We're Nothing, and Nothing Will Help Us
Its a famous story now - perhaps the most famous story about any of Bowie's songs. Bowie saw a couple kissing in front of the Berlin wall and this contrast of a simple act of love against a hateful cold war backdrop inspired him to write one of his most famous lyrics. That couple, as it turns out, was his friend and producer Tony Visconti kissing a woman with whom he was having an extra-marital affair. Our heroes are seldom perfect.
Full-length album version:
"'Heroes'" has become iconic now, but in its initial release, the song was something of a flop. It barely charted in the UK and didn't chart at all in the USA. You can be an internationally celebrated musician with a number of huge hits, release one of the best song of your entire career and still watch that song fail. To put this in perspective, The Wallflowers had a bigger chart hit with their somewhat misguided cover of the song (released on the soundtrack of the 90's remake of Godzilla) than Bowie had with his 1977 release.
As a matter of importance to nobody but myself, Bowie once wrote and performed a "Song For Bob Dylan," father of Jakob Dylan, lead singer of The Wallflowers. I am going to make an unresearched claim that Jakob Dylan is the only artist to have a top 10 hit covering a song by a man who wrote a song about that artist's own father. That, I hope, is the most obscure factoid that you will read today.
"'Heroes'" is a masterpiece of contrasts. The title, you'll note, is in quotes to draw attention to the irony at the heart of the song. The lyrics describe a couple who are far from perfect - one "can be mean" and the other "drinks all the time." In fact, the last verse suggests the couple are "nothing" and won't stay together. But they also have an opportunity ("just for one day") to actually do something heroic. They kiss in front of the Berlin Wall and, by doing so, momentarily draw focus to the inherent inhumanity of building walls to keep people out (or in).
Pay attention, Donald Trump.
And then there's the performance. Guitarist Robert Fripp and Keyboardist Brian Eno (along with Bowie's then-current band of guitarist Carlos Alomar, bassist George Murray, drummer Dennis Davis with Bowie and Visconti on various instruments and vocals) keep the music simple, cool and contained. At the start of the song, Bowie is there with them. By the end, he's practically shouting the song with a desperate urgency, his vocal emotion standing out in stark relief to the controlled quality of the music.
The remarkable vocal effect of the song was one of Visconti's great contributions. He speaks about the making of the song in this video. If you have 18 minutes and are curious, this is one of the best breakdowns of studio song creation that you'll ever hear. Its also the source of much of my information. At around the 12:40 mark in that video, he talks about placing microphones at different distances from Bowie with electric gates, which created the effect that he's working harder and harder to be heard as the song progresses. Its really magical.
Can we be heroes? Can we? Can we really? Bowie is addressing his lover using second person pronouns, so he's addressing his listener. Bowie believes we can be heroes. "Can." Not "Are." Its an invitation to try to be heroes - a plea even.
That is part of what is magical about the song - the contrast of the desire to be heroes with the protagonists' shared lack of inherent heroism. The song questions heroism even as it celebrates it.
What's even more fascinating to me is that, as the song grew in popularity over the years, listeners looked past the irony and focused on the celebration of heroism. Bowie famously performed the song at both 1985's "Live Aid" (where it served as a great reminder of the purpose of the concert and invited the audience to give generously to that charity) and 2001's Concert for New York City (where it celebrated the great heroism of the 9/11 first responders). Songs often lose their intended meaning once they're released into the wild. Bowie was a savy enough artist to recognize what his song meant to the world and was very willing to embrace that even if it wasn't what he had been trying to say.
For those of you who - like me - didn't get enough of Simon and Garfunkle last week, Bowie's cover of their "America" is another heartbreaking moment from The Concert for New York City. His own response to 9/11 was, perhaps, 2003's "New Killer Star". His description of "the great white scar over Battery Park" is an obvious reference to the powerful Tribute in Light, the memorial to the World Trade Center.
Of course, for some of us, its impossible to hear "'Heroes'" without immediately being reminded that we lost Bowie this year. I've not wanted to write about him but the subject of "Chiaroscuro" made me think of him and this song (and the album "Heroes", with its iconic black and white cover) immediately. A genius to the end, Bowie made an enormous (and, yes, heroic) final artistic gesture by timing the release of his last album so it reached the public near the end of his life. He had much, much more than his idol Andy Warhol's theoretical 15 minutes of fame. He showed many of us how to celebrate life so it was somehow perfect that he also showed us how to face mortality with courage, dignity and purpose.
Now, I can't hear "'Heroes,'" a song that has brought me so much joy, without feeling incredible sorrow. We form complicated, nuanced emotional relationships with our heroes (whether they're perfect or not). We love them. We mourn them. Maybe emulate them. Maybe sometime we can live up to their example, if just for one day.
Right now my favorite Bowie song is his tribute to New Jersey's Uncle Floyd, "Slip Away," but it makes me cry, too.
Who are your musical heroes?
Here are the entries from my teammates on Team Clueless entries for week #8:
ellison's entry is here
i_love_freddie's entry is here
inteus_mika's entry is here
sinnamongirl's entry is here