Once upon a time, I came across a live version of “Heroes,” a song co-written by David Bowie and Brian Eno; it blew me away, and stayed with me for the last four years, keeping me going, picking me up, and always, always taking my breath away. In 2019, sometime between January 8th and 10th, I went to a wonderful Choir! Choir! Choir! session, where we performed “Heroes;” I was in the middle section singing backing vocals, which, in my very limited choir experience, always meant studying a song in-depth, feeling its texture, and letting it flow through your body. It felt like such a real and such a proper way to celebrate this great soul.
I see “Heroes” as a living and breathing creation, imbued by the magic of Eno’s ambient flowing sound and Bowie’s energetic and captivating melody. The lyrics are minimalist, and according to David himself, have a simple explanation. The studio where he and Brian Eno worked had a view on the Berlin Wall, and every day, “around the lunch hour,” David would spot a couple of lovers sitting on a bench by the Wall, just under the guard, “under the gun,” eating sandwiches, kissing and cuddling. “It struck me as ironic – of all the hundreds of places they could have met in West Berlin, they met under the Wall. So I presume they felt a little guilty about their affair, unconsciously drawn there because of this illicit thing going on… I suppose they gave their affair credibility by regarding it as an act of heroism.” However, despite this seemed simplicity, the words and the sounds (just like with all tracks on “Low” and “Heroes” albums) are so dense that the more you look, the more you see – from the overwhelming sense of a singularity of a moment (“just for one day”) to the deep sadness for the impossibility to hold on to this unique moment; from the sense of imminent danger and isolation to the affirmation of the immense freedom that defies all borders and walls. Four years ago, it spoke to me like a triumphant song of liberation and endless possibilities; now I see it more as a cry of faint hope, especially when it gets to the last part, and you can hear a growing sense of pain in Bowie’s voice.
The most poignant live version of “Heroes” I was able to find is from the 1978 Isolar II Tour. Played in a very slow and hypnotic tempo, it features the cosmic duet of violin and guitar flowing through the song, resonating against the walls of this concert hall. Bowie’s face is sad and solemn, showing no usual playfulness or smiles, and his posture speaks of the extreme vulnerability. The quiet compressed emotion of the first verses breaks free into a cry of desperation in the middle eight (“I can remember…”), and David grasps the mic stand as if trying to regain balance, to hold on to something, to keep on standing. Watching this amazing document from the Berlin Trilogy era, I can’t help but think of the final reinterpretation that this song underwent in “Lazarus” when it became a heartbreaking ballad about the eternal parting of the ways.
I would also like to mention the 1992 live performance, because it documents the only time Queen and Bowie played together on one stage, at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. We witness these two universes collide “just for one day,” with their unique sounds equally contributing to this powerful celebration of Freddie’s life, as well as everyone suffering from this disease. This version goes back to their common roots, to Trident Studios, to Queen I and Ziggy Stardust albums, to the time when Mick Ronson played in the Spiders From Mars band. The visible tragedy of Freddie’s passing is doubled by the hidden and yet impending one, the terminal illness of Mick, soon to be taken away too; his unforgettable performance on this stage turned out to be his swan song. In this context, “Heroes” is indeed a hymn, followed by a real prayer, David’s spontaneous and loving gesture. It is no wonder that now all shows of Queen and Adam Lambert are concluded with the recording of “Heroes.”
The last video that I chose for my little essay is from the 2002 Heathen Tour; thanks to this recording I fell utterly in love with this song four years ago – by coincidence, around the same time when I became an ardent Queen fan – that’s how the stars were aligned that year. I love how it opens, carelessly and casually, with a big mug and a lighthearted smile (“I drink all the time”!), accentuated by the subtle bass line played by Gail Ann Dorsey; how the iconic guitar riff quietly sets in, to burst out in the third verse. I love how the band carries this energy, how their faces lighten up, and how they support their leader. And while I think that other emotional layers are still present in this performance, it is prevailed by a firm refusal to succumb to the darkness and powered by an everlasting force that always wins in the end.
These three performances, along with the album recording, accompany me these days. Now that we approach the first anniversary of the pandemic in Canada, David’s words about the terrible disease at Freddie’s Tribute perfectly describe our times – and yet, we keep on going, we sing, we listen, and we hope that “we can be safer just for one day.”
Katya Neklyudova, March 2021