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Book Review: Bowie In Berlin by Thomas Jerome Seabrook

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David Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy”, comprising the albums Low, Heroes, and Lodger, have steadily grown in stature over the years. With Thomas Jerome Seabrook’s new book, Bowie In Berlin, we are finally treated to an in depth analysis of those heady days.

The book actually goes a little further than it’s title suggests. The context of how Bowie wound up in Berlin, and what he did after leaving the city are very important elements of the story, which Seabrook explains in telling detail.

The Thin White Duke was not really a character at all, claims the author. Of the many cocaine fueled mid-Seventies Los Angeles records, Station To Station is perhaps the ultimate example. A role as Thomas Newton in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth served as a sort of intervention for Bowie.

Filming took place in the otherworldly landscape of New Mexico. The forced removal from the rock machine seems to have induced a moment of clarity in David Bowie. He realized he had to leave L.A., or die.

His friend Iggy Pop joined the Station To Station tour for the final few dates. If anything, the former Stooge was in even worse shape than Bowie, and a plan was hatched to record an Iggy solo album in Europe.

The Idiot became something of a rough draft for what was to come. Apparently for the first time, Bowie witnessed Iggy’s preferred lyric writing style. He would improvise, literally on the spot as the backing tapes rolled. It was a method that impressed, intimidated, and has inspired Bowie to this day.

The bulk of Bowie In Berlin concerns Low, Heroes, and Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life. While the contributions of Brian Eno to Bowie’s records can never be underestimated, Iggy’s influence cannot either.

Pop’s theory that the mood of the music decides what the song is “about” was hugely liberating for Bowie. It is the reason that Low’s “Warszawa” has no lyrics at all, just syllables that add to the overall feel of the song.

Lodger has always been the sore thumb of the trilogy. Besides the presence of Brian Eno, the record has little in common with Low and Heroes.  While Lodger is a great record, it marks a return of sorts to conventional rock music. Again, Seabrook seems spot on with his observations.

He contends that Lodger, followed by 1980’s Scary Monsters, were parts one and two of a trilogy that culminated in the massive success of 1983’s Let’s Dance. A journey back into the mainstream, as it were. This time with David Bowie fully in control.

The integrity of Bowie is also discussed. Even after a post-Berlin fallout, due primarily to Iggy’s disgust at being so closely linked to him, Bowie still went out of his way to help his friend.

His pop smash cover of The Idiot’s “China Girl” is the most obvious example, but does anyone remember the follow up to Let’s Dance? It was a piece of crap called Tonight. And of Tonight’s nine tracks, four were Iggy Pop songs.

Bowie In Berlin is a must read for anyone seriously into music. There is a reason Low and Heroes are held in such high regard. Listen to “Warszawa” again, and reflect back on why Joy Division originally called themselves Warsaw.

At the time, nobody made music like this. These records have inspired countless bands. For my money, the balance between sound and vision Bowie attained in his Berlin years has never been equaled.

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About Greg Barbrick

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    This sounds like a really good book. I always thought Lodger was a bit underrated myself — “Look Back In Anger” from that album is one of Bowie’s best songs.

    I’m a bit surprised the author doesn’t cover Iggy’s Lust For Life (or does he?), his second collaboration with Bowie from that period, and for my money the better of the two.

    Boy you are dead on about Tonight though — that one was a real stinker wasn’t it?

    -Glen

  • Greg Barbrick

    Bowie In Berlin is a must my friend. LFL is discussed in detail, along with “Heroes” and Low. The brevity of my comments were due to a desire to keep the “spoilers” down. Get Bowie In Berlin, and listen to the records again, by all means!

  • zingzing

    wow. this looks great. i’m on a big bowie kick right now and i’d have to say i like lodger the best. while i do think the first side of low is his greatest side of vinyl, and that station to station is an absolute marvel, heroes, leaves me a bit cold. i love some of the tracks, but others not so much. i was just thinking that someone should right a book like this, and here it is… must pick up.

  • Greg Barbrick

    Thanks zing, those were my thoughts exactly when I came across this one. I have to disagree with you on Heroes though. Of the trilogy, I find side 2 of Heroes the most compelling. To each his own I guess.

    Greg

  • zingzing

    heh. i just noticed my right/write mistake up there.

    anyway, side 2 of both low and heroes leave me pretty cold. i do like ambient music, and am a total eno freak, but i’ve just never gotten into them. i don’t particularly know why, so i’ll have to try them out again. maybe i just want something specific from bowie, although wanting something specific from bowie is a little bit of an undertaking… most everything he did from 71-83 is pure gold.

  • Greg Barbrick

    I agree, he made a career out of exceeding everyone’s expectations. I came to both Low and Heroes very late, and was probably fairly well prepared after hearing so much about them. I think if I had listened to them when they were originally released, they would not have had the same impact on me.

    I was pretty young and into Ted Nugent at the time. The subtleties of Bowie and Eno’s experiments probably wouldn’t have registered. Just as well. I highly recommend Bowie In Berlin.

    Greg