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David Bowie and The Berlin Wall: How One Concert Helped Change History

David Bowie and The Berlin Wall: How One Concert Helped Change History

In 1987, David Bowie played a concert near the Reichstag in West Berlin, a stone's throw away from the Berlin Wall, the much-hated and despised wall that split the German capital city in two. It was a concert that many Berliners on both sides of the border believe helped harden people's resolve to bring down the hated barrier that had kept families apart for forty years.
The concert was part of Bowie's Glass Spider Tour, which at that point was his longest and most expensive tour. During his show in Berlin, Bowie's performance was so loud that a huge crowd began to gather on the East side of the Wall to hear his performance better. As the concert progressed, Bowie could hear the East Germans behind the Iron Curtain singing along in stark defiance to their Tyrannical rulers.
david bowie's glass spider tour berlin

BOWIE & THE BERLIN TRILOGY

Bowie knew West Berlin well. He'd lived there for three years in the late 1970s, sharing an apartment in the Schöneberg neighbourhood with Iggy Pop. While In Berlin, Bowie recorded three of his most celebrated albums known as 'The Berlin Trilogy', one of which is 'Heroes'. Heros is one of Bowie's best-loved songs and tells the story of two lovers kept apart by the Berlin Wall, a situation endured by many Berliners at the time.
While he stayed with Iggy Pop, Bowie could see the Berlin Wall by stepping out of his front door. He could see the oppression and death that came with living in the heart of the Cold War for himself and at first hand. The lyrics for Heroes are so descriptive of Berlin's plight that it became one of the city's anthems:
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
Oh, we can beat them, forever and ever
Then we could be heroes, just for one day
In 1977, while recording Heroes, the second album of Bowie's Berlin trilogy, East German border guards shot and killed 18-year-old Dietmar Schweitzer while he tried to flee west across the wall. A few weeks later, 22-year-old Henri Weise drowned trying to cross the Spree River. 
david bowie heroes album cover
Though "Heroes" is today remembered as a song of defiance and optimism, its lyrics capture the despair and hopelessness of a divided city, friends and family in the East kept apart from their loved ones in the West by brutality and terror. One line in Heroes, "I wish you could swim / Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim," refers to the East Germans, like Weise, who died trying to cross the Spree.

THE BERLIN WALL CONCERT

In June 1987, ten years after the songs release, David Bowie returned to the divided city of Berlin for an emotionally charged concert that many Germans, rightly or wrongly, still view as having helped change history.
The show's importance, performing to two separated cities at once, clearly was not lost on Bowie. Never one to miss the occasion to highlight the unifying power of art, Bowie called out to East Berlin before playing 'Heroes'.
"We send our best wishes to all of our friends who are on the other side of the wall," said Bowie. It led to over 200 East Berliners charging at the wall resulting in arrests and beatings. A small riot soon broke out, and demonstrators began chanting, "The wall must fall!" and "Gorby, get us out!" It would be one of the numerous acts of civil unrest that would lead to the wall's fall in 1989.
"We kind of heard that a few of the East Berliners might actually get the chance to hear the thing, but we didn't realise in what numbers they would", recalled Bowie years later. "And there were thousands on the other side that had come close to the wall."
"It was one of the most emotional performances I've ever done," Bowie said back in 2003. "I was in tears. 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 could hear them cheering and singing from the other side. God, even now, I get choked up. It was breaking my heart, and I'd never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again. It was so touching. When we did 'Heroes', it really felt anthemic, almost like a prayer."

BOWIE & BERLIN

A week after Bowie's concert, US President Ronald Reagan visited West Berlin and, while standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate, called on Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "tear down this wall."
Along with the concert in Berlin a week earlier, Reagan's speech changed the city's mood and attitude to the wall. It was seen with renewed outrage and viewed as less permanent than it had perhaps been when Bowie had recorded the hopeless-sounding "Heroes" a decade earlier.
Whether Bowie's concert and his performance of Heroes played a significant hand in the uprising that soon followed will always be up for debate, but there can be no doubt that for one moment, he helped unify a city against oppression. The German Foreign Ministry seems to endorse this reading of history, tweeting on the day of Bowie's death to credit him with helping to bring down the wall.
German foreign offices tweet about david bowie in berlin
Whatever you chose to believe, David Bowie and the Berlin wall will forever be undeniably linked.
You can read more about Bowie or check out our David Bowie Collection
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