When we made our first excited forays onto the streets of Berlin ten years ago this summer, Duncan and I made our way, one rambling evening, to the cafe in Schoenberg where David Bowie and Iggy Pop were said to have spent their days plotting and scheming and smoking and just absconding, for a while, from the rock world of England and America. It was now just a standard place to get a drink, cosy with wide windows, comfortable cushions, and nice views of the road outside and the park across the way, a relaxing eatery, but just knowing that this was once the location where Bowie would hang out when he was here during the dark days of gloom and the continuing existence of the Berlin wall – visible from the Hansa recording studios where he made his masterpieces with Brian Eno during the ice and fog and the depths of the Cold War – was exciting: his ‘Berlin Period’, comprising the albums Low, Heroes and Lodger – all snarling funk, menacing, misery-laden electronica, desolate instrumentals and genuinely interesting experimentation as he struggled with cocaine addiction and the fall out of fame, one of my favourites of his oeuvre: legendary. It is natural, then, that the great changeling and chameleonic innovator should now be synonymous in some people’s minds with the great mysterious and energizing city that is Berlin itself: a place that when we visited that first, delirious and heady summer, when we felt we were rediscovering ourselves, and found an ally: an edgy, conflicted city, fractured down the middle into East and West (a palpable, difference that is intriguing and aesthetically stimulating); a place laden with history and darkness but also thriving, creative, fun, and genuinely artistic, that was like an exhilarating injection of amphetamine in the arm. We loved the feel of it immediately and felt at home.
Parfumerie Vilhelm, a newish niche house from Paris that has poppy and upbeat titles in its collection (Darling Nikki, Morning Chess, A Lilac A Day, Modest Mimosa) has now released Poets Of Berlin, a fragrance that supposedly represents some of the Berlinesque current running through the liquid of its veins and which also explicitly references David Bowie, and his series of brilliant albums made there, as direct influences:
“Named for David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, Poets of Berlin is a subtly sugary confection of blueberry and lemon. But Poets of Berlin isn’t just empty calories: its vetiver undercurrent makes it the perfect perfume metaphor for the serious talent underneath Bowie’s glittery glam.”
Now, David Bowie was no idiot. In fact he was something of a genius. A genuine iconoclast and intuitive musician who spent his artistic public entire life in a constant process of reinvention; cutting himself off dead from his past entities, no matter how popular; attuned to everything related to his image and its effect; an artist who was hyperaware of everything ( I would imagine even smell and perfume too………. ), and I can tell you, that if he were to smell this affront to his memory, right now, I am sure that he would be spinning (or snarling ferociously) in his grave. Because although I am not an out and out Bowie Worshipper – I have plenty of friends that are though – his music has still given me an extreme amount of pleasure during my lifetime, and I do really think that if you are going to make a perfume that purportedly is directly inspired by the great man and his reputation in the city that he lived in, it had better not just be some thick, sweet, and sickly cheap smiling concoction that smells exactly like every other candy floss floriental on the market – Marc Jacobs ‘Decadence’ I am looking at you – (and in truth smells closer to an international airport restroom), with a bogus concept – the simplistic contrasting of blueberry vanilla with vetiver – just obviously placed on the label completely after the fact. Because the fact is that this perfume, quite simply, is an insult. The supposed ‘vetiver’ that allegedly runs under the ‘glittery glam’ (what?) of Bowie’s imagined shallow and empty pop exterior and represents ‘gravity’; the bogus vanilla that runs through the tacky base, which smells actually more like a Club Med poolside orgy with the local beachbums and sunburnt lager louts as cleavages are flashed drunkely in the moonlight than anything involving the real muse; the tagged on and to me cynical ‘poetical’ idea of this perfume – “hey, let’s link this with David Bowie!” – striking me as the most contrived and vacuous PR spin I have possibly ever encountered. The man would be fuming. Or grinning, and smoking, mystically. With a wolf’s glint in his bi-coloured eyes. Laughing at you and your silly, misguided commercialism. Or more probably, would simply come up with a brilliant, caustic and scathing song about it. That I would buy the 12″ mix of. Because, although not entirely disastrous in terms of olfactory makeup – the blueberry note is not so bad, even though it was nailed long ago far better in Britney Spear’s blueberry ur perfume Midnight Fantasy- it is disastrous in terms of its totally fucked up name and mindless, unthinking thoughtlessness. This perfume, I must categorically argue, is not the Poets Of Berlin.
Gallivant’s more strenuously subtle perfume, ‘Berlin’ comes a bit closer, for me at least, to the place that I have personally experienced and lived in on a number of occasions: a damaged place in many ways, but also a European centre of rebirth, creativity, and with its eye on the future. A clear, unisex, zesty composition based on grapefruit, schinus molle (a kind of conifer) and black pepper over a lightly woody black tea and patchouli, this is an energising, unthreatening, no-nonsense – an attribute I associate with many German people that I know – modern day scent that has a spring in its step (this does smell very urban); the newest trainers on the asphalt, fresh morning clothes; a self-assured keenness that is pleasant and attractive, sly sexy, and gently optimistic. Nothing to scream home about, necessarily, but well-blended, well-conceived, and a scent you would gladly be sat next to on a person riding the all night train system; beer in hand (god the beer in Berlin….it spoiled me forever; nothing has ever tasted good again since, seriously – we loved it); some clubber or other out for another fantastic night in one of the underground clubs there (now that is the smell of Berlin: the sweat smell of natural body odour and t-shirts on the dance floor; of horny young people living for the moment and the collectivity the city seems to inspire); or the aroma of the delicious and ubiquitous Turkish kebabs that we devoured hungrily on our way home practically every other night as we returned to our quarters ; the strong smell of German coffee, and hard black bread, drunk at dawn; the invisible scent of the Altbau stone edifices, and their cooling, yet cosy interiors; sekt; the grass and the elegant fountains of the outstretching parks. No. Perhaps cities, and people, especially, sometimes, are just too complicated, interesting, inspiring, to be ‘encapsulated’ in olfactory confections (especially if you don’t really even make the effort). Perhaps it is their uniqueness, the indefinable – felt emotionally, breathed in through the body in these places – but not tangible, that makes their ‘pinning down’ in perfumery essentially pointless, quite a lot of the time, or at the very least, in the case of the most complex and inspiring of beings, unattainable.