Songsmith David Bowie Back In Berlin

As a rule, Bowie didn’t like to repeat himself; he preferred to reinvent. His many characters – Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and The Thin White Duke being probably the most famous – all provided voices and styles for reinventing himself as a constantly changing artist. He rarely returned after shedding a character’s skin. Major Tom from Space Oddity was an exception as he reappeared variously in Ashes to Ashes, Hallo Spaceboy and finally Blackstar as a man lost in space abandoned for good. All the sordid details can be found in Dale Maplethorpe‘s piece in this month’s Far Out, an article I discovered while working on this one.

When David Bowie released his 25th album The Next Day on 8th March, 2013, it was his first collection of new solo material for 10 years. But the cover artwork was modelled on Heroes from 1977.

Heroes from 1977 and The Next Day from 2013

Why do a cover version of a cover? As we shall see, in more ways than one, The Next Day marked Bowie‘s return to a place and a time : Berlin from 1976 to 1978 when he lived at Hauptstraße 155 in the Schöneberg district. Three albums from this period – Low, Heroes, and Lodger – are often referred to as The Berlin Trilogy. Only one of these, Heroes, was actually recorded in Berlin. It was a particularly creative period for Bowie‘s own work, but also for his musical collaborations with Iggy Pop on the latter’s renaissance albums from 1977, The Idiot and Lust for Life. Again, albums not actually recorded in Berlin, but definitely sculpted there.

Welcome to the fourth piece in my series called Songsmiths. Today’s song, Where are we now?, finds Bowie returning to his Berlin years. Exceptionally, not as a character, but as himself.

David Bowie, Where are we now? – Audio version 2013

At first hearing on the radio, the song sounded like somebody sleepwalking, a ghost from the past. Didn’t I know that voice, that London drawl, that downbeat drag? By the chorus, it was clearly David Bowie. Released overnight unannounced as the lead track for The Next Day on 8th January 2013, Bowie‘s 66th birthday, Where are we now? was his first new solo single since 2003.

Have a listen for youself. There is a weave to the music and lyrics which makes it an earworm of a song but the line-up is pretty basic : voice, piano, guitar, bass, and drums. You may notice the strings and keyboards which are also present but, for me, it is the drums and guitar which give Bowie‘s unearthly singing a rich environment to work in. Listen to those lead lines by Irish guitarist Gerry Leonard which have touches of Carlos Alomar in their lyricism. Then there’s Zack Alford’s drumming which carries the changes of tempo, and creates echoes of Ringo Starr’s work on I am the Walrus.

Bowie’s Berlin

Where are we now? namedrops places in Berlin from David‘s, Iggy‘s and the city’s own past as the singer walks memories back into being. There’s actually a tourist trail for visiting Bowie’s Berlin, but let’s take a closer look at the places named in the song.


Had to get the train
From Potsdamer Platz
You never knew that
That I could do that
Just walking the dead

The song opens with a train journey from the station at Potsdamer Platz, whose name is enunciated with deathly slow delivery so we know Berlin is where we are.

Potsdamer Platz Station, a kilometre south of the Brandenburg Gate, was first built the 19th century. This busy station was closed in 1961 when Potsdamer Platz was bissected by the building of the Berlin Wall and only re-opened in 1993. So when verse 1 of our song says, You never knew that / That I could do that, Bowie is making a journey which wouldn’t have been possible in the 1970s.

Then comes the punchline : Just walking the dead. Not Walking the dog, as I first misheard the line – that would be the Rufus Thomas song Bowie knew and sang in his teens. Nor was it The Walking Dead, horror classic and now TV series; that would be the brain wanting something familiar. No, if you cut up those same 3 words and put them in a different order – and Bowie liked cutting words up – you have a totally new expression, walking the dead, which I take as being what you do just after waking the dead : bringing old memories back to life and taking them for a stroll.

Verse 2 finds the singer in the jungle it seems. The urban jungle? Dschungel is German for jungle and was the name of a legendary discotheque on Nürnberger Strasse from 1978-1993 which no longer exists today because the site is now the Hotel Ellington.

Here I asked for some help from Edmund ‘Ed’ Kenny, who you may also know from Kerala Dust, who lives in Berlin today. He says : From what I can gather Dschungel was the hippest discotheque in Berlin during the 80s. The Paris Bar is another establishment that David Bowie and Iggy Pop used to hang out in which is still around and has a sort of legendary status.


Sitting in the Dschungel
On Nürnberger Strasse
A man lost in time
Near KaDeWe
Just walking the dead

As you wipe away a tear at this lost Bowie landmark as you realize Dschungel is now part of a hotel, let me put that in perspective. Thomas Tallis (1505-85), the composer of the polyphonic Spem in Alium among other masterpieces, is buried beneath Pizza Express in Church Street, Greenwich, London. Tallis was never a regular customer, but one day, who knows, even Pizza Express may disappear.

When the Berlin Wall came down, the city certainly went through seismic changes. Here’s Ed Kenny again : One important thing in relation to the song and Dschungel is that when the wall fell, the cool, artsy makeup of the city completely shifted. In the 80s, the Western part of Berlin was quite small, and the art scene revolved around the areas of Charlottenburg and Tiergarten – where Dschungel was located. Perhaps you already know some of this, but one of the reasons West Berlin was so central to the arts scene was that its male residents were not obliged to do Germany military service, meaning that the German liberal, peace-loving artsy folk moved there to avoid the military, thus creating a sort of safe haven for weirdos.

Bowie‘s Dschungel dreamer in verse 2 is also described as being Near KaDeWe. KaDeWe is short for Kaufhaus des Westens, meaning The Department Store of the West which, by 1956, was a seven-floor symbol of West German prosperity in the Cold War period. When Bowie was in Berlin in 1978, the store’s floor-space was officially 44,000 square metres, flaunting mind-bending material wealth and prosperity also intended to demoralize East Berliners by virtue of its inaccessibility.

