As Long as There’s Fire: David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ to ‘The Next Day’

Forty years after "Heroes", we discover the doomed couple wasn’t so doomed after all, those declarations of love weren’t as futile as we thought, and there are indeed heroes to be found.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on 2 November 2015.

David Bowie has amassed a musical catalog of staggering importance and diversity over his five-decade career. After a health scare abruptly halted the tour in support of his 2003 album Reality, Bowie glided quietly out of the public eye, leaving fans mystified and uneasy. Nobody really thought another album was in the cards, but the man himself had other ideas.

On 8 January 2013, his 66th birthday, he dropped a bombshell. Without even a whisper of warning, the video for “Where Are We Now?” appeared on his website, along with news that The Next Day was imminent. It was a comeback beyond all expectations. Produced with longtime collaborator Tony Visconti, The Next Day ties the disparate threads of Bowie’s past into a tight, harrowing knot. It’s an album soaked in blood and dread, but never with surrender. It’s a piercing indictment of humanity as seen through the lens of Bowie’s own musical legacy.

Interest in Bowie’s musical legacy remains at its highest level in many years. A successful touring exhibition called David Bowie Is, boasting many important original artifacts from throughout his career, opened in London and has traveled to other major cities. In the wake of The Next Day, last fall Bowie released a new reverse-chronology career-spanning retrospective called Nothing Has Changed, featuring the jazzy and wildly off-kilter newly recorded single “Sue (Or in a Moment of Crime)”. This past September he released the lavish box set Five Years (1969 to 1973), which collects, in pristine remastered form and in superb packaging, all of his studio and live albums released during that period, as well as a bonus disc of rarities. Future box sets covering subsequent albums are in the works.

The theater production Bowie co-wrote with Edna Walsh, called Lazarus, opens on 18 November at the New York Theater Workshop and runs until mid-January. Directed by Ivo Van Hove, it stars Michael C. Hall in the role Bowie himself played in the film on which the play is based, The Man Who Fell to Earth. The production will reportedly include reworked classic Bowie material as well as new compositions. As if all this wasn’t enough to keep fans occupied, just last week Bowie announced a new studio album called Blackstar, which will be released in January 2016 (once again on his birthday) with the title-track appearing on 20 November as the first single.

Indeed, after years of nothing but silence, anxious speculation, and a slow trickle of reissues, there has been a veritable rush of activity. It is once again an exciting time to be a fan of David Bowie.

This resurrection started with The Next Day, an album strong enough to stand up to its role of marking a new era in Bowie’s career. With the benefit of hindsight and nearly three years to absorb, its strengths have only become more apparent. Often great works take months or even years to properly understand in the context of an artist’s career, and that is certainly the case for an album as complex and meaningful as The Next Day. Since Bowie hasn’t been giving interviews, the only substantial insight provided by those directly involved in the album’s production come from comments by producer Tony Visconti, guitarist Earl Slick, drummer Zachary Alford and album-cover designer Jonathan Barnbrook. Bowie is content to allow the songs to speak for themselves.

This story begins in October 1977. The Cold War grips the Grey City of Berlin with an iron fist. Surrounded by the decay of industry and war, a young couple huddles furtively in the shadows of the Wall. Weary ghosts born of the Crystal Night and Final Solution roil in the cold wind buffeting the grim monument to mankind’s boundless capacity for brutality. Barbed wires tangle above them, and Red Guards with rifles on towers scan the cityscape for East Berliners trying to flee their urban prison, or West Berliners trying to cross into the zone of terror. The air quivers with the threat of impending violence. There is no place for tenderness or compassion here, only desperation.

Surrounded by a cold and uncaring universe, the young man offers words of empty bravado to his love: “I will be king / and you, you will be queen / we can be heroes, just for one day”. With increasingly feverish urgency he wails into the stony darkness, “We can be heroes!” Does he ever actually believe what he’s saying? Perhaps he does. Perhaps he can close his eyes, and kiss “as though nothing could fall”, and allow flickers of love and hope to spark into genuine belief.

