Where Are We Now?

June 24, 2015

time

Where Are We Now?

The Wall was probably the most famous structure that will ever stand in Berlin…and if a monument can be decommissioned, that is apparently what happened to it.

Brian Ladd.

We Were Like a Museum Exhibit.

Title of a Wolf Vostell 1965 collage.

Wedding

geister

An older man, wearing a grey topcoat and knit cap, is walking through Berlin one winter morning. If you were to follow him, he would appear to be rambling for no obvious purpose, towards no apparent destination; just wending through neighborhoods, sometimes doubling back.

But if you were to watch his progress from the air, it would seem, over time, as though he was slowly stitching a pattern across the heart of the old city, making a fresh suture over an old scar.

Pankow

Berlin,_Grenzübergang_Bornholmer_Straße

We lived in a vacuum over a void.

Peter Schneider, on West Berlin.

Nothing was asked of West Berlin “beyond its own complicity in surviving.

Jane Kramer.

On the sunless, modestly-cold morning of the 8th of January, 2013, I walked the dog, made coffee, ate breakfast, checked the laptop. The blog, though not updated for a week, had some 20 new comments overnight; the twitter had at least as many notices; my mailbox was overflowing. I could only think the worst, and said to the dog: “Oh no, is he dead? And on his birthday, too.”

As it turned out, he had risen. At 5 AM GMT, Bowie’s website uploaded the video of “Where Are We Now?”, with the notice that one could buy the track on iTunes, as well as pre-order a new, unanticipated album. By the time the British workday started, the news had hit every media outlet, which gave Bowie’s return the treatment usually reserved for royal births and divorces. Each longitude of the Western Hemisphere woke up to the news in turn.

“It was his idea to just announce the album on his birthday and just watch the thing avalanche,” Tony Visconti told Rolling Stone. Bowie and Visconti had done a countdown in December, sending each other emails with subject lines like “two weeks eight hours.” At midnight in New York, Visconti sat at his computer to see “Where Are We Now?” pop up in the iTunes store. He’d produced the thing but couldn’t quite believe that it existed. It took about 15 minutes, he recalled, before fans realized what was happening and the first “holy shit!” posts appeared on message boards.

Bowie’s was among the first of the “surprise” album releases of the 2010s (MBV came later the same month, Beyoncé at the end of the year). Like the others (and a precursor, Radiohead’s The King of Limbs), The Next Day was a catalog artist gaming a broken system. Avoid the pointless hype cycle and throw a new album out into the world, generating scads of free press by leveraging the reputation that your former labels paid for.

Bowie pulled off his surprise because he only used musicians whom he knew and could trust (even then, he had them sign non-disclosure agreements) and he ran a tight ship: just Corinne Schwab and Bill Zysblat for logistics and finance; no office managers, no PR staff. At Sony, with whom he had a distribution relationship, he had no A&R supervision. The label was in the dark: Sony president Rob Stringer only learned Bowie had cut a new album in December 2012, when Bowie brought him into a studio to hear tracks. “Stringer said, ‘what about the PR campaign?’ and David said, ‘there is no PR campaign. We’re just going to drop it on 8 January’,” Visconti recalled. And so they did.

Weißensee

Turistas en el Tacheles, Berlin 2010.

I became a rock star. It’s what I do. It’s not my whole life.

Bowie, to a friend in Berlin, ca. 1977.

It could have been the beginning of a really boring career. You know, the typical rock star life cycle. So fortunately for me my right lung collapsed…I felt a great sense of relief, as if once again I’d been left off the hook.

Brian Eno, to Ian MacDonald, 1977.

He said: I know what it’s like to be dead. He said…did he? Oh that’s very nice indeed.

John Lennon, demo, 1966.

Of the “lost years” between Bowie’s heart operation in July 2004 and the first Next Day sessions of May 2011, many know little. He had stopped emailing a lot of friends after his heart surgery, even Visconti: in late 2006, Visconti was startled when Bowie popped in during a Dean and Britta session in NYC (“as much as I wanted him to sing on a track, I was too shocked to make my mouth work“). In the late 2000s, however, Bowie and Visconti began having semi-monthly lunches, during which Bowie said he had no interest in writing new music.

It wasn’t as if Bowie was in hiding (ever so often, the paparazzi would nab a fresh photo of a downtown-walking Bowie, armed with ubiquitous laptop bag). He cut the occasional guest-vocal (see the past two months’ entries) and even was in a studio in 2008 to record new vocals and overdubs for a revision of “Time Will Crawl.” He issued a statement praising Barack Obama’s victory; he spoke to the press as late as 2010, telling the Observer what allegedly was on his iPod (Champion Jack Dupree’s “Junker’s Blues” and John Adams’ “El Nino,” among others); in a New York Times profile of Iman, he said “I’m not thinking of touring. I’m comfortable.”

brl

As the empty years went on, the Bowie enterprise began to seem like a carnival which had shuttered for the season but would never open again. Fan websites were reduced to announcing the occasional reissue, or the death of yet another old Bowie friend or collaborator (Lesley Duncan, Natasha Kornilof, Derek Fearnley, Guy Pelleart), or the doings of Bowie tribute bands. “I really don’t know what he’s up to at the moment,” his bassist Gail Ann Dorsey said in early 2010. “I wish I could…I just hope, as much as anyone else, as a fan of music, that he returns.”

Rumors circulated that Bowie was ailing, that he’d contracted terminal cancer. It got to the point where Noel Gallagher lamented in 2011 that “I know [Bowie] hasn’t been very well, but we need him,” and where Chuck Klosterman and Alex Pappademas began preparing a Bowie obituary in late June 2012, after Grantland‘s editor got a solid tip that Bowie was on his deathbed.

Prenzlauer Berg

wall80s

Almost with one impulse the congregation rose and stared while the three dead boys came marching up the aisle, Tom in the lead, Joe next, and Huck, a ruin of drooping rags, sneaking sheepishly in the rear! They had been hid in the unused gallery listening to their own funeral sermon!

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

As it turned out, he rather liked being dead.

For all intents and purposes, he had stopped being David Bowie. He was just David Jones, a wealthy late-middle-aged landowner, art collector, expatriate and dad, gassing on to his wife and daughter about whatever history or biography book he was reading (it’s a near-universal rule that by the age of 60, all men become bores about history) and watching police shows, whether American (The Shield), British (Foyle’s War) or French (Spiral).

It was as though he’d decommissioned himself. Here was a man who still led a public life—attending various charity galas with Iman—but who was no longer public. His biographer Paul Trynka, whose book published in 2010, speculated that Bowie had pulled a slow-motion disappearing act in the 2000s, and had retired without letting anyone know. His absence felt louder each year; his blank refusal to play the game anymore could seem an affront to some fans. Bowie was always supposed to be there, on the margins or in the wings, reacting, stealing, sometimes embarrassing himself, sometimes creating the future. Then he just stopped.

Until something brought him back. In early autumn 2010, while in London recording the Kaiser Chiefs’ The Future Is Medieval, Visconti heard from Bowie out of the blue. “He said, when you get back, do you fancy doing some demos with me?” Visconti told the Daily Telegraph. “There was no preamble, no warning. It was really weird.”

“Schtum” was the subject line of an email Bowie sent the guitarist Gerry Leonard (it was a German-sounding word meaning “keep mum” whose origins lay in the criminal world of Fifties Britain—it’s the sort of word you’d expect Bowie to use in an email). Like Visconti, Leonard had no clue that Bowie was considering making a record. “I was like, whoa! he’s going to do something?

