Saturday, 9 April 2011

Look Good in Ruins (or: Twenty-five Tangents about Bowie in "Berlin")




1.

By all accounts, he had to get away from L.A. That much is a matter of undisputed public record. Some claim it was little more than a tax dodge, but others argue it was Bowie's attempt at breaking the maeslstrom of drugs and increasing psychosis that was consuming his life -- the obsession with Aleister Crowley, the traffic, escalating paranoia, the $500-per-diem cocaine habit supplemented by a diet of milk and peppers. Or maybe it was all of the above. But it had to start with leaving, getting out and getting away, extricating oneself from certain endangering circles, breaking with destructive habits and everything that fuels or enables them, and hopefully changing course and salvaging what's left of one's creative energies before it's too late. First to Switzerland, then -- eventually -- to Berlin. Leaving Los Angeles and all of its snares and poisonous associations behind. To hell with it all. Looking back, he would later say of Los Angeles, "The fucking place should be wiped off the face of the planet."


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2.

No big surprise, really, that Bowie would inevitably wind up in Berlin. He'd been enthralled with Germany for some time -- fascinated, as some recent recorded comments and reputed gestures suggested, to a worrisome or problematic degree. He was deeply taken with its art and its music, with the decadent cabaret culture of the Weimar era, and -- more alarmingly -- with a certain sordid chapter of its 20th-century history.

But mainly it seemed like a good place to go to detox and collect one's wits. Bleak, depressed, somewhat coldly (and dingily) modern, furtively wrestling with its own history in the most repressed of ways, physically divided, socially and politically adrift in the throes of its Cold War limbo. That was the impression of the place as it existed at the time, anyway – the picture that the word "Berlin" commonly painted in a person's mind. A "come-down" city if ever there was one. You wander down a given city street, only to come to its sudden and abrupt end, the point of stoppage at which you find yourself facing the Wall. Some histories aren't so easily left behind, some histories leave harsh reminders.


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3.

It was Christopher Isherwood who put the idea of moving to Berlin into Bowie's head. Bowie had long been a fan of Isherwood, whose Goodbye to Berlin had undergone a recent revival in popularity from loosely providing the inspiration for the musical Cabaret. Attending the Los Angeles stop of the Station to Station tour in 1976, Isherwood and artist David Hockney had made their way backstage to converse with the singer afterward. The topic of Berlin came up. Isherwood would later claim that he tried to disabuse Bowie of the notion of going there, going so far as to dismiss the city as "boring." No matter, as it prompted Bowie to decide that a lack of distractions and some anonymity were what he needed to clear his head, and it wasn't much later that he started packing his bags.


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4.

Bowie wasn't the only one fascinated by Berlin in the 1970s. Far from it. A quick survey of the American cultural landscape revealed that a certain number of people in the U.S. shared a similar interest. Lou Reed's Berlin LP might've played some small part in the matter, with the way it sketched its setting in the gloomiest and starkest of tones. And there was also the popularity of the Broadway and film productions of Cabaret. Plus, the novels of Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass sold modestly well, with the films of Herzog and Wertmüller and Fassbinder and Wenders drawing crowds at the cinema in New York and reviews from urbane film critics.

As far as how the idea of Berlin was conceived and held in the American public imagination -- it represented something, must've served as some kind of metaphor. But a metaphor for what? Nobody ever said precisely, and perhaps nobody actually knew. Something having to do with trauma and unthinkable sins, with atonement and the weight of history, about rebuilding from the wreckage without looking back, of not being able to speak of the past, of living in a historical limbo. And about modernity. Because Berlin seemed deeply modern, but in a way that was as hard-won and enburdened as any form of modernity could be.


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5.

"Amerika kennt keine Ruinen," art historian Horst Janson reputedly wrote in 1935. America knows no ruins. Ruins, as such, serve as a marker of history; of the past, of civilization having peaked and waned. In its sui generis exclusivity, America in the 20th century say itself as the embodiment of modernity. History was for the Old World, something that effected various elsewheres -- deeply European in its fatalism and determinism. To acknowledge it, to speak its name, meant playing the defeatist's card -- an admission of falling victim to causal forces beyond one's control. Never, never, never. America isn't shaped by history, America makes history. America knows no ruins because it is continually razing the grounds and building anew.