This connects with a personal memory. I remember working with language teachers from former East Germany in 1990 on a British Council summer teacher training course in the UK for colleagues from various countries formerly in the Soviet or Eastern Bloc. The course was designed to help them update their education system as they emerged from Soviet authority, but there were also cultural visits as part of the programme. On one occasion, I remember our coach stopping at a huge shopping centre on the long journey back from an excursion, supposedly to give everybody a breather, and a chance to stretch our legs and have a new cultural experience. The East Germans preferred to stay on the coach rather than visit the shopping centre. Too many things in the shops, they said, too plentiful, too stressful. I stayed with them and they shared stories of life before and since German reunification. I imagine KaDeWe representing something similar to that shopping centre for East Berliners.


Where are we now?
Where are we now?

The moment you know
You know, you know

Next comes the chorus, which is also the title of the song. A question gets asked twice : Where are we now? Where are we now? The answer comes koan-like : The moment you know you know you know. The words you know echo, and with each echo the meaning changes, until we finally get something which says something like : The moment you know that you know (where you are), you can be sure you know.

This word-play is a favourite trick from the man who gave us loves to be loved in The Jean Genie, gazed a gazely stare in The Man Who Sold The World and then created a whole song, Let’s Dance, where the lyrics are built around odd collocations such as serious moonlight, and repetitions of key actions – dance, sway, hide, run, fall.

Verbal repetitions in the chorus of Where are we now? don’t have the flash and fun of Let’s Dance. They are, if anything, a little spooky. But then we are walking the dead, aren’t we? Any problems with that, and the platform staff at Potsdamer Platz Bahnhof will be happy to help. Otherwise, it’s time for Verse 3.

Bösebrücke is where the first crack appeared in the Berlin Wall in 1989. It is also where historic photos and film footage show how crowds crossed from East to West Berlin in huge numbers. Those are the 20 000 people who crossed with fingers crossed just in case mentioned in verse 3. Fingers crossed? A chance to repeat crossed for Bowie, but of course we also cross fingers for good luck – here, recalling the fate of all those who attempted to cross from East to West and ended up dead. Remember the couple in the song Heroes who were standing by the wall who kissed as the guns shot above our heads? The invulnerability of the two lovers was not shared by all, so cross fingers just in case.


20, 000 people
Cross Bösebrücke
Fingers are crossed
Just in case
Walking the dead

20,000 people cross Bösebrücke, Berlin, November 1989 – Source Wikipedia

There’s also the name of Bösebrücke itself which translates to Bad or Evil Bridge! In fact, originally named Hindenburgbrücke, after Paul von Hindenburg, the second President of Germany, the bridge was renamed in 1948 after Wilhelm Böse, an electrician and antifascist . Okay, so he really was called Böse, which means bad or evil, but somebody had a wicked idea changing the name!

When the Wall opened up, there was movement in both directions. East Berliners wanted to cross the border, but West Berlin residents, especially the more creative people, found themselves a new playground in East Berlin as Ed Kenny explains : When the wall fell, the art scene took over the abandoned East, as there were an enormous amount of flats sitting empty. One could squat a flat, and within five years gain access to the deed and flat ownership. The party scene from 1989 onwards was completely taken over by techno raves, which took place in big abandoned warehouses in the East, and the Charlottenburg and Tiergarten nightlife scene quietened down very quickly.

The song ends with the chorus followed by the lyrical, romantic lift of the final coda.

As long as there’s … gets repeated and completed with a succession of sun, rain, fire, you and me. This sounds like a classic close to a song, emotionally not that far removed from the nerve-tingling end to Wild is the Wind. The difference in Where are we now? is the singer’s personalisation of his emotion : sun, rain, fire seem to be longstanding elements in human experience, but what happens to individual experiences when there is no me, no you to remember them?

A performance of the song as the finale to a tribute concert to Bowie‘s memory called Bowie in Berlin from October 2016 by Magnus Carlson and the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra underlines the strength of this final sequence.


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

Where indeed?

So you may be wondering where David Bowie was in November 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. He had long since left Berlin and moved on. November 1989 saw him based in Australia and in the process of recording a second album as lead singer with the group Tin Machine.

Did something come back to haunt him then? Or did it return as an earworm working its way through years later? Perhaps he still remembered sitting in the Dschungel at what Ed Kenny calls The era of Dschungel – the pre-Fall 1980s era of West Berlin, a specific moment in time, intricately tied to that moment for those who were there.

And where is David Bowie now? The moment you know you know, please let me.


Many thanks to Ed Kenny for insightful comments so generously shared. If you don’t know his work with the group Kerala Dust then their YouTube channel would be a good place to start.

A mention must also go to people who have drawn my attention to David Bowie‘s work over the years, when I was constantly looking the other way. My sister Angie, and my schoolfriends Mary Rocks and the sadly missed Ann Moffat for being so enthusiaistic about Ziggy Stardust when the album was new. Robin, a student friend and musician from my years at Keele who insisted I listen with him to Young Americans and Station to Station, marvelling at the attention to detail. Finally to my brother Dan, who made me cassettes of Low, Heroes, Lodger and Let’s Dance in the 80s just so I could go beyond all the veneer of the hit singles and explore what he assured me were great albums. You were right.

Still want more?

Have a look at the video clip of Where are we now?.

The website has a well-documented article on the genesis and reception of Where are we now? as a song, as a video clip and part of an album.

The Guardian narrates the recording and release of the album The Next Day from which the song came.

More about earworms ? Look no further than this piece from Far Out.

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