Ballad of the Adventurers

October 13, 2011

Ballad of the Adventurers (6:16 in).

I’m not a rat. It must be lighter out there. My dear Baal, you’ll get to the door. You still have knees. It’s better in the doorway…

Brecht, Baal (his last words).

“Ballad of the Adventurers” is Baal’s last will and testament. After years of living out in the woods, he and his friend Ekart return to civilization, only to find that the bars have grown filthier and everyone’s grown older, shabbier and drunker. But Baal’s older and more pathetic as well (“nothing’s changed here…only you, it seems, have grown more refined,” a barfly sneers at him).

Asked for a song, Baal offers a final tribute to those “who were flung out alike from heaven and from Hades” (like the cursed harlot Evelyn Roe, of Brecht’s early poem). Regretting ever having left the womb, they wander across “absinthe-green oceans,” solacing their tortured minds with the image of a little meadow with “blue sky overhead and nothing else.” The adventurers of Baal’s song are the last bohemians, tearing through their short, appalling lives, hungry for sensation, settling for violence.

Ekart paws at a barmaid while he baits Baal (“why shouldn’t I have women? Am I your lover?“) until Baal, enraged, stabs him to death. Baal flees town for the last time, heading north, “following the underside of the leaves.” Sick and weary, he winds up in a logger’s camp, where the loggers jeer his impending death; one even spits on his face. Baal dies as he had lived: in mockery, curses and rebellion. His last act is to haul himself outside, so he can expire in the open air. “Stars—hmm,” he mutters as he crawls.

The least melodic of the Baal songs, “Adventurers,” far more than the rest of the EP, sounds like an exercise, an overly ambitious attempt to do an art song. Still, could Baal have been a beginning, rather than a footnote?

As a goof, I once wrote an alternate Bowie history (“Love You Till Tuesday”) in which Bowie’s jaunty, irritating pop singles of the mid-Sixties were smash hits, setting him off on a life much like Englebert Humperdinck’s. So what could Bowie’s Eighties have been, had Baal been an initial foray into, for lack of a better term, the commercial avant-garde? Bowie collaborations with Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, Glenn Branca, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Laurie Anderson or John Zorn? A run of art-rock soundscape records like Tom Waits’ mid-Eighties trilogy? Minimalist synthesizer instrumentals? Bowie scoring Jarmusch or Wenders films, producing Sonic Youth?

Some of Bowie’s moves in the Nineties hint at this sort of revision: it’s as though Bowie beat his way back to the fork and peered down the other path, wondering where it could have led him. But he wouldn’t have been “David Bowie” had he gone the other way. The David Bowie of Let’s Dance is also the world’s Bowie; in a way, his vast commercial success became his final, most enduring incarnation. So Baal remains forgotten; it’s just a trace of a world in which Bowie was a lesser, if greater figure.

A Prologue on Money and Ambition

In 1982, Bowie was looking for a new record deal. His current label RCA was battered: it had lost $14.5 million in 1981 alone, with its bet on manufacturing videodiscs proving, with the advent of VCRs, to be a disaster. For its record label, RCA’s main pop acts remained Elvis Presley (unfortunately dead since 1977) and Bowie (who, in RCA’s eyes, was in much the same condition). In a few years, RCA would be eaten up by General Electric.

So RCA, in its last days as a stand-alone company, had neither the desire nor the capital to humor an artist who was their Bob Dylan: great press, great prestige, mediocre to poor sales. With his contract up, Bowie now wanted Michael Jackson-level, Fleetwood Mac-level money, but his past performance was nowhere in their range. As of June 1983, Bowie’s total global album sales were as follows (according to Zanetta/Edwards’ Stardust, figures rounded up/down):

Three top sellers: Ziggy Stardust (1.38 million units moved), ChangesOneBowie (1.33 million), Young Americans (923,000). A few gold records: Diamond Dogs (745,000), David Live (598,000), Station to Station (552,800), Aladdin Sane (533,000); a few mid-list sellers: Space Oddity (455,600), Hunky Dory (445,600), Pin Ups (421,250), Scary Monsters (347,400). With the “Berlin” records, a complete cratering: “Heroes” (279,000), Low (265,900), Lodger (153,360), Stage (127,350). Between 1977 and 1983, one of every two new Bowie LPs was returned unsold by retailers. By contrast, Michael Jackson sold over a million copies of Off the Wall between August and December 1979 alone.

