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(Analyzing Bowie: "Heroes" (album

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Less than a year passed between the recording sessions of Low and "Heroes", and what a difference a year makes. Low showed Bowie at an all-time-low, running away from the world into the solitude of West Berlin, blending himself in the city landscape and trying to find a new spirituality in it. And he has, but he has found even more. Living in Berlin, Bowie managed to regain his mental equilibrium, kick the cocaine habit and learn how to just enjoy the small pleasures of life. Iggy Pop, who was with him for the ride, went through a similar process, and the result was Iggy's album Lust for Life, an exuberant outburst of optimism and affirmation. Shortly after finishing the recording of Lust for Life (which he produced), Bowie was back in the studio to make an album of his own that would showcase his newfound happiness and spiritual revival.

But there were other things happening in that fateful year. While Bowie and Iggy were recuperating in Berlin, a generation of kids who grew up on their records and shows took what they learned to new extremes and created the punk revolution. The Punks accepted Bowie's axiom that there is no future and one should therefore focus on the now, and they also accepted his solution that the way to make the most of the now is to transform yourself by merging with something that is alien to your culture. This transformation, as Bowie promised, induces ecstasy, and the Punks celebrated this ecstasy in Iggy's way of wild abandonment. The Punks rebelled and identified themselves with everything that was alien to the logic of Western society, the logic that believed humanity progresses to create a better and more enlightened human. They took all the things that were considered ugly about human biology, the things which "cultivated" society tried to hide from itself, and turned them into fashion statements; they perfected a style that accentuated the industrial side of modernity, showing humanity to be not evolving but dehumanizing itself; and they adopted symbols of extreme anti-democratic regimes, to symbolize that this is what our "enlightened" society is really about. It was fun, but the Punks also remembered the lesson of Ziggy, and knew that Punk will rise and fall and there will be nothing left after it: after you destroyed all values and merged with all the aliens, what could possibly be your next step? By mid-1977, punk records already started to express the feeling that the fall had begun. The best of them all was the Sex Pistols' 'Holidays in the Sun', in which the band travels to West-Berlin, the edge of the Western world, and midway through the record realizes that its world is collapsing and there's no place left to run away to anymore. The end of 'Holidays in the Sun' sounds like nothing less than the demise of youth culture, that proud culture that sprang in the fifties with rock'n'roll and promised to bring a better and more fun world. No one, it seemed, was there to save it from its downfall.  

But there was someone there, in Berlin, someone who could pick up the pieces after the implosion of the Sex Pistols, someone who could say "you're not alone! Just give me your hands" and pull the youth out of the quicksand. Bowie already went through the tunnel the Punks were in and came out on the other side, and could now impart his knowledge and show them the way. "Heroes" was made by a happy person, but it is not a happy album. The spirits in the studio were reportedly high and some light-hearted stuff was recorded, but none of this giddiness made its way into the album and we had to wait to the next album to get a taste of it. What we get with this album is Bowie diving straight into the spiritual crisis of the time, dramatizing it for us, and then working his way out of it and calling us to follow.

To help him dramatize it, he assembled what is perhaps the greatest cast of musicians he ever worked with. The three funkateers Alomar-Murray-Davis are here once again, once again providing one of the most spaced-out rhythm sections the seventies ever heard. Brian Eno, who joined only halfway the recordings of Low, is here involved in the project from the start and his conceptual ideas get more room to develop. After working with Earl Slick and Ricky Gardiner, two guitarists who explored technological manipulations of the guitar and helped give the previous two albums their experimental sheen, Bowie now goes all the way and brings onboard the premiere master of futuristic guitar work, Robert Fripp. Fripp's presence is the main reason the album sounds completely different from its predecessor, a lot more powerful and evocative. Completing the roster is Antonia Maass, a German singer whose vocals sound just weird enough to fit the mix, and of course Tony Visconti who is brilliant yet again on the production. They all convened in the Hansa studio, just a few hundred yards away from the Berlin wall, and the constant presence of the wall and armed guards made them feel like they were looking straight into the heart of their time's darkness, the darkness that Bowie was now prepared to pull humanity out of.

