Let’s begin by cutting through the mythological crap.
Music critics of all stripes have completely bought, sold and swallowed the myth of a “Berlin Trilogy,” the series of late 70’s releases that includes Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger. I originally bought into the myth as well, planning to review all three albums together, assuming that they formed a coherent artistic statement synthesizing David Bowie’s personal sense of alienation arising from his nightmare experience in L.A. with the real-world alienation of a divided Berlin. I read several pieces by Bowie thought-leaders on the trilogy, and most emphasized the symbolic importance of Berlin and the influence of its unique zeitgeist on Bowie’s music during this period. West Berlin, the symbol of democratic-capitalist freedom, and East Berlin, the symbol of ideological, state-sponsored tyranny, formed a perfect milieu of opposing forces: good vs. evil, freedom of thought vs. communist dogma, the openly erotic vs. drab sexlessness. Since one of the positive outcomes of conflict is its ability to clarify individual identity and priorities, Berlin would have seemed like a good destination for a man who felt he had lost his direction in the cocaine-fed swirl of La-La Land and in the assumed identity of The Thin White Duke. Given Bowie’s gender-bending tendencies and theatricality, it certainly didn’t hurt that Berlin was also a universal symbol of decadence, a notion that had been reinforced in the minds of common folk with the release of the film version of the musical Cabaret in 1972.
As is true of all myths, there is some truth in the myth of a Berlin Trilogy and more than a little salesmanship. In a piece on Lodger that appeared on Quietus, Ben Graham comments:
Thirty years on, still no-one is quite sure where to place Lodger. In a way, that’s appropriate: as the title suggests, it’s a record that doesn’t quite belong anywhere. In fact, the only way to really appreciate Lodger is to remove it from the trilogy which, arguably, doesn’t even exist in the first place. The whole ‘Berlin Triptych’ idea was in many ways a deliberately pretentious marketing gimmick that Bowie cooked up after the fact, probably because he had no other notion of how to sell such an offbeat and disjointed collection of songs as Lodger to the public. It’s all part of the bigger picture, he assured them, and you need this one to complete the set; but it was a set he almost certainly didn’t have in mind when he began recording Low back in September 1976 — not in Berlin, but at the Chateau D’ Herouville just outside Paris, where he’d also been working with Iggy Pop on The Idiot throughout the previous summer.
Of the three releases, only “Heroes” was recorded entirely in Berlin. As noted above, most of the recording sessions for Low took place in France. Lodger was recorded in Montreux, Switzerland and New York City. So while I think it’s fair to say that Berlin certainly gave Bowie valuable breathing space, more intimate exposure to the Krautrock of Kraftwerk and Neu! and a chance to immerse himself in the vibes of a city like no other city on Earth, only “Heroes” qualifies as a true Berlin experience.
After immersing myself in all three albums this year, I’ve developed a case of righteous anger over the whole concept of a Berlin Trilogy because it falsely elevates a human experience to the distant status of artistic pretense. David Bowie was many things—the intensely theatrical performer, the fashionable subject of avant-garde photography, an accomplished musician and songwriter—but what made him special was his fundamental humanity. His life and career are filled with stories of how he helped other musicians who were down on their luck, and his best songs are memorable because they deal with core human experiences. His ability to put himself in another person’s shoes (or character, if you prefer) was exceptional, and while some may dismiss his various persona as “an act,” those people forget that great actors are people who move us, people who have the ability to evoke feelings in us that are often suppressed by the cold logic of daily existence.
Seen through that lens, the three albums take on greater meaning and genuine significance. Low is the record of a man dealing with depression, withdrawal and self-doubt, considering various aspects of his persona through stark lyrics, tentative thoughts and the wordless, evocative power of musical themes. Lodger is the man who has survived the crucible and is dying to move in a new direction.
“Heroes” is the healing experience.
When David Bowie left Los Angeles in the second half of 1976, he headed not for Berlin, but for Switzerland. Apparently he only spent a few days there before heading to Paris to produce Iggy Pop’s The Idiot (recorded in Chateau D’ Herouville, Munich and Berlin). Late that summer, he and Iggy took up residence in Berlin, forming a private mutual-assistance group of two in the quest to rid themselves of drug habits. Why Berlin? I’ve read that Bowie saw it as a sanctuary city, a place where he could stroll about in relative anonymity. While that certainly rings true, producer Tony Visconti attributed it to the unique offerings of a divided city in an interview with Uncut magazine:
I think David just liked living in Berlin. There was so much of it, in those days, that was fantastic, fantasy-like, that didn’t exist anywhere else in the world. The impending danger of the divided military zones, the bizarre nightlife, the extremely traditional restaurants with aproned servers, reminders of Hitler’s not too distant presence, a recording studio 500 yards from the Wall. You could’ve been on the set of The Prisoner.
