1976: France and Germany
David Bowie’s Isolar Tour finished in Paris on 18 May 1976. The following day he, Iggy Pop, and assistant Coco Schwab checked out of the Hôtel Plaza Athénée and set off for the Château d’Hérouville, 40km away.
The Pinups album had been recorded at the château in 1973, and as a residential studio it was a known safe and calm retreat. This time they had been invited by studio manager Pierre Calamel for some respite from the attention of fans and the media.
Bowie left after a few days to join Angie in Switzerland, but made plans to begin recording later that summer. On 30 May they celebrated their son Zowie’s fifth birthday at the Montreux Casino, and just days later Bowie returned to the Château d’Hérouville to begin recording Iggy Pop’s album The Idiot.
The sessions lasted through the summer, and in August relocated to Munich in West Germany. Towards the end of the month The Idiot was mixed at Hansa Tonstudio in West Berlin.
Berlin had immediate appeal for Bowie and Pop, who decided to settle there.
Life in LA had left me with an overwhelming sense of foreboding. I had approached the brink of drug-induced calamity one too many times and it was essential to take positive action. Berlin was one of the few cities where I could move around in virtual anonymity. I was going broke, it was cheap to live. For some reason, Berliners just didn’t care. Well, not about an English rock singer…
Uncut, January 2001
Bowie lived at Hauptstraße 155 in the Schöneberg district. The relocation to the city was, in part, to allow him to get clean from drugs.
I moved to Berlin, having no idea it was the heroin capital of Europe. It was quite crushing to get there and find all these young kids hanging out at Zoo Bahnhof, all these rent boys and prostitutes, 13-and 14-year-olds, getting their smack money.
Arena, May/June 1993
A further impetus to give up cocaine was the presence of the young Zowie (Joe) Bowie, who had been enrolled at a Berlin school.
My son was definitely a major catalyst in making me stop and evaluate what I was trying to do with my life. Because I had given my life away – to work, to extremism, to jumping into taboos. All I was getting was mental exhaustion and pain. It might have added some kind of superficial dressing to my writing because I was exploring areas that the rest of society wasn’t prepared to deal with themselves.
But I thought – am I doing it for me? Or am I just being the clown for society? And I knew I didn’t want to do it anymore.
I knew that if I was going to retain my sanity then I had to build up a character within myself. My own character. And try to pull back what had become fragments.
I am happy that Joe seems to have been protected from much of the dreadful psychological repercussions. After Berlin we went off to New York. That was 1979-1980, about the time when I was in the play of The Elephant Man. We moved to Switzerland about 1981. And from then on our life in Switzerland has been very constant.
Arena, May/June 1993
Bowie’s time in Berlin also brought to an end his infatuation with Nazi Germany.
Suddenly I was in a situation where I was meeting young people of my age whose fathers had been SS men. That was a good way to be woken up out of that particular dilemma, and start to re-function in a more orderly fashion… I came crashing down to earth when I got back to Europe.
Uncut, January 2001
In September Bowie returned once again to the Château d’Hérouville, to begin recording the Low album. The following month the sessions relocated to Hansa.
At that time I was vacillating badly between euphoria and incredible depression. Berlin was at that time not the most beautiful city of the world, and my mental condition certainly matched it. I was abusing myself so badly. My subtext to the whole thing is that I’m so desperately unhappy, but I’ve got to pull through because I can’t keep living like this. There’s actually a real optimism about the music. It its poignancy there is, shining through under there somewhere, that it will be all right.
New York Times, 9 June 2002
His new songs touched upon his depression and isolation, both current and while living in Los Angeles. He was, at this time, beset by financial and legal problems, and his marriage was in terminal decline.
There’s oodles of pain in the Low album. That was my first attempt to kick cocaine, so that was an awful lot of pain. And I moved to Berlin to do it. I moved out of the coke centre of the world into the smack centre of the world. Thankfully, I didn’t have a feeling for smack, so it wasn’t a threat.
Details magazine, September 1991
A visit to the studio by his wife Angie and her new boyfriend Roy Martin led to a raging argument, which inspired the songs ‘Breaking Glass’ and ‘Be My Wife’. Even the album’s most upbeat-sounding song, the single ‘Sound And Vision’, found Bowie isolated and beset by melancholy: “Pale blinds drawn all day/Nothing to do, nothing to say…/Drifting into my solitude/Over my head.”
I’d gone through my major drug period and Berlin was my way of escaping from that and trying to work out how you live without drugs. It’s very hard…
You’re up and down all the time, vacillating constantly. It’s a very tough period to get through. So my concern with Low was not about the music. The music was literally expressing my physical and emotional state… and that was my worry. So the music was almost therapeutic. It was like, Oh yeah, we’ve made an album and it sounds like this. But it was a by-product of my life. It just sort of came out. I never spoke to the record company about it. I never talked to anybody about it. I just made this album… in a rehab state. A dreadful state really.
Q magazine, June 1989
On another occasion in Berlin, Bowie believed he had been taken advantage of by a cocaine dealer. While driving down Kurfürstendamm in his 1950s Mercedes, Bowie spotted the dealer, also driving, and angrily rammed the car repeatedly.
He looked around every second and I could see he was mortally terrified for his life. I rammed him for a good five to ten minutes. Nobody stopped me. Nobody did anything.
BBC Radio Theatre, 27 June 2000
Bowie eventually retreated from the scene, but that evening drunkenly wrote off the Mercedes while racing at high speed around an underground Berlin car park. The car ran out of petrol just as Bowie decided to let go of the steering wheel, which may have saved his life. The terrifying experience was recounted in the Low song ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’.
Although Bowie had put the worst of his cocaine indulgence behind him, the traumas of previous year had left him emotionally raw, and he had begun drinking excessively.
It was a dangerous period for me. I was at the end of my tether physically and emotionally and had serious doubts about my sanity. But this was in France. Overall, I get a sense of real optimism through the veils of despair from Low. I can hear myself really struggling to get well.
Berlin was the first time in years that I had felt a joy of life and a great feeling of release and healing. It’s a city eight times bigger than Paris, remember, and so easy to ‘get lost’ in and to ‘find’ oneself too.
Uncut, January 2001
On 10 November 1976, shortly after the completion of Low, Bowie had another major confrontation with Angie, who was unsuccessfully attempting to persuade him to return to their Switzerland home.
The argument ended with Bowie collapsing while suffering from chest pains, and being rushed to the British Army clinic with a suspected heart attack. He was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat caused by heavy drinking.
Shortly afterwards, Angela demanded that he fire Corinne ‘Coco’ Schwab, who had been by Bowie’s side since 1973, and whom Angela later blamed for contributing to the end of the marriage. Bowie, meanwhile, maintained that Schwab had been instrumental in helping him get clean.
I guess Coco is the one person I could say has been a continual friend to me. She is my personal assistant and a very good friend. She became the most important person in my life in the mid-Seventies. My whole lifestyle at that time made me quite bonkers, and I had a complete breakdown. Coco was the one person who told me what a fool I was becoming, and she made me snap right out of it, I’m so glad to say.
Hero: David Bowie, Lesley-Ann Jones
Angered by Schwab’s closeness to Bowie, and their unwavering loyalty towards one another, Angela staged a dramatic farewell before leaving Berlin.
I went into Corinne’s room, gathered up her clothes and some of the gifts I’d given her in better times, threw them out of the window into the street, and called a cab and caught a flight to London.
Backstage Passes : Life On The Wild Side With David Bowie
Angie and David met on only one subsequent occasion, in February 1980, to exchange legal documents to end their marriage.