I wrote this piece following a recent trip to Berlin and left it for a while, but when David Bowie died two weeks ago, I revisited it. I didn’t know David Bowie personally and he has many more dedicated fans than me, but I love his music and what he gave us. As an icon, he taught us that talent can permeate many art forms, from music to film and fashion. He showed us that beauty transcends gender lines, and that music tells many stories. Here is my David Bowie story. Hopefully some of you might put Berlin on your bucket list, too, and rediscover some part of history.
About once a year, I go to a baseball game at Yankee Stadium with my husband, Rich, and our kids. I eat horrible food and sit in chairs with my knees tucked sideways, chairs that spring up so quickly when we stand it seems they are designed to catapult us right onto the field. During the three-hour-long games, I probably spend a good part of the time imagining faraway places and getting lost in my thoughts, so while it is not my first choice of family activity, it is a welcome diversion from our routine.
I go to these games to make my kids and husband happy, because everyone will have fun, and also because some days it is my turn to pick the activity. That’s how we ended up at The Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. I can’t take credit for planning the pilgrimage to Marfa in May 2014; that responsibility lies in the destination wedding planning of our close friend, Brad, and his wife, Stephanie. After the full day of travel to get to Marfa, I would have been happy to explore the landscape and sculpture at Donald Judd’s Chinati on my own. Our friends at the wedding, including Rich, did not seem very interested in this landmark in the months leading up to this trip or during the four-hour drive from El Paso. As we talked over breakfast on the wedding day, first Rich, then his sister, and then a few other friends changed their plans from skeet shooting or horseback riding to join me on this tour. It was fascinating to experience this Texas border town through the lens of its burgeoning contemporary art scene, a town that is part cowboy and part Brooklyn hipster.
Fast-forward to Berlin, Germany: November 2015. My birthday present from Rich was a weekend trip to join him in Berlin, where he was traveling for work. Rich has a conference every year that lands right around my birthday, and while I am pretty laid back about birthdays, it is nice to celebrate together. My original plans for my birthday included a 10,000 Maniacs benefit concert, but since Rich couldn’t go and Natalie Merchant wouldn’t be there either, it lost some of its appeal.
Part of the reason I was itching to go to Berlin was the history, part was my family’s German heritage, and part was the simple desire to do something new. I did not research what we should see beyond the obvious – the Wall, the Brandenburg Gate, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. World War II history is intriguing, complex, and bewildering; I have immersed myself in this history over the past year, since my grandfather died. I have forgotten a lot since high school, and there is so much more I never knew.
But there is more to Berlin than Nazi history and East vs. West. In my hotel room on Friday morning, still bleary-eyed from the overnight flight and paying half attention to a German-dubbed episode of How I Met Your Mother on the television, I opened a travel magazine on the nightstand. An article about Hansa Studios tours caught my attention. Stand in the studio beside the Wall where David Bowie wrote and recorded Heroes? Experience Berlin through the music of Bowie and Iggy Pop? Imagine Bono and The Edge recording all the tracks to Achtung Baby? Walk up the stairs where Depeche Mode members sprawled out for the cover of Black Celebration? Done. Where do I sign up? An online form and a couple emails later, and we were heading to Hansa Studios at 4 pm the next day. Rich was surprised by my plans but appeasing. The studio tour is an hour and a half, but if we wanted more, we could continue on to the Bowie/Iggy Pop bus tour of the city. I know my husband’s limits, and my own. The studio tour will do.
Was it everything I imagined it would be? I only had 24 hours to get in the mood for this, so my expectations were not too high. Yes, David Bowie is one of the greatest rock icons of all times and I spent many middle school bus rides with Depeche Mode tapes looping on my Walkman. It’s funny, though, that I went all the way to Berlin to learn about people who lived in Manhattan for many of the 16 years I lived there. I didn’t visit Hansa Studios to idolize these artists or for childhood nostalgia, but to see a different side of Berlin – a side we couldn’t experience through history books.
Looking at the laminated black-and-white images in our tour guide’s collection of Hansa Studios memorabilia, the edges worn and frayed, I was not completely transported to 1970s and 1980s Berlin, but I wasn’t in the present either. A wave of nostalgia for my own adolescent music collection was replaced with a desire to understand more about this complicated city. In the span of my lifetime, these musicians made history in a music studio that looked out onto empty lots and a watchtower rising above a tall concrete wall. This wall arbitrarily divided the city in half – with two parallel realities, two governments, two separate worlds colliding in conflict for decades. Now Berlin is unified, welcoming and bustling; reconstructed but not forgetting its history.
These are legendary songs and legendary albums recorded in a legendary city that no longer exists as it did. We need art and music and sports because they define the times and the places in which they were created, and they reflect the culture of everyday people. When I hear Heroes on the radio, it will be impossible to separate the song from the setting of that opulent ballroom in Hansa Studios nestled in Cold War Europe only a couple hundred yards from the Berlin Wall.
Until this trip, I had forgotten the memory of me at 13, watching the Berlin Wall come down on television after school with a friend. It was all somewhat confusing as a kid: the Cold War, Germany, Russia, the U.S., world leaders now talking, celebrations, pieces of the wall as souvenirs, and whole parts of the world slowly opening up. Berlin today is like the adult version of David Bowie and Depeche Mode. It is stable and less edgy, a wise father to the wild child it once was. But the history is still there, the undercurrent of conflict and the lessons to be shared.
When we explore our surroundings and distant places, surprising lessons emerge. My children learn U.S. geography by following opponents in sporting events; we experience places through contemporary art; and David Bowie can teach us about the Berlin Wall. Music is so much more than music.