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6.

Unlike the projects that preceded it, Bowie's Young Americans blue-eyed soul schtick seemed like an aesthetic dead-end from the start -- conceptually limited, not the sort of thing one could build on, could take in any further direction. Transitioning into his European, world-wearied proto-New Romantic persona as the Thin White Duke the following year, Bowie would revisit the formula on Station to Station, albeit in a revamped, more dense and shadowy form.

Case in point, Station to Station's "Stay." Abetted by the chops of a couple of former members of Roy Ayers Ubiquity, the song showcases Carlos Alomar and Dennis Davis tucking deeply into the groove, getting louder and more open than they did on most of Ayers's recorded outings. "Stay," Bowie croons, although it sounds more like a suggestion than a plea. He sounds numb or placidly transfixed to the spot, while the band piles in a car, stomps the accelerator pedal, and screeches off toward their own destination, all but leaving the frontman in the dust. Stay? The singer was already in the act of grabbing his coat and heading toward the exit.


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Left: Victoria Station, 1976. Right: Martin Kippenberger, Ich kann beim Besten Willen
kein Hakenkreuz entdecken
("I Can't for the Life of Me See a Swastika in This"), 1984.



7.

At Victoria Station in London, the camera shutter snaps and catches Bowie waving to fans, his arm in mid-sweep. The photo then runs in a number of tabloids, each claiming that the singer was seen giving the Nazi salute. Of course, that's just the tabloids being the tabloids. But it certainly didn't help that at about the same time he would make a remark in an interview about how Britain could really "benefit from a fascist leader." It was at that point that people started to wonder about the depth and the nature of the singer's Teutophilia, or if all that cocaine hadn't irreparably fucked his brain.

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8.

In 1969, the artist Anselm Kiefer made a series of excursions across Europe. It was the earliest stage of his career, and the journey was the basis for a project -- a photographic travelogue titled Occupations. In each of the resulting photos, we see Kiefer at each of his stops giving the fascist salute.

There's something deeply, ironically comical about the series, as we see the artist as a lonely pathetic figure isolated within the frame, standing at attention with his arm held stiffly in the air. In Rome, at Arles and Montpellier, facing the ocean à la Friedrich's Wanderer Above the Misty Sea. An isolated and abject figure, a bathetic caricature of nationalist sentiment and imperial hubris -- ciphering away in empty and indifferent spaces, dwarfed by the surrounding landscape and architecture, repeating a delusional and ineffectual gesture ad absurdum, summoning the spectre of a lapsed and doomed history again and again and again. As if to drive the issue home with a visual pun, in one shot we see Kiefer in the same pose while standing in silhouette against the window in a trash-strewn apartment. Lebensraum. Of course.

All irony aside, the series still managed to piss off a lot of people at the time.


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9.

Albert Speer knew the value of history, and he also knew the importnace of ruins. During the 1930s, Speer was developing and promoting his own Ruinenwerttheorie ("Theory of Ruin Value") as the overarching principle for the imperial architecture of the Third Reich. The power of the state was to be exemplified in its architecture, he argued; architecture which would stand and sprawl boldly and proudly, endure for a millennium, and then look good in ruins as "relics of a great age." As the Reich's chief architect, Speer was most notably responsible for designing the Nuremberg Zeppelin Field and the German Pavilion for the 1937 World Exposition in Paris. But by dint of their grandiose and unrealistically ambitious character, most of Speer's projects never made it beyond the drawing-room stages. Among his grand, unrealized visions was that of overhauling the capital city of Berlin in a monumentally neoclassical fashion, in the process rechristening the new megalopolis Germania.


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10.

Reputedly, Bowie's interest in Berlin was mainly artistic in origin. As an aspiring painter, he'd always admired the German Expressionists. And in the middle of the 1970s, in the blur of cocaine and fame and things going off the rails, he was gravitating again to that initial interest in putting paint to canvas; devoting more time to doing so, if only as a means of (re)focusing his creative energies. Some stories have it that before he left for Berlin, he'd been discussing the possibility of doing a film called Wally -- a film based on the life of the Viennese proto-Expressionist artist Egon Schiele.

