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Baal: Paul Burston On David Bowie’s Goodbye to Berlin
Paul Burston , June 20th, 2023 09:10

In this month's Low Culture essay, Paul Burston looks back at David Bowie's appearance in BBC TV adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's Baal, exploring how the German playwright was a frequent inspiration to the singer's many incarnations

In 1982, a year before mainstream superstardom beckoned with Let’s Dance, David Bowie released one of the least commercial records of his entire career. When people refer to Bowie’s “Berlin period” they tend to think of the “triptych” of albums he recorded with Brian Eno in the late 1970s – Low, “Heroes” and Lodger. By the time Lodger was released in 1979, Bowie had departed from Berlin and was living as a tax exile in Switzerland, but the city hadn’t left him. There’s a thread that stretches through Bowie’s work and relationship with Germany, and especially Berlin, from his obsession with Englishman-in-Weimar Christopher Isherwood and finds its way to the complex artistic and stylistic reference points he found in playwright Bertolt Brecht. It found fruition in the form of a curious acting role and accompanying collection of songs in the 1982 BBC television adaptation of Baal, Brecht's 1923 play about a debauched and dissolute poet eventually brought down by his own cruelty.

Bowie’s starring role in Baal was one of the least predictable turns in a career characterised by unpredictability. In 1980, he’d outshone the New Romantics with his reappearance as the prettiest Pierrot, as seen in the video for his UK number one single ‘Ashes To Ashes’ and on the cover of his critically acclaimed album Scary Monster (and Super Creeps) – the one against which every album would be measured for the remainder of his career. Bowie’s perfectly painted Pierrot was a return to the glamorous, androgynous personae that first made him famous. Same old thing, brand new drag. Yet by and large the early 80s were a relatively quiet time for Bowie until, in 1982, here he was on our television screens with blackened teeth and a scruffy beard, playing Brecht’s foul mouthed antihero in a BBC drama directed by Alan Clarke, best known for exploring England’s murk in Scum, Made In Britain, Penda’s Fen and Rita, Sue And Bob Too.

Baal was a brave step for Bowie. His last major screen role had been in the disastrous Just A Gigolo, released in 1978. The film was directed by David Hemmings, co-starred Marlene Dietrich and was later described by Bowie as “my 32 Elvis movies rolled into one.” He played the gigolo of the title and was drawn to the project by the prospect of working with Dietrich, only to discover that she refused to leave Paris and their scenes together would be filmed using a stand-in and some heavy editing. The film was universally panned, and understandably so. It’s often said that Just A Gigolo was Bowie’s goodbye to Berlin – and he could certainly be forgiven for turning his back on the city after such a monumental flop.

Brecht gave him a way back in. Though Baal was written shortly before the playwright moved to Berlin, the city would remain his home until his death in 1956. It was here that he wrote The Threepenny Opera with Kurt Weill and began a life-long collaboration with the composer Hanns Eisler. Immersed in Marxist theory, he wrote didactic plays and became a leading exponent of epic theatre and the so-called alienation technique or distancing effect.

The character of Baal was far from the otherworldly glamour associated with Bowie. I remember watching the drama as a teenager. My parents thought it was rubbish and weren’t afraid to say so. I defended it, though truth be told I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time. It wasn’t until I went to college a few years later to study drama and learned about Brecht’s alienation technique that it all made sense. Bowie had often sung about alienation, from Major Tom lost in space on ‘Space Oddity’ to his alien rock god Ziggy Stardust. In the song ‘Fame’, he’s cut off from the world in the back of his limo. On ‘Sound and Vision’, he’s alienated even further, locked in his electric blue room with the pale blinds drawn all day. He even played an alien in his first major film, The Man Who Fell To Earth. Why wouldn’t he love Brecht, whose belief in the power of alienation was the key to understanding his work?