And Sterling Campbell, the last of Bowie’s contacts, said “my relationship with David has always been like this—I just get a call out of nowhere and it’s great if it works out.” So he was used to sudden changes of face.From what I understand, he didn’t even wanna think about music for a number of years,” he told the NME. “Then all of a sudden, he’s got 20 songs he wants to record.”

berlin1

For a week in November 2010, Bowie, Leonard, Visconti and Campbell got together at 6/8 Studios in the East Village (they used Studio A, which you can rent for $50/hour today). For the first four days, Bowie brought in demos he’d made on eight- and 16-track digital recorders at home.

Because as it turned out, David Jones hadn’t shaken the habit of writing songs. To Visconti, “they were obviously things that had built up over the past 10 years, sketches he’d had all along,” complete with ideas for basslines and drum patterns. (“It seemed evident that he had been writing a lot—[it was as if] he was pulling ideas for songs from a hat,” Leonard concurred). Bowie would play a demo, had Leonard (back in his bandleader role from the Reality tour) transcribe a chord progression, and then asked the group to play their interpretation of his fledgling song.

On the last day, in a studio described variously as “a matchbox” and “a small grimy room,” they cut about a dozen full-band demos (Bowie played keyboards and sang guide vocals, mainly wordless melodies) on what Visconti called “a basic Pro Tools rig.” Bowie packed up, said his goodbyes. No one heard from him for another four months.

Mitte

IslBG

I wasn’t [in Berlin] for very long, only four months; one whole spring. But it was crazy. Really crazy. It was like a film of Fritz Lang’s. You had the feeling that all of life was being directed by Lang…There was a black cloud of hatred over the whole east end of the city…You felt the catastrophe coming.

Paul Bowles.

After the danger dissipated in Berlin, nothing was left.

Klaus Schultz.

At some point, he decided the demos were worth trying on a broader canvas. Bowie wanted to use the same crew to make backing tracks for a possible album, but with Campbell on tour with the B-52s in spring 2011, his Nineties drummer, Zachary Alford, instead got the nod. As did Gail Ann Dorsey. She hadn’t played bass on any Bowie album since Toy, in part because the producer was also an ace bassist, but Visconti told Dorsey that he wanted to concentrate on producing and not have to work in the rhythm section, too. David Torn, the “atmospheric” element of the Heathen and Reality albums, also came in.

Right at the start, the secret nearly leaked. Someone at the originally-booked NYC studio tipped off a freelance photographer, who called Bowie’s office asking to shoot the sessions. This prompted an eleventh-hour relocation to the Magic Shop on Crosby Street (conveniently, less than a ten-minute walk from Bowie’s home). Visconti was cagy to the studio about who he was recording, and Magic Shop owner Steve Rosenthal said “it’s not an exaggeration [that] we didn’t know what was going on until the day Bowie showed up.” (One assumes Bowie would have preferred to use his favorite NYC studio, Looking Glass Studios, but it had closed in 2009.) They would call Bowie’s project “The Secret” at the Magic Shop: “Is The Secret in today?”

Bowie and his musicians began recording on 3 May 2011, for about two weeks, in what would be “Block One” of the Next Day sessions. The players were all old hands: he knew their styles and what to expect from them (though he urged Dorsey to play fretless bass for the first time). It suggests he realized the new songs weren’t that dissimilar from his Heathen/Reality compositions, and that his new album could be like one he might have made in 2005. After all, he’d told both Leonard and Campbell during the Reality tour’s last leg that he was considering hustling the band into a studio right after the tour ended, in the hopes of cutting a road-hardened album like Earthling. Fate intervened.

The Next Day would be the most tentative, and the slowest-paced, album that he had ever made. Bowie kept stressing that the sessions were only an experiment, one he could well scrap. It was similar to how he’d pitched Low to his musicians in 1976. Yet Low had come together in about a month. The Next Day would take two years.

Gasmaske-Plakat-1979-

Alford described the sessions as being “matter of fact.” Bowie came in each morning, played them a home demo, then played the song’s full-band demo, then had the players start recording. (They were encouraged to ask him questions: the sessions had a seminar feel, with Bowie as a professor emeritus working with some former grad students.) There were no more than five takes for each song; they got through about two tracks a day.

They worked in the Magic Shop’s “live” room, Studio A, with no separation between instruments, barring some amp baffling. Bowie set up at a Baldwin piano, creating a work-station at which he could play a Korg Trinity (as on Reality), strum his old 12-string acoustic or use a digital mixer which he used to reference demos. Engineer Mario McNulty said Bowie and Visconti wanted a treated sound at the point of recording, so that in-studio playback would “sound like a record.” (This was Bowie’s long-preferred method—he’d been taken aback in early Young Americans sessions when he heard his untreated voice on tape for the first time in years). So McNulty, using the studio’s custom Neve 80 series wraparound 56-input console, applied EQ in each stereo channel and added generous compression on the vocal mikes, bass, guitar and drum tracks.

“Block One” produced about 20 tracks, of a variety of styles: Alford recalled cutting a “straight up country song,” while another was based on a blues riff, though the players were given the Eno-like instruction “not to make it sound like a blues.” Neither Bowie or Visconti were interested aping the sound of contemporary records (perhaps for the good: Bowie was talking up Mumford and Sons in the demo sessions), using instead for sonic context the Bowie back catalog and never-released outtakes, particularly from Lodger (see the upcoming “Born In a UFO”). Nine tracks from the session wound up on The Next Day or its bonus releases, but in May 2011, they were still only pieces of an ongoing experiment.

Tiergarten

wallover

So began the album’s desultory creation. Bowie would take away tapes, book the occasional overdub session, then go away again. He visited Leonard in Woodstock, NY, that summer and the two of them did some songwriting (coming up with “Boss of Me” and “I’ll Take You There” after Leonard scrambled to find a Roland TR-808 drum machine).

Around September or October 2011, Bowie organized another rhythm section date (call it “Block Two”) at the Magic Shop. As Dorsey was now touring with Lenny Kravitz, the storied bassist Tony Levin came in play with Leonard, Torn and Alford.

It was much the same mood as the spring session: listen to demos, take notes, play a few takes, “I’ll call you later.” (The tracks getting their start in this block included “Where Are We Now?,” “Boss of Me,” “I’d Rather Be High” and “God Bless the Girl.”)

brrrln

Around year-end 2011, there was a notable ebb in the album’s (already-tenuous) progress. Bowie was slowly working on lyrics and he’d spend over a year, in fits and starts, on his vocals. “In the beginning he was finding his voice,” Visconti said. “He’s not an opera singer, he doesn’t practice every day.”

Both Dorsey and Leonard said that around this time, they feared that Bowie might just deep-six the album, and keep silent for who knows how many more years. Brian Thorn, the Magic Shop’s assistant engineer, said “I had no idea if the album would even be released. I was prepared to sit on it for as long as I needed to.” Rosenthal summed up the general mood. “From beginning to end, this has not been a typical music business project. This has been like an art project that he’s created and is executing upon us all. I don’t think any of us really believed it was going to come out until we saw the song online.

If there had been a period of indecision, a turning point came when Bowie called up Earl Slick to do what he’d done since 1974: add some “rock ‘n’ roll” guitar parts. Contacted in May, Slick turned up at the Magic Shop in July 2012. “He never let me hear the demos,” Slick told Rock et Folk. “I played where he needed me. I always worked like that with him.”

Along with overdubbing guitar on the likes of “Dirty Boys,” Slick also helped cut some fresh songs on the spot with Visconti on bass and the now-returned Sterling Campbell. This last session (call it “Block Three”) was the start of the likes of “Valentine’s Day” and “Born In a UFO.”