But we listeners know (thanks in part to the arch parentheses meant to convey irony bracketing the song’s title), that of course there are no heroes here to be found. We are meant to see them as doomed, despite the wild-eyed but futile declarations of passion. No, you can’t be heroes, just for one day, or even one moment. It’s a fantasy. “Heroes” is stark and unyielding, like the haunted barricade at its center.

Written and recorded in Berlin, a mere few hundred yards from the Wall in the sullen heart of the Iron Curtain, “Heroes” is the most vivid musical portrayal of a treacherous world that we can now only inhabit in memories, history books, and art. The quavering waves of synthesizer, the discordant howls of guitar, and, most of all, the wrenching vocals, dispatch the listener to a private, stolen moment that pierces cold reality, if only briefly. It’s easy to imagine many such moments that the years have erased, but “Heroes” is an eternal snapshot.

Bowie’s cornerstone single is the turbulent well from which The Next Day springs. Sonically the album stays within the confining lines of “Heroes’” universe, which is vast enough to encompass fits and starts in other directions. The next day after the restless, defiantly hopeful rendezvous comes nearly four decades later, and is fraught with the icy fingers of reality. It’s an intentional connection, which Bowie makes clear from the very start.

First single “Where Are We Now?” begins as a melancholy recitation by an aging man wandering with his ghosts and memories in Berlin. Bowie’s rich voice is wan with bittersweet nostalgia as he names landmarks in the city where he recorded some of his finest work. The landmarks are entrenched, permanent, unlike the ephemeral humans who buzz around them like swarms of flies. There are many parallels with “Heroes” beyond just the setting. The Next Day surveys the wreckage of mankind, telling sad tales of woe and heartbreak. “Where Are We Now?” is the spark of humanity amidst the carnage, just like the much younger couple by the Wall so many years earlier. Bowie even indulges in a moment of wry humor, as one crosses the bridge from the West to the East — “crossing their fingers, just in case”. A nod to past anxieties.

Like “Heroes”, “Where Are We Now?” is built on defiance. The lovers are not fading gracefully into a hazy, comfortable, solemn old age. “As long as there’s fire…/ as long as there’s me / as long as there’s you”. It’s the human impulse to survive, to live until the last gasp of breath. Only death quenches that fire. Bowie’s vocals up until that point are wistful and somber, but the steel creeps in as he vows to cling on to life, and his love, until the very bitter end. It’s an echo of the passion bubbling through the murk of a foreboding, war-torn world we remember from the guy who’s been in such an earlier song. “Where Are We Now?” is the stake on one end tying the narrative to the present, with an iron chain spiked back in 1977 at the foot of the Wall at the other end.

After all these years, finally, an answer to the question we pondered with “Heroes”. Does he really believe what he’s saying? Yes. Then, and now. Ever the dreamer, to the end. Perhaps the ultimate message here is that humanity’s capacity for love did in fact chip away those parentheses surrounding “Heroes” just as the Berliners finally chipped away the Wall. Perhaps, 40 years later, we discover the doomed couple wasn’t so doomed after all, those declarations of love weren’t as futile as we thought, and there are indeed heroes to be found. As long as there’s fire…

Like “Heroes”, The Next Day was produced by Tony Visconti, who found the slow-burning “Where Are We Now?” and odd choice for lead single. He told BBC News, “I think it’s a very reflective track for David. He certainly is looking back on his Berlin period and it evokes this feeling… it’s very melancholy, I think. It’s the only track on the album that goes this much inward for him.” He’s right — the rest of the album focuses on characters and their grim stories, as if Bowie has been sitting atop his luxury apartment building in New York City passing judgment on the fractured world that scurries outside his bubble. “Where Are We Now?” is the album’s heartbeat. It was the perfect introduction to his first release in nearly a decade, and Bowie knew it.

It became even more clear that Bowie was consciously mooring The Next Day and “Heroes” together when the album cover art became public. A simple white square pastes over the original “Heroes” cover with “The Next Day” written in bold and simple font right in the center, and the “Heroes” title above crossed out. The original black and white shot was taken by photographer Masayoshi Sukita while Bowie was in Japan helping to promote The Idiot, an album he had just produced with Iggy Pop. In Sukita’s iconic photo Bowie’s face is frozen solid, his anisocoric eyes oddly striking. He wears a leather jacket and coiffed back hair like he’s beamed from the ‘50s, and his hands are positioned in an alien salute. It’s an image redolent of Bowie’s many idiosyncratic explorations of retro-modernism, a musical and thematic conceit that he’s explored numerous times, from “Life on Mars?”, the grandiose ballad about aliens observing the peculiarities of humans from their secret perch, to the grim visage that gazes threateningly on the cover of Heathen.