Finally free from having to pay his former manager mechanical royalties, and feeling unappreciated and (relatively) underpaid by RCA, Bowie wanted, essentially, to cash in at last. So he needed an album that, when shopped around, would get a label excited enough to provide his payday. According to George Tremlett, Bowie first had his staff write profiles of all of the major labels, “detailing their commercial strengths and weaknesses, their key personnel and their willingness to invest in promotion” (the latter a key point for Bowie, who felt RCA had bungled the promotion of his Berlin albums.) He finally targeted EMI, aiming for a 3-LP deal reportedly worth $17 million ($36 million, inflation-adjusted).

In late 1982, Nile Rodgers flew to Switzerland to stay at Bowie’s house in Lausanne. The two had recently met and Rodgers had agreed to produce Bowie’s next record. Bowie sat down with his 12-string acoustic guitar (Rodgers recalled being baffled that Bowie only had six strings on it, though) and ran through a batch of new songs: they were mainly sketches, sometimes just chords, top melodies, a few choruses. Before he started to play one song, Bowie told Rodgers he thought this was the hit. It was a folky piece that reminded Rodgers of the Byrds. “I was like, ‘that’s not happening, man,”” Rodgers recalled to Paul Trynka. “It totally threw me. It was not a song you could dance to.”…

Top: Don Hudson, “Detroit, MI 1981.”


The Drowned Girl

October 11, 2011

Ballade vom Ertrunkenen Mädchen (Lotte Lenya, 1957).
Ballade vom Ertrunkenen Mädchen (Gisela May, 1969).
The Drowned Girl.

The cabaret performer Carl Zuckmayer once saw Brecht at a party in Munich in late 1923. When Brecht reached for his guitar, conversations died, the tango dancers stopped and “everyone sat on the floor around him caught up in his spell,” he said. With a “raw and cutting” voice, while clasping his guitar against his stomach as though using it to stanch a wound, Brecht sang “Remembering Marie A.,” the vicious “Ballad of the Pirates” and his harrowing “Ballad of the Drowned Girl.” Zuckmayer said he felt hypnotized, his mind reeling in the performance’s wake. By now Brecht “had become an almost totally irresistible seductive force,” John Fuegi wrote. “He could now usually impose his will on virtually anybody.”

“Drowned Girl” had become one of Brecht’s most potent setpieces. It was inspired by the murder of the Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg in the suppression of the Spartacist Uprising in Berlin in January 1919 (Brecht had originally titled the poem “On the Girl Beaten to Death”—Luxemburg had been clubbed and shot by Freikorps soldiers, her body hurled into the Landwehr Canal). But Brecht’s poem isn’t any sort of keep-the-faith revolutionary epitaph or a maudlin lament. With the same asperity and coldness as his “Marie A.” (it’s also referencing the drowning of Ophelia in Hamlet), Brecht instead lovingly details the slow decomposition of the girl’s body as she floats down the river, her body growing weighed down with seaweed, small fish eating pieces of her flesh until she’s reached such a state that “God forgets her.”

Brecht later recycled “Drowned Girl” into Baal; Baal sings it while tramping in the forest. At this point in the play (Scene 15), a girl who Baal seduced has killed herself, and “Drowned Girl” is Baal’s eerie tribute to her, taking a cold delight in the business of death and a satisfaction in being able to turn the latest corpse into a workable song. It was set to music by Kurt Weill in 1928 for Berliner Requiem, a cantata for chorus and orchestra, whose aim was to express what “the urban man of our era has to say about the phenomenon of death,” Weill wrote.

