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Thursday, June 17, 2004 

Wednesday's Emotional Setup: "Heroes"

And you, you can be mean
And I, I'll drink all the time

I recently did the third of my four articles on the Berlin-era Bowie albums. Since this one was on my favorite Bowie album ever, "Heroes" (don't forget the quotation marks, on either album or song), it was remarkably easy to write, and I've had a number of nice comments on it. The best, though, was a lengthy one from a poster called capnandtennile. The article is here if you'd like to read them yourself, but the part of their comment that relates to ""Heroes"" itself is this:

I think Mr. Mathers is right to point out the 'slightly camp spin' on some of the tracks, which certainly hints at glam rock. But what really reveals that "Heroes" is not just a glam record, but in fact the culmination of glam, is how often and how well it confronts the problem and paradox of glam rock: the puzzling simultaneity of authenticity and pretense that we find in both art and life. Everyone who loves pop music knows that even deliberately theatrical songs like 'Time' (from Aladdin Sane) are not only theater. When Bowie sings 'I look at my watch, it says 9:25/and I think oh God! I'm still alive' in the middle of his cabaret act, one can't help think that at that instant theater is only a medium for the expression of emotion; like an opaque membrane that separates us from a bright light, which, at certain points of intensity, becomes momentarily transparent, and allows us to be dazzled by what lies behind it. This, of course, is not to say that this membrane can ever be broken, or that theater can ever actually be done away with. All of this brings us to the title track, which deliberately puts 'heroes' in quotation marks. The song has a tragic and heroic force to it that most listeners don't think to look beyond. But the lyrics suggest that perhaps we shouldn't be taking these 'heroes' (the lovers in the song) very seriously. Bowie has pointed out this too-often-ignored element in interviews: the topic of the song is really a pair of alcoholic lovers. 'Heroes' indeed. The title track, then, walks the line between authenticity and pretense--a line that has become very thin. These alcoholic lovers have no right to talk about dolphins and guns and kings and queens and expect us to think that they're anything more than alcoholic lovers--a fact that they recognize. And yet we still believe the narrator when he says 'we can be heroes'. How can this be? If the quotation marks around 'heroes' are meant to suggest, as Mr. Mathers writes, that Bowie is now 'purely human', we must conclude that this only means that he has a deeper relation to pretense than he ever did when he was playing a role like Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, or the Thin White Duke; if there is such a thing as the 'purely human', it is a sequence of 'pretense' and 'authenticity' that shakes the division between the two and collapses them into one another: the sublime climax of '"Heroes"'.

What a wonderful piece of writing! As I mention in the comments section, I don't think this is oppositional to what I had already wrote about ""Heroes"", but rather strengthens it. I hadn't realised how much emphasis was to be put on the couplet quoted at the top of this entry, but with that force in place, I think ""Heroes"" demonstrates the effect capnandtennile writes about even more forcefully. I had already had it in my mind, although this was not explored in the article (since I tried to give the songs equal time rather than focusing on the title track too much) that ""Heroes"" itself was a sort of a parody of a love song, and yet the fact remains that the parodic elements do not detract from the crushing force of the emotion of Bowie's performance. Listen to his voice crack at 3:16 of the full version, and try to deny that, drunks aside, ""Heroes"" is a love song, and a sincere one.

[NB. The above challenge is a rhetorical one, and not directed, for example, at capnandtennile - I am sure he/she already knows what is really going on]

And the guns shot above our heads
And we kissed
As though nothing could fall
And the shame was on the other side

I'm not sure how much further I should try to explicate the contrast and bond between the theatrical/parodical and the emotional/genuine sides of ""Heroes""; I get the sense that either you already get it when you hear the song, or no amount of theorizing will suffice. I will say that when in my review I referred to it as "one of the great romantic rock songs of all time", the fact that it walks this careful line and employs Brechtian alienation (for what else can you call the fact that it calls attention to the falseness, the theatricality of its love story in order to improve our aesthetic experience of it?) in such a skillful way is definitely a large part of what I was referring to. The love depicted in ""Heroes"" is doomed on several levels, first of all because it is purely fictional, secondly because even if Bowie was the alcoholic lover of the story, the things he sings about are purely fictional, invented, and lastly because even if neither of these were true, we are not hearing the love, the relationship, we are hearing a moment frozen in time. The song is older than I am, after all.

But let's look a little closer at maybe the two most important lines in the whole song, already excerpted above: "And we kissed / As though nothing could fall". These lines, for those with the liner notes to look over, but without access to the interview in which Bowie reveals that he is intending to depict two alcoholics, point the way into the dual nature of the song (most/all songs have this dual nature, of course, it is merely part of Bowie's particular genius that he exposes it in an artful and affecting fashion).

If you first hear ""Heroes"" out of context, on the radio or something similar, those lines sound like the height of the romantic myth side of the song. It sounds like a positive sentiment, "as though nothing could fall" sounds like a good thing, one of those "nothing can tear down our love" moments.

As soon as you look over the liner notes, note the recording location and read the lyrics, I think your attention will be drawn to the line just before the ones mentioned above: "we were standing by the wall". They are in Berlin. In 1977. It doesn't take much historical knowledge to figure out that they are kssing in front of the Berlin Wall (in fact, that is such an ingrained part of my experience of the song that I was quite surprised to note that "wall" isn't capitalized in the notes, and that people might not realise which wall is being referred to).

So now, "as though nothing could fall" takes on a wholly different feel, becoming a sentiment of despair rather than strength - which is, in a nutshell, how your experience of the rest of the song can change when you realise what is really going on. And then it changes back again, of course, because what's "really going on" doesn't matter in the face of the emotion Bowie puts into his performance, in the fact of that wonderous backing whoosh provided by Fripp, in the face of that crack in Bowie's voice. Which is why that may just be the single best/defining moment in all of Bowie's discography.

I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing will drive them away
We can be Heroes, just for one day
We can be us, just for one day


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Ian Mathers is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Stylus, the Village Voice, Resident Advisor, PopMatters, and elsewhere. He does stuff and it magically appears here.

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