The Next Day is littered with examples of this as well. Designer Jonathan Barnbrook said of the cover that the white square is “of the moment” and “obliterating the past” while recognizing that “this is never quite the case, no matter how much we try, we cannot break free from the past. When you are creative, it manifests itself in every way — it seeps out in ever new mark you make.” Barnbrook goes on to say that it’s also about “the wider human condition; we move on relentlessly in our lives to the next day, leaving the past because we have no choice but to.” The Next Day is an examination of the now, from the jaded point of view of the fiery idealist who huddled with his lover in the shadows of the Wall nearly four decades earlier.

The bold hard-rocking opening track and title-song “The Next Day” makes clear any apprehension about this being an “old” album in the wake of the solemn lead single is unfounded. This song bristles with rage and indignation. Of course Bowie is taking a sly swipe at those who speculated about his supposed ill-health when he practically rants the opening lines to the strident chorus: “Here I am / not quite dying!” From a larger view, though, “The Next Day” is about tyranny, and the abject misery and daily drudgery that many people endure. He denounces the hypocritical nature of religions that parade massive displays of wealth and ornate extravagance while purportedly being concerned about society’s poor and helpless. Bowie calls them out with pointed directness in the wonderfully outlandish video starring Gary Oldman as a corrupt priest and Marion Cotillard as a Mary Magdalene figure who develops the stigmata.

Meanwhile, Bowie is backed by his band, crooning in the background, rocking out in a plain brown smock that one could imagine Jesus Christ himself might have worn. Catholic League President Bill Donahue was, of course, unamused. He issued a bitter denunciation of the video, calling Bowie “confused about religion” and referring to him as “the switch-hitting, bisexual, senior citizen from London”, which surely led to some hearty guffaws from everyone involved in Bowie’s project. “The Next Day” is undeniably an aggressive, angry piece that is perhaps intended to provoke. The snarls of guitar sound very much like something from Lodger, just one of many instances on the record in which Bowie incorporates sonic and thematic elements from his storied past. In many ways, The Next Day is a culmination of everything that has come before.

The Darkest Album of Bowie’s Career

“You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” is every bit as much of a steel-toed kick to the head of someone at their lowest point as is Bob Dylan’s enormously nasty “Like a Rolling Stone” — it’s an unleashing of schadenfreude so toxic it’s almost shocking.

With the possible exception of Outside, Bowie’s macabre 1995 conceptual piece about a brutal murder, The Next Day is the darkest album of his career, and indeed some of the strongest moments are the bleakest. “Valentine’s Day” is a haunting piece about the violent fantasies of a potential mass shooter set to a jarringly upbeat ‘60s rock pastiche complete with “sha-la-la-la” background vocals. Bowie narrates from the point of view of someone who is listening to Valentine fantasize about mass murder. The video is particularly brilliant, and simple — it’s just Bowie miming the song in an empty warehouse, using subtle but powerful imagery, gestures and expressions to amplify the song’s violent theme. Once again Bowie shows himself to be an extraordinarily compelling actor.

It’s hard to hear this song and not think of Adam Lanza, who only a few months prior to The Next Day’s release massacred 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, mowing them down in a matter of seconds with a high-powered rifle. Bowie’s frantic vocal delivery during the final run-through of “it’s in his scrawny hands / it’s in his icy heart / it’s happening today!” leaves the ending ambiguous. We don’t know if the narrator is simply overhearing ghastly daydreaming, or if Valentine is actually about to follow through with his plans. The song ends on the razor’s edge of impending violence, unresolved. That constant state of potential violence is something Americans have come to endure, as the nation is awash with guns and mass shootings are now commonplace.

