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.”