By Gary Singh
Berlin has the strange ability to make you write only the important things – anything else you don’t mention. — David Bowie
Right across the plaza from Berlin’s unwavering symbol, The Brandenburg Gate, one finds the Hotel Adlon, a bastion of celebrity gossip. It is here that I meet Thilo Schmied, a veritable connoisseur of Berlin’s rock music history.
After we shake hands on the sidewalk, he points up to a third-floor window of the Adlon and informs me that said locale is where Michael Jackson notoriously dangled his baby out the window for all to see.
Thus begins the Fritz Musictour of Berlin. Sponsored by Fritz Radio and with Thilo as the passionate sound engineer-turned-guide, various mythologies come to life behind seemingly nondescript buildings and windows throughout the city.
Different flavors of the tour exist, but on this day, Thilo concentrates on stories in-between the cracks. Forget about literary travel, this is musical travel.
We then hop into the Fritz Musictour minivan, a yellow and blue multimedia machine complete with mini-televisions and a huge cartoon of Thilo on the outside. During the tour, he plays DVD clips and interviews related to specific locations on the itinerary.
For example, as we depart the immediate vicinity, he throws in a video of the very first MTV Europe Music Awards from 1994, which unfolded right at the Brandenburg Gate with the immortal Tom Jones as host.
The Hall by the Wall
From there, we snake our way through a few intersections where the Berlin Wall used to be before arriving at Hansa Studios. Any legit tour of Berlin — music-related or not — should include the building at Köthenerstrasse 38, the locale where David Bowie wrote the song “Heroes” and made the album of the same name in 1977.
One of Bowie’s most famous tunes, “Heroes” is about two lovers meeting at the Berlin Wall, which was then a few hundred meters from the studio. When living in Berlin, Bowie worked on three albums at Hansa, Low, Heroes, and The Lodger — together universally known as The Berlin Trilogy, although Heroes is the only one wholly recorded there.
As the mythology goes, the musicians could look out the window of the control room and see the armed border guards at the watchtower along the wall.
Bowie even coined the term, “Hall by the Wall,” referring to Studio 2, formerly a large ballroom used by the SS during World War II and to this day a room characterized by unique acoustics. The building’s sinister atmosphere and history, Bowie has said, played at least somewhat of a role in making those three albums.
Depeche Mode, David Byrne, U2, Iggy Pop and Nina Hagen, as well as Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, all recorded some of their most intense records at Hansa. Outside in the van, Thilo plays a handful of DVDs related to the studio. In separate clips, former Hansa managers and recording engineers tell stories of what it was like working with Bowie.
We then sneak into the building and scope out a few of the public rooms, since a private event prevents us from going any further. But we do get a chance to gaze out the same window from what was the original control room, looking towards the area where the Wall used to be.
Thilo then opens a binder, flipping through photos of the previously mentioned bands at Hansa, plus comparative historical shots of what the neighborhood looked like decades ago. He provides an encyclopedic explanation of bands, artists, albums, facts, figures and anecdotes off the top of his head — so fast, I barely get a word in edgewise.
Since we are only two blocks from the entirely rebuilt Potzdamer Platz, one of Berlin’s historic central hubs, Thilo drives around a few corners to Leipzigerstrasse 126A, the original site of the Tresor nightclub.
Perhaps the most celebrated techno club in all of Europe, Tresor began in the basement vault of the old Wertheim department store in March of 1991. In fact, Tresor loosely translates as “vault” in German.
In those original days, the explosion of techno music in Berlin intertwined with a brand new adventurism taking place in a newly reunified city. Expats from far and wide arrived in Berlin due to extremely low costs of living. Not even two years after the fall of the wall, Dimitri Hegemann and friends discovered the locale and launched the legendary underground venue, which still exists today, although at a different location.
Many now-legendary techno DJs got their starts amidst the dripping sweat of Tresor’s cavernous walls and the club became a centerpiece of the global techno movement.
Berlin eventually transformed itself into the world capital of techno and electronic music, with events like the Love Parade, an immense mass rave that took place in Tiergarten Park almost every year until 2006. Nowadays, innovative electronic music is played in approximately two-thirds of Berlin’s most popular venues.
As we drive by Leipzigerstrasse 126A, Thilo plays a DVD interview of Hegemann telling stories about how Tresor started, when they first got the keys to the place and when they first went down into the vault: “It was like going down into a burial chamber for a pyramid,” Hegemann says.
Tresor is exemplary of an adventurous do-it-yourself spirit that still permeates Berlin club culture today. For example, there now exist massive “beach culture” bars all along the river Spree, although many are being threatened by ominous development projects intending to convert riverfront land into high-rise towers.
Collapsing New Buildings
After inspecting a few of those riverfront nightclubs, we careen around several corners and then underneath an overpass into Kreuzberg or Xberg for short. One of Berlin’s more idiosyncratic historical neighborhoods, Xberg was the music Mecca of Berlin in the 1920s, when folks like Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo dominated the scene.
“It was bigger than Hollywood,” Thilo says.
After the wall went up in 1961, Turkish immigrants began to appear en masse, as the neighborhood was then officially in West Berlin and the rents were cheap. Around the same time, the area became a haven for left-wing political activity, anarchist movements and the occasional student riot.
In the ‘70s, punk rock arrived and the famous Club SO36, named after one of Kreuzberg’s postal codes, became Berlin’s equivalent of CBGB in New York City.