For Bowie’s Baal, he and Dominic Muldowney kept Weill’s music for “Drowned Girl.” Muldowney was struck by Bowie’s nearly improvised yet masterful technique (inspired by Lotte Lenya’s performance), from the opening verses where Bowie, at times singing staccato, keeps low in his baritone range as the girl’s body slowly moves, slowly grows heavier and heavier (Brecht once had instructed these lines to be whispered) to how Bowie disperses the haziness of “when the sky that same evening grew dark as smoke” with the sharply-sung “k” in “smoke,” which kicks off a climb up the octave (a very Sinatra-esque move). One of Bowie’s finest vocals of the era.

*Lotte Lenya sang her version of “Drowned Girl” to Brecht shortly before the latter died in 1955. She wondered if her performance had suited his idea of epic theater, to which Brecht replied: “Lenya, you are always epic enough for me.”

Baal was taped on 8-12 August 1981, BBC Television Centre; shown on BBC1, 2 February 1982. Studio version recorded in September 1981 at Hansa on the Wall, Berlin; EP released 13 February 1982. Amazingly RCA requested a video for “Drowned Girl.” Shot by David Mallett, it has a cast of ringers in the supporting band, including Tony Visconti (on guitar), the Simple Minds’ drummer Mel Gaynor and Bowie’s legendary majordomo Coco Schwab as one of the wind players.

Top: George and Poppy Plemper, “Unknown Girls 1 &2, Woolwich Dockyard, 1981.”


Dirty Song

October 5, 2011

Dirty Song.

Written with his friend Ludwig “Lud” Prestel, Brecht’s poem, known variously as “Baal’s Song,” “Dirty Song” or just the opening line “If a Woman’s Hips Are Ample,” dates to July 1918 and was included in the first version of Baal. It’s in Scene 7, in which Baal has been reduced, like a fading rock star, to performing as a burlesque of his former self at a seedy club called the Night Cloud. He haggles over his “contractual brandy” rations, sings dirty ballads (while dressed in tails and a child’s sailor hat) to a drunken audience. He finally flees into the latrine with his guitar, crawls out through the window and runs off into the woods.

“Dirty Song,” described by John Willett as Baal’s “last disgusting gesture,” is the shortest Bowie song since “Don’t Sit Down;” with its “stage Cockney” vocal and woodwind/horn arrangement, it could’ve been an outtake from Bowie’s debut album. Three quick, nasty verses and it’s over with a plop.

Baal was taped on 8-12 August 1981, BBC Television Centre (unfortunately there’s no accessible footage of “Dirty Song” and the other two remaining songs); shown on BBC1, 2 February 1982. Studio version recorded in September 1981 at Hansa on the Wall, Berlin; EP released 13 February 1982.

Top: Augusto Braidotti, “Heidelbergerstrasse,” 1981.


Remembering Marie A.

October 4, 2011

Erinnerung an die Marie A. (Ernst Busch.)
Erinnerung an die Marie A. (Ulrich Mühe)
Remembering Marie A. (Bowie, broadcast).
Remembering Marie A. (Bowie, studio).

Brecht wrote a poem he called “Sentimental Song No. 1004″ on a train to Berlin in February 1920. Allegedly written for Marie Rosa Amann, an Augsburg girl that Brecht had met in an ice-cream parlor (she later allegedly said Brecht was the first boy to ever kiss her), “Song,” later retitled “Erinnerung an die Marie A.,“* was based on a sentimental popular hit of the era, a French song called “Tu ne m’amais pas” that Brecht knew in its German version, “Verlorenes Glück.”

“Marie A.” was something of a” hit single” for Brecht as well. He sang it, accompanied by his own guitar, several times in public in the early Twenties. After being published in 1924, the poem was sung in several stage productions and recorded by Kate Kühl in 1928, and, a few years later, by Ernst Busch. While not written or intended for Baal, the song, being quite popular, was sometimes used in productions of it, including one of Baal‘s earliest 1926 performances.

