The film is clanky, overwrought, oddly paced and has way too much going on – but there is also much to dwell on. It isn’t entirely bad.
(Lots of spoilers ahead if you fret about such things)
The most noteworthy thing about the film is the casting. Ian McShane was 20 and was still at RADA when he was cast as Harry Brown, the lead, in this film. He plays a working class young man who gets a scholarship. He’s bright, with an original mind (we’re told), and is charismatic and is ludicrously handsome. However he is also out of place at the university and is rebellious and is quick to anger.
The film is about Harry Brown’s inability to fit in and at times this is done with genuine drama, sometimes it is clumsy and a bit hectoring, and at other times it is hilariously melodramatic. The faults in the film aren’t the fault of McShane – though his northern accent does have a habit of getting more northern in his speeches about class . It is a pretty confident and convincing performance for a kid hardly out of college.
Whilst at RADA McShane was best mates with the young John Hurt and in this film Hurt plays McShane’s best friend, Phil Corbett. Hurt plays another scholarship lad, but whereas McShane plays a character who is out of place, Hurt plays a character who is out of his depth. Hurt plays this part brilliantly, in that way he did throughout his entire career, that way he had of making us think that the drama was within him – that he has internalized it.
The relationship between Hurt and McShane is half of what is central to the film’s story and the film would have better if Hurt had more screen time. He’s just not in the film enough. And that’s what I felt about this whole film – it was a film that constantly suggested other, better, films – films that could have been made but never were.
A film which was only about John Hurt and Ian McShane playing working class scholarship boys at a university in 1962, one out of his place and one out of his depth, could have been great; it could have been a film that caught a place and a time, it could have been about a moment which was a seismic shift in class relations in this country and it could have been performed by two talented young actors at the start of their careers and at the start of the 1960s. There are moments and scenes where this is what the The Wild and the Willing is about but unfortunately this film sort of loses its way and ends up falling way short of its own intentions.
The other half of the central drama is about McShane’s tutor, Professor Chown played by Paul Rogers, and Chown’s loveless, sexless, marriage to his younger wife Virginia who is played by Virginia Maskell. Chown knows that he is second rate, that he is incapable of the originality of mind that is needed to be a great academic, but he sees some of that originality in thought in the young Harry Brown.
However as well as being a smart lad with an original mind Harry also fancies Virginia.
Virginia is deeply unhappy, she’s an alcoholic who sleeps with a series of young good looking undergraduates. Chown knows this and accepts it – the suggestion is that he is gay. Virginia and Harry end up having an affair and it all gets messy. This love triangle is a decent basis for a film and the three protagonists are great – especially Virginia Maskell who plays Virginia as someone unhappy almost to the point of being lost; her imploring Harry to “love me” as they are about to have sex makes explicit that her desire comes from something that is missing within her. However she just about clings to some sort of middle class instinct to ‘get on’ and maintain control.
Much like the Phil/Harry friendship this menage gets a bit lost in a film where too much is going on. The individual performances in this relationship are strong and there are some great scenes and some great lines but it felt like you were seeing the idea of a good film somewhat lost within a mediocre film.
As well as McShane and Hurt this film also features the very young Johnny Briggs and Jeremy Brett and John Standing. This messy but entertaining film is full of trad jazz bands and coffee bars and speeches about race and class and the bomb and it has lots of women in peddle pushers and pointy bras and angry young men and all this stuff had my mind wandering off down all sorts of avenues and cul-de-sacs. It also looked great,
And all this is all entertaining enough but this film is really about its shortcomings and the film – or films – that it wanted to be but never quite manages.
Today I went to Marché aux Puces de St-Ouen – which is a huge, old flea market just north of Montmartre in Paris.
This part of Paris was once outside the city boundaries and was a place where rag and bone men and other itinerant traders created a huge shanty town in the last half of the C19th. Gradually the area became popular with Parisians. Cafes and restaurants sprang up and the area became organised around a series of markets which as time has gone on have developed into what are really high end antique markets most of which specialise in specific areas. It’s supposed to be the biggest flea market in the world.
