Sex, drugs, Baroque and droll music to shock the Usher Hall

The Tiger Lilies, who have given Punch and Judy, H P Lovecraft and bestiality their surreal treatment, take on Monteverdi next week


The Scotsman, 17 August 2007

IT'S THE 1980s and Martyn Jacques has gone for an unusual interview: he has decided to become a male prostitute.

The scene is a flat in Highbury, near Arsenal football stadium. His

interviewer, sporting a Freddie Mercury-style moustache, is in the

living room, which is all designer minimalism, empty but for an

expensive bronze statue in the centre. Jacques walks in, the man looks

him up and down and says: "It's not going to work." Taken aback,

Jacques asks him why. "You look far too weird."

The young

Jacques has shaved his hair to fit beneath his old lady's flower-pot

hat, but it's not an image that would go down well when picking up

clients in respectable hotel lobbies. "The furthest you could go is if

you looked like a skinhead," says the man. "That would just about work.

But with that weird haircut there's no way you could do this job."

"My political future is in ruins now," says Jacques after sharing this

story with me. "This was pre-AIDS, so I was probably quite lucky."

Where once he lived above a brothel in Soho, today he lives in more

pleasant circumstances and is very happy about it ("I live in

Kensington and I'm very glad I do"), but he has lost little of his

taste for the seamy side of life. As the driving force behind the Tiger

Lillies, those maverick chroniclers of society's underbelly famed for

their contribution to the musical Shockheaded Peter, Jacques has

produced one of the most distinctively dirty catalogues in modern

music. He has written songs called Rapist, Gonorrhoea and Bleeding

Hands of Jesus and an album about bestiality ("possibly the most

extensive collection of songs dealing with zoophilia in recorded

history," ran the sales pitch). His 21-album output ranges from the

disturbing to the raucous to the unimaginably beautiful.

Little of which would make him a likely candidate for a slot in the

Usher Hall programme of the Edinburgh International Festival. Yet here

he is, with his band, collaborating with David McGuinness of Concerto

Caledonia in a performance dedicated to Monteverdi. Remember that

Jacques is the man who recently sparked a freedom-of-speech furore when

Christians on a Canadian campus complained about the college radio

station playing his song Banging in the Nails (sample lyric: "I'm

crucifying Jesus, banging in the nails/And I am so happy, because old

Jesus failed"). Can it really be the same Jacques who is now paying

homage to the founding father of modern opera?

Yes it can.

International Festival director Jonathan Mills has recognised in

Jacques a kindred spirit to Monteverdi, who was in his day a radical

artistic spirit himself.

"Jonathan asked if we'd be interested

in doing Monteverdi and I wrote back saying my dad was a big fan - of

Mantovani," quips Jacques, who says he is most misunderstood by those

who don't see the irony in his lyrics. "He [Mills] thought Monteverdi

was like a 17th-century version of me, that he was quite subversive and

wrote secular music.

"He told me very enthusiastically that

Monteverdi had once written lots of obscene lyrics and performed in

front of the pope. I'm not sure if that's true, but he did lots of

naughty things. Jonathan was very enthusiastic about me writing lots of

rude songs and performing in front of Edinburgh International Festival

old ladies."

The songs he'll be playing in Edinburgh in A

Tribute (of sorts) to Monteverdi are a fusion of the familiar

squeeze-box stomp of the Tiger Lillies and the baroque harpsichord

flourishes of McGuinness. Inspired by Monteverdi's Madrigals of Love

and War, the new works touch on murder, rape and mutilation. And

Jacques' vocals - his voice is the missing link between classical

falsetto and Berlin cabaret - range from a Tom Waits growl to an

angelic operatic warble as he rages against religious and political

hypocrisy in times of war.

"I tried to keep the connection to

Monteverdi as strong as I could," he says when we meet in a London

caf?. "But we can't really play baroque music, it's not what we do and

when we tried it was just like Kumbaya. Hopefully there is a resonance

in the words and a ghost of Monteverdi lurking in the music."

Although the Tiger Lillies' music is reminiscent of Victorian music

hall and Brechtian cabaret, drawing other influences from Louis

Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Jacques Brel, in attitude it owes much to

the energy and polemics of punk. As Jacques, who was 30 when he took up

the accordion and hit upon the Tiger Lillies' sound, sees it, an artist

isn't doing his job unless he is getting under someone's skin. "Some of

the spirit of punk is there - as much as the spirit of Mel Brooks' The

Producers," he says.

"For me, it's the perfect audience

response when they sing Springtime for Hitler and you see the whole

audience with their mouths open. Then one of them laughs. That's pretty

much the same spirit as the early punk stuff which was about outrage

and shock.

"I want to make people uncomfortable. I want people

to take me seriously as an artist and at the same time be incredibly

entertaining. I hope that 2 per cent of my audience do walk out. It's

good that you offend a small percentage of your audience. I want to

stay as a bad, enfant terrible character, but at the same time I want

to be loved and for people to cheer. If you don't offend anyone then

what you're doing isn't very good. The whole point of any art is that

it should be provoking people."

His lyrics are a blend of

jet-black humour, obscenity and genuine moral outrage. And if anyone

has a right to sing about society's underbelly and point out its double

standards it is Jacques.

In his day he has walked the walk.

"I've gone out with junkies and prostitutes and I've taken pretty much

every drug," he says, adding that he still likes to hang out with

"interesting and unusual" people. "I've lived that life and been with

those people. Lots of them are dead now, with AIDS and overdoses."

That he is not dead himself is because he always had the distance of an

artist, observing the world at one remove. It is also down to luck - he

would have become a prostitute were it not that he cared more for

fashion than money.

"I've never leant in that direction

[homosexuality] apart from a time in my teens when I thought I was

probably gay and used to fantasise about being a rent boy," he says. "I

think my sexuality is very Ancient Greek, where men with beards would

have sex with young boys but you'd never have two men with beards

having sex with each other.

"When I was a young boy I quite

fancied the idea of having sex with a man with a beard. So I have a lot

of empathy with gay culture. And I would have been happy to be a rent

boy but I wouldn't change my haircut. The haircut was more important

for me than anything else."

? The Tiger Lillies' A Tribute (of sorts) to Monteverdi is at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on 25 August