I could never write a comprehensive obituary for David Bowie. I know him the way you might know an influential high school teacher- you know, the cool one, the one you know well enough for him to have an impact on you, but not well enough to know anything about his life at home, what he does when he’s not at school. I only know Bowie as the most ethereal of the classic rock musicians. I’m more than familiar with maybe just three of his songs. The rest I’m only vaguely aware they’re his songs.
This might discredit me as someone who writes about music, but in my defense there’s a lot of music out there; I listen to what I can.
I can’t write a eulogy befitting the artist Bowie obviously was, but I can share what little experience of him I have had. I probably first heard of Bowie when I was in elementary school, but I only knew him as the guy on “Under Pressure” with Queen. When I was in 8th grade, I saw the movie Moulin Rouge!, and a snippet of his song “Heroes” appears in the “Elephant Love Medley”, which I can probably still sing word for word for you if you’re ever interested. I do birthday parties, bar mitzvahs- tell your friends.
The line “We could be heroes” is the emotional climax of that song, and it was my favorite part to belt out, even though I couldn’t reach the notes. I first watched Moulin Rouge! with my first girlfriend, and the passionate, near-obsessive love that forms the backbone of the movie formed the backbone of our young idea of what love was supposed to be. We could talk about how terrible a role model the relationship in Moulin Rouge! is, but I do think that something about the excerpt from “Heroes” in the movie resonated with me beyond that first relationship.
Romantic love shouldn’t look like the ill-advised codependency of Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, but in that moment on top of the elephant when they both exult about the possibility of touching “just for one day,” they hit on something true about the heights of love. The love in “Heroes” is an aspirational love with hope and blind optimism about the future. Even in the real world, love should feel like an open door, an ascendant ladder to something even greater.
“Heroes” is still one of my favorite songs. David Bowie would go on to tell more complex stories about romance and passion in more nuanced songs. But the simplicity of “Heroes” remains just as powerful and relevant today. Maybe even more so, now that the man who wrote it is gone.