A typical Brechtian device is the use of songs to disrupt otherwise realistic scenes. He also has actors step out of character to comment on the action of the play, breaking the fourth wall and reminding the audience that what they’re watching is only a performance. While The Threepenny Opera is rightly referred to as Brecht’s first masterwork, these elements were already present in Baal.

It’s easy to see why this would have appealed to Bowie. As early as 1971, on the sleeve notes for Hunky Dory, he refers to himself as “the actor”. On the song ‘Changes’, he calls himself a “faker.” When his career took off with Ziggy Stardust a year later, he gave interviews in which he talked about the artifice of rock music, describing Ziggy as a “plastic rocker”, a fabrication not to be confused with anything so humdrum as authenticity. In 1975, he told an interviewer, “If anything, maybe I’ve helped establish that rock & roll is a pose.”

By the early 70s Bowie was already well versed in the ideas behind Brecht’s theatre thanks to his mime tutor, and sometime lover, Lindsay Kemp. His masterwork Flowers was based on the novel Our Lady of the Flowers by the French writer Jean Genet (a pun employed by Bowie on his 1973 single ‘Jean Genie’). The plot centres on a drag queen called Divine and employs Brecht’s alienation technique to devastating effect. First performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1968, Flowers caused a storm with its extraordinary dream-like sequences and blatant homoeroticism. I first saw Flowers at Sadler’s Wells in the mid 80s and left the theatre shaken and stirred: I’d never seen anything quite like it before. The play opens with prisoners masturbating furiously in their cells while an angel with enormous wings walks slowly across the stage. Just as the novel is shamelessly self conscious, the show was shamelessly theatrical, combining music, dance and mime and regularly drawing attention to its own artifice. At one point, Kemp’s Divine literally unmasks the other characters on stage, revealing them as fictional creations who die before our eyes. Only by doing so, Divine also unmasks herself, and dies violently vomiting blood in a white lace wedding veil. Needless to say, this was heady stuff for a 19-year-old fresh out of South Wales.

Genet is often grouped together with fellow Frenchmen Edward Albee and Jean Paul Sartre as a leading exponent of what became known as the Theatre of the Absurd. As the name suggests, the movement sought to explain the absurdity of human existence in a world without God and devoid of meaning. Characters in absurdist plays are often lost or isolated, trapped by routine or reduced to archetypes. Again, these are themes which recur throughout Bowie’s career. Think of a song like ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’ from Low or ‘Teenage Wildlife’ from Scary Monsters.

Genet and Brecht also played with gender in a way we can see reflected in Bowie’s work. Genet stipulated that the female characters in his own play The Maids should be played by men, and that a sign reminding the audience of the fact should be displayed throughout the performance. How very Brechtian of him. For Bowie, who’d been flirting with androgyny and sexual ambiguity since the early 70s, Brecht represented Weimar Germany and a style of performance he’d employed for his so-called ‘Thin White Duke’ or ‘Isolar’ tour of 1976. With his ice cold demeanour, slicked back hair, crisp white shirt and black waistcoat, striding through shafts of stark white light more suited to a theatrical performance than a rock concert, the Duke could have been a character straight out of a Brecht play.

It was during a visit to Berlin as part of the Thin White Duke tour that Bowie first met Romy Haag, the trans performer with whom he had an affair and whose signature style of performance he later copied in the video for ‘Boys Keep Swinging’, where he appears in drag and dramatically removes his wig and smears his lipstick with the back of his hand. Again, one suspects that Brecht would have approved. The Thin White Duke was arguably the most culturally significant of Bowie’s so-called characters, spawning a generation of imitators. But the Duke also landed him in trouble. Some critics compared the staging of the tour to the Nuremberg rally. Others reported on Bowie’s infamous arrival at Victoria station in 1976, standing in the back of a black Daimler and appearing to give a Nazi salute – though film footage of the occasion shows that he was merely waving at fans and photographed with his hand held mid air. His reputation wasn’t helped by the fact that he was heavily into cocaine at the time and gave interviews in which he compared himself to a dictator and described Hitler as “the first rock star – he staged a country.” Later, Bowie distanced himself from these remarks, blaming them on the fact that he was “out of my gourd” on coke and describing the Duke as “a very nasty character indeed.”

