by Chris Hodenfield / Rolling Stone
Berlin is a skeleton which aches in the cold; it is my own skeleton aching.
– CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD
David Bowie moved to Berlin because it was a world as far removed from Los Angeles as he could find. In Hollywood, he’d fallen in with the wrong crowd. Living on stimulants of all varieties, he’d flirted with ideas of power, ascension, dictatorship – the glorious figurines that may seem strange to you and me, but seemed amusing to one who had tasted the crowd’s hysteria from the lucky side of the footlights.
He’d gotten to be quite a high-hat.
In Berlin, a city that had known other takeover artists, he got humble. Rock & roll was no longer a vehicle for driving to the throne. But it was a living. It would finance a movie career, anyway.
Jim Osterberg moved to Berlin around the same time as Bowie, the spring of 1976. Going under other names, like Iggy Stooge and Iggy Pop, he had, more than a decade ago, originated in Michigan what later became known as the punk-rock masque: maniac music with a death-warmed-over pose. He had the lean, suspicious face of a young American hoodlum, and the pose was not always fashionable. He too found himself living on the Coast, and what he was in Los Angeles was a sun going down. Carrying a junk habit around, he became a street person, a drifter, crashing where he could. Finally, he committed himself to UCLA Hospital.
His only regular visitor there was David Bowie. Iggy was told that if he cleaned up, he could join Bowie’s Station To Station tour. So he kicked and joined as a companion. He started another life in Berlin.
Soon after Bowie ushered Iggy into a recording studio overlooking the Berlin Wall and produced The Idiot (1977), a sad album but brilliant if you could tolerate it. Bowie – thought by his fans to probably be a mighty weird nogoodnik – must seem refined and reliable next to a real article like Iggy. Iggy’s power and Iggy’s curse is that he has always lived out his show, unlike those who make a production out of the pose, Alice Cooper, Kiss… or Bowie.
The first time I’d seen Iggy was in 1969, at an outdoor pavilion in New York City, and as the hot summer breeze blew across the stage, and the deranged, forceful music hammered us, he clawed his chest until it bled. He threw himself headlong into the audience. He dragged everybody through hell. It was spontaneous, not calculated, theatre. Trash showered onto the stage.
It inspired from me the harshest review I have ever written. What he did to his chest, I did to his act. He was livid about it, and called for my head on a platter.
Flying into Berlin eight years later, alongside his representative, Tim De Witt, I could think of better welcoming committees, than Iggy Pop. But he was down there waiting at the Tegl Airport and so, somewhere in the metropolis, was his friend David Bowie. However, while Iggy was fighting and scraping his way to a decent living, Bowie was bathing in Klieg lights, for he was signed to a motion picture, a Berlin period piece called Just a Gigolo.
Iggy stood shivering in the snowy night, wearing merely a black leather jacket and pegged jeans. He still had the lean, dangerous face, but now it had frequent access to a big, dimpled smile that suddenly appeared and ate up his entire face. His girlfriend, Esther, was almost a physical match for him. An American, daughter of a diplomat, she was starved-slender, with a colourless closed-room complexion made all the more pale by the rinsed-black hair. You’d have to call their smiles sassy; you might even call their eyes doomstruck.
Esther slogged the Volkswagen through Berlin, while Iggy played tour guide. “There’s the Charlottenburg Palace. The emperor used to grow potatoes in that garden.”
We passed Spandau Prison, which entertains just one prisoner, Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s former deputy, now eighty-five, with bad circulation, blurred vision and a life sentence. Still, the prison is all his, so he has a monument, and an immense monument it is.
“You notice how intoxicating the air is are?” Iggy asked, turning around in his eat. “It’s a big thing, the Berlin luft. We’re or too far from Poland and the air sweeps in off the Ukraine plains. I like to walk around. When I first got here, I just walked and walked. Not thinking about anything. just talking to myself.”
