Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide

Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (live, 1973).
Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (live, 1974).
Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (live, 1978).
Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (live, 1990).

The preposterous finale to Ziggy Stardust, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” is an exotic forced marriage of theater pieces. It begins as a pastiche of Jacques Brel, then erupts into a grandiose Judy Garland finale that feeds its audience’s narcissism at the expense of its performer’s.

“Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” isn’t much of a rock & roll song, either. As with much of Ziggy Stardust, “rock ‘n’ roll” happens off-stage, like naval battles in Shakespeare plays. Bowie first envisioned “Suicide” as a chanson, and the track was something of a last-stage replacement for a cover of Brel’s “Amsterdam.” For “Suicide,” obvious inspirations include Brel’s 1964 “Jef,” which begins “Non, jef, t’es pas tout seul,” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (esp. Garland’s version), while the opening verse, in which time takes cigarettes and pulls on your fingers, seems a poor translation of the Spanish poet Manuel Machado‘s “Tonás y livianas”: “Life is a cigarette…some smoke it in a hurry.”

Bowie saw “Suicide” as the ember stage of a rock singer’s life, a plastic rock star wandering, burned-out, through the streets, realizing he’s suddenly no longer young; he’s discarded, and destroyed, by his audience. This idea survives in the song’s three verses, then collides head-to-head with the need for a rousing final number for the Ziggy LP, and his wife Angela’s suggestion that he write a piece to stoke an audience, with lines like “give me your hands, ‘cos you’re wonderful!!” So Brel is dethroned by James Brown, whose Live At the Apollo gave Bowie cues in how to bait and break an audience to his will.

After two somber guitar-based verses in 12/8, the push begins. Drums and horns come in on the third verse, while a five-bar interlude finds the singer moving from cool sympathy to reassurance and flattery (“oh no love, you’re not alone/you’re watching yourself but you’re too unfair”). The singer’s been on the street, but the camera pulls back to reveal it’s merely a backdrop. The key leaps from C to D flat (on the second “no love, you’re not alone!!”), the accompaniment swells with brass and strings, a low chorus repeats a three-note motif (“won-der-ful”) to balance Bowie’s manic vocal.

Even as it started with Ziggy abandoned by his audience and his muse, the song ends with him in gaudy triumph, and it’s as cheap and ridiculous as it is moving. He’s resurrected before he dies. A brief dalliance of Mick Ronson’s guitar and strings, and a final descending sweep of strings on D-flat, end the track (and the LP) in a stolen moment of grace.

Recorded 12-18 January 1972. It was the Ziggy Stardust tour’s usual closing piece (Bowie’s announcement at the last Spiders show at the Hammersmith in July 1973, where he politely killed off his Ziggy character before his disbelieving fans, naturally preceded it); even more florid versions have come in the years since. RCA, grubbing for money, released it as a single in 1974; it did poorly.

Top: Vin Miles, The Reading Festival, 13 August 1972.

13 Responses to Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide

  1. col1234 says:

    As always, Nicholas Pegg deserves credit for discovering, in this case, the Machado poem and, I believe, the Brel song as references.

  2. Momus says:

    “As with much of Ziggy Stardust, “rock ‘n’ roll” happens off-stage, like naval battles in Shakespeare plays.”

    What a great line!

  3. Love the version on “David Live”. Leaves the original version in the dust, it sounds more uplifting perhaps or maybe I just enjoy that style more as opposed to the cabaret style in Ziggy.

    Great blog BTW, been reading it for most of the week, hope one day to read a review of “Outside”.

  4. Vin says:

    Came across this site today and have been reading it non-stop for hours and listening to the songs at the same time. Fascinating stuff, beautifully written. Great choice of photos, too, especially the one here, of Reading festival in ’72, cos it’s my photo! I’m very happy for you to use it, but please can you give me a credit and a link to my Flickr set of rock concert photos, which include Bowie pics. Feel free to use any photos from my other pages, too (seventies black-and-white stuff etc.) Thanks. Vin Miles.

    • col1234 says:

      Vin– my apologies. I always try whenever possible to credit photographers, so very sorry that wasn’t the case here. I’ve put in a link for you. best, c.o.

  5. Queen Bitch says:

    This song saved my life at college. Ziggy told me I was not alone and I believed him.

  6. billter says:

    I can’t really argue with anything you’ve said here but for me the sincerity of the performance transcends whatever cheese factor there might be. It reminds me of Elvis’s “If I Can Dream” from the 68 comeback special; yes, on the page or in theory, it might seem silly or pandering; but in practice you can hear an artist really working, really trying to connect with his audience. I cannot hear either song without being moved and feeling for a few minutes like the world is a better place.

    • BenJ says:

      I have to agree. The song is an unlikely mishmash of styles, yes, right down to the final string flourish that could have come from Sgt Pepper. And it’s something of a bipolar freakout. And yet it’s a genuinely loving song as well, one that reaches out for the listener no matter what kind of state they might be in.

  7. Andy says:

    I came here jolted by the entry in the book, which slams the ’90 tour, which was assuredly utterly fantastic from my 10th row seat. (The link you provide above is indeed horrible, but I remember nothing being bad like that–and other clips I’ve seen from the tour confirm my memory.)
    But since I’m here, I may as well mention that this is the first song I ever did at karaoke…I didn’t want to do anything, wasn’t even sure I would be able to get any sound to come out of my mouth, but somehow unthinkingly picked this anyway. I started well enough, if perhaps a little undercomitted, but as that jump in vocal range approached I realized what I had done. I had to go all in if I was going to do it at all–it was the Rubicon of karaoke moments. And all in it was. I plunged right in with the appropriate pleading hysteria, moving down off the stage into the crowd of irritated and alarmed ex-frat boy traders just there for a drink after mastering the universe, eyes burning with dislike as I sang into theirs, me touching them gently as I passed. An old drunk black lady came up excitedly to stand before me for the last minute of the song, and I sang to her, given little other choice. As I cried out to her that she was wonderful, she clasped my hand in hers and cried out, “No, baby! You’re wonderful!”
    While I respect your analysis, the fact is, it’s a great song…because it is so ridiculous and dramatic. Sometimes Bowie’s, dare I say, heroic ability to not give a shit about looking silly or overwrought can lead to a cringe or two from a fan. This is one time where it fires on all pistons and pays off big time, for one of the great songs ever. It’s flipping perfect. Thanks for the insights into how it was created.

  8. Matthew says:

    Love the story Andy!

    When you’re a teenager and feel somewhat outside of things this is THE song on Ziggy Stardust

    • Andy says:

      Well, I always enjoyed the theater of the last part, but it was the lyrics and atmosphere of the first part (chanson with grit and gasoline) that I loved the most…that’s what spoke to my particular brand of outsider (and I’ve always thought confirmation and identification were no particular reason to create or value art…but found it so gloriously, knowingly overwrought in this case as to be just as delightful as the first part…).

  9. […] particularly coherent about it. If you’d like to understand it more, try the excellent Pushing Ahead Of The Dame, where Chris O’Leary describes the song beginning “as a pastiche of Jacques Brel” […]

  10. todd says:

    Great song, I’m 11 again, mixed up, half in half out of the closet, confused and searching for an answer, bowie helped me to come to terms with my sexuality, not to be ashamed of being different, I am 55 now, still confused and mixed up, but, fuck the world and people are beautiful,I love u all, todd

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