By 1981, the Duke behind him, Bowie was a bona fide rock star even before Let’s Dance turned him into a global stadium act. He’d recently had his first number one in years and was widely recognised as a major influence on everyone from the New Romantics to Siouxsie and the Banshees. Even Low, which received poor reviews at the time, was being reappraised in light of the success of Scary Monsters. With two major new films under his belt, he was close to fulfilling his ambition of becoming the all round entertainer he’d dreamed of being in the early days of his career. Even the release of his Christmas duet with Bing Crosby, recorded some years earlier, hinted at a more mainstream family man persona, more palatable to those put off by his earlier dalliances with bisexuality, drag and drug abuse.

And what does he do? He ropes in longtime producer Tony Visconti, and in September 1981 returns to Hansa Studios in Berlin to record the Baal soundtrack EP of songs about sexual transgressions, death and suicide. Partly it was Bowie being his typically contradictory self. Partly it was a big ‘fuck you’ to RCA, to whom he still owed another album and who’d lost faith in him around the time of Low. Yet it was also a continuation of Bowie’s long-standing interest in Brecht and Weil’s musical work. In fact, the five songs that make up the EP are not a million miles away from the material that Bowie had been reinterpreting live since the early 70s. Brel’s ‘My Death’ was performed during the Ziggy days, and even featured in the famous farewell concert as a knowing nod to the fact that Bowie was about to kill off his creation. His 1978 world tour often included a rendition of Brecht and Weill’s ‘Alabama Song’. He even recorded a studio version which was released as a single in 1980, reaching number 23 in the UK charts.

But more than that, Baal is an extraordinary EP in its own right. Recorded in the same studio where he’d recorded “Heroes”, Bowie’s vocal performances are stunning. The biographer Chris O’Leary calls Baal “a kiss-off to the label Bowie had come to hate” but also says that, after Scary Monsters, it’s his “best record of the decade.” Bearing in mind what came later – the albums Tonight and Never Let Me Down immediately spring to mind – this might sound like faint praise. But O’Leary’s enthusiasm is genuine – and it’s one I share. There’s something incredibly exciting about this EP, not least the opening track ‘Baal’s Hymn’, which sets the scene with Bowie in fine voice and total command of the material, singing about his character in true Brechtian fashion, in the third person. After the second track, ‘Ballad of the Adventurers’, things take a darker turn with ‘Remembering Marie A and The Drowned Girl’. The final track, ‘The Dirty Song’, is barely a song at all, coming in at just 38 seconds – a reminder perhaps of the snatches of songs with few lyrics which make up side one of Low.

The Baal EP wasn’t a major hit, barely scraping the UK top 30. But given the content, this is hardly surprising. The more I listen to it, what surprises me is that an artist in Bowie’s position could push his audience to such extremes. 30 years after recording Baal, Bowie would challenge them again as he once again referred to Berlin on ‘Where Are We Now?’ – the lead single from his penultimate album The Next Day. This was the reflective sound of a man reminiscing about his past, and there’s an urgency to Baal which has far more in common with Bowie’s final album, Blackstar. Like that record, the EP contains multiple references to death. The songs are dark but shot through with flashes of black humour. The line where Baal pretends he’s dead and dines on vulture soup never fails to amuse me. In some ways, Baal is every bit as brave as Blackstar. It’s certainly not pop, but it’s unmistakably Bowie. Rather like Blackstar’s Button Eyes with his bandaged face, Baal is another Bowie character, only far less glamorous than any he’d dared to play previously. He’s a drunken poet, an outsider, a man facing his own mortality and raging against the dying of the light. As Bowie almost sang on the single ‘Lazarus’ from Blackstar, ain’t that just like him?

Paul Burston’s memoir We Can Be Heroes is out now.