In the BBC’s revival of Baal, “Marie A.” was substituted for Baal’s coarse ode to sitting on the toilet (“a place that teaches you, so Orge sings/be humble, for you can’t hold on to things“). The setting is Baal’s favorite tavern, during an evening when he’s humiliating Emily, the society woman he’s recently seduced, while beginning his offensive on his next target, the virgin Johanna. The toilet song is used as a further debasement of Emily, but swapping “Marie A.” in its place changes the mood, suspending the sordid atmosphere for a moment.

“Marie A.” is a quietly anti-romantic piece. The narrator begins by recalling a splendid late summer day in his youth that he spent with a long-departed love. But as the three-stanza verse proceeds, the memory fades: he claims that the girl means nothing to him now, nor ever did; he can’t remember what it was like to kiss her, or what her face looked like, or her last name. Instead, all that he really remembers is a cloud that he had spied for a moment, dissipating in the air as he watched it pass on that lost afternoon—a cloud that, vanishing just as it was born, has come to stand in his mind for everything he’s forgotten, everything since destroyed or worn-out (the wood’s been chopped down, Marie A. is likely now on her seventh child).

For the BBC Baal, Dominic Muldowney again took as a start Brecht and Franz Bruinier’s original music for “Marie A.,” which used a soaring, romantic melody that the cold, disillusioned lyric seemed to mock—the vocal is a series of steady but aborted climbs that finally reach the top at the climax of each verse (on a high D, e.g. “it was quite WHITE”). I prefer the broadcast performance of “Marie A.” to the studio remake, as Bowie’s in wonderful voice for the former (even the odd garbled note on the final “moments” gives it character); his more genteel performance in the studio take seems weighed down by comparison.

Baal was taped on 8-12 August 1981, BBC Television Centre; shown on BBC1, 2 February 1982. Studio version recorded in September 1981 at Hansa on the Wall, Berlin; EP released 13 February 1982.

* When spoken (in German) “Marie A.” sounds like “Maria,” the Virgin Mary. It’s likely Brecht did that intentionally. He was fond of “Marie” (as the name “spanned the distance between housemaids and Saint Mary”), using it in several poems. (From Hugo Schmidt’s notes on Brecht’s Manual of Piety.)

Top: Clare Grogan, 1981.


Baal’s Hymn

September 30, 2011

Baal’s Hymn (broadcast).
Baal’s Hymn (studio).

Before he was a playwright, director, theorist or general undesirable (having to flee both Nazi Germany and the McCarthy-era USA), Bertolt Brecht was a poet, one whose works were meant to be sung to guitar. Brecht was inspired by performers he had seen in his native Bavaria, like Karl Valentin, a clown who was Germany’s answer to Charlie Chaplin, and Joachim Ringelnatz, a sailor/minesweeper turned poet and cabaret performer. Brecht’s poems were to be chanted or sung; they are often a kind of plainsong, as his future interpreter David Bowie once noted.

While Brecht drew on classic German literature and narrative ballads, he favored mass-produced pop culture more than the “approved” folk music praised by the German middle class. Following unification in the 1870s, there was a vogue for Germanic folklore and mythology (this didn’t end well). For Brecht, much of this Volkslieder was fossil-music which had nothing to offer the working class of, say, 1915 Munich. As Brecht later wrote, working people have no wish to be Folk. Many of Brecht’s early poems were set to melodies of trashy pop songs, while in the Twenties, Brecht’s discovery of jazz (a new sordid American import, later restricted by the Nazis) would lead to works like Threepenny Opera.

Baal, Brecht’s first play, is the culmination of his early work, the fruit of his youth in Augsburg, where Brecht was known for walking around town and in the woods, writing on scraps of paper that he kept in his pockets: the result was “the single, self-consistent poem whose stage expression was Baal “(John Willett). For Baal, Brecht recycled poems as dramatic interludes, in-scene performances or monologues in song (some, like the cruel “Legend of the Harlot Evelyn Roe,” were cut from the play upon revisions, while other poems would be swapped in and out, depending on the director’s choice (as we’ll see with “Remembering Marie A.”).

