Like Dolphins Can Swim

For such a lyrically simple song, “Heroes” has some great lines. How propitious that Bowie should have stood by the window at Hansa Studios and seen producer Tony Visconti  kissing his lover in the shadows of the Berlin Wall– or so legend has it. No way to know then that in a dozen years the Wall would come down, and the lines:

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, for ever and ever
Then we could be Heroes, just for one day

would become as evocative of a long-gone era as the song’s opening lines:

I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen

But where, among the mean queen and the drunk king, the guns and the shame, do the dolphins come from?

I, I wish you could swim
Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim
Though nothing, nothing will keep us together
We can beat them, for ever and ever
Oh we can be Heroes, just for one day

Strangely too, although the lyrics are written “I wish you could swim,” every live performance I’ve listened to has Bowie singing, “I wish I could swim.”

As if from a dream this image of beauty — of fluidity, blueness, freedom, and grace —  sneaks into the speaker’s grey world.

And how does this wish feel (and I’ve read that at the time Bowie couldn’t swim at all)?  Bittersweet, perhaps, the solace of imagining loveliness, the sadness in knowing how few are the wishes that come true.

Still, why dolphins?

Bottlenose dolphin. Credit: USFWS

Their intelligence is otherworldly; they are an extra-terrestrial — literally — species  with whom we have made contact, if you are open to the work of John Lilly, who travelled in the same circles as Ram Dass, Timothy Leary, Gregory Bateson, Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, and others, any one of whom Bowie could have encountered in his readings into esoteric philosophies.

In legend, dolphins protect humankind and are the patron of sailors (Sailor is Bowie’s chosen screen-name on bowienet. Apollo sometimes takes on a dolphin’s form, and Delphi was founded by sailors led to its shores by dolphins. Dolphins serve as guides to the underworld and are attracted to the human voice and music.

One more note: In the mid-1990s David Bowie had a tattoo inked onto his left calf based on a drawing of his. In the background, written in Japanese Katakana, is the serenity prayer, but at the forefront, as if riding waves of hopefulness, is a man astride a dolphin carrying a frog atop his left hand, which is thrust ahead of the dolphin’s nose. Frogs are associated with rebirth, as are dolphins, and Bowie has described his tattoo as “a confirmation of the love I feel for my wife and my knowledge of the power of life itself.”

2 thoughts on “Like Dolphins Can Swim

  1. You should read the forward David Bowie wrote for his wife’s book, “I Am Iman,” published in 2001. In that, he writes about a book he once found entitled, “A Grave for a Dolphin,” by Alberto Denti di Pirajno. Bowie relates the story, then states that the song, “Heroes,” is based partly on that story.

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