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