The album’s dark centerpiece, “How Does the Grass Grow?”, is built on the gruesome imagery of a dead soldier mourning his lost love, left alone to live her life without him as his restless spirit watches over her. The core of the song is a grisly chant based upon an old soldiers’ singalong: “Where do the boys lie? / mud mud mud! / how does the grass grow? / blood blood blood!” It’s a ferocious musical creation with blistering guitar, and an extraordinarily complex vocal and musical arrangement that offers ample testimony to the amount of work and attention to detail that Bowie and his team invested in this project. The drumbeat anchoring the creepy extrapolation from The Shadows’ 1960 single “Apache” — the demented “ya ya ya ya ya ya ya ya!” refrain — is borrowed from Bowie’s own classic “Ashes to Ashes”. “How Does the Grass Grow?” is a spear through the heart — brutal, nightmarish, and utterly breathtaking.

The album’s second single, “The Stars (are out tonight)”, delves into the strange symbiotic relationship between pop culture idols and the fans who are driven by adoration for them. Bowie describes the stars, himself included, as caricatures and personas, rather than flesh and blood humans. Bowie, of course, has never been a single persona. He adopts one for each new release, sometimes multiple times on the same album. It’s hard to know where the real Bowie is in there, and he acknowledges this. The song is an unflinching bit of self-awareness, and an unsheathing of the vapid culture of ascribing such importance to frivolity and spectacle. As a recording, it’s a marvel — a hard driving rocker with a sinuous groove and yet another stunning vocal arrangement. Given that Bowie was largely obscured in the arty video for “Where Are We Now?”, the clip for “The Stars (are out tonight)” was the first long look fans had of him in many years. Bowie proves he’s still able to command the screen like no one else, and Tilda Swinton gives a knockout performance in her high profile guest spot.

“You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” is every bit as much of a steel-toed kick to the head of someone at their lowest point as is Bob Dylan’s enormously nasty “Like a Rolling Stone” — it’s an unleashing of schadenfreude so toxic it’s almost shocking. “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” is a melodramatic rock ballad along the lines of Bowie classics like “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” and “Drive-in Saturday” with Bowie turning in a dynamic vocal performance that’s as strong as any he’s ever recorded. It’s a truly wicked song, barbed with repudiation and spite. He croons with malicious glee, “Oblivion shall own you / death alone shall love you / I hope you feel so lonely you could die”. The target of his ire is unclear — perhaps it’s simply another character, or maybe it’s about someone specific. It could even be a lash of self-loathing, exhibiting the impulse that we humans sometimes have that we are undeserving to be loved.

In another sonic flashback, “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” fades to black with the same drum pattern that opens Ziggy Stardust’s “Five Years”. Of course, the presence of Tony Visconti, who’s been working with Bowie since his 1969 Space Oddity album, helps tighten that string to his past. Many of his collaborators are also familiar names to Bowie fans, including David Torn, Zachary Alford, Tony Levin, Gerry Leonard, Gail Ann Dorsey, Sterling Campbell, and of course Earl Slick, a guitar virtuoso who has been an integral part of a large portion of Bowie’s catalog.

The threads to the past continue unabated throughout the album. “Dirty Boys” is a savage allegory about doing what one must to survive, even if it means resorting to violence. It’s a dark and gritty song that’s musically and thematically reminiscent of the Diamond Dogs era — the squonks of sax could be samples taken directly from that album’s master tapes. Much like the dystopian world Halloween Jack inhabits, in “Dirty Boys” it’s every man for himself, kill or be killed. “Love is Lost” is a bleak vision of a young life in ruins. Musically it’s shaped by creepy jolts of guitar and icy keyboards reminiscent of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy period. A skittery remix by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem became the album’s final single, and Bowie recorded a video for the track using images and props from various stages of his career.

“If You Can See Me” is a kinetic rocker featuring an explosive intro vocal by the fantastic Gail Ann Dorsey. Sonically it’s a tense knockout punch of wild percussion and precise instrumentation over which Bowie delivers one of his best vocals on the album. Anybody who thinks you can’t legitimately be a rocker in your 60s needs to amp this song up to full volume immediately. Equally edgy is “(You Will) Set the World on Fire”, in which Bowie inhabits the part of an opportunistic music-industry type who is captivated by a young singer and yearns to ride her talents to fortune. Musically it’s one of the album’s more straightforward tracks, a searing rocker highlighting Earl Slick and his blazing guitar. “I’d Rather Be High” is a psychedelic rocker about a young man who’s been so blighted by his experiences at war in the Middle East that he disconnects from society and spends his time self-medicating and inventing his own reality. It’s a stark portrayal of the human costs of those endless wars that seem to have the world perpetually entangled.

