During 1975 David Bowie’s body weight lingered between a frightening 80 and 90 pounds, rivaling that of even the lightest of jockeys. It is said that his diet consisted of milk, the occasional indulgence of plain vanilla ice cream, and the finest cocaine a decadent life in Los Angeles could bestow. His life had become a haze of paranoia fueled by a heavy dependency on drugs (he also dabbled in amphetamines) and an unhealthy fascination with the occult.
While The Thin White Duke (his self-appointed title/persona at the time) was on the brink of a serious physical and mental breakdown he was also about to embark on arguably his most innovative and bizarre creative periods in not only his career but in rock and roll history.
Much has been written about Bowie’s many reptilian musical transformations over the years but few rock historians have meticulously examined the musician’s late 1970s flight to Western Europe.
As far as rock and roll books go Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town is about as good as it gets. It is a comprehensive look at Bowie’s experimental escapades in and around the once divided city that strays away from the clichés of the modern rock biography. The book is the newest edition to a budding series of tomes from Jaw Bone Press chronicling notable musical periods–the first documented Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes period with The Band. Author Thomas Jerome Seabrook is hardly the first author to tackle Bowie but rather than put out a biographical retelling of the artist’s various incarnations over the years the author takes on his most curious and often misunderstood era.
Prior to Bowie’s mid-70s stint of drugs and debauchery the artist had already changed the face of rock and roll on more than one occasion. He brought androgyny to the forefront of popular music, helped jumpstart glam rock, and coined the term plastic soul by blending his former sounds with the likes of Philly R&B and Soul, first with Diamond Dogs and more successfully with Young Americans. He even made his first foray into acting via the possibly biographical role as an alien in the cult sci-fi film, The Man Who Fell To Earth. He managed to do all this before the age of 30.
At a time when Bowie seemed to have the world at his fingertips–international stardom, high selling pop records, critical acclaim–the artist moved in a completely unexpected direction both musically and personally.
Seeing a need for a major life change Bowie headed for Western Europe, first to Switzerland and eventually Berlin to clean up his act. In one of Bowie’s many career acts of kindness he also coaxed ex-Stooges frontman Iggy Pop into joining him. Pop himself had established a far more severe drug dependency than Bowie and was also in dire need of a career jumpstart (prior to Berlin Bowie had already pushed Lou Reed to start his solo career when he produced Reed’s Transformer).
Most music fans (or at least Bowie fans) are familiar with Bowie’s unofficial “Berlin Trilogy” of albums–1977s Low, and “Heroes”, and 1979s Lodger–recorded with Brian Eno during the late 70s. Few may be realize that besides recording three radically different art rock albums Bowie co-wrote and produced two Iggy Pop solo albums (the grim proto punk of The Idiot and a return to Stooges form in Lust for Life), starred in a film, organized a couple European tours and even managed to narrate an audio version of HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergei_Prokofiev”Sergei Prokofiev’s HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_and_the_Wolf”Peter and the Wolf, you know, for the kids. A busy two years and an extraordinary close to a career high decade. In many ways both Pop records, primarily The Idiot, served as testing grounds for Bowie’s vision of where his own music was headed and are as much, if not more, Bowie’s records than they are Pop’s (for the research of the book Seabrook discovered that most of the music for The Idiot was written by Bowie with Pop merely stepping in for his signature impromptu lyrical flowing).
There are those who dismiss Bowie for his glamorous showmanship and over the top publicity stunts (to be fair the stage elements of the glam rock movement aren’t for everyone). What’s most fascinating about Bowie’s late 70s projects is that he traded the glamour for artistic acclaim and a chance to give listeners a glimpse of the future of music.
Gone were the elaborate costumes and fluorescent hairdos. The disco sounds were replaced by slow building instrumental symphonies and rhythmically complex fragments of songs drenched in production experimentation. Even Bowie’s lyrics, which once wove tales of cosmonauts and paid homage to musical idols, now took on a starker realism with references to new age art and social politics–mainly the division in Eastern Europe brought on in the shadow of the Berlin wall and the Iron Curtain.
In his book Seabrook draws a number of comparison to contemporary musicians holding Bowie’s Berlin period in the highest of regards. Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor often cites Bowie’s Low and later Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) as inspirations for his electronic noise compositions. It’s also hard to deny the comparison made by Seabrook between Bowie’s experiments and that of Radiohead.
Both changed the face of rock with pinnacle albums and decided to follow the newfound success with radically polarizing ventures into experimental art rock. The fact that Radiohead’s Kid A and Amnesiac were recorded and released back to back in a short period of time only furthers this argument when looking at Bowie’s ’77 release of both Low and “Heroes”. One could go even farther to argue that Bowie’s less adorned/misunderstood trilogy conclusion, Lodger in 1979, was received with the same “so-so” feelings as Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief.
It’s easy to overlook how influential and fascinating Bowie’s 70s decade must have seemed to music fans at the time. Very few musicians or bands can accomplish as much as Bowie did in a single decade, let alone continue to shed his musical skin along the way. Seabrook’s retelling of Bowie’s European period also serves as a reminder to what has become of Bowie since Berlin.
As the years went on the space between album releases grew and the quality of music diminished, especially in the 80s. Many say the artist’s last true masterpiece was 1980s Scary Monsters, which at the time must have sounded like a promising start to a new decade (it as shortly followed by another, more profound wave of mega stardom with the ultra poppy Let’s Dance).
In the 90s Bowie reunited with Brian Eno for the fan favorite 1.Outside, the first of what was proposed to be another Bowie/Eno trilogy of concept albums. Instead he followed with a string of decent but not spectacular modern sign of the time records. It should be noted that Bowie is currently in his longest stretch without a major record release with 2003s Reality being his last contribution. While rumors continue to fly about a new record or the leak of formally unreleased material, Bowie future remains a mystery.
It could be that Bowie has officially jumped the shark in terms of releasing monumental records but it’s important to remember how much of driving force Bowie once was. Ten albums plus countless side projects in ten years is a feat few musicians even dream about now and days but Bowie managed to pull it of during the 70s with a number of the records being christened masterpieces. And who knows, perhaps the Thin White Duke still has a couple more musical visions left in him.