Of all of David Bowie’s trippy musical sojourns throughout the years, his German version of the song Heroes still stands out. Maybe the sadness and resignation of bits like the famous signature refrain – “We could be heroes, just for one day” – simply works better in German, the rougher cadences capturing the song’s grittiness and melancholy better than the softer syllables of the original English. Or maybe the German version just feels right, for the obvious reason that the song’s protagonists seem to find themselves floundering in a divided Berlin in the middle of the Cold War.
I really don’t know. I also didn’t know Bowie had cancer (did you?), which is why the news of his passing yesterday came out of absolutely nowhere.
Even though he had released a new album on his birthday just a few days ago, Bowie had pretty much faded from my radar over the past few years. But in my head he remained the way he had always been: an ever-present fixture – someone who’d surely always be around when we needed him, as immovable, as indestructible, as music itself. So now it’s surreal that he’s gone.
The German Foreign Office sent out a Tweet in English yesterday: “Goodbye, David Bowie. You are now among Heroes. Thank you for helping to bring down the wall.”
Bowie did indeed have a thing for Germany. He lived in Berlin during the wild 1970s, bunking with Iggy Pop and pedaling his bike regularly around Schöneberg and Kreuzberg. He recorded Low and Heroes there. Maybe that’s why Heroes, the song, works so well in German. The title is, after all, a nod to Kraftwerk’s spin-off band, Neu!, and clearly the swirling angst of a still divided German capital had settled firmly into Bowie’s psyche and songs.
When Bowie preened and posed through his now legendary set at The Concert for Berlin near the Reichstag later in 1987, thousands of Germans trapped behind the wall in the East crowded in close to hear Ziggy Stardust croon from the other side, the free and hopeful and magical side just a few scant meters beyond the concertina wire. And, as the story goes, some wept, and Bowie wept, and a kind of electrical charge zapped through East Berlin, jolting a demoralized people clamoring in unison for real heroes.
Not to force the metaphor too much, but David Bowie helped bring down a few walls – some musical, some cultural; and yeah, also, quite possibly, one a massive eyesore of Soviet masonry that had once sliced Germany’s capital in two.
Goodbye, David Bowie. And yes, vielen Dank.