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פ.י.מ.פ.

"Analyzing Bowie: "Heroes

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And so, the moment of truth has arrived. Just as he did back in 1971 in his album Hunky Dory, Bowie stands in front an existential crisis and has to solve it. In 1971 the crisis was that everyday life in Western bourgeois society seemed meaningless, and all the solutions presented by youth culture and rock'n'roll seemed to have come to a dead-end. In 'Life on Mars?' Bowie dramatized this situation, professing a wish to escape this world into a different world but not knowing how to achieve it. In 'Quicksand' he enhanced the problem, describing the human race as possessing the potential to live the heroic life of a Superman but stuck in a mundane existence, and declared that his awareness of this discrepancy drives him to despair. But in 'Changes' he presented the solution: it is possible to live a different and heroic kind of life if you completely transform yourself, because in the transformation you put yourself in a place that is beyond the known world and achieve an elated feeling for a while. This doesn't last for long, as your new identity is eventually incorporated by the system and becomes just one more identity among the others, but at that point you can transform yourself again. Thus, you keep on changing and keep on living a heroic life. The closing track of the album, 'The Bewlay Brothers', ends with the lines "please come away / just for the day", as he beckons us to transform with him and join him in that wondrous place outside of everything. And transform he did, taking his fans on a fantastic voyage. Every elated state, as he warned, was "just for the day" – that is, only temporary – but he could always find a new transformation once the old one ran its course, so he could hope he can continue to do that for ever and ever. However, throughout this process of constant changes, a few hitches in this lifestyle presented themselves, and by now they were so blatant they could not be ignored. The moment has come for Bowie to solve these problems, or admit that he took a wrong and destructive path.

The first problem is that it seemed this way of life has nowhere to turn to any longer. To be able to transform and achieve an elated state you have to fuse elements of your own culture with elements of a culture that is alien to it, and for a while Bowie could always find an alien to fuse with and achieve transformation, but now he seemed to be running out. In 'Station to Station' he sang that there were no longer "sunbirds to soar with", and thus his life of ch-ch-ch-changes now seemed like a meaningless travel from station to station, not like a joyous existence of climbing one mountain after another. The punk rebellion of 1977 adopted Bowie's suggestion of fusing with aliens, but that meant that it all at once turned all the aliens into part of our world and denied youth culture the possibility to find any aliens in the future. Or so it seemed, at least. To save youth culture, Bowie has to find a way to ensure that there will always be aliens to fuse and soar with.

The second problem is the contradiction between his wish to be part of a happy community and his lifestyle of an ever-changing Superman, which meant that he had to constantly break away from relationships and form new ones. In his albums Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs he spoke of the unsatisfactory nature of love that is only temporary, and tracks like 'Sweet Thing' showed that he felt he was once again driving himself into meaninglessness with his string on meaningless relationships. From Young Americans onward he disavowed the Superman dream and expressed his growing wish to become part of human society and part of a long-lasting relationship, but that left him with the question of how to live a heroic life. The lifestyle of ch-ch-ch-changes, when stripped from the Superman dream, felt like nothing more than a meaningless travel from station to station. Since the youth was looking for him to provide a heroic form of existence, he needed to find a way to combine heroism with life that is committed to human society and meaningful relationships.

More seriously, the ch-ch-ch-changes lifestyle introduced grave ethical problems. The counter-culture of the sixties believed that human nature is essentially good and that rock music represents this nature in its pureness, and consequently that rock's rebellion and shattering of old social rules and norms would lead to a better world. Bowie had a darker view of human nature, but he still felt that youth rebellion is a good thing and thus that his constant changing and breaking of norms was morally safe. Now, however, he realized that making transformation-into-something-new into the sole ethical criterion meant that everything was allowed and the dark sides of the human soul could run rampant. The punk rebellion presented rebellion-and-change-for-the-sake-of-rebellion-and-change with no ethical boundaries, and the Skinheads and far right exploited this freedom to promote and do evil. In 'Beauty and the Beast' Bowie acknowledges that human nature has good and bad wrapped together in a way that cannot be decoupled, and that therefore we are always in danger from the beasty side of humanity. If he wants to save his ch-ch-ch-changes lifestyle, he must set ethical boundaries for it.

There were other dangers, too. In Diamond Dogs Bowie expresses the feeling that there are strong powers ruling our society that would like to become even more powerful and turn it into a dictatorship, and that the rock'n'roll rebellion does not weaken but rather strengthens them. When nothing is sacred anymore there's nothing to hold these powers back. Every rock'n'roll rebellion expresses something that these powers don't yet own, but once it is expressed it is then incorporated by them and becomes another layer of the totalitarian system. In the years 1974-76, Bowie was warning against an imminent fascist takeover of the West. He must now provide an answer to that danger as well.

