Ziggy Stardust – The Motion Picture album coverWritten by: Jacques Brel, Mort Shuman, Eric Blau
Recorded: 1972, 1973

Released: 12 October 1973

Available on:
Live Santa Monica ’72
Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture

Personnel

David Bowie: vocals, 12-string acoustic guitar
Mike Garson: piano, keyboards

Jacques Brel’s ‘My Death’ was performed by David Bowie often during the Ziggy Stardust Tour in 1972-3.

It didn’t matter if David wrote the song or not, quite often, because when he interpreted something he made it his own. He had that ability. Think of ‘Wild Is The Wind’, say… We had a lot of versions of ‘My Death’ that we did in concert, and I always really liked that one. That was a cover, of course.
Mike Garson
The Mouth magazine, 28 September 2017

Written as ‘La Mort’, the song was originally in the 1968 revue Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris. The songs were translated into English by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman, who also wrote the story.

Bowie performed Brel’s ‘Amsterdam’ often between 1968 and the summer of 1972, after which he switched to ‘My Death’. Both songs had also been on Scott, the 1967 debut solo album by Scott Walker, which was where he first heard them.

Scott led Bowie to Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris, which he saw in London in July 1968. In 2003 he included the cast recording in a list of 25 of his favourite albums.

In the mid-60s, I was having an on-again, off-again thing with a wonderful singer-songwriter who had previously been the girlfriend of Scott Walker. Much to my chagrin, Walker’s music played in her apartment night and day. I sadly lost contact with her, but unexpectedly kept a fond and hugely admiring love for Walker’s work. One of the writers he covered on an early album was Jacques Brel. That was enough to take me to the theater to catch the above-named production when it came to London in 1968. By the time the cast, led by the earthy translator and Brooklynite Mort Shuman, had gotten to the song that dealt with guys lining up for their syphilis shots (‘Next’), I was completely won over. By way of Brel, I discovered French chanson a revelation. Here was a popular song form wherein poems by the likes of Sartre, Cocteau, Verlaine, and Baudelaire were known and embraced by the general populace. No flinching, please.
David Bowie
Vanity Fair, November 2003

In July 1972 David and Angela Bowie, bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Woody Woodmansey, took a two-week holiday at a coastal resort in Kyrenia, Cyprus, where Bowie was involved in a head-on collision with another car. Although uninjured, he was charged with dangerous driving, although the charges were later dropped after he paid damages to the other driver.

Then, during their return trip to England, their aeroplane was subjected to severe turbulence after entering an electrical storm. Bowie was terrified by the experience and took the experience as an omen. He did not fly again until 1977.

On the flight back from Cyprus to England, about halfway through the trip, lightning hit the tips of the wings of the plane, bouncing from one to the other, and Bowie was terrified. In fact, the plane was shaking so badly, we all thought it might be all over. It was a real kiss-your-arse-goodbye moment.

I looked at him and I could see all the blood vessels in his face, because he had gone so pale. He wasn’t a fit, healthy person back then, because he hardly ever ate, and he almost passed out on that plane. That was too close for comfort for him, and he didn’t fly again until the late seventies because it was too traumatic.

Woody Woodmansey
Spider from Mars: My Life with Bowie

It is notable that, following his brushes with mortality, Bowie sang ‘My Death’ for the first time at his next concerts, at London’s Rainbow Theatre in August 1972. For the next year it became a fixture of his live set.

Although ‘My Death’ was performed extensively during the Ziggy Stardust Tour, Bowie never recorded it in the studio. It did, however, appear on two live albums from that era: Live Santa Monica ’72 and Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture.

Another recording, from 28 September 1972, was released in May 1995 on the grey market RarestOneBowie collection. It was also the b-side of ‘Amsterdam’, a 2015 single available at the David Bowie Is exhibition in Groningen in the Netherlands.

Bowie revived ‘My Death’ during the Outside Tour in 1995, and less frequently during 1997’s Earthling Tour.

He also referenced the song on 2003’s Reality – the title track contained the line “Now my death is more than just a sad song”. The final song, ‘Bring Me The Disco King’, meanwhile, he sang “Don’t let me know when you’re opening the door”, an echo of Brel’s “But what ever lies behind the door/There is nothing much to do”.

