David Bowie Was Really Singing About City Life

All the more reason to name a street after the late artist in Berlin or London.

Image Reuters Pictures
A woman lays flowers outside David Bowie former apartment in Berlin. (Reuters Pictures)

Should Berlin get a street named after David Bowie? It’s just two days since the death of the 69-year-old musician, and already thousands have signed a petition calling for the street where he lived from 1976 to 1978 to have its name changed from Haupstrasse (“Main Street”) to David-Bowie-Strasse.

Given the huge role Bowie’s sojourn has had in creating the image of edgy creative Berlin, the plan seems fitting. But Hauptstrasse isn’t the only potential candidate. Grieving fans have also been gathering near this Victorian house where he was born, in the then-working class neighborhood of Brixton, in South London. Meanwhile, Bowie spent most of his later childhood on this street in a London suburb whose dullness later helped spawn much of the city’s punk movement.  

Whatever the choice, there really should be a David Bowie Street somewhere. Few major music stars have proved so fascinated with city life, both its freedoms and its occasional desperation. As a boy from a grey suburb who tried to forge a creative life in the big city, Bowie didn’t just have dreams that chime with many people. For fans, his career and music actively planted the seed of that dream, creating a template for those who sought the city’s freedom to liberate themselves—and who found that, when they arrived, they often got more than they bargained for.

Cities run like a seam of coal through Bowie’s music. It’s not every musician, after all, who writes songs about urban revolutionaries, a 1970s DJ lonely in his nightclub booth, and the movie theater as a (failed) site of urban escape, or who writes instrumental music evoking the streets of an Eastern Bloc city. Not uncommonly, his songs’ voices adopted the persona of a lonely urbanite.

Take the early track “London Boys,” released in 1966 but with lyrics that still sound eerily contemporary. There’s something evergreen in its theme of young people coming to the city seeking some sense of belonging they couldn’t find at home, but only getting stuck in dead-end jobs and self-destructive behaviors. Certainly when I first heard it, as a foolishly dressed young man who generally got up after midday, it felt uncomfortably close to the bone.

The fabric of cities also seemed to fascinate Bowie. In his later song “Thru These Architects Eyes,” he name-checks architects Philip Johnson and Richard Rogers and celebrates the dramatic cityscapes they’ve part created: “All the majesty of a city landscape/All the soaring days in our lives.” But even when expressing fascination with spectacular urbanism, the singer—a persona, rather than Bowie, per se—still has his feet somewhat wearily on the concrete, reading the view as glittering but also the backdrop to a trapped city life that is anything but.

Bowie is also great on a phenomenon that almost any city dweller over 30 will recognize: how urban change, whether it’s for the better or the worse, tends to make your memories homeless. In one of his great late career singles, “Where Are We Now?,” Bowie returns to his Berlin haunts of the 1970s. Passing the places where his presence had ultimately given a certain fame as part of Berlin’s alternative mythology—Potsdamer Platz, the Dschungel nightclub—he seems to find their perfume gone, and is now essentially a ghost, “a man lost in time” who is “just walking the dead.”

The mournful tone here is only part of the story. Bowie can hardly be said to have been stuck in backward-looking nostalgia, given that he managed to constantly reinvent and revise himself creatively right up until the last moment. Many of us are still shaken that that moment came so soon.

About the Author

  • Feargus O'Sullivan is a London-based contributing writer to CityLab, with a focus on Europe.