David Bowie remembers Berlin: “I can’t express the feeling of freedom I felt there”

Bowie discusses Low, "Heroes" and Lodger in this 2001 archive feature

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“He gets into a very peculiar state when he’s working,” Eno said of Bowie soon after completing “Heroes”. “He doesn’t eat. It used to strike me as very paradoxical that two comparatively well-known people would be staggering home at 6AM, and he’d break a raw egg into his mouth and that was his food for the day, virtually. It was slummy. We’d sit around the kitchen table tired and a bit fed up – me with a bowl of crummy German cereal, him with albumen running down his shirt.”

Bowie adds, “Again, I must stress that this is a bit romantic. There was a café in the Hansa building, run by an ex-boxing champion – my painting Champion Of The World is a portrait of him. We’d either have a lunch and dinner there or order up. But the egg thing is also true. I was eating extremely well as my drug intake was practically zero. I’d eat a couple of raw eggs to start the day or finish it, with pretty big meals in between. Lots of meat and veg, thanks Mum. Brian would start his day with a cup of boiling water, into which he’d cut huge lumps of garlic. He was no fun to do backing vocals with on the same mic.”

Another lightening-speed worker was guitarist Robert Fripp, a late addition to the alchemic brew of “Heroes”. The King Crimson vet had worked with Eno before (on ’73’s No Pussyfooting), and was summoned from New York at short notice when the Hansa sessions were deemed in need of fresh spark. Fripp stayed in Berlin for a single weekend, arriving late one night and immediately jamming along to half-finished tracks. According to Eno, Fripp recorded all his parts in six hours, straight off the plane. Eno plugged Fripp into his EMS briefcase synth and the guitarist plunged headlong into the album’s fast-and-loose depths. “He’d start without even knowing the chord sequences,” says Eno. “He’d just launch into them at full speed and somehow navigate his way through them.”

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Bowie’s instructions to Fripp were minimal: “Play with total abandonment… play like Albert King… things like Joe The Lion were him having a bash at the blues.” The bristling “Frippatronic” guitar parts were mostly recorded in single takes, which Bowie and Visconti would later manipulate and edit into composite collages. “Before we knew it,” says Visconti, “we had a sound no-one had ever heard before.”

Fripp also contributed to the Pythonesque hysteria of the “Heroes” sessions. Visconti recalls, “He wondered if he was going to get laid in Berlin that night, and used the euphemism, ‘I have hopes to wave the sword of union tonight.’ He’d lay on his Dorset accent extra thick for that. We couldn’t stop laughing.” The next day, like The Lone Ranger, Fripp rode off into the sunset – back on a jet to New York. Mission accomplished.

The monolithic title track to “Heroes” is both comic and serious, tender and tragic. Visconti used the bouncing reverb of Hansa to stunning effect, recording Bowie’s vocal on a trio of mics in different locations – the second and third only activated above a certain volume level, producing a Spector-esque tidal wave which builds and builds to a level beyond hysteria. The tune’s thumping, motorik rhythm was inspired by Lou Reed’s “I’m Waiting For The Man”, but the true story behind the lyric’s semi-ironic hymn to doomed romance has long been debated by fans. Visconti has hinted that the lovers in “Heroes” were inspired by a “flirtatious kiss” between himself and backing singer Antonia Maass, which Bowie witnessed from the studio window. But in ’77, Bowie claimed the characters were based on strangers who he spotted enjoying a secret lunchtime by The Berlin Wall. Visconti confirms to Uncut that his illicit involvement with Maass was the true genesis of “Heroes”. “As I was married at the time, David protected me all these years by not saying he saw Antonia and me kiss. He asked to be left alone to write the lyrics and we took a walk by the wall. Antonia was a beautiful woman and a great singer. Our act of indiscretion certainly inspired that verse. Coco told me that.”

