11. A Song about Death

‘My Death’ – David Bowie

I wasn’t planning to write about this song so soon. I’d earmarked it for a heading coming up later in the month – ‘Sings the Wrong Words’ – and I was going to write about Scott Walker’s version. But after the news of David Bowie’s death this morning, the song stuck in my head, reminding me of how I first heard it. That was late one evening, back in the early 90s, when the BBC screened D. A. Pennebaker’s film of the final Ziggy Stardust concert. Here, in the slower middle section of the show, straight after Space Oddity, is Jacques Brel’s La Mort, translated into English as My Death. A year or so later, I heard it again, this time on the Scott Sings Jacques Brel compilation. Becoming slightly obsessed with this album, it wasn’t long before I heard the familiar canard: Mort Shuman’s translations (Walker and Bowie sing slightly different versions, but both are by Shuman) are abominations; you have to hear the original. This was before the internet, and it was another few years before I came across the Brel recordings in a flea market in France, by which time Shuman’s lyrics – in Bowie’s or Scott’s intonations – were burned in my memory.

In fact, the most surprising difference between Bowie’s and Brel’s version lies not in the lyrics but the arrangement. Ironically, where Bowie presents a slow, sparse imitation of a cabaret chansonnier, supported only by a piano and his own twelve-string guitar, Brel delivers a crisp march. Death may be waiting in every line, but Brel’s music doesn’t mimic this, rattling by in under three minutes.

But it’s not this difference, I don’t think, that irritates the critics. (I hope not; I like the way the English versions take it more slowly.) The real problem lies in the liberties Shuman takes with the translation. Brel’s singer sees Death lurking in everything. Leaves remind him of the tree that will make his coffin; lilacs of the flowers which the gravedigger will cast on it. The everyday is thrust forward in time, seen through the paranoid lens of the singer’s demise. It’s an absolutely masterful conceit, and one which Shuman fails to replicate. The English version keeps the leaves and the lilacs, but doesn’t explain why, what they represent.

Brel’s imagery too is utterly coherent in its austerity, in the Seventh Seal medievalism of its scythes, princesses and gravediggers, all lost in the English version. Shuman, on the other hand, flits between this and an overexcited sexuality which is distinctly late 60s – Death as an old roué, Death waiting ‘between your thighs’. When Death waits, along with the rabbits and dogs, in a ‘magician’s mysterious sleeves’, Shuman has strayed beyond tawdry and into silliness.

To a large extent, however, this doesn’t matter. What sticks in the mind, of course, is that chorus – those four lines of acceptance, where Death switches roles from cartoon ghoul, hiding in ambush, to longed-for lover. The second line is Shuman’s insertion; for once it’s an improvement. The chorus, in English, is perfection:

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

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