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Commentary: David Bowie and Berlin: A decadent desolation that still resonates in nightlife

David Bowie’s 1977 album ‘Low’
(RCA)

The last time I went to Berlin, I got on a wrong train at the Schonefeld Airport, and ended up alone in the distant suburbs. It was almost midnight and close to freezing, and I’d terribly underpacked for the weather.

I’d gone to see a friend who moved there to make anarchic noise-folk and tour via rail (like David Bowie, he’d been in an accident that left him with a profoundly damaged eye, and he couldn’t drive). But my first impressions of the city that night were of standing alone, viciously cold, and waiting for a train that might not come.

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That feeling comes to mind as, like every other music fan today, I’m diving back into the Bowie catalog and revisiting the incalculable wealth of feeling and imagination it offers.  There are so many eras of Bowie that warrant deep reads, but for me the ”Berlin Trilogy” does something specific, something deeply relevant to outsider club music that’s dominated so much of nightlife culture (and my own listening) in recent years.

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That late ‘70s trio of Bowie records — “Low,” “Heroes” and “Lodger” — set the precedent for the romantic idea of Berlin in modern pop.

German acts like Neu! And Kraftwerk were among the first to use such icy electronics and precise percussion as means of escape and cosmic transcendence. But Bowie put his own heart into that cold, imposing, place — a city where total State authority mixed with the purest intimate liberty.

Bowie’s albums evoked the city’s concrete Brutalism as metered out in martial rhythms and empty spaces. He conjured its eerie isolation with synthesizer experiments and melancholy vocal melodies and wrote poignantly about connections forged in spite of (and perhaps exactly because of) East and West Berlin’s literal disconnection from the other half of the city. Fans of dark, difficult, synthetic and lonely music have glamorized it ever since.

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A timeline of David Bowie’s studio releases

The references from this trio of records allude to a century of German art and music, but it’s all refracted through one of England’s most empathetic songwriters. “V-2 Schneider,”  from “Heroes,”  nodded to both Kraftwerk’s founding member and a Cold War-era rocket. Bowie has said its album cover paid homage to Erich Heckel, founding member of the Expressionist art collective Die Brucke.

20th century Berlin had veered between cultures of sexual experiments and bold artistic performances, and a sense of impending fear and war-torn doom. It’s easy to see why Bowie was drawn to the place.

But his “Berlin” albums seemed to anticipate a future mood as well. Listening to the alien noise of his and Brian Eno’s “Warszawa” or the bloodsucking late-night comraderie on his friend Iggy Pop’s own Berlin album, “The Idiot,” it’s easy to see the girders of Berghain, Tresor and all the other canonical Berlin techno clubs laid in their places.  The drugs, the cold and the decay were combined with invention and the promise of something new.

Decades later, on his 2013 album “The Next Day,” he revisited that same scene on “Where Are We Now?": “Had to get the train / From Potsdamer Platz / You never knew that / That I could do that / Just walking the dead.”

After fans heard “the Berlin Trilogy,” Bowie’s vision of the city become almost synonymous with the city’s modern identity, at least to the rest of the West. Today’s Berlin is choked with blacked-out techno tourists and a new local unease about Germany’s role as a refugee haven. Decadence versus fear all over again.

Other people who have spent far more time there and who know more about Bowie’s artistic intentions will have better things to say about this time in his career. But one thing all the recent Bowie remembrances seem to share is his music’s fundamentally personal impact and the places we were when we heard it and were remade by it.

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For me, tonight I’ll put on “Low” and remember that feeling of isolation in a strange city on a blood-chilling train platform. But at the end of the line, I know there was a friend waiting for me.

Follow @AugustBrown for breaking music news.

MORE:

David Bowie: A half-century of music

Full coverage: David Bowie’s life and career

Remembering David Bowie through his 100 favorite books 

Mikael Wood review: David Bowie looks far beyond pop on jazz-inspired ‘Blackstar’ 

From the Robert Hilburn archives: David Bowie spends the ‘80s convincing us he’s just a normal guy 

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