No. 300: "Sanssouci," by Rufus Wainwright (2007)
No. 299: "Gloomy Sunday," by Ricky Nelson (1959)
This post is part of a countdown series on songs that have stuck in my head and are part of my iTunes "hit parade" of most-played tracks. See all the posts here.
After the exuberance of "Dancing Queen," my music countdown gets mellow, if not totally dissipated, before plunging into a strangely wholesome argument for suicide.
I know some people can't stand Rufus Wainwright's "whiny" voice, but I can identify with his defense-mechanism jadedness that keeps getting upended (sometimes very briefly) by a fairly energetic optimism. I first heard him play "Sanssouci" — which he says he wrote about Frederick the Great's summer palace in Germany — at a club on Lansdowne Street in Boston. In the clip below, from a concert in Belgium, he explains that the song represents "my own hell. But, like, a good hell where you're going to go and do lots of drugs and hang out with hookers."
Shortly after playing this song, Wainwright changed into Judy Garland's Carnegie Hall costume and sang "Get Happy."
Poor little Ricky Nelson was not happy when singing "Gloomy Sunday," infamously known as "the suicide song." Urban legend has it that dozens, even hundreds, of people have ended it all while under the influence of the simple tune about a guy who wants to join his already-dead girlfriend. It was written in Hungarian and the English lyrics vary from recording to recording, but Nelson's rendition includes:
Sunday is gloomy, my hours I spent them all
My heart and I have decided to end it all
Soon there'll be candles and friends that are sad I know
Let them not weep, let them know that I'm glad to go
Death is no dream, for in death I'm caressing you
With the last breath of my soul I'll be blessing you
Who knows if it actually induced anyone to act? What is indisputably true is that the composer, Rezső Seress, did kill himself about three decades after writing the song. (He jumped out of a window, and when that didn't quite do the job, he strangled himself in a hospital.)
The most famous English-language version is by Billie Holiday, which is fine except for a tacked-on third verse that literally says "I was only dreaming." (My lover isn't dead after all, so no need to off myself! Whew!) Also, much as I love Holiday, she does get to complain a lot about different things on my iPod, so she doesn't need center stage on this one.
It's much creepier to hear one of the stars of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet sing it with his own lonely guitar instead of with a jazz orchestra in the background. Adding to the sadness is the fact that Nelson's recording was never released until after his own premature death in 1985. So listen and enjoy. And don't worry: "Gloomy Sunday," like life itself (kidding!?), is mercifully short.