As producer Tony Visconti recalled to the BBC, ‘Heroes’ was essentially jammed out as Bowie and his cohorts crafted a cacophony of sounds waiting for a melody to make itself known, with the intent of later conjuring lyrics to paint over the top of it. “One day David [Bowie] announced that he had the lyrics written for ‘Heroes’ but he had to write a few more verses. And that day Antonia Maass, who sang backing vocals on ‘Beauty and the Beast’, was in the studio,” he explained.
Adding: “David couldn’t concentrate with us in the studio so he said [to Visconti and Maas] ‘would you two mind taking a walk?’ but it wasn’t a great place to walk around. So, we walked around the back of the studio and we could see the control room and I guess we were visible too because Antonia and I shared a little kiss by the wall. We go back to the studio and David is smiling. He had a sort of cat who ate the cream sort of smile and I said, ‘what’s up?’ and he said, ‘Well, we saw you kiss by the wall, and it made it into the song’.”
There is perhaps no more befitting lyrical tableau in music than: “I, I can remember / Standing by the wall / And the guns shot above our heads / and we kissed as though nothing could fall.” Whilst the verse may have been crafted from the comfort of the studio it is a vignette with the humanised weight of realism and history.
Ultimately, it speaks of a truth that even stiffed-lipped historians would not besmirch: that although art might not literally topple regimes, it has a way of permeating circumstance with the transcendence of human experiences. The wall was a literal symbol for division and oppression and Bowie helped to illuminate this fact with an assegai of unity elucidated with poignancy in one simple verse—a verse that plays out in the minds like a movie and makes a point so perfectly it etches itself into the psyche forevermore.
While a kiss may have been behind this image, the power of art itself was also befittingly in the mix as Bowie had powerful prose at the forefront of his creative thinking thanks to the book A Grave for a Dolphin by Alberto Denti di Piranjo. As if woven into place by some mystic figures of fate, the book would then re-enter Bowie’s life in the most romantic of ways.
As Iman would explain to Vogue: “This is a very fantastical journey between a girl — and you won’t believe it, but a Somali girl — and a dolphin,” she said. “And this book is really special because, funny enough, way before David and I met, this was one of his favourite books. And actually, he told me that some of the lyrics from his song ‘Heroes’ were actually inspired by this book.
This is supported by Bowie himself, who wrote in the foreword to his wife’s memoir, I Am Iman, in 2001 regarding the old little-known book from 1956: “I thought it a magical and beautiful love story and, in part, it had inspired my song ‘Heroes’.” Iman and Bowie would bond over this shared love during their courtship and soon they would enter matrimony bliss, as Bowie once said, “You would think that a rock star being married to a supermodel would be one of the greatest things in the world. It is.”
The book itself – crammed with poignant prose like, “Africa taught me the shallowness of the saying that mankind is everywhere the same,” – proves pretty hard to come by these days. However, if you can get your hands on a copy then you will be graced by the magical account of an Italian doctor who travels to Eritrea. Therein, he relishes the wild scenes around him in a serene look at an unfamiliar world. Folktales heard from a storyteller are woven into the tale including a water gypsy girl who once rode a dolphin and other wonderfully weird wisps of mysticism. What’s more, with retrospect on its side, the life-affirming prose is now elevated by the fact it inspired one of the greatest songs ever written—and a life-affirming one at that!