Nothing Will Drive Them Away
Over on the Pleasant Valley Sunday blog, Mister Pleasant posted the rare U.S. single mix of David Bowie's "Rebel Rebel," which I'd never heard before.
Great flange effects, weird phased vocals, odd instruments that wander drunkenly in and out. It's a pretty great and adventurous approach to a very familiar song that makes it really jump out all these years later.
Speaking of David Bowie, I was listening to his great song "Heroes" today.
Really listening. Maybe for the first time. Which is weird since I've heard the song thousands of times on the radio in the past few decades.
I knew it was recorded in Berlin -- part of Bowie's trilogy of Berlin albums he made with Brian Eno. I knew the song had a swirling swath of synths and Robert Fripp weird-ass guitar parts. And I knew it was a lot less of a traditional pop or rock & roll song than a lot of his 70s hits.
But I'd never really listened to the words.
It's the story of two doomed lovers kissing in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. He bravely proclaims that they can be Heroes.
The vocals are so filled with yearning and desperation. The singer doesn't believe what he's singing for a minute, but hope to convince himself (and his lover) by the sheer act of singing these words.
Not only does the vocal fit in beautifully to the music, but the desperate tone fits in perfectly with the ironic lyrics. And Bowie must have known this because he put the title in quotes to draw attention to the fact that it was never quite what it seemed.
But even the singer's resolve falters. By the end of the song he declares: "We're nothing, and nothing can help us," adding "Maybe we're lying -- then you better not stay." But as the guitars and Eno's detuned low-frequency synth notes swallow up the couple, the singer ambiguously wants something (maybe anything) just for one day.
Years later, the song would largely lose its irony. The Berlin Wall would come down (and the very idea of what Berlin means artistically would change drastically). Bowie would sing the song unironically at Live Aid (which he says is his favorite version of the song) -- that version leaves me cold, although I think it's cool that the band included Thomas Dolby on keyboards and former Soft Boy Matthew Seligman on bass). Bowie would sing the song at the Concert for New York City following 9/11 -- again without the irony. And despite its failure as a single in the 70s, the song has found a second life through commercial and film licensing (and at thousands of sporting events).
But for me the original version is the one that resonates. We've all had moments of intense longing and desperation. Moments when we speak our desires as loud as we can, knowing the chances for success are practically zero but hoping against hope that the proclamation will carry us through.
Even if it's just for one day. (Click for the higher-quality YouTube version or watch the 9th generation copy below.)