Heil Kurt Weill

Marianne Faithfull's "20th Century Blues"

Published February 14, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

a radio talk show I once heard asked for listeners to send in their
responses to a certain question about music. They didn't ask about your
favorite song -- that one's wide open and depends on all kinds of
variables: where you're from, state of love life, what you had for lunch. It
also leaves room for doom; one mope's "God Bless the Child" is another's
"Black Hole Sun." Their question was more specific and more upbeat: What's
the happiest song you know?

"Mack the Knife," was one listener's response. Of course. The announcer simply
read the list, not pausing over certain titles (a lot of Beatles, as I recall), not even an
unwitting irony like this one. I might go along with "Mack the Knife" as the
answer to "What is the happiest song about a serial killer?" But I keep
wondering which part of the tune that person finds most cheerful. Could it
be the amusing description of the blade boy's spiky teeth? The peppy laundry
list of dead girls? Is it lyricist Bertolt Brecht's nicey-nice turns of
phrase like "slashes at his prey" or "corpse stretched on the Strand"?

Not that I'm allowed to laugh too hard at someone else's mis-hearing. After
all, I'm the person who used to get offended by Big Star's "Sieg Heil" until
I figured out Alex Chilton was mumbling "She's So Wild." I was hardly laughing
when "Mack the Knife" checked into my head for a few days. It's Kurt
Weill's most hummable melody. You can skip around the house for hours to it,
bobbing your head with its amusing lilt, dancing down the stairs to its
light-hearted beat. I like to think that radio listener had Louis
Armstrong's buoyant version in mind, sung as if all of New Orleans were
raving around him. For "Mack the Knife" is a singer's song. It's all in the
voice. That's where the grisly story and charming chords face off -- they either join
up or part ways, and it all hinges on whoever's holding the mike.

When it's Marianne Faithfull, a woman who knows a little something of
sharp-but-stylish gents, "Mack the Knife" becomes a bitter accusation rolling
off a raunchy granny's tongue. The way she goes at it on her new album of
cabaret songs, "20th Century Blues" (RCA Victor), she's almost at war with
her pianist, Paul Trueblood. They feed off each other more and more until,
by the climax, he's justifying verbs like "tinkle" and she's snarling
questions like "Hey there Mackie, 'ow's she cuttin'?" like a bleedin'
dockworker. By the end, he politely holds the door open as she trails off,
demanding of the killer, "How could you?"

This collection of songs -- the bulk of them Weill standards -- grew out of
Faithfull's mid-'80s participation in producer Hal Willner's impressive
Weill tribute, "Lost in the Stars." Accompanied by Trueblood, the pop star performed
a program last year with the very un-poppy title, "An Evening in the
Weimar Republic." The live "20th Century Blues" documents one such evening
at the New Morning in Paris. It includes Noel Coward's jaded title track, a
new-lover's lament by Harry Nilsson (the bittersweet "Don't Forget Me") and
two Marlene Dietrich torch songs by Weill's compatriot Friedrich Hollaender.

In his 1932 essay "Cabaret," Hollaender's saloon-song origin myth claims
that the genre was "conceived in an easy-going love affair with theater,
variety shows, and political tribunals." He finds this unholy trinity of
"sharp words and loaded music" a "poison cookie" served by entertainment.
Take a misleadingly redemptive title like Hollaender's "Falling In Love
Again": Faithfull's voice quiets down in mourning -- this is no rejoicing at
love's return. She grieves helplessly, foreseeing future pain -- hers and the
man who wins her over "with only a smile." This is Faithfull's loveliest
performance, but also the most pessimistic, as if she knows too well that in
the tribunal of the heart, you can talk of justice, but justice never comes.

While only a few of these songs are Weimar products proper, each one is
inspired by between-the-wars German decadence, when, after such overwhelming
violence, the defeated nation grasped at the new. New representative
government, new art by way of the Bauhaus and Dada, new music by way of New
World jazz. Listening to Weill's hopeful Americanized rhythms tickling these
weary tales of love and sex, you can almost forget what happened next. We in
the '90s flatter ourselves with apocalyptic worries, but the real
millennium began with the Third Reich. The nice thing about "20th Century
Blues" is that Faithfull parties like it's 1932.

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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