When I was seventeen, I bought a used cassette of David Bowie’s album Heroes from the Record Exchange in Salem, Massachusetts (which, by the way, still exists). Growing up in the eighties, I was very familiar with Bowie, not just as a musician, but as an actor, too. At that time, I knew and loved some of his music from the seventies, but I wasn’t familiar with anything from the “Berlin Trilogy.”
When I bought the cassette, I figured the songs were going to be somewhat along the lines of “Young Americans” or “Fame.” I put the cassette in my 1980 Datsun and headed home. Since the tape was rewound to side two, I heard the album out of its intended order.
Needless to say, I was a bit surprised when “V-2 Schneider” came on. It sounded kind of Bowie-ish, but it had almost no vocals. Okay, so Bowie did an instrumental.
But then it was followed by two more: “Sense of Doubt” and “Moss Garden.” To my ears, neither sounded like anything you’d expect from Bowie: the first had spare piano and synthesizer, the second had a koto. I wondered if I had bought the wrong tape, so I pulled over and ejected the cassette. It looked like the right album, so I played the rest. Maybe a song with a vocal would come up next?
Nope. But “Neuköln” — the fourth consecutive instrumental on side two — was the most compelling: moody synths, guitar, and organ create a mournful atmosphere for Bowie’s saxophone, which combined Middle Eastern music with free jazz. Hard to believe it was the same artist who’d scored a number one hit two years earlier.
At the time, I didn’t really appreciate the multiple layers of “Neuköln” or the different musical influences he had incorporated. However, as I grew older, and my tastes became more eclectic, I learned to admire Bowie for experimenting and defying listener expectations.
I don’t have my Datsun anymore, but I still listen to my Heroes CD in my car every now and then. And I still get intrigued when this piece comes on.
(Song recommendation by Christopher Iacono)