So after two years of sporadic sessions, Bowie and Visconti had about 30 tracks. Those still needing work were earmarked as future B-sides or bonus releases (most of which have come out by now). Having winnowed the prospective track list down to 20, Bowie played with the sequencing for months, pulling “God Bless the Girl” on and off and on again (he finally slotted it as a bonus track on the Japanese issue).

The final sequence wound up being a three-part movement (paralleling its three-block creation). Tracks 1 to 6 were the “hits,” 7-11 the weird shit; the remainder was a bitter old man’s coda.

Kreuzberg

mayday2012berin

Each Berlin is worlds distant from, and a stranger to, the other…indeed I have to admit that the Berlin of which I speak is actually not really Berlin anymore.

Georg Hermann, Kubinke, 1910.

Bowie came in one day and said, “I wrote a song about Berlin.” Visconti recalled.

He’d been kicking it around for some time, as Dorsey, who didn’t play in the song’s backing track sessions, recalled Bowie saying early on that he “had this idea of writing about his time in Berlin. That it was a very intense time for him.”

“Bowie in Berlin” had become, over the decades, among his most enduring characters, though at the time he’d taken pains to say that he was no longer playing a role. The rising critical eminence of the “Berlin” trilogy had wound up creating a myth as vivid as Ziggy Stardust’s.

It was Bowie singing “Heroes” at Hansa Tonstudio (which he’d portentously renamed “Hansa By The Wall” on the LP sleeve), setting off three microphones when moving to his apocalyptic register, while East German guards paced in their tower on the Wall. It was Bowie living with Iggy Pop on Hauptstraße, swapping clothes; Bowie biking around the city, unnoticed or ignored; making paintings of Pop and Yukio Mishima; dressing and wearing his hair as if he was an actor playing Christopher Isherwood in 1929; taking his breakfasts in the gay cafe down the street. Days at the Brücke-Museum, nights at the Dschungel or Chez Romy Haag.

The city was his sickbed, hospital, recovery ward, detox mansion; Berlin was where he went to vanish, and where he was found on the street seemingly every night, sometimes drinking himself oblivious in a bar. His estranged wife Angela thought it all ridiculous: he and Iggy dressing up like bohemian painters, or recreating scenes from Jules et Jim with Corinne Schwab; his label RCA found the work he made there indulgent, baffling and poor-selling, and wondered if he was sabotaging his career to reduce his ex-manager’s take of LP royalties.

But Berlin was reality, Bowie said, where America and Britain were fictions. John Lennon had once claimed that rock ‘n’ roll was real and everything else was unreal. Instead, Bowie had found rock ‘n’ roll to be the most unreal thing of all, a poison: Berlin was where he got free of it. He came out of the city in 1979 far different from the desperate man who’d taken refuge there in 1976. “David aged about 20 years in Berlin,” Mick Ronson once said.

geisterbahnhof

He travels all over the world, but you wouldn’t know it, because he doesn’t want you to,” Visconti said of Bowie today. An obvious question: did Bowie go back to Berlin in the late 2000s? Walk through Schöneberg again, visit Hansa, catch a train at Postdamer Platz? Stay in the hotel on Nürnberger Straße which was once the Dschungel? After all, his nostalgic drives through Brixton and Bromley in the early Nineties had sparked The Buddha of Suburbia. Did a similar visit inspire “Where Are We Now?”

Another speculation (offered by Momus): did Bowie and Visconti ever consider making his comeback record at Hansa? It would have made the perfect last turn of the circle, a lost man returning to the city he’d tried to get lost in, and maybe the symbolism was a bit too perfect. Plus, keeping the secret from a city of Germans would’ve been harder than doing so with a few New York engineers and his old touring band. After all, it was getting harder to go missing in Berlin these days.

Freidrichshain

wll

Thomas Kunja, an East Berliner who escaped to West Berlin several years ago and now distributes Electrolux vacuum cleaners, knows exactly what they’ll buy. “A video recorder–half already have color TVs,” says Kunja. “And everybody will take a trip.” Why? “What do you do when you get out of jail? You run. You have to prove you’re really out with a trip west. After that, people need everything: a decent car, decent kitchen stuff, a decent rug. If only 1 percent of them want a decent vacuum cleaner, I’m going to be rich.”

Newsweek, “The Wealth of a Nation,”  July 1990.

One night in 1997, I was at a party on the Upper West Side in NYC. A German man, standing alone, was looking offended by how dull the party was. I began talking to him, said I’d always wanted to go to Berlin. “Berlin?” he said, with some disgust. “Munich is where it is now. Berlin is dead! Dead!”

The Berlin of “Heroes” is deep in the grave now. The Wall is gone except for a few scruffily-maintained parks. The old city districts have been consolidated; some streets have new names. The battered, half-empty neighborhoods are being gentrified. Berlin’s even back to being a capital: Germany once again claiming the alien city on the Spree as its centerpiece, despite the fact that many Germans always have found Berlin a bit suspect, and some back in the early Cold War had wished the Russians had taken the whole place.

Agata Pyzik wrote in her Poor But Sexy that “Berlin is an Eastern city, by geography, spirit, architecture and expression. Yet it remains half-Western by politics and history.” During the Cold War, divided Berlin was a stage-set battlefield, the front line where the West and East sported their colors. The city itself was an island, a prison (West Berlin the little prison surrounded by the big prison), a mental ward. Berlin lived on its nerves, a city “so restless at night that even the animals in the zoo pace around,” as the British diplomat Harold Nicolson once said of it.

So where was it now? A creaky voice starts recounting a story, but it’s not much of a story—he forgets where he’s going after a line. “Had to get the train from Postdamer Platz,” he begins, not quite getting the accent right. A tourist, maybe. “You never knew...that I could do that,” with an air of faint amazement. It suggests he may be singing to a ghost, someone who didn’t outlive the Wall. The Postdamer Platz of “Heroes”-era Berlin was a wasteland, a stopped portal—the train station was a ghost stop on the S-bahn, a station that you only saw in passing (and which few East Germans ever saw). And today you can go underground and catch an eastbound train without giving it a second thought. Tens of thousands of people a day in Berlin perform what would have been impossible in 1989.

The man rummages up other names, as if seeing if anything rings a bell: the ghost’s not talking. The lost Dschungel club on Nürnberger Straße; even the department store KaDeWe (which would be like writing a song about post 9/11 New York and talking about Macy’s).

And 20,000 East Germans crossing Bösebrücke (again, it’s a tourist’s formal language—a German likely would have said Bornholmerstrasse) one autumn night in 1989, fingers crossed, fearing it might be a trap, that the guards will open fire on them. But no, out into the West they go, puncturing a hole in the Wall, soon followed by other holes, soon followed by no Wall at all.

Could it really have fallen apart so easily? The end of divided Berlin was like the end of Alice in Wonderland, with Alice standing up and saying “you’re nothing but a pack of cards!” and the Queen of Hearts howling in paper outrage. Maybe all that you ever needed to do was walk across the bridge, fingers crossed.

Treptow

Machen auf Demo

In the bars and clubs of [1987] West Berlin things felt relentlessly trendy. I kept running into Blixa Bargeld everywhere. I remember going to a club (I think it was called the Beehive) and seeing people with miniature record players strapped to their heads. I’d never seen people that self-consciously Dada before anywhere!

Momus.

The writer Christopher Isherwood went back to Berlin once after the war, in 1952, “to do one of those Berlin-revisited things for the Observer.” The city was still in shambles. “Everything was very much smashed up. They simply pushed the rubble to the sides of the streets. I wonder what became of that rubble?

