David Bowie’s fascination with the songs of Jacques Brel led him to cover a number of Brel songs, as well as influenced his musical and performance choices.
In this article, the top five versions of “My Death” (“La Mort”) – covered by Bowie at multiple points throughout his career – are reappraised …
Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, 1972
The song “My Death” was introduced to Bowie through the dramatic interpretation recorder by Scott Walker in the late 1960s. While Walker’s version retains the ominous trumpet introduction of the Brel original (taken from the Gregorian chant “Dies Irae” (“Day of Wrath”) from the Catholic Requiem Mass), Brel’s meticulously orchestrated march was transformed into a lengthy, emotional and tense narrative which allowed Walker to deliver one of his most powerful and transfixing performances on record.
Bowie adopted the song into his live sets to replace his rendition of Brel’s “Amsterdam” – a move which tied in with Bowie’s transition towards the Ziggy Stardust narrative, and a greater emphasis on building drama and storylines into his live performances.
This skeletal version of “My Death” sees Bowie accompanied only by acoustic guitar, adding to the sense of isolation portrayed in Shuman’s translation. Bowie uses his vocal performance with great effect, transitioning between quiet, contemplative passages, to shrill and haunting wails as tempo picks up in the verses.
Hammersmith Odeon, 1973
“Shhhh… be quiet! This a quiet song!” Bowie instructs the audience as he introduces this rendition of “My Death”. Under a single spotlight, his face covered in makeup, and with only the accompaniment of his acoustic guitar and Mike Garson’s masterful piano, this is Bowie’s statement piece – and he wants the audience to pay attention and be transfixed with his performance.
This rendition acts as a fitting premonition to the announcement (before the Brel-inspired “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide) that Bowie was to kill off his Ziggy Stardust character – a move that was also inspired by Brel’s momentous resignation from the music industry at the height of his fame.
New translation available now! Want to hear the most accurate English translation of “My Death”? Click here for my cover version!
Manhattan Centre, 1995
We have to wait for over 20 years for another recorded version of “My Death” to surface – but this version, accompanied by Mike Garson again – was worth the wait, as the piano adds another emotional dimension to Bowie’s evocative performance.
Garson’s use of tempo adds to the drama in this rendition, as the piano moves between a funerary tempo and a speed that resembles Brel’s original. Inspiration is clearly drawn from jazz improvisation, and the two performers play off each other as the song progresses, in what is one of the best examples of their collaborative efforts.
Opening with what sounds like Spanish-inspired guitar, this version of “My Death” is so far removed from the Manhattan Centre rendition it’s hard to believe that this is the same singer – let alone the same year! Instead of the previous version’s use of tempo to build dramatic tension, this version utilised a slowly building crescendo to progress the piece, as the other instruments gradually join the ensemble.
GQ Man of the Year Awards, 1997
Within the space of three years, Bowie changed his performance of “My Death” dramatically – the leap between the Manhattan Centre and the 1997 version is substantial. Here, we see Bowie foray into R&B-esque jazz – the piano improvisation is toned down, and experimental guitars are introduced. Despite this added instrumentation, the song feels bare and Bowie is exposed – stood at the front of the stage on his own, with his musicians in the background an eternity away.
This version is retrospective, and we can see how the meaning of the song has changed as Bowie ages – no longer is it the centrepiece of a narrative about an alien pop star, it’s personal and relatable. As Bowie would go on to announce on the album Reality, “My Death is more than just a sad song…”
Do you have a favourite version of “My Death”? Let me know in the comments section below. Want to know more about the links between Bowie and Brel? Click here to read my analysis!