Let’s begin the new year with a lesson to the women in the audience who have heterosexual relationships and need some tips on how to handle the inferior male half of the species. I will use a recent, real-life example to demonstrate.
When I told my dad I was going to open 2018 with a review of Electric Warrior, his response was positively apoplectic.
“I can’t believe you’re going to waste your time on that teenybopper CRAP!”
When men get angry, the worst thing a woman can do is to attempt to soothe the savage beast. It is also a mistake to try to match anger with anger, because that takes you off your game. No, the best thing to do is detach yourself from his rage and display your superior emotional intelligence.
“You sound angry.”
As expected, that made him angrier, and the sheer force of his incredulity caused his eyes to bug out. Men often have to act things out to get the fantasy of superiority out of their system. Just ride the waves.
“ANGRY? ANGRY? You’re damn right I’m angry! T. Rex was no better than The Archies. Adolescent three-chord CRAP for fourteen-year old dipshits. Bubblegum garbage!”
I let his outburst roll around my palate like cheap wine for a few moments, reflecting on his response. As is usually the case, his anger was based on a fallacy, and the obvious lack of foundation in his argument made him feel vulnerable. Men do not like displaying vulnerability, so they roar like lions to try to scare you off. Instead of running away, run towards—call him on his bullshit.
“Hold on. I remember talking to you about The Archies and asking you how the fuck “Sugar, Sugar” became the best-selling single in 1968. You weren’t angry then, so there’s got to be more to this than ‘teenybopper crap.’ ”
“MORE? MORE? You bet there’s more! I heard of them before I heard that record—the buzz from England was they were going to be The Next Beatles. I was open to the possibility of the next big thing, so I went out and bought it. What a fucking joke. Lennon and McCartney wrote better songs when they were sixteen. How dare that little prick Bolan compare himself to The Beatles!”
Now I understood. In his mind, T. Rex had dared to replace his sainted Beatles. Oh, the gall! The impertinence! Men are so attached to their childhood fantasies! And when they’re really emotional, they just make shit up to support their lame figments of imagination. It was time for me to give dear old Dad a whack upside the head with a sharp application of cold, hard truth spoken in a calm, reasonable voice.
“Dad, it wasn’t Marc Bolan’s fault that the U. K. press made a big deal out of T. Rex. They weren’t the only band who was supposed to be The Next Beatles—there was Badfinger, The Bee Gees, The Knack—shit, they even slapped that tag on Oasis.”
His eyes retreated to normal size and his shoulders slumped a little. Now he was embarrassed by his outburst. Good! When you see that, don’t go in for the kill—give the poor baby an out.
“Tell you what—read my review, listen to the album and we’ll meet for lunch to talk it over.”
His shoulders slunk another six inches and he mumbled, “All right.”
Nothin’ to it!
Electric Warrior was the moment when Marc Bolan finally got his timing right . . .
He’d wanted to be a rock ‘n’ roll star ever since he was a kid, rocking out to early greats like Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran. He started his first band when he was nine, spent some time working as a mod model and made a demo of sorts in the style of Cliff Richard. The demo went exactly nowhere. He changed his name from Mark Feld to Toby Tyler, caught the folk music bug and started dressing like Dylan and Donovan. After failing to get any attention from EMI, he changed his name again to Marc Bolan and somehow managed to convince Decca to give him a shot. For the next several years, in various forms and configurations, he produced what some have termed “psychedelic folk” music, remaining on the distant periphery of musical stardom, despite enthusiastic support from influential BBC Radio DJ John Peel.
It wasn’t until he changed the name of the last configuration (Tyrannosaurus Rex) to the-fans-would-have-done-it-anyway moniker T. Rex that stardom seemed within reach. A single from the T. Rex album, a simple and pleasant little ditty called “Ride the White Swan” made it all the way to #2 in the U. K. A follow-up single, “Hot Love” (which really isn’t all that hot) shot to number one, stayed there for six weeks . . . and T. Rextasy was born.
