It’s 1976, and David Bowie is coming apart at the seams. By this point he is one of the most recognizable recording artists in the world.
He is also something of a poster child for the price of success. He has retired twice only to be roped back into the business each time (albeit with fascinating hit albums). He is living in Los Angeles, where cocaine has made itself at home in his brain. His behavior is so erratic that he has attempted to exorcise his swimming pool, and he has fallen so deeply into his Thin White Duke persona he is declaring Britain “ready for a fascist prime minister.”
Years later Bowie will later tell Uncut magazine:
Life in L.A. had left me with an overwhelming sense of foreboding. I had approached the brink of drug-induced calamity one too many times, and it was essential to take some kind of positive action. For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary-like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke; it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn’t care. Well, not about an English rock singer, anyway.
Today, this move to Berlin is regarded one of the most felicitous in pop music. The albums he recorded over the next three years there (Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger) are viewed as a massive turning point for the artist.
With Bowie now dead, his music has predictably roared back into the center of people’s consciousness. In the UK, his albums comprise a full quarter of the BBC’s top 40. Low is among them. “Heroes” — along with eight of his other releases — is on the top 100.
It is fitting that two of the Berlin trilogy are listed (the omission of Lodger, often cited as one of Bowie’s least accessible releases, isn’t particularly surprising). They are key links in Bowie’s evolution from mere rock star to one of the most important artistic influences of the past half-century. They also, quite significantly, represent Bowie’s poignant overlap with one of his own influences: the poet, playwright, and Marxist Bertolt Brecht.
It may be unnecessary to point out that at no discernible time in his life was Bowie a socialist; the influence he took from Brecht appears to have been entirely aesthetic. Even then, for the most part, one could never so neatly describe any era of his as “Brechtian.” Sussing out the impact of Brecht is thus not an entirely straightforward task, particularly when it jockeys alongside that of such diverse artists and erudites as J. G. Ballard, Aleister Crowley, Fritz Lang, Andy Warhol, William Burroughs, and so many others.
The dots are there for anyone who cares to connect them, however. And when artists absorb such an aesthetic, they are bound to tell the world something about themselves.
Turn and Face the Strange
Brechtian he may not have been, but even to the most casual observer, Bowie was undeniably theatrical. There was something in the outlandishness of Bowie’s previous personae — Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, even the Thin White Duke — that Brecht himself had identified almost fifty years prior.
Theater scholars today call it Verfremdungseffekt — the “estrangement effect,” “distancing effect,” “alienation effect,” or other imperfect translations from the original German. Briefly stated, it is the act of defamiliarization: making something recognizable strange again in order to engage with it. Though it was a technique that had taken various forms in previous theatrical traditions, Brecht identified the critical and political possibilities (viewing it through the lens of the “character mask” employed by Marx in Capital), arguably making the “v-effekt” a linchpin in the modernist artistic canon.
“Alienating an event or character,” Brecht wrote, “means first of all stripping the event of its self-evident, familiar, obvious quality and creating a sense of astonishment and curiosity about them.” The political axis of this, Peter Brooker explains in The Cambridge Companion to Brecht, is that of “declaring its own artifice as it hoped also to reveal the artifice of ideology.”
Granted, the way in which Bowie and Brecht would achieve this was markedly different. But considering his wide array of characters, his affinity for cabaret, it is apparent that Bowie understood the v-effekt.
In 1978, right in the middle of his Berlin phase, he incorporated Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “Alabama Song,” used in the playwright’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, into his live repertoire. Four years later he would release the Brecht/Weill collab “The Drowned Girl” (written in memory of Rosa Luxemburg’s murder). Both are performed with full v-effekt: droll, winking action; carnivalesque dissonance; an almost post-punk angularity mixed with folksiness.
In fact one might say that, even before Berlin, Bowie used the trope of alienation in a literal sense, providing a tinge of the utopian. That kind of micro-utopia — using the body as a site of transformation and reinvention less bound by time and space — was potent for its era precisely because it was capable of staring back in. Ziggy Stardust emerged a mere three years after Stonewall and the same year of Britain’s first gay pride parade. But Ziggy and other personae like him were soon sucked back into capital’s metabolism.
The seventies would bring the postwar economic bust and, not far behind it, the turn toward neoliberal economics and a cultural politics that made identity malleable and easily instrumentalized. That Bowie’s character masks would have to become ever more extreme — and that he would become increasingly tangled up in them — is not particularly surprising.
The Berliner Ensemble
Historical parallels are imperfect things. But the Berlins that Brecht and Bowie found upon their arrivals (in 1924 and 1976, respectively, though in Bowie’s case involving intermittent detours to France and Switzerland) were strikingly similar.