These markets, which consist of small retail units are posh. The prices are really high (as are the rents). One unit/shop, which was selling C18th furniture, was playing baroque music. It felt like I was in Cheltenham or Winchester. It wasn’t really for me.
There was some good looking stuff though.
Running along one edge of these markets was a long road where all the stalls were selling street sports wear type stuff and fake brand trainers and iPhone case and so. These stalls blared out French hip hop and North African music. Again this wasn’t really for me.
Running along the south edge of these network of markets was the most interesting road. Here there were stalls selling records and old magazines and random tat. This road (Seine Sant Denis Paris) and the market to the left of it (Marché Lecuyer) was were I did my best work and where I felt most at home.
But the whole place was intimidating.
The thing I love about carboots and fleamarkets is that you never quite know what’s going to happen because when you are there you are making it up as you go along. Usually, for me this means little more than me either buying stuff I can sell for a profit or finding stuff that I like or which makes me laugh. However sometimes it’s other stuff that keeps me entertained – odd or funny conversations, strange people or sometimes you just find yourself seeing stuff that seems beyond the margins of my everyday life.
Outside the flea market there were two other fleamarkets. One of these was under a flyover and I think was only semi official. There were a lot of security guards there. The third one a block south of Seine Sant Denis Paris was, I think, entirely unofficial. It was a pretty desperate place. People were selling any old rubbish and it was very difficult to distinguish between who was selling and who was buying. I think a lot of the people here were recent immigrants to France.
I like to take photos at carboots. It has, on a couple of occasions, caused incidents when some thin skinned git has taken issue. That happened today.
I was struck at this unofficial flea market how the sellers were lined up in long rows along two pavements either side of an avenue of trees. I took a few photos trying to get convey how linear this ad-hoc unofficial flea market was . As I was trying to get a photo of the two rows an angry man, who was walking across the avenue of trees, starting screaming at me to delete the photos. He was physical, grabbing my phone. Getting my phone back off him I thought it best to delete the photos. Obviously I didn’t really delete them. The photos were on my iphone so the deleted photos just went into the deleted folder and as soon as he sodded off to be angry somewhere else I recovered them.
Before my run in with this twat I’d already noticed that my camera and iPhone photos were making people nervous and edgy at this ad-hoc flea market.. Lots of staring. Lots of people noticing me. It’s not surprising. A dozy tourist taking photos of people unsure of their status in a place which itself is unofficial is going to get people’s backs up. Moreover – that “anything can happen” thing which puts a spring my step at carboots and fleamarkets does make other people edgy and hyper alert. Carboots and fleamarkets can often be tense places. Pushy people, desperate people, casual racism (and more than casual racism), money, the whole “getting one over on someone” thing and the heady mix of the very poor with the affluent can definitely give things an edge. And then Paris itself seemed to me to be a noticeably tense city. For obvious reasons.
Marché aux Puces de St-Ouen was too much to take in – it felt a bit like a souk but with posh market town type antique fairs mixed in. I struggled to get my bearings a bit. But hopefullyI will return and get on top of things and I will take better photos.
I came away with a couple of daft things which should make a profit.
1. 250 Enamel Badges.
I bought this lot for €10. They are mostly promotional enamel badges. They are a daft but I had a quick look on Ebay and similar badges seem to sell for a couple of quid. Who knows? Maybe I can turn €10 into £500. I need to find a scooterboy who likes food – or loo roll – related badges
2. A Few Singles.
I paid €16 for these. I’m going to keep The Beatles EP – but I may sell the others. The Pistols single is a French pressing and cost me €6 – I think it’ll sell for more than that.
I got talking to Gerhman, who could speak Russian, German and English, whilst browsing through his boxes of old photos and magazines and postcards. He told me he was from Vladivostok and I told him that he was the first person that I’d ever met from there and that the city was so far to the East that it seemed as remote and exotic to me as Macau or Osaka or Manila. He told me that it was a beautiful city that sits between wooded mountains and the sea. He also told me that he had grown up there with his German parents.
