Just gonna have to be a different man…

In Berlin: Imagine a City, Rory MacLean writes of how, in 1976, ‘rock ‘n’ roll’s blazing star fell to earth in Berlin’. Bowie arrived in the city a haunted, haggard wreck: barely six stones, sleepless and wired on cocaine, possessing little sense of his own self-worth. ‘I really did have doubts about my sanity’, Bowie wrote later. But, according to MacLean, Bowie found himself in Berlin (and he might know since, fresh out of film school, he was a young assistant to the director on the film shot in the city at the time, Just a Gigolo).

The city changed Bowie. He pulled away from his addiction, rode a bike and gained weight. And he wrote the song that still has the power to send shivers down my back: ‘Heroes’. MacLean places the song at the heart of the Bowie chapter in his superb book, consisting of short portraits of more than twenty individuals – famous and infamous, high and low – whose lives combine to create a biography of Berlin. MacLean describes ‘Heroes’ as ‘Berlin’s rock anthem, a droning, courageous wall of sound, fired with deep emotion, hammered by a clanging, metallic rhythm.’

Otto Müller, Lovers between Walls, 1916
Otto Müller, Lovers between Walls, 1916

MacLean tells how the Brücke Museum in the Grunewald, with its collection of works by Expressionists such as Kirchner, Nolde  and Mueller. It seems that an  original inspiration for the song came to Bowie during one of his visits when gazing at Otto Mueller’s 1916 painting ‘Lovers Between Garden Walls’. Then, one day in 1977 while working to add lyrics to an instrumental he had recorded for the album that would eventually be Low, it seemed that the painting came to life as he gazed out of the window of the recording studio. He’d got halfway through the song when he asked to be left alone at the piano. Producer Tony Visconti slipped out of the building and met his lover, back-up singer Antonia Maaß, on the street outside.  From the studio Bowie saw them kiss, by the Wall.

I, I can remember
Standing by the Wall
And the guns, shot above our heads
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall
And the shame was on the other side
Oh, we can beat them, forever and ever
Then we could be heroes, just for one day

Berlin taught Bowie to write songs about important things, argues MacLean. None more so than this bitter-sweet lyric with the couple kissing by the Wall, doomed and knowing it, full of wrenching sadness because they don’t stand a chance – yet also uplifting and life-enhancing, as seen quintessentially in Bowie’s magnificent performance at Live Aid in 1985.

How much Bowie, like Lennon and McCartney, could absorb ideas and musical influences was revealed in a song he wrote for that pretty awful Berlin film and which was only ever released on the film’s soundtrack album: ‘Revolutionary Song’.

It isn’t wrong to be prepared to fight
Together to unite if we believe
In giving everything our heart and soul
Until we reach the goal we should achieve

It shouldn’t matter if we’re brown or white
Yellow or black as night to anyone
We’re all born equal with the self same rights
Sharing the same daylight under the sun

In June 1987, Bowie returned to Berlin to sing ‘Heroes’ on a stage set up in front of the Wall at the Reichstag. As night fell, he sang to 70,000 and spoke these words in German, ‘We send our best wishes to all our friends who are on the other side of the Wall’.

On the other side of that hateful divide, hundreds of young East Berliners strained to hear echoes of the concert.  They caught sight of stage lights flashing off blank, bullet-marked walls. They heard Bowie greet them.  They listened to his song.  Their song.  Berlin’s song.

The audio of this video clip was recorded off the live radio broadcast on 6 June 1987.

In Berlin, writes Rory MacLean:

Schinkel fought to realise his vision, Kollwitz struggled to shape her fears, Isherwood – living on a tutor’s stipend – reworked reality, and Bowie made his journey from addiction to independence, from celebrity paranoia to radical, unmasked messenger who told us, all the fat-skinny people, all the nobody people who had dreamt of a new world of equals, that we were beautiful, that we could be ourselves.

Actually, I think he’d been doing that for a long time: ever since, dressed outlandishly, he’d thrilled us channelling the orders of an astral Elvis, ‘Let the children lose it, Let the children use it, Let all the children boogie’. When our daughter was little, we’d play her ‘Kooks’, a perfect song that distils two parents’ hopes for their child to grow up free and fearless:

Will you stay in our Lovers’ Story
If you stay you won’t be sorry
‘Cause we believe in you

Bowie was, as Grayson Perry puts it in a perceptive tribute in the Guardian, ‘the champion of the outcast in the bedroom. The loner, the misfit’.

Hot tramp! I loved you so.

See also

7 thoughts on “Bowie: We can be heroes, just for one day

  1. Great tribute Gerry. Better than the BBC in my view. But going back to Childwall College 1973, I didn’t get it and my associates couldn’t convince me (where were you Gerry). But so many of his songs have stuck with me. But the early 70’s were so mixed up”the best of times,the worst of times” Looking back,it was a God awful small affair, I suppose. Your 1973 post is a masterpiece.
    I can feel another Proustian moment coming on. You were never a regular lecturer of mine but I can recall you acting as relief occasionally (for the bloke with the beard, sort of Mullet hair do, wide lapelled denim jacket and a thing for the Rock Opera “Tommy” really nice bloke who’s name escapes me), and you tried to convince us to give up our office jobs for a while and go and live in…………? some place in Europe, I’d never heard of. You were a hero that day Gerry. Still got the office job by the way.

    1. Thanks, David, I appreciate that. Funny how our paths crossed in ’73. I think the Mullet haired guy was probably Pat Watling – he taught Economics. As for suggesting you lot throw up your jobs and head for Europe – disgraceful and quite unprofessional, especially given that I never followed my own advice.Thanks for reminding me about the earlier post – I’d forgotten all about it. But I nice reference to Bowie’s prescience there, so I’ve added it to the further reading.

  2. Gerry, Bowie was writing important songs long before Heroes. John, I’m only dancing had it’s on significance. But yes, Bowie the Brixton Boy, created works of Art as important as those as Bobbie Zimmerman. ;) Thanks for your thoughtful post.

    1. I agree, Talia, that Bowie wrote important songs before the Berlin period (case in point: much of Hunk Dory): I was just reporting Rory MacLean’s argument. You’ll note that I also disagreed later with his case that after Berlin Bowie became the ‘messenger who told us, all the fat-skinny people, all the nobody people who had dreamt of a new world of equals, that we were beautiful, that we could be ourselves’. He’d been doing that – dramatically and fearlessly – since Ziggy Stardust (as the TV tributes last night made perfectly clear).

      1. I wonder how old Maclean is. Maybe his argument stems from a contextual slant we aren’t aware of. But it does seem a bit myopic. Like I said Gerry, thanks for your thoughtful post.

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