The Meaning Behind “Heroes” by David Bowie

the meaning behind “heroes” by david bowie

The Meaning Behind “Heroes” by David Bowie

Few songs in the world of rock music rival the enduring significance of David Bowie’s “Heroes.” Unveiled in September 1977, the song transcended the boundaries of conventional rock to become something much greater: a tour de force in songwriting and a social anthem of extraordinary import.

Drawing inspiration from an eclectic array of cultural artifacts and real-life experiences, the genesis of Bowie’s “Heroes” is as intriguing as its eventual impact. With influences ranging from Otto Mueller’s 1916 painting Lovers Between Garden Walls, which Bowie observed first-hand in Berlin with close friend Iggy Pop, to Alberto Denti di Pirajno’s 1956 short story A Grave for a Dolphin, “Heroes” is every bit the cultured mosaic you’d expect from Bowie.

But beyond these artistic influences, the soul of “Heroes” was ignited by the lived experience of love and rebellion. It was kickstarted by a real-life affair involving a close colleague of Bowie. Herein lies the brilliance of “Heroes”: it is not just a musical masterpiece but a tapestry woven from diverse threads of art, literature, and the complexities of the human experience.

The Meaning Behind the Song

“Heroes” is a magnum opus in Bowie’s career, a narrative detailing the tale of a love so potent it dares to defy the towering Berlin Wall and the politically tumultuous environment it represents. The song’s now-iconic lines, “We can be heroes, just for one day,” serve as a declaration of resilience and hope. Bowie didn’t just pen an inspiring rock song; he created a narrative that converses with the listener, encouraging self-discovery and courage amid adversity.

The lyrical inspiration for “Heroes” was drawn from a real-life romantic relationship between Tony Visconti, Bowie’s celebrated producer, and backup singer Antonia Maass. Bowie witnessed their rendezvous “by the wall” from his Hansa Studio window, a scene so potent he couldn’t ignore its artistic allure. While initially restrained by the need to protect Visconti’s marital status, Bowie would later confirm that the song was indeed inspired by the love-struck couple.

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 Writer of the Song

Bowie teamed up with the equally innovative Brian Eno to produce “Heroes.” During a self-imposed exile from a poor experience in Los Angeles, Bowie relocated to Berlin in 1976. Here, in a humble apartment above an auto repair shop, the duo dove into an experimental phase that resulted in critically acclaimed “Berlin trilogy” albums Low, Heroes, and Lodger. These projects were less commercial, but brimming with creativity, rejuvenating Bowie’s waning passion for music.

Facts About the Song

  • “Heroes” was recorded in Berlin’s famed Hansa Studios. The studio’s proximity to the Berlin Wall, often under the watchful gaze of East German guards, added an atmospheric tension that permeated the track.
  • Besides the partnership of Bowie and Eno, renowned guitarist Robert Fripp of King Crimson played a crucial role in creating the song’s distinctive guitar sound.
  • Surprisingly, despite its enduring legacy, “Heroes” was not initially a commercial success. It peaked at No. 24 on the UK Singles Chart. It was only with time that its significance and popularity grew.
  • Demonstrating his versatile artistry, Bowie recorded “Heroes” in multiple languages, including English, German, and French.

Impact of the Song

Beyond its initial purpose as a love song, “Heroes” grew into a symbol for a divided Berlin. It hit an emotional crescendo when Bowie performed it at a concert near the Berlin Wall in 1987, two years before its eventual fall. In an interview, Bowie described the performance as emotionally overwhelming, both for him and for the divided audiences on either side of the wall who were united, even if briefly, by the power of music. Although not a primary catalyst for the wall’s downfall, the song’s role in that momentous period is hard to overlook.

Final Thoughts

David Bowie’s “Heroes” is a song that transcends the confines of its genre to ask poignant questions about love, courage, and humanity’s capacity for change. Whether you’re hearing it anew or revisiting it for the umpteenth time, the song beckons you to engage with it emotionally and intellectually. In that regard, “Heroes” is not just a musical piece; it’s an enduring anthem, forever etched into the social and cultural fabric of our time.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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