Marc Bolan was as surprised as anyone that “Hot Love” made the British birds go bonkers—but he responded to market demands by increasing the supply of electric guitar-driven rock songs in his repertoire to fill what would turn out to be Electric Warrior. That is not to imply that Marc Bolan was only motivated by pecuniary considerations any more than John and Paul were when they produced hit after hit to satisfy the insatiable hunger of Beatlemaniacs. Sure, they all wanted to get rich, but validation itself is both energizing and motivating to an artist. Every artist wants to please the audience—even the Sex Pistols, who delighted fans by telling them to go fuck themselves. Marc Bolan responded to the growing clamor for T. Rex songs by channeling his schoolboy rock ‘n’ roll roots, then flavoring the music with ample sexuality and hints of titillating androgyny. His rise to stardom was also facilitated by the curious disappearance of guitar-based rock singles in 1971. I checked the 1971 UK and US charts and found only two guitar-based rock songs that made it to the Top 10 that year—-“Brown Sugar” and Dave Edmunds’ “I Hear You Knocking.” By expanding the presence of electric guitar in his music, Marc Bolan pretty much had the field to himself. Bolan also had other inherent advantages, including his diminutive stature (estimates range from 5’2″ to 5’7″), which made him adorable and accessible to teenage girls.
However, it should be pointed out that T. Rextasy was a largely British phenomenon. “Hot Love” topped out at #72 on the U.S. Billboard charts. Electric Warrior didn’t make much more of a splash, peaking at #32. Even the most iconic single from the album (“Bang a Gong (Get It On)”) barely squeaked into the Top 10. T. Rex may have been big in the Mother Country and a few other spots, but their popularity never approached the worldwide adulation heaped upon The Beatles during the Beatlemania period.
Feel better, dad?
Why did Electric Warrior get such a ho-hum reaction in the States? Since tastes in American music in the early 70’s had embraced the back-to-the-roots movement, one might have thought that an album featuring fairly straightforward, minimalistic rock ‘n’ roll would have been embraced wholeheartedly by the Americans. My gut tells me it didn’t have a fucking thing to do with the music, and everything to do with the glitter and make-up. The United States (to this day) is a very masculine society, and was even more so in the 70’s—the decade that produced a string of macho heroes like Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood and Sylvester Stallone. My dad remembers very well (because he told his elephant-brained daughter, who never forgets a thing) that Mott the Hoople was almost booed off the Winterland stage in the early 70’s by the bubbas who had come to see Joe Walsh. Even David Bowie faced the same challenge—Hunky Dory was completely ignored in the States at the time of its release, and Ziggy Stardust peaked at #75. Although Americans appeared to loosen up about guys wearing make-up in the 80’s thanks to Michael Jackson and Prince, they were black dudes, and they could get away with it because they were already outcasts in the eyes of most Americans. Gender-bending was just another charge to throw against them.
But like Bowie’s early work, Electric Warrior is more appreciated today in many quarters, even in the racist, homophobic land of the free. The minimalistic rock style foreshadowed the emergence of punk, and several artists who followed T. Rex cite Electric Warrior as a significant influence. For a brief period in the early 70’s, Marc Bolan was the keeper of the rock ‘n’ roll flame, and the songs on Electric Warrior are easy enough for any wannabe rocker to develop some chops.
“Mambo Sun” establishes the prototype: the musical pattern is repeated several times, the melody is reproduced in the guitar solo, the guitar riffs are short and to-the-point, and the sucker just keeps moving to an easy, butt-wiggling beat. Marc Bolan’s husky whisper varies only with the introduction of animalistic vocalizations that indicate a rising hard-on and a tickle in his testicles. Honestly, I don’t find Marc Bolan’s vocals sexy in the least, but I can understand how someone going through puberty might think he’s the bee’s knees. What I like about the song is the minimalism—bass, drums, guitar and not a whole lot of hoo-hah, making it a near-perfect dance tune and not a bad accompaniment to foreplay. Much of Electric Warrior lends credence to my Count Basie Theory that less is more, and “Mambo Sun” is a perfect example. The lyrics are a set of euphemistic gibberish (as are most of the songs on Electric Warrior), and while I personally prefer my sex songs and my sex talk to be fucking explicit, I can’t fault Marc Bolan for engaging in euphemism when nearly every artist I’ve reviewed has done the same. If anything, some of his sexual euphemisms (“I’ve got a powder-keg leg”) are at least original.
I don’t think I’d fuck a guy who told me he had a powder-keg leg. Sounds messy.
