Monday, January 18, 2016

Bowie, Blackstar and the Stories Still Untold, Part Two

Bowie's farewell with Blackstar was so meticulously planned and executed, both musically and visually, both as a masterpiece of media manipulation and also as a magical working, that many people forgot this was nothing new for the Starman, that he'd been performing similar if not lesser feats for much of the new century. 

Bowie's opening of the Concert for New York City in October of 2001 was heralded as one of, if not the, highlights of that event. He followed that up the following summer with Heathen, which was regarded as his most important work in over 20 years. After a major tour that reestablished him as a top earner, he seemed to vanish from view, which we now know was for health reasons but still feels like it was all part of the show.

Blackstar also has the effect of overshadowing his 2013 comeback The Next Day, a major event which once and for all extinguished any bad memories lingering from Glass Spider and Tin Machine and earned him almost universal praise.

But at the same time we now forget how odd Bowie's first comeback video was. And if you know your Bowie, it raises far more questions than it answers. The song was a gorgeous yet conventional Bowie ballad, a lush yet simple piano-driven lament for his time in Berlin, namedropping landmarks and nightspots like the Dschungel club. 

But given the aching emotional power of the song and the specificity of the time and place, one is given to wonder who are "we", exactly? Bowie gets even more specific on that account, after a fashion, in that he is referring to "me" (himself) and "you", a person he doesn't name.

The video itself- conceived by Bowie himself- opens with two strange enigmatic images: a garnet (the birthstone for January) and empty picture frames.

Stranger still, the video features a Bowie looking so depressed as to be crestfallen. Using the talents of video director Tony Oursler (who'd worked with Bowie previously), the faces of Bowie and an anonymous woman are projected into a strange kind of conjoined stuffed animal (obviously meant to indicate this was a woman Bowie was close to), who sit in a room decorated with random objects as old footage of Berlin is projected behind them. At another point we see Bowie standing in a studio, silent, again utterly depressed. 

This truly is the oddest comeback video I can remember seeing. 

The video ends with the (long-haired) woman leaving the setting and an ever-more miserable Bowie behind. Knowing how meticulous Bowie was in the details of his visual presentations, this hardly seems incidental. The first verse is Bowie singing as an outsider to Berlin, seemingly telling a Berliner that he was able to find his way around the city on his own:

Had to get the train
From Potsdamer Platz
You never knew that
That I could do that

But seeing as this song is about his time in Berlin and is obviously addressed to a specific person, we're left to ask: whom is Bowie addressing? 

Maybe those who knew Bowie at the time might shed some light on this mystery….

When asked her opinion of the single and of Bowie's time in Berlin by a British tabloid, his ex-wife Angela panned the song and said, "His (Bowie's) life then seemed to be all about Romy Haag."*

An even more remarkable assertion was made to me by Leee Black Childers, who was Bowie's friend, photographer and former tour manager, a few years back at a party. I was hoping to wrangle an interview with him for Classic Rock, given the legends he'd worked with, so we talked about Bowie and MainMan, the management company that made Bowie a star. I asked Leee about Bowie's move to Berlin, since Leee- who also worked with Iggy Pop- was in the loop at the time. 

Leee told me, with the delight of a man revealing a hidden truth, "the real reason Bowie moved to Berlin was to be with Romy Haag." 

Given that the explanations for the move floated in the press were either vague, contradictory or absurd (Bowie at one point claimed he moved to Berlin to get off drugs- which he didn't, incidentally- forgetting that Berlin was at the time the Drug Capital of Europe), that seemed to make some sense to me.

But Haag seemed little more than a footnote in most of the Bowie bios I read (when she was mentioned at all), how could I square such a claim with the written accounts? And given that the bios that do mention Haag claim the relationship was brief (allegedly over by January of 1977) does it make sense that 'Where Are We Now?'- the song and video- would be a lament for their relationship?  

Little did I realize that 'Where Are We Now?' may not be the first of its kind. 

And I failed to take into account what I learned from studying the history of The Clash; the official account of an artist is not only often not true, it is often the opposite of the truth. That the more successful the artist the more likely it is that a mythology will grow up around them, a mythology that many will regard as dogma itself.

We do know that Bowie met Romy Haag when he played Berlin on April 10, 1976 for the Isolar Tour, supporting the Station to Station album†. Tall, glamorous, fashionable and often called "the most beautiful woman in the room", a stoned Haag apparently worked her way to the front and flashed him while he sang the opening number, the title track from the new album. Bowie and Haag reportedly locked eyes and that was all she wrote. They would spend the night together, apparently causing Bowie to be four hours late for the following night's concert.

Bowie and Haag would be seen celebrating the tour's end in Paris in May at the Alcazar nightclub. Soon Bowie would move his entire operation to Berlin, setting up shop at the Hansa Studios, near the old Berlin Wall. Bowie was captivated by Haag, and when the two couldn't be together they'd spend hours on the phone.

Romy Haag was no groupie. She was an entrepreneur and entertainer who owned a chic nightclub called Chez Romy Haag near the KaDeWe supermarket** (which we saw in the graphic), a club that brought in rock stars and celebrities. It featured cutting edge entertainment, a kind of space age Fantasia in which Haag herself performed. Her traditional opening number was Kurt Weill's "Alabama Song", once covered by The Doors.

