Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Bowie Top Six #3: Heroes, 1977

'Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming'

 

The David Bowie Archive 2012 Image/V&A Images

By 1976, David Bowie, superstar, was suicidal. His nose was always dripping, as if he had a perpetual cold. His cocaine addiction was veering out of control, like a vehicle with no brakes. 28, he had not quite made it through his Saturn return without dying like Hendrix, Morrison or Brian Jones but now, "I really did think that my thoughts about not making 30 would come true," he recalled. "Drugs had taken my life away from me. I felt as though I would probably die and it was going to be all over."


Bowie's Personal Assistant, Corinne 'Coco' Schwab, who was emerging as his key care taker and factotum, sorted him out. "My whole lifestyle at that time made me quite bonkers and I had a complete breakdown," Bowie confessed. "Coco was the one person who told me what a fool I was becoming and she made me snap out of it. She became the most important person in my life in the mid Seventies."

Together with Iggy Pop, who had been nursing his own drug problems in an LA mental hospital, Schwab moved Bowie to Berlin, helping him kick his cocaine addiction by seeking A New Career In A New Town. She found a seven-room apartment for them over an car parts shop at Hauptstraße 157 in the low-rent Schöneberg district. Reportedly, she would bring Bowie orange juice every morning and light his first cigarette of the day. The reminiscence of Ivan Kral, a Bowie acolyte who got to hang out there for an evening, gives an insight into what life at their shared  apartment was like as the druggy couple, Osterberg and Jones, were supposedly getting themselves clean and sober, even though, for Bowie, Berlin "turned out to be the heroin capital of Europe."

The seamy, smacky side of Berlin is starkly depicted in Christaiane F – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, a 1981 German film based on the non-fiction book of the same name, written following tape recordings of a teenage junky girl. Bowie is all over that film - in an early scene, Heroes plays on the soundtrack as a pack of teenage pick pockets run uproariously through a metropolitan shopping arcade - while, for fans, its highlight is a concert in which Bowie delivers an awesome Station To Station: "it's not the side effects of the cocaine; I'm thinking that it must be love." (See also: Mark Reeder’s B-Movie: Lust and Sound in West Berlin 1979-1989.) If one doesn't immediately connect Bowie with the soundtrack of another film about late 70s smack heads, Trainspotting, it's because he is in the wings, as the producer of Lust For Life, the title track of the second Iggy solo album made with Bowie in Berlin, which kick starts the film, its thundering drums mirrored by the running feet of Ewan McGregor, the lyrics still audible underneath his infamous "Choose life" monologue.

"It took me a long time to reach the bottom and it went through various stages," Bowie said of his recovery. "I went from drugs into an alcohol stage. For a while, one feels, 'Ah, I've kicked drugs,' but what I discovered was I had another addiction instead... One day, I realised that I really needed to stop losing myself in my work and in my addictions. What happens is you just wake up one morning and feel absolutely dead. You can't even drag your soul back into your body. You feel you have negated everything that is wonderful about life. When you have fallen that far, it feels like a miracle when you regain your love of life. That's when you can begin really looking for a relationship. When you can appreciate the whole concept of giving to someone, not just taking."

While Bowie may not have been quite ready to really look for as fulfilling a relationship as the one he later found with Iman, his brotherly love for Iggy flourished in the divided city of Berlin, helping them both to pull through. "He resurrected me." Mr. Pop told the New York Times. "He was more of a benefactor than a friend in a way most people think of friendship. He went a bit out of his way to bestow some good karma on me." First of all they brought through The Idiot, while travelling in France and Germany, working together on songs, Bowie often coming up with a riff and perhaps a title, Iggy finishing it with melodies and lyrics.

Stylistically and in terms of its monochrome cover art, The Idiot prefaces, Heroes. Probably its most influential track, Nightclubbing, inspired by after show excursions across Europe to such clubs as der Dschungel (‘Jungle’), an elegant ballroom in the posh part of Berlin, was recorded with a cheap synthesizer and an early drum machine. Bowie said, "I can’t put out a record like that," to which Pop replied, "But I can!" And Professor Bowie was pleased, for he realized this was a playground for him. "I always tried to encourage his worst impulses in those directions," says Ig. "I was a fan." And so began the most creatively fertile phase of Bowie's sprawling career when, collaborating with Brian Eno, he made what can now be seen as its great central triptych:  Low, Heroes & Lodger.

The story of how Heroes came into being is minutely documented at Bowiesongs, with a list of You Tube links to definitive performances (here's another 200 live performances!) and at soundonsound/classictracks. Tony Visconti tells the whole tale in his own words, with fascinating audio snippets, in episode two of the BBC Four programme, Music Moguls: Melody Makers.

Multi-layered, the rhythm of Heroes draws in the listener, while the vocalist builds from a crooning whisper almost to screaming point. The tune arose from a jam that initially sounded - according to Fripp - like yet another re-write of Waiting For The Man, involving the core trio of Carlos Alomar on guitar, George Murray on bass and Dennis Davis on drums, augmented by Bowie on piano, in which Carlos came up with the underlying riff. Then, the production team built the track, overdubbing over the course of a week, before Eno got out his EMS Synth. and set its oscillator 1 prog at a very low frequency rate to produce a shuddering, chattering effect that slowly builds up towards the end of the track. Then came Fripp.

In the terrific documentary, David Bowie: Five Years, Robert Fripp talks entertainingly about his guitar work on Heroes. Fripp and Eno were old allies, having collaborated on No Pussyfooting, and had developed a technique in which Frip played his guitar through Eno's EMS, so he could mess about with it. Plus, Fripp worked out exactly where to stand with his guitar, relative to the speaker, to make each note feed back. 'He really worked this out to a fine science,' according to Visconti. In order to achieve a dreamy, floaty effect, Fripp's treated guitar was then triple-tracked.

