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."
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
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
"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