Brel, Bowie, and Viva Las Vegas!

Jacques BrelTo make up for the catchy pop folk I put you through earlier today, I present to you a great performance with David Bowie and Mike Garson, who does an extended keyboard solo in the middle. You may remember Garson for his playing on a number of Bowie albums, most especially on the title track of Aladdin Sane, where his avant-garde solo steals the whole album. There is no avant-garde here, just a delicious and effortless piece of musicianship.

The song is “My Death,” which was apparently from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, which I have not seen. The song is a translation of a Jacques Brel song, “La Mort,” off La Valse à Mille Temps. Lyrically, the translation isn’t bad. There are a couple of problems. The first is that the French conception of Death is not ours — it is a pale woman. So the chorus sung to “you” in front of the door has a romantic element that is totally missing in the English version. Also, the original has constant references to time slipping away. This is also missing in the translation.

The way that Bowie chooses to do it is odd too. He sings it like a dirge. Brel’s chorus is upbeat. It’s like he is saying that as long as he can flirt with death, he can stay alive. Or something. You can never say with Brel because his work is so layered. None of this should be taken to mean that the Bowie version is bad. It isn’t. But the Brel version is better:

But Brel doesn’t have Mike Garson backing him up. What’s more, we expect Bowie in his old age to croon for us. He’s been doing it since David Live back in 1974 when he didn’t expect it. (I still think it is a great album; I don’t care what anyone says.) If you want to skip ahead to the Garson solo, I forgive you. It is at 4:50. And if you have any doubts about whether you should watch this, consider this: the translation was done by Mort Shuman, best know as the co-writer of “Viva Las Vegas”!

I can’t resist. In general, I don’t like Jello Biafra’s vocals. I think they detract from Dead Kennedys, which is still one of the great California punk bands. But with “Viva Las Vegas,” Biafra’s vocals are just perfect:

4 thoughts on “Brel, Bowie, and Viva Las Vegas!

  1. The only version I know is from the original production of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris,” which I was lucky enough to have seen when I was a HS senior. Yes, I’m that old (and originally from NY). :-)

    I’ve since seen numerous productions of the show in various locations – including dinner theater, college production, and theater-in-the-round (with Theodore Bikel) – and even the movie version. Wherever I happened to be living, if there was a production of Brel nearby, I saw it.

    • I have heard much about the revue, but I have never seen it. The title always makes me sad because Brel is sadly not alive and well. He died much too young. But I do so love his work. I’ve written about him many times around here. Over the last few years he’s become my go to guy. If I can’t think of anything to listen to, I put him on.

      I actually didn’t know they made it into a movie. I will have to see if I can get it!

      • Unfortunately, the movie version was not nearly as good as the live show, partly due to eliminating the second female, which eliminated some great harmonies. But the movie did have a scene with Brel himself, so there’s that. :-)

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