Neither were strangers to everyday crisis and division. Brecht’s Berlin of the Weimar Republic was spinning between the pulls of failed revolution, economic hyperinflation, and the specter of fascism. Bowie’s was trapped somewhere between the hollow promises of social democratized fealty to NATO and the US, and the inescapable fact that the city was cleaved down the middle by a thoroughly dystopian wall.
Both were very much enamored with the expressionist imaginary, viewed by artists from the outside as oases of sublime flaws. The Berlin of the 1970s was undergoing an expressionist revival of sorts led by Neue Wilden artists like Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer, who looked back to painters of the original, Weimar-era generation of Max Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and others as a compass for navigating the twin gravities of hope and existential dread.
For years it seemed obvious that the storied wall of “Heroes” was the one dividing the city between East and West. Most biographers now say Bowie wrote the song after seeing a neo-expressionist painting at a Berlin gallery. Nonetheless, the fractured currents of division and unification, of the (im)possibility of either, are unmistakable throughout the Berlin trilogy.
Bowie was obviously eager for anonymity. He took up residence in what was then the least glamorous part of the city he could find, holing up over an auto parts shop in Schöneberg. He would be joined not just by longtime collaborator and producer Tony Visconti but sonic experimenter extraordinaire Brian Eno. Bowie’s voice is not so much lost on these albums as treated like part of the instrumentation, drifting in and out of the bright, diverse atmospherics rather than holding court over them.
It may seem redundant to call this kind of radical reinvention “unprecedented,” particularly in Bowie’s case. But that’s what it was. Bowie had used the performative stage of gender as a space for exploration; now he was delving into the space of artistic form itself.
“Warszawa,” emblematic of the trilogy’s first album, Low, is consummately abstract, balancing both a sense of wide-open hope and painful dread, glimmering light cast on unforgiving gray. The pop constructions return somewhat on “Heroes”, but the willingness to play with self-effacement remains. (Note the ironic quotes wrapped around the title.)
Lodger, in all its anarchic clash of voices and characteristics, its disorienting collision of sounds, may be the one most accurately described as a Brechtian creation. Released in 1979, two years after Low and “Heroes”, it bears the mark of chaos, imminent Thatcher and impending Reagan. “Fantastic Voyage,” its first song, is an acerbic, sarcastic take on nuclear war, and sets the album’s tone of arty irreverence.
Kill the Rock Star in Your Head
It is worth taking into account the significance of Bowie’s embrace of “degenerate art” so quickly after his coke-addled flirtations with fascism. Though any effort to paint Station to Station as “a fascist album” is strained at best, one does have to note the ways in which Bowie identified the more psychologically manipulative elements that had emerged with the rise of the culture industry.
The use of rhythm and repetition to communicate absolute control, the myth of the individual triumphing over adversity — the Third Reich had employed both with unparalleled effectiveness. They also occupied a place in pop music (albeit one rarely used to the same end).
In a crude way, Bowie was seeing exactly what Walter Benjamin had once seen in Nazism. But in Bowie’s case, he was applauding it. When he called Adolf Hitler “the first rock star,” he was being, in a perverse sense, quite literal.
Berlin clearly shook some sense back into him. In later interviews Bowie admitted the stupidity of what he had said, which undoubtedly dawned on him when he met the sons and daughters of SS members who had to live with the shame firsthand.
Come 1977, any and all aesthetic drift in the direction of the übermensch had more or less been left behind. Low was an exploration of what happens when the rock star seeks to unmake his human voice as the center of the portrait and turn it into one of many components of a sonic landscape. Writing that year for International, the theoretical journal of the British section of the Trotskyist Fourth International, Carl Gardner called it “a fracturing of the orthodox audio-hierarchy.” Gardner wrote:
What is amazing about the current LP Low is that all almost all of these tendencies have been negated or reversed and steps taken to challenge the whole conservative music approach represented by the rock genre . . . This is cerebral music, challenging the audience into intellectual involvement and interaction with it, not passive, emotionally overloaded acceptance.
The same could be said of the entire trilogy. This was music certain of nothing even at its most confident, trying to claw itself out of the tumult and confusion so it might gain some critical distance and piece together a way forward.
As the trilogy progressed, that way seemed to acquire a kind of erratic unpredictability, in which paradise became hell at its own whim and vice versa. Years later, Bowie said of the trio of albums: “In some ways, sadly, they really captured, unlike anything else in that time, a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come to pass.”
It’s 1981, and Bowie is now living in New York. The BBC taps him to star in the title role of its teleplay version of Brecht’s Baal, spurring him to record “The Drowned Girl” and four other austere songs that are released on the EP Baal.
