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"Heroes" by David Bowie

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Written by David Bowie and Brian Eno (1977)

Performed by David Bowie

The Music

In the summer of 1977, David Bowie was living in Berlin and working on a new album. One evening, he saw his producer Tony Visconti sitting on a bench near the Berlin Wall with a young German woman. “Tony was married at the time,” Bowie recalled, “I think the marriage was in the last few months, and it was very touching because I could see that he was very much in love with this girl. It was that relationship which sort of motivated the song.”

The song, “Heroes,” about a love that defies borders, was the title track of a landmark Bowie record, part of what later came to be called “the Berlin trilogy.” Bowie’s relationship with the Berlin Wall took an even more poignant turn in 1987, when he performed “Heroes” on a stage near the west side of the wall. He remembered, “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. When we did 'Heroes' it really felt anthemic, almost like a prayer.”

Note: On January 8, Bowie’s 66th birthday, he surprised the world by announcing his first new album in ten years. The lead-off single, “Where Are We Now?” has several lyrical references to the streets and sites of Berlin, fueling speculation that the album, due in March, may pick up the thread of the trilogy.

The History

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On August 13, 1961, the Communist government of East Germany ordered workers to begin building a wall through Berlin. Within two weeks, the wall had blocked nearly a hundred miles of border between the East and West sections of the city. Made of barbed wire, it was christened by the East German leaders as an “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart” that would shield its population from the corrupting capitalist influences of West Germany. 

But there was a more pressing—though unspoken—reason for the wall. Since 1949, over 3 million East Germans had given up on Communism and defected to the west side of Berlin in search of better lives. Despite the propaganda about anti-fascism, the wall was essentially built to plug that population leak. In time it would come to represent something bigger—the Cold War wedge between Western nations and Eastern Bloc countries.

Two Berlins

How did East and West Germany become divided in the first place? With the defeat of the Nazis and the Axis powers at the end of World War II, Allied leaders met to determine Germany’s future. Shortly after, the country was split into four separate zones. The eastern part went to the Soviet Union, while the west was occupied by the United States, Great Britain, and France.

But the modern city of Berlin was an uneasy fit for the Russians. Leader Nikita Krushchev later complained that it “stuck like a bone in the Soviet throat.” As early as 1948, a Soviet blockade aimed to starve the western influence out of the city. The response by the United States and its allies was the “Berlin Airlift,” where planes flying overhead supplied sectors of the city with over two million tons of food, fuel, and goods. The Soviets called off their blockade the following year.

A decade later, as Russia continued to watch the best minds—engineers, doctors, teachers—flee East Berlin, they made noise again about ousting the Western occupiers. Conferences, summits and negotiations between Russia and the Allied countries followed, but led nowhere. Then, in 1961, after mass defections (in the first 12 days of August, over 18,000 East Germans crossed over), Krushchev authorized the government to shut down the border for good.

Checkpoints and Death Strips

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Before the wall was built, Berliners from both sides could move around the city freely, to shop and go to movies and so on. Trains and subways regularly crossed the border. After the wall was up, that freedom disappeared. There were only three passages through the border: Checkpoint Charlie, Checkpoint Bravo, and Checkpoint Alpha. Patrolled by East German soldiers, these checkpoints were mainly for diplomats and officials, who were thoroughly screened and questioned. It was nearly impossible for ordinary citizens to pass through these checkpoints.

But the checkpoints didn’t stop defectors from finding ways through, under and over the wall. As time passed, East Germany bolstered the crude barbed wire wall with one made of concrete—12-foot tall, 4-foot wide and topped with a pipe that made climbing over it nearly impossible. And for those still brave enough to attempt escape, they had to deal with the so-called “Death Strips.” In front of the wall on the East German side, there were strips of soft sand (to show footprints), floodlights, attack dogs, trip-wire machine guns, and soldiers instructed to shoot escapees on sight. From 1961 to 1989, around 170 people were killed trying to defect. But over 5000 succeeded in crossing the border (by means of everything from hot air balloons to underground sewer pipes).

Tear Down This Wall!

