In previous installments of this series I’ve looked at songs that have been used for the wrong reasons. It sounded good on paper but like that time Ronald Reagan’s campaign rally manager or whomever decided that Born In The USA, a song protesting the US (and for some reason the Vietnam war despite Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band performing the song in 1984) was a good idea for a Presidential campaign for a candidate who put his patriotism as a reason to vote for him, actually listening to the lyrics might have been a good idea. For example, everyone who keeps using “Big In Japan” by Alphaville to discuss someone being famous in the Land Of The Rising Sun is choosing the wrong song with that name…unless you want to tie being popular in Japan to a couple on drugs. Cable company Frontier Communications promoted teachers with a song from the 60s protesting teachers and the things he hated they were teaching like the police aren’t evil. Oh the time they have changed.
So what song do you often hear about being heroic? Celebrating first responders? The people on the frontlines of the death plague of 2020? Doing good things for the community? I bet one of the songs you recognized was David Bowie’s “Heroes”, the title cut from the 1977 album that has gone on to be one of Bowie’s most famous songs. Bowie died from cancer in 2016, not telling anyone because he was focused on finishing what would be his final album, but this is a song that became of the must-perform songs of his concerts. Is it actually about being a hero though? Well, it depends on how you define “heroism” I guess.
The song is about lovers, specifically one from either side of the Berlin Wall. Although what inspired it just happened on one side. From Songfacts:
This song tells the story of a German couple who are so determined to be together that they meet every day under a gun turret on The Berlin Wall. Bowie, who was living in Berlin at the time, was inspired by an affair between his producer Tony Visconti and backup singer Antonia Maass, who would kiss “by the wall” in front of Bowie as he looked out of the Hansa Studio window. Bowie didn’t mention Visconti’s role in inspiring this song until 2003, when he told Performing Songwriter magazine: “I’m allowed to talk about it now. I wasn’t at the time. I always said it was a couple of lovers by the Berlin Wall that prompted the idea. Actually, it was Tony Visconti and his girlfriend. Tony was married at the time. And I could never say who it was (laughs). But I can now say that the lovers were Tony and a German girl that he’d met whilst we were in Berlin. I did ask his permission if I could say that. I think possibly the marriage was in the last few months, and it was very touching because I could see that Tony was very much in love with this girl, and it was that relationship which sort of motivated the song.”
A couple of other sources said it was one time he saw them kissing by the wall that was the inspiration rather than their regular meeting there. Given what we’ve seen of other songs in this series I wouldn’t have been surprised if this has been about the illicit affair but instead Bowie altered it to be about a different kind of taboo, lovers separated by political division. Personally it doesn’t even sound like the lovers in the song met every day. To me, with lines like “nothing will keep us together” and the constant “we can be heroes just for one day” it sounds like a one time meeting of defiance. Why and how they got together is still something of a mystery but for one day they defied the West/East Berlin division and just showed each other affection. The song only states that they kissed but it does sound like they knew each other. I still think that’s pretty powerful given the times.
The song has gone on to have many covers but even if I’ve heard of the ones doing the covering it was for acting and not singing, like David Hasslehoff or Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor (I don’t know who Jamie Allen is–I’m betting that was for a movie while the Hoff is big in Germany for his singing), I’ve never heard any of these covers. Bowie himself did a cover with Queen and Mick Ronson as well as version of the song in German (“Helden”) and French (“Héros”). Making the song was also inspirational to him as an artist.
After leading many trends of the early ‘70s, “Heroes” found Bowie in a more open and responsive mode. He had submerged himself in the nocturnal culture of Berlin, with its subterranean drinking dens and gaudy drag clubs, taking plenty of inspiration from what he saw and who he spoke to. As Alomar recalled: “I would say that his mental stimulation was at an all-time high at that point. There was a lot of clarity to David, in that he was back to being a literary person, very interested in the politics of the day, knowing the news, which I found amazing because he never cared about that. Obviously, there were other things on his mind than doing his record.”
But despite his Krautrock obsession, Bowie was apparently unmoved by other trends taking the music industry by storm. Released just two weeks after “Heroes” in October 1977, Never Mind The Bollocks immortalised punk rock and the Sex Pistols, but Bowie seemed largely unaware of its impact on youth culture, appearing on TV in leg warmers and a smart blazer as if the news had passed him by completely.“Heroes” mirrored this sentiment by sounding both universal and personal at once. As the album’s marketing slogan summarised: “There’s Old Wave, there’s New Wave and there’s David Bowie.”
Bowie also got to perform the song against the Wall on the West side as a backdrop but it was loud enough that people on the other side heard it as well.
Despite the album’s ironic quotation-marked title, “Heroes” marked a moment of genuine soul-searching for Bowie. The Berlin Trilogy as a whole represented a kind of ego-death for the thirty year old star, who had already experienced such unbelievable highs and such crushing lows throughout his most successful decade. The greatest gift the city had given Bowie was its indifference – the war torn metropolis allowed him to be subsumed by its grey concrete and resilient residents; to be a face in the crowd once more. With no costume and no character to play he had regained his perspective and his intuitive sense of what drives ordinary people to do the things they do and love the people they love. To create and release art a mere stone’s throw from a place where a such a privilege was unthinkable without state-censorship was no doubt a humbling experience. The album’s legacy speaks for itself – Bowie’s return to the city in 1987 for a performance of its title-track was hailed as a major catalyst to the later fall of the wall in 1989. Following his death in 2016, the German government expressed its gratitude to a musician whose life-changing experience helped change the lives of so many others: “Goodbye, David Bowie. You are now among Heroes.
So I guess the question is whether or not you believe the tale of two lovers braving the boarder guards to make out qualifies as being heroes. At the very least it would have been very brave in 1977. Though at least the song wasn’t based on its inspiration. Cheating on your wife in public…not so heroic. You can feel Bowie put his all into this song, especially near the end and maybe that’s why despite a slow start the song is as popular as it is now. One day can last forever.