Nothing ever came of that project, so eventually he had to settle for being in Just a Gigolo instead. But looking at the cover of "Heroes", you might think Bowie was having a flashback to his early days as a street mime. If not that, then maybe he was running through a series of contrived and contorted poses reminiscent of Schiele's numerous self-portraits.


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11.

Common side effects of advanced cocaine use: Possible neurological and cerebrovascular effects, including but not limited to, subarachnoid haemorrhage, strokes of varying aetiologies, seizures, headache and sudden death. Symptoms might also include chest pains, hypertension, and psychiatric disturbances such as increased agitation, anxiety, depression, decreased dopaminergic signalling, psychosis, paranoia, acute and excessive cognitive distortions, erratic driving, writer's block.


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12.

A severe and minimal stage setting, Kraftwerk piped in over the p.a. before the performance, followed by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel's surrealist short film Un Chien Andalous being screened above the stage. Bowie would claim that the idea for the stark black-and-white stage design was inspired by German Expressionist cinema, especially Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. All of it signifying the "shock of the new" -- the adversarial tradition of modernism and the avant-garde in twentieth century art, complete with its aesthetic credo of relentless progress and innovation, of perpetual revolutions in artistic form and content.

The Third Reich, however, had no truck with the avant-garde. Goebbels (the failed novelist) had tried to argue with der Führer (the failed painter) about the nature of the regime's cultural policies, making the case that the ideas of a dynamic and forward-thinking society should be embodied in art and literature that was boldly and unapologetically modern. But Goebbels lost that argument, and was given the order to abolish all traces of the avant-garde -- to rid the culture of all art that Hitler deemed "degenerate" and "foreign" and poisonous to the constitution of a "pure" German culture. With that decree, all enclaves of modernist art, literature, and film in Germany were abruptly and sweepingly shut down, wiped out, or driven into exile.


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13.

Being an artist in postwar West Germany meant being part of a "lost generation." This was on account of a major aesthetic disruption -- first, from having been removed from the modernist continuum by Hitler and his cultural commissars, only to be plunged back into it after an extended absence. The past buried twice over. The result was a sense of alienation, of feeling culturally adrift, hopelessly provincial. What to paint in the West Germany of the 1950s? A number of artists opted for Abstract Expressionism, since that was the favored international style of the day. But somehow -- what, with all its heroic and romantic and subjective underpinnings -- it didn't feel right. And adopting some mode of art brut-styled shabbiness or art informel neo-primitivism was problematic for a whole different set of reasons. It all seemed dismally inadequate and second-hand. So to be an artist in postwar West Germany meant having to find your own way, devising new methods and means of reconnecting with the surrounding culture -- a new iconography for articulating the times.

But if you were in East Germany, you didn't face this sort of quandary, because the state had already made the choice for you. That choice being the mandated style of Socialist Realism -- long favored by the Soviets, and not much different from the official art of the Third Reich. Interestingly enough, a number of prominent postwar West German artists were defectors from the former East Germany. This was the case with the artists Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, who -- having learned their painterly chops under the state-mandated, institutionalized style of Socialist Realism -- met in the early 1960s and began trading ideas. Between the two of them and a third artist by the name of Konrad Lueg, they soon cooked up a platform for their own mode of production -- one based in the visual language of advertising, which they christened "Capitalist Realism." The way they saw it, it all amounted to one form of propaganda or another in the end.


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14.

It was probably just as well that Bowie had gotten into rock'n'roll, because there was no point in being a painter man in the 1970s. As the mandarin aesthetic discourse of the day had it, the medium of painting was dead; deemed outmoded, obsolete, mired in formalism and tradition, elitist and undemocratic in its institutional and technical orientation. The act of picking up a paintbrush, as critic Matthew Collings would later put it, was the equivalent of worshipping Satan. (Or, to put it another way: What guitar solos were to punk, painting was to the art community in the 1970s.) In the prior decade of the 1960s, art practices had splintered off into a diffuse set of multimedia practices; with the boundaries of what constituted "worthy" subject matter being thrown wide open, thus ushering in the age of art spelt with a lower-case a.

