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.