There must be a certain romance in living in a city out on the edge like this, an island, almost a cartoon sketch of capitalism, surrounded by East Germany. A doomstruck city, threatened by takeover, a city that had seen every war lost since 1871. Most of the city’s splendid old buildings had been bombed away. Gone were the imperial balustrades, the pin-striped Bauhaus, replaced by dull shells of pressed concrete-prefabricated, bare-window, no-nonsense housing, apartments like jailhouses. Iggy lived out in these precincts, in a stove-heated apartment. He had a piano, but hadn’t tuned it yet, because he liked its “Hoagy Carmichael sound.”
As we drove through the streets, he pointed out a piano bar, where, once invited onstage, he gave them a half-hour of Frank Sinatra songs. “I went back another time,” he said with a smile. “I was drunk as hell ,and I began getting into my thing. Somebody came up to tell me something, but it was my stage. I’m singing.” To illustrate, he dropped the cheer from his face and replaced it with a murderous seriousness. It’s a disarming move, often happening without warning or motive. The lips become tight and interested only in revenge. His story could be full of springtime, but his expression says Police Frame-up.
We reached our destination. The sidewalk held a scene of dark, ominous bacchanalia. Shadowy toughs stood outside a glass-fronted rock saloon called Das Treibhaus – or, the Hot House.
“Wanna buy some smack?” Iggy cracked to no one in particular. He buried his hands in his pockets. “We can watch them sell smack. Some wild life hanging out here. The Persians start fighting. I saw them once take their pool cues and break open the … piggy banks. Nobody does anything. I stopped going there then. It’s almost comical. Berlin is a great holdout for draft dodgers, from all over Europe.”
I looked inside. Leaden, black mass music vaulted over the dance floor. People danced like they were shaking lice out of their hair. Nobody was dressed fancy. And nobody danced in pairs. A bar circled the dance floor. Women stood alone.
Next door, smaller and bleaker, was a punk-rock joint. The music, even louder, was the usual searing, anxious stuff. Only one man danced, and it was as if he were simultaneously engaged in swatting mosquitoes and scraping shit off his shoes. Nobody had a drink in his hand.
But Iggy was heading upstairs to an even more depraved location. The sordid humours of Berlin had led us here, to a bowling alley. It looked no different than any Bowlarama back in Ypsilanti, Michigan, Iggy’s home town. While we laced up our two-tone shoes, Iggy said: “I always wanted to come to Germany, even when I was a kid. I read everything about it. I always knew I wanted to come here, just like some guys always knew they wanted … to wear a dress.”
DAVID BOWIE is an elegant, angular guy, neat and precise, one hand folded in his pocket, a thin, reptilian smile, and a lounge lizard’s repertoire of negligent poses with the cigarette. He stood there on the dance floor, with the smile of a man watching a tramp steamer disappear into the fog.
Just A Gigolo is set in the period from 1918 to 1928, the postwar depression that gave birth to Nazidom. Director David Hemmings called this a story of prostitution. Everybody became some sort of prostitute, and Bowie portrays the Prussian officer who ended up a gigolo, a lady’s teatime dance partner who perhaps had other favours to sell besides dancing.
Overseeing the overtures would be a demi-madam played by Marlene Dietrich, in her first movie since Judgment At Nuremberg (1961). It was an eerie choice, because we tie the younger Marlene to Berlin: she began as a cabaret singer here and played one in the 1930 picture The Blue Angel, which earned her a ticket to Hollywood. Since she’d have nothing to do with Berlin today, wouldn’t leave Paris where she’s writing her memoirs, the producers were having to build a mockup of the Eden Bar set in Paris. Two days of acting would reportedly earn her $250,000.
The Eden Bar set was upstairs in a sentimental retreat called the Cafe Wien. Downstairs was a dim red dance floor, surrounded by amber-lit tables. Each one had a telephone for calling other tables. Fritz, it was just like the old days.