Bowie's lyrics, as usual, came last. While much has been made of his exploration of cut up techniques pioneered by Burroughs and Brion Gysin, Bowie was equally impressed by John Lennon's down-to-earth advice on songwriting: "say what you mean and put a back beat to it." (Lennon, BTW, characterised what Bowie did as, 'rock'n'roll with lipstick on.' Which is precisely the image he presented - in the form of a photo of Little Richard rocking a bright red suit - to Nile Rodgers when he felt the time had come to make a proper hit record.) Bowie was adept at saying what he saw and allowing his audience, each to supply their own individual meaning.

As legend has it, Bowie asked Tony to give him some space to finish the lyric and Romeo Visconti took the chance to schmooze Antonia Maas, a backing singer with whom he had been vibing. The two took a walk around the block and sat down for a snog on a bench by The Wall, where Bowie spotted them through the windows of Hansa Studios. 'What I do is I write mainly about very personal and rather lonely feelings, and I explore them in a different way each time,' the artist once explained. 'You know, what I do is not terribly intellectual. I’m a pop singer for Christ’s sake. As a person, I’m fairly uncomplicated.'

The lyric might be about the everyday heroism of those in recovery, not giving in, one day at a time; while insistent, there's a melancholy to the music that seems more tired than it is triumphant. It has become a universal anthem since Live Aid in 1985 ("I'd like to dedicate this song to my son, to all of our children and to all children of the world"); since the semi-acoustic version at The Bridge School fundraiser in 1996; ("We'd like to dedicate this song, as we did last night, to The Bridge School"); since the post-9/11 Concert for NYC on 20.10.01 ("I'd particularly like to say, 'hello,' to the folks from my local ladder... it's an absolute privilege to play for you tonight."). But when it came out, in September 1977, Heroes was just for us. It was strictly for the cognoscenti, posing valiantly in pegged pants at punk rock ravaged discos up and down the country. I joined that congregation, wearing the baggiest cricket whites I could borrow, the following Summer at Earl's Court for the London leg of the Stage tour. Look, I've still got the valuable badge!


What can I tell you? Of course, it was fantastic, although we were far from the stage, well back in the cheap seats and lucky to get 'em. The performance began with several bods behind banks of keyboards, one of whom turned out to be David Bowie, playing Warszawa, the doomy instrumental that opens side two of Low. It was so low key that it took us a minute to spot him! This gig may have been any one of three that Summer, but each had roughly the same set list, as documented by the first disc of Stage, the pristine recording of Bowie's 1978 tour, or on this much-loved bootleg of the July 1 show. Heroes comes next, second in the set, but I don't recall it as an especially big deal, beyond the delirium of actually being in the living presence of our hero. Video may contradict me, but in my memory, Bowie barely emerged from behind his keys for the first hour of the show, given over to tracks from Low & Heroes. The first words he addressed to the crowd directly were, "We are now going to take a twenty minute break."

(The second half of the show was greatest hits, with Bowie sporting the unfeasible pleated 'Bowie pegs,' the strides that launched a thousand looks, post-punk, as boys kept swinging. In memory, Bowie remained fairly static throughout, dropping dramatically to his haunches during the final encore, Rebel Rebel. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen or done!)

What Heroes meant to the veterans of the Punk Wars, who had defiantly posed down the King's Road even when the Teds were out in force and, in the provinces, braved ridicule and endured indifference for dressing in charity shop chic, was a barely articulated commitment to the cause of being cool. 'Clean living under difficult circumstances,' as Pete Meaden defined Mod for a previous g-g-g-generation. We couldn't all be heroes back then, not even just for one day, because not so many of us were aware that the option even existed to be the hero of your own life story, as opposed to the victim of its circumstances.

Heroes provided the template for the electronica that was to come next for teenage DJ, Rusty Egan, who ran a club night with his mate, the late Steve Strange, at The Blitz, a theme wine bar on the fringe of Covent Garden, that spawned the 'New Romantics,' aka the 'Cult with No Name'. The pair had started out running, 'Bowie Nights' at Billy's and went on to do a night called, 'Club For Heroes'. "Bowie’s Berlin Years, I believe, were the foundation of The Blitz Club playlist," Rusty Egan said, 20.09.10. "Via Bowie I found Kraftwerk, and that lead to Neu!, Can, Cluster and Krautrock as it was called, Bryan Ferry then led to the work of Brian Eno, and his Ambient series …all this music lead to the basis of my collection. If you join the dots Bowie, Eno, Iggy, Kraftwerk, Mick Ronson, Lou Reed... In 1979 I travelled to Dusseldorf and Berlin, collecting as much music as I could between Billy's and The Blitz, dropping, Helden - Bowie in German; Kraftwerk in German; Iggy Pop; Wolfgang Riechmann; Neu! Eno, Moroder, Romy Verbaarsschott - anything connected to David Bowie was always interesting and I played it in late 1979."

Some 35 years after his Berlin period, Bowie revisited those days in the song, Where Are We Now, with its intriguing video, the lead single from an unannounced album, with artwork that explicitly references Heroes, which slipped out unceremoniously on Bowie's 67th birthday, 08.01.13. The Berlin that Bowie and Iggy got to know is being squeezed by corporate money, like anywhere, but the old town is still there if you drink hard enough. Two years and two days after The Next Day was born, David Bowie died. Invited to a 21st birthday party on the following weekend, I presented the young man with my old but immaculate vinyl copy of Heroes. 

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