Tiger Lillies In Melbourne

On a hellishly hot Saturday night in Melbourne a week ago, the Tiger Lillies performed at the North Melbourne Town Hall... And the Tiger Lillies cast a spell: it became a glamorous, illicit midnight world, created with clarity and precision.

"What I do is against the mainstream in many respects; against daytime TV and the mindless blandity of contemporary, mainstream culture that doesn't confront issues in any kind of way. It's all beautiful healthy young people smiling and selling products. It's all fake. I try and confront things with humour and intelligence, irony and sadness - I'm just trying to look at things and talk about them in interesting ways. I don't want to have to limit myself to singing about how beautiful this girl is, and what a great pair of tits, or eyes . . ."
Martyn Jacques from the Tiger Lillies, quoted in The Age, February 7, 2007.

Another story from the Age asked him for his definition of happiness.

"To live unattached from all things and in harmony with them."

On a hellishly hot Saturday night in Melbourne a week ago, the Tiger Lillies performed at the North Melbourne Town Hall. Most of the room was set with tables to sketch the illusion of a cabaret. At 7.30 p.m a shabby crowd wandered in wearing shorts and t-shirts, gardening clothes, what they might have worn to the cricket. They drank beer from bottles. And the Tiger Lillies cast a spell: it became a glamorous, illicit midnight world, created with clarity and precision. It seems perverse to ascribe subtlety and beauty and an aching affection, bordering on sweetness, for the downtrodden to the Tiger Lillies because mostly what's written about them seems to be a garish sketch of their colourful surfaces, a catalogue of the perversions they list, and a census of the communities that they chronicle, all outcasts and losers and itinerants: pirates, freaks, circus folk.  The press is literal, as if the writers believe that the Tiger Lillies really ARE pirates and vagabonds and circus performers who personally practise the perversities they sing of. The press page of the Tiger Lillies website acknowledges this cultivating of surfaces: there's a list of articles that's a "convenient collection for busy press people," and even a page of quick quotes of "praise and damnation."

The first words of praise are from Alex Kapranos, the singer from Franz Ferdinand,

There is nothing else like them. Any description of them is an injustice ? they are completely peerless.  - Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand

Alex Kapranos' book Sound Bites, a collection of essays about places he's eaten and people he's met, are illuminating and entertaining observations of the world: "Whether it's munching donuts with cops in Brooklyn, swallowing bull's balls with the band in Buenos Aires or queuing for a saveloy in South Shields, these are surprising and vivid snapshots. Funny, poignant, sickening or sexual, depending on the situation."

?I don?t know how many times Prague has been invaded,? he writes, ?but tonight it seems to have been invaded by wankers: British wankers, German wankers, North African wankers and American wankers. A tourist in his early 20s is explaining to another tourist in her early 20s that he is not a tourist: he is a ?traveller?. They have a tourist map spread on the cafe table in front of them, by the English translation of the menu. He is saying that his experience is richer. He looks, smells and acts like a tourist. I don?t get it.?

?I?m a tourist,? Kapranos continues. ?I tour the world. I don?t feel I have to excuse myself.?

Alex Kapranos interviewed at World

The Tiger Lillies are constantly in motion too, constantly travelling.

The second item of praise on the list begins "This delicious dark cabaret is Kurt Weill as ..." I'm out of my depth writing about theatre and the politically-inflected European musical theatre of the 1920's and the 1930's but there's an obvious point to be made: Bertolt Brecht, and his Threepenny Opera, written and staged in Germany just after the end of the First World War, is something the Tiger Lillies constantly refer to. Music writers cite this in their articles as if it's just another band name, Kurt Weill is just another pop star (a golden oldie, perhaps, but a hitmaker in his day) and the cabaret was just another gig in a rough part of town. The entertainment articles footnote these things unquestioningly. One of the factors that led me to abandon music writing very early on in my career is that I never knew what to make of band names: I was too earnest about finding meaning in them. Google Franz Ferdinand and the Austrian duke whose assassination set in place a chain of events that triggered World War I comes fifth in a list behind websites and citations for the Scottish pop band that's named for him. But the world in the aftermath of the war following the death of the original Franz Ferdinand is the time when Brecht wrote his Threepenny Opera, an adaptation of the Beggars Opera from 1728, dragging a high art into the street and roughing it up.  Read enough of the quick bites for journalists on the Tiger Lillies site and the references are as strongly stressed as if they were flashing on a billboard behind the band. It isn't enough to note the words (as if they were just decorative and shorn of meaning, as English words sometimes are on t-shirts in Japan). At a site devoted to the history of the Threepenny Opera the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan says "It sets reality to music" and Bob Dylan says "I was aroused straightaway by the raw intensity of the songs."