Later in the ‘80s, many squat houses emerged — a few of which still remain — and today, this part of Kreuzberg retains a gloriously incongruous hodgepodge of urban, funky and alternative subcultures, partly characterized by artists, avant-garde music and word-of-mouth nightclubs.
As we maneuver past a tour bus in front of the still-existing SO36 venue, Thilo pops in a DVD of a 1982 performance at the club by Einstürzende Neubauten, West Berlin’s notorious pioneers of romantically unlistenable noise-soundscapes.
Using everything from amplified scrap metal and power tools to homemade instruments and even guitars, Einstürzende Neubauten (collapsing new buildings) exemplified what they saw as an apocalyptic drug-fueled emptiness characterizing West Berlin during the early ’80s.
At least in their initial stages, they wanted to destroy music and destroy themselves. In the DVD performance, Neubauten member F.M. Einheit is drilling holes in the wall of the club and amplifying the result.
Around the same time, it was at a legendary dive bar that Neubauten frontman Blixa Bargeld first spent regular drinking time with the Australian badass of gloomy verse, Nick Cave, whose self-destructive post-punk outfit, The Birthday Party, had just relocated to Berlin. After the Birthday Party ended, Bargeld was invited to play guitar in Cave’s new band, The Bad Seeds.
City of Refuge
“Nick Cave doesn’t like to talk about his time in Berlin, due to all the drug use,” says Thilo, as we drive down Yorckstrasse, a main thoroughfare leading out of Kreuzberg and into the neighborhood of Schöneberg.
Pulling over just past the Yorckstrasse S-Bahn station, he points across the street towards a nondescript railway ticket office at Yorckstrasse 48. This address, says Thilo, is where the legendary Risiko bar used to be.
According to those who actually remember, Risiko was a temple of iniquity during the ’80s. Bargeld tended bar there, countless misfits and creative raconteurs including The Gun Club and Nina Hagen frequented the joint and people often imbibed until the next afternoon, because at that time, Berlin was a 24-hour city. Many bars didn’t close.
The intensity of living and creating in a walled-off, geographically isolated, hyper-liberating zone attracted artists of all disciplines. Musicians were known to show up for a weekend and just never leave.
The shattered remains of the Birthday Party, along with Bargeld and several others, would emerge as Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — a gloomy shake-and-bake of post-punk, old-time religion, dark literary stylings, blues, heroin, cocktail attire and eerie love ballads — and proceed to use West Berlin as their base and inspiration for the rest of the decade, recording and/or working on four albums at Hansa Studios.
Out in the van, Thilo plays me DVD clips of several characters telling stories about Risiko. After the bar’s demise, the building went through another incarnation as a mosque, of all things.
In an interview, Mark Reeder of Berlin’s MFS Records quips: “First it was a temple, and then it was a temple of a different kind.” The building has been a railway ticket office for years now, but thanks to the Fritz Music Tour, the legend lives on.
A quick left turn off Yorckstrasse then dumps us onto Hauptstrasse in the central part of Schöneberg, another neighborhood now characterized by certain musicians who once called it home.
Heroes for Just One Day
In the late 70s, David Bowie and former Stooges frontman Iggy Pop lived at Hauptstrasse 155, cementing that phase of their careers into the mythology of the city. In Berlin, Bowie produced two Iggy Pop albums — The Idiot and Lust for Life — each containing songs inspired by the intense environs of West Berlin.
Bowie’s own creative output while living in the city is well documented in countless interviews over the decades. Thomas Jerome Seabrook’s book, Bowie in Berlin, especially pours over the tunes from Low, Heroes and The Lodger in gloriously painstaking detail. The title track from Heroes, one of Bowie’s signature classics, is permanently etched into the city’s history.
Hauptstrasse 155 itself is nothing to look at — a faded yellow façade; a few windows above a drive-through courtyard entrance — but Thilo informs me that whenever Bowie plays in Berlin, fanatical admirers show up at this address to “possibly catch some magic dust falling off the building, or to get inspired.”
According to Thilo, the Middle Eastern gentleman currently living at the address has absolutely no idea who David Bowie is.
Downstairs, the gay bar next door, now called Neues Ufer, was originally named Anderes Ufer in the ’70s. It was where Bowie often went for breakfast or to read English newspapers. Photos of Bowie still grace the wall inside.
In May of 2010, Air Berlin launched direct flights between San Francisco and Düsseldorf on Airbus A330-200 aircrafts. In economy class, seat rows are in a 2-4-2 arrangement and the flight runs twice per week.
Once in Düsseldorf, Air Berlin connects to destinations all across Europe, especially Berlin. The SFO route gives Air Berlin its sixth non-stop service from North America to Germany, supplementing existing routes from New York, Los Angeles, Fort Myers, Miami and Vancouver.
The Hotel Amano is walking distance from the Ramones Museum and major S- and U-Bahn connections, offering both budget and apartment accommodations. The city view from the roof is quite spectacular and the ground level includes a large outdoor patio bar as well as an indoor breakfast restaurant.
Fritz Musictours Berlin are provided for any size group. The larger the group, the cheaper the price per person. In addition to bus and walking tours, they offer exclusively guided tours inside Hansa Studios. All tours must be booked in advance.
Gary Singh is a freelance journalist who surfaces most often in San Jose, California.