This was not the first time that Berlin was used as a symbol in a rock album. In 1973, Lou Reed put out his album Berlin, in which he used the divided city as a metaphor for the breakdown of a couple's relationship. The album has two dissimilar sides, the first describing the start of the love affair, the second it's collapse in the most harrowing and depressing way ever committed to vinyl. Since Reed was seen as Bowie and Iggy's counterpart (or even godfather) in the proto-punk movement, this album cast its shadow on their presence in Berlin and Bowie's job was now to work his way out from under that shadow. "Heroes", like Berlin, has two different sides, and it also deals with dark themes and the apparent hopelessness of human relationship, but it has a different resolution.

The structure of the album is of course also very similar to that of Low, which similarly has two dissimilar sides. But there are differences, too. In my analysis of Low I claimed that there is a progression from track to track, turning the entire album into one long narrative. In "Heroes" I detect a different structure. Each side stands on its own with its five tracks arranged to tell a story, but the story does not have a straight narrative line. They both have a different way to tell their story.

Side A is structured like a pyramid, with the middle track at its top. The opening and closing tracks are the bases of the pyramid, and they depict the crisis we are trying to overcome. 'Beauty and the Beast', the opening track, deals with the realization that youth culture has reached a moral calamity which threatens to destroy it. Rock'n'roll claimed to be presenting a more natural and compassionate humanity than what the previous generations had to offer, but after Bowie introduced his ch-ch-ch-changes ethics into rock'n'roll he opened it up for anything, and punk was now using that to turn rock'n'roll into a celebration of ugliness, inhumanity and hate. Bowie realized that his ethics can turn youth culture into either beauty or beast, and he must find a way to fix them to put us back on the right path. 'Blackout', the fifth and closing track, shows what his ethics have done to human relationships. When he started out with Ziggy he presented his lifestyle as a way to remain within the realm of love, but all the constant changes had now left him without any stable relationship and with a fear of forming new ones. Together, the two tracks make it seem like going on the ch-ch-ch-changes trip was a big mistake.

These two tracks also show a massive split in his personality, dramatized through the use of a doubled-up vocal track (i.e., two vocals singing the same line together, with slight variations). This is a technique that Bowie often used before, but here the variations between the two vocals make their unification sound psychotic. On 'Beauty and the Beast' the second vocal belongs to Maass, the beauty, while Bowie's voice is technologically manipulated to sound beastly. Together they form the two forces tearing Bowie's soul apart, one pulling him towards good and one towards evil. On 'Blackout' they also represent a duality, as he is torn between wanting to form human relationship and be part of society or remaining free but alone. The same effect is used in 'Joe the Lion', the second track on the album, where the conflict is between Bowie's wish to live a heroic life that transcends everyday life and his realization that the "regular Joe" who lives a "normal" daily life is the one that is actually heroic. For years, Bowie has been describing the mundane life in Western society as insufficient for happiness and dreamt of something more exciting, and 'Joe the Lion' does the same. But it also acknowledges, for the first time, that even a routine life of "get up and sleep" and going to work every day is a life worth living. And this realization takes us one level higher towards the top of the pyramid.

Joe the Lion is made of iron. He is, in other words, an ironic hero. He is not the conquering hero we know from the old epics, but a "hero" – someone who defiantly goes on living his life and finding little joys in it despite the bad lot his fortune dealt him. For these "heroes", Bowie sings 'Sons of the Silent Age', the fourth track. The current generation of youth, he says, is living at a time when all the old models of a heroic life have been deflated. And since there are no new models, they are rendered silent and their life is meaningless to them. And yet, they keep on dreaming of a better life. It's his job now, as someone who has lived through this feeling, to show them the way. "Let's find another way in" he tells them, as he takes them to the top of the pyramid.

