Rock 'n' Roll Suicide

Originally Performed ByDavid Bowie
Original AlbumThe Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
Music/LyricsDavid Bowie
VocalsTrey Anastasio
Phish Debut2016-10-31
Last Played2016-10-31
Current Gap8
Historian@lemuria
Last Update2017-01-10

History

The final track of Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars anti-popera details the end of Ziggy’s frazzled demise, but ends itself in optimism. Ziggy is “too old to lose it, too young to choose it”, worn down as much by crowd-pleasing pressures as by the delinquencies of rock stardom, and now both trapped by his creation and abandoned by his fans. He “stumble[s] across the road” post-show, bares the weight of the rising sun, and simply passes by a cafe, unfulfilled by his success; “you don’t eat when you’ve lived too long.” Following the sirens of fame and expression, Ziggy’s big boat has run aground, personally and professionally, and he knows it. But the singer (Bowie now singing back to Ziggy?) knows it, too, and reaches out with hope and enthusiasm: “If only I could make you care … I’ll help you with the pain. ...You’re not alone.”

The opening stanzas are inspired by Jacques Brel’s “Jef.” (Bowie had attended a stage show about Brel, and covered his dreadful “My Death” and, um, colorful “Amsterdam.”) That 1964 French tune also repeats “you’re not alone”, and in a marginally similar song structure and cadence, but is more forceful about both the subject’s despair and the singer’s reaction to it: “Stop your sobbing. Stop bad mouthing yourself. Stop repeating that you’re ready to drown or ready to hang.” Bowie’s take is softer from the start, and ends with the lyrical encouragement of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” unburdened by either Brel’s harshness or Judy Garland’s sorrow. The combination is nonetheless oxymoronic, almost dialectic, as a reflective dirge transforms into a Wagnerian rallying call: “Let’s turn on and not be alone. … Gimme your hands! You’re wonderful!”

Bowie introduced the show- and tour-ending version at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in 1973 as being “the last show we’ll ever do.” That was misinterpreted (likely by design) as the end of Bowie. However, it was said in character, as Ziggy, and the song was then performed as such, t’boot; As the ending soared, Bowie wandered frenetically across the stage, a theatrical depiction of Ziggy’s stumbling collapse. He even stopped singing, leaving much of the denouement to backing vocalists, putting his mic back in its stand, and nearly falling from stage-right into the crowd, before being pulled back by security. But the dramatization seems lost on the crowd, particularly one fan who rushed the stage to hug him (Bowie, not Ziggy), mesmerized by the actual glam rather than the fictional gloom. Bowie’s notoriety overshadowed his dramaturgy, his own sun blasting his own shadow.

David Bowie “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” from the motion picture, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

(The introduction was a bit of fiction, too: While Bowie didn’t tour again as Ziggy, he did perform Ziggy’s tunes again. Abysmal versions of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” were dropped early from the 1978 and 1990 tours, but a stellar 1974 version appeared on David Live. The latter was released as a single but only as an afterthought, only in Britain, and “only” reached No. 22 - a sort of the suicide of the song itself.)

The subtext of Phish’s 10/31/16 delivery was unmistakable, lost only on those who knew nothing of Trey’s troubles. First, it was a distinctive moment, along with “It Ain’t Easy” earlier in the set, perhaps the only time Trey has crooned alone at the stage edge, mic in hand, with no guitar. And this wasn’t “just” Phish nailing Stardust (and, for at least the first half, Trey nailing Bowie’s voice). This was post-addiction Trey, alone (but “not alone”), front and center, baring it all. He’s been where Ziggy went, following musicality and then popularity to their darkest edges. As with his public support for drug courts and his private support as a sponsor, he’s now wholeheartedly hoping to lighten others’ loads with his experience: “I’ve had my share. I’ll help you through the pain.” The self-affirmation (of which Ziggy was incapable) is delicious; and the “gaudy triumph… as cheap and ridiculous as it is moving” of Bowie’s original ending, is epic and heartwarming in Phish’s.

Ironic, then, the lyrical slips (at ~2:39 and ~2:47), when Trey twice sings “turn on to me” instead of “with me.” Unlike Bowie’s stumbling across the stage, there was no theatrical madness here. Trey’s delivery was solid, confident, and unwavering, offering to be with but so healthy and jubilant that he errantly turns the focus to himself. He’s back from the brink, a rock star again. But, hopefully, he’s stopping in at that cafe.

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