In every way Bowie had finally found his match, a person with the energy and creativity and intelligence to equal his own. A glamorous, charismatic creature who also shared many of the same obsessions and interests. Friends of Bowie's at the time said their affair was an inevitability.

The only problem was that Romy Haag was - in the eyes of the law, at least- a man.

From Iggy Pop bio, Open Up and Bleed

Romy was born Eduard Frans Verbaarsschott in the Netherlands and performed in the gay vacation mecca of Fire Island, NY before making her way to Berlin. She'd have reassignment surgery in the early 80s, but was considered a preoperative transsexual at the time she and Bowie were together. 

This was not a relationship that was going to go over well with the Middle American market Bowie always dreamed of reaching, certainly not in the 1970s.

The timeline is uncertain but at one point Bowie undertook a disguise, cutting his hair into a Berlin workman's bob, growing a mustache and walking around in laborer's gear and cap. What is likely is that he adopted this persona not out of solidarity with the proletariat but to be able to come and go from Haag's apartment without being recognized.  

The story you often read, a story that rings with all the authenticity of a manufactured party line, is that Bowie and Haag's relationship came to a dead stop on the night of his 30th birthday, when a photographer allegedly appeared to snap a picture of the two together. 

This party line is underscored by stories of Bowie's alleged growing disenchantment with Haag, complaints he allegedly reported to friends (at least according to one tabloid biographer, who, as you know, have a wonderful knack for digging up "friends" to tell them what they want to write already). 

However, this alleged photo has never surfaced. The only pictures we've seen seem to be taken from someone at Bowie's table┬║ and show Bowie and Haag in a state of such joy that it's actually poignant (the party was in fact for both of them, since their birthdays were a week apart. Yes, remember the garnet stone now?). 

And Bowie had no problem posing in public settings with Haag in the past. But in contrast to just the previous April, Bowie seemed to have grown paranoid about how his relationship with Haag was perceived. And it seems having photos of their relationship were the crux of the issue.  (Ah, remember those empty picture frames, now? Yes.)

So was there in fact a mysterious papparazzo? Or were there external forces pushing these two lovers apart?

Perhaps it is more likely that reports finally reached RCA that Bowie was seriously involved with a well-known transsexual in Germany and the shit hit the fan. Bowie and RCA were at very serious loggerheads at that very moment over Low, which the record company absolutely hated (going so far as to threaten to withdraw it at one point) and was not being well-received in the press. 

Photos of Bowie and Haag could have seriously damaged his career at a time when both Bowie and RCA were trying to distance the singer from his professions of bisexuality in the early 70s. And as legendary as the Berlin albums are today, they weren't exactly chartbusters.

Bowie seems to have cut ties (temporarily) with Haag, who was probably completely blindsided by the split (being unaware of the infamous mercenary aspect of his persona), was unable to contact him and tried to appeal to him through the media. Indeed, Bowie seemed to go out of his way to let people know that he and Haag had split, an unusual act for a person so guarded about his private life. For most biographers that was the end of that. 

There's only one problem. It apparently wasn't.

Haag contends that their relationship broke off "at the end of the 70s." adding that "(w)hen Angie found out we were together, she called a lawyer and they were harassing me. And there was all this bad publicity, and David had a fight with his record company."  

There is considerable evidence that Haag's claims were in fact correct, that Bowie and Haag continued their relationship after the supposed split. There is also considerable evidence that Bowie's fascination for Haag would become an obsession (the entire Heroes album eerily parallels the details of their relationship), one he would need to magically exorcise. 

And he would do so, in front of millions of people. And he would find himself "closer to the Golden Dawn" than he- or perhaps any celebrity- had ever been.


* Note that Angela is claiming Bowie's Berlin stay was "all about" Haag, not the "first few months of it" or a brief chunk of it or whatever the official party line seems to be. This is a three year period we're talking about.

†Bowie would claim in a 1997 interview with Entertainment Weekly that his favorite albums of his were Station to Station and Low. It's entirely coincidental that these just happened to be the albums he would most identify with that first blush of romance with Haag, the phase of the relationship that no one has argued against.

** Note Bowie sings "near KaDaWe", meaning Romy, not in KaDaWe, indicating where he would shop with Iggy and Coco. Conversely, he sits "in the Dschungel" in the lyrics. Crucial details.

┬¬ Note Coco Schwab, Bowie's lifelong assistant to his left, wearing her Berlin-era 'Dorothy Hamill' short bob. Remember then Bowie's art direction of 'Where Are We Now.'

NOTE: The Wiki entry on the video claims the woman in the video is meant to be Coco Schwab, Bowie's lifetime assistant, who never left him and whom he never fell out of contact with (and whom I sure got a wonderful Valentine gift ever year from David). 

The basis for this claim?

This quote from Tony Visconti: "It's the director's wife. And David didn’t tell me this, but I read that they were looking for someone who looked like Coco. Because at the time, she, Iggy Pop and David were constant companions during that period. Looking at it now, she does bear a passing resemblance to Coco in those years. But I don't know. I read this on the Internet."

Passing resemblance? The long-haired director's wife standing in for the perpetually short-haired Schwab?  Didn't hear it from David but "read this on the Internet." I think we can kindly regard this story as apocryphal