In 1976, David Bowie left Los Angeles for Berlin. Simultaneously reeling from the success of the albums Young Americans and Station to Station, and teetering on the edge of physical and mental collapse as a result of drug abuse, overwork, and occult obsession, Bowie landed in Berlin with his close friend Iggy Pop. Bowie remained in Berlin for three years, working intensely with producers Tony Visconti and Brian Eno, absorbing art and performance, and taking in the city’s notoriously glorious nightlife.
Bowie’s time in Berlin is marked by an immensely productive period that resulted in the three most creative and challenging albums of his career: Low, Heroes, and Lodger. It is these three years in the mid-’70s, in this divided city, and at this point in Bowie’s life and career, that serve as the focal point for Tobias Rüther’s book, Heroes: David Bowie and Berlin.
Heroes is the English translation of Rüther’s book Helden: David Bowie und Berlin, which was originally published by Rogner & Bernhard GmbH & Co. in 2008. Rüther himself is a well-known journalist in Germany; Heroes is his second book (his first was an examination of homosociality in the friendships of famous men). Based on interviews with sources close to Bowie as well as the literatures on Bowie and post-war Berlin, respectively, Rüther attempts to offer a compelling and theoretically-minded narrative about an artist and a city that is attentive to the zeitgeist.
Instead, though, Heroes offers a confused chronology and confusing analysis of Bowie’s time in the city. Readers who are not already familiar with Bowie’s career trajectory, artistic vision, and recorded output will find themselves perplexed by the lack of details and the absence of context for the events and relationships that are examined in the book.
Heroes takes us through Bowie’s brief tenure in Berlin and the making of the aforementioned three albums. Prior to relocating to Berlin, Bowie had been living in Los Angeles; the move to Berlin was partially motivated by his being cast in Nicolas Roeg’s film, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). Los Angeles, however, had an adverse affect on Bowie. There, he fell deeper into cocaine addition, suffered the effects of overwork, and developed paranoid behavior. Vulnerable financially, due to manager Tony Defries’s alleged mishandling of revenues, and increasingly unhealthy, Bowie left Los Angeles.
Germany, he thought, would allow him to recover his financial losses and restore his physical and psychic health. Bowie and Pop chose Berlin, Rüther says, because it offered a low cost of living and the possibility of anonymity; in addition, Berlin was appealing because it had a growing reputation as an artistic and cultural center.
Rüther links Bowie’s attraction to Berlin to the fantastical image of the city that Bowie held. This image comprised Bowie’s admiration for Bob Fosse’s 1972 film, Cabaret, as well as the novel upon which it was based, Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin. The imagery of the novel and film furthered Bowie’s interest in German expressionist filmmakers and painters.
Bowie was also quite taken with Krautrock, although Rüther denies that the Bowie albums created in Berlin were informed by the new sounds of bands like Neu! and Kraftwerk. Rüther describes Bowie’s time in Berlin as comprised of countless hours spent recording in Hansa Studios, frequent trips by bicycle to Die Brücke-Museum to engage with the works of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, among other artists, and nights spent at the Anderes Ufer bar (today Neues Ufer).
This immersion in the artistic and cultural life of Berlin, Rüther says, served as the primary inspiration for Low (1977), Heroes (1977) and Lodger (1979), the three albums Bowie recorded and released while living in the city. Berlin’s artistic, cultural, and architectural atmosphere, Rüther suggests, functioned as a catalyst for Bowie’s writing as well as his approach to writing; it also provoked the fuller development of the experimental work that started in 1975, when Bowie was touring in support of Diamond Dogs. Rüther describes how working with Eno and Visconti enabled Bowie to transpose his experience of Berlin into music by encouraging experimentation with synthesizers and recording techniques to create sounds and soundscapes that reflected his affective relationship to the “remarkable, schizophrenic city”.
Rüther’s articulation of Bowie’s time in Berlin, however, is buried within a largely incoherent narrative that tries but ultimately fails to show indepth the influence of the politics, art, and culture of ’70s Berlin on Bowie’s music. Devoting several pages to Bowie’s interest in Ernst Heckel’s painting “Roquairol”, which inspired the Heroes cover art, Rüther reasons, that Bowie is at once a pop musician “plundering” ideas from the art world, a “Cracked Actor” who identifies with the portrait, and a person trying to close the gap between the different genres of art. None of these positions, however, is well-supported, whether through argumentation or direct evidence.
Heroes also suffers from a lack of awareness of what is and is not relevant to understanding Bowie in Berlin. For example, Rüther offers the reader an unnecessarily long explication from producer Eduard Meyer about the conflict that ensued over hiring Neu! guitarist Michael Rother to play on Heroes. As a consequence, more important points are left undeveloped. Specifically, even though Rüther spends an excruciating amount of space naming the Berlin landmarks that Bowie encountered from his apartment window or when bicycling around the city, he neglects to clearly connect this architecture and its socio-political significance to Bowie’s writing. Rüther leads the reader to believe that Bowie frequently visited East Berlin but, aside from visits, the reader cannot grasp what he did there, or what he took from the experience.
Also absent is a precise chronology that details when and where certain events take place. Heroes muddies the history of the writing and recording of the three albums. It has been shown by other sources that Bowie, Visconti, and Eno began work on Low at the now-famous Chateau d’Herouville in France, and finished work on the album in Berlin, at Hansa Studios. For readers previously unfamiliar with the timeline of Bowie in Berlin, Ruther’s lack of precision and attention to detail results in much confusion. While the text does present a semblance of chronology, that chronology is rendered arduous to follow because of the way in which information outside of that chronology sneaks into the text. The story, as Rüther tells it, jumps around unnecessarily, and loses the reader in its unnecessary mish-mash of time and space. At any given time, it is difficult to determine the point Rüther is making.
Further, Heroes makes use of the same descriptors to the point of redundancy, resulting in textual tedium. For example, Rüther makes repeated mention of the “breakfast of coffee and Gitanes” that Bowie regularly enjoyed. He also refers to Bowie continuously as either “The Thin White Duke” or the “Cracked Actor”, with no attention to these identities as unique moments in the trajectory of Bowie’s personae; instead, Rüther writes about Bowie’s personae in a way that overlaps them to the point that they are rendered indistinguishable from one another. Encountering the same descriptions and descriptors over and over makes Heroes a tiring and un-engaging read.
The challenge that is following Rüther through Bowie’s years in Berlin is exacerbated by the many incoherent and/or incomplete sentences, poorly constructed paragraphs, and other grammatical errors in the text. Heroes is as plagued with bad writing as it is by narrative incoherence. The clarity of the text is seriously impeded by poor paragraphing, incomplete sentences, bizarre turns of phrase such as “Bowie is an interesting guy, okay?” and inattention to rational flow. It’s unclear whether these problems with writing and narrative consistency are contained within the original German text, or whether they have been unwittingly introduced into the text by its translator, Anthony Mathews (a lecturer at the Open University).
Readers seeking a clear and compelling narrative detailing Bowie’s years in Berlin would do well to read Heroes in concert with Thomas Jerome Seabrook’s Bowie in Berlin, which was also released in 2008. Seabrook’s book offers a much more consistent and in-depth articulation of Bowie’s time in Berlin, but is missing the articulation of the arts, culture, and politics of Berlin that Rüther offers. Ultimately, because it assumes too much and gives too little, Heroes fails to present a compelling narrative and analysis of David Bowie’s relationship with Berlin.