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In 1987, President Reagan gave a speech in Berlin where he famously urged Russian leader Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!” It was an important moment in Cold War history, and as a verbal gauntlet, played a part in bringing about the end of the division between East and West Berlin.

That end came on November 9, 1989, when the East German government announced that “permanent relocations can be done through all border checkpoints.” The wall was inundated with people from both sides, crossing over freely, hugging, kissing, and singing in celebration. Some brought hammers and picks, chipping away at the wall. All those pieces eventually became collectible items. East and West Germany reunified into a single state a year later.

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40 Years Later: Watch The Johnny Cash Christmas Show
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Over the course of his career, Johnny Cash made a series of Christmas TV specials and recorded a string of Christmas records. In this 1977 TV performance, Cash is in great form. He brings special guests Roy Clark, June Carter Cash, The Carter Family, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison ("Pretty Woman" starts around 23:50), Carl Perkins, and the Statler Brothers. Tune in for Christmas as we celebrated it 40 years ago—with gigantic shirt collars, wavy hair, and bow ties. So many bow ties.

Chloe Efforn
John Lennon Was a Crazy Cat Lady
Chloe Efforn
Chloe Efforn

John Lennon was crazy about cats, and though he owned a couple of dogs (Sally and Bernard) over the years, he was better known for getting by with a little help from his feline friends.


Growing up, Lennon's beloved mother, Julia, had a named cat after Elvis Presley, whom Julia and John were both crazy about. The Lennons later realized they had misnamed Elvis when "he" gave birth to a litter of kittens in the cupboard, but they didn't change the cat's name based on that small mistake.


He had two other cats as a boy growing up in Liverpool: Tich and Sam. Tich passed away while Lennon was away at art school (which he attended from 1957 to 1960), and Sam was named after famous British diarist Samuel Pepys

4. TIM

One day, John Lennon found a stray cat in the snow, which his Aunt Mimi allowed him to keep. (John's Aunt Mimi raised him from a young boy through his late teenage years, and he affectionately referred to her as the Cat Woman.) He named the marmalade-colored half-Persian cat Tim.

Tim remained a special favorite of John's. Every day, he would hop on his Raleigh bicycle and ride to Mr. Smith's, the local fishmonger, where he would buy a few pieces of fish for Tim and his other cats. Even after John became famous as a Beatle, he would often call and check in on how Tim was doing. Tim lived a happy life and survived to celebrate his 20th birthday.


John and his first wife, Cynthia, had a cat named Mimi who was, of course, named after his Aunt Mimi. They soon got another cat, a tabby who they dubbed Babaghi. John and Cynthia continued acquiring more cats, eventually owning around 10 of them.


As a Beatle, John had a cat named Jesus. The name was most likely John's sarcastic response to his "the Beatles are bigger than Jesus" controversy of 1966. But he wasn't the only band member with a cat named Jesus: Paul McCartney once had a trio of kittens named Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.


In the mid-1970s, John had an affair with his secretary, May Pang. One day, the studio receptionist brought a box of kittens into the recording studio where John and May were. "No," John immediately told May, "we can't, we're traveling too much." But she picked up one of the kittens and put it over her shoulder. Then John started stroking the kitten and decided to keep it. At the end of the day, the only other kitten left was a little white one that was so loud no one else wanted it. So they adopted it as well and named the pair Major and Minor.


John owned a pair of black and white cats with his wife Yoko Ono. As befitting John's offbeat sense of humor, many places report he christened the white cat Pepper and the black one Salt.


John and Yoko also had two Russian Blue cats named Gertrude and Alice, who each met tragic ends. After a series of sicknesses, Gertrude was diagnosed with a virus that could become dangerous to their young son, Sean. John later said that he held Gertrude and wept as she was euthanized. 

Later, Alice jumped out of an open window in the Lennons' high-rise apartment at the Dakota and plunged to her death. Sean was present at the time of the accident, and he remembers it as the only time he ever saw his father cry.


In later years, John also owned three cats he named Misha, Sasha, and Charo. Always an artist at heart, John loved to sketch his many cats, and he used some of these pictures as illustrations in his books.

This piece originally ran in 2012.


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