On Second Thought
David Bowie - "Heroes"

By: Ian Mathers

Posted 06/15/2004 - 11:25:36 AM by naiveteenidol:
 Very nice, Ian. Not only do I find myself agreeing with you on point, you def. captured a sense of the record and why it was such a landmark in his catalog.
Posted 06/15/2004 - 09:23:03 PM by dmicevic:
 I agree. You've perfectly described one of my favorite albums. Blackout is by far one of the best songs he recorded and I was particularly pleased with the way you honored it here.
Posted 06/15/2004 - 11:14:11 PM by IanMathers:
 Thanks, guys. This one was much easier to write than the one for "Low".
Posted 06/16/2004 - 01:54:44 AM by BryanNeil:
 "Secret Life of Arabia" is totally out of place and mood killing. I think it's a sub par song anyway. As for the rest, I generally agree.
Posted 06/16/2004 - 06:36:19 AM by scottmckeating:
 Great writeup. I'd be happy for you to do all of Bowie's stuff if its as good as the last few.
Posted 06/16/2004 - 10:30:01 AM by capnandtennile:
 Personally, I thought 'The Secret Life of Arabia' was a perfect way to end the album--if you've seen 'Lawrence of Arabia', that is. Lawrence was tormented by the fact that he could never truly be one of the Arabs, no matter how many of their customs he affected, no matter how closely connected to their way of life and their cause he felt. He must have wondered at times whether his command over them was some kind of elaborate farce, despite moments of honest and unquestionable emotion. Obviously there's a great deal to be said about the movie, but the main question here is what it could mean in the context of David Bowie--who may not have been writing about it (the line about the dying heroine in 'The Secret Life of Arabia', which effectively recalls the album's title track, obviously has nothing to do with 'Lawrence'). One way of approaching that question is to ask 'is "Heroes" really glam rock, or had Bowie already finished with glam rock by the time he got to Berlin?' I think Mr. Mathers is right to point out the 'slightly camp spin' on some of the tracks, which certainly hints at glam rock. But what really reveals that "Heroes" is not just a glam record, but in fact the culmination of glam, is how often and how well it confronts the problem and paradox of glam rock: the puzzling simultaneity of authenticity and pretense that we find in both art and life. Everyone who loves pop music knows that even deliberately theatrical songs like 'Time' (from Aladdin Sane) are not only theater. When Bowie sings 'I look at my watch, it says 9:25/and I think oh God! I'm still alive' in the middle of his cabaret act, one can't help think that at that instant theater is only a medium for the expression of emotion; like an opaque membrane that separates us from a bright light, which, at certain points of intensity, becomes momentarily transparent, and allows us to be dazzled by what lies behind it. This, of course, is not to say that this membrane can ever be broken, or that theater can ever actually be done away with. All of this brings us to the title track, which deliberately puts 'heroes' in quotation marks. The song has a tragic and heroic force to it that most listeners don't think to look beyond. But the lyrics suggest that perhaps we shouldn't be taking these 'heroes' (the lovers in the song) very seriously. Bowie has pointed out this too-often-ignored element in interviews: the topic of the song is really a pair of alcoholic lovers. 'Heroes' indeed. The title track, then, walks the line between authenticity and pretense--a line that has become very thin. These alcoholic lovers have no right to talk about dolphins and guns and kings and queens and expect us to think that they're anything more than alcoholic lovers--a fact that they recognize. And yet we still believe the narrator when he says 'we can be heroes'. How can this be? If the quotation marks around 'heroes' are meant to suggest, as Mr. Mathers writes, that Bowie is now 'purely human', we must conclude that this only means that he has a deeper relation to pretense than he ever did when he was playing a role like Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, or the Thin White Duke; if there is such a thing as the 'purely human', it is a sequence of 'pretense' and 'authenticity' that shakes the division between the two and collapses them into one another: the sublime climax of '"Heroes"'. On 'The Secret Life of Arabia' Bowie is shifting, elusive, mysterious. It is impossible to nail him down. He spins pretense around until it becomes vision; he retreats to an endless succession of caves behind caves and illusions behind illusions. Glam, and even Bowie himself, never went further than this.
Posted 06/16/2004 - 03:05:03 PM by IanMathers:
 Wow. That is an excellent piece of writing, capnandtennile, and I think it offers a perfect supplement to what I've wrote. Some of the stuff you have I'd thought about adding in, and some of it is stuff I could have never come up with (I don't know that much about glam rock, for example, and although I've seen "Lawrence Of Arabia" and I think you're right about the connection, it had never occurred to me). In other words, all that is stuff I would/should have added in if I'd had the time/space/imagination/talent to do so. I think our interpretations of ""Heroes"" are not necessarily contradictory, though - I'd never read where Bowie confirmed the song was about alcoholic lovers, and without that information the one line ("and I, I'll drink all the time") would have been a bit thin to base a thesis on. But with that knowledge, oh how much more beautiful and sad the song becomes! One part I didn't put in (because if I tried to put in this article everything I feel about the album, Todd would have had to have knocked a good 20 pages off of it) is the crucial importance, in my opinion, of the lines "and we kissed / as though nothing could fall". What I would have said about that, and some of the other lines, would have dovetailed nicely with your points, but I didn't want to give into the temptation to make 90% of the article about ""Heroes"" the song. In any case, thank you for posting such an incisive bit of commentary; I think you've achieved the two aims of such writing, firstly you've cast the album in a subtly different light for me (and others, I'm sure) and secondly you've reduced the author to a jealous bout of "Why didn't I think of that?" Kudos.
Posted 06/16/2004 - 03:06:14 PM by IanMathers:
 Oh, and Scott, thanks for the compliment, but unless I win the lottery some day, my Bowie collection will probably just remain these four albums, and maybe a best-of for good measure. So it'd be hard for me to write about any of the other albums!
Posted 06/17/2004 - 01:56:39 PM by IanMathers:
 I wanted to write more about the song without wasting space here, so if anyone's interested, check it out here: http://fractional.blogspot.com/2004_06_01_fractional_archive.html#108749476282208575
Posted 07/05/2005 - 11:26:09 PM by IanMathers:
 It's now at http://fractional.blogspot.com/2004/06/wednesdays-emotional-setup-heroes.html