Reissues: Amsterdam

March 11, 2016

Along with the VU’s “Waiting For the Man,” Jacques Brel’s “Amsterdam” (and Scott Walker’s interpretation of it) is one of the essential building blocks of Bowie’s development as a songwriter. Diamond Dogs couldn’t exist without it, nor could “Time”; “Amsterdam” was even once slotted to appear on  Ziggy Stardust: Bowie wrote “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” in part as his Brel substitute.

There’s a spot of confusion as to when the released Bowie studio take of “Amsterdam” was recorded: the reliable Kevin Cann slots it into the Pin Ups sessions of summer 1973, which is possible (that’s when it finally came out, as a B-side) but that seems like a rare error on his part. Unless the “Amsterdam” recorded in 1971 for Ziggy Stardust was a different take from the B-side version? There’s also another studio version circulating (see below) which sounds like a demo. And the version included on Rare is yet another take, of unknown origin: was this the Ziggy take? One day, perhaps, it will all get cleared up.

Originally posted on 21 December 2009, it’s “Amsterdam” (or “Port of Amsterdam,” if you prefer):

Amsterdam (Jacques Brel, 1964).
Amsterdam (Scott Walker, 1967).
Amsterdam (Bowie, demo? 1971?).
Amsterdam (Bowie, BBC, February 1970).
Amsterdam (Bowie, studio, 1971).
Amsterdam (alternate studio take?, 1971?).
Amsterdam (Bowie, live, 1971).
Amsterdam (live, 1990).

Jacques Brel composed “Amsterdam” in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, in a villa overlooking the Mediterranean. He read his lyric to a fisherman friend, who wept while he carved open sea urchins. “Amsterdam” inspired these sort of visceral responses. After Robert Guillaume debuted the English version of “Amsterdam” at the Village Gate in January 1968, there was a “disconcertingly long hush—followed by a roar so damn loud I jumped.”

Brel never recorded “Amsterdam,” despite it being one of his best-known songs: its only official release is on a 1964 live LP of Brel at the Olympia, in Paris. Bowie first heard “Amsterdam” via Scott Walker’s cover recording, the final track on Walker’s 1967 debut LP. Bowie also attended the stage show Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which, having debuted at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village, had come to London in the summer of 1968. The play had no libretto, just a series of performances of Brel compositions, with Mort Shuman (who also performed in the play) and Eric Blau translating Brel’s lyrics (freely and racily).

By late 1968 Bowie was playing “Amsterdam” with his folk trio and he’d keep the song in his stage repertoire until 1972 (he replaced it with Brel’s “My Death,” which better suited the times). Like “Waiting for the Man,” another song Bowie was obsessed with during the glam years, “Amsterdam” offered street life as stage material. Where “Waiting For the Man” was confined to the narrow lens of its junkie narrator, “Amsterdam” was a sprawling Brueghelian canvas: a port overrun with drunk, paunchy sailors who gnaw on fish heads, piss and fight in the street and use the port prostitutes “for a few dirty coins.” “Amsterdam” also gave Bowie a primer in how to craft an apocalypse in song, as it opened quietly, with the port waking up, and steadily built to a wild, drunken carnival (it was the template for everything from “Five Years” to “Station to Station.”)

After performing the song twice for the BBC, Bowie cut a studio take of “Amsterdam” that was issued as a B-side in 1973. Where Walker’s “Amsterdam” had been a reel of accordion, strings and horns, Bowie sang accompanied only by his (and in the studio take, possibly Mick Ronson’s) acoustic guitar. In early live recordings Bowie seemed in awe of the song, but by the studio take and his last live performances, he’d developed a saucy tone for the opening verses, boldly inflating and compressing phrases. Yet when he vied to match Brel and Walker in intensity in the last verse, he still audibly strained for effect. His last apprentice work.

Recorded (presumably) autumn 1971. Released 12 October 1973 (RCA 2424). Broadcast on 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show and 21 September 1971, Sounds of the 70s. After retiring “Amsterdam” as a stage piece in 1972, Bowie gave it a very brief revival for the Sound + Vision tour of 1990: its only appearance, I believe, was the aborted attempt in Brussels, linked above.

Top: “Renard Livres Echanges, near Les Halles, Paris,” 1970.


My Death

June 2, 2010

La Mort (Jacques Brel, 1959).
My Death (Scott Walker, 1967).
My Death (Elly Stone, 1968).
My Death (Bowie, live, 1972).
My Death (Bowie, live, 1973).
My Death (Bowie, live, 1996).
Bowie, My Death (live, 1997).

Bowie unveiled his cover of Jacques Brel’s “My Death” at his two Rainbow Theatre shows of August 1972. These concerts were Bowie’s debutante balls, attended by rock royalty (including Elton John, who reportedly stormed out in disgust). Bowie kept “My Death” in his set for the rest of the Spiders From Mars shows, first as a solo piece on acoustic guitar, later accompanied by his new pianist, Mike Garson.

“My Death” replaced Brel’s “Amsterdam.” Bowie possibly had grown tired of covering “Amsterdam” or, more likely, “Amsterdam” no longer worked in the refitted Spiders set, which was heavy on rockers and theatrical extravagance. In a way, “My Death” played the role Bowie had intended for “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide”—a harrowing number that served, quite literally, as a memento mori in the middle of a rock concert.

