In June 1987, David Bowie returned to the divided city of Berlin for a concert that some Germans, rightly or wrongly, still view as having helped change history.
Bowie knew West Berlin well. He'd lived there for three years in the late 1970s, sharing an apartment in the Schöneberg neighborhood with Iggy Pop, escaping from the drugs and over-the-top glam of his early career into the city's expressionism and art pop. It was there that Bowie recorded three of the albums for which, upon his death today from cancer at the age of 69, he is still remembered and cherished.
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.
A decade later, when, in 1987, Bowie returned for the Concert for Berlin, a three-day open-air show in front of the Reichstag, he chose "Heroes" for his performance. By then the city's Soviet-dominated East had become safer, but it had not become more free. Rock music was treated as a destabilizing threat.
But the wall couldn't keep out radio waves; the West German–operated, US-run radio station Radio in the American Sector was popular in the East, and had secured rare permission from the performing acts to broadcast the show in its entirety. (Record labels typically opposed this in the 1980s, knowing listeners would record the broadcasts, undercutting album sales.) The concert was held near enough to the border that many East Berliners crowded along the wall to listen to the forbidden American and British music wafting across the city, allowing these two halves of the city to hear the same show, divided but together.
"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
Here is the performance:
"It was one of the most emotional performances I've ever done. I was in tears," Bowie later said of his performance in Berlin. He went on:
We kind of heard that a few of the East Berliners might actually get the chance to hear the thing, but we didn’t realize in what numbers they would. 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. And we would hear them cheering and singing along from the other side. God, even now I get choked up. It was breaking my heart. I’d never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again.
The day after Bowie sang, a West German broadcaster named Christoph Lanz, who emceed the show, visited a friend in the East. "When it was time for me to leave, he said with teary eyes how much he wished he could go with me," Lanz later recalled. "All he wanted to do was go hear a concert. I still get goose bumps when I think of that."
Later that evening, as the rock band Genesis performed 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. It was seen with renewed outrage, and viewed as less permanent than it had perhaps felt when Bowie had recorded the hopeless-sounding "Heroes" a decade earlier.
The Berlin Wall came down just two years later, and, ever since, it has been debated: What role did the Concert for Berlin, and particularly Bowie's performance, play? The strongest case that can be made is that the gathered East Berlin crowds, perhaps along with Bowie's subtly but clearly political message, helped spook East German authorities into overreacting, which in turn inflamed young East Berliners who might not otherwise have seen their attendance as political.
The German Foreign Ministry itself seems to endorse this reading of history, tweeting on Bowie's death today to credit him with helping to bring down the wall — and linking in the tweet to a live performance of "Heroes":
Yet this version of history may be more appealing than it is true. The Berlin Wall was chiefly brought down by historical forces that flowed in from the east, not from the west. It was Gorbachev's reforms of the Soviet system, the decisions of a few Soviet-bloc states to edge away from Moscow's control, disarray among the East German leadership, and the actions of East Germans on the ground that ultimately shaped history. Bowie's performance, like Reagan's speech a year later, did not determine Berlin's fate.
Still, it played some role in at least hardening those forces of history. And it is easy to see why many in Berlin might cherish such a version of their own history in which hope and optimism triumph — like the lovers in Bowie's "Heroes" finally finding a way around the wall.