There’s old wave. There’s new wave. And There’s David Bowie…– RCA marketing slogan for Heroes (1977)
David Bowie’s Heroes is an album of endings and entrances. In 1976 Bowie went to Berlin a broken man and emerged from the city having realised a personal and creative rebirth. Against the odds, he produced some of his greatest work while managing to reconstruct a shattered life that might have been lost to addiction, financial collapse, and emotional breakdown.
Heroes is the original Bowie-in-Berlin album – the only one of the trilogy (alongside 1977’s Low and 1979’s Lodger) recorded entirely in that divided city-state. The legend of Heroes is forged from Bowie’s near-mythical experiences as the nomadic emigre, finding his place in a world where he was always seen as the alien. Heroes expresses the fractured psyche of Berlin’s decadence and desolation, mirroring Bowie’s struggle to make a fresh start.
In 1975 Bowie began his most experimental phase with Station to Station (1976), aiming to merge the white-boy “plastic soul” of Young Americans (1975) with the ‘krautrock’ groove of Can and Kraftwerk electronica, reaching towards a new aesthetic. A thoroughly European-looking record made in Los Angeles, Bowie, born in 1946, had originally looked to America as a shining light of the post-war future, where the United States became a haven for an entire generation of European refugees, calling to mind the ever-glib Billy Wilder in 1945: “The optimists died in the gas chambers, the pessimists have pools in Beverly Hills.” Bowie now sought escape from his exile.
Starring Bowie as the Thin White Duke character, a demon falling upwards, Station to Station displays a deeper spiritual crisis. Cocaine and creative work became his all-conquering, cathartic passions. Deadened by too many Hollywood highs, music journalist Ian MacDonald found our hero: “Isolated in a largely unironic and cultureless alien land, Bowie was forced back on himself, a self he didn’t much like.”
By the time of his next album Low (1977), recorded largely in France in late 1976, Bowie was trading one form of inertia for another. He explored this hollowed-out sensation in Low‘s “Sound and Vision” (1977), trailing the creative DNA that would run throughout the ‘Berlin trilogy’. Sounding like an anthem to writer’s block, the song exposed Bowie’s views on songwriting, landing somewhere between Wordsworth’s theory of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility” and Keats’ idea of Negative Capability, where the artist practices self-forgetting to free themself from the baggage of technical process and easy ideas.
Caught between denial and forgetting, Low exposed Bowie’s most fractured memories of Los Angeles. Despite the poppy and popping funk of the album, its tone is dominated by blue melancholia. After the confessional tone of Low, Bowie emerged enervated, stripped to his emotional core with less artifice to hide behind: “The artistic transformation between Station to Station and Low was an inner one, not a career move, it happened to Bowie himself, not to Bowie the Actor,” writes MacDonald.
In late 1976 Bowie retreated to Berlin for the immediate future with no plan other than to continue his search for a new musical language. Entering “the most arduous city I could think of”, Bowie did not speak German but remained content that he could order cigarettes in any language. Throwing himself full force into an alien environment – perhaps an example of ‘flooding’ (immersing one’s self in risky, uncomfortable situations) – Bowie made a virtue of culture clash, aiming somewhere between new horizons and career suicide.
Considering Bowie’s shift away from pop accessibility, an interviewer observed that avant-garde experimentation might affect his commercial future. Bowie responded: “No shit Sherlock,” half-grinning, half-wincing. Heroes saw Bowie kick back against critical attacks and pressure from RCA about Low’s artistic direction; he remained resolute: “I changed because I wanted to move forward. I just hoped the audience would come along. For me, it wasn’t the smart thing to do; it was the necessary thing to do.” (Uncut)
The first part of Bowie’s project was a conscious act of self-erasure, shedding his burning crown of orange and red hair and adopting a proto-hipster look. Bowie’s brown hair was now cropped close. He grew a ‘studio’ mustache and wore working men’s plaid shirts. Where in the human traffic of New York City, Bowie was often mobbed by fans, within his Berlin anti-persona, no one recognised him. He was a lost soul at home in a city of ghosts. Settling into a normal mode of life, he rented a large but simple flat in the modest Schöneberg district and continued punching the studio clock.