Russell Harty performance

Bowie performed ‘My Death’ and ‘Drive-In Saturday’ on the British television show Russell Harty Plus Pop. The filming took place on 17 January 1973, and was first broadcast on LWT (London Weekend Television) three days later.

NME reporter Charles Shaar Murray was among those present, for firstly a rehearsal and then the final performance.

The second song is a solo number, for which amps and drums vanish. Sandwiched between the two numbers is an interview, and Bowie’s descent from the stage to the tandem armchairs in which Russell Harty will interview him is meticulously rehearsed. The stool and dual mic are set up on the stage, and Bowie’s up there sitting behind his curiously unwieldy Harptone guitar, performing Jacques Brels ‘My Death’. The exceptional nature of David Bowie’s gifts as a composer occasionally tend to blind one to his excellence as an interpreter of the work of others. His performance of ‘My Death’ is riveting, dramatic without ever intruding into the treacherous realms of hamminess, showing a devastating empathy with the lyrics. Even the technicians have stopped fussing around with the lights, carrying ladders and muttering into their headsets. They’re listening to this bizarre creature singing a song by a French composer of whom maybe only half of them have heard. As Bowie approaches the last section, one of his guitar strings gives way under the strain and hangs away from the neck, one razor then silver streak under the lights. He cracks up the entire studio by announcing the calamity in the song, and then finishing perfectly. “Cat Stevens would have given up”, mutters a member of the audience in the opposite tier. Break, Bowie and co vanish to their dressing room…

The interview with Harty is moderately amusing, as Mr. H concentrates mainly on Bowie’s appearance and outrage quotient. It is, it appears, too much of a technicality to actually discuss music. But David despite being uncharacteristically nervous, holds his end up brilliantly, making his points and still managing to play it for laughs, like asking “where’s the camera” in the middle of a long and serious rap, or reproving Harty for his obsessive interest in Bowie’s stockings with a limp-wristed, “Silly!” Then its time to tape ‘My Death’. During the recording, many of the audience are watching the monitor screens rather than the glittering figure on stage. Maybe the televised image seems more real. Strange, because in the soft focus, Bowie’s face bears an unnerving resemblance to that of Marlene Dietrich in her prime. When the false ending comes up, the floor manager whips the audience into applauding. The clapping fades into an embarrassing silence when Bowie sings the penultimate line. And after the last line there’s still a little hesitation before everybody assures themselves the song has finally ended.

New Musical Express, 27 January 1973

Spiders From Mars drummer Woody Woodmansey later said that this performance of ‘My Death’ was the best he ever saw.

We watched him perform ‘My Death’ on one of the studio monitors and for me it was probably his best ever version of it. Unfortunately London Weekend managed to lose the recording. That said, our performance on this show was probably responsible for ‘Drive-In Saturday’ remaining in the charts for ten weeks after its release in April, peaking at Number 3.
Woody Woodmansey
Spider from Mars: My Life with Bowie

Although the full performance of ‘My Death’ was wiped by LWT, an audio recording still exists.

Lyrics

My death waits like an old roué
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
Weep loud for that and the passing time
My death waits like a witch at night
As surely as our love is bright
Let’s not think about the passing time

But what ever lies behind the door
There is nothing much to do
Angel or devil, I don’t care
For in front of that door, there is you

My death waits like a beggar blind
Who sees the world through an unlit mind
Throw him a dime for the passing time
My death waits there between your thighs
Your cool fingers will close my eyes
Let’s not think of that and the passing time
My death waits to allow my friends
A few good times before it ends
So let’s drink to that and the passing time

But what ever lies behind the door
There is nothing much to do
Angel or devil, I don’t care
For in front of that door, there is you

My death waits there among the leaves
In magicians’ mysterious sleeves
Rabbits and dogs and the passing time
My death waits there among the flowers
Where the blackest shadow, blackest shadow cowers
Let’s pick lilacs for the passing time
My death waits there in a double bed
Sails of oblivion at my head
So pull up the sheets against the passing time

But what ever lies behind the door
There is nothing much to do
Angel or devil, I don’t care
For in front of that door, there is you