David Bowie’s death was announced today and I learned something important about him. Not only was he a talented musician and actor, he was also a history maker.
This from the German Foreign Office: “Good-bye, David Bowie. You are now among #Heroes. Thank you for helping to bring down the #wall #RIPDavidBowie”
In June 1987, David Bowie returned to the divided city of Berlin for a concert that some Germans, still view as having helped change story.
In 1977, the year Bowie recorded Heroes, the second of his three Berlin albums, East German border guards shot and killed 18-year-old Dietmar Schwietzer as he tried to flee west across the wall; a few months later, 22-year-old Henri Weise drowned trying to cross the Spree River. Heroes was haunted by the Cold War themes of fear and isolation that hung over the city. Its still-famous title track tells a story of two lovers who meet at the wall and try, hopelessly, to find a way to be together.
Bowie returned for the Concert for Berlin, a three-day open-air show in front of the Reichstag, he chose “Heroes” for his performance. The wall couldn’t keep out radio waves., 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. You could hear them cheering and singing along from the other side.
“The mood was one of enjoying forbidden fruit,” Olof Pock, then a 15-year-old kid living in East Berlin, later told Deutsche Welle. “We knew that this was somehow being done for our benefit.”
When Bowie performed on the second night, he began by telling the crowd, in German, “We send our wishes to all our friends who are on the other side of the wall.” He sang “Heroes,” the song he’d recorded in Berlin a decade earlier amid the city’s Cold War fear and violence.
Though “Heroes” is today remembered as an anthem of optimism and defiance, its lyrics capture the hopelessness and desperation of a city divided, friends and family in the East kept apart from their loved ones in the West by violence and terror. The song’s narrator pleads, “I wish you could swim / Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim,” a reference to the East Germans, like Weise, who died trying to cross the Spree.
The lyrics, remembered in this context, are tragic, each verse ending with the line “nothing can keep us together”:
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
The song ends with a plea that eventually things will change, if only for a day:
We’re nothing, and nothing will help us
Maybe we’re lying, then you better not stay
But we could be safer, just for one day
On the final day of the three-day show, East German authorities decided that they’d had enough. Police in areas near the wall, where young East Berliners had gathered to listen, cracked down violently, attacking people with water cannons and arresting some 200. “They kept arresting people, dragging them along the surface of the street. It was like a horror movie. We were enraged,” an eyewitness told Deutsche Welle.
“Many of the eyewitnesses claim that the violent police crackdown on the third night of the concerts … were crucial in changing the mood against the state,” the Guardian has written. East German authorities, by overreacting, had turned the gathering of concert listeners — people who just wanted to hear music — into a subversive political act.
A week later, US President Ronald Reagan visited West Berlin and, standing in front of the city’s famous Brandenburg Gate, called on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”
Reagan’s speech, along with the Concert for Berlin a week earlier, had helped change the mood around the wall, which had stood in some form or another for more than a generation.