The rubble was the pulverized bits of Wilhelmine and Weimar Berlin, all the cornices and stoops and windowpanes and picture frames of the lost city of Isherwood, Brecht, Sally Bowles and the Landauers, of a city bombed to pieces during the war. The detritus was swept up, dumped in piles, was carted off to form three great hills in the outskirts of Berlin. In the Grunewald Forest, the highest pile became Teufelsberg, on which the Germans planted trees and shrubs and built a ski jump. The Americans built a radar station atop it.

It’s how Berlin has always adapted: junk what’s been ruined, build over the rest. Most cities in the West would have likely tried to preserve the Wall, turn it into some city-long memorial park. The Germans chipped it down, hauled it off, sold some bits, threw some in the garbage. Berlin seems impervious to nostalgia, so it’s an inspired setting for a nostalgic Bowie song. Walking the dead, he sings, but he might as well have said walking on the dead, because the city has likely paved over thousands of bodies.

My friend Michael Dumiak, who’s from South Carolina, has lived in Berlin since the early 2000s. “You hear lots of Spanish and Italian and American English in the streets these days.The Bowie / Pop myth is strong here, but he wasn’t here that long, maybe didn’t need to, they already loved him so much here (see Christiane F.) I guess probably they wouldn’t bug him; it was a whole island city tense with military and full of arty misfits. And cheap. The place does make an impression on you. They’re gradually repainting everything—check it out while you still can!”

Or as regular commenter “Crayon to Crayon,” another current Berlin resident, says: “It’s an amazing city to be poor in. And it feels like you have far more freedom than in any other big city I’ve lived in…There is a palpable feeling that things are changing slowly for the worse as developers get their hands on more of the city and rents go up. But it is still 20 years ahead/behind of the rest of Germany and, say, London or Paris. I’m not planning on leaving any time soon.”

Neukölln

nkn

Even at the demo stage, Gerry Leonard was struck by a song known only as “067,” the file’s name on Bowie’s digital recorder.

There are beautiful changes to it,” he said. “He had these chords on his keyboard. David is an amazing writer, but he’s not a schooled guy, he just goes by his ear.” Talking of song structures, Bowie would typically say “the middle bit” or “the other bit” when referring to a bridge or chorus.

Leonard took Bowie’s keyboard progression and transferred it to guitar, writing down chords as he went. There was a verse that slowly circled, like a man walking back and forth along a street—Fmaj7 (“had to get”) to Dm/G (“Potsdamer”). An odd seesaw movement—Db/Eb (“never knew that”), Eb/Db (“that I could”)—that hints at a vault into an Ab major key but instead sinks back to the home chord, F, now with a C bass note (“do that”). The verse sags off, but grandly: G/C (“just walking the”), Ebm/C (“dead”), closing on a C7 chord, the dominant chord of the song’s F major key, soon resolved by another return home to F.

Then there was a simple refrain, just descending F-Em-Dm-C. Another verse, but cut shorter; another refrain, but now opening up, blossoming into a lengthy outro that slightly altered the descending set of chords to F-Dm-C/E-C, repeating again and again to the fade.

It was a typical Bowie construction, as the song is odder than it may first appear to the ear. Its progression is a slow, listless struggle between F major and C major, with the former seeming to rule the verses and the latter the refrains, though their claims are far from settled. By contrast there’s a severity to its structure: a sense of not wanting to waste time. Take the slam right back to the verse after the refrain, where the ear expects a solo or a recapitulation of the intro sequence, or the no-nonsense move to the outro after the second refrain.

Bowie and Visconti kept the track sparse, particularly in the context of the other Next Day tracks: it’s just carried by Leonard’s lead guitar, Bowie’s piano and synthesizer lines (and some Henry Hey piano overdubs in the outro), Levin’s bass and Alford’s drums. At first just Alford’s drum pattern keeps the song moving forward, as Leonard and Bowie augment chords and Levin is a torpid foundation. The song only takes flight as it ends—Alford shifts to a martial snare pattern and Leonard starts to elaborate on pieces of Bowie’s vocal melody, arpeggiating chords and then moving down his guitar neck, wringing higher and higher-pitched notes, slowly weaving a line that’s more mournful than Bowie’s vocal. Words fail to do it justice: listen here.

Tempelhof

dshung

People think you have to remove everything to make a nice habitat. This is not the best idea. The grasshopper likes the concrete here.

Ingo Kowarick, on Templehofer Field.

“Where Are We Now?” made an odd choice for a opening single, Visconti thought. He and other players took pains in pre-release interviews to stress how anomalous the song was, and that much of the rest of the album was uptempo, guitar-fattened and loud.

Issuing this as the first “new” Bowie song in a decade was a feinting maneuver, and perhaps even something of a macabre joke, much as how Bowie showed up at a 2005 awards show dressed as if he’d been in a car crash. If the world believed Bowie to be on death’s door, well, here he was croaking this somber song about his lost youth, as if he was dictating a will. Final curtain stuff. Yet even the fragility of his voice was an old trick. “That’s a vulnerable voice he has used time and time again,” Visconti noted, offering “Fantastic Voyage” as an earlier example. “It’s part of his technique, to sing that way. He put that voice on like he’s vulnerable, but he’s not frail.”

The ploy worked, for some. “Elegiac” was common in reviews, e.g.: “the only one that moved me was the elegiac “Where Are We Now?”, which has a haunting Berlin cabaret feel to it,” wrote Rod Dreher of the American Conservative, upon hearing the album. “It sounded good, but it also sounded right for a 66-year-old man. If you’re still trying to rock as hard at 66 as you did at 26 and even 36, you’re not maturing… not every genre is equally suited to one’s maturity. It’s just that Bowie sounds so much more — what’s the word? — credible on the brooding, pensive “Where Are We Now?” than on the harder stuff on the record.

“Where Are We Now?” is the song Bowie is supposed to be singing at age 66. By this age, you are supposed to be left stranded in time, to be burdened by great sacks of memory. It’s what the young expect of the old; it’s the task they charge the old with. In a world where the past is considered an embarrassment, the old are left as the past’s sad representatives, sexless and voiceless ambassadors, fit for the young to ignore. “When they die, we will move forward,” the young say. The old die, and we don’t.

So there’s an irony in the song. Its lament is removed, abstract; its narrator isn’t “Bowie” as much as it’s the voice of a man whose Berlin memories seem to have been derived from a few old Time magazines and Wikipedia searches. Bowie took the title from his son’s movie Moon: there, “Where Are We Now?” is the start of a promotional film celebrating a beautiful future. In the song, Bowie asks a question he doesn’t answer, only offering the beautifully Zen the moment you know, you know you know.

The promise of the outro opens up the song, Bowie offering a promise of endurance against the fading memories of the verses. As long as there’s sun…as long as there’s fire. Yet Bowie never finishes the phrases. As long as these endure…well, what else will? Me and you, he finally says, but we’re  not going to last much longer. Even the elements fade. One day the sun will wink out, and fire (usually a man-made thing, after all) will have gone well before that. A man looks at the ground and up in the sky for something that’ll be there after he’s gone. Yet the more he thinks about it, he’s not quite sure what will stand. The Wall was made of concrete, and look, they broke it down with chisels and hammers.

Schöneberg

berln

All that was left was to shoot a video. Bowie chose Tony Oursler, whom he’d worked with in the Nineties, and it was filmed in Oursler’s New York studio. In a cluttered loft, Bowie’s and Jacqueline Humphries’ faces are video-projected onto two lumpen mannequins sitting on a pommel horse, while playing on a screen behind them are film clips of contemporary Berlin—Haupstrasse, KaDeWe, Potsdamer Platz, the Reichstag. Bowie’s face looks like a sad turtle’s. He’s still lip-syncing, though it seems like his head’s been stuck in a fishbowl; he comes off like some misshapen laboratory transplant who’s still valiantly following directions. Humphries (an artist Bowie admired, as well as being Oursler’s wife) was chosen in part because she resembled Corinne Schwab, who might as well have been conjoined to Bowie during the Berlin years.