I asked him why his German parents had been in Vladivostok and he shrugged dismissively. I wasn’t sure if he was dismissing my question and he just didn’t want to tell me or that it was too complicated to explain. Or maybe he never really knew. I assumed that it had something to do with Russia and Germany being the central players in all the major revolutions and wars of the last century. I also assumed his name was given to him because of his German heritage and that it was either a nickname or it was given to him by his parents because of their nationality.
People won’t always tell me what I want to know so it’s just natural that I fill in the gaps and make up some of the details. I do that a lot at flea markets
Amongst Gerhman’s boxes was a photo album. I think these photos were of one woman’s life and her family beginning with photos of her parents during WW1 and her life during WW2 and her kids’ post war lives. The album ends in 1978.
I have found a few photo albums and photo collections like these since I have been in Germany. I don’t know why I keep finding them here – I have certainly never seen anything similar in carboot sales in the UK.
The dealers, who I think got them from house clearances, certainly regard them as worthless; each dealer I’ve bought a collection from has been delighted and I’ve had no problems haggling them down. A couple of dealers offered extra photos and albums as an incentive for me to buy the stuff.
The photos in this album are of one family. I think the album was put together by the mother of the girl holding the frog.
There are a few photos missing from the album but I think it’s fairly easy to piece together some aspects of who is who in the family. The girl in the photo above has a sister. The mother of the 2 girls married a man who was a soldier during the Second World War. Her father fought in the First World War. At least one of the sisters had children. I think they lived in Leipzig. Other details I can only guess at.
The big question is how does something like this; something this personal and intimate ( the album includes locks of the two sister’s hair) end up in a flea market? I do feel like I’m intruding into somebody else’s life – but I also see things in these family photos that remind me of my family.
As I was paying the €8 that Gerhman wanted for the photo album (and for a few other things – including a truly awful Boney M poster) I noticed a box full of old fashioned bras and girdles on the floor.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been on UK radio, on The Late Tackle on Talk Sport, talking about some of this stuff that I find at flea markets and one of the things I’ve mentioned is that you see a lot of bras at German flea markets. I was just thinking whether I could photograph the box of bras so I could tweet the photo and talk about them on the radio – but Gerhman went in hard with his spiel.
“€30 the lot?”
“€30 – the photo album, the other stuff, the poster and all the bras and girdles”
“Maybe one” (thinking that my buying a bra might play well on the radio)
“It’s cheaper to buy them all”
By now I was looking through the box. All the bras were, I think, ex shop display items so they were new but a bit shop soiled. The boxes they came in were original but tatty. Suddenly I was tempted.The flea market bra thing had been a theme for the last few weeks. I liked Gerhman.
Maybe I should buy them.
I bought them all.
I bought all 14 bras and girdles and whatever those all in one things are called (‘bodies?’, ‘corsets?’). I paid about €1.60 for each one. Gerhman was delighted. I immediately regretted my decision. “I just bought a load of pointy bras” is a funny line – but i’m not sure it’s funny to the value of €22.
However it turns out that this may be my biggest score in Germany so far. As soon as I got home I looked up what bras and girdles like these sell for on EBay and saw that one had just sold for £46.76.
£46.76! And I have 14 of them. Obviously I’m not banking on getting that much – but even if I get £20 per item selling them back in the UK that’s nearly £300. So now, thanks to the hard sell of a man from Vladivostok, I’m in the business of being a retro bra importer. It’s worth it – just for that sentence alone.
These are some of the photos and pictures I found at a flea market. They were all bought together in two boxes from the same stall. The first box was mostly photographs of women though there were a few postcards of famous beautiful actresses. The second box was mostly very graphic erotica some of which looks like it had been cut from books or magazines. There were also some erotic and pornographic photos in the second box. I’m not going to post any of the stuff from the 2nd box that is either graphic or which are photos.
I don’t know if both boxes belonged to the same person. I’m assuming they did – because many of the photos in the first box are taken by someone who is deliberately objectifying his subject – and nothing objectifies a subject quite like pornography does. I don’t know that the two boxes were connected though.