Becoming an adventurous dark tourist, Bowie explored the time tunnel of transvestite cabaret bars, neglected autobahns, and traditional folk villages – sketching out the map of his own private Berlin – looking for an unnameable feeling, a sense of longing Germans call Sehnsucht. Passing through liminal places of ruins, invisible borders, and hard checkpoints, Bowie internalized the heightened tension of the splintered city-state still trying to reconcile itself to the burden of history. But the scorched earth of Berlin’s past offered a blank canvas where a stranger could also reimagine a better future — where we might all become heroes: “Berlin was the first time in years that I had felt a joy of life and a great feeling of release and healing. It’s a city eight times bigger than Paris, remember, and so easy to ‘get lost’ in and to ‘find’ oneself, too.” (Dalton and Hughes)
Heroes is an album of two neat halves, like Low‘s working title of Songs for Night and Day, but Bowie’s life-affirming spirit dominates the more rockist DNA of Heroes: “It’s louder and harder and played with more energy,” he concedes. “But lyrically it seems far more psychotic. By now I was living full-time in Berlin so my own mood was good. Buoyant even. But those lyrics come from a nook in the unconscious.” (Uncut)
Bowie lived in Berlin many years before it became the hipster capital of Europe; when it was still cheap, dangerous, and hard to know – scouting out areas such as Kreuzberg and Berlin’s notorious Exile cafe, full of bohemian dropouts and intellectuals he absorbed both surreal nonsense and fresh perspectives. The noises of the street fed into his stream-of-consciousness lyrics preaching his recurring theme of alienation, often delivered phrase by phrase into the microphone as the tape was paused, a method inspired by his and Tony Visconti’s collaborations with Iggy Pop for The Idiot (1977) and Lust for Life (1978).
The surface normality of Bowie’s daily routine wrestled with extreme strangeness across Heroes in forms of rockist destruction and ambient introspection. Invited to Berlin to play some “hairy rock and roll guitar” (his words), virtuoso guitarist Robert Fripp goes beyond the limits of straight-edged sounds. Feeling the discovery mode of the album he walked straight into Hansa studio and recorded his parts in a few passes, his spontaneous soloing spirals around Bowie’s hot-headed angst-ridden vocals.
The opening tracks of Heroes “Beauty and the Beast” and “Joe the Lion” play into the schizoid spirit. Bowie set emotional extremes alongside polarized ideologies of Eastern communism and Western democracy, carved out as metaphors for life and death. “Joe the Lion” is driven by a masochistic streak, a tribute to performance artist Chris Burden, who had himself nailed to the outer shell of his Volkswagen Beetle, displaying himself in crucifixion. To Burden, art was a demonstration of power where to experience the limits of pain is to truly know oneself (Snow). Bowie’s inner masochism had pushed self-destruction to its limits and was now fighting for preservation, looking beyond premature death or a sad, slow decline.
There is a photo of Bowie napping beneath his large portrait painting of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. Equally committed to life as art and death, homosexual desire, and sado-masochism, Mishima remained a major influence on Bowie. But where Mishima’s work often threatens disruptive “aesthetic terrorism” this concept is given teeth in Heroes and Bowie’s 1. Outside album (1995). Bowie’s starkly ironic stance in the opening two songs offers a powerful one-two punch of upbeat nihilism – without compromise.
