All too often the music world is full of stories involving absurdly gifted musicians who die far too young (Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain top mention a few) and we sit around and chalk it up to destiny. "They weren't meant for this world" is the lame excuse we tell ourselves because deep down we don't want to admit to what we missed out on in terms of revelation these artists could have provided had they lived. We often don't ponder of what could have been because it hurts too much. Yet there's always the cynic who jumps in and says that the "new" music these people may have created wouldn't have held up to their best work. If you ever find yourself in this position, I'd suggest you jump in and start an argument with throwing David Bowie to the forefront. David Bowie throughout much of the early 1970's hopped on an astonishing rocket ship to superstardom. Every few years he was outdoing himself from the "Space Oddity" beginnings to more defining bodies of work with Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, Aladdin Sane and Station To Station. Despite the influence and sales of the early 1970's work, it is David Bowie's late 70's work that may be among the most notable and crucial of his career and possibly the most influential music of the last four decades. The recording of Low, "Heroes" and Lodger influenced virtually every piece of music that emanated from the electronic, new wave and the alternative movements. The story behind these years is similarly mesmerizing. For the first time, one book covers this period of Bowie history in its entirety, Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town. The pictures that precede the book (most in color) are revelatory and almost worth buying the book for these alone including quite an amusing picture of Bowie and Iggy Pop in a Copenhagen train station. You can see the transformation of Bowie in these few short years and they're an added bonus to an already marvelous text. There are hundreds of David Bowie books to choose from but what makes Thomas Jermone Seabrook's one of the most captivating is that cover-to-cover it encompasses less than 5-years and still manages to wring out every conceivable detail in all of its 274-pages. People write entire biographies in that many pages and Seabrook here dug in and went deep with what would ultimately a period that encompassed fewer than 1,500-days in Bowie's life.
Beginning in 1975 during the lead up to the film The Man Who Fell To Earth film and the Station To Station album and tour Seabrook minutely sets the stage in operatic manner covering the mindset and physical deterioration of David Bowie during this time. The themes of isolation are prominent and Bowie, who spent most of the year in a cocaine fueled crisis (most of which he doesn't remember) hit his lowest point. Despite a critically acclaimed film and what many deemed his best record to date, Bowie needed a change of scenery and abandoned Los Angeles for a residence in Switzerland which he barely utilized instead setting up shop in France and Germany. Seeking anonymity, he found it alongside his old friend Iggy Pop. The two men sought solace in not just foreign territories but in each other. A little known fact is that this period didn't just culminate in the aforementioned "Berlin Trilogy" consisting of Low, "Heroes" and Lodger but two stellar Iggy Pop records as well, both produced by David Bowie, The Idiot and Lust For Life. The Idiot is very much a David Bowie creation where he didn't just produce but co-wrote and performed on much of the record. In fact, it was the first of the five records to be eventually recorded (between June and August 1976). The book probes Pop's work with the same clarity, detail and care as Bowie's albums. Lust For Life is given the same treatment forcing you to reconsider the album as a whole and not just "The Passenger" and "Success", best known from their appearances in commercials and film. Between these two records, Bowie would revisit some of these very same songs in the 1980's when he recorded them and the stories of their evolution is detailed here including the inspiration for one of Bowie's biggest hits, "China Girl". There is a breakdown of songs and albums one-by-one describing not just the events surrounding them but the music as well. As a lover of music, Seabrook's words send you back to the record instantly forcing one to appreciate nuances taken for granted and in some cases, shedding new light on the art overall. Seabrook helps lift the legacy of this time to new planes as he carefully dissects studio sessions, the composition, recording and overall journey of escape these two men sought in order to not just find their inner muse, but to reclaim themselves as well. During this time Bowie separated from two separate managers (which proved costly), fully separated from his wife Angela, weaned himself off excessive drugs and in the process was reborn.
The evolution with which art is created is as intriguing and alluring as the final product. Seabrook does this material justice and forces and allows to reader a fly-on-the-wall perspective as Bowie along with producer Tony Visconti and Brian Eno, who helped create the overall aesthetic and sonic architecture of the records. While Bowie and Eno collaborated in unique ways to create the unique and wholly original sounds, Visconti steered the car and helped make the paintings a reality alongside guitarist Carlos Alomar, drummer Dennis Davis and bassist George Murray. David Bowie may be the star but each of the aforementioned men are integral not just to the story but to the ambiance of all of the records. The introduction of the synthesizer was also a source of ridicule from some in the press, but as time has shown, Bowie, Eno and Visconti were ahead of their time. All five records evolved from the initial seed of the idea, to the studio experimentation and finally the lyrics (always recorded last). There are even minor details which set the stage for albums later in Bowie's career such as the Sales brothers on bass and drums for Pop's Lust For Life. They ultimately joined forces with Bowie more than a decade later for the maligned Tin Machine. I've always admired the "Berlin" period from afar but could never consider myself an apostle of them. They were always too arty for my tastes but the way Seabrook lays out their formation you can't help but feel they are among the greatest pop art creations ever by the end of the book. These three records aren't necessarily Bowie's most translucent or poppy or even radio friendly, however, they single handedly saved Bowie's life. Listening back to the "Berlin Trilogy" and one is astounded at how cohesive, hypnotic and fresh these records are three decades onward from the fade-in to "Speed of Life" on Low through the airy yet defined melodic guitar of Robert Fripp on "'Heroes'" to the slummy "Red Money" (a close relative of Iggy Pop's) "Sister Midnight". Sometimes the most lasting works of art take time to digest within you and even though other records may have sold more at the time, certain albums stand the test of time securing their legacy. None of the "Berlin Trilogy" albums sold millions upon their releases but their influence can be heard every hour on the radio somewhere. Bands like U2, the Cure, Nine Inch Nails, Coldplay, Joy Division or Depeche Mode may never have become the acts they became without these albums. U2 retreated to Hansa Studios in 1990 in the hopes of capturing the same magic (with Brian Eno in tow) and the end result was Achtung Baby and Zooropa the zenith of their careers. Even if you can't appreciate Bowie, you have to admire his ability to influence an album like Achtung Baby.
Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town is better than any documentary on the subject or Behind the Music could ever hope to deliver. Seabrook balances the factual and historical aspects of the story while peeling away at the albums song-by-song sending the reader (and listener) running back to their turntables to rediscover (or discover) these records all over again with new bifocals allowing you to revel in their brilliance. At his lowest point, David Bowie didn't die or merely fade away, but he reinvented himself artistically and pulled himself from the trenches of self-oblivion. Bowie will possibly never sit down and document this integral period to his career (and to music in general) and we should be thankful Seabrook took the time to put this brief but integral era into perspective. Without question, Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town is essential reading for not just Bowie fanatics, but for any music fan or any genre.
Order your copy here.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network. He can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com and can be followed on Twitter @thescreendoor
Remembering David Bowie: Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town
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