November 06, 2007

Music Review: Waits sings Weill

How Brecht's infatuation with antisocial hooligans can be reconciled with the strict Marxist doctrine that the writer adopted after 1926 is something that scholars have long struggled to comprehend. In a 1930 article, Walter Benjamin proposed that Brecht's thugs should be understood as promising material for revolutionary transformation...
-Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (2007), pg.191

Both my sister & my friend Chadwick were at this fundraiser concert a few weeks ago, where, they tell me, before Neil Young & way before Metallica (whom it seems no one stuck around to see), Tom Waits sang with the Kronos Quartet & a bass player. My brother-in-law said they played "Keep the devil way down in the hole", one of my very favorite Waits songs, & Chadwick reported that they sang one of the Weill/Brecht "Threepenny opera finales", probably "What keeps mankind alive?", which is on his last album & on a Weill tribute album.

Kronos is no longer seen as a Rorschach inkblot test for new music, which is just as well, & their adventures in gypsy music & Bollywood, denounced by many as "crossover", are better than, for instance, their performances of Lutosławski or that awful Terry Riley premiere. But anyway, their collaboration with Waits is not just meant to be hip or opportunistic. It's also acknowledging another large strain in underground/cabaret American semi-classical music. I just finished reading Alex Ross's intense book, a narrative of twentieth century classical music, & I was wondering who was going to be mentioned when. Waits is mentioned once in relation to Harry Partch's 1941 hitchhiking song-cycle Barstow (for unoperatic baritone & Adapted Guitar). Opposite of Copland's "New Deal" orchestral style & heartland idealization, Ross writes, "a lot of people would be hard-pressed to identify Barstow as 'classical music' at all. It comes closer to the twisted white blues of Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, & Tom Waits." (pg. 482) One of the lyrics, which Partch copied down from graffiti while traveling, is: "Here she comes, a truck, not a fuck, but a truck. Just a truck."

Tom Waits has ties not just to blues & lounge-music, but also European cabaret (although, like American underground music, it was often more popular than the Donny Osmond or Paul Hindemith stuff.) And, I'm told that Tom Waits' music is more revered in Germany than America, just as The Threepenny Opera was a hit during World War II here while it was banned by the Nazis. When, in the 1980s, Waits' orchestrations started to include marimbas, trombones, accordions, anvils, & his lyrics went beyond Dylan's abstractions, he was often more innovative than his classical counterparts - & there's a definite Weill connection, deliberate or not. My friend James Eliot Quill says he has created an entire lyrical world, full of characters & moods, as intricately rendered as Tolkien's thousand page fantasies. Also, his career has produced great albums in the 70s, 80s, 90s, & especially in the last few years - how many other artists can you say that about?

Macheath, a.k.a. Mackie, the antihero of The Threepenny Opera, is the nastiest of Brecht's homunculi. He is based on the character of Captian Macheath in John Gay's eighteenth century ballad opera The Beggar's Opera, which served as the main source for Brecht & Hauptmann's libretto. In the original, Macheath is a master criminal with a dashing style who stands in metaphorically for the corrupt politicians of Gay's time. Benjamin, in a later essay on The Threepenny Opera & its sources, observed how "intimately the countermorality of beggars & rogues is interwined with the cant of official morality." Brecht & Weill's Macheath is at once more charming & more menacing that Gay's, mainly because of the musical number that introduces him: "Die Mortitat vom Mackie Messer," otherwise known as "Mack the Knife." This most famous of Wiemar songs takes the form of a "murder ballad," a catalog of killings. Macheath is revealed not merely as a high-living highway man but as an apparent psychopath who kills as much for pleasure as for financial gain. Schmul Meier has disappeared, along with many rich men; Jenny Towler is found with a knife in her breast; seven children die in a great fire in Soho; a young girl is raped.

-ibid. pg. 191

So Mackie is more violent than his predecessors, reflective of a violent time, & foreshadowing. Ross writes, "Weimar culture exhibited an unhealthy fixation on the figure of the serial or sexual killer." Hmmm. I'm also in the final thralls of The Sopranos, which is about a charming, complex, family-man gangster boss. There is also a "countermorality", the captains often speak of their "soldier's code." It should also be noted, that the "catalog" of Tony Soprano's violence & crime, beyond words or ballads, although he never rapes, definitely outdoes Mack.

There's also this new please-give-me-lots-of-Oscars movie, American Gangster, which David Denby just reviewed. "Like many modern gangsters, Frank [Lucas] wants to turn crime into a rational enterprise; he wants to lead an orderly & loving family life, & to play his game so stealthily that he will never be tainted by what he does." Denby is a bit taken back by the glamorization of Lucas (who is a pure capitalist, & reeks ravage on his black community by way of cheaper heroin), without as much retribution as, say, The Godfather. At the end of Die Dreigroschenoper, of course, Mackie is saved & redeemed by "Victoria's Messanger" - compare that Gilbert & Sullivan ending to what happens in American Gangster: Frank Lucas's mother slaps him across the face. In both cases, ouch! I don't know what happens in the end of The Sopranos, don't tell me.

...Weill's song thus became a showbiz tour de force, although its sting remained. Armstrong & Sinatra, both children of the streets, understood what the text was about: Armstrong said that Mack the Knife reminded him of characters he had encountered in New Orleans, while Sinatra knowingly grafted on a line from Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather films, which exposed American politicians as gangsters of a higher order.

-ibid. pg. 193

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