I’ve been thinking about David Bowie a lot this week, which is undoubtedly since his face is everywhere you turn in Berlin at the moment due to the launch of the ‘David Bowie Is…’ exhibition here in the city. I didn’t get a chance to catch it last year at the V&A in London and was rather miserable about that, so when I found out it was heading here I did everything I could to ensure I was there on opening day (sometimes being an unpaid media intern has its perks).
In the midst of immersing myself in a celebration of all things Bowie, I did however get to some deeper philosophical musing. I’ve loved David Bowie pretty much for as long as I can remember. I went as Aladdin Sane for Halloween when I was fifteen. Few songs mean as much to me as ‘Five Years’. My mum made sure I was raised on a plethora of good music, and I think Bowie might be the one I’m most grateful for. I associate such strong memories and emotions with his music, it’s really weird to think how much I invest in a person I’ve never met and am never likely to.
I was an exceptionally cool teenager, clearly.
Bowie was about thirty years old when he moved to Berlin and subsequently created what is arguably his most famous album, Heroes. He saw Berlin as a chance to get clean of his drug addiction and immerse himself in Germany’s up and coming music scene. He shared an apartment with Iggy Pop in what was possibly the coolest flat share ever, and wrote music about the city that has moved people all around the world.
I share a flat with two cats and write blog posts about the city that don’t do anything except maybe feed my ego. If I was going to be a musician things would probably turn out like that ‘Needs More Cowbell’ sketch from Saturday Night Live. I tried playing guitar for a month when I was fourteen and my tiny hands proved ill-suited to it. I’m not very good at singing either, but if you dangle a copy of SingStar in front of me suddenly I turn into Barbara Streisand. The similarities between me and Bowie aren’t exactly compelling.
People have asked a lot why I moved to Berlin, and I’m not any closer to having an answer nine months later. Maybe it was because it seemed like nowhere else on Earth. Maybe it was because I desperately needed to get away from everything and everyone in England. Maybe because it seemed like a cheaper version of Paris and I naively thought my GCSE German would enable me to assimilate seamlessly into life on the continent. It’s entirely possible that it’s a combination of all these reasons and more. Whatever the reasoning, it’s not something that I can easily put into words.
The Berlin of today isn’t the famous Berlin of Christopher Isherwood and Cabaret. It’s not even the Berlin of David Bowie. It’s a gentrified, hipster Mecca where every second person you meet is apparently a DJ and you can’t walk more than ten metres without seeing a bratwurst for sale. Technically small but with every nook and cranny home to some experimental art space or inexplicably well-preserved woodland, it’s one of the most chaotic, confusing places I’ve ever been, let alone lived. There’s no way that Sheffield or Leeds could even compete with somewhere like Berlin.
And I’m not being overly sentimental when I say I’ve had the best year of my life here, even if that might not be much of a victory considering how shitty the last two were. I moved out with the expectation that I would spend a year in solitude, consoled only by my cats, enjoying cultural outings solo and cooking lonely meals for one every evening. Perhaps I was being pessimistic, which is something I tend to excel at, but I do think I’ve also had remarkable luck in meeting the right people at the right time in the right place. And I think maybe that was true of Bowie too.
I never expected to call Berlin ‘my’ city. Berlin doesn’t belong to anyone, rather people belong to it, misfits and waifs and strays from around the world who come and go as they please, attracted by its perceived liberalism, comparative cheapness, and of course, the wealth of culture. I think some of is a false economy. Berlin is liberal in some respects, positively old-fashioned in others, its ‘poor but sexy’ vibe has less of an emphasis on poor nowadays, and whilst culture is something that Berlin has in troves, sometimes you get the impression everyone is recycling rather than innovating.
David Bowie said of moving from Berlin to New York after three years, ‘I had not intended to leave Berlin, I just drifted away. Maybe I was getting better.’ Of course I know my days in the city are numbered, and there’s only eight weeks of them left. I’m anxious about leaving, anxious about finishing my degree, anxious about most things in life (but that’s nothing new). Yet I couldn’t live in this city forever where nothing feels quite real. I’m comfortable here, I love Berlin, but it’s not home, although I’m not entirely what that means anymore. This is a city that is intense beyond all belief, and nowhere calls into question your identity more.
But maybe I’m getting better.