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.”