Under all these pressures, Bowie escaped into the contemplative mood of Low and relocated to the isolated West Berlin to put his life and thoughts in order. In Berlin he tried to live like a regular person, and discovered that this life isn't so boring and meaningless as he once thought. Records such as 'Lust for Life' and 'Joe the Lion' show his newfound appreciation of the simple joys of human existence and his realization that there's no need to escape society in order to be heroic. His new ethics of heroism, then, should be based on the affirmation of simple life inside bourgeois human society. It is this realization that opened up the door to '"Heroes"'.

The inspiration for the record, conveyed Bowie over the years, came from several sources. One day, as he was recording in the Hansa studios in Berlin, he looked outside the window and saw two lovers kissing near the Berlin wall, and this collision between an image of human love against a background of human hate touched him and inspired him to write a song that would dramatize this scene. Another inspiration was a painting that hung in the Brücke museum in Berlin, Lovers Between Garden Walls by Otto Mueller, a 1916 work that depicted two lovers embracing in a garden between two stone walls. Considering the time it was painted, we can assume that the lovers are using this place to temporarily be in their own world and forget about the Great War taking place on the other side of each wall. The resemblance between the painting and the contemporary lovers-by-the-wall scene he saw with his own eyes suggested to Bowie that this is the human condition.

Lastly, he was also inspired by a story conveyed to him by Iggy Pop, who went out to watch a punk show in Berlin in which they built a replica of the Berlin Wall and then tore it down. When this happened, said Iggy, the seemingly cynical Punks all participated in the smashing of the wall and then broke down in tears. All these sources came together in Bowie's mind to create one of his greatest records, one of the greatest pop records of all time.

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

The opening is based on the old English folk song 'Lavender Blue', which opens with "Lavender's blue, dilly dilly, lavender's green / When I am king, dilly, dilly, you shall be queen". In the song, a boy and a girl are promising each other eternal love and happiness, and that they will live as royalty if only they are together. At one point, the boy is singing "we shall be safe, dilly dilly, out of harm's way", promising her that his love will always shield her. The boy in Bowie's record is referencing this song, but he does so with a heavy sense of irony. Saying those words as he stands next to the Berlin Wall he knows that he cannot promise her eternal safety, because "nothing will drive them away" – the bad powers that control our lives will always be there, and will always try to build walls between us and prevent us from coming together. All we can do is have this moment of love and be heroes who momentarily overcome these forces. This will last just for one day, before the powers find a way to incorporate the pure thing we made and use it to spread more hate, but at least we will have this moment.

The presence of the wall is represented by an immense wall of sound, masterfully creates by Eno's synthesizers and Fripp's guitar. Bowie's voice struggles to be heard and not be completely suppressed by this dehumanizing barrage, but it sounds hesitant and unsure. When the boy goes into the "we can be heroes" part his voice gains more confidence and manages to overcome the wall, but it is only momentary and the wall of sound soon drowns him again. The wall, it seems, will always be there, and we can never defeat it completely.

And you, you can be mean
And I, I'll drink all the time
'Cause we're lovers, and that is a fact
Yes we're lovers, and that is that
Though nothing, will keep us together
We could steal time,
Just for one day
We can be Heroes, for ever and ever
What d'you say?

But it's not only external powers that doom us. Once again, as he did in all his previous albums, Bowie reminds us that love doesn't last. The fact that we love each other doesn't mean that we are soul mates who will forever be united, it means no more than that "we are lovers, and that is that". Once the initial infatuation is over, we might discover that one of us is mean, or an alcoholic, or many other bad things that will tear us apart. There is nothing that will keep us together and make us lovers forever, there is no hope for eternal unity and happiness. However, he says that we can be heroes for ever and ever, because this act of consummating our love even against these odds is an act of heroism whose memory will remain forever. Once again his voice gains strength as he sings of heroism, and once again it is then covered by the icy front created by Fripp and Eno. The boy, however, does not give up, and beats his heart against the wall yet again.

I, I wish you could swim
Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim
Though nothing,
Nothing will keep us together
We can beat them, for ever and ever
Oh we can be Heroes,
Just for one day

This passage is inspired by a short story called 'A Grave for a Dolphin', by Alberto Denti di Pirajno. It is a story of a WWII Italian soldier serving in Africa who falls in love with a local Somali girl, a love that is doomed because they are enemies. The fate of the girl is somehow tied up to a dolphin she swims with, and when she dies the dolphin dies with her. The boy evokes this story because he feels that his love is equally doomed, and he wishes they could both be dolphins so they can just swim away from this bad world and live together under water. But then, his voice gains strength again, and this time it sounds like it is not going to back down. Because in the pits of despair, in this moment of total hopelessness, Bowie realizes he has found the solution.