Up here, the milling extras in tuxedos and silks danced to a squawk band. Bowie was to dance a mad tango with a billowing woman, a George Grosz caricature of a woman, smeary mouthed and vigorous. She glad-handled his ungainly figure across the dance floor. His eyes, according to the style, were rigidly impassive. There was no more emotion on that kisser than on a rattlesnake’s. A strikingly symmetrical face, it stood out like a sepia-toned photograph. He knows the impassive coldness is an asset and, with typical calculation, keeps to a waxy stillness, like a famous cadaver that everyone’s come to see.
Director Hemmings, who also acts in a few scenes, turned to debating with his cameraman. The grand dowager cooled her heels in the corner. An extra sneaked up to the bandstand, spread his swallowtails and sat down at the piano. A low-life blues score flowed forth and the room’s attention was soon his. Even purple-faced Hemmings gave him a glance. A pimply extra in a starch-front shirt moved to the drums and lent a discreet clacking. Bowie watched all this with his weight on one leg, and the other leg outstretched like a cast off oar.
When he’d used up his cigarette, he sat down in a band chair and hoisted up the moss-covered saxophone from its stand. He deliberated, tested the reed, and waited. The pianist, who had been spooning up all kinds of ruffles and flourishes, gradually calmed down to a basic melody line and looked at Bowie with anticipation. Bowie just sat there, preoccupied, wetting the reed. Conversation slowed, and faces peered over shoulders. Finally, he released a string of squawks that didn’t take too many years off the life of the melody. The pianist, who once seemed confident, now was worried. Bowie waited a few more bars before volunteering another mouthful.
One high-hatted extra sat, unconcerned, at a corner table, fingering a cigarette. Tall, erect, with silver hair combed straight back, he wore an expression of weary arrogance, surveying the hybrid gathering. He seemed just the kind of gentleman who usually inhabits the Cafe Wien, a man revisiting his time. His left eye seemed sad, and his right eye seemed furious. It was easy to believe that he was a once-proud officer, now reduced to these circumstances.
Fifty years of dirty laundry. Artur Vogdt has been a hotel porter in Berlin through many regimes, and he knows where people’s pasts are buried. Now he runs the Hotel Continental on Berlin’s main drag, the Kurfurstendamm. In the Twenties, this was a house owned by a wealthy Jewish family. And now, after you climb a winding flight of stairs, you find Artur holding court at the front desk, ready to tell tales. He knew a certain actress when she was the whore of Budapest, claimed he’d run for Joe Kennedy. An avid art collector, he also knew the tastes of a hundred artists and poets who, one time or another, flopped at the Continental.
So that I would know what a real gigolo looked like, Artur pulled out his collection of cafe-society memorabilia. I leafed through. Post cards from the Rokokosaal Casanova. Stylish woodcuts of roughnecks with squat hats pulled low. Modern girls with bobbed hair and silk stockings, not caring a fig who saw their garters.
From a small tape recorder came the scratchy, bittersweet lament of a gipsy violinist. Artur betrayed a nervous wink.
“They were not called gigolos,” he said. “They were eintanzers, you see. It was after this song ‘Shöner Gigolo, Armer Gigolo’ [in America, “Just a Gigolo”] that you heard the name ‘gigolo’. Another thing, they were not former soldiers, they were mostly Egyptians, a few Persians.”
The pictures showed languid, lacquered men. Was it the influence of Valentino?
“Yes, you are right. Absolutely. One hundred percent. There were three racetracks in Berlin at that time. And so much elegance. You don’t see it so much any more. The gigolos would go to the track. The eintanzers would drive the big Chrysler car, you know, with rumble seat? One woman they’d get to pay for the car, the other to pay for the apartment. While dancing, they would make an appointment for the evening, you understand?”
He winked lasciviously. “I still know many of their first names.”
He nodded to the ironic music. “This is Boulanger, a gipsy. Whenever I feel sad, I put this on, and right away”. His hands rose and so did a smile. But it was a face that knew too much hurt, so it was only a grimace. “One song I have told David Hemmings to put into this movie, Tango Nocturne. It was very famous in the Twenties. A lot of things are wrong with this movie. Even Sydne Rome [Bowie’s lover in the film], she is made up to look beautiful – but it’s more Fifties than Twenties.” He reached under the counter for my key.