Bowie came up with the entire concept: the linked dummies, the piles of junk, what should be playing on the screen. “It was a crystal vision of what it was going to look like,” Oursler said. “It was really his conception. I was completely flattered that he wanted to come to my cave and fulfill this.”

Towards the end of the clip, you see the “real” Bowie at last, trim and impassive, wearing a “Song of Norway” t-shirt (perhaps referencing a film that his longago girlfriend, Hermione Farthingale, had acted in), watching the apparatus at work. It’s a visual analogue for the entire making of The Next Day: Bowie, having sorted through piles of discards (like the rubble of postwar Berlin), has finally set up a dummy figure and screens his “public” memories behind it, like he’s got an installation at the Whitney. It’s as if to say: here, this is your “Bowie” now, so take him: I’m staying on the sidelines.

Bowie now has “this kind of cross between a John Hurt look and like George Smiley…a wounded arty kind of anonymous spook look,” as Dumiak told me, which I found an inspired observation. Bowie as the spy who stayed out in the cold, someone like Bill Nighy’s Johnny Worricker, an old British spy who’s become a man of honor just by standing still while the world corroded around him.

Hauptstraße 155

iggybowie77berlin

Things go on and become other things. The whole character of the country has changed beyond recognition since my childhood. One always thinks everything’s got worse—and in most respects it has—but that’s meaningless. What does one mean when one says that things are getting worse? It’s becoming more like the future, that’s all. It’s just moving ahead. The future will be infinitely “worse” than the present; and in that future, the future will be immeasurably “worse” than the future that we can see. Naturally.

Paul Bowles.

It is the evening of the 8th of January, 1977. Bowie and Iggy Pop, Romy Haag and Corinne Schwab are in a West Berlin nightclub to celebrate Bowie’s 30th birthday.

A few photographs, taken by Andrew Kent, are all that remain of that night. Bowie and Iggy, as often in Berlin, sport near-identical outfits; Haag is the most beautiful woman in the room. The look of the club, the Sally Bowles costumes of the waitresses, even the texture and lighting of the photographs, all seem meant to invoke a common memory of decadent Weimar cabaret.

But the expressions on Bowie and Schwab and Pop are something else. They look gleeful, even goofy; they seem like kids on holiday, or students taking a semester abroad and seeing how far their dollars and pounds will go in a battered city.

A German interviewer, around the turn of the century, asked Bowie where he’d lived in Berlin, and Bowie said immediately: “Hauptstrasse 155 in Schöneberg.” The interviewer was startled. “You still remember it after 25 years?.” “I will never forget it,” Bowie said to him. “They were very important years.”

Haag, upon hearing “Where Are They Now?,” said Bowie sounded homesick. He’d only lived in Berlin for little more than a year, once you account for his tours and travels in the late Seventies. But Berlin was the place he’d run away to, and it was the city he had to leave when he had to get back to work, to get things done. Berlin was the last place he was young.

db13

It is the morning of the 8th of January 2013. David Bowie is 66, and has released a new song.

********

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. September 2011, The Magic Shop, Soho, NYC; (vocals, overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop and Human Worldwide, NYC. Released 8 January 2013 as an MP3 file (886443826403) (UK #6).

Sources: Over 30 articles and TV/radio interviews provided information and quotes for this piece; the most valuable included Alexis Petridis and Kate Connolly’s features in The Guardian (12 January 2013), Andy Greene’s interviews of most of The Next Day musicians for Rolling Stone in January-February 2013 and Jerome Soligny’s similar work in Rock et Folk (March 2013), Barry Nicolson’s in-depth chronology/interviews for the NME (2 March 2013), Gerry Leonard’s wonderful songwriting seminar at Xmusic in Dublin, 31 March 2013; Simon Goddard and David Buckley’s pieces in the March 2013 issues of, respectively, Q and Mojo.

I’m indebted to the personal recollections of past and present Berliners Momus, Crayon and, especially, Dumiak, to whom this entry is dedicated.

dbhansa77

Photos: top to bottom: Dennis Skley, “Time Isn’t Passing,” 2012; Michael Dumiak, “map of former geisterbahnhoefe [ghost stations]”;  Bundesarchiv Bild, “Crowds crossing the Bösebrücke at the Bornholmer Straße border crossing on 18 November 1989″; Montecruz Foto, “Mira la nada: Turistas en el Tacheles, Berlin 2010”; John Spooner, “Berlin Wall, 1978”; Chris Carter, “TG at Checkpoint Charlie, 1980”; Georgie Pauwels, “Sky Over Berlin,” 2013.

David Bowie Archive, “Gasmask Street Poster, 1979”; Raphaël Thiémard, “Fall der Mauer, 1989”; Urbanartcore.eu, “Guy Fawkes in Berlin, 2012”; ‘Kadrik,’ “May Day, Berlin, 2012”; Matthias Rhomberg, “Ghost Station [Nordbahnhof], 2010”; Rolf B., “Berlin Gropiusbau Landing, 1977”; ; H. Fuller, “Madchen auf Demo,” 2010; Rainer Wieczorek, “Neuköllnerstrasse,” 1977; Dschungel, ca. early 198os (unknown photog); ‘Michael’, “Bahnhof Schoeneberg Wannseebahn,” 2010; Andrew Kent, Bowie’s 30th birthday, 1977; Jimmy King, Next Day sleeve photo; Bowie listening to playback at Hansa, 1977.

Advertisements

“Heroes”

May 11, 2011

“Heroes.”
“Heroes” (single edit).
“Helden” (German single, 1977).
“Héros” (French single, 1977).
“Heroes” (broadcast, “The Marc Bolan Show,” 1977).
“Heroes” (broadcast, “Top of the Pops,” 1977).
“Heroes” (live, 1978).
“Heroes” (live, 1983).
“Heroes” (Live Aid, 1985).
“Heroes” (live in Berlin, 1987).
“Heroes” (live, 1990).
“Heroes” (with Mick Ronson and Queen, Freddie Mercury Tribute, 1992).
“Heroes” (live, acoustic, 1996).
“Heroes” (live, 1997).
“Heroes” (live, 2000).
“Heroes” (live, Concert for New York City, 2001).
“Heroes” (live, 2002).
“Heroes” (live, 2003).
“Heroes” (final performance (to date), June 2004).

Berlin, Bowie observes, reflecting upon the environments in which he has produced his last two albums, is a city made up of bars for sad disillusioned people to get drunk in.

“…It’s hard to sing “Let’s all think of peace and love… ” “No, David, why did you say that? That is a stupid remark.” Because that’s exactly where you should arrive…You arrive at a sense of compassion. The title track of “Heroes” is about facing that kind of reality and standing up to it. The only heroic act one can fucking well pull out of the bag in a situation like that is to get on with life from the very simple pleasure of remaining alive, despite every attempt being made to kill you.”

Allan Jones, “Goodbye to Ziggy and All That,” Melody Maker, 29 October 1977.

1. Regions (Nothing Will Drive Them Away)

“Heroes” in the United States, and to a lesser extent in the UK, was a failure. It got only marginal commercial airplay in the US in the ’70s and ’80s (the single even didn’t crack the top 100), with most Americans likely unaware “Heroes” existed until Bowie’s performance of it on Live Aid, if even then. “Heroes” gradually became a global Bowie standard, a consensus masterpiece, but it’s also a late revision to the canon.* In the US, at least, “Heroes” was the Bowie song that was famous somewhere else.