I think some of the photos from the first box are excellent photos. I don’t know who these women are and probably never will, I don’t know who took the photos, I don’t know how they ended up in a flea market but any, or perhaps all, of the mystery that surrounds the unknowable aspects of these photos is intensified by the photographer seeming to have a voyeuristic instinct to objectify his subject. As somebody said on Twitter, after I posted the photo, the blonde who appears in a lot of these photos seems at time to be lost. Somebody else said they were a bit “murdery” and I think there is a bit of that too. I think they are, in a way, straying into the territory of Hitchcock or Powell’s Peeping Tom.
Or maybe they’re just some photos a bloke took of his wife.
Warning – this blog post has a self absorbed rating of about Ten
THE KEY PLAYERS IN THE SHORT TALE WHICH FOLLOWS:
I can date my Bowie fandom from seeing Bauhaus doing Ziggy Stardust on telly on Top of the Pops in October 1982.
The day after Bauhaus were on telly a friend lent me the Ziggy Stardust LP. A few months later I bought it on cassette with my Xmas vouchers from the Virgin Store in Portsmouth. I also got a book called the David Bowie Black Book for Xmas. A few weeks later I picked up Lou Reed’s The Blue Mask from the WHSmiths at Ipswich Station (Lou Reed appeared in the Black Book – it was the first I knew of him). This in turn led to the Velvet Underground, Pop Art, all things New York and so on and so on.
I reckon that much of what has followed in my life, for better and worse, followed from that Bauhaus performance and from my ensuing Bowie obsession. The music I’ve listened to, the books I’ve read, the films I’ve watched, the people I’ve liked and even, in some ways, the places I’ve lived can also be traced back to seeing Bauhaus doing this song in 1982. This may seem like I’m overstating this but I think it’s true. I also think that the way most people are at 15 is fascinating, at least to themselves, and at least to themselves at both 15 and at 50.
I also bought the Bauhaus Ziggy Stardust single (with a cover of Eno’s Third Uncle on the b side – what an education) which I still have in my ‘Grave Goods Trunk’ along with the Black Book and the cassette of the Blue Mask (I lost the Ziggy S cassette years ago). I sort of liked Bauhaus a bit but grew out of them quite quickly. I’ve never grown out of Bowie and Reed and the rest.
The opening song on the Blue Mask is about the poet Delmore Schwartz. Earlier this year I read Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift which is about Bellow’s relationship with Schwartz so whatever was kickstarted by seeing Bauhaus on the telly 34 years ago is still unravelling and is still somehow all tied up together.
I’ve been going to German flea markets for about 3 months now and have come up with a definitive top 3 list of things that I see sold at German flea markets that I don’t see being sold at British carboots
These photos are just a small selection of the many many bras you see at German – or specifically Bavarian – flea markets. The first stall you see as you enter the giant Munich Riem flea market by Messestadt Ost is huge stall selling brand new bras of all the colours under the sun. It looks like a giant bra rainbow.
2. ADULT CONTENT
Men’s magazines are everywhere at German flea markets. As is much much weirder stuff – including orgy sheets.
3. DEAD ANIMALS
I think Bavaria, with the exception of Munich, is a very rural area and in the past had a pretty earthy relationship with nature – and with death. You see a lot of animal skins and skulls and pelts and antlers at Munich flea markets. I’ve seen a fair a bit of taxidermy at English carboots but nowhere as much as you see in Bavaria.
Here’s some random photos from my trip to the Olympia Park Flea Market in Munich on the 25th November. 2016
Flea Market Art
This is Vicky
Vicky gave me first piece of proper German flea market advice: “If you want to make money head out to the big flea markets that are held in provincial Bavaria in the Spring and Summer” she told me. “Bavarians are rich – they just want to get rid of their stuff. That’s where you get the real bargains. You just have to get there early”.
She also told me to get a car. She was the first of 2 people to give me that advice this weekend.
I’m not sure I’ll ever be a true flea market insider in Munich, in part because I have other things I want to do with my life, but learning the language, and getting a car, and getting to know more people like Vicky would be the first necessary steps if I do want to become a Munich flea market face.
