When Bowie Moved To Berlin: Killing The Duke To Save The Man

By Sarah Norman | June 4, 2024

Goodbye Thin White Duke

In the mid-1970s, David Bowie found himself at a crossroads, both personally and artistically. His move to Berlin marked a transformative period that would forever change the course of his career. Fleeing the chaos of fame and the excesses of his alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, Bowie sought refuge in the city's gritty streets and vibrant underground scene. It was here, amid the shadow of the Berlin Wall, that he reinvented himself, shedding the flamboyant persona of the Thin White Duke to rediscover the artist within. This journey of self-discovery not only saved Bowie but also gave birth to some of his most groundbreaking work, capturing the raw essence of his artistic rebirth.

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David Bowie performing in Tokyo's NHK HALL on the Low & Heroes Tour, December 1978. Source: (Photo by Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images)

The "Berlin Trilogy" -- Low (1977), Heroes (1977), and Lodger (1979) -- by David Bowie consists of three albums made while he was attempting to re-engage with the world. Living in Los Angeles in 1975 and 1976 had led David Bowie down a path of excess that sounds both opulent and terrifying. Adopting the debonair but aloof persona of the "Thin White Duke," the mid-'70s Bowie got by on a diet of cocaine, red peppers, and milk, bringing on a cocaine psychosis that threatened to destroy him. The Thin White Duke was a cynical character, singing love songs without sincerity and known for public fascistic statements. Bowie, ever prone to reinvention, sought an escape from LA and the person he’d become.

After experimenting in Switzerland and France Bowie found himself firmly ensconced in Berlin, a city still divided by the Berlin Wall. From 1977 to 1979 Bowie would record three albums that fed off the energy of Berlin, and its residents' indifference to him, while he was getting sober and finding the joy in life. 

Bowie Saw Berlin As A 'Sanctuary City'

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Source: (pinterest.com)

Initially, Bowie got up to the same kind of trouble in Berlin that he did in Los Angeles. Joined by his close friend and musical partner Iggy Pop, Bowie partied all night, went clubbing in the city’s seediest bars, and even stole his drug dealers car. He and Pop allegedly drove the car through their hotel's parking lot at 70 mph until it ran out of gas. Shortly after that Bowie began kicking cocaine. Bowie told Uncut that no matter how kooky he was, Berliners just didn’t care:

Life in LA had left me with an overwhelming sense of foreboding. I had approached the brink of drug induced calamity one too many times and it was essential to take some kind of positive action. For many years Berlin had appealed to me as a sort of sanctuary like situation. It was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke; it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn't care. Well, not about an English rock singer anyway.