Earlier this month—the 9th—marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And in Chicago, since September, there’s been an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art called “David Bowie Is.” For me, one thing that David Bowie is is the guy who put the Berlin Wall into a Top 40 song. “I remember standing by the Wall / And the guns shot above our heads / And we kissed as though nothing could fall.”
Bowie is—or was—a lot of things, and one thing, for certain, is a kind of fetishized figure of self-invention. So much so that he seems the first rock star who deserves to have his relics in a museum, not simply because—the usual reason—of their “aura” of having belonged to a creative artist, but because Bowie’s career has been an ongoing performance in the art of making and re-making oneself for “the media.” All stars have to deal with that, but few undertook it as the raison d’être of the entire enterprise. Sure you can preserve Elvis’ jump-suits and guitar picks, but Bowie’s costumes can rival big recent shows that celebrate fashion designers. And his videos are as artsy as any commercial videos. And the trajectory of his career, the way it sometimes follows, sometimes anticipates, sometimes leads what’s going down in music and other popular arts, is instructive. He influenced a lot of people working in what we might generally call “pop,” and he in turn was sort of the poster boy for Andy Warhol’s view of what the artist of the Seventies should be like. Warhol laid the foundation for all that in the late Fifties and early Sixties. By the time he was producing The Velvet Underground, in 1966-67, he had crossed into the territory that Bowie would thrive in. It was like Bowie came along, bidden as the Messiah that the Baptist proclaimed.
But hold it right there—not Bowie, not David Jones. Rather Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy was the Messiah. Ziggy was the uncanny, possibly extraterrestrial, figure that fulfilled what the era pined for, after the death of Jimi and the break-up of The Beatles, and the hedonism of the Stones, and the various provocations of the Velvets. Bowie gave to Glam the tale of Ziggy, then of Aladdin Sane, then of the Diamond Dogs, and then he got out, moving back to R&B and torch songs before remaking himself—a “man who fell to earth”—in a trio of albums from Berlin, with buddy Brian Eno helping out, and Tony Visconti on the job. Low (1977), “Heroes” (1977), Lodger (1979), together with the double live album Stage (1978) mark a highpoint in the re-invention of Bowie. He became less an actor in his own theater and more simply “just an artist.”
And today’s song is one of his best, graced with a wonderful clarion guitar riff from Robert Fripp of King Crimson. Bowie was able to marshal the avantist of the avant-garde of rock in this period. On this track there was much use of moving about the studio and varied mic placement to create shifting levels of recording, shifting feedback, and other tricks to make that dense whine that the song builds up to, making Bowie sound more and more desperate with his cry “We can be heroes, just for one day.”
Bowie et al. were more or less inventing the sound and attitude that would take over the world of youth culture with the New Wave babies coming on the scene. I sort of went into all this when I posted about “Teenage Wildlife” back in January for the Thin White Duke’s 67th birthday—picking another song with a great Fripp guitar part. So maybe those are the ones I come back to most, as to some dreamtime when Eno, Fripp, Bowie were all at work together, making the world safe for a crisp, cool, processed lyricism. “I wish I could swim / Like the dolphins / Like dolphins can swim.”
Way back in 1977 when this song was first on the radio and I was living my first post-high school fall, it didn’t immediately snap me up. I suppose Bowie was “old hat” to me then. I preferred the lushness of Station to Station (1976) and was leery of the ambient soundscapes of Eno, I confess. Bowie, to me then, wasn’t likely to do better than the back-to-back pseudo-concept LPs The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars (1972) and Aladdin Sane (1973). That was high concept, that was camp-glam, that was starman drag, that was past apocalypse repackaged as future shock, back when we really needed it. What more could he do? The bid for radio in “Sound + Vision” or “Joe the Lion” seemed kind of flat, barely worked-out. Minimalism, maybe, but so what? “Heroes”—with its “scare quotes” before anyone used “scare quotes”—was different. It felt like a new Bowie, or rather a look back, in elegiac mode, at what had been the charge of best Bowie, now somewhat stripped of those filtering personae.
Maybe we’re lying / Then you better not stay. That line always resonated with me. It was an admission that all this bravado—“we can beat them forever and ever”—might be mere fakery. But if not. If we “could steal time” even “just for one day,” we could make it matter for a lifetime. When I finally got around to getting the album—two years after it came out—that was the message I was advancing. ‘Cause we’re lovers / And that is a fact / Yes, we’re lovers / And that is that.
Enheartening that a man of 30, as Bowie was that year, could still put so much passion into his evocation of lovers on the brink, lovers standing for the pride of love—“and the shame was on the other side”—and for the heroic dimensions the heart may acquire when it’s certain of its claim. And I even liked the rather wry remark about what comes after, in the brief reign of this king and queen:
You, you can be mean / And I, I’ll drink all the time