First performed in 1923, the year before Brecht arrived in Berlin and three years before he began calling himself a Marxist, Baal bears much more the mark of its time. Brecht wrote it as a rebuke to The Loner, by expressionist writer Hanns Johst. In an interesting turn of events, Johst would end up enthusiastically supporting Nazism, joining the SS and becoming a Nazi poet laureate.
Though the BBC’s version of Baal is not performed in the style of Brecht’s epic theater, it is difficult to miss the social commentary. The poet Baal is revered as a writer by respectable society but shows them nothing but disdain. He is drunken and loutish, a womanizer who casts aside the young girl he impregnates and murders his friend on the road. He shows no remorse, dying alone and on the run in an isolated hut. Bowie’s portrayal is engaging. He is nasty, crude, and cruel, showing brief flashes of charm and talent before reverting back to violent anti-sociality.
Whereas Johst’s The Loner portrayed the isolated existence of the poet as noble and romantic, Brecht insists that the artist cannot truly remove himself from society. Not only is expressionism not up to the world’s challenges, but art itself isn’t either. Can we forgive the poet’s transgressions if he creates beautiful art? How many atrocious acts must he commit before it becomes impossible to appreciate his creations? Can they separated? Or must they be assessed together and measured against each other?
It is uncanny that now, in the wake of his death, many of these same questions are being asked about Bowie himself. The story that, in the early 1970s, Bowie had sex with a “baby groupie” purportedly as young as thirteen had been floating around for years, and it reemerged when he passed away earlier this month. So too with the charges he faced for sexually assaulting a thirty-year-old fan in Dallas in the early 1980s. With the wholesale assessment of Bowie’s legacy now being thrashed out, feminists and others on the Left have been insisting these incidents be taken into account.
It’s unclear where these debates will end up. But a discussion about sexism in the music industry in the 1970s is long overdue. Particularly given that it ran in tandem with a New Left struggling to cope with dramatic economic and political shifts, impacting the nascent women’s liberation movement. Cultural calls for “revolution” were themselves becoming hollow; “sexual freedom” was coming to mean an assumed “yes” from women; and the waves of upheaval that might have lifted up the artist were now crashing down. Bowie was of course part of that, and in more ways than one.
There is therefore in Bowie’s Baal a kind of meta-commentary: a reminder that artists can look in and perhaps even dream, but can never remove themselves from the world. It’s a commentary that Brecht — by no means the most savory character in his personal life — would probably chuckle at.
Take No Heroes
It’s 2013, and David Bowie has suddenly announced a new album after a ten-year hiatus. The cover of The Next Day is simple: the front image from “Heroes” with a white block placed over the artist’s face.
The lead single “Where Are We Now?” drops onto iTunes without warning or anticipation. It is a slow song, just barely edging into the kind of echoes that Low could pull off despite using much more traditional rock instrumentation. The song’s lyrics and video are filled with references to 1970s Berlin — the Dschungel night club, KaDeWe, Nürnberger Straße — and the city’s transition to the modern era — the first border crossing to open when the Wall fell (“20,000 people cross Bösebrücke / Fingers are crossed just in case”).
There is sorrow here, and also a wistful fragility. It is nostalgic, sentimental even, but it is a self-aware kind of sentimentality. The kind that can very easy lure you in even as it warns you against its magnetism. These are lyrics about a time definitively well-spent, but also about the lamentable realization that one can never return to it.
It is fitting that Bowie marks his return in 2013, on his sixty-sixth birthday, almost three years to the day before his death, with a reminder that the future longed for in his most artistically important work never came. That all the experiments and shifts of identity can only live on because they have failed. Because critical distance is not enough. Eno, the neo-expressionists, the Berlin Wall, the escapes from the hollow debauchery of Los Angeles and fascist nihilism.
Maybe small tinges of Brecht can be heard by those who notice Bowie’s critical distance from his own critical distance. Even Visconti (who produced The Next Day) and Bowie are treated as ghosts from some alternate timeline reaching feebly across in “Where Are We Now?”
Those wishing for some rousing ending claiming Bowie’s music for “our side” will be very much disappointed. There is no such easy link. The dramatic bending of space and temporality he tapped into, which seemed like such a gift forty years ago, can also be a fatal curse, perhaps even more so given the changes of the intervening decades.
If there is a “lesson” to be learned from David Bowie, it is a kind of negation: in artistic freedom there is indeed an inkling that we can be equal to history, but a mere utopian urge is never enough. No matter how much we try to steal time, it will only be just for one day.