Random Flea Market Stalls
Yesterday I went to Daglfing Flea Market which is held at the Daglfing Trabrennbahn race track on the outskirts of Munich. The race track holds harness racing meetings where buggies are pulled by horses. You can usually see the horses being trained on the track during the flea market- so on a Friday morning on the edge of a big city you have the niche little world of harness racing – with its own rules and practices and routines, taking place next to the niche little world of flea markets – which also has its own rules and practices and routines.
I hate when people trot out the clichè “you couldn’t make it up”. It’s a rubbish sentiment for all sorts of reasons, not least because it has the stench of the comments section about it, but the main reason why I dislike it is because the world constantly makes itself up in weird, daft, funny and occasionally thrilling ways; ways that are never boring, or wearisome or, most importantly, predictable. Things are ‘made up’ in ways for everyone to see, not just in literature and art and cinema and music (all four of which annihilate the “you couldn’t make it up” sentiment effortlessly), but also in the small details, in the day to day stuff, in conversations, in the lives of others.
I went to Daglfing Race Track yesterday and I watched people practicing a form of chariot racing and I saw a man selling a bear’s head
and that was just for starters…
FIRST STALL: CLASSIC ROCK.
The first stall I went to had crates and crates of awesome classic rock and pop. I bought these from amongst the seller’s stock.
I didn’t buy the rest of his stock which included more Bowie (pretty much the canon – all German pressings), AC/DC, Beatles, more Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Maiden etc. (you get the picture) because I already own most of them.
The man running the stall was selling his friend’s record collection for him – his friend was in a wheelchair so couldn’t sell them himself. I said that his friend had pretty similar tastes to mine and the seller told me told me that his friend had always been obsessed by buying records and had spent a fortune but that his friend’s wife hadn’t minded as it had stopped him chasing other women and spending money on chasing other women.
Was this just banter? Had the man’s friend been a cock-happy womaniser? Had he tamed his instincts and found a form of marital compromise by becoming a Bowie completist?
Obviously I didn’t ask these questions. Nor did I ask the bigger question as to why the seller was telling me this about his friend – a good friend I assume, seeing as he was doing him a big favour by selling his LPs. Sexual infidelity, physical frailty, friendship, classic rock, the shadowy figure of the wife in the background – all component parts of what could have been a rather epic and human tale. But it was a tale that has remained untold. Ah well.
The records were priced lower than what I would normally expect to pay at a stall run by someone who knows the going price – and the seller was haggleable so i got a reduction on the ones I bought. I was very happy with all 5 purchases
1. Never Let Me Down.
I own most things on vinyl that Bowie released between 1967 and 1982 and I own almost nothing post 1982. I keep meaning to sort that out so finding Never Let Me Down at a fairly reasonable price is a good place to start.
2. Best Of Uriah Heep
I saw Uriah Heep last Monday In Berlin supporting Status Quo. It’s the first time I’ve seen them and I liked their daft brand of hippyish, proto metal and slightly proggy nonsense. I just delight in the daftness of stuff like this and I’m pretty much committed to continuing to take seriously the act of not taking some stuff seriously
3. Best of Jethro Tull Vol 2
This is an Italian compilation which I’ve never seen before. I love the cover with Ian Anderson playing a clarinet.
4. White Album
Years and years ago I left my copy of the White Album behind in a flat that I finished renting and I’ve never got round to buying a replacement. This one was in nick good and the price was ok – but it didn’t have the poster or photographs that originally came with it. I’m pretty happy with this. (The photo makes the cover look tan. It’s a bad photo. It’s white).
5. Bowie Rare
This was the best thing I found yesterday. I had this on cassette, taped off a mate, when I was 15.
The First Job Lot
I could have bought all of the records at this stall for about €1000 I reckon – I have just about enough money in my business account to do that – and I think if I sold them on at carboot sales in England over next summer they would sell quickly and I would end up with a profit of at least £500. If I’d been in the UK, with my car I probably would have done that – but I’m in Germany and I don’t have a car so I walked away form that little business deal. I’m still dwelling on this decision.
