➤ Riddle of the train Bowie could not have taken in Where Are We Now?

Divided Berlin: the wall shown in black places the U-Bahn station (blue) at Potsdamer Platz inside the Soviet sector, along with the S-Bahn station (green)

Divided Berlin: the wall shown in black places the U-Bahn station (blue) at Potsdamer Platz inside the Soviet sector, along with the S-Bahn station (green)

❚ THE NEW MUSIC VIDEO for Where Are We Now? raises challenges during David Bowie’s nostalgic Berlin city tour that his fans expect to decipher. Lesser mysteries were quickly cracked this week:
1 – The woman’s face on the cuddly toy is the video director’s wife Jacqueline Humphries.
2 – The T-shirt slogan “m/s Song of Norway” refers to both a retired and renamed cruise ship (Royal Caribbean has used Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life in its commercials), and an operetta that was made into a film starring Bowie’s onetime girlfriend Hermione Farthingale who inspired a song.
3 – The closing shots of the Siegessäule (Victory Column) resonate also as the title of Berlin’s gay community magazine.
4 – The lyric’s curious non-idiomatic phrase “walking the dead” coincidentally references the title of an American drama about a transgendered person.

But the real Poirot Puzzler raised by the opening line of the song is this: *How* did Bowie “get the train from Potsdamer Platz” (incidentally, or deliberately, misspelt on screen) to reach his Berlin haunts in the 70s? Today any of us can easily take the U2 towards Nürnberger Strasse, the lyric’s next destination, where once, he sings, he would sit in the cool Dschungel nightclub frequented by assorted popstars (his favourite seat was on a balcony overlooking the bar). We can also take the S1 line south from PP to the trendy Schöneberg district where Bowie used to share rooms with Iggy Pop.

But not when Bowie lived in Berlin, during the years now identified with his Berlin Trilogy of albums, 1976-79. Why not? Because of the 12-ft high Wall, fortified with minefields, anti-tank defences and ruthlessly guarded, the symbol of communism which had divided the city since 1961. As we see from the map (above) both the stations for the S-Bahn surface train line and the U-Bahn underground line lay on the East side of the wall within the Soviet sector.

In the late 70s the site of Potsdamer Platz was a wide-open wasteland on the East of the Wall, a No Man’s Land chillingly known as the Kill Zone, where guards could gun down the continuing stream of desperate East Berliners courageous enough to make a dash for the West.

Potsdamer Platz in 1961: the postwar wasteland is divided by the Wall and was to become known as the Kill Zone

Potsdamer Platz in 1961: the postwar wasteland is divided by the first low-rise Wall and was to become known as the Kill Zone

Bowie’s workplace, the Hansa Studios where he recorded Low and Heroes, actually overlooked the Wall from the American sector, in Köthener Strasse a few yards south of Potsdamer Platz. Catching sight of two lovers near the Wall inspired the theme for the number, Heroes, in 1977, one of his most creative song-writing periods.

But Bowie could not have taken his train from either of those stations because they had been closed and barricaded when the Wall was built. Western trains continued to cross East Berlin along lines which emerged in the West but they passed through without stopping at many such stations which became known as Geisterbahnhöfe (ghost stations). Concrete collars at tunnel entrances scraped the sides of the trains to deter escapees from clinging to them. Half a lifetime later, on March 3, 1992, the S1 stop in Potsdamer Platz was the last ghost station to reopen after the reunification of Germany.

➢ Elsewhere at Shapersofthe80s:
Shock and awe verdicts on
Bowie’s born-again masterpiece

Perhaps Bowie departed from some other station? What about the 19th-century regional railway terminus called Potsdamer Bahnhof, you say? It fed ritziness into the heart of the metropolis and Potsdamer Platz became one of Berlin’s busiest traffic intersections where famously Europe’s first traffic lights were installed in 1924. The whole area was, however, laid waste during World War Two and the last trains you could have taken from this station ran in 1945.

Ah, yes but what about the innovative M-Bahn, the Magnetic Levitation line which powered south from the Philharmonie, skirting the Wall by Potsdamer Platz as it headed down to the river? Sorry, this didn’t open until 1989.

So how on earth did David Bowie take his train from Potsdamer Platz?

Is our hero indulging some romantic fantasy on behalf of an East Berliner during the 70s, making a wistful trip to the freewheeling delights of Schöneberg and the KaDeWe department store that became an attainable dream only after the fall of the Wall – as he sings, by crossing the Bösebrücke on November 9, 1989?

And why the first word of the song? Why *had* he to get this train at all? He was well-known for cycling everywhere in Berlin, such was the personal freedom he enjoyed there. And why from Potsdamer Platz?

Potsdamer Platz in 1910: looking south towards the Potsdamer Bahnhof

Potsdamer Platz in 1910: looking south towards the Potsdamer Bahnhof


❏ Bowie producer Tony Visconti says of Where Are We Now?: “To me, it’s not about the three-years he spent in Berlin in the 70s. It feels like just one day he had an epiphany walking in the street.” So there we have it. A walk in the street. Puts our post above out with the trash. Still, it painted a picture of an era that is probably unimaginable for anybody who hadn’t visited the divided city between 1961 and 1989.

When Bonn became the capital of West Germany in 1949, the war-ravaged city of Berlin grew ever more desolate, despite the handful of nightclubs where hedonism was very much defined as the antidote to the privations of daily life. The Western sectors felt like a minor provincial city with a population of 2 million, mostly consisting of the elderly, because everybody else had left to make new lives elsewhere. Just turning 30, Bowie and Iggy were among the city’s youngest inhabitants and their work as musicians was one of the few productive industries in an enfeebled economy.

Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Berlin

Nightclubbing 1977: Bowie and Iggy enjoy the Berlin nightlife

The Soviet sector, which we Westerners were privileged to visit, unlike its citizens wishing to make the opposite journey, felt tragic: rundown beyond the point of dilapidation, with high-rise Tower blocks in the brutalist Soviet style built to ease the pressure on a crowded population and signal the “modernity” of the East. As with visits to the Soviet Union, tourists were usually conscious of being followed or at least monitored by East German security personnel, and woe betide any local who behaved in an inappropriately friendly manner toward visitors! With the Stasi (state security service) relying on family members to inform on each other, the East became a society of subterfuge, with a black economy built less on cash than barter and influence at all levels of daily life.

➢ Take The Guardian’s complete tour of Bowie’s Berlin

➢ Jan 13 update: The Observer recounts his “unrepeatable time of Sturm und Drang in the shadow of the Wall”


One response to “➤ Riddle of the train Bowie could not have taken in Where Are We Now?

  1. Ross Matheson

    I wondered if it was the fact he wasn’t actually doing his usual jaunt on a bike that is the exact reason for the lyric. He “had” to do it as if it was something out of his wheelhouse and the person he’s speaking to in the song might not have thought he was capable of such a thing at the time. He was maybe being forced to take a trip somewhere else and that’s why he had to do it from Potsdamer Platz.

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