Mia Gallagher, Ireland
David Bowie: Heroes
Mia Gallagher reflects with David Bowie’s "Heroes" on the past and present of Europe - and on the possibility of heroism today.
By Mia Gallagher
In 1984, I sat my Leaving Cert, the Irish equivalent of the Abitur. It was Orwell’s year, the year of the real Big Brother, Reagan was coming to Ireland, I was in my first long-term relationship and apocalypse was everywhere. If this new disease AIDS didn’t get us, the Bomb would. I listened to David Bowie every afternoon cramming for my exams. ‘Heroes’, ‘Low’ and ‘Station to Station’ are the albums I think of most, remembering those hot, anxious days at the peak of the Cold War. Every so often I’d get up from my studies, dance and sing along. I often misheard the words: until I checked the lyrics of ‘Heroes’ last week, I thought it was ‘the stars’ that ‘shone above our heads’, not the guns that shot there.
Listening to ‘Heroes’ brought me to a place of exaltation I still find hard to put into words. It’s a magnificent, bleeding piece, resonating on many levels. Those majestic opening chords. Those lovers – less Romeo and Juliet, more a bleak, defiant Heloise and Abelard, stealing a kiss before life steals it off them. That central double image – the Wall and Berlin. Crucible and fault-line of my teenage self’s Europe, trench and battleground, irrefutably material symbol of a continent’s scarred history – and its modernity.
I didn’t get to know ‘Heroes’ till 1981, four years late, but there’s a connection between us that goes back to its genesis. In July 1977, as Bowie was recording it at Hansa Studios in Berlin, I too was in Germany, but on the other side of the Wall – staying with my great-aunt Eva on the Nordsee coast. Eva’s sister, my grandmother Lisa, had left Germany in the 1930s to marry Roland, an Irish dentist and former revolutionary. By 1977, it had been years since Eva had seen Lisa’s family, so my parents decided to take us to the DDR on holidays.
Picture this: as Bowie, looking through his studio window, sees producer Tony Visconti share an illicit kiss with a German girl under the shadow of the Wall, 250 kilometres north my siblings and I bask, oblivious, in the warm sand of the Warnemünde coast. My mum would describe East Germany as grey and fearful, but I always think of it in technicolour – blue sea, yellow sand. Anomalies did catch my ten-year-old eye: the nice couple living in Eva’s basement who, I later learnt, were installed when the DDR seized the property as a house for State-allowed medical practitioners. And the camera Eva gave Dad, which he had to scuff up before we left so Eva wouldn’t be prosecuted for smuggling.
Eva died in the early eighties. In late 1984, after finishing my ‘Heroes’-soundtracked Leaving Cert, I travelled again to Germany, this time to the West. I au paired for six months, then Interrailed, spending ten days in West Berlin. I remember standing at the Wall near the Brandenburg Gate, watching the DDR soldiers on patrol dance a strange polka across the grass to avoid a network of hidden landmines. In 1986, I went back, stayed two nights in Kreuzberg. I never crossed over into the East, while it was still the DDR. Did I forget to? Or did I just want to keep my memories technicolour?
Three years later the Wall was gone. I’ve a piece of it in front of me now.
Though nothing, nothing will keep us together
We can beat them, forever and ever
Oh, we can be heroes just for one day
I often get the words wrong. In the lyrics above there’s a single thought – they’ll never defeat us because by being heroes for one day, we’ll beat them forever. But like the shooting guns I misread as shining stars, I always thought that ‘Oh’ was ‘Or’ – so I never heard that lyric as fully triumphant. To me there was another layer underneath: half-choice, half-resignation. We’d like to beat them forever but we probably can’t, so instead maybe we should settle for one day. My Europe now is no less precarious than my teenage one. New trenches are forming, new guns shooting. This year, on the 21st anniversary of the Good Friday Peace Agreement, bullets from one killed 29-year old journalist Lyra McKee in Derry, a faultline city with its own Wall. In an era of insect extinctions, the word ‘forever’ has never seemed more nebulous. So forgive me if I stay with my misreading and instead of eternity, choose to focus on single moments – Greta Thunberg speaking truth to power, McKee’s family asking for dialogue, not retribution – which might, just for one day, make me believe heroism is still possible.