Bowie in Berlin

 

I’ve been to Berlin and I’ve walked along down by the wall. Walked down by in winter, where the death-filled past cracks the concrete and rebels paint murals for the future revolution. I’ve seen the holes where Stalin’s bullets struck and visited the hollow where Hitler’s hovel burrowed; Checkpoint Charlie where they shot the spy; Volkspark Friedrichshain where students smoke pot with punks; beyond the mohawks, a sculpture of Lenin; and a sculpture of glass - Bauhaus; and the canal reflecting the Soviet Star.

And I thought this too was where Bowie walked and I saw an apparition in the street ahead: swaggering towards me in the Berlin night, pushing through the crowds of businessmen, came Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie, smoking roll-ups, on a coke binge, probably looking for some transsexual hookers, sniffing and looking around at the people staring, for they were wearing women’s jackets and women’s trousers, and they were far too scantily dressed for the winter night, and the make-up provided no disguise, nor did the dyed hair. They stubbed out their cigarettes and like that they were gone. I smiled at this vision and stubbed out my own cigarette and sat down at a table outside a bar and ordered a glass of beer. A song came into my head:

            I can remember

            Standing, by the wall

            And the guns shot above our heads

            And we kissed

            as though nothing could fall

            And the shame was on the other side

 

The waiter brought the beer and I said danke and sipped and as I did so, through the speakers above the door outside, a voice spoke German and between the sound I heard the words “David Bowie” sticking out awkwardly as they got the pronunciation wrong. I started to listen more carefully:

“Neue Single Vair Are Vee Now”.

 

A new single? Bowie hadn’t released new material in years. The song came on:

            Had to get the train
            From Potsdamer Platz
            You never knew that
            That I could do that 
            Just walk in the day

           

            Sitting in the Dschungel
            On Nürnberger Straße
            A man lost in time
            Near KaDeWE
            Just walking the dead

           

            Where are we now?
            Where are we now?

            The moment you know
            You know, you know

 

            Twenty thousand people
            Cross Bösebrücke
            Fingers are crossed
            Just in case
            Walking the dead

 

            Where are we now?
            Where are we now?
            The moment you know
            You know, you know

 

            As long as there's sun
            As long as there's rain
            As long as there's fire
            As long as there's me
            As long as there's you

 

Man, that is a good song. Bowie’s fucking back. I downed the beer, left the euros, took out another cigarette, and continued my walk around Berlin.

As I walked, I thought how cool the first verse was. Bowie waiting for the train in Potzdamer Platz (one of the main trainstations in Berlin), wearing a quality long coat with big boots, stylish as fuck, mad eyes, boney face, a look of new madness, the look of old cool. You never knew he could do that? Just walk around in the day? David Bowie just kicking about in Berlin like it’s nothing, during the daytime in a busy city square. Bet you didn’t know he could do that! Bowie can do whatever the fuck he likes! I just loved the image of that first verse! It always brings me back to Berlin, and I always thought it was about him revisiting Berlin and just walking about taking in the sights. I thought maybe I would meet him round the next Berlin bend.

Now that he has died, I feel I misinterpreted it.

 

Bowie’s lyrics have always been deliberately ambiguous. In fact, their strength lies in their ambiguity, much like the man himself. You can interpret his words in any number of ways, meaning that it is often possible to have the lyrics speak directly to you. The lyrics invite you to engage personally with them and make sense of them in any way which you will, hence the reason they spoke so powerfully to teenage youth in the 1970s, and continue to speak to young and old today.

This is the reason I felt justified in interpreting the line “Just walking the dead” as “Just walk in the day” as it sounds the same when sung and both versions make perfect sense. However, my lighter, funner, simpler original hearing of “the day”, seems silly now the man has died. “Walking the dead” seems to make sense now that I know that he knew that he was sick and dying.

Now I realise that song must have been written soon after Bowie discovered his cancer diagnosis. He was in Berlin at the time and decided to jump on a train and revisit his past haunts, the places of his 70s glory years; the artistic heartland; the party times. He returns to the “Dschungel”, the Deco-Bauhaus club where all the cool cats hung out back in the day in Cold War Berlin, and sits at one of the old tables, “lost in time”. He feels he is simply a dead man walking, a ghost fastened to a dying animal.

The moment you know you know, you know.

The moment you know you’re dying, you know you are going to die.

He watches the crowd flowing over the Bösebrücke, the bridge that crossed the river between the East and West, the boundary between two halves of the twentieth century. The wall has fallen and the people have fled the terrors of the East to feast on the terrors of the West. Bowie watches the boundary and crosses his fingers just in case; there is still false hope that he can beat this cancer inside him.

Bowie drawn back to Berlin at the time of his dying; Berlin, the city of boundaries. Boundaries which Bowie always tried to cross and to blur; with his life and with his art. And now the last great boundary to cross: the bridge between life and death.

But in the song he is alive for now. The sun still shines and the rain falls. There is still fire within. There’s still him. There’s still you.