“Cosmic Dancer” shifts to acoustic guitar and strings, lovely backing for a gentle poem with an unusual structure: AABB, AABA, AABB, AABA, ABCD, AABA, AABA. The verses with repeating lines are structured to communicate the forward movement from birth to death; the varied lines are used to emphasize either self-doubt (“Is it strange to dance so late?”) or change in perspective (the ABCD verse). The narrator describes himself as a dancer, a figure that should be interpreted symbolically rather than literally. There are people who plod through life, and there are the more sensitive souls who dance through life, free from conventional restrictions (and who are often dismissed as weird by the plodders). The time shifts in the song are interesting, as the narrator moves in a non-linear fashion from twelve to birth to the age of eight and then into the tomb. I think the return to the past the narrator’s realization that dancing is his natural state and that all the doubts cast by the plodders will not stop the way he chooses to move through life. The ABCD verse is where we get the perspective, a reflection on the very fragile state of human existence:
Is it wrong to understand?
The fear that dwells inside a man
What’s it like to be alone?
I liken it to a balloon
“Cosmic Dancer” is really a lovely piece with an excellent string arrangement (I love the sound of sharply-bowed cellos and bowed string bass) and easily the best poetry on the album.
“Jeepster” bears a passing resemblance to Willie Dixon’s “You’ll Be Mine,” with the first couple of lines directly lifted from Howlin’ Wolf’s version. However, this is a long way from plagiarism, as Marc Bolan added a nifty descending C-B/C-A7 transition pattern between verse and chorus, then transplanted a similar pattern to the end of the chorus, this time beginning the descent from G-F# and finishing with a nice half-step flourish.
Ever wonder what the fuck a Jeepster is? Urban Dictionary has the answer:
Jeepster is a term utilized to refer an individual (primarily an adolescent or young adult male) of average or insignificant stature, who pursues the object of their affections with almost unwavering tenacity. Modern usage of the term can be delineated back to the 1970’s, where the concept was explored and popularized by the T. Rex classic with the same title. Marc Bolan expresses the predicament of pursuing a person above one’s social stature via the metaphor that is the dichotomy between automobiles, the Jeep (the average person) and the coveted Jaguar (the object of romantic affection).
Hmm. I have no idea how the Jaguar became a coveted car, since it’s legendary for breaking down with astonishing regularity, but I’ll accept the metaphor anyway. Other than the hyperbolic but somehow effective line, “You’ve got the universe reclining in your hair,” the lyrics are pretty typical I-want-you-let’s-fuck lyrics disguised in off-the-wall metaphors. Like “Mambo Sun,” the song is more about the feel than the content, but the feel is completely broken for me when Marc Bolan shifts to the vampire metaphor and commits the serious crime of overacting when he delivers the line, “And I’m gonna suck ya!” Man, if a guy snuggled up close and laid that shit on me, he’d be out a couple of testicles before his drool hit the floor! It’s too bad Bolan went there because I really like the song up to that point—but if there’s one point in Electric Warrior where my dad’s teenybopper tag applies, it’s that dreadful sucking sequence. It also blows the lower-status guy’s chances to smithereens by proving to the Jaguar that he’s a no-class adolescent not worthy of her attention.
We now shift back to the 1950’s for “Monolith,” with its “Angel Baby” chord structure. This is where Bolan’s lyrics cross the line into “exceedingly pompous gibberish”:
The throne of time
Is a kingly, a kingly thing
From whence you know
We all do begin
And dressed as you are, girl
In your fashions of fate
Baby, it’s too late
Shallow are the actions
Of the children of men
Fogged was their vision
Since the ages began
And lost like a lion
In the canyons of smoke
Girl, it’s no joke, oh no
Whence? What? The only thing that could have saved this turkey would have been a full-on doo-wop commitment like Gene Chandler did on “Duke of Earl.” The whole premise of “Duke of Earl” is even more absurd than this one, but Gene Chandler and The Dukays sell it. There are some background vocals, but nowhere near enough to exploit the song’s potential campiness. “Monolith” sounds like the pseudo-psychedelic rambling of a frustrated English major, the kind of stuff that left Marc Bolan on the periphery for too long. I classify it as pure album filler—as is “Lean Woman Blues,” with way too many grunts, gasps, snorts and odd vocalizations that fail to disguise the simple fact that T. Rex was a terrible fucking blues band.
