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Gorey by name ...

He was a Cape Cod puppeteer who wrote stories about kids dying horribly. How could the Tiger Lillies, those masters of the grotesque, resist a collaboration? By Maddy Costa

Gorey by name ...

He was a Cape Cod puppeteer who wrote

stories about kids dying horribly. How could the Tiger Lillies, those

masters of the grotesque, resist a collaboration? By Maddy Costa

Tuesday May 13, 2003
The Guardian



Discomforting humour: an illustration by Edward Gorey (top) and the album cover for the Tiger Lilies' The Gorey End

 

Anyone

would think the Tiger Lillies had planned it. Five years ago, they

became a cult hit thanks to Shockheaded Peter, their cabaret/puppet

show inspired by Heinrich Hoffmann's tales of naughty children coming

to gruesome ends.

Now they have made an album based on the

writings of Edward Gorey, whose most famous work, The Gashlycrumb

Tinies, dispatches an alphabet's worth of unwitting kids to a grisly

death. Coincidence? Surely not. And yet, it wasn't until the band

toured the US with Shockheaded Peter that they even knew Gorey existed.



"He's like the Tiger Lillies," says bassist Adrian Stout.

"Unless someone tells you about us, you'd never hear about us. People

who saw Shockheaded Peter in America would tell us, 'You should look at

Edward Gorey, he'd be right up your street.' So we did - and he was."

In Gorey's beautifully illustrated books, the band found a kindred

spirit: an author obsessed with Victorian melodrama and Edwardian

ennui, who took a macabre delight in tracing the violent twists of

fate, and imbued his darkest tales with discomforting humour. He wrote

about death, unmentionable vices and people who went mad and vanished

without trace - everything the Tiger Lillies' lyricist Martyn Jacques

had been putting into song for the past decade.

While the

band were making these Gorey discoveries, the author himself was living

in a farmhouse in Cape Cod, taking care of countless cats and writing

puppet shows for local theatre groups.

No one in the Tiger

Lillies is sure how it happened, but towards the end of 1999 Gorey

discovered them, too ("I assume someone saw us performing in New York -

he probably had some weird little friends there - and told him about

the music," says Jacques).

He bought the Shockheaded Peter

soundtrack and liked it so much that he wrote to Jacques asking to hear

the rest of the band's work. That went down so well that Gorey wrote to

Jacques again, suggesting that they collaborate. It was an offer

Jacques could hardly refuse.

Gorey's next correspondence was

a large cardboard box containing a stone that looked like a frog (and

would, Gorey promised, turn into one if stared at long enough), and a

neatly organised pile of his as yet unillustrated, unpublished works.

Several were plays: a grim tale of infant fratricide, an absurd comedy

about chintzy wallpaper, a bizarre mime in which adults toss babies

about. But mostly there were poems: abstract verses about the

unfortunate Hipdeep Family and the dangers of gin, and 210 stanzas

devoted to a curious compound called QRV.

With the ultimate

aim of creating a theatre piece, Jacques started sifting through the

box "in a very brisk way, looking for songs". Poems that rhymed and had

verses - "things that lent themselves to songs in a very traditional

way" - he put straight to music.

Anything that took his

fancy but was too long or didn't scan, he adapted as faithfully as he

could. "I changed a few of the rhymes, and added a line here or there,

but didn't want to radically rework anything because the work is so

wonderful already. I tried to keep the spirit of it."

Not

everything worked: a surreal poem called The Eggplant Frog (girl

becomes infatuated with frogs, girl despises aubergines, girl thinks

she sees God in aubergines, or perhaps in frogs) left Stout and drummer

Adrian Hughes bemused.

And it was hard to escape poems about

death. "I like the works where people are slightly uncomfortable," says

Stout, "walking around empty grounds with nothing to do. The pictures

are great when they show emptiness. But in music you want to go for

some drama."

QRV presented its own challenge: every stanza

neatly rhymes. "It's like an epic poem - it goes on and on," says

Stout. "It could almost change on a daily basis." For the recorded

version, Jacques settled on perhaps the least representative stanzas:

10 in which people die from QRV. In the rest of the poem, this

mysterious substance is a miracle cure, able to numb arthritis, do the

housework, even work like Viagra: "Once whores would frown when I let

down/ My pants uneasily/ But now my ----- is long and thick/ From

taking QRV." Those dashes are typical of Gorey, who wrote about sex

euphemistically. The Tiger Lillies, by contrast, revel in the explicit,

and Jacques now can't understand why he passed over QRV's filthy bits.

Jacques spent a few months learning the songs so he could perform them

to Gorey in person. But he never got the chance: a couple of days

before he was due to fly to the US, in April 2000, he heard that Gorey

had died of a heart attack, aged 75.

"I felt very strange,"

Jacques says. "I was really upset. I cried when I saw his picture for

the first time, in an obituary column. But I also felt that I was more

upset because I was going to give him a really good show, and now I

couldn't sing him my songs."

Following Gorey's death, plans

for a theatre piece were rapidly shelved. Terry Gilliam wanted to

direct it, but didn't have time; everyone else was too worried that the

work would be a rehash of Shockheaded Peter.

Reluctant to

junk the songs, the Tiger Lillies set about turning them into an album.

When the Kronos Quartet approached them after a Shockheaded Peter show

in San Francisco suggesting a collaboration, the band felt the Gorey

album would be the perfect opportunity.

"A string quartet is

a Goreyesque thing," says Jacques. "You can imagine a string quartet

playing in a Victorian living room. And the Kronos are open to

experiment. I was proud because we got them to bark like dogs in the

studio."

The advantage of this sort of project for the Tiger

Lillies is its air of accessibility. As Jacques says: "It has the

potential to reach a bigger audience than the pornographic filth I

normally write."

But he is worried what Gorey's fans might

make of it. The album radiates the author's humour, but tales of a baby

being ripped to pieces and a prostitute dying of a "loathsome disease"

seem far more gothic and alarming when sung in Jacques's eerie

falsetto, accompanied by the band's lurching clatter.

"I'm

open to criticism that I've altered his works for my own ends," Jacques

admits. "The tragedy is, if Gorey had lived another week, I could have

said, 'I played these songs to Edward and Edward liked them.' Now

people can easily say, 'Those Tiger Lillies have ruined it' - and I

can't contradict that."

? The album The Gorey End is out now

on EMI Classical. The Tiger Lillies and the Kronos Quartet are at the

Lyric Hammersmith, London W12 (08700 50511), from Thursday until

Saturday.

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