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I have another metaphor for songwriting, but it is not something that applies to all the songs. Some songs are like missiles. First, think about what a missile has to do.

First, it has to be launched into flight.

Second, it has to fly in a controlled manner, in the right direction and speed, towards your target.
Third, it has to reach your target and an explosion of sufficient force has to be generated in order to destroy your target.

Some songs are like that. The arc of the melody takes a certain trajectory, and it is headed towards a certain direction, with a certain amount of control. And then it delivers its punch. It is not only the missile analogy, a sperm also behaves like that.

So don’t let anybody tell you that this is not rocket science, since I’m saying that it is. If the rocket is of the wrong material, or if it is of the wrong shape, it will not fly. It will have to fly under conditions that are very different from the lab. And if the punchline / delivery of the payload is not executed properly, then it would have a fairly unsatisfying ending, where the explosion is a damp squib.

The song I want to talk to you today is one of David Bowie’s most famous songs, “Rock and Roll Suicide”. (Although for some reason it was left off his ChangesBowie compilation, which was the first David Bowie tape that I bought. Yes, tape. That’s how long ago I got into David Bowie.) It was included on another 2CD / tape compilation later on.
So “Rock and Roll Suicide” is a “missile” type of a song, with one main exception: there are plenty of surprises in this song. I will also be pointing out where the surprises are.

Rock n Roll Suicide-1

The first theme (“time takes a cigarette”) is simple enough, although it does use one or two chords that might be unfamiliar. There’s just an acoustic guitar strumming. The melody is low-key, so the first time listener really doesn’t know what to expect. What other song does this sound like? (No prizes for guessing if you’re a Liverpool FC fan).

It sounds like a depressed, exisistentialist folk song we think we’ve heard many times before. Notice that the line after “forget”, ie “oh no you’re a rock and roll suicide” is actually extraneous. You could cut that out and you’d still resolve to the tonic, so I guess that extra line would count as a melodic surprise.

Now, in the parlance of the missile analogy, the missile here is launched. It flies. The melody is “grammatically” sound, as in it makes sense. There is some kind of serenity to it. A pattern has been established, and the missile is in the air, in flight, although nowhere close to the target yet.

Rock n Roll Suicide-2

The theme repeats itself. The third time (“Chev brakes are snarling”), it begins, like the first, but the melody changes halfway as it takes a twist. That throws the listener off balance because the stanza doesn’t end like before. It’s as though there was something else in the melody that hadn’t revealed itself in the first two times. It is literally surreal, because it mixes the familiar with the freaky. That’s the important thing about planting a surprise in music: even if it is a surprise, you still have to relate it to something that’s gone on before.

Rock n Roll Suicide-3

The fourth time (“Oh no love you’re not alone”), incredibly, it starts off exactly the same as the first three, but it’s the beginning of the catharsis. It quickly veers away from the previous course. Instead of switching to the mediant, it switches to the submediant. The melody is one octave higher. Then it veers through a series of improbable modulations. I #m, V#m, VII, II#m, I #m, V#m, VII. The narrator is grabbing the anti-hero by the shoulders and screaming in his face, “Watching yourself but you’re too unfair, you’ve got your head all tangled up but if I could only make you care”. The words and the chord changes come fast and furious (look at the score yourself). When Bowie says “you’re not alone”, it’s a double edged comment. Does it mean that he’ll always have a friend by his side or does it mean that he’ll always be tormented by the voices in his head?

Rock n Roll Suicide-4

The fifth time, it is the payoff. This is the only stanza where David Bowie doesn’t start with the I. “You’re not alone!” he screams. “Give me your hands!” (So that I can rescue you or so that I can slit your wrists?) The chord changes end with a flourish of the strings.

Rock n Roll Suicide-5

I think this song works well on the basis of its musical surprises. What is the nature of these “surprises”? Well the surprise in the third stanza breaks the shape of the original melody, and all the chords are changed as well. The structure of the ballad is not changed much. If I had to make a form, I would call it AAA’A’’B. One of the masterful things about this song is that even if it veers from one extreme to another, it doesn’t make any real sudden moves. It’s a series of smaller steps whose cumulative effect is a sea change. From a whisper to a scream. From a simple melody to a complex. From conventional chords to a dizzying series of modulations (trust me, I’ve had to transcribe this.)

The lyrics here are very good, but because this blog is not about examining lyrics, I will not dwell on it. But the music here complements the words very well, bringing the singer from a state of catatonia to catharsis. Note here that some people have called David Bowie a bit of a copycat. Yes, in case you haven’t guessed, this song is a warped version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. The arpeggios at the beginning, the soft to loud, and the dark warnings of adversity at the beginning. (Note that “Life on Mars” is also a warped version of “My Way”.) But this one is darker, because while “You’ll Never Walk Alone” speaks of a universal brotherhood triumphing over disaster, over here, it’s not certain that the protagonist manages to overcome his suicidal thoughts. It’s not even certain that there are more than one people in this song, since the “you” and the “I” in the song could be a split personality talking to himself. Yes, there is a great emotional release and a flamboyant flourish at the end, as in YNWA. But does it mean that his struggle is victorious, or does it simply mean he’s going out with a bang? Because the paradox of suicide is that it is after all a form of deliverance from suffering.

Note that this coda is not just the coda of the song, but it is the punchline of the entire “Ziggy Stardust” album. This is the end of the myth of the self-destructive rock star. This is “Ziggy Stardust” dying. The idea is not new, it has been told before. When he dies, it is like Tchaikovsky’s swan. And at the end of the tour of this album, he dramatically announced his “retirement” from music. It was a sham, of course, but it is very much in the spirit of the Ziggy Stardust that people took it seriously. He didn’t retire of course. But what happened next was a whole series of “deaths” and “retirements”.

Death and madness are constant themes in not only David Bowie’s work but his entire career. He didn’t retire David Bowie, but he retired Ziggy Stardust. Then his next persona was “Aladdin Sane” (aka a lad insane). David Bowie knew that there was a genetic history of madness in his family, and his brother was certified insane. He lived with his whole life teetering on the edge of madness, but like the skilful Capricorn negotiating a tricky mountain road, never fell into the ravine. He killed off Aladdin Sane. Then there was the Diamond Dogs phase, then the plastic soul phase with “Young American” . By the time he brought up his “Thin White Duke” with the album “Station to Station“, he was in the grips of an extremely serious cocaine addiction that was inches away from killing him: if that happened he would have fulfilled the prophecy of Ziggy Stardust, and joined the club of other left-handed guitarists who perished in their late 20s (see Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain). “Scary Monsters” was about killing off Major Tom, and with it, the first and most artistically successful phase of his music career. After the album “Tonight”, he killed off the second and most commercially successful phase of his music career. His albums for the next 5 years were lousy because apparently his heart wasn’t in it. He even joined Tin Machine and became a member of a proper band for a while instead of going solo. Then with “Black Tie White Noise” he came back and made a series of above-average but not spectacular albums, until “Reality”, which in retrospect was his last album, and he hasn’t released new music for almost 10 years now. The last track “Bring me the Disco King” was in retrospect a farewell note, but it wasn’t really taken note of because he’s written so many farewell notes before.

NB: as you can see from the last comment, this article was written before Jan 2013. Apparently David Bowie has a new album out


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