The dual impact of the passage of time and the liberating experience of being a relative nobody in the divided city reveals itself on the first track, “Beauty and the Beast.” The first ten seconds have a casual off-hand feel, more like a sound check than a carefully-composed introduction. Once we hear the piano shift to an insistent pounding rhythm, the music begins to form an edgy, ominous build as the band gradually ratchets up the tension around the overwhelming beat. When Bowie enters with an extended “oooh” (thank fuck they didn’t use a synthesizer there), the mood takes on a Halloweenish tint and the kind of thrill we get is that of a well-executed set-up in a good horror film. Meanwhile, deep in the dark background, Dennis Davis is gradually raising the volume on the drum kit, culminating in double-time thunder that forms the cue for a perfect transition to the first verse.
The lyrics to “Beauty and the Beast” have one dominant theme: the juxtaposition of opposites (night/day, beauty/beast, good/evil, real me/not me). The metaphor of the beauty and the beast captures our attraction to the inherent tension of opposites, experiences that promise both reward and a delicious sense of danger—“You can’t say no to the beauty and the best.” On a personal level, the metaphor describes David Bowie’s experience in L. A., the glamour capital of the world, where along with the beautiful and rich he indulged in the dangerous attraction of cocaine. The symbol also works when applied to life in Berlin, a living study in contrast and division—not simply between East and West, but also the divisions that invariably exist in wealthy cities (Bowie lived in a Berlin working-class neighborhood with a high percentage of Turkish immigrants).
From a musical perspective, “Beauty and the Beast” is a sharp departure from the largely introverted aura of Low. The muscular beat that drives the song sets up a raucous soundscape interspersing the something-evil-this-way-comes sound of Robert Fripp’s best-in-class lead guitar with Carlos Alomar’s crunchy rhythm guitar, Antonia Maass’ spot background vocals and Brian Eno’s varied contributions on the synthesizer. As an opening track, “Beauty and the Beast” has it all—strong performances from the band, lyrics you could probe for days on end and a refreshingly commanding vocal from David Bowie.
Further evidence of a mood change comes in the form of “Joe the Lion,” a wild, modernist cabaret number best described as part tribute to performance artist Chris Burden (who did in fact have himself nailed to a Volkswagen) and part self-reflection on the feeling of numbness Bowie experienced as he kicked the cocaine habit. What really knocks me out about this piece in addition to the loose, playful feel are Robert Fripp’s fabulous lead guitar (he sure doesn’t sound like a guy who took three years off) and Dennis Davis’ drums. God DAMN those drums sound great! The Davis-Visconti combination received rave reviews for the pitch-shifting drum sounds on Low and “Heroes,” a sound that many have attempted to reproduce over the years with mixed success. While a good engineer might be able to reproduce the technical settings, nothing can or ever will replace the sounds of a live human being behind the kit—and Dennis Davis was a great drummer.
The title track, which remains one of the most moving works in David Bowie’s catalog, began life as a Bowie-Eno instrumental. The powerful background music, a result of oscillating detuned droning from the synthesizer and Robert Fripp’s pitched guitar feedback riding over a steady basic rhythm track, creates a palpable grandeur somewhat reminiscent of the Wall of Sound style. Tony Visconti’s ingenuity did not stop there, however, for once Bowie created the lyrics and melodic line, he upped the ante by setting up a system where the microphones were placed at different distances and turned on and off as the song progressed. This forced Bowie to sing louder as the song moved forward, leading to the stunning emotional power of his exit lines.
The song is a story of lovers from each side of the Wall; the backstory is that the song was inspired by Bowie looking out the studio window to see Tony Visconti and Antonia Maass kissing in close proximity to the Wall. As Visconti was married to singer Mary Hopkin at the time, the affectionate but illicit couple represented a different kind of wall—the wall of social custom and obligation.
The Berlin Wall was more than a symbol of Cold War madness. It was the result of a game of chess between two leaders whose countries were geographically and spiritually far removed from the reality of daily life in Berlin. The wall did more than separate West from East—it divided families, friends, colleagues and lovers. For Kennedy and Khrushchev, those were trivial concerns. The people of Berlin were pawns in the larger global strategy game; they were unfortunate in that they lived in the one European city most prized by the Allies, one that took on significance far beyond its strategic importance. The building of the Berlin Wall was an act of state-sponsored inhumanity; its continuing existence is a monument to human absurdity.
By placing two powerless people at the site of the Wall—people who were so powerless they could never count on seeing one another again—David Bowie imbued the grotesque scene of brick and barbed wire with the blessed spirit of human defiance, manifested in the form of a simple act of love. The opening lines express both the defiance and the overwhelming sense of powerlessness, balanced only by the existential urge to claim some kind of human victory in the face of human debasement:
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 next verse can throw people off, as it depicts our lovers as less-than-perfect people. I believe that was the point—these are people who have been denied the right to be human, the right to make mistakes, the right to fuck the whole thing up. The situation they face is so dire that even fantasies about becoming dysfunctional people has a certain ironic attraction:
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, forever and ever
What d’ya say?
The male half then fantasizes about swimming like dolphins, a picture of freedom-as-play. In contrast, the lines “Though nothing, nothing will keep us together” and “Though nothing will drive them away” tell us that the couple is fully aware of the impossibility of their dreams—but isn’t that so very, very human? Hope is one of the most curious and endearing qualities of the human race, and though our hopes may be constantly dashed, we know that without hope we cannot survive. The repetition of “just for one day” now becomes more poignant than ever, as it seems so little to ask.
