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Revisiting Rare David Bowie Cuts: “My Death” by Jacques Brel

On a rainy Monday 21 days ago, I pulled my truck out of my garage in Washington state for the last time, my motorcycle angled in the bed to fit and a house plant strapped into the seat beside me.

I was on my way to Texas…just as we saw cases of Coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, start to pop up throughout the Seattle area.

(As of today, my old county has just 33 confirmed cases with two of the individuals being acquaintances I haven’t seen in a few years).

The trek to the Lone Star State would take four days, seeing me pull into a relative’s home that Thursday.

A lot has changed in three weeks. In many ways, our world seems to have been upended. The stock market is in free fall, unemployment claims are up 33%. And I’m at my new home, anxiously filling out job applications while simultaneously enjoying some records I haven’t listened to in a while.

Enter this bootleg copy of David Bowie‘s 1972 Santa Monica show.

An Album for People Who Hate Live Albums

A few weeks before departing Washington, I pulled out Bowie Live and gave it a listen. This was maybe the second time listening to the album in the 10-12 years it’s been in my collection.

It didn’t stay on the record player long.

You see, I struggle with live albums. They don’t have the sound quality of a solid, studio-produced record. It’s rare that alternate takes or modifications an artist makes to a song overpowers my desire for crisp, clean cuts you get in a studio.

In this regard, the Bowie Live album was a train wreck. I pulled it, listed it for sale, and filed it in the purge box.

That’s not the case with Santa Monica Live in 1972. While the production value is lacking, there’s just enough production consistency with the songs and a few little surprises to keep it worthy.

One of the worthy tracks is “My Death Waits There.”

David Bowie: My Death Waits There

I was intrigued the moment this cut began to play. It wasn’t the first time I had heard the song–it was originally recorded by Jacques Brel and famously covered by Scott Walker.

There are lyrical differences as early as the opening line.

Where Walker begins with the lyrics “My death swings like a swinging door,” Bowie croons “My death waits like an old roué.” These differences are inconsequential, as all–including Brel’s original–are phenomenal.

Walker’s version begins with a horn section that mimics that of Brel’s original. That’s where the similarities end. Walker translated the song to English as opposed to retaining the original French.

Walker also modified the instrumentation, injecting more darkness and hints of the new burgeoning psychedelic pop of the time (remember, this album was released in 1967).

During his 1972 Santa Monica show, Bowie striped away a few layers, leaving predominantly Bowie going solo with an acoustic guitar (save an occasional piano in the background). He gave some substantial nods to Walker’s version, as you can hear in the video below from 1973:

As far as I can tell, aside from live bootlegs, you can’t find David Bowie covering “My Death” by Jacques Brel in physical form. On this bootleg, he dubs it “My Death Waits There.”

Bonus: Bowie Covers The Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the Man”

“My Death” isn’t the only cover you’ll find on this bootleg: he also graces us with The Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the Man.”

It was no secret that Bowie was hugely influenced by Andy Warhol. About his first time meeting Warhol and playing the song named after him for the man, Bowie recounted:

“It didn’t go down very well, but I got to know him after that. It was my shoes that got him. That’s where we found something to talk about. They were these little yellow things with a strap across them, like girls’ shoes. He absolutely adored them. Then I found out that he used to do a lot of shoe designing when he was younger. He had a bit of a shoe fetishism. That kind of broke the ice. He was an odd guy.”

And, of course, we all know that the career of The Velvet Underground was originally deeply intertwined with the subculture Andy Warhol had going in New York in the 1960s. The Velvet Underground & Nico, was produced by Warhol, who also provided album art for the record.

“Waiting for the Man” appears on it as well.

Given the intertwined nature of David Bowie and Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground around that time, it’s no surprise that Bowie covered a song from the album.

Take a listen to the song above. While not the version from the bootleg, you can hear many of the Reed-like vocal stylings Bowie dons for the song in this BBC Session cut of the cover.

As I continue my current state of both currently prescribed and somewhat mandated self-isolation, it’ll be interesting to see what other records I dig up that haven’t graced my turntable in a while…

What have been your self-isolation spins? Let me know in the comments below.

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