Because if there will always be forces that will build walls between us, then it also means that there will always be people who are alien to us: the people on the other side of the wall. Which means, of course, that the ch-ch-ch-changes lifestyle can go on forever. The criterion he was looking for, the criterion that will set ethical boundaries and ensure that we can go on changing and living a heroic life, is now discovered: commitment to our right to love each other. If we remain committed to love, if we keep on believing in our right to love each other even as others regard us as aliens who shouldn't be together, then there will always be walls facing us and we can always be heroes and break these walls. The triumph of breaking a wall will last only a short while before a new wall will be built, but then we can break that wall down as well, and keep beating these evil forces. And so, our heroic act may last just for one day, but on the next day we can be heroes once again, and again, and again, eventually living a heroic life for ever and ever. And with this realization, Bowie manages to pull himself out of the crisis, and his voice soars and breaks through the wall, through the despair, through the violence and hatred of 1977, to bring back love and hope:

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

This time, he really means it. Although the title of the record is "Heroes" in inverted commas, as if it is an ironic title, the irony is actually different from what we think it is. The heroes of the record do not live a heroic life according to traditional standards of heroism, but merely do the most mundane thing of falling in love with each other. So we might think that the inverted commas are meant to mock their presumption of "heroism". But actually, Bowie's ironic knife is cutting at our traditional notion of heroism. The "heroes" of this record are real heroes, while the world around them is the thing that is put in inverted commas. The people that we traditionally defined as heroes, those who fight grand wars and kill their enemies, are not the real heroes. Real heroism is facing up to a world where love cannot last, and keeping on believing in love and keeping on loving in spite of that. We don't need any grand ideologies in order to be heroes; we only need to follow our heart. If "we're lovers, and that is a fact", then we know that the way to be true to ourselves is to consummate this love, and "be us, just for one day". And when we do that despite the wall then we are truly king and queen, truly heroes.

I, I can remember
Standing, by the wall
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, for ever and ever
Then we could be Heroes, just for one day

The boy now goes back and remembers one of these moments of heroism, when he and his lover unified in a kiss in spite of the wall, despite the people shooting at them because they cannot tolerate their love. They knew their love was bound to fall but they acted as if it wouldn't, because all that mattered was this moment of happiness. And at that moment, he knew that he was totally in the right, and the ones shooting at them were in the wrong and the shame was all on them. And so, Bowie finds the ethical criterion to tell the beauty from the beast: if we do our transformations in the name of love and compassion to our fellow humans, then we can be sure that our transformation is for the good. And it also ensures that we will be able to keep on changing and keep on being heroic and defeating evil, for ever and ever.

We can be Heroes
We can be Heroes
We can be Heroes
Just for one day
We can be Heroes

The wall of sound is still there, still trying to beat him down, but Bowie does not relent. His voice keeps breaking the wall, as he sings his anthem of heroism.

We're nothing, and nothing will help us
Maybe we're lying,
Then you better not stay
But we could be safer,
just for one day

Finally, the moment is over, and self-doubt creeps back in. Cracks are beginning to appear in their love and the boy no longer talks about love but about safety, taking us back to the language of 'Lavender Blue'. The day of triumph is over, and so is the record.

But it doesn't matter. Today might be over, but tomorrow is another day. Bowie has found the way to be heroic even without being a Superman. There is an imperative that you should live by, and that is compassion for your fellow humans and belief in their right to live regular lives and love each other instead of going to wars for some ideologies of grandeur. If you follow this imperative, then there will always be walls to break through, and that promises that every transformation will be joyous and meaningful. In other words, if the "come away, just for a day" of Hunky Dory will be done in the name of fighting for humanity, then it ensures that we can be heroes, just for one day. And we can continue to ch-ch-ch-change and be heroes, for ever and ever.

The single version made the record shorter, losing the buildup and thus much of the emotional power. But it has a good clip.

In this slightly different (and arguably even better) version which he performed on the Bing Crosby TV special in the end of 1977, Bowie dramatizes the song in mime.

But those shorter versions fell by the sideway as the stature of the full track became bigger and bigger over the years, becoming pop's equivalent of Beethoven's 'Eroica'. '"Heroes"' is now part of our collective subconscious, popping up again and again in movies, concerts and whatnot. Whenever there's an occasion that requires an uplifting moment, you know that Bowie will give you '"Heroes"', and there have been many memorable performances over the years. Here he is in Israel, in 1996.

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