Bowie would later joke that he and Iggy Pop had chosen to get clean by basing themselves in the heroin capital of Europe, such was the city’s fragmented state of affairs. Though Bowie claimed the Berlin trilogy to be largely drug-free, he was prone to relapse as alcohol became a post-addiction crutch. Sometimes drinking a gallon of König Pilsener at a time, found sobbing in a bar or staggering into collapse on the streets; one bartender remembers Bowie was either always drunk or working on getting drunk. Still smoking over 40 Gitanes cigarettes a day and dabbling in cocaine, Bowie’s recovery was a longer, slower process, echoed in the deflated line from “Heroes” – “I’ll drink all the time.”
With the opening tracks of Heroes, Bowie alluded to the addictive high-wire act of balancing artistic challenge and physical sacrifice that art demands. “Beauty and the Beast” presents a fork in the road towards a creative future and sobriety, while in “Joe the Lion”, Bowie retraces his steps from a drunken night out where “just a couple of drinks” always turns into another fever dream. The midway breakdown of “Blackout” exploits the subtext of power-cuts birthing monsters dancing in the dark. His call for protection and the need to “get me off the streets” is wrapped up in his wayward state. Bowie meets his nihilistic self on the way back around. Declaring himself under Japanese influence with his honor at stake – a view that life is combat – Japan’s martial codes of conduct offered a different Berlin, one of relative lawlessness and the constant threat of authoritarian crackdown. Bowie smooths this edge with the koto-led instrumental “Moss Garden”, a sound poem about a prayer garden in Kyoto he once visited.
The dissolute character of Berlin discovered through Heroes has its parallel world in the Interzone of William S. Burroughs’ 1959 novel Naked Lunch, the fictional double this time in the international zone of Tangier. Like Germany, Tangier was populated with outcasts who seemed caught in a time warp. Bowie noted that Berlin was “such an ambiguous place it’s hard to distinguish between the ghosts and the living”. (DuVerger) Both city-states were unconquerable dreams, trapped in a war of the mind that could never be won.
Bowie’s time in Berlin brought home the history of World War Two as the Cold War remained red hot. At the epicentre of what became the Nazi empire, he was confronted with the dark realities of his earlier fascination with Third Reich mysticism: “The occult basis of Nazism, epitomized in Himmler’s vision of his SS as an Arthurian company of immortals, incarnated to bring order to the physical plane.” (MacDonald). Heading into the post-punk years of 1978, Berlin inherited a blank generation, populated by the very old and the very young, with many middle-aged citizens decimated by World War II. Bowie met people his age whose fathers had been active members of the Schutzstaffel (SS) or were Wehrmacht soldiers, representing those responsible for torture and ethnic cleansing as well as ordinary people caught up in Germany’s nationalist extremism.
Across Heroes, the new speed of life either works very fast or very slow, revolving around the inner tensions of Berlin. The weathered space of the instrumental “Neukoln” refers to a district of Berlin occupied by an emergent Turkish population, who Bowie saw as the great underclass that kept the city humming. He also witnessed those same immigrants being beaten by neo-Nazi thugs. Years later “It’s No Game No.1” (from Scary Monsters and Super Creeps, 1980), Bowie hammered home his outrage: “To be insulted by these fascists /Is so degrading” with a firm rejection of his former praise for Hitler’s national socialism.
Bowie punctuates “Neukoln” with cries of pain and alienation blasted out on the saxophone. Neither a virtuoso nor a slouch, he overloads his breathing, strangling the last gasps of a city crippled by extremes of rage and defeatism, hyperventilating in the throes of brutal expressionism. He further exploits agonized pauses on “Sense of Doubt” to suppress the quiet panic of an uncertain future until the rolling thunder of repeated piano notes decisively returns each set of chords, forcing through the persistence of difficult memory. Bowie’s contrasting synth playing is held taut, with half-pressed notes captive in the indeterminate present tense. As if unable to commit, he expresses the brittle edge of experimentation as a musician feeling their way through a song. Again spontaneity becomes the vehicle towards understanding a time of flux surrounded by people either full of passionate intensity to live for today or overloaded with denial and crippling inertia.