“The Berliners have lost the smile. It is tragic. They forgot the smile. The young people drink and drink, they watch their TV, they get so much beer and brandy and take it home and watch TV. Even David Bowie knows more about expressionist art than ninety percent of the young people here.”
Artur said good night. Boulanger’s lament wove through the hallways.
Outside an old-time transvestite bar, the Lützower Lampe, in a dressing room trailer, David Bowie sat and looked at pictures. His bicycle was in the trailer, too. A cassette played Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Once upon a time, after he’d dropped out of high school, he worked as a commercial artist in an ad agency. In his photo album there were snapshots of his recent paintings and woodcuts. Most were stark, howling messages, reminiscent of Twenties expressionism. A room with a table. There was a startling woodcut of an Argentine dancer.
“Have I shown them?” he said, recoiling. “Never have, but I think I might be getting the confidence up again. That’s a self-portrait,” he said, turning over a snake-faced head-shot. “That’s Iggy, without his professor’s glasses. That’s his ‘I just want to be taken seriously’ look.” Iggy, with parted hair, had a sad, up-from-under stare.
Another self-portrait, this one with ravenous eyes and a stricken face. The actor’s grief! Then, a portrait of a man with child gnarled limbs like old, dry cornstalks, hands like shovels, expressions of severity. Even more severe was a painting of Yukio Mishima, the Japanese author, with huge, almond eyes. A sketch of a man looking into the distance. “That’s a bartender. He built his bar right alongside the Wall. His parents live on the East side and that’s just how he sits, looking out the window at the East.”
He closed the book, adjusted his wrap and moved his bicycle out of the way. His winter transport.
The shooting day was almost done. “I’ll be going back to my room to watch one hour of telly – got to catch the news, you know and go to sleep.” Smiling, he showed his eyeteeth. “I’ve got into the habit lately.”
Berlin looks like a city that continues to pay for its sins. But cross the Wall and enter East Berlin and you see the bullet holes and the charred windows. There is an immense field of crushed brick where once stood one of the largest train stations in Europe. East Berlin is not littered with saloons and yellow neon signs that blink LOWENBRAU all night. You don’t see the devotion to style and frivolity, and not so many faces hang loose with dissipation. But on the pedestrians of East Berlin you will see cold, angular faces of the Ukraine. In the new, already crumbling gingerbread apartment buildings, thrown together in a time of poverty, illegal television antennas hang from the windows. Children’s playgrounds look like army obstacle courses. Indoor pools and gymnasiums are everywhere.
At Checkpoint Charlie, the trained-bear guards still push rolling mirrors under cars to find escapees. I was glad to be back in West Berlin, but in not too many hours, I got that same sad feeling again. West Berlin reminds me of an old dowager in a musty parlour, who shows you pictures of her youth and begs you not to open the curtains.
“Can you imagine running a wall down Fifth Avenue,” David Hemmings had said, “knowing that New Yorkers are New Yorkers, and yet declaring suddenly that the island of Manhattan East will be Communist and West will be capitalist? You wouldn’t believe that New York, after fifteen years, could have a completely different cultural environment on both sides of the dividing line. It just goes to show, in a sense, how malleable human nature is. That wall is cultures thick. It could be 600 years thick. I find it amazing that it could have taken place in so short a time. In less than a full generation.”
David Hemmings sat down in the Istanbul Restaurant. He looked at the waiter and said, before ordering the first of many double Scotches, “I think I’ll have the breaded brains, because that’s what I feel I’ve got.”
His face was puffy. Flashing through occasionally was that gaunt and driven face we’d seen in 1966 when he played the photographer in Blow Up. It was a relief, however, not to see the nastiness his roles so often demanded but rather see the energy and charm of the director on set. He was first approached to be in this picture as an actor, but he used his considerable powers of oration to talk himself into the director’s chair.
The Turkish repast arrived on the table in mounds. I noted that, with Bowie and Kim Novak (a society matron who seduces Bowie in the movie), he at least had two photogenic actors to work with.
