Did Bowie and Springsteen Help Bring Down the Berlin Wall?

Did David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen help bring down the Berlin Wall? When Bowie died this past January, the German Foreign Office tweeted: "Good-bye, David Bowie. You are now among #Heroes. Thank you for helping to bring down the #wall. " A book published in 2013 bears the title, Rocking the Wall: Bruce Springsteen--The Berlin Concert That Changed the World. Springsteen's new memoir offers his full account for the first time.

It surprises many to learn that rock stars from the USA were even allowed to play in East Germany while the Wall stood. But the Communist leaders, noting the tremendous build-up of anger and tension among their young people at that time during the Gorbachev "glasnost" era decided to provide what they thought was a "safety valve" by allowing major rock concerts starting in 1987.

Another reason was that concerts by top stars such as David Bowie had been taking place just over the Wall in the West and tens of thousands of kids in the East were flocking to the barrier just to listen--and clashes with the police had taken place.

Bowie's appearance in June, 1987 was remarkable on several levels. The stage was set up in West Berlin with the old Reichstag building as a backdrop, and very close to the Wall. Bowie, unlike most Western performers, had a fitting song for the occasion, "Heroes," written a few years earlier and purportedly inspired, during the period he lived in Berlin, by his observations of young people along the Wall, even shots fired "over our heads," referring to dramatic escape attempts at the Wall, the subject of my new book, The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill. You can watch the performance on YouTube, and here is how Bowie described singing "Heroes" in a 2003 interview:

"It was one of the most emotional performances I've ever done. I was in tears....And 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. When we did 'Heroes' it really felt anthemic, almost like a prayer. However well we do it these days, it's almost like walking through it compared to that night, because it meant so much more. That's the town where it was written, and that's the particular situation that it was written about."

By then, Bob Dylan had been invited by a youth arm of the Communist Party to play in Treptower Park on September 17, 1987, along with his touring mates Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Roger McGuinn. Protests were building against the regime, and the Wall, and officials hoped to defuse some of it with a few signs of openness.

Naturally, the notorious Stasi secret police were on top of it. Their six-page preview was filed under "Robert Zimmerman, No. HA XX 17578." It mainly covered logistics and security (no secret bugging of Bob, apparently) and the dispersal of 81,000 tickets--with at least one-third going to party officials and their pals. The Stasi didn't seem too worried that Bob, then in a down period in his career, would prove to be a rabble-rouser, as he was merely "an old master of rock" with no particular "resonance" with the youth of the day. In fact, the crowd, they predicted, would be mainly those middle aged or older. The Stasi expected Dylan to act in a "disciplined" way and not cause undo "emotions" among the crowd.

In the end, it played out pretty much the way they anticipated. Dylan, by most accounts, gave a rather lackluster performance--his norm for that time--with a couple of Christian tunes mixed in with "Blowin' in the Wind," "Rainy Day Women" and "Like a Rolling Stone." He did not speak a single word from the stage, it was reported.

But that was surely not the case the following July when Bruce Springsteen arrived to play to his biggest crowd ever--more than 200,000, far more than what Dylan drew. He opened, pointedly, with "Badlands," and the highlight of his show was a song that Dylan didn't choose to sing: "Chimes of Freedom" (you can easily find it on You Tube). Springsteen's nearly four-hour show was beamed to millions beyond the concert grounds via state television and many middle-aged Germans, interviewed for my book, told me they still fondly recall attending or watching the performance. "It was a nail in the coffin for East Germany," one fan told The Guardian years later.

As he vividly recounts in his new Born to Run memoir, Springsteen, with band mate Steve Van Zandt, had visited East Berlin several years while on tour. "You could feel the boot," he recalls. The Wall he found almost "pornographic." The experience helped shock the then-apolitical Van Zandt into decades of activism. "The power of the wall that split the world in two, its blunt, ugly, mesmerizing realness, couldn't be underestimated," Bruce writes. "It was an offense to humanity."

When Bruce returned for his epic 1988 show, he unhappily discovered that the state was billing it as a "concert for the Sandinistas," the pro-Communist Nicaraguans. Bruce delivered an impassioned speech in grade school but effective enough German: "I'm not here for any government. I've come to play rock 'n' roll for you in the hope that one day all the barriers will be torn down." East German officials backstage had somehow learned about Bruce's original statement, which included the explosive word "walls" instead of "barriers," but his manager, Jon Landau, convinced him at the last minute to make that change.

"Chimes of Freedom" followed immediately and included the key reference to "while the walls were tightening."

The following day, Bruce and band "partied," as he writes, at the East Berlin consulate and then headed back to the West for a show before merely 17,000, which "felt a lot less dramatic than what we'd just experienced." Referring to the "stakes" in rock 'n roll he declares: "The higher they're pushed, the deeper and more thrilling the moment becomes. In East Germany in 1988, the center of the table was loaded down with a winner-take-all bounty that would explode into the liberating destruction of the Berlin Wall by the people of Germany."

A German historian, Gerd Dietrich, would comment, "Springsteen's concert and speech certainly contributed in a large sense to the events leading up to the fall of the wall. It made people ... more eager for more and more change ... Springsteen aroused a greater interest in the west. It showed people how locked up they really were."

And Springsteen would later reflect: "Once in a while you play a place, you play a show that ends up staying inside of you, living with you for the rest of your life," he said. "East Berlin in 1988 was certainly one of them."

Greg Mitchell's new book is The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall and the Historic Films the JFK White House Tried to Kill (Crown). He helped create the first major magazine piece published about Springsteen, for Crawdaddy, in 1972. This past June he attended a Springsteen concert in Berlin with 70,000 others.