That was Europe (even Bowie noted that “Heroes” “seems to have a special resonance” in Europe, and he certainly tried to sell the single there, cutting German and French versions of the song). Maybe its motorik-inspired groove, indebted to Neu! and Kraftwerk, or Bowie’s at-times declamatory, harsh singing just sounded more familiar, or maybe “Heroes” tapped into something broader, an ominous general mood. In 1977, Europe’s fate was the property of others. Even the continent’s flash point, Berlin, the alleged centerpiece of the Cold War, was irrelevant. If there was to be a war, West Berlin would fall to the Soviets in a day and it likely would be annihilated soon afterward. All of the pointed decadence in West Berlin, all of the parades and drills in the Eastern half, seemed pantomimes by actors out of work.

There’s a lassitude, an echoing, fading grandeur, in the sound of “Heroes”: its dragging beat; its backdrop of squalls and what sound like wayward radio signals;  its lyric, set at the continent’s scarred heart; Bowie’s extravagant, metal-edged vocal; Robert Fripp’s feedback ostinato. “Heroes” is Bowie at his most empathic and at his most desperate, a wish-chant that offers, at best, some tiny regency for the spirit. Bowie, who had once had filled his songs with starmen and calamity children, seems reduced here to a minor scale, despite the talk of kings and dolphins. Any hope “Heroes” offers is meager: we can be better than we are. Only sometimes, and not for long.

2. Reductions (I Drink All the Time)

Interviewer: I remember one lyric [of yours]: “all the nobody people, all the somebody people. I need them.”

DB: Yes, well, that character definitely did, ’cause his world was exploding…That was definitely a character. That was Ziggy Stardust. He was the archetype needing-people rock star.

David Bowie, press conference in Holland, October 1977.

Around 1975, the writer Greil Marcus noticed the rise of “survivors.” He heard the phrase used in TV shows (the title often bestowed upon middle-aged actors promoting a new project), in politics (“Reagan was a survivor,” as per Lou Cannon’s bio), in films and particularly in rock music, where “survivors” were suddenly inescapable: “Soul Survivor,” Street Survivors, “Survival” (the O’Jays single and the Wailers record), “I Will Survive,” with the culmination being a band actually called Survivor.

I grew obsessed with the phenomenon, Marcus wrote at the decade’s end. I seemed to me to speak for everything empty, tawdry, and stupid about the seventies, to stand for every cheat, for every failure of nerve. Language was being debased. “Survivor” had once meant someone who had endured a horror that had killed a great many others—a concentration camp survivor, a plane crash survivor. Now the word applied to anyone remotely competent at living (Queen’s first hit, “Keep Yourself Alive,” could’ve been the motto of the ’70s).

There was something off putting about the sudden prominence of “survivors,” of odes to the simple life and of people being called “heroes” for the mildest of reasons. It was as if, in the decades after WWII, people had come to want too much, had attempted too great a height, and they were now being herded back down, their ambitions reduced to the scope of mere living. Going to work, paying your bills, raising your children, hitting 30, enduring an awful disease—these became “heroic” acts. Everyone alive became a survivor. Common life, as its radical prospects diminished, was exalted.

Bowie’s “Heroes” could seem part of this reduction, an ancestor to the wave of “you’re MY hero” kitsch of the late 20th Century, of Mariah Carey’s “Hero” and “Wind Beneath My Wings,” and it certainly has been interpreted as such.** What saves Bowie’s song from cheap sentimentality is its coldness, the sense that it’s been compromised from the start. We can be kings, we can be heroes, nothing will hurt us, the singer offers at the start of each verse, but he soon backtracks, equivocating, willing to settle for less. We can be us, he sings at last, his voice hissing out the last syllable: could we even venture that?

When Bowie first saw the lovers who inspired his song’s climactic verse, sitting on a bench by the Berlin Wall, he had wondered why they had chosen such a grim place. Did the pair feel shame at what they were doing? Were they meeting where they figured no one would see them? Or were they just bored or restless, pawns playing at being rooks?

The latter wouldn’t be unusual, as West Berlin was where one could play at life. Bowie would describe his Berlin period, which ended in late 1977, as the time when he fell to earth. West Berlin was “a womb,” he said, “a therapeutic city, with a real street level.” Bowie often myth-tinted his doings and so his Berlin years became an exile with the common people: “I had to go down the road and buy food in a shop,” he incredulously told an interviewer in late ’77. So the myth of “Bowie in Berlin,” who lived in a working-class Turkish neighborhood (not quite) and drank in workingmen’s bars unrecognized (not really—only once during the Hansa sessions, when Tony Visconti cropped Bowie’s hair, was Bowie able to walk around without attracting much notice). Still, it was a potent myth: Berlin as the place one went to be a human. Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and Faraway So Close!, where angels become mortals in Cold War and post-Cold War Berlin, have a trace of Bowie in them.

It’s a shame that “Heroes” is best known in its maimed form, the 7″ single edit, which lops off about two minutes of the track so that the song begins with its third verse (“I wish you could swim”). It’s the version used for Stanley Dorfman’s promo film, included on ChangesBowie and the version Bowie would perform most often on stage.

The edit weakens the song. It’s not just that the buildup to the last two verses is now too brief (the Bowie vocal fireworks start at 1:23 in the single, but don’t appear until 3:16 in the original), but the lyric’s also thrown out of whack. The original song opens with a grandiose claim: “I, I will be king” (the wording deliberately stilted, calling back to ’60s pop dramas like “I Who Have Nothing”). Then in the second verse, the artifice suddenly falls away:

And you, you can be mean
And I, I drink all the time.
‘Cause we’re lovers, and that is a fact
Yes we’re lovers, and that is that.

The intimacy of these lines, sung by Bowie close to the mic, in his lower register (and obscured in the mix, so the first line sounds like “you could be me”) are key to the song. This verse is the reality: a pair of lovers trapped in routine, seeing no way out. A man and a woman face each other across a table, reading each other’s faces for signs, their only freedom left in dreams. It’s all in the way Bowie sings “that is that,” quietly, with no emotion, a settled fact in a settled life.

This is what makes the later verses, which, starting with the fourth (the repeat of “I will be king”), are sung in Bowie’s “epic” register (see below), all the sadder. The singer, growing increasingly desperate, can barely keep his fantasies from blurring together. I will be king! You will be queen!, he nearly shrieks, while the following line brings the ominous “nothing will drive them away.” Who are “them”? Is it some further delusion that their love is so precious someone would want to kill it?

Until the last verse, the song’s been abstract, its setting could be anywhere (like the empty backdrop in Bowie’s promo film for it). Then the lovers are suddenly by the Wall, the guns firing above them: they’re brave, and could be about to die. Bowie sings the lines in one sustained, howling scream. It’s cathartic as it is baffling. Are the guards shooting at them, or is their meeting so insignificant that the guards don’t even notice them? Some have interpreted the lines as meaning the lovers are separated by the Wall, like some Pyramus and Thisbe in Berlin, others that the pair is trying to escape East Berlin (but then why is “all the shame on the other side,” where they’re trying to flee?). I’d say the details don’t really matter: the Wall verse is as much a fantasy as being a king for a day or swimming like a dolphin. It’s the dream of someone in the muddle of life, wishing that his empty days and his shabby love affair had some grandeur, finding dignity even in tyranny.

3. Reconnoiterings (Nothing Will Keep Us Together)

“Heroes” began out of pique. Bowie, irritated by Iggy Pop scrapping much of his original music for “Success,” was still toying with a G-C-D chord sequence and a vocal melody, reworking the piece with Brian Eno in rehearsals. Eno soon wanted to call it “Heroes,” as the song, even in embryo, had a rousing, propulsive feel (also, “Heroes” would also reference Neu!’s “Hero,” (from Neu! 75), complementing the Kraftwerk tribute “V-2 Schneider”).