By showing with biting humor what the world would be like if it were inhabited by crooks and hypocrites, The Threepenny Opera does more good than all the dreams of noble souls.
               ?Kurt Weill, from a letter to Lotte Lenya, May 11, 1945

Just like two hundred years ago we have a social order in which virtually all levels, albeit in a wide variety of ways, pay respect to moral principles not by leading a moral life but by living off morality.

               ?Bertolt Brecht quoted in an article in Augsburger Neueste Nachrichten, January 9, 1929

Everything about the Tiger Lillies has the appearance of being carefully composed, there isn't a superfluous gesture, no halting banter, the exclamation marks and props and sound effects and little bits of pantomimery -- the clown's traditional bag of rude tricks -- are obvious and well-timed: Yet all of this adds up to a snapshot of the world, as it really is, scrubbed of make-up and without artifice, that could break your heart. The show in Melbourne began with a call to the audience to roll up for the circus, but it was as if the Tiger Lillies music was holding up an enormous mirror pointed at the audience, and reflecting back what it saw there, the animal acts and lewd longings were reportage by the Tiger Lillies, not descriptions of their own activities.  the court jester was the one who could tell the King the truth without losing his head: the audience laughed at the Tiger Lillies songs and were really laughing at themselves.

Many of the Tiger Lillies Circus songs do double duty as part of the soundtrack to Circa, a tango-based dance performance that the Tiger Lillies performed with The Holy Body Tattoo.

A celebration of the sensual forces of submission and control. Circa is imbued with the dark beauty of decay and the (unspoken) language of desire. Saturated with smoky tango and cabaret debauchery, it is a raw duet evocative of the tangled rituals of foreplay, unfulfilled desires embraced, the imprints of old lives, and a shadowy yet uncompromising eroticism.

The Holy Body Tattoo website.

Circa is a latin term for an imprecise measuring of a period of time: marked perhaps more by something symbolic, attitudes and philosophies rather than specific events that can be reliably fixed on a calendar. Projected through the performance are images of Paris, where the tango expressed the political unrest and turbulence of Argentina in the 1950's, and the artform that had emerged from the brothels in Beunos Aires to become a glamorous global phenomenon descended back into the brothels and became marginal, and hidden again.

And then he [Thomas Mann] says, "The writer must be true to truth." And that's a killer, because the only way you can describe a human being truly is by describing his imperfections. The perfect human being is uninteresting -- the Buddha who leaves the world, you know. It is the imperfections of life that are lovable. And when the writer sends a dart of the true word, it hurts. But it goes with love. This is what Mann called "erotic irony," the love for that which you are killing with your cruel, analytical word.

The Power of Myth. Joseph Campbell.

The Circus Songs and Circa feature a version of Stephen Sondheim's Send in the Clowns. In circus lore the when there's an accident or disaster the clowns are sent in to distract the audience. In actual circuses the song may also be used to alert people backstage to the injury of a performer. In the Circus Songs Pretty Lisa is tattooed head-to-toe by her pimp so that he can hit her and the bruises won't show. When the Tiger Lillies play beauty straight, without the distraction of comedy, and without the colourful images that hide the bruises it's almost unbearably painful. The second half of the Tiger Lillies performance in Melbourne began with a few quiet songs that Martyn Jacques played on the piano, lilting and slow and crystalline on the surface and bruised underneath, that reminded me of the collaborations between Billie Holiday and Lester Young.

Her bluesy vocal style brought a slow and rough quality to the jazz standards that were often upbeat and light. This combination made for poignant and distinctive renditions of songs that were already standards. By slowing the tone with emotive vocals that reset the timing and rhythm, she added a new dimension to jazz singing. With John Hammond?s support, Holiday spent much of the 1930s working with a range of great jazz musicians, including Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Duke Ellington, Ben Webster, and most importantly, the saxophonist Lester Young. Together, Young and Holiday would create some of the greatest jazz recordings of all time. They were close friends throughout their lives?giving each other their now-famous nicknames of "Lady Day" and the "Prez." Sympathetic to Holiday?s unique style, Young helped her create music that would best highlight her unconventional talents. With songs like "This Year?s Kisses" and "Mean To Me," the two composed a perfect collaboration.

It was not, however, until 1939, with her song "Strange Fruit," that Holiday found her real audience. A deeply powerful song about lynching, "Strange Fruit" was a revelation in its disturbing and emotional condemnation of racism. Holiday?s voice could be both quiet and strong at the same time. Songs such as "God Bless the Child" and "Gloomy Sunday" expressed not only her undeniable talent, but her incredible pain as well. Due to constant racial attacks, Holiday had a difficult time touring and spent much of the 1940s working in New York. While her popularity was growing, Holiday?s personal life remained troubled. Though one of the highest paid performers of the time, much of her income went to pay for her serious drug addictions. Though plagued by health problems, bad relationships, and addiction, Holiday remained an unequaled performer.