Of all the artistic movements of the 1960s, the international Fluxus movement most epitomized this jettisoning of big-A art. And in NYC during the 1970s, Fluxus's most prominent German representative Joseph Beuys was regarded as one of the most significant European artists of the postwar era. Artworld types crammed auditoriums to hear him talk. At the René Block Gallery in 1974, he performed his famous piece "I Like America and America Likes Me," which involved him being locked in a room with a coyote for three days. As was typical with Beuys's work, interpretations of the performance varied; but many saw it as involving themes about American history -- about manifest destiny, the materialistic nature of American culture, as well as the country's ongoing military involvement in Southeast Asia.


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15.

But something about the chronology is a little off, here, in terms of Bowie's interest in Germany is concerned. As far as the avant-garde was concerned, Expressionism was out of vogue by the time of the Weimar Republic. Weimar was, instead, the age of Die Neue Sachlichkeit -- the "New Sobriety," or (depending on which translation you opt for) the "New Objectivity." It was that period after WWI in which Germany was in turmoil, and a younger generation of artists had come along and rebelled, declaring that Expressionism -- with all its interiority and subjectivity and romanticizing of the artist's creative vision and ego -- was too bloated and self-important, too wrongly out of tune with the times. Art and literature and film, it was decided, should instead cast its gaze outward; outward to society, and critically reflect all of that society's aspects -- especially its excesses, its injustices and hypocrisies, its innumerable desperations.

Yes, Weimar...cabaret and homosexuality and transvestites and jazz and decadence, extreme economic disparities, death and crime and riots in the streets. All of that, up until the point when a new regime came to power and put things in order. And therein (perhaps) lies part of the iconic romantic appeal of Weimar -- the orgiastic, blinkered indulgences of a dark chapter in history. And then a page in the history book turns and an even darker and more troubling chapter begins.

Being a creative sort and a young gay male, Christopher Isherwood had -- along with confrere W.H. Auden -- relocated to Berlin to get in on the action, mainly looking to expatriate himself to a climate where his own sexuality might meet with fewer social reprisals. But as a writer, he was also attuned to the culture, and fell in step with the New Objectivity. "I am a camera," he famously wrote, "With its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. ... Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed."


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Jörg Immendorff, Hört auf zu malen! (Give Up Painting!), 1966


16.

In the context of postmodernity -- with its linchpin criteria of pluralism, hybridity, circumscription, semiotic slippage, and distanciated irony -- there is nothing inherently problematic about blue-eyed soul.


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17.

"The avant-garde was defeated by the changing conditions in which it had to operate. Huyssen contends that the avant-garde was either killed off by the repressive political regimes or dissolved in cultural environments like the United States where its dialectic could find no purchase. In dozens of accounts the latter is described as a process of cynically selling out, or being forced out in what financial journalism would call a hostile takeover, some voluntary or involuntary collusion with art markets and hegemonic systems of representation that belies the avant-garde's revolutionary pretensions. [. . .] The economic equation can of course also be used retroactively to discredit the avant-garde all the way back to its point of inception: now the avant-garde was never anything more than a way to generate new commodities or develop a more striking sales pitch. This critique is usually attached to analyses of the so-called culture industry. In the west this death-as-devaluation is also a by-product of the perception that the revolutionary movements with which the avant-garde has historically been linked tend inevitably to end not in utopias but in totalitarianism."
- Paul Mann, The Theory-Death of the Avant-Garde


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18.

Joseph Beuys wasn't the only German artist to be a hot ticket item in New York at the time. In fact, interest in German art -- of both the current and early twentieth-century variety -- was in vogue in the late 1970s, resulting in what some would soon refer to as a "German Invasion." First came the arrival of high-rolling German art dealers setting up stateside satellite outposts in the city's main gallery district. Then followed a gradual invasion proper, with critics and collectors taking an advanced interest in the works of contemporary German artists. Starting with Beuys, and then followed Sigmar Polke and Georg Baselitz and Blinky Palermo and Jörg Immendorff and A.R. Penck and Anselm Kiefer and eventually Gerhard Richter, and there were plenty of others where they came from. Sure, painting was still a dubious pursuit and, yes, most of these guys were painters. But due to some twist in historico-criterial rationale, the Germans were issued a pass. Maybe it was because, in sorting through the societal rubble of postwar German culture, this generation of artists was engaging the medium in exceptional ways, turning its conventional visual syntax against itself with the driest sense of irony. Whatever the case, this newfound interest in contemporary German artists would remain a staple of the NYC uptown art boom of the 1980s.


