I’m with the band: David Bowie
Welcome to “I’m with the band”. In this column, I’m going to teach you how to become a fan of all the iconic bands you’ve always heard of but might not really know. I’m going to introduce you to some deep songs that will elevate your status from “surface fan” to “true fan”, and tell you why, in my humble opinion, these bands are worth knowing. Hopefully by the end of this series you will understand why you should become a fan of it too.
I watched my now favorite movie, “Almost Famous,” for the first time in college. It is set in 1973 and tells the true story of a 15-year-old boy hired by Rolling Stone magazine to follow an up-and-coming band on the road for an interview. A stage features a band member who goes on a rampage while drunk, claiming that “rock ‘n’ roll can save the world.” It’s a line the character later regrets, stating that he looked silly and insane.
But here’s the thing – I don’t think that line was that far from the truth. I really think rock ‘n’ roll can save the world, and I can prove it with just one song: “Hero.” Today I’m going to tell you how a David Bowie song helped bring down the Berlin Wall.
After the excessive drugs, glamor and hedonism of his early years as a rock star, Bowie moved into an apartment in West Berlin with fellow artist Iggy Pop. Both artists were looking for sobriety. West Berlin was certainly an interesting choice, and little studied by both of them; with a chuckle, Bowie says MTV in 1997 that “Iggy and I felt like it might be time to clean up, so – we were very smart about it – we went straight from Los Angeles to the heroin capital of Europe .”
But aside from the obvious drug lure, West Berlin was also teeming with art, culture, and history. Bowie claimed that if the two couldn’t heal in Berlin, then there was nowhere else they could heal. And so, together, Bowie and Pop cleaned up their number and got sober within three years.
But that’s only the beginning of the story. Because while the two artists were learning to put the pieces of their lives back together, Berlin was more divided than ever.
Before the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, all Berliners were free to cross the East-West border. The crossing was usual, for daily activities like going to work or going to the movies. But in just two weeks, the harrowing effects of the Cold War manifested in physical form. Whichever side of the wall you were on during its construction was the side you were forced to live on. Loved ones were separated indefinitely – friends from friends, husbands from wives, parents from children.
Over the years, more than 171 people have been killed trying to cross the wall. As much as 5,000 East Germans were lucky enough to escape to West Germany, feats accomplished by jumping out of windows near the wall, flying in hot air balloons, or crawling through sewers.
To live in East Berlin during the Cold War was to live in a constant state of fear, grief and pain. And to live in West Berlin was to live knowing the freedom that was stripped from your loved ones. Bowie might not have family on the other side of the wall, but he was no stranger to adversity. And that’s where the title track from his 1977 album, “Heroes,” comes into the story.
A good artist can take their own pain and turn it into something the world can relate to. But a great artist? A great artist can take the pain the world feels and turn it into something that inspires change. With that distinction, “Heroes” – a song that tells the story of two lovers trapped on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall – is the song that forever elevated Bowie from a good artist to a great one.
Although the song’s instrumental was recorded early in his band’s studio sessions, it took Bowie longer than usual to fill in the right lyrics. In fact, by the time he wrote them, most of his musicians had already left Berlin.
Bowie ended up recording his vocals in a nearly empty studio on three different takes: a first verse with Bowie’s microphone at nine inches, a second verse with the microphone at 20 feet, and a final verse with one at 50 feet. With each verse, Bowie was forced to sing louder to be picked up by the microphone.
If you listen to the song, you will notice the progression: the intensity increases, and with each cry of nostalgia, the listener can hear the hollow distance which separates the two lovers. By the final verse, Bowie seems both further away and more desperate than ever to get his words across.
When Bowie released the album, there were few expectations of how the song would be received. It was twice as long as most singles at the time and unconventional for radio. In fact, it wasn’t until Bowie returned to Berlin to perform the song live for the 1987 “Concert for Berlin” that he realized the importance of what he had created.
This performance was still two years before the wall was torn down. East Berlin may have become safer in 1987, but it was no closer to being free. Music was a threat to East Berlin; it was provocative, progressive and unifying. Although East Germany succeeded in banning record sales and importing new music, it could not stop radio waves from passing through the Wall. And so, with Bowie’s permission to broadcast his performance live on the radio, East Berliners were able to gather around the wall and listen to his shouts of “Hero” travel freely in ways they couldn’t. not.
Speaking of his performance in Berlin, Bowie reminded that he was in tears the whole time: “We kind of heard that a few of the East Berliners might actually be lucky enough to hear it, but we didn’t know how many of them would do. And there were thousands of them on the other side who had approached the Wall. So it was like a double concert, where the Wall was the division. And we heard them clapping and singing on the other side. God, even now I’m choking. It broke my heart. I had never done anything like this in my life, and I guess I never will again.
It wasn’t long before the gathering became too unsettling for the East Berlin guards to allow. The police began pushing people away from the wall, shooting them with water cannons and arresting over 200 listeners.
It’s kind of hard to really visualize the weight of this moment. The idea of the authorities in East Berlin shooting people while Bowie shouted, “I remember standing by the wall / And the guns, fired above our heads / And we kissed, as if nothing could fall” is almost a little too sublime to be conceptualized. .
But whether you see this moment as art imitating life or life imitating art, one thing is certain: music is power. And while the East German authorities may have won that night’s battle, the power of Bowie’s music had already sparked a global revolution. A week later, President Reagan visited West Berlin; and not even two years later, the Berlin Wall fell.
So, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Halloween Jack – call him by whatever character you like best, because when the The German government has thanked David Bowie in 2016 for helping to bring down the Berlin Wall, I’m sure they were thanking them all. If there’s anything you take away from this article, I hope it’s that you understand why I believe that maybe, just maybe, some songs can really change the world. It might not be the craziest thing to believe, after all.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes thoughts, opinions, and subjective criticism.