Let’s flip it over to side two for the iconic “Bang a Gong (Get It On),” where the boys cling to their sweet spot and deliver a generally spare, disciplined performance featuring the famous muffled guitar opening, straightforward rhythm guitar fills and steady drums. Marc Bolan’s vocal is largely unintelligible, with the words “dirty” and “sweet” rising from the vocal mist—it sounds more like “dirty talk,” the slurred messages you lay on your loved one when you’re in the sexual trance. Flo and Eddie (ex-Turtles Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman) do a stand-up job with the backing vocals, and although I’d like it to be more prominent, Ian MacDonald is solid on the sax. The one huge mistake in an otherwise fine production by Tony Visconti is the insertion of orchestral strings on the chorus. What the fuck, man? I don’t want no Mantovani bullshit messin’ with my rock ‘n’ roll! Although Blondie’s live version has its own flaws, I prefer it to the original due to a combination of Debbie Harry’s sassiness and the complete absence of a string section. The downside is that Debbie does a much better job of enunciating the muddled lyrics, where we hear Marc Bolan repeating his fascination with automobiles and throwing in a hydra for good measure. If you can ignore the lyrics, shut out the strings and just think “sweet and dirty,” it’s an appealing piece of music.
I don’t know why the two early glam rock idols had a fixation with outer space, but we get Marc Bolan’s contribution to the sub-sub-sub genre with “Planet Queen.” It’s not much of a contribution—an odd stew of disconnected imagery featuring dragon heads, sacrificial daughters and more fucking automobiles—but I do like the use of crisp acoustic guitar in the mix. Still, it’s a long, long way from “Space Oddity” or “Starman.” It’s followed by “Girl,” which starts out as a reasonably nice acoustic number with a relatively strong lyrical theme involving the dichotomy between public appearance and inner mental decay . . . but the insertion of flugelhorn is both superfluous and distracting.
Next comes—wait, is this the “Bang a Gong Reprise?” Same vocal tone, same beat, same melodic pattern in the first two lines . . . wait . . . they break up the E with a shift to C/Am . . . but jeez, talk about making the formula obvious! If you’ve heard “Bang a Gong (Get It On),” you’ve heard “The Motivator.” I do like the lyrics better than “Bang a Gong” (with a few glaring exceptions—he actually uses the word “doth,” for fucketh sake), because they clearly and directly express appreciation for female beauty and style.
“Life’s a Gas” features a memorable, melodic chorus that helps you forget about the odd hyperbolic statements in the verses (“I could have loved you, girl, like a planet/I could have chained your heart to a star”). I like the downtempo, relaxed feel of the piece, though I wish they would have varied the fills more, given all the possibilities presented by the melody (the one departure from the pattern is a very messy riff in the closing moments that is completely out-of-place).
The most interesting piece on Electric Warrior is the one that doesn’t fit the pattern and calls into question the value every song that has come before it—the closing song, “Rip-Off.” Marc Bolan abandons his hoarse whisper for a relentless vocal attack that comes across as a man dying to get something off his chest after spending too much time engaging in subtleties. Backed by an energetic one-man horn section in the form of Ian MacDonald of King Crimson—who delivers a series of thrilling riffs that migrate from classic rock patterns to modern jazz—Bolan launches a full-fledged attack on a variety of cultural rip-offs, most of which involve exploiting sexual fantasies that are intertwined with pervasive feelings of sexual inadequacy:
Rocking in the nude and feeling such a dude, it’s a rip-off
Dancing in the dark with the tramps in the park, it’s a rip-off
Such a rip-off, yeah
See your baby’s stud sliding in my mud, it’s a rip-off
Bleached on the beach, I want to tickle your peach, it’s a rip-off
See the girl dance in her man-skin pants, it’s a rip-off
Terraplane Tommy wants to bang your gong, it’s a rip-off
The last line is intriguing—was Marc Bolan the character of Terraplane Tommy, implying that the “Bang a Gong” nonsense he was peddling was a rip-off? Perhaps—but only on a subliminal level. After all, when John Peel expressed his disappointment with “Bang a Gong,” Bolan cut him off in fit of pique—an excessively defensive reaction that tells me Peel hit a nerve. What I hear when comparing and contrasting “Rip-Off” with the rest of the songs on Electric Warrior is that Marc Bolan was capable of far more complex and interesting musical and lyrical ideas than he chose to realize on the bulk of this album. And while it’s not a three-chord, two-minute song, the fury in Bolan’s voice on “Rip-Off” foreshadows the vocal styles of Johnny Rotten and early Joe Strummer.
T-Rextasy lasted a few more years before fading into memory. Unlike The Beatles, Marc Bolan wasn’t successful in his attempts to move beyond the catchy tune and incorporate a broader sound palate in a way that appealed to the listening audience. He did make a promising turn towards the emerging punk scene in his waning days, and I think he might have found his niche there. Sadly, just like his hero Eddie Cochran, he died far too young in a car crash in England, leaving a legacy of influence and a whole lot of unrealized potential.
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 is 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 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.