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.