SECOND STALL. THE FRIENDLY MASSEUR
The woman at this stall spoke good English. She kept saying “bloody” this and “bloody” that but in a way where the emphasis was ever so slightly ‘off’, it kind of gave her fluency charm. The ability of almost everyone in Germany to speak English, sometimes almost colloquially, seems to me to part of that German openness to the world, a mark of this country’s outward looking ways – ways that are increasingly looking like being our best chance of salvation what with every other major industrial nation going mad.
She asked me about how long I’d lived in Munich and asked me what I had seen and done. I told her that I had hardly been into the City so she got a map out of her glove compartment and began to mark places I should visit; where the best Turkish cafes and Turkish market is, where to drink around Munchener Freiheit – where the best cafes in Schwabing are, where the best pizza, burger and Mexican restaurants are. We talked about our kids (her eldest was teaching in Nairobi) and our holidays (she was about to go to Marrakech) and she gave me her card. Her name was Kim, she was a masseur, she did house calls, she charged €50 an hour. This isn’t the first card I’ve been given at a carboot or flea market – it’s quite common to be given them – but it’s the first one that offered me a massage by a qualified masseur at competitive rates.
As well as being a qualified masseur Kim also worked one day a week for an agency. I wasn’t clear as to what the agency was but I think it was an advertising agency. She was selling piles of brand new CDs by artist like Chvrches, La Roux, Imagine Dragons and Tocotronic (who are my favourite German band). I bought a few and I bought a couple of records from her. I paid €2.50 for each of them
The Second Job Lot
I should have bought all of Kim’s CDs. She had about 50.
If I’d bought more I think I would have got a lower price than €2.50 per unit and most of these CDs are currently going for about a fiver at Amazon. I sell the bulk of my stuff at Amazon using the FBA (Fulfilled by Amazon) method. I ship my stock to the Amazon warehouse and they do everything else. Ah well. The 2nd opportunity of the day that I missed.
THIRD STALL: THE ANGRY HOUSE CLEARANCE TEAM
One of my favourite stalls at Daglfing are the house clearance men who have a stall – or rather an area of rough grassland, and a small shed, at the edge of the carboot. I’m not sure where they’re from; S.E. Europe I think, but I learnt a long time ago that at carboot sales (or in Nth London cafes) it’s not always a good idea to ask too many questions about where people are from. Anyway – I don’t know where they’re from but where they’re at at 10 am on a Friday morning involves drinking, and chain smoking and arguing with each other – really arguing with each other.
God knows what the argument was about this time but it was loud and aggressive enough to have people backing away.
This is my favourite part of the flea market. Stuff is just dumped in boxes for you to rummage through and the prices are next to nothing.
In the past I have found ropey old porn mags and people’s diaries and soundtrack LPs. This week the stuff I found there was just as daft
The House Clearance Gallery
Some of this will be sold in the UK for small profits, a couple of things will be Xmas pressies. Some will thrown away.
STALL FOUR. THE JOB LOT.
As I was leaving the flea market with €3:40 in my pocket I saw a stall I’d missed with a pile of LPs. These LPs, about 40 in all, were a mixture of 80s pop compilations and Schlager (Schlager is German easy listening. It’s hateful). The dealer said I could have the lot for €5* – I told him I only had €3:40. “That’ll do” he said.
So I ended up with a pile of crap records.
Some of these, the 80s compilations, will sell for a quid each at UK carboots. The rest will, after I’ve laughed at the terrible covers, go in the bin.
The covers really are brilliantly bad
*This happens a lot at the end of carboots – I’ve piles of pirated Bollywood DVDs, entire appalling record collections, boxes of magazines and piles of books all given to me.
I found this record at the Daglfing Fleamarket yesterday (read more here)
I was 15 when I fell for Bowie big time. One of the reasons why my adoration was so complete was that in 1983 Bowie, always a multi faceted artist, was at his most multi faceted. He was in the charts with Let’s Dance, there was the back catalogue (consisting of a run of LPs pretty much unrivalled in pop and rock) and he also had just released the 5 track Baal EP of songs by Brecht.