And at the top there's the central piece of side A, the track that brings it all together. It is '"Heroes"', the answer to how we can be heroic. The greatest heroes humanity could envision were heroes who defeat evil and bring peace on Earth, and many sixties rock records described the current young generation as heroes of this kind. But the peace and love movement had failed, and arrived at a pessimistic conclusion that evil will always be there and will always create new walls of war and hate. '"Heroes"' takes this conclusion and turns it on its head. Yes, there will always be walls, but that means that if we hold on to our devotion to peace and love then we can always be the heroes who overcome these walls. The way to live a heroic lifestyle, then, is not to be a conquering warrior, but rather to carry on living a regular life in a free human society and defend yours and others' right to do so. Since there will always be forces who will try to take that from you, your insistence to go on living happily will make you a hero, for ever and ever. And this also ensures you can go on living the ch-ch-ch-changes lifestyle: if your changes are aimed at breaking the walls of hate, then you will forever be able to find a new transformation that will bring you joy and also make the world a better place. This joy may last just for one day, but after that we will be able to go on changing and find new joys. And so, Bowie manages to find the ethics that solve all the problems he was facing, ethics that give us the formula of how to live a life that is moral, communal, happy and heroic, for ever and ever. From the top of his pyramid, Bowie's message rings out, a clarion call for the punk generation.

Musically, we go through the same journey. The electronically manipulated vocals of 'Beauty and the Beast' remain for 'Blackout' and 'Joe the Lion' as well, and they blend with Fripp's similarly manipulated guitar and with Eno's angry synth work to represent a dehumanized state. But on 'Sons of the Silent Age' Bowie sings with his human sonorous vocal, and the saxophone punctuates the fact that we have found a new humanity under the dehumanizing forces of our time. In '"Heroes"', these dehumanizing forces are represented via a wall of sound created by Fripp and Eno, and Bowie's very human vocal struggles at first to be heard against them. But by the end of the track his voice becomes enormous and pierces through them, concluding the climb to the top with an assertion of humanity's ability to prevail over anything.

Side B's heart is also with the middle tracks, the three instrumentals that actually form one long suite. It starts with 'Sense of Doubt', a chilling piece that sums up all the inner conflicts of 'Beauty and the Beast', 'Joe the Lion' and 'Blackout'. The imposing four-note line that dominates the track is like a cold hand around your heart, and although there are other sounds that try to bring more humanism and optimism they keep getting hammered by it. The track ends with a sound that makes you feel like you are standing alone in the wind, and wild is the wind. But then the wind is taken over by the sound of a jet plane, a symbol of modern technology, taking us to another place altogether. It is 'Moss Garden', a magical place of the mind that is full of beauty and wonder. It is a meditative track, the counterpart to 'Sons of the Silent Age', in which Bowie embraces the silence and sinks into a deep thought to try to "find another way in". It can also be seen as a representation of the entire Low album (with 'Sense of Doubt' representing the bewildered state he was in before he went into the meditative Low stage), a stage he went through to reach the conclusions of "Heroes". We still hear the jet planes in the distance, as if the modern world with its speed of life is trying to break into his magical moss garden, but he manages to keep it out for a while. Eventually, though, the jet does break in, and the magic evaporates. It feels as if we have been in an illusion that has now faded away to expose the electrical wires used to create it, wires that have short circuited and are crackling and shooting sparks. This crackling is the beginning of 'Neuköln', and it lasts for just a short while before a new reality is unfolded before our mind's eye. We are back in Berlin, in the immigrant district of Neukölln. It sounds quite similar to 'Sense of Doubt', with a frightening and imposing four-note line, but while in 'Sense of Doubt' it seemed to represent an inner turmoil (the four notes were played on a piano and had a human touch), here it is played on a synthesizer and sounds like a non-human entity trying to crush humanity. You can almost imagine Bowie and Eno looking at the Berlin Wall while they were making these sounds. But there is an opposing sound: a saxophone blowing hard, bringing a lot of blues and soul with a bit of Middle Eastern flavor, representing the Turkish immigrants in the district who insist on keeping on living and being happy despite their hardships. It is a battle between the heroic spirit of humans and the wall it has to overcome, and in the end it is the saxophone that is left standing, blowing victoriously into the silence. Humanity wins.

