The amount of cocaine that David Bowie did in LA is the stuff of legend. I learned of it while staying at the Hard Rock Hotel in Orlando on vacation in high school, which means it was delivered with a hallowed hush and also in conjunction with the on-site Ben and Jerry’s. Recounted there as a Fun Fact!, it is alleged that Bowie consumed more cocaine than any person living or (mostly) dead. And that he holds that record by yards. And if you listen to Diamond Dogs or Station to Station, you’re likely to agree that this man extremely “did coke.” They are paranoid, and frayed, and fraught, and insane.
That reads like an obituary of one of the great “died-too-youngs” that Rock Historians valorize and privilege. But it isn’t, because David Bowie saved his own life, and that of Iggy Pop’s, by up and moving to West Berlin at the height of his success and fame. Berlin, which was divided by a wall with guard posts, snipers, and barbed wire.
Bowie and Iggy had reasons to relocate to an unthinkable locale. German “Krautrock” masters like Can, Kraftwerk, Cluster, and Neu! had begun to change the shape of music in the early 70s, a sound which Bowie had begun to embrace on Station to Station. Both Bowie and Iggy were heavily influenced by the work of Christopher Isherwood and its many adaptations, with Goodbye to Berlin and Cabaret detailing an era of queer nightlife (see “Nightclubbing” by Iggy Pop below). Brian Eno had already set up camp in the city, where he recorded and produced Another Green World. And the city itself, as a bleak and liminal community, would provide ample inspiration for the end of an excessive decade.
Low, released in 1977, was the first in a trio of albums Bowie recorded in Berlin, and it is among a handful of the greatest albums ever recorded, full stop. It’s significance in influence, in production history, cannot be overstated, but that isn’t the reason it resonates so strongly. Low tells the story of Bowie’s escape from addiction, and salvation in a strange town.
Low is in truth a double album; the first half consists mainly of unfinished sections of songs, while side two focused heavily on instrumental soundscapes composed by chance methods with Eno. The album itself tells the story of his escape from LA sonically. Blissed-out, frenzied redliners dominate side one, with no more popular or fitting representation of that excess than “Sound and Vision.” “A New Career in a New Town” tells the transition almost literally, though instrumentally; following the campy rocker “Be My Wife,” there’s a brief, wistful intro, culminating in an ecstatic and optimistic refrain, with tinkling piano set over driving drums and an ethereal harmonica.
The rest of the album would not follow suit; it sounds more like the surface of the moon than the middle of a firework explosion. Serene and contemplative, tracks like “Warzawa” and “Weeping Wall” were inspired by the sociopolitical realities of his “new town.” Recorded in a studio right along the Berlin Wall at the height of the Detente period of the Cold War, Bowie and Iggy discovered that the queer, colorful Berlin they imagined from Isherwood and Cabaret abutted desperate poverty and fear.
But it is “Always Crashing in the Same Car” which now feels the most significant from the album, and perhaps among the most significant from Bowie’s entire catalog. “Always Crashing” hits that hellish low referenced in the album title; the lyrics relate a version of one of Bowie’s more infamous anecdotes, wherein he crashed repeatedly into a dealer’s car for ripping him off, then entered a parking garage and circled it for hours. Languidly paced, the shuffle of the song feels drunken, staggering, with the toms crashing at the start of the verse (recalling the beginning of the Beach Boys’ “I’m Waiting for the Day”). “Always Crashing” is the last Thin White Duke song, and represents a Bowie who would have died in Los Angeles.
(Also worth noting, Low was the first album to use distortion on the snare drum, perhaps the signature hallmark of 80s production; in this sense, and in many others, Bowie invented the 80s nearly a half-decade early.)
I could discuss at endless length the pleasures of Low’s follow-ups, Heroes and Lodger, their weirdness and brilliance. (Hell, Bowie ended his Berlin trilogy with “Red Money,” a fuzzy, funky shuffle that declares his “PROJECT CANCELED.”) “Heroes,” one of Bowie’s most impactful cuts, is making the rounds in the wake of his passing, and for good reason. Bowie had been reborn, and “Heroes” is a testament to that. It is a song that can save lives in it’s triumphant celebration of life. (Though the lyrics are less emphatic than the music, drawing on the “just for one day” part of the titular expression; “You can be mean, and I’ll drink all the time”; “Nothing will keep us together.”)
With the announcement of his death, it is this era of his life and art that I most admire. Sure, I love the Berlin Trilogy (as well as Iggy Pop’s The Idiot and Lust for Life and Brian Eno’s Another Green World, recorded in that same period) more than anything else in any artist’s catalog. But Bowie would have been another sad, wasted talent had he not escaped from Los Angeles, one whose influence would still have been outsized and everlasting. That he did, that he died yesterday at age 69 rather than in his thirties, having given art even more substantial revelations. . . that is where I am in awe. Bowie’s capacity for cocaine consumption, it appears, was rivaled by his courage, and strength, and grace. The many, many tributes flowing in attest to that.
We are all crashing our same cars, in ways small and grand, psychological and spiritual. But we do not have to die, and we can change, and we can be heroes.
Christopher Kaluzienski is assistant editor at Wussy in Atlanta, Georgia. He is greatly saddened by the passing of David Bowie, and has heard you aren’t, really, so maybe let’s just not talk for a few days.