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Albert Speer's German Chancellery. Berlin, 1945



19.

Ruination would arrive much earlier than Speer or Hitler had anticipated. Along with a number of cities throughout Germany, Berlin would be obliterated by the Allied powers aerial bombing campaigns between the years of 1942 and 1945.

Economically crippled and purged of any- and everyone who had been associated with the Third Reich, the German film industry lumbered into the postwar reconstruction era with limited means and resources. What followed were a series of middling-budget dramas set in the streets and among devastation of the country's cities. The result was a short-lived form of cinematic neorealist genre/not-genre that would later come to be known as Trümmerfilme ("rubble films"). This variety of film, reputedly, would prove unpopular with German audiences, who preferred movies that could offer them an escape from their daily lives.


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Anselm Kiefer, Martin Heidegger, 1976.


20.

At this point, I imagine there's a really profound and pertinent quote by Heidegger that I could insert here. Something connected to cultural memory and nostalgia and the role of myth in a socio-historical context. Something that might add a little more rigorously academic and metaphysical weight to this scattered and meandering spiel.

But honestly, I really don't feel like going out of my way to search for one. Because while David Bowie might not have actually been a fascist, Martin Heidegger was. So fuck him.


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21.

True, there was the popularity of "Autobahn," which brought the music of Kraftwerk to many people's attention. Bowie had been impressed and used Kraftwerk's music to open each show on his Station to Station tour. And there was the motorik rhythm of the Düsseldorf outfit Neu!, which can be heard echoing throughout Bowie's so-called "Berlin Trilogy." Brian Eno was quite smitten with it too, going so far in 1976 as to seek out Neu's Michael Rother (by this point working in the trio Harmonia) for the sake of recording together.

The motorik rhythm: mechanical pulse and vibration. The cycling of the engine, the oscillations of wiper blades, the road and the tires providing a baseline drone from underneath. The experience of traveling along motorways; that arterial network linking city to town, traversing borders and scattered terrains. Life in transition, the landscape always in passing. Speed -- deliberate, enabled by technology -- as the essence of twentieth-century modernity, its tautology and telos.


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Left: Wim Wenders, Im Lauf der Zeit, 1976. Right: Gerhard Richter, Platterspieler, 1987.


22.

For Wim Wenders, early rock'n'roll tunes made for the ideal travel music. This is what often serves as a diegetic trope throughout the director's "road movie" trilogy of the mid 1970s, particularly in the trilogy's finale Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit, 1976) It's the soundtrack of choice for the film's two protagonists -- film-house projector repairman Bruno and suicidal drifter Robert -- as they travel the open roads between dead-end towns along the country's eastern border along the Zonenrandgebiet.

At one point in Kings of the Road, Bruno and Robert are poking around in a shabby, empty small-town theater. Having finished his repairs on the projector, Bruno gathers a few short strands of film he finds on the floor of the projection booth and whimsically splices them into a loop. The duo ease back into a pair of theater seats and wryly admire Bruno's improvised handiwork -- a short montage of sex and catastrophe repeated ad infinitum, the gratuitous staples of cheap entertainment filling the void of a culture in flux. As the character Robert mutters at another point in the film, "The Americans have colonized our subconscious."


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Left: The verb imperative? East Germany, circa 1960-ish. Right: Gerhard Richter
rolling out the season's Capitalist Realism wares in Düsseldorf, 1966.


23.