Written in 1918 and revised eight years later, Baal is an episodic portrait of a “a man stripped of character…[an] asocial man.” (Eric Bentley). Baal is a drunk, poet, moocher, singer, guitarist, seducer, murderer and general agent of chaos, but he’s not a “natural” man either. He’s not a feral beast unable to fit into modern society, but a modernist who clearly sees “the amorality of nature all around us, but beholds it from a distance, and with longing and envy.” (Brecht said his Baal was modeled on one “Josef K,” a washerwoman’s bastard who charmed society figures, seduced many women (leading one to kill herself) and finally died while living in the Black Forest.)

In 1981, Bowie starred in a BBC revival of Baal and as his parting gift to RCA, he recorded five Baal songs for an EP (it’s a kiss-off to a label Bowie had grown to hate: “you thought Low was too uncommercial? Good luck selling this one“). Baal is often considered a strange cul-de-sac in Bowie’s career, a time-filling ploy while Bowie was waiting out his contracts. Only two of Bowie’s many biographies give Baal more than scant mention.* But Baal, after Scary Monsters, is Bowie’s best record of the decade; it’s another farewell to the performer he once was (for Bowie, the early Eighties was a series of strategic retreats, of closing down outposts) and a glimpse of the artist he could have been.

In early 1981, the director Alan Clarke (best known for the vicious prison drama Scum) proposed reviving Baal for the BBC. Working with the producer Louis Marks,** Clarke planned to use split-screen to convey the Brechtian dramatic technique of characters addressing the audience during the play. Looking for a lead actor, Clarke and Marks recalled Bowie’s recent success in The Elephant Man and correctly guessed that he had some interest in Weimar Germany; after visiting him in Switzerland, they offered him the role, for which he received the standard BBC scale of £1,000.

During rehearsals, Marks and John Willett (who wrote the script, a fine, sharp translation) were stunned to find that the rock star they had recruited knew as much about Brecht and Weimar Germany as they did (and Willett had just finished assembling Brecht’s poems in their definitive compilation). His years of isolation in Los Angeles, with Bowie obsessively reading whatever he could find on Weimar, and his immersion in Berlin in 1976-77 had turned Bowie into an amateur scholar.

Sure, Baal was a way for Bowie to keep busy during a deliberate period of slack, but it’s too well-chosen a role for just that. Baal is a prototype rock star, a Weimar-era Ziggy, marked by his callousness, charisma and all-consuming need to devour all he sees, from the women that he tumbles into bed to the clouds that he spies in the forest sky. Portrayed by Bowie as a shabby East End bohemian, Baal seems like one last incarnation of a greedy, world-shattering youth, one marked, as Bowie’s had been, by a cold observant eye to match a ravenous appetite. It’s the angry, self-righteous, devouring voice of “Cygnet Committee,” heard again but now encased in a stage performance, preserved as a keepsake.

“Hymn of Baal the Great” (also translated as “Chorale of the Great Baal”) is Baal‘s 14-stanza prologue, although, as Clarke chose, the poem is often broken up in performance, its stanzas distributed throughout the play to serve as between-scenes commentary. (In Clarke’s production, the first three stanzas are the prologue, a compressed fourth and fifth stanza comes after the scene of Baal’s introduction, etc.)

Dominic Muldowney wrote music for it, using as the melody an uncredited piece included in Brecht’s 1927 Die Hauspostille: an 8-bar refrain in G major whose vocal melody rises in thirds for each line (the singer first keeps on E, then G, then B, culminating in the octave E on “MARV-eh-lous“). The BBC performance of “Baal’s Hymn” is just Bowie and banjo, serving as a needling, harsh commentary on the performances or intertitles flashing by in the right-hand frame of the split-screen. For complete version of the “Hymn” that Bowie recorded in Berlin a month later, Muldowney and Bowie had to rethink the song as a unified performance.