Hemmings’ voice, accelerated even in gloom, suddenly gathered up to full storm. “Kim has an essential quality that she shares with Bowie: the camera adores them both.”
“In this movie David has done things I’ve known are not his best. But the camera says, no, David was really much better than you thought. Perhaps being a performer, understanding the public, and knowing the public, and knowing about the projection of personality … even that is not something that anyone ever sat down and taught him.”
Audiences are captivated by a certain stillness, a distracted look in the eyes.
Hemmings finished his Scotch and set it down with authority. “There was a theory once about actors, that you did well if you didn’t blink. Many actors – Olivier, Brando, De Niro, Newman, Redford – you can watch them time and time again on screen and you never see them blink. There were other theories. If you were shortsighted and didn’t wear your glasses, that gave you a tremendous air of concentration because you couldn’t see further than your nose. I think that was Vanessa Redgrave’s secret.
“I don’t believe any of the theories.”
Understanding the public… knowing the projection of personality. Somewhere along the line, Bowie had learned all this.
Like Cher, he knows that his public likes to look at something. He stands about six feet, stiff-necked and pale. The set of his shoulders, the cords of his neck, reveal a new physical discipline. He’s something to see. I couldn’t tell you if he knows when he is, and when he is not, projecting his personality.
Bowie walked down the draughty stairwell of the Cafe Wien to the red, artificially sinful, brocaded walls of the main dance hall. Today’s costume was an old wool suit. He sat down at a table and regarded the apple-cheeked waitress as if she was a trusted friend. “I know, what I’d like,” he said cheerfully in a broken German. “Steak and eggs and chips and a glass of milk.”
I recalled that Bowie was once a mime in Lindsay Kemp’s troupe.
“Yes I was. There’s still a lot of Buster Keaton in everything I do.” He laughed boyishly, as if to take the posh off it.
Keaton, of all the silent screen comedians, did not use facial contortions. Keaton was very physical, but kept a Great Stone Face on which you could read anything.
“I’ve been underplaying incredibly, which I love. My greatest fear is to overplay, because, not having much acting experience, that’s exactly what I would do.”
Bowie’s accent maintains something of the regulated crispness of the British upper-class accent, but seeping in occasionally is his Brixton past.
I asked him about getting into the right “psychological circumstances” for a scene.
“Well, Victor Mature said, when he was once told what to think for an emotional scene, ‘Look, I’ve got three expressions, three looks. I look right, I look left and I look down the middle. Which one do ya want? That sounds like me. I wouldn’t be very good doing the emotional stuff. Even when I write songs, sometimes, I’ll see what I’ve written and say to myself, “That sounds a bit soft.’ And I’ll rub it out.”
Sure, I said. Take out that “love” and put in “glove.”
“Yes,’ he agreed. “Even there, ‘I glove you.’ Now that says something.”
But you listen to emotional music?
“Yes I do, quite the opposite there. I love the emotional music of Vivaldi, Edith Piaf, the greatest torch singer ever. Lotte Lenya, although with Lotte Lenya, there’s that other side, that Kurt Weill business – the cacophony that appeals to the intellect. Often what I like to do is make very emotional music and put on another kind of lyric that will hopefully make a third thing, an unknown factor. There we come right back to ‘glove’ for ‘love.’
The waitress appeared with his steak, buried in sunny-side up eggs and a mountain of chips. He arranged his napkin in his lap.
“You ordered the salad? Well, there are two sets of knives and forks, so tuck in.”
I was interested in how he moved from medium to medium, from music to movies. Even on the set, between takes, he was making woodcuts.
This movie, it appeared, was more to remake his image than to make money. He had world concert tours scheduled to take care of the money, and he openly admitted that’s all they were for. The money would finance future productions, himself directing. “Because I must remain in control,” he said.
He chewed this over for a moment.
