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Listen to This, Listen to That: Unlikely Heroes

by Dan Froid

It’s not news by now that our culture has developed an obsession with antiheroes: from Breaking Bad to Dexter to Hannibal, we really enjoy watching despicable people—mostly men—do despicable, unspeakable things. “Unlikely Heroes,” Episode 25 of Air Schooner, takes a different tack: the episode discusses, not exactly antiheroes, but heroes you wouldn’t expect. They’re unexpected—not in the quote-unquote “unbelievable,” viral-video, small-town-dad-rescues-a-kitten-from-a-burning-grocery-store sort of way, but “villainous” heroes, unusual or unsavory people to whom we are nonetheless drawn, and who turn out to be heroes in their own sort of oblique ways. Eugene Cross, for example, reads a story about a bully, considering the question, “What would drive a young kid to hurt somebody else so badly?” In his interview, he discusses how he made his hero more complex: a human, potentially a hero, instead of a playground archetype.

Kayla Sargeson reads from her series of poems, which take the form of letters to Nancy Spungen—the Nancy in Sid and Nancy. Sargeson notes being “pulled by darkness”; Spungen is “a freak in the way that I can connect to.” Here, she articulates something similar to my feelings for Nico (more on her below). It’s the truth: while small-town dads and kittens are admittedly great, sometimes it’s the weirdos who grab our attention. For some of us, the ones to whom we’re drawn aren’t just counterculture but counter-normalcy, or counter- a sensible life, or counter- the typical way of doing things. Unlikely heroes, right?

David Bowie’s  1977 “‘Heroes’”—note his original scare quotes, emphasizing the irony that cuts the song’s romanticism—is so lovely. It kind of spins you around, but softly. Bowie sings, for the most part, so delicately and low, pleadingly, sadly. Listen to the song for the other side of this story: Bowie’s narrator sings knowing that he and his lover aren’t heroes; they’re probably losers. It’s a song of melancholy. You feel sorry for this pair of lovers, whoever they are. It’s not exactly powerful, but it’s cathartic.

As for being “pulled by darkness,” it doesn’t get much darker than Nico, the criminally underrated singer-songwriter and one-time collaborator with the Velvet Underground. John Cale’s assessment of her second album, The Marble Index, is by now almost a truism for both fans and detractors: “You can’t sell suicide.” It’s heavy, heady, morbid stuff. Nico! Nico, who has been named fool, junkie, loser, Nazi, Valkyrie, witch, labels that file her away, various ways of skirting past the art and reducing the person, no matter how complex or off-putting or unlikeable she may have been, to a punch line—Nico draws me. I am pulled by her darkness. She’s compelling. She’s weird. She’s a freak in a way that I can connect to. She—yeah, I’m going there—could be a hero. I don’t know. She’s Nico.

So Nico, unlikely hero, released a cover of “Heroes.” Released in 1981, it’s to some extent oddly funny; it’s outdated, burdened by its early-‘80s timestamp. Where Bowie’s original is moody and light, Nico’s cover is melodramatic and plodding, draped to excess by funky synths. And oh, lord, her tuneless voice—when she intones the chorus, “We can be heroes!”, it is hard not to chuckle. It’s certainly a far cry from Bowie’s smooth original, and from her unnerving albums that preceded it, almost jubilant in its funk. But it manages to be sadder still than the original. This is specious, but it seems that the removal of the scare quotes—and the melodrama, and the boldness with which Nico cries out the chorus—somehow renders the song nearly poignant. We can be heroes, really, maybe: but probably not.

You, you can be mean
And I, I drink all the time
‘Cause we’re lovers, and that is a fact
Yes, we’re lovers and that is that

When she sings it you want to believe her, even if you think her voice is funny—and even if you know you won’t believe her. This cover feels like an anthem—a rallying cry for the disaffected.