American Masters. PBS Series.

A hush fell over the audience. Martyn Jacques stood up from the piano and shuffled over to the microphone, strapping on his accordion. He sang a rough, majestic song from the point of view of Heroin, the drug glorifying itself as a king and worshipful figure, revealing that the tragic figures the Tiger Lillies sing about may not be looking for entertainment and an adrenalin rush, for kicks, but just to deaden the pain. Buddhism begins with the premise that all life is suffering and the way to alleviate that suffering is to recognise the suffering of others, to suffer with them, and to alleviate pain where we can. Where there's no compassion the only way to live with pain may be to dull it, the Tiger Lillies' presentation of the beguiling sensuality of Heroin's lure was possibly the most shocking and disturbing part of their show.

Their adaptation of some bits of literary flotsam and jetsam by Edward Gorey, inspired by Victoriana, set to music with the Kronos Quartet, illustrates what happens when sensuality is denied and demonised as it was in Victorian times. "Moral Puritanism can screw things up" Alex Kapranos said about British food. "Britain?s cuisine was ruined by the Victorians and their uptight sense of protestant guilt when encountering anything vaguely sensual, including food that tasted stronger than potatoes that had been boiled for six hours."

Imagine what it was like for Gorey to try to put himself over before he'd become the macabre sensation he is today. Consider the reaction of Robert Gottlieb -- then at Simon & Schuster and later the editor of the New Yorker -- when Gorey's agent presented him with "The Loathsome Couple," a tale based on the story of a British couple who murdered several children, only to be caught when they dropped photographs depicting their handiwork on a crowded bus. (The book?s frontispiece declares, "This book may prove to be its author's most unpleasant ever.") Gottlieb rejected the book on the grounds that it wasn't funny. An astonished Gorey replied, "Well, Bob, it wasn't supposed to be funny; what a peculiar reaction."

But, of course, "The Loathsome Couple" is hysterically funny. You will be forgiven for finding the juxtaposition of child murders with helpless laughter outrageously blasphemous. The humor in this story comes from the sheer blandness of it all. Mona and Harold, the hapless villains, move from their dismal childhoods to dismal adulthoods of petty crime, to an unsuccessful union (they "fumble with each other in a cold woodshed" after a crime film, and when they attempt to make love, their "strenuous and prolonged efforts came to nothing") to embarking on their "life's work" -- luring small children to their deaths in a rented "remote and undesirable villa." To celebrate their first kill, Harold and Mona dine on "cornflakes and treacle, turnip sandwiches and artificial grape soda."

The problem would persist throughout Gorey's career. Is he writing humor? Are dead people funny? Maybe it's literature: Gorey's prose reads by turns like haiku, or Dadaist automatic writing, and employs more words from the OED than Joyce's does. But his books are illustrated, recalling the work of Aubrey Beardsley, Georges Barbier and Goya. Does that make it art? And they're small, borrowing the nonsense of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, coupled with the grim infanticides of the Brothers Grimm. Could they be books for children?

Edward Gorey Interview.

The Tiger Lillies are true and respectful to the theatrical and musical traditions they spring from but what they are also part of is a mature branch of rock and roll that's keeping mythological symbols alive and re-interpreting them for our time. These musicians -- a group that includes Lou Reed, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Rosanne Cash, Bruce Springsteen -- use sadness in a way that's interpreted too literally by the music press, and the full spectrum of sadness, its redemptive quality, and how it's only through understanding sadness that we can appreciate happiness, isn't remarked upon. The Tiger Lillies have the opposite problem: comedy and comic touches in music is perhaps even more misunderstood than sadness, more easily dismissed and its sad touches, the value of the fury and savage deeds that the Tiger Lillies so amusingly portray, isn't assessed, isn't something we recognise as a reflection of something inside all of us. The Tiger Lillies are heroes. 

"The hero's journey isn't to deny reason. To the contrary, by overcoming the dark passions, the hero symbolises our ability to control the irrational savage within us." Campbell had lamented on other occasions our failure "to admit within ourselves the carnivorous, lecherous fever" that is endemic to human nature. Now he was describing the hero's journey not as a courageous act but as a life lived in self-discovery. Ironically, to Campbell the end of the hero's journey is not the aggrandizement of the hero. "It is," he said in one of his lectures, "not to identify oneself with any of the figures or powers experienced. The Indian yogi, striving for release, identifies himself with the Light and never returns. But no one with a will to the service of others would permit himself such an escape. The ultimate aim of the quest must be neither release nor ecstasy for oneself, but the wisdom and power to serve others." One of the many distinctions between the celebrity and the hero, he said, is that one lives only for self while the other acts to redeem society.

The Power of Myth. Bill Moyers with Joseph Campbell.