At Hansa Studios, Bowie tried out “Heroes,” existing mainly in fragments, with his regular band: Dennis Davis, Carlos Alomar and George Murray. In a few hours they had built up the song, Alomar working out guitar riffs that would become the track’s underlying rhythmic hooks (like the twining, dancing three-part figure that plays over lines like “nothing will keep us together”). “Heroes” had a “plodding rhythm and tempo,” Bowie later said, which was intentional: it was another reworking of “I’m Waiting For the Man,” a song that had obsessed Bowie for ten years. Eno and Bowie, considering the ’70s German bands the natural heirs to the Velvet Underground, had taken the VU drone and translated it into motorik.

Eno’s main contribution was his EMS synthesizer, which plays throughout the track, its oscillators reduced to a low frequency rate (Visconti estimated five cycles per second) and using a noise filter: the result, Visconti said, was the “shuddering, chattering effect [that] slowly builds up and gets more and more obvious towards the end.”

As with many of Bowie’s songs on “Heroes”, the title song’s foundation is simple: five verses, some expanded with a six-bar chorus tag, and finally a refrain of sorts to close things out. “Heroes,” in D major, is primarily the three-chord sequence proposed for “Success”: the verses (and the intro/solo sections) move between D and G major, with the arrival of C major (on, for example, “nothing, nothing will keep us together”) and a two-bar foray into A minor and E minor (on “beat them” and “forever”), briefly disrupting the pattern.

(“Heroes” appears to be in the “D mixolydian” mode—basically, Bowie drops what would be the dominant (V) chord, A major, and replaces it with A minor (and follows it up with E minor). So he’s essentially swapping chords from D major’s parallel minor, D minor, then quickly shuttling back to the major tonic chord, D (so the verse’s climactic sequence of Am-Em-D is v-ii-I)).

It’s unclear if “Heroes” was originally intended as an instrumental. Eno has said he thought it was, and that Robert Fripp’s guitar work was crafted with this in mind, hence Fripp playing all the way through the song.

As it turned out, Fripp’s guitar became a high chorus to Bowie’s multi-gated vocal. On Eno’s Another Green World or other “Heroes” tracks like “Joe the Lion,” Fripp was the variable, breaking open songs, his guitar coming in like a thunderclap. On “Heroes,” he’s there from the beginning, his guitar hanging in the upper atmosphere throughout, singing to itself; his feedback-laden lines suggesting the arrival of a grand melody that never quite comes. It’s a continual promise, never fulfilled.

While most guitarists that took on “Heroes” had to use an Ebow to get Fripp’s sound, playing a sustained run of A notes, Fripp had worked out the feedback patterns on foot, literally. Standing in Hansa’s Studio 2, his guitar routed through Eno’s EMS synthesizer, Fripp marked with tape the places on the studio floor where he could get a feedback loop on any given note. So four feet away from his amp was an A, three feet away was a G, and so on. Fripp stepped and swayed through the song, his sound owed to a simple cartography.

Fripp ran through three takes, and the trebly nature of his playing (further distorted live by Eno’s EMS) meant that each solo on its own sounded thin and wavering. So Tony Visconti blended all three together, eventually bouncing them down to a single track, to achieve what Visconti called “a dreamy, floaty effect.”

As “Heroes” developed, Visconti further emphasized the pulsating drone by tweaking the rhythm tracks. Typically kick drum and snare drums are put in the forefront of a rock mix, but now Visconti buried Dennis Davis’ kick and instead brought up the bassline (played both by Murray’s bass and on one of Alomar’s guitar tracks), so that the latter bolstered the shuddering feel of Fripp’s guitar tracks and Eno’s low-oscillating synthesizer.

So much of “Heroes” is owed to improvisations. An intended horn section (at the start of the second verse) was replaced by a “brass” noise on Bowie’s Chamberlin (“it sounds more like a weedy little violin patch,” Visconti later said), while the Alomar/Murray basslines had been originally considered as string parts. When overdubbing percussion Bowie and Visconti even made do without a cowbell, instead using an empty tape canister that Visconti thwacked with a drumstick (it first appears at 2:55). The only other percussion is a tambourine that crops up in the final verse (at 3:56) and runs through the remainder of the track.

4. Reverberations (You Will Be Queen)

Though the backing track was finished, Bowie waited for weeks to write a lyric, then patched it together in one go. Listening to playback in his headphones, Bowie would write a line or two and swiftly get his vocal down on tape. Visconti would rewind to where Bowie had left off, then he’d write and record another line. (It’s in part why Bowie’s singing on “Heroes” doesn’t flow as much as it seems like a series of dramatic pauses and sudden stabs of phrases.)

Where the lyric of “Station to Station” had been a profusion of imagery hauled out of Bowie’s inventory of obsessions, “Heroes” is far more minimal, its words simple and precisely chosen. Bowie drew from two main sources, both European, both postwar(s). One was the short story “A Grave For A Dolphin” by the Italian aristocrat Alberto Denti Di Pirajno, which details a doomed affair between an Italian soldier and an Somalian girl during the Second World War (it inspired the “dolphins can swim” verse).*** (Bowie also nicked the occasional line from elsewhere: “I will be king, you will be queen” is from the English folk song “Lavender’s Blue,” which Bowie would sing onstage sometimes as a prelude to “Heroes.”)

Bowie had also been taken with an Otto Mueller painting he had seen in Die Brücke Museum, Liebespaar Zwischen Gartenmauern (Lovers Between Garden Walls), which Mueller had painted as World War I was ending. Bowie transplanted Meuller’s image of two lovers embracing by a high stone wall, placing them before the Wall that Bowie saw every day from Hansa’s control room window. As legend has it, Bowie was looking out that very window when he spied Visconti (who was married at the time, to Mary Hopkin) and the singer Antonia Maass embracing by the Wall. At once he had found his lyric’s resolution, a snapshot of love and bravery set against the concrete madness of governments, despite it being a shabby act, a man cheating on his wife. (The story, essential to the legend of “Heroes,” might not be true.****)

With Fripp, who usually provided the dramatics, instead working in the chorus line, it was left to Bowie to provide the contrast to the track’s overall stasis. The drama had to come with the vocal, and Bowie planned his singing as though he meant to take an entrenched position from a rival force.

Visconti set up three Neumann microphones in Studio 2, placing the first, a valve U47, directly in front of Bowie, about nine inches away from his face (using “fairly heavy compression, because I knew beforehand that he really was going to shout”). The second, a U87 stood about 15 to 20 feet away from Bowie and the third, another U87, was at the end of the room, some 50 feet away. The latter two mics had electronic gates: they would be switched off until triggered by Bowie hitting a certain volume. Once they were turned on, they would capture the sound of the entire room ringing with Bowie’s voice. (This also meant that Bowie, once he had triggered the other mics, had to go at full blast to keep them on, hence the histrionic tone of his singing—he sounds unhinged at times.)

The vocal was done in three takes (Visconti said most of the final vocal is from the last take, with a few punch-ins to correct stray notes). Bowie immediately moved to recording two tracks of backing vocals with Visconti (hence the faint Brooklyn accent you hear on “I remember” and “wall”), harmonizing in thirds and fifths below the lead vocal. The backing chorus, which generally comes in on the last note of each lead vocal phrase, is the last essential ingredient of the song—until now the singer’s been alone in his fantasies, so having another voice back him up adds a sense of reassurance at last. From the first line Bowie wrote and sang, to the last punch-in edit, it had taken about five hours.