In the stirring peroration, David climbs an octave and strains his voice to reach the distant studio microphone. His tone captures frantic despair and frantic hope, the refusal to believe that something so harmless as love can be a threat to the state and the reluctant acceptance of grim reality. Lyric and voice combine to create one of the most moving passages in music history, a moment where passion overcomes reason and the power of the kiss overwhelms the power of the gun:
I, I can remember
Standing, by the wall
And 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, forever and ever
Then we could be heroes, just for one day
“And the shame was on the other side” is a tantalizing line, indicating that perhaps our hero caught a glimpse of an East German soldier turning away in the self-loathing that comes from following cruel orders passed down the chain of command. Another interesting line in the fade is “We’re nothing and nothing will help us/Maybe we’re lying, then you better not stay,” indicating the return of ever-present fear. Our hero then shakes himself out of it with a wish (“But we could be safer just for one day), then fades on the plaintive “Oh. . . just for one day.” “Heroes” is simply one of the most powerful songs in rock history, a timeless work of genius from a man with supreme human compassion.
Nothing could follow “Heroes,” so perhaps it’s fortunate that the weakest track on the album comes next. While the other tracks on “Heroes” were largely the result of in-studio improvisation, “Sons of the Silent Age” was written beforehand, and it does feel a bit too scripted in comparison. It also feels like glam-era Bowie; perhaps if it had appeared on Aladdin Sane it might have worked. Much better is the psycho-industrial sound of “Blackout,” with its caroming imagery whirling over what is by far the strongest rhythmic performance on the album. The blackouts in question seem to cover power outages, impotence and drug-induced comas, but I’ve never been able to land on a full interpretation that works. I do know one thing—this song is fucking hot and it appears frequently on my fuck playlists to support the more intense BDSM moments of a scene.
Like Low, “Heroes” is structured into two sections: the vocals in the first half and the instrumentals in the second. Bowie does violate that structure here by inserting the vocal “The Secret Life of Arabia” at the end of the album (we’ll deal with that questionable choice later in our program), so let me put it another way: Bowie should have stuck to the vocal-instrumental script, as things would have turned out better in the end.
“V-2 Schneider” comes first, a Bowie-only composition with strong bass and a breezy feel that is allegedly a tribute to Florian Schneider of Kraftwerk, the man who in my mind took my main instrument (the flute) and ingeniously transformed it into . . . well, whatever the hell he wanted! His most notable accomplishment was to make the flute a bass instrument, a concept that still blows me away (but does explain the strong bass presence in “V-2 Schneider”). Bowie’s sax is fabulous here, a sort of phased growling on a counter-rhythm that sounds both industrial and beefy.
“Sense of Doubt” is also a Bowie-only work, an ominous and compelling piece built around a four-note descending piano motif reinforced in stereo and set in contrast to a variety of synthesized sounds ranging from movie-house organ to orchestral to vibraphone. The sounds of someone gasping for breath or dying of thirst appear occasionally in the quieter moments of synthesized wave sounds, adding to the eerie feel. The piece ends with the sound of a wind tunnel, fading into the Bowie-Eno collaboration “Moss Garden.”
Featuring David Bowie on koto, “Moss Garden” is a very tranquil, soothing piece that could easily accompany your aromatherapy massage, or appear as a bonus track on any New Age sampler album. Personally, New Age music drives me up the fucking wall, so I generally do my nails during this piece and wait for it to pass into oblivion.
Actually, it passes seamlessly into “Neuköln,” a very well-constructed mood piece designed to depict the feel of life in the Berlin neighborhood Neukölln, a place heavily populated by Turkish immigrants. While not composed in a Turkish makam scale, Bowie’s sax occasionally sounds more like a zurna than a sax, particularly on the long wailing passage towards the end of the piece. That passage also calls to mind Miles Davis’ work on Sketches of Spain, particularly his heart-stopping solo on “Saeta.” The feelings this piece evokes in me range from stranger-in-a-strange-land to a touch of fear, similar to what one might feel on a dark street at night when the rain forms a slippery mist. In the context of an album dealing in large part with human separation and alienation, “Neukölln” is a brilliant closing act.
Oh, that it were so. Unfortunately, “Heroes” ends with “The Secret Life of Arabia,” an off-hand, humorous piece that could have found a nice place in the vocal section but doesn’t fucking belong here. Bowie biographer David Buckley points out that “its position on the album spoils the dramatic effect,” to which I respond, “Bingo!” It’s very comforting to hear David Bowie in great spirits after his battle with depression, but I wish they would have placed it directly after “Heroes” and sent “Sons of the Silent Age” off to bonus-track land.
“Heroes” has the feel of the artist resurrected, an oral history of a part of David Bowie’s life where he yanked himself out of self-doubt and found himself in touch with the world again. He was aided in this quest by a brilliant producer in Tony Visconti, a remarkably capable group of musicians and by the oddly romantic aura of Cold War Berlin. The result was an album for the ages, one that had no need of a Berlin Trilogy to ensure its enduring value.