Sunday, November 1, 2020

Bowie and the Wall - 1987

Long time readers will note that AM strives for connections; each post is in some way related to the last and the past. James Burke's 1978 British Television series Connections worked that premise into a theme. The ten part series was a linear look at how discoveries through time, scientific achievements and world events built one upon the other until, bam, it was 1978. The show, filmed in 1977 (there’s a connection to our recent posts) was a starting point for this writer's fascination with holistic thought and our little planet's journey through space and time.

Often in the written history of rock, critics emphasize the ill-named "supergroup." One can find charts filled with arrows and squiggles that demonstrate how someone like Neil Young went from Buffalo Springfield to Crazy Horse to CSNY to solo artist to collaborating with Pearl Jam. But those kinds of connections (both in rock and here on AM) can reflect far headier importance. Rock music need not be as superficial in terms of its connections. Personally, I find the whole scenario fascinating: all those arrows and and algorithms that make up the supergroups and each evolution or revolution of an artist, and AM, of course, is designed to have a unique continuity, like putting together a party and wanting everything to look and sound just so. (For those of you who have noticed, thanks.) Over the past week, AM has evolved, at least momentarily, away from 1967 and explored the '77 of Talking Heads, Elvis Costello and those artists readily associated with David Bowie's most critically acclaimed period: Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Brian Eno (don't worry, we'll back track at some point in our connections to Roxy Music). Now it's time to connect with 1987, an incredible 20 year span.

In 1977, Bowie not only released Low but the equally over-the-top part 2 of the Berlin Trilogy, “Heroes.” That said, “Heroes” is not my favorite Bowie album, nor is it my favorite Bowie era. Indeed, although I have issues with the Thin White Duke, I appreciate that era a bit more. More often than "Warzawa," I crave the Johnny Mathis stylings of "Wild is the Wind" and "Word on the Wing," get lost in the science fiction of "TVC 15" and mired in the soul of that incredible production of "Win" from Young Americans. My favorite Bowie era is, as it should be, from Ziggy through Diamond Dogs (maybe including Pinups). I was a young teen, unsure of my sexuality and of my interests, but I wasn't unsure of music. Music was a constant and I had my cassette player and cassettes, those albums that I played simultaneously and incessantly. Aladdin Sane, The Who’s Quadrophenia, Zepplin's Houses of the Holy. I remember listening to humble pie quite a bit and then fully getting into my progressive years with Emerson Lake and Palmer, Jethro Tull or Gentle Giant, and don't forget Joni Mitchell's jazz tinkerings. I remember picking up Nico's Chelsea Girl and noting that one of the best songs on the album was by a kid from Californian by the name of Jackson Browne, "Fountain of Sorrow." There are connections everywhere; didn't the Beach Boys do backup vocals for Pink Floyd (well, in a way)?
Anyhow, I started this segment with the intent of talking about Bowie and moving from the “Heroes” of 1977 to the performance of the iconic track in front of the Berlin wall in 1987, two years before the fall. Here's where rock plays a greater role, where there's an incredible amount more importance than just whether or not the band that Carl Palmer played in before Emerson, Lake and Palmer was Atomic Rooster. 

And so, in 1987 Bowie set up shop in front of the wall in a divided city city of turmoil and severance. Berlin in 1987 was like Bowie's 1984; it had that sinister ideology and a wall down the middle; not a wall to keep people out, but to keep others in.

I, I can remember (I remember)
Standing, by the wall (by the wall)
And the guns, shot above our heads (over our heads)
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall (nothing could fall)
And the shame, was on the other side
Oh we can beat them, forever and ever
Then we could be heroes, just for one day

The "wall" in question was of course the Berlin Wall, which divided the city so ominously at the time. Bowie initially maintained that the song's protagonists were an anonymous couple who would meet by the Berlin Wall, but in 2003 he told Performing Songwriter the song was inspired by Tony Visconti, the record producer. Bowie recalls, "I'm allowed to talk about it now. I wasn't at the time. I always said it was a couple of lovers by the Berlin Wall that prompted the idea. Actually, it was Tony Visconti and his girlfriend. Tony was married at the time. And I could never say who it was [laughs]. But I can now say that the lovers were Tony and a German girl that he'd met whilst we were in Berlin. I did ask his permission if I could say that. I think possibly the marriage was in the last few months, and it was very touching because I could see that Tony was very much in love with this girl, and it was that relationship which sort of motivated the song.

"I'll never forget that. It was one of the most emotional performances I've ever done. I was in tears. They'd backed up the stage to the wall itself so that the wall was acting as our backdrop. We kind of heard that a few of the East Berliners might actually get the chance to hear the thing, but we didn't realize in what numbers they would. And there were thousands on the other side that had come close to the wall. So it was like a double concert where the wall was the division. And we would hear them cheering and singing along from the other side. God, even now I get choked up. It was breaking my heart. I'd never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again. When we did "Heroes" it really felt anthemic, almost like a prayer. However well we do it these days, it's almost like walking through it compared to that night, because it meant so much more.

And that is one of the greatest connections one could fathom.