Bookending this three-part suite are two tracks. The opening track is 'V2 Schneider', mainly an instrumental but with some vocals added. It sounds at first like the instrumental tracks of Low, where we hear vocals that almost sound like words but remain unintelligible, except that here they finally break out and sing actual words. It's as if the finding of the new ethics has enabled Bowie to speak again, to express himself. And he expresses himself not only through words but also through a new sound, a sound that comes straight out of the journey represented by the suite. Technology was presented at first as crushing the human soul, but once we come out of the mediation of 'Moss Garden' we realize it can be the sound of a new humanity. Before, Bowie used electronic music to represent dehumanization and alienation, but now that he formed the "heroes" ethics, technology is no longer alien. Since humaneness reaches its peak at the moment when we break our cultural barriers and form a new fusion, the sound that represents it best is a futuristic sound, and the king of futuristic sound was Florian Schneider of Kraftwek, who is celebrated in this piece of electronic bravura. It's an optimistic track, a track that assures us that we are no longer in the silent age but the sons of sound. By tying music to the advancement of technology, we will ensure that there will always be a new sound to help us overcome the past, for ever and ever. The saxophone, the voice of humanity that triumphs at the end of the suite, here joins in with the electronics to depict a life full of energy and fun.

Embracing the future doesn't mean a complete deletion of the past, but a rereading of it. The album cover is inspired by some paintings from the German expressionism era, the same era that inspired the cover of The Idiot. But while Iggy connected mainly to the angst and desperation of expressionism, Bowie uses it as a model of cool.

It is one of Bowie's most iconic images, on a par with the images on the covers of Hunky Dory and Aladdin Sane. It is still one of the images that in our collective pop culture mind represent the fusion of pop and "high" art. "Heroes", along with Low, provided a new generation of musicians (that became known as "the new wave") with the blueprint of how to create something new in pop. The minimalism, the fusion of electronics and humanity, the elliptical lyrics, the ambient sound, the immersion in urban landscapes, the experimental spirit – all were taken by the new wave kids to many interesting directions.

The final track of the album also comes straight out of the conclusions of the three-part suite. The latter ends with 'Neuköln', with Bowie empathizing with the Turkish immigrants of Berlin to find new soulfulness, and that makes him think of the secrets their world still holds for him. The "heroes" ethics decrees that we should love those on the other side of the wall, and while our Western culture no longer has many things that are alien to us, there is a whole world lying beyond the walls of Western culture. In 'The Secret Life of Arabia' Bowie celebrates the fact that there are many parts of our world that are still alien and secretive to him, parts he can explore, fuse with and find new life in. It is a happy and optimistic conclusion to the album (and to the entire period of crisis expressed in the albums Station to Station, The Idiot and Low), a conclusion Bowie would live by: in the next few years he will tour the world, both physically and musically, to find new musical inspirations and new oppressions to fight against.

These, then, are Bowie's new ethics, which he decrees for youth culture: we are no longer trying to escape society, but rather live along with our fellow humans. That doesn't mean that we conform to society's norms, since we keep on fighting against all the things that put barriers between people and prevent them from loving each other. This fight is conducted mainly by coming together with those people that are on the other side of the barrier, and breaking out of our cultural constraints as a result. This break-out induces joy, and we build a new identity and sound around it. This joy doesn't last forever, it is "just for one day", but we know that there will always be new walls to break, which means that we can go on being happy, creative, loving and heroic, for ever and ever.

Beauty and the Beast
Joe the Lion
"Heroes"
Sons of the Silent Age
Blackout
V2 Schneider
Sense of Doubt
Moss Garden
Neuköln
The Secret Life of Arabia

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