What would you expect from a book titled "Bowie in Berlin"?
What would you expect from a book which claims to be "painstakingly researched"?
Just as I most here would probably expect a book about Bowie's life in Berlin, rich in detail and safe in knowledge. Neither is the case.
Thomas Jerome Seabrook's book strangely enough wastes a third of its pages before first reaching the German city in question. Of course we need to know about Bowie's career twists and turns from before the Berlin days but the simple timeline the book follows makes that part redundant to anyone who has ever read any of the good Bowie bios which have been around for years.
If Thomas Jerome Seabrook had indeed painstakingly researched he should at least have found one new and interesting idea and approach to Bowie's Berlin days to start the book with. And then later weave in the necessary background from Bowie's LA time. But as he hasn't painstakingly researched (more later) we first go through the whole cocaine, fridge urine, Cracked Actor etc. encyclopedia before we even get a glimpse of Berlin. If you need a summary of what happened to Bowie in the US in the 70s, this is neat work, but I bought a book which promised more in its title.
When we eventually get to Berlin there is absolutely nothing new in this book. Nothing. Apart from a few wrong facts about the place, that is.
A painstakingly researched book about Bowie In Berlin, released in 2008 should at least try to shed some new light on what happened. Or at least light from a different angle. Not this one. A brief list of what I would have done if I was the author of a book under such a promising title:
- Take a look at Hauptstrasse 155 now and desrcibe it.
- Try to find out who owns the house and maybe get lucky to find a witness from those days.
- Speak to people like (Tangerine Dream's) Edgar Froese about the music from those days.
- Speak to a Berliner like Blixa Bargeld (who was unknown then) about what Berlin was like in those days. About the front feeling which apparently influenced Bowie's work so much.
- Wander through the Hansa Studios and have a word with Eduard Meyer, the once important engineer there.
- Check out Gail Anne Dorsey's tour diary which at some point deliverd a little insight in Bowie's lasting infatuation with Berlin. Or maybe even speak to her personally?
- Check with the legendary punk places like the still existing SO36, which apparently was Iggy's favourite club.
And so on. Just the quick ideas.
All that would help to gain a picture of what a place Berlin was then and why it so much appealed to Bowie. An insight. Instead we get a copy & paiste fest which reproduces all the well known formulas. Wall, Can, beer, bars etc. - you name it, it's there. But nothing that goes any further, 30 years later. Actually the Christiane F. book reveals more about the Bowie-Berlin-Bowie realationship than all that has been said in any Bowie book.
Berlin in the 70s and 80s was an exceptional place. In good and bad ways. It was wild. None of that comes across with Thomas Jerome Seabrook. Because he doesn't know about it. I actually doubt he has ever been here.
Thomas Jerome Seabrook's lack of knowledge about Berlin is embarassing in some facts.
He claims that Bowie's flat was within walking distance of the Hansa Studios and thus the Berlin Wall. A keen walker might do the distance in less than 40 minutes but certainly not the Bowie of those days. Not quite walking distance, I suppose. Similarily wrong is the claim that Schöneberg, the district where Bowie's flat was located, was an area of mainly non-german or even Turkish flair. It wasn't. That part of Schöneberg was certainly working class and had its fair share of migrants of all kind but Bowie was not inhabitating the typical Berlin areas like Kreuzberg or Neukölln, where you would find especially Turkish influences on everyone's life. And where the Wall was indeed next to you. I actually never understood why Bowie chose that dull part of Schöneberg for himself and not the far more vibrant and intense Kreuzberg. The book doesn't bother though.
Thomas Jerome Seabrook's painstakingly researched facts reach their lowest low when he claims that Bowie summoned Iggy's touring band for rehearsals in the "fairly big city of Babelsberg on the outskirts of Berlin". Good Lord, you can hardly put more bullshit in one sentence. Firstly, Babelsberg is no city of its own but a part of Potsdam, which itself is indeed a fairly big city on the outskirts of Berlin, but had one major problem at the time: It was part of East Germany! As the author may have heard there used to be that wall around Berlin - so Bowie, his band and crew would have had to travel over the border into East Germany every day for rehearsals. With their visas ready as Potsdam lay outside of Berlin, which made regular visits even more difficult than travelling from West to East Berlin. And even more absurd is the thought of the East German regime allowing a bunch like that to practise unhindered for a tour of the Western World on their tight fist ruled side of the iron curtain. Crazy.
I suppose Thomas Jerome Seabrook has copied that "fact" as well from somewhere else and I think I know where the original mistake stems from: The true rehearsal studios were on the UFA ground in West Berlin. The UFA also ran studios in Potsdam-Babelsberg where indeed loads of movies were made in the early 20th century and which came back to life after the Wall came down. So apparently someone confused them. Still someone who writes a book titled "Bowie In Berlin" should know better. Much better. And if the band had indeed practised in Babelsberg that would have made headlines all over the world. East and West.
Minor mistakes in the book are easy to be found as well. Following Thomas Jerome Seabrook Bowie has a song under the title "Hold On To Yourself" which I'd like to hear. He also claims that Iggy's "The Passenger" has a two-chord riff, which it hasn't and disses the marvellous "Turn Blue" as a song Bowie and Iggy shoud better have left alone. Urgh.
And there is probably more to be found.
On the good side the book gives detailed information about who played what on "The Idiot" and has a very nice lay-out. And for everyone who seeks a summary of all that's been written about that phase in Bowie's career this is a rather complete work. But for everyone who expects a far more informed and intelligent insight from an author who knows his subject beyond copying and paisting this is a disappointment. And it would have been interesting to get more. Shame.
TW GOD OF FOOTBALL