And then there was the release of this LP which had Bowie doing versions of songs by Brecht and Brel and Chuck Berry. My teachers at school and my Mum and Dad didn’t have the faintest idea of who Brecht or Brel were so it was up to me to pursue this sort of stuff – which is something I’ve continued to do in a pretty chaotic and pretty unproductive way ever since.
A million people have made the point that Bowie’s music was always an argument against the tedious, parochial life of England in the 70s and 80s. It was a way out of that world. For me this LP was part of that process. If you listen to this LP as an impressionable 15 yr old you’re going to wonder about Brecht and when you follow up on it you enter into a world of revolutionary politics and Weimar Germany. You will learn about revolutionary approaches to theatre, approaches which raise fundamental questions about the nature of theatre and of art. In much of his theatre Brecht would deliberately distance the audience from the action in a way which would force a response from the audience that was intellectual rather than emotional.
By coincidence I was just thinking about all that Brechtian stuff in relation to Bowie’s song “Heroes”. Last week I went to Berlin and whilst there I went on a walking tour of Bowie’s Berlin (which was excellent – I really recommend it). The song was recorded in the Hansa studios in 1977 in what was then the still rather desolate centre of Berlin, just yards away from the Berlin Wall. Bowie was in Berlin, in part, to put his life back together after chronic drug addiction in LA. So you have a man trying not be the person he was in a city still smashed up and carved up the terrible history of the C20th.
The song means a lot to the people of Berlin. Bowie played it at a gig near the Reichstag, which was by The Wall, a couple of years before The Wall came down. Large crowds of East Germans crowded by The Wall to listen to the gig. Bowie dedicated “Heroes” to them and the whole concert is seen as one of the key moments that lead up to the collapse of the Wall. I don’t begrudge the song being part of that history but I’m not sure it quite fits and I do begrudge it being used to symbolise Olympic success, like it’s some big, daft power ballad, as what happened in London 2012
I don’t think think that there is anything Brechtian about this song. The song is highly emotional and it is fully intended to pull at the audience’s heart strings – which is the sort of ‘bourgeois twaddle’ that Brecht set his hat against. However I do think that the Brechtian notion of distancing yourself from the emotional content of art does constitute a tiny bit of what’s going on with this song. Bowie, and Eno (the song’s producer) and Fripp (the song’s guitarist) are too smart and too knowing to have just churned out a big “bourgeois twaddly’ power ballad – the song is way more subtle than that.
All the various part of the songs are doing slightly different things. The producer Eno and the guitarist Robert Fripp create a big swollen epic wall of sound that churns on, almost hypnotically, until it fades away. This churning, rolling, slightly drone-y music intensifies in a way that forces Bowie’s voice to greater and greater levels of intensity – levels that becomes almost histrionic. By the end of the song this almost unhinged singing works in pretty clear contrast to the swollen and droning and, at times, almost languid music; Bowie is almost screaming out the desire of the characters in the song to be something they’re not and the song never quite resolves itself – instead it just fades out. In this context what Bowie is singing sounds less like something affirmative – We are Heroes – and more like something desperate and needy – We can be “Heroes”. The song isn’t about triumph over adversity or being a hero. It’s about the longing for those things, love that is desperately hoped for but is never the thing itself; it’s about moments of time clung to in the face of things unravelling. “Heroes” is about longing and love, I think,which is it told by someone who isn’t what they want to be.
And therefore, perhaps, there is something slightly Brechtian about putting the title “Heroes” in inverted commas. Maybe that little grammatical device, whilst hardly being the same as an actor breaking the 4th wall or suddenly commentating on his or her dramatic predicament, does call for a slight intellectual distancing from the song’s emotional content. This is pop music that is smart enough to create distance from itself.
When I take myself seriously I will always be on the side of ‘intellectual distancing’ in its war against ’emotional content’ though that war does appear to be almost lost.