Welcome to “I’m With The Band.” In this column, I’ll teach you how to become a fan of all the iconic bands that you have always heard of but may not truly know yourself. I’ll introduce you to some deep-cut songs that will elevate your status from “surface-level fan” to “real fan,” and explain why, in my humble opinion, these bands are worth getting to know. Hopefully by the end of this series, you’ll see why you should become a fan of them, too.
I watched my now-favorite movie, “Almost Famous,” for the first time in middle school. It takes place in 1973, and tells the true-ish story of a 15-year-old boy hired by Rolling Stone magazine to follow an up-and-coming band on the road for a feature interview. One scene features a band member on a drunken rampage, claiming that “rock ‘n’ roll can save the world.” It’s a line the character later regrets, stating he sounded idiotic and foolish.
But here’s the thing — I don’t think this line was that far from the truth. I think rock ‘n’ roll really can save the world, and I can prove it with just one song: “Heroes.” Today, I’m going to tell you the story of how one 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 pursuing sobriety. West Berlin was certainly an interesting choice, and pretty minimally researched by the two of them; with a chuckle, Bowie told MTV in 1997 that “both Iggy and I felt like it might be time to clean up, so — we were very smart about it — we went straight out of L.A. to the heroin capital of Europe.”
But aside from the obvious drug temptation, West Berlin was also teeming with art, culture and history. Bowie claimed that if the two of them couldn’t heal in Berlin, then there was nowhere else they could heal. And so, together, both Bowie and Pop cleaned up their act and achieved sobriety over the course of three years.
But that’s just 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 construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961, all Berliners were free to cross the East-West border. Crossing was habitual, for quotidian activities like commuting to work or going to the movies. But over the course of 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 in. Loved ones were separated indefinitely — friends from friends, husbands from wives, parents from children.
Over the years, more than 171 people were killed trying to cross the Wall. As many as 5,000 East Germans were lucky enough to escape into West Germany, feats accomplished by jumping out of windows close to the Wall, flying in hot air balloons or crawling through the sewage system.
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 of the freedom that was stripped from your loved ones. Bowie may not have had family on the other side of the Wall, but he was hardly a stranger to adversity. And this is where the title track from his 1977 album, “Heroes,” enters the narrative.
A good artist can take their own pain and turn it into something that the world can understand. But a great artist? A great artist can take the pain the world is feeling and transform it into something that inspires change. With this distinction, “Heroes” — a song that lyricizes the story of two lovers trapped on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall — is the song that definitively elevated Bowie from a good artist to a great one.
Although the instrumental for the song was recorded early on in his band’s studio sessions, it took Bowie longer than usual to fill in the right lyrics. In fact, by the time he had penned them out, most of his musicians had already departed Berlin.
Bowie ended up recording his vocals in a nearly empty studio over three different takes: a first verse with the microphone nine inches from Bowie, a second verse with the microphone 20 feet away and a final verse with one 50 feet away. With each verse, Bowie was forced to sing at louder volumes in order to be picked up by the microphone.
If you listen to the song, you’ll notice the progression: the intensity builds, and with each yearning yell, the listener can hear the hollow distance that separates the two lovers. By the final verse, Bowie sounds both further and more desperate than ever to get his words across.
When Bowie released the album, there were little expectations as to how the song would be received. It was twice the length as most singles at the time and unconventional for the 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 would be torn down. East Berlin may have become safer by 1987, but it was not any closer to being free. Music was a threat to East Berlin; it was defiant, progressive and unifying. Although East Germany had succeeded in banning record sales and importing new music, they couldn’t prevent radio waves from traveling across the Wall. And so, with Bowie’s permission to stream his performance live on the radio, East Berliners were able to crowd around the wall and listen as his yells of “Heroes” traveled freely in a way that they couldn’t.
When speaking of his performance in Berlin, Bowie recalled that he was in tears the whole time: “We kind of heard that a few of the East Berliners might actually get the chance to hear the thing, but we didn’t realize in what numbers they would. And there were thousands on the other side that had come close to the Wall. So it was like a double concert, where the Wall was the division. And we would hear them cheering and singing along from the other side. God, even now I get choked up. It was breaking my heart. I’d never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again.”
It wasn’t long before the gathering became too destabilizing for the East Berlin guards to permit. Police began to drag people away from the wall, shooting them with water cannons and arresting over 200 listeners.
It’s a little difficult to truly visualize the weight of this moment. The idea of East Berlin authorities shooting people down while Bowie yelled, “I can remember standing by the wall / And the guns, shot above our heads / And we kissed, as though nothing could fall” is almost a bit too hauntingly sublime to conceptualize.
But whether you see this moment as art imitating life or life imitating art, one thing is for sure: music is power. And although East German authorities may have been successful in that night’s battle, the power of Bowie’s music had already ignited 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 whichever persona you prefer, because when the German Government thanked David Bowie in 2016 for helping 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 really can change the world. Perhaps it isn’t the craziest thing to believe, after all.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.