Another day another Bowie blog. You’ve probably read a ton of them by now. I was going to write about the New Year and how it is ‘full of things that have never been’ (Rilke) but after Monday’s news it didn’t feel right. I want to say right off that I wasn’t what you’d call a massive Bowie fan; I had a couple of albums, a greatest hits to listen to in the car and I had seen him once in concert in the mid eighties. One of my friends at 6th form was a huge fan, she had all the records and she never stopped talking about him. I didn’t really get it, by the time Let’s Dance came out he seemed a bit passed it to me, a middle-aged bloke from the seventies. He wasn’t The Smiths or The Mary Chain was he? Obviously I now know that he was. He was all of them. Every boy that wore make-up and beads, every girl who put on a man’s suit, anyone who got grief for what they wore or what their hair looked like. We were all channeling Bowie. You need role models like him to move the world on. You need people who are unafraid to slap on the make-up and blow raspberries to the status quo. In short you need heroes.
When I heard the news I posted on Facebook that my favourite song was ‘Heroes’ and even though it fails to appear on all the Best Bowie Song surveys I’ve seen in the newspapers, a lot of people commented that it was theirs too. Some people think it’s too commercial, that the early stuff was better, but when it was released it didn’t do that well. It’s long been said that ‘Heroes’ was inspired by a couple kissing in front of the Berlin Wall. It turns out that this was Bowie’s producer Toni Visconti and his lover and not just a pair random strangers. This knowledge doesn’t diminish the song at all but gives us an insight into the creative process. From this image Bowie uses all the fear and tensions of life in Berlin in the cold war to create a story of doomed love. It’s weird now to even contemplate there even being a Berlin Wall but the song refers abstractly to two of the many deaths of people trying to cross from East to West. I wish I could swim. The way dolphins swim.
In 1985, when I was seventeen, I watched Live Aid with the rest of the world. It was great, it really was, all those pop stars coming together for the good of humanity. The trouble was I wasn’t much into U2 or Queen or Led Zeppelin, for me Bowie made that show and he made it by singing ‘Heroes’. Suddenly it wasn’t about rock royalty anymore. In the space of 3 minutes Bowie made it about us, about the ordinary record buying public parting with their hard earned cash to help out people less fortunate than themselves. We could be heroes, just for one day.
I only saw him play once. In Sunderland in 1987. It wasn’t a great gig. It didn’t help that his first words to the Roker Park crowd were ‘Hello Newcastle’ Big mistake given the rivalry between the two cities. It rained. He played a lot of songs from the new album. There was a giant plastic spider and a fair bit of ‘acting’. Just as I thought all hope was lost, when he’d played Fame, China Girl and Fashion and gone back to new stuff, those familiar opening bars shone through the gloom. It never fails to bring a tear to the eye; it certainly won’t now.