Polke and Richter's formulation of "Capitalist Realism" was, as such, a variant of Pop Art -- a reading of the movement's engagement with the dominant culture from a postwar German perspective. As some proponents of postmodernism would later decree, Pop Art marks a pivotal moment in the history of twentieth century art; the moment of dissolution and terminus in which the critical imperatives of the modernist avant-garde -- e.g. the Futurists' demand of taking art into the streets, of aestheticizing everyday life, its adversarial attack on the status quo of the larger society, etc. -- were overtaken and subsumed into the common (re: commodity, consumerist, "everyday") culture. By this rationale, during the 1970s some critics asserted that art and its avant-gardes were now officially dead. An artwork was now little more than another product circulating in a broader political economy, of no greater cultural importance than any other commodity -- be it a car, a kitchen appliance, or a sitcom on TV. Or so the argument had it. But as far as lazy and under-nuanced postmodern declarations go, this obituary more than slightly reeked of a self-gratified bourgeoisie triumphalism.


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24.

The album title Low reportedly described the state and mood Bowie was in during its creation. West Germany had seen its share of lows at the time, as well. In some respects, some things in West Germany weren't much different than they were elsewhere during the 1970s. The "economic miracle" of its postwar recovery years had ground to a crawl, bringing a spike in unemployment and labor unrest. Chancellor Willy Brandt had to resign from office when it was discovered that one of his top aides was secretly in the employ of the East German Stasi. And in 1977 -- just a couple of weeks after Bowie and company wrapped up their sessions for "Heroes" at Berlin's Hansa Studio by the Wall -- the country was entering the one of most violent and politically tumultuous episodes of its postwar years. It was the "German Autumn" which marked the culmination of the country's long-running conflict with the Baader-Meinhof gang, bringing with it a series of connected events that involved kidnapping, hijacking, murder, and death. While these events were very specific to the decade, they also pointed backwards; begging a number of critical questions about the society's self-imposed cultural amnesia and denial, its unwillingness or inability to acknowledge -- let alone address -- the ghosts of its own history prior to the "year zero" of 1945. There were some things, it seemed, that couldn't simply be bulldozed away with the rubble.


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25.

Rapidly going broke, mental and physical health in shambles, life run off the rails. Bowie had reputedly gone to Berlin for a number of reasons -- reasons both personal and creative. To what degree he achieved what he wanted to achieve, made the changes he hoped to make, or how much the city met his expectations or provided him what he sought is anyone's guess. Dicey going, that -- going to a place while viewing it from an earlier half of the century, from a remote and amputated portion of its own history.

What we do know, once the facts are teased out from the blur of myth and marketing copy, is that Bowie didn't spend the entire time of 1977-1978 in the city. Of the three albums that fall under his so-called Berlin Trilogy, only one of them was fully recorded there. But as a critical rubric, the "Berlin years" designate a distinct and transitional phase in the artist's career. There's the much dissected sonic difference that evolved from working by alternate methods of crafting and developing songs, drawing from a set of different influences, from working with specific people at a specific time. Lyrically, the material is in some ways darker, at other turns cryptic and fragmented. It was also, at first, sometimes more personal. It was as if the artist who'd spent the past several years submerging himself in a sequence of invented identities and elaborate theatrics finally had to check in and find out who, if anyone, was still at home.

6 comments:

W. Kasper said...

Tangent 20 made me LOL with a healthy sense of dasein...

But classy stuff - you could get a whole lot of other tangents out of each one. Berlin did loom large in the late 70s.

Greyhoos said...

Yeah, had that Kiefer graphic on hand, figured it might be good for lightening the mood/breaking the tedium.

Phil Knight said...

That David Bowie Nazi salute is so obviously not a Nazi salute. I'm amazed that fiction is still entertained.

Besides, you're supposed to put your finger over your top lip.

Michael said...

You could argue that Bowie anticipated German Neo-Expressionist painting, although its hard to imagine anyone taking seriuosly at the time paintings of Iggy Pop done in the style of Erich Heckel. The sleeve of "Low" is a joke apparently, Bowie in profile.. low profile. His desire for anonymity was so strong when he arrived in Berlin he even grew a moustache, how German is that?

Greyhoos said...

Anticipated? Since these things often go in cycles, it may be more be a case of: if you wear that pair of flared trousers long enough...

Michael said...

Ok, I'm pushing it a bit but Bowie was hardly the man sitting round waiting for his trousers to come back in was he? If something was coming round he could sniff it. No coke pun intended. On the subject of cocaine, Bowie is the worst example for the drugs/creativity argument. He got crap when he stopped.