Heroes now strikes the listener as a bizarrely preternatural time capsule. Looking out the window of Hansa Tonstudio to the Berlin Wall, Bowie became a spectator at the bleeding edge of Western democracy. His songs straddle the hauntological sense of a violent past folded into the grimly-optimistic present of 1977 and later Ostalgie – the backward nostalgia for cultural life in former Communist East Germany that would make the city a destination to bear witness to Francis Fukuyama‘s collapsing ideologies at the “end of history”. Bowie said, “I like the friction. That’s what I look for in any city. West Berlin has the right kind of push. I can’t write in a peaceful atmosphere at all, I’ve nothing to bounce off. I need the terror, whatever it is”
The blank-faced scribbler of “Sons of the Silent Age” speaks to militarized Berlin’s paranoid (self)surveillance culture. The citizens in the East looked on admiringly to West Berlin, which remained the strategic vanguard of Cold War Soviet influence. Like a living camera seeing through the prism of black and white cinema, Bowie’s voice shutter-flips to a humdrum monotone and crooning lament. In this song, he realizes the great let-down of a shrinking world drowning in bureaucracy, crumbling under the weight of its archive.
For his part, Bowie made the former grand ballroom of Hansa Tonstudio two, “The Hall by the Wall” iconic. During the War, it was requisitioned as a Nazi social club. Now in 1977, among the rotting cans of German expressionist films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Murnau’s Nosferatu (Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, 1922), and Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, 1920) that had consumed his young imagination, Bowie made the dead spaces live again with his booming vocal on “Heroes”. Recorded across the full distance of the hall with three sets of microphones on noise gates and activated at different peaks, “Heroes” combines sonic force with a haunted atmosphere. The song opens with the straightened reserve of a romantic tale set to a doo-wop backing beat of ’50s rock ‘n’ roll before exploding into catharsis as Bowie’s powerful voice bounces back at him, shaking the air with suppressed emotion – his first out-and-out love song in years.
A psychological barrier as much as a physical one, the Wall’s real victory over the people of Berlin was a divided state of mind. Hans Richter’s Dada: Art and Anti-Art (1965), an examination of the Fin de Siècle Dada movement, explores the creative impact of dramatic cultural and political upheaval. With the fallout of the First World War, “four years of senseless slaughter in which many friends had died on both sides”, and the inter-war years before the deluge, Dada shot across the continent. Dadaism flowed from 1916 Zurich to 1922 Paris via Berlin, gradually evolving into the more populist surrealist movement.
Richter found: “the inconclusiveness of the revolution that was being fought out on the street-corners at that very moment” meeting with “the spirit of opposition, so long suppressed” to create a vacuum of freedom where citizens, finally confronted with the gifts of escape, dream, and illusion, find themselves frozen, caught as a rabbit-in-the-headlights—where the tyranny of choice becomes no freedom at all. This is a theme Bowie later addressed on the single “Up the Hill Backwards” from 1980’s Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), though Berlin remained a positive turning point for him, with Bowie declaring: “I can’t express the feeling of freedom I felt there.” (Uncut)
Writing “Heroes”, Bowie alighted upon the image of people swimming like dolphins to express a universal desire for freedom inspired by Alberto Denti di Pirajno’s A Grave for a Dolphin (1956). Merging folk tale with real-life romance, it describes a young Italian officer’s love affair with a Somalian woman who is strangely attuned to sea creatures. Their lives become intertwined through swimming with a dolphin, and they transcend their cultures in the colonial setting of West Africa during World War II. One day the woman dies from a fever just as the dolphin arrives bleeding on the beach. The two are buried side-by-side; love is found only to be lost. In his introduction to Iman Abdulmajid’s 2001 book, I Am Iman, Bowie stated the collective meaning of the story, the song, and the dolphins become symbolic of the transcendent power of love.