5. Reputations (All the Shame Was On the Other Side)

For whatever reason, for whatever confluence of circumstances, Tony, Brian and I created a powerful, anguished, sometimes euphoric language of sounds. In some ways, sadly, they really captured, unlike anything else in that time, a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come to pass.

David Bowie, Uncut interview, 1999.

Bowie promoted “Heroes” across two continents, made a promo film, talked to any interviewer who would have him, but the single stiffed, only reaching #24 in the UK and not cracking the Billboard 100 in the US. “Heroes” soon took on another life, becoming a favorite on tour, and Bowie eventually would tailor it for grand moments—closing his Live Aid set with it, playing it in his tribute to Freddie Mercury and his tribute to the dead of 9/11. Of course “Heroes” has also been used to sell mobile phones, software, digital film, life insurance, football matches, HBO’s Latin American programming, hockey and rock star video games; it’s promoted a dopey comic book TV series, while a cover by the Wallflowers was used in an abysmal ’90s Godzilla remake.

None of this has reduced the original “Heroes.” One could argue it’s even strengthened the song. It seems to have been intended as a gift, crafted to be dispersed, to be carried in the air, used by whoever would have it.

At the Hurricane Festival in Scheeßel (the story ends back in Germany, as it seemingly had to), on 25 June 2004, Bowie closed his set with a restrained “Heroes.” He did a few other standards as encores, then he collapsed backstage, suffering what appears to have been a heart attack. Hurricane was the sudden end of the tour, and in retrospect seems the close of Bowie’s professional life. He’s appeared a couple more times on stage (last in 2006), but Hurricane was the terminus: there’ve been no more tours, no more records since.

So closing what could be his last show with “Heroes” seems fitting and just. “Heroes,” the most generous of Bowie’s songs, and possibly the saddest, sounds like Bowie’s farewell, fallen out of time.

Resources

Recorded at Hansa by the Wall, July-August 1977. Released as a single in September 1977 (RCA PB 1121, #24 UK), as were “Helden” (RCA PB 9168)—some argue it’s the definitive version of the song, and Bowie’s vocal is pretty tremendous (“ICH!!! ICH BIN DANN KOENIG!”)—and the French “Héros,” (RCA PB 9167), the dud of the bunch. Performed in every Bowie tour since 1978.

Along with the usual suspects in the “sources” list at the right side of the page (esp. Trynka, Pegg and Buckley), of great help for this entry was Phil Sutcliffe’s article on “Heroes” for Q, August 2005; Visconti’s essential interview with Sound on Sound, 2004, and his interview for the great, lost documentary Rock & Roll (1995: episode 7: “The Wild Side”); Mat Snow’s “Making ‘Heroes'” in Mojo‘s 60 Years of Bowie special (2007); guitar tabs in Play Guitar With David Bowie, which unfortunately is just for the single cut. Marcus’ “survivor” piece is his wonderful “Rock Death in the 1970s: A Sweepstakes,” Village Voice, 17 December 1979 (later collected in Fascist Bathroom).

Photos, top to bottom: Sibylle Bergemann, “Berlin, Palast der Republik,” 1978; Mueller, Liebespaar Zwischen Gartenmauern (1919);  “Englehaftetraumstoffe,” “Berlin, Ost 1977”; John Spooner, “Berlin Wall, 1978”; Unknown photog. (Landesbildstelle), East Berlin border at Niederkirchner Strasse, January 1977; Christian Simonpietri, “Eno, Fripp and Bowie,” Hansa Studios, ca. July 1977; “Klaus183,” Berlin Wall, 1978; Masayoshi Sukita, cover of “Heroes” (referencing Heckel’s Roquairol (1917) (as was the cover of The Idiot); “Helden” sleeve, 1977.

* In the US, its closest counterpart would be “The Man Who Sold The World”: a relative obscurity until the mid-1990s, now a Bowie standard.

** Most recently, and most terribly, in the version by the X Factor contestants, who took it to #1 in the UK last year (imagine if “Stars on 45” had charted higher than any actual Beatles singles).

*** Of course, Bowie would eventually marry a Somalian woman. He referenced the Denti novel in his introduction to her I Am Iman (2001).

**** Tobias Rüther, in his Helden: David Bowie und Berlin (2008), interviewed Maass, who claimed the lines weren’t about her and Visconti, as “Heroes” had been completed before their affair started, and that Bowie couldn’t have seen them together anyhow. Someone should do a feminist reading of the song—the male gaze (Bowie), the male protagonist (Visconti) and the oft-forgotten woman who claims that none of the story is true.


Weeping Wall

March 22, 2011

Weeping Wall.
Weeping Wall (live, 2002).

The last song recorded for Low, “Weeping Wall” was made entirely by Bowie at Hansa Studios, Berlin, and the track suffers from the loss of Brian Eno’s sense of texture and melody (Bowie basically just repeats the first few notes of “Scarborough Fair” here). “Wall” seems like laboratory work by a gifted student; it’s a rhythmic-pulse-centered piece greatly in debt to Steve Reich’s “Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ” (1973) and “Music for 18 Musicians,” whose European premiere (at the Metamusik Festival in Berlin, in early October 1976) Bowie attended.

Reich described “Music for Mallet Instruments” as being centered on “the building up, beat by beat, of a preexisting marimba or glockenspiel pattern, with the duplicate being one or more beats out of phase with the original…[this creates] more fast-moving activity, which then triggers the organ and voices into doubling, quadrupling and further elongating the duration of the notes they sing and play.”

Bowie obviously aimed for a similar structure, creating a rhythmic base of overlapping xylophone and vibraphone* patterns set against a sequenced synthesizer pulse, but Bowie’s composition remains rather inert—the xylophone/vibes line mutates but doesn’t range too far out of phase and it eventually gets diminished in the mix. In “Mallet Instruments” Reich intended for voices and electric organ to fuse into a single sound, producing “a new timbre that is both instrumental and vocal at the same time,” and Bowie attempts something similar here, often locking a wordless vocal track with a filtered synthesizer. Yet the latter simply appears at a designated metronome mark and fades away again at another cue; it’s detached from developing out of the rhythmic base. A stretch of distorted guitar (I believe) occupies the middle of the track, followed by the return of the voice/synth line, now accompanied by a Bowie vocal bassline and with a low-frequency oscillator used on the synth, creating a theremin-like sound (esp. around 2:30).

“Weeping Wall” was assembled, as were most of the Low instrumentals, by using a series of metronome clicks (160 this time): translated to common musical language in the sheet music, “Weeping Wall” is 97 bars in 3/4 time, followed by a repeated 8-bar outro. The bassline initially consists of four measures of a single quarter note, repeated six times per bar—so it starts with D, A, F, B, G, B, G, E and G#, and so on, with patterns emerging as the piece goes on (G major often gets flatted, then returns to the natural, for example).

Of the four Low instrumentals, “Weeping Wall” seems the most derivative and tentative, its influences obvious and perhaps too overpowering. It likely was a necessary step in Bowie’s development, as he would be far more assured when he returned to Hansa in July 1977 for the freer-ranging “Heroes.”

Before then, however, there was another Iggy record to make.

* According to Hugo Wilcken, the vibraphone was a relic abandoned long ago at the Hansa studio, and it was an early edition of the instrument (a marimbaphone with a distinct vibrato) as built by the creator of the vibraphone, Herman Winterhoff, in 1916. Hugo’s book on Low, which has been invaluable for these past entries, is greatly recommended.

Recorded October 1976, Hansa, Berlin. Performed live in New York on 11 June 2002 (as part of a live performance of the entire Low album), and used as opening music for later shows that year.

Top: Peter van Nugteren, “West Berlin, 1976.”