“I found, eventually, after searching for some time, some kind of premise in music. Some sort of philosophical ideas that I can call tools. Once you have that premise, and those tools, you can then move into, I believe, any other area of what one calls the arts. When I turn my hands to making films as a director, I will also have those tools.”
He speared a french fry with his fork, dabbed it into the egg yolk. “They always deliver such gigantic quantities in Germany and America. I never get near finishing.”
I was just wondering which of those silver-haired movie extras upstairs on the set was once an officer?
“They all want to be in the movies. No, no, no, you don’t understand. Everybody here kept Jews in their attics. If you ask them.” He looked over his shoulder to see if the coast was clear, then hissed in a mock German accent, ” ‘But our family kept Jews in ze attic.’ Everybody, every old person I’ve met here was a socialist. Or a Communist. ‘You must understand, zere was street fighting all the time in Berlin.’ Which is true, that’s why Hitler put his thumb on the city and decided to set up base here, because this was the most troublesome spot. There was always a very large Communist faction.
“One thing about Berliners, the rest of Germany can’t stand Berliners, and Berliners look down on the rest of Germany. As far as they’re concerned, they have a much stronger wit, very caustic, cynical wit. It’s kind of like New York or London. Big city wit.
“They’re very matter-of-fact about celebrities, music, trends, whatever. It makes it a very good place for someone like me to live, because I can be incredibly anonymous. You never get stopped here. They don’t seem particularly joyful about seeing a famous face.”
So you had a hard time in LA?
“Oh.” He closed his eyes in pain. “My least favourite city, I’m afraid. I really loathe it with a vengeance. I’m sure it was because I was only involved with a circle of people, and my frame of reference was very, very limited. It was partly my own fault. But I saw no escape to find out about the other sides of LA It was a closed shop to me, so I got in completely with toxic people.”
He pared off a sliver of egg white and chewed it with concern. “I got into a lot trouble. I just had to get out.”
There was the possibility of your doing film about the Viennese expressionist painter, Egon Schiele.
“Clive Donner approached me with a script and said I’d be interesting. He drew the inevitable parallels between our supposed lives – controversy and whatnot. That’d be the third film I’ve chosen, but for those three, I must have turned down three trillion in which I’d have had green skin an funny horns coming out of my head and play the guitar and I land on earth and I lead all the kids to freedom and peace.” He offered a sick smile. “Or kill them all.
“After Nic’s film [Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1976], Stranger In A Strange Land reared its head, which is a film I was close to doing ever since it was first suggested in the early seventies. I just wanted to not be caught up in that web and end up as the eternal alien. Playing the role of the alien on the road for a couple of years was fun, but there’s that ominous thing when people start taking your life apart. To get things in the mail is not the nicest thing. People speak to you in gobbledygook language and send you funny letters and say that they’re in touch with forces that be and expect one to act like a Martian..
An entertainer’s rapport with an audience is a funny thing, I said. You begin to mean something to people.
“I’m in a funny position. I don’t know what I mean to people because I change my roles so drastically and so often. I must really screw up a lot of people!”
Again he laughed boyishly. It was so unexpected, this genial, perplexed reaction of his. One could, is in Nietzsche’s words, begin to distrust the very clever when they become embarrassed.
“I’m not a good example to follow, because one can’t change one’s identity like that in real life all the time, every few months.” He was taking it seriously. “Most of the celluloid or rock & roll heroes have one identifiable quality that people can hold off and say. ‘This is it, this is where they belong. I accept it or I don’t accept it.”‘
It’s more than acceptable, I said. Changing characters all the time keeps the audience wondering.
“Quite right, quite right. Yes, as we are somewhat short of adventures in the old sense of the word, I guess it is useful to have characters that live out some kind of adventure, even if it is only on some sort of superficial level. The fine arts, generally, are my high seas – that’s the course I take my ship on. Because one thing I would have adored to have been, more than anything else, is a real old-fashioned adventurer and discover new lands”
Maybe your changing characters is like Errol Flynn going from Captain Blood to Robin Hood.