Brel recorded “La Mort” for his 1959 La Valse à Mille Temps. As with “Amsterdam,” the intermediaries for Bowie were Mort Shuman, who translated the song for the revue Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris, and Scott Walker, who covered it on his 1967 debut album. Yet “My Death,” regardless of how ominously Bowie performed it, comes off a bit ridiculous and wearisome, its three verses plodding along, its minor-key choruses lacking power (compare it to the driving, exacting rhythms of Brel’s original). One reason is that the Shuman translation Bowie used is an abomination, a burlesque of Brel’s lyric. Take the opening verse:

La mort m’attend comme une vieille fille
Au rendez-vous de la faucille,
Pour mieux cueillir le temps qui passe.
La mort m’attend comme une princesse
A l’enterrement de ma jeunesse…

This roughly translates as:

Death waits on me like a spinster
at the hour of the sickle,
to better reap the passing time.
Death waits on me like a princess
at the funeral of my youth…

Yet Shuman offers/Bowie sings:

My death waits like an old roue
So confident I’ll go his way
Whistle to him and the passing time.
My death waits like a bible truth
at the funeral of my youth…

It gets worse. Shuman’s translation is more crass (Brel’s “death waits in your bright hands” becomes “My death waits there between your thighs”) and inane (Brel’s “death waits behind the leaves/Of the tree that will make my coffin” becomes “my death waits there among the leaves/in magicians’ mysterious sleeves”). Translated out of Brel’s stark, medieval language, the song becomes an elaborate nothing, and Bowie’s performance of it was mainly dependent on his charismatic stage presence. As a sound recording, it’s tiresome—an unwelcome return of Folkie David Bowie at the height of the glam era.

Live versions of “My Death” from 1972 are on RarestOneBowie and Live at Santa Monica; a 1973 recording, from the last Spiders show, is on Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture. Bowie and Garson revived the song in the mid-1990s and played it occasionally (such as the 1997 GQ Awards linked above, in which Bowie switched roles and sounded like Death).

Top: William Gedney, “Man driving car and drinking can of beer, Kentucky, 1972.”


Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide

May 9, 2010

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.


Amsterdam

December 21, 2009

Amsterdam (Jacques Brel).
Amsterdam (Scott Walker, 1967).
Amsterdam (David Bowie, BBC, February 1970).
Amsterdam (Bowie, studio version 1971).

Jacques Brel, according to legend, composed “Amsterdam” in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, in a house overlooking the Mediterranean. He read the completed lyrics to a fisherman friend, who wept and cut open some sea urchins. After Robert Guillaume first sang “Amsterdam” at the Village Gate in January 1968, he recalled in his memoir there was a “disconcertingly long hush—followed by a roar so damn loud I jumped.”

Brel never recorded “Amsterdam,” despite it being one of his best-known songs: its only official release is on a 1964 live LP of Brel at the Olympia, in Paris. Bowie likely first heard “Amsterdam” via Scott Walker’s cover recording, which was the final track on Walker’s 1967 debut LP. Bowie also attended the stage show Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which, having debuted at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village, had come to London in the summer of 1968. The play had no libretto, just a series of performances of Brel compositions, with Mort Shuman (who also performed in the play) and Eric Blau translating Brel’s lyrics (freely and racily).

In late 1968 Bowie began covering “Amsterdam” with his folk trio, keeping the song in his stage repertoire until 1972 (he replaced it with Brel’s “My Death,” which better suited the times). Bowie even originally intended to end side 1 of Ziggy Stardust with his studio version of “Amsterdam,” with Side 2’s closing song, “Rock and Roll Suicide,” being a thematic twin of sorts, Bowie’s own rock & roll Brel song.

Like “Waiting for the Man,” the other song Bowie obsessively covered in this period, “Amsterdam” offers street life as stage material, but where Lou Reed’s lyric is the narrow perceptions of its junkie narrator, Brel’s “Amsterdam” is sprawling, a Bruegelian vision: a port filled with drunken, paunchy sailors who chew fish heads with their rotten teeth, piss in the street, fight, sing in broken voices and use the port prostitutes “for a few dirty coins.” The sense of life as a canvas, the vulgar proletarians as actors in their own dramas, appealed to Bowie, whose ’60s lyrics had tended to be obscure or bloodless—he sensed a method, via Brel, to connect with reality more directly, to use stagecraft to build more resonant songs.

Bowie also took from “Amsterdam” its sense of apocalyptic timing (such as how “Amsterdam” begins quietly, with the port slowly waking up, and builds to a wild, drunken spectacle) and its exacting demands on a singer, who has to deliver the entire lyric without barely a pause in three minutes, the intoned words “in the port of Amsterdam” serving as the unchanging hub of the song.

Bowie’s various covers of “Amsterdam” are as much interpretations of Scott Walker’s recording as they are Brel’s. In all his attempts, Bowie seems too much in awe of the material: when he tries to outdo Brel in intensity and Walker in moodiness (particularly in the studio recording) his vocal is stagy and strained, the lyric’s judgments seem unearned. It’s Bowie’s last apprentice work.

Bowie first recorded “Amsterdam” for the BBC’s Sunday Show on 5 February 1970 (on Bowie at the Beeb), and also for “Sounds of the ’70s” on 21 September 1971. The studio recording of “Amsterdam,” made in the summer of 1971 during the early Ziggy Stardust sessions, was eventually cut from the LP (though it was on the first master recording) and wound up issued as the B-side of “Sorrow” in 1973.

Top: “Renard Livres Echanges, near Les Halles, Paris,” 1970.