I did it my way, he did it his way, she did it another way: David Bowie & the definitive My Way
This began as a quick plug for the appearance of The Melting Ice Cap’s at Specks In The Sky on Sunday the 11th November (£4 entry featuring The Ice Caps, Owen Duff (Joni Mitchell via Nick Drake? Maybe) & Zoe Konez (6Music love her). Full details on their Facebook page.
But then The Ice Caps distracted me by releasing a cover of that most covered of songs “My Way” as a little apéritif to both their album “Permissible Permutations” and the gig.
That got me thinking, “What’s the definitive version of My Way“?
No one makes other peoples compositions their own quite like Nina who transformed many a tune with radical rearrangements and a searing emotion that made the lyrics seem autobiographical. My Baby Just Cared For Me, Sinnerman, Mr Bojangles, See Line Woman, and Black Is The Colour Of My True Loves Hair to name but a few Simone covers that outstrip the originals.
Her astonishing “My Way” is similarly hands down THE version, turning a karaoke standard into “an outspoken feminist anthem“. As a famously strong willed woman whose life was not exactly straightforward she makes you believe she means every word. The arrangement is also stunning with soaring backing vocals, Leopoldo Fleming’s bongos driving the track forward with increasing intensity before the listener is overwhelmed by a final swell of strings bringing to mind the bit in Rocky where Balboa charges up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Nina Simone – “My Way”
On the 18th of December 1971 she performed “My Way” for French TV Antenne 2.
OTHER OPINIONS ARE AVAILABLE (BUT WRONG)
Sid Vicious peppered the song with expletives, and having not learnt the lyrics, made them up as he went along (“To think I did all that” turned into “To think I killed a cat”). His swaggering performance in Julian Temple’s “The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle” is for many the ultimate version, although it was actually only released as a B-Side. The A-side of which was the post Johnny Rotton Sex Pistol’s single “No One Is Innocent” where Malcolm McLaren dreamt up the promotional wheeze of getting Nazi war criminal Martin Bormann to duet with Great Train Robber, Ronnie Biggs. Once in Rio with Cook & Jones, Biggs proved easier to find.
My Way is of course most associated with Sinatra, but Elvis made it a staple of his live shows in the 1970’s. By ’77 he was bloated and something of a characateur but his performances of the song in the months before his death are widely regarded as his finest (Youtube). They’re certainly preferable to the lamentable studio version.
While signed to Atlantic in the late 60’s & early 70’s Aretha Franklin was at the peak of her powers, and such was the quality of her output the label could afford to discard anything they felt didn’t make the grade. As a result an unreleased 1970 version of “My Way” only emerged in the last decade despite Franklin tearing into the song with characteristic force. In the same year Brook Benton gave the tune a pop R&B make-over while Welsh singer Dorothy Squires certainly wins the award for best version by a Welsh diva (outpointing Shirley Bassey).
The Dutch painter, poet & musician Hermon Brood posthumously hit No.1 in 2001, and it’s firmly established as the song people select for their funeral. Even Gonzo The Great bowed out of the Muppets singing the tune, while Spitting Image had Maggie Thatcher crooning it as she was forced from office.
HOW DAVID BOWIE “ALMOST” WROTE MY WAY
The origins of the song are slightly muddy, but a young songwriter, Jacques Revaux first wrote the melody, possibly with English lyrics “For Me” and touted it to several French stars. It eventually fell to Claude Francois – second only to Johnny Halliday in French pop – who was heartbroken after fellow pop star France Gall walked out on him after a three year relationship.
Francois, Revaux and writer Giles Thibault sat down (apparently under a weeping willow by a river) to alter the lyrics to reflect a failed, stuck in a rut relationship.
“Comme D’Habitude” (“As Usual”) was a hit across Europe on its release in 1968. Ten years later Claude Francis was accidentally electrocuted when relaxing in the bath he spotted a flickering light bulb and decided to change it.
Also in ’68 a 21 year old David Bowie – a year from coming to fame with Space Oddity – was asked by a music publishing company he was working with to write an English lyric to “Comme D’Habitude“. By his own account Bowie wrote a “god awful, embarrassing lyric” called “Even A Fool Learns To Love“. He recorded a demo version singing straight over the top of the French lyrics, which unsurprisingly never went any further (listen below).
A year later Paul Anka heard Francois’ tune while in France and back in New York wrote those now famous lyrics at 3am in the morning, thinking of Frank Sinatra who had been talking of retiring from music.
“And now the end is near and so I reach the final curtain“.
Claude François – Comme d’habitude
When Bowie heard “My Way” he was “pissed off” that Paul Anka had got the rights ahead of him but according to Geoffrey Heath who worked for the publishers, they “wanted a star to record the song, not this yobbo from Bromley”. The fact that it was pretty terrible may also have played a part.
A snubbed Bowie wrote “Life On Mars” as an act of revenge, shamelessly based on “My Way”, he wrote “Inspired by Frankie” on the album sleeve.
Arena produced a fascinating documentary on the history of “My Way” in 1979. Worth watching for drag act The Disappointer Sisters alone.