“Heroes” was a creative breakthrough for Bowie in other ways, too, as it helped him overcome writer’s block. Speaking in 1980 to the BBC, Bowie explained his third-level synthesis on Heroes, compared to Diamond Dogs (1974) cut-ups of diary pages and shuffled lines: “You take a couple of subject matters…someone jumping over the Berlin Wall, I would write a paragraph from the jumper’s point of view. I would write a paragraph from an observer’s point of view from this side of the wall, then an observer’s point of view from that side of the wall, so you have three different points of view.” He would then break up the lines and piece together fragments to create new lines. Through this process, Bowie saw a continued future in music where he was truly free, without dependence on drugs: “You could do all the experimentation in creating music and not actually have to put your body through the same kind of risks.”
Elsewhere Bowie would find new hopes in his songs; from the peaceful reconciliation of “Moss Garden” to the muscular dynamism of “V2 Schneider”, which exploited the electronic rock band crossover of styles between Kraftwerk and other German bands such as Can, Cluster, and Neu! Bowie uses dynamic shifts of saxophone, soaring guitars, and militarised whip-quick drum fills that snap the song in and out of its chorus, calmly crooning the song’s title before jumping back into jagged sax and guitar shapes.
The V-2 reference was a pitch-black joke, as V-2 rockets were sent to bomb London during World War II, but it also points to Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel, Gravity’s Rainbow. The book’s narrative is set against the inevitable ticking clock of a great missile due to land and explode at any time. While Schneider is the surname of one of Kraftwerk’s founder members. Openly paying tribute to his musical heroes, bands that had risen from the ashes of post-war Germany, Bowie set himself alongside them in constructing new possibilities for the future. Like the destruction wrought by the V-2 rocket, there were no absolute endings, only the inevitability of change.
Heroes closes with the pop gem “Secret Life of Arabia”. A classic piece of Hollywood escapism, Bowie finds exotic visions of the Sinai landscape with a Roxy Music-style beat. Transforming into the romantic hero Lawrence of Arabia in darkest Berlin, the ability to slip in and out of fantasy states set Bowie towards his next move for 1979’s Lodger, now writing as ‘David Bowie’ the eternal traveler.
When Bowie returned to Berlin in 1987 for a show outside Berlin’s Reichstag, just a few years before the reunification of Germany in 1991, he chose to perform “Heroes”. It was as much a farewell gesture to the East and West Berlin he had known as it was a banishing act to the demons he exorcized on the album. “Heroes” is often misunderstood as a straightforward ballad of triumph, but it is more like the bittersweet tale of the dolphin. Bowie admits that we are flawed but also expresses our capacity for change and to right our mistakes. If we can transcend our ego in a place without maps, then all roads are truly open. Brian Eno offered his thoughts on “Heroes”: “It’s a beautiful song,” he told Q magazine in 2007. “But incredibly melancholy at the same time. We can be heroes, but actually we know that something’s missing, something’s lost.”
Bowie remembered the concert well: “I’ll never forget that. It was one of the most emotional performances I’ve ever done. I was in tears. […] it really felt anthemic, almost like a prayer.” (DeMain). With thousands of East Berliners listening on the other side of the Wall, the elegiac music overcame any pessimism in the lyrics as the song transcended hard borders and, for a moment, erased political and cultural divisions. The Berlin Wall did not cast its shade over Bowie — he left his shadow upon the Wall, having helped dream a new city into being. Heroes brought him closer to the cutting edge of musical experimentation in a time of personal healing. When everything seemed broken, Bowie became whole again. As he observed shortly after making Lodger, he echoed the lyrics of the track “Yassassin” (Turkish for ‘long live’): “I had not intended to leave Berlin, I just drifted away.” Through Heroes there exists a living, breathing artifact of Bowie’s creative rebirth in the divided city—a part of him will always remain there.
Dalton, Stephen, and Hughes, Rob “David Bowie Remembers Berlin“. Uncut. 6 January 2017.
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Snow, Phillipa. Which as You Know Means Violence: On Self-Injury As Art and Entertainment. Repeater Books. 2022
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