“What a discreet dude I am,” laughs Bowie today. But he also concedes the “subtext/backstory” to “Heroes” was deeply personal: “I’d got over the majority of my emotional decline, and felt like I was coming back to who I should have been… it’s as much about me as it is about the protagonists in the song. ‘We can get out of this, I’ll be OK.'”

Bowie also clears up conflicting stories over the “Heroes” sleeve pose. Some claim it derives from a self-portrait by a Brücke Museum artist, Gramatté, while others insist it shares its inspiration with Iggy’s The Idiot cover in Erich Heckel’s portrait of a mad friend, Roquairol. “I couldn’t stand [expressionist painter] Gramatté,” he says today. “He was wishy-washy. I’ve seen the Gramatté, but no, it was Heckel. Heckel’s Roquairol, and his print from around 1910, Young Man, were a major influence on me as a painter.”

Visiting Britain for a promotional blitz in September, Bowie reunited with former glam-rock buddy Marc Bolan to perform “Heroes” on Bolan’s Granada TV show Marc. More surreally, he also recorded “Heroes” for the yuletide special, Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, then duetted with the crooner on “Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy” – released as an unlikely festive single five years later. In a macabre twist, both Bolan and Crosby would die within weeks of these meetings. After attending Bolan’s funeral in north London, Bowie reportedly drove past his childhood homes in Brixton and Beckenham.

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With Bowie’s co-operation, RCA promoted ‘”Heroes”‘ more heavily than Low, coining the memorable slogan “There’s Old Wave, there’s New Wave, and there’s David Bowie.” Press notices in the UK were more positive, with NME branding the LP “mature and trenchant” while Melody Maker found it “adventurous and challenging” (both papers eventually made it Album Of The Year). Released in October, it hit Number 3 in the UK but only managed 35 in the US, where Bowie’s track record was less established (prior to 1983’s Let’s Dance, anyway) and electronic rock still an alien novelty. Even so, ‘”Heroes”‘ was eulogised by Patti Smith in Hit Parader magazine as “a cryptic product of a high order of intelligence… behind my shades I imagine him there in Berlin, stumbling through old boxes and props in the street… I imagine him in love with the whole world or totally dead.” When Bowie’s buddy John Lennon started recording Double Fantasy, his stated ambition was to “do something as good as ‘”Heroes”‘…”

Back in Britain in October, Bowie recorded another version of ‘”Heroes”‘ for Top Of The Pops at Visconti’s Good Earth Studios in London, with Ricky Gardiner standing in for Fripp. In his first promotional interviews for two years, Bowie proved reluctant to interpret the LP’s meaning. He told Melody Maker’s Allan Jones that he was generally pessimistic, but added, “There’s some relief in compassion – and I know that’s not a word usually flung at my work. ‘”Heroes”‘ is, I hope, compassionate.”

Almost twenty-five years on, “Heroes” sounds not just compassionate but triumphant. With the soul-sapping self-exorcism of Station To Station and numb withdrawal of Low behind him, Bowie was in his healthiest state for a decade. The album could have ended with the elemental bleakness and dissonant sax screams of “Neuköln”, but instead it swishes playfully into the twilight with the flighty, fleet-footed disco bauble “The Secret Life Of Arabia”. Even the instrumentals contain musical jokes, like the jaunty homage to Kraftwerk’s deadpan joker Florian Schneider in “V-2 Schneider”. This was Bowie returning the favour to his Düsseldorf soul brothers for name-checking him and Iggy on Trans-Europe Express – but also kicking his Teutonic gloom habit for good.

There is a heaviness to “Heroes”, but a hefty shot of black humour and post-traumatic relief, too. This is the sound of Bowie purging himself of three dark years of paranoia and self-abuse, musical therapy and chemical free-fall. Berlin was no longer his “clinic”, although flashbacks to past madness still lingered in the shadows of his Schöneberg apartment. “It took two years in Berlin to really cleanse the system,” he later admitted. “I’d have days where things were moving in the room and this was when I was totally straight!”

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