Bowie had convened Willett, Muldowney, Tony Visconti and Edu Meyer to record the Baal songs at Hansa Studios in Berlin in September 1981. Visconti said Bowie described the session as being a “souvenir,” merely recording the songs for posterity. The Baal session was also another farewell: it would be the last Visconti Bowie production for nearly 20 years, and the last time Bowie ever recorded in Berlin.

Muldowney scored the Baal songs for a 15-person band of Berlin musicians (mainly one musician per instrument (violin, viola, trombone, trumpet, cello, etc.), so to get a “German pit orchestra” sound, Visconti said), including the percussionist Sherry Bertram and “a 75-year-old bandoneónist who’d played in the first productions of the Threepenny Opera” (Trynka), Muldowney was startled to hear what Visconti was doing to the mix, compressing and flanging the recorded instruments, so that “four strings sounded like four tanks,” he told Trynka.

Bowie had wanted to sing live with the band, but he had showed up late to the session and, as these were German union musicians, the session needed to start and end on time. Bowie was happy to be tardy, as listening to the musicians gave him a chance to “mentally rehearse” his vocals, Visconti said.

The studio “Hymn” uses Bowie’s voice in the way a jazz ensemble would a lead saxophone—sometimes working in support of the group, sometimes as a wild soloist. The opening three stanzas are similar to the BBC production, with Bowie, using a very free meter that lets him extend or shorten lines as he sees fit, at first set only against piano, with the full band coming in as the verses go on. A brief interlude, then a second phase, with Bowie now singing in a march-like fixed meter, chained to the rhythms of the piece. A second interlude triggers the return of the initial free-ranging performance, with Bowie let off the leash again (listen to how he bites into “nothinggg could be HARD-er than the QUest for FUN“). After another interlude, Bowie is conscripted again, but he resists more now, capping off one verse with a gleeful “vulture SOUP!”. And the Hymn ends with Bowie free but bloodied, offering one final burst of defiance with the long-held “marvelous!” before he expires.

For Bowie’s vocal, Visconti and Meyer used the “Heroes” strategy of having several mikes placed around Hansa’s enormous Meistersaal, to capture Bowie’s voice at different levels and imbued with room ambiance. Bowie cut all of his vocals for the EP in a few hours. Then he took Muldowney on a guided tour of Berlin low-life, including transvestite bars and New Wave clubs; it was a night out with a Baal who had reached a comfortable middle age.

Baal was taped on 8-12 August 1981, BBC Television Centre, and was shown on BBC1 on 2 February 1982.*** The studio take of “Baal’s Hymn” was recorded in September 1981 at Hansa on the Wall, Berlin; released on 13 February 1982 on the EP David Bowie in Bertolt Brecht’s Baal (RCA BOW 11, #29 UK). “Baal’s Hymn” was later collected on the revised Sound + Vision.

(Baal‘s amazing UK chart placing—#29 on the singles chart for an EP of obscure Brecht—is a testament to British taste or devoted Bowie fandom; hats off in either case. There’s a wonderful unsourced anecdote from Wikipedia: “the EP was released as a 12″ which gained it some play in clubs.” Ah, the delight on the dance floor when some perverse DJ put on “Baal’s Hymn”…)

* Trynka’s new bio is excellent on Baal, and George Tremlett devoted some space to it. By contrast, Edwards/Zanetta, Sandford, Spitz and Buckley all dispatch Baal in a paragraph (Buckley calling Baal a “minor work,” too.)

** Marks, who died last year, was a BBC stalwart, even writing four Doctor Who scripts.

*** Unfortunately only the first 30 minutes (from someone’s off-air videotape) have turned up on Youtube. Why the BBC has never released Baal on either VHS or DVD at some point in the past 30 years is baffling; maybe it’s a rights issue (Brecht’s early poems are public domain, but not Baal). A complete version of the off-air tape is circulating, though the picture/sound is pretty dismal.

Top: Bowie as Baal, video and vinyl, respectively.


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