David Bowie, "'Heroes'"

>> Friday, January 15, 2016

We should be clear: the name of the song is "'Heroes'", not "Heroes".  Scare quotes.  Quotey fingers "heroes".  "Heroes" who are mean, who are drunk all the time, who are nothing and mean nothing.

It's a mean song.

Those quotes are a slight, vital thing.  One time, Bob Dylan's kid did a cover of "'Heroes'" for the soundtrack of that terrible Godzilla movie that Roland Emmerich made, and it's very sincere.  Which is about what you'd expect, actually, from The Wallflowers, but it's obviously a problem.  Sincerity is a stake through this song's heart.

A slightly less-mediocre cover would probably double down on the sarcasm, sneer it up a bit.  Which would be better, but not by much.  There's grief here.  For all the cynicism and hopelessness in lines like, "nothing will keep us together," and, "nothing will drive them away," the song is neither hopeless nor cynical.  It may seem silly to observe that someone's nailed the vocal on a song they wrote, but have faith that it's harder than it sounds.  Bowie, anyway, nails it: it's a vocal that manages to be world-weary yet yearning, cruel yet sad, gutted and un-.  It's a voice that still hopes one good day is sufficient, even as the singer knows it never could be.  

Technical things you may already know.  That the wailing sound is being made by King Crimson's Robert Fripp, controlling the feedback of his guitar with a mix of custom electronics and moving around the studio.  That the weird electronic sounds are being caused by co-writer Brian Eno.  That the wonderful vocal effect (this is my favorite part of all this) was created by producer Tony Visconti using multiple gated microphones set up at different distances in the studio (Wikipedia says nine inches, twenty feet, and fifty feet, which seems large, but what do I know?).

How that works, if you don't know: each microphone was set up with a noise gate, a filter that would only close the circuit once the signal rose to a certain level.  That is, if the sound was below a certain threshold, the gate wouldn't allow the signal to go through to the mixing board.  And so when Bowie is singing quietly, only the closest microphone is picking up his voice and passing it through; if the other microphones can "hear" him, the signal is too low for the gate to pass his voice through.  And then when Bowie sings a little louder, it trips the next closest microphone, and now his voice is coming through two mikes, but the second mike is getting a very slight delay and picking up a lot more of the room noise.  And then Bowie lets loose, and the third gate opens, and this is where you're hearing that epic room ambiance, all that space that you're not really supposed to hear and the sound of Bowie's voice bouncing off whatever else was in the room, the walls and the gear, and there's that subtle chorusing that comes in with it.

It's clever.  It's awesome.  I don't know who else has pulled the trick, I'm sure someone has and it sounded wonderful but maybe not quite so wonderful.  This is a special song.

Now and again, I wonder if it dates itself, if you have to be old to grok everything happening there.  Bowie sings,

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, for ever and ever
Then we could be heroes, just for one day

These are guards, at the Berlin Wall, which isn't a thing anymore.  "Heroes", the album (still with the ironic quotation marks) was recorded in 1977, in West Berlin, when Bowie and Iggy Pop were trying to not die.  West Berlin was a place at the time, now it's just Berlin, and whatever moral clarity a wall cast (none, if you believe John le Carré, and I do and yet I wonder, even having lived through the end of it) is gone.  It was supposedly harder to get drugs in West Berlin, which seems plausible since the city was under geographic siege, a little bubble connected to the free world by one thin rail line and by air.  "We kissed, as though nothing could fall," but eventually the damn thing did and now everything is better for everyone and we don't have any problems with the Russians anymore, nor anyone else.

(There are days, really only moments, that I think back to it and feel a wicked twinge of nostalgia for an era with a Star Wars-esque polarity, the world in which the forces of Evil were battled by the forces of Mostly-Not-Nearly-As-Evil, when things were starkly black-and-ecru.)

"Heroes" is, obviously, Bowie's best record, aside from all his other best records.  Bowie's most famous as a vocalist, which is a little funny since he was sort of a failed sax player (that line, I swear, I'm sure is his, but I'll be damned if I can find the quote or interview at the moment; if you see it, let me know); "Heroes" is about half instrumentals, jazzy, spacey things he and Eno concocted.  Most of side two, or the latter half of the CD if you're modern, doesn't even have lyrics or much lyrics.  And we love, love, love Bowie's voice, of course, but "Heroes" is a great showcase of Bowie the composer, Bowie the experimentalist.  Indeed, it's one of the records (I'd like to say "few," but that would require counting and probably discovering I'm totally wrong) where he doesn't offer any cover versions; but it's still a treat.

Amid all the instrumental fabulosity, however, there's this perfect vocal, perfectly recorded.  A heroic performance, if you will.


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