I don’t quite know why I instinctively associate David Bowie with Bertolt Brecht, but maybe the city of Berlin has something to do with it. The English rock star moved there in 1976 and (in collaboration with Brian Eno) recorded his influential “Berlin trilogy” of albums – Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger. The German playwright had his own highly productive period there too, beginning in 1925, but the work that would ultimately bring him and Bowie together in a kind of collaboration came even before that, during Brecht’s early years in Bavaria. In the 1918 play Baal, which he wrote when still a 20-year-old Munich University student, Brecht tells in prose and verse the tale of a wandering poet, living on the margins of society as a textbook genius outcast but also drunkenly satisfying all his animal appetites whenever and wherever he sees fit. Say you had to produce a television version of Baal in the early eighties — to which artistically eccentric and intellectually flamboyant singer-actor might you turn to play the title wastrel?
And so we have this 1982 BBC production of Baal, starring none other than David Bowie, above. To coincide with the broadcast, Bowie put out an EP, also called Baal. He and longtime producer Tony Visconti recorded it at Hansa Studios in — where else? — Berlin, putting together new versions of the five songs Baal performs in the play. Bowie considered the character, according to Allmusic’s Dave Thompson, “the original Super Punk — which is doubtless what attracted him to [the role].” Thompson calls the record “an uncompromising collection, considerably truer to Brecht than many outsiders expected, with its closest relatives within Bowie‘s own catalog being his occasional assaults on the Jacques Brel songbook.” But whether on the EP or on the BBC, the context of early Brecht serves up “a side of Bowie that he had often claimed existed, but which even his closest friends had seldom seen.” Perhaps all have a Baal within us, but it took rock’s most impressive shapeshifter to give that unpleasant character his definitive late 20th-century form.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.