“Very nice, I wish I could believe in that particular parallel. Heh-heh. From one kind of awkwardness to another kind of awkwardness, my roles tend to move. I play either awkward people or fanatics. Isolationists is what I’m doomed to play. The anachronism. The right person in the wrong time.”
His voice lifted and he got excited. “Or the wrong person in the right time. Never will I quite match.” He picked up his silverware again. “I don’t think I’ll ever make the greatest loverboy.”
You don’t want to be a romantic hero?
“No. I’d like something nice and obscure. Something that’s a bit … curly at the edges, that’s not quite right, and been smacked against the wall a few times too many.”
“I write music like that,” he said. And I’ve always been that up until the last Couple Of years. And in America, specifically, I was always approached with that feeling from people. They’d come up to me, and it was always zoo time.” He raised the milk glass. “But I always suffer that.”
So people reacted to you, and their reaction made you crazy?
“Oh, quite definitely yes. It drove me utterly and totally out of my skull in Los Angeles. I got very near the edge. I did fear for my sanity. Well, I didn’t, actually; I was fortunate enough in that I had a couple of friends who sent me off to Jamaica to recuperate, and said, ‘Don’t go back to America.’ So I didn’t. And I ended up in Berlin.”
A messenger appeared at the table to call him back to work. “Well, I have to get racking again. I’m sorry.”
He moved off with that tense walk of his, like a crab scuttling sideways across the ocean floor.
For a while I sat there. The downstairs bar of the Cafe Wien was still open for business, and a few stragglers nursed the afternoon along in the pale light. They made with the talk.
I turned in my seat and noticed a sweet-faced lady there in the shadows, sitting gingerly, as if the chair would reproach her for taking up too much of the seat. I couldn’t tell you how old she was: she’d always look like someone’s daughter. Her name was Margaret and she offered to buy me a drink. We mixed up our German languages. Margaret, clutching her bag nervously, said she used to come here in 1929, and it was just like this. She knew an officer, she knew him well. She went back to the farm in Prussia during the war, but then the officer sent word to her that the Russians would take it over, so she saw the end of the war in Berlin. And when the war was over, she looked high and low for him, but she never found him. Long ago she gave up. But still she comes here on occasion for a drink.
And who, she wanted to know, were all these people upstairs? For a gigolo movie, I said. She smiled and asked, was it the song, “Shöner Gigolo, Armer Gigolo”? Yes, it was. She remembered it and bummed a few bars. Sing it, I said. After much persuasion, she did. The German lyrics are very different from the old Bing Crosby version. In quietest, clearest voice, Margaret sang in shadows the song that, liberally translated, says this:
Lovely Gigolo, poor gigolo
Don’t think about the old times
As you has Hussar with golden epaulettes
Could parade your horse through town
Uniform is gone
Your love said adieu
Beautiful world is fraying
Even if your heart is breaking
Show a smiling face
We pay and you must dance
When she finished, her face went beet red. She wanted to know if we could meet here at eight for a drink. I said I’d try. Till we meet again, she said in English. She saw her bus outside and ran off into the snow.
My last night in Berlin I waited for Iggy Pop in the Paris Bar, a subdued green room holding a few green souls. They had all stepped right out of Van Gogh’s The Absinth Drinkers. It was real art if you could tolerate it. And so has been much of Iggy’s music.
I thought about Iggy and Bowie. Bowie moved gracefully, half-hidden, British, almost snobbish, always impressive. Onstage, he holds himself taut as a bow drawn by an arrow, and the audience waits for the release. Iggy Pop is sullen, graceless, original, willing, street smart, naive, American, seemingly doomed, but resilient, strong as a horse – we’ll get this jalopy fixed up and on the road in no time. Bowie will cast around the music scene and pick out a number of quality musicians, take them on a four-month world tour and take a pile of dough back to his real home, which is, after all, in Switzerland.
Bowie is a man in control, and even when he dipped into freakish behaviour, it was the behaviour of a man mad for more control. Iggy assembles his friends and tours Europe, because that’s where he’s regarded. He’ll come out of a performance winded, bloodied, feared.
