I imagine listening to “Heroes” as a vinyl album— side one featured five intense songs featuring Bowie when his voice, arguably, was at its strongest. Side two featured mostly instrumentals that, while intense in their own way, took things down quite a few notches. Its not just that the songs were instrumental, but heard in their intended order, the songs progress from the nearly comical V-2 Schneider, to the more serious “Sense of Doubt,” to the calming “Moss Garden” before concluding with the bleak, “Neukolln.”
Then, after we’ve been ramped down and left feeling uneasy and not terribly hopeful, Bowie’s voice comes alive again with “The Secret Life of Arabia.” I can easily imagine it being the least-heard song on the album, with listeners switching LPs after side one, or not getting through side 2 all the way to the end.
“The Secret Life of Arabia” is the oddball song on “Heroes.” While musically it is more in line with side one, lyrically and totally its more in line with Bowie’s next album, “Lodger.” Not my original observation, but that might have been intentional. Bowie would often give a hint as to what’s coming next.
Throughout this exercise, I have noticed connections between the different songs on, “Heroes.” There’s a way of listening to the album as if its a coherent whole about someone experiencing a moral conundrum amidst an adverse environment, made worse, perhaps by his own perception. But if there is a connecting thread, “Secret Life” breaks that thread. More or less.
Like many of the other songs, the lyrics of “Secret Life” hardly make sense. If Bowie didn’t keep repeating the words, “Arabia,” I’m not sure the song could really be said to be about Arabia, and perhaps it isn’t. The only other connections are the lines, “You must see the movie, the sand in my eyes; I walk through a desert song when the heroine dies.” Although that doesn’t provide a whole lot of meaning, it evokes a kind of Hollywood image of Arabia, especially when paired with the ubiquitous word, “Arabia.”
So, I think I drew associations with those lines and two other Bowie songs that may or may not be there. The first is the song, “Don’t Look Down,” from, “Tonight,” which is also evocative of travel (“from New York to Shantytown…”) Bowie recorded the song years after “Secret Life,” but that one explicitly mentions Rudolph Valentino, who famously was in the silent film, “The Sheik.” While “Secret Life” came before “Don’t Look Down,” the latter was originally recorded by Iggy Pop in 1979, seemingly right after he and Bowie had been collaborating during the Berlin period. So there might be some kind of actual connection there.
The other association is more direct, with “Sons of the Silent Age,” from side one of “Heroes.” “The Sheik” was a silent movie. The “movie” you “must see,” in my mind is a silent movie and in fact is a specific silent