A song to die for
The Hungarian “suicide song” continues to intrigue long after it claimed its first victim
In Budapest, Hungary, one long lifetime ago, a man named Rezsö Seress wrote a song that was destined to have a very strange and compelling history. In English, the song was called “Gloomy Sunday,” but a few years would pass before it was recorded and made its way out of eastern Europe to Germany, to England, and then to the United States.
By the time it reached these shores in 1936, recorded by bandleader Hal Kemp, the song had begun to gather its legend. First in Budapest, and then in other cities where the song became popular, little epidemics of suicide broke out. Throughout Europe, people emptied their veins while listening to this song, or leaped from bridges while clutching the sheet music. Those deaths were said to have numbered in the hundreds, and in many places the song was banned from radio play.
The song is still banned from radio in England, though Sinead O’Connor included a version of on a 1992 album, and people as diverse as Elvis Costello, Serge Gainsbourg, Big Maybelle, Ray Charles, Björk, the Smithereens and dozens of others have all recorded covers of what came to be called “the suicide song.” Even ’50s teen rocker Ricky Nelson recorded a version in 1958, but that recording was not released until all the scraps of his relatively brief recording career were rounded up and put out in 2000, long after his death. Still, it seems an odd song choice for a man best known for bubble gum rock.
I first heard stories about “Gloomy Sunday” when I was a hopelessly romantic teenager, and I was immediately seized by a great curiosity. What could such a song sound like? But, because it was banned, or because I thought it was, it would be a few years before I actually heard it. Despite a personal history of depression, I not only heard the song, but as is apparent by the fact that I lived to write about it here, I survived hearing it not just once, but several times, in several versions. Back in my drinking days, I even survived listening to it while drunk, at times when thoughts of suicide came calling even without the added evocation of music reputed to encourage such dark musings.
Billie Holiday did a version of it, and she was well mated to the tone of the song, with the weight of all that druggy, somnambulant sorrow in her voice. But Lady Day’s interpretation is too heavy in expressing the obvious dolefulness of the song. What makes the melody so wicked is that it is not entirely doom struck. The song holds its power as a melancholic’s anthem because it mixes the bitter with the sweet, whereas Holiday’s version turns the song into a weary hymn of exhaustion.
The original melody has yearning in it, and for far too much of her career, Holiday’s heroin addiction had put her beyond yearning. Craving the next fix is not the same thing as yearning, though it can sound like it on casual listening. Holiday’s version of the song, and another cover by pianist Stan Kenton, appealed to Beat Generation listeners during the late 1950s—people who sat around coffee houses in North Beach while marinating in their own gloom and conjuring drug-fueled scenarios of nuclear holocaust.
A few decades hence—and not surprisingly—the song gained renewed underground appeal among the “Goth” subculture that first emerged in the late ’80s, and still engenders new disciples of doom. With their pale skin, tattoos and jet-black dyed hair, the Goth kids were “half in love with easeful death” from the get-go, so this song, with its darkly romantic view of ending it all, was a natural fit for those who sought out the covers of that haunted melody by groups with names like Satan’s Cheerleaders and Satan’s Sadists.
In 1999, a film was released under the title Gloomy Sunday. Loosely based on events surrounding the song’s origin, the joint German/Hungarian release developed something of a cult following itself. It earned the distinction of being the longest running film ever to play at an art house in Boston, chalking up some 70 continuous weeks on the bill before ending its run. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle liked the movie when it opened for its brief San Francisco run in December 2003. Of the film, LaSalle wrote: “Gloomy Sunday has a mood and a magic about it that elicit emotion from the beginning and make an audience follow it down its curving and melancholy path.”
Oddly enough, for a film about “the suicide song,” it ends with a long-delayed triumph over evil and darkness, but I will leave that plot point obscure so as not to deny pleasure to those who might seek the movie out on DVD for some gloomy Sunday’s viewing when the fog hangs heavy in the trees and moods turn reflective.
It’s a beautiful film to look at on such a day, most of it set in the amber light of the Budapest restaurant where the song was first performed in the early 1930s, and where the composer ends his life in the film’s fictive version of events. Though it strays from the historical truth of the tale it tells, the movie does weave an even more powerful story, sweeping a love triangle and the Holocaust into the narrative mix.
In reality, and with a kind of inevitability that seems karmic, Rezsö Seress, the composer, waited until 1968 to do himself in, leaping to his death from the window of his Budapest flat and thus helping to perpetuate the legend and the mystique created by the only song he ever wrote that is likely to be remembered. Legend has it that his suicide was prompted by depression over his failure to ever write another song as memorable as “Gloomy Sunday.” That’s a dubious theory, but it contributes a resonant note to a song with more back story that most songs ever acquire.