The first time I saw
The dum dum boys
I was fascinated
They just stood in front
Of the old drug store
I was most impressed
No one else was impressed
Not at all
– Dum Dum Boys, IGGY POP
Iggy Pop – friends call him Jim – folded into the booth at the Paris Bar. Mention of “Dum Dum Boys” sent him fondly remembering his roots. “I really was impressed … those were the guys who stood outside Marshall’s Drug Store in Ann Arbor, where I used to go buy works.”
His old heroin habit was repeatedly revived in his conversation. He remains fascinated with its evil the way a reformed alcoholic talks about booze, the way a Jew is fascinated with Hitler, or a cuckold thinks about his wife.
He asked the resentful, potato-faced bartender for a certain German blanco. He walked away with a disappointed shrug.
“They’ll treat us nicer when Esther arrives, the singer said. “‘They’re really sweet for her.”
The wine came, and we immediately got our teeth mixed up in it. Only grudgingly would he recognise being ahead of his time. The way he saw it, his albums that sold for thirty-nine cents in the remainder bins are now going for seven bucks, and what does he see out of that?
“But, you know, it means a lot to me that something I did was worth something. It was all replacement for ‘I love you.’ It all comes to getting laid, anyway. Dope, whatever. It means a lot to me to have the curtain open up and see all those people there. Because … the crowd doesn’t love you.”
His affable face suddenly grew grim and taut. “But what do they give you?” he asked in an x-ray voice. “They give you five-fifty a seat and up, and that means a lot. Do you know one actor or rock musician who doesn’t want to be rich?”
He calmed down. “I hated the audience, at times, for things they made you do. They’re cunts. Why did they come see me?”
And why did they go see a movie like Jaws or The Exorcist?
“I can see why you said that. We just come from different places and you’re more critical.”
Esther breezed in like the Queen of the May and slid into the seat, happy that we were waiting for her. The waiter rushed up with more of the bittersweet wine. Esther took the chill off that guy fast. Something I’ve noticed about heavily overcast towns, I said, like Hamburg, London, San Francisco and here, is that all are homes for bondage and domination scenes.
He agreed instantly. “That’s why I’m here. For the bondage. You’re here, man. You have to get on a plane to get out. You gotta go through all the customs, and you gotta think about all the things you gotta go through to get outta here. The domination scene. There’re some sick, sick places.”
He threw a crook into his neck and stuck his hands out rigid, The Idiot album cover.
“One night I got locked in a phone booth. God, I was drunk as hell. It was outside of a pretty tough place called the jungle. Well, a guy’s been doing this. He sneaks up on people when they’re inside a phone booth and locks them in, and watches the police come and get them out. But I didn’t know that. I was just trying to make this phone call, and I was saying, ‘Oh, this is me, I can’t get out.’ Somebody saw me in there and they were slipping me cigarettes under the door. I was in there for a half-hour until the police came. I was waiting for some strong words, but they just dismissed it. It’s happened to about ten people lately.”
A perfect story, I thought. just another chorus of Berlin’s theme song, “Claustrophobia.”
The night began to drift apart in the numberless glasses of wine. He went on about his lawsuit against a wallpaper hanger. And whatever he went on about, he certainly had severe ideas of fun. For a while there, he exhibited a clear command of the Berlin judicial system. But that faded, and he began playfully flicking cigarette ashes at Esther.
“You’ve been a very bad girl,” he said, mock angry.
Esther accepted the endearments with a happy smile. Dimly, I remember that he was singing “My Funny Valentine” as we paid the bill. And somehow I recall that, out in the snowy night, Esther lost her patience, crunching angrily through the snow of the big, empty streets. And right there on Kantstrasse, the singer laid down on the crusty black ice, moaning, “All right, you want me to die, I’m dying, right here.” And Esther stamped off toward a taxi rank, yelling, “It’s not cute any more.”
Bundled inside the taxi, they smooched and locked arms. Everything was fine. We watched the city slip away. An audience makes you do terrible things.