David Bowie's new single and Berlin : Where are we now?

The divided city David Bowie knew is ostensibly healed and endlessly hyped. But, asks Titus Chalk, will the new Berlin ever produce a worthy heir to the former tenant of Hauptstraße 155?

Where are we now, asks David Bowie in his new song - which is released today, on his 66th birthday, and is once again set in Berlin. So is the video.
Where are we now, asks David Bowie in his new song - which is released today, on his 66th birthday, and is once again set in...dpa

David Bowie is not 66 years old. He is at once far younger, for the timelessness of his music and its reach to generations not born when it was written. And much older, for all the accelerated moments, the vanished nights, the emptying, the exhausting, the pouring out of a lifetime of experience over and over into a microphone. “Where are we now?” the title of his first single in a decade, is therefore the perfect question for a man caught between ages, “a man lost in time near KaDeWe”, looking increasingly over his shoulder to the vast acreage of the past, than to the diminishing possibilities for future exploration. Mortality hovers over Bowie, who underwent heart surgery in 2004.

As fellow musician Sven Regener points out in his novel Herr Lehmann, it is at 30, that one begins to have a past. When the process now acutely felt by Bowie of looking back, then warily snatching a glance forwards, begins. On the eve of my 30th brirthday I deciced to leave my past behind and look elsewhere for a future. That meant leaving my shared flat in Stansfield Road in Brixton, the street where Bowie was born, to move to Berlin, where he peaked as a musician and producer. I felt a connection to Bowie, brought up on his music by my dad who regaled me with tales of listening to Ziggy Stardust over and over, stoned, with his mate Ian Little at Kingston school of Art. I would, I told myself, make a pilgrimage upon my arrival in Berlin to all the Bowie sites: Hansa Studios, Hauptstraße 155, the Dschungel, but I never did. Nor do I suspect, do many who make the same promise to themselves on moving to this city, one irreversibly changed since Bowie’s three fulminant years here.

David Bowie's new video "Where Are We Now", set in Berlin:

And Bowie knows it; senses that the centre of gravity has shifted and that the monument of his Berlin trilogy and the half-city or second city it was created in is left largely untended by the massed ranks of Berlin’s new creative classes. His response is this wry new single; a sweeping hand and a rueful pronouncement to the young pretenders: “Back then,” the man out of time is saying, “all this was just fields.”

The vulnerability of a man considering his own legacy as the terrain shifts around him is there in his voice. But as long as he lives (and it IS good to hear him alive), Bowie should rest assured. Despite the weeds growing over his old Schöneberg stomping ground, despite the plethora of DJs, producers, artists and assorted musicians in the new Berlin, despite the ad nauseum proclamations of its Utopic qualities, it is in danger of becoming a fallow pasture. Where too much talent is pissed up the wall. Where output is low. And where no market exists for excellence. It will be a while before the Thin White Duke is usurped in Berlin.

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