of Brecht and the Brucke art movement, immersing himself in German electronic music and writing and painting.
“He had a strange life, marooned inside communist East Germany in his west Berlin apartment just a stone’s throw from where his hero Christopher Isherwood had once lived, and surrounded by expressionist art, bars and other musicians and artists,” says Tobias Ruther, author of Heroes: David Bowie and Berlin.
The city had a profound healing effect on him and sparked what was arguably the most creative phase of his career. And Berlin, or West Berlin, welcomed him with open arms.