In the menacing “Boss of Me”, Bowie inhabits a man whose seeming beguilement over his small town beauty turns into a nightmare for her as he becomes controlling and her individuality and personality disappear into his vision of what she should be. “Dancing Out in Space” is easily the most upbeat song on The Next Day. It features wonderfully surreal layers of guitar effects performed by David Torn. The song is all about spacey sonic textures and imagery, which of course has been present in Bowie’s music throughout his career, beginning with “Space Oddity” over 45 years ago. The album’s smoldering finalé is “Heat”, the latest in Bowie’s long run of Scott Walker-influenced pieces. His vocal performance is deep and resonant, and the spectral musical accompaniment is strongly reminiscent of the “ambient” pieces on Low and “Heroes”.

It hardly seems possible in this information age that anybody still has the power to surprise, but on the occasion of his 66th birthday, Bowie shocked the world by dropping a new single, video, and announcing his first studio album in a decade. Fans and critics were slack-jawed with awe that such an event could have been kept secret, but through the loyalty of his collaborators Bowie managed it. For years, fans had been speculating with a sense of bubbling unease. Bowie isn’t well. Dying, perhaps. After all, years had passed since he abruptly ended his tour in support of his presumably final album, 2003’s Reality, after a heart scare. Some nice reissues of his classic albums hit the shelves, and he even ventured out for a guest performance with Arcade Fire in 2005, but it was widely assumed that Bowie had finally packed it in. Nobody really expected another album by rock’s greatest innovator. Done with the machinery of the music industry, content to live with his wife and daughter in New York, focusing on his health and doing whatever it is that musical geniuses do when they are no longer on the industry treadmill. Bowie himself was mum. No hint, no word, just a vast silence and endless speculation. He fooled us all — again.

After the album’s announcement, the music press eagerly printed any description of its content, and the anticipation for its release was enormous. Bowie’s return was greeted gleefully by fans. The Next Day debuted at #1 in the UK, his first chart-topping album there since Black Tie, White Noise two decades earlier. It became Bowie’s highest ever charting album in America, soaring to #2 on the Billboard Top 200, besting his three prior Top 5 albums: Station to Station hit #3 in 1976, Let’s Dance reached #4 in 1983 and Diamond Dogs topped out at #5 in 1975. The Next Day was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize, the BRIT for Album of the Year, and the Grammy for Best Rock Album. Lead single “Where Are We Now?” became Bowie’s first Top 10 hit in the UK since “Jump They Say” in 1993. The acclaimed clips for subsequent singles “The Stars (are out tonight)”, “Valentine’s Day”, “The Next Day”, and the James Murphy remix of “Love is Lost” all showed that Bowie’s career-long penchant for tethering his music to striking visuals had not abated.

Knowledge of Bowie’s back catalog is essential to understanding The Next Day, as it’s littered with sonic and lyrical references to moments scattered about his five decades of music. It doesn’t rest on his past glories, though. Yeah, we can harken back to ”Heroes” and view this album as something of a companion from another age, but The Next Day is also current and vital. It’s an album that gets under the skin. It burrows into the skull and penetrates deeper with each listen.

Unfortunately, despite its considerable acclaim upon release, it seems almost to have been forgotten. Bowie’s 2002 epic Heathen, while not quite on par with The Next Day, has suffered a similar fate. Too often critics and writers are afraid to touch the “Holy Grails” of an artist’s prime, and are timid when an artist puts out a work that by all rights should be recognized as among their very best. It’s almost a sacrilege to suggest that a new album could be anywhere on par with Station to Station or Low. Why? Older is not necessarily better.

One might argue that Ziggy Stardust or Aladdin Sane are untouchable, but The Next Day belongs in that same stratosphere of greatness. Acknowledging this does nothing to detract from those classic albums — it only adds another layer to Bowie’s already peerless legacy.