The death of David Bowie has led to an outpouring of recollections – and Warsaw, it turns out, has its own special memories of The Thin White Duke…
By Stuart Dowell | Illustration by Maria Mileńko
The late David Bowie, whose studio, stage and screen creations such as the Starman, Ziggy Stardust and The Man Who Fell to Earth assured him the status of glam rock legend, once got stuck on a train in Warsaw… and made music history.
One version of the story asserts that in the early 1970s Bowie had a terrible fear of flying after having a premonition of dying in a plane crash, so after finishing a concert tour in Japan in April 1973, he crossed the sea to the USSR and took the 10,000-kilometer Trans-Siberian railway to Moscow, where he bought a ticket for the Moscow-Paris express. On May 3rd, 1973, the train made a scheduled, technical stop at the attractive, modernist Warszawa Gdańska station (built in 1958-59 and destroyed in a fire in 1984).
The 25-year old pop star seized the moment and set out on foot to explore the newly rebuilt socialist capital. Perhaps he took a wrong turn, or perhaps the music gods intervened, but instead of heading for the Old Town he headed in the opposite direction and found himself in Paris Commune Square (earlier and later Pl. Wilsona).
A second version says that a jobsworth passport officer didn’t let Bowie off the train in 1973, and it was only when he came back to Warsaw with Iggy Pop in 1976 that both of them had a chance to wander around for a few hours. Nobody knows what Bowie’s impressions were of the district that had been laid out in the 1920s, or whether he enjoyed the spring greenery in Żeromski Park. Perhaps he passed by Kino Wisła and checked out what films were being screened. What we do know is that he popped into a record store and bought a few albums, including one by the Polish folk band Śląsk.
Whatever impressions he had must have resonated with him, because in 1976 after moving to Berlin to recover from a cocaine addiction he recorded the brooding hymn Warszawa that featured on the “dark” side of the album Low, the first in Bowie’s Berlin trilogy. Warszawa has been described as one of the best musical illustrations of the longing for freedom ever recorded in popular music, and Bowie performed the song as concert openers in his tours in 1978 and 2002.
After London, Los Angeles and Ziggy Stardust, Warszawa is striking in its melancholy and despair. The tolling of a funeral bell gives way to the mournful harmonies of an electric orchestra; the lyrics, inspired from the Śląsk album he bought in Żoliborz, are in an invented hypnotic Slavonic Esperanto dialect. Is the song really an evocation of Warsaw’s desolation, or was it a reflection of Bowie’s psychic desolation embodied in an Eastern European landscape?