Last night’s Tom Waits post got me to thinking more about the great man’s body of work, most specifically The Black Rider. I shared two songs from it last time: the title track, and the nighmarish “Oily Night.” But the story behind the songs is interesting (and Halloweenie) enough that it begs more attention.
Waits released the album in 1993, but the music on it was written a few years earlier for a 1990 stage production, a comic opera collaboration between Waits, director Robert Wilson, and beat poet William S. Burroughs. If that sounds like it might turn out a bit bizarre, well… It did.
The story, based on a German folktale, centers on Wilhelm, a young file clerk who falls in love with the daughter of a great hunter, who won’t let them marry unless Wilhelm proves himself as a hunter, as well. Unfortunately, Wilhelm is a terrible shot. Or at least he is until the devil appears and offers him magic bullets to improve his aim. Wilhelm accepts, wins over the father, and… well… no spoilers, but things go downhill from there. The whole thing spirals out of control, the bullets becoming a metaphor for drug addiction as Wilhelm rushes toward a tragic end.
Along the way, we get William Burroughs singing a jangle-boned variation on the jazz-era classic “T’Ain’t No Sin”…
…and “I’ll Shoot the Moon,” a song that juxtaposes the imagery of love and death:
Now… Here’s that same song, as it was performed in the play’s original run in Hamburg, Germany. It’s a bit… different.
The stage production is a weirdly compelling avant-garde production, marrying the cabaret influences of Waits’ music with acting performances that draw on the herky-jerky motion of silent film comedy. At times, the actors come off like vaudevillian robots slapsticking their way through moody, expressionistic sets straight out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. And then at other times, they’re screaming and caterwauling in some kind of mock-opera madness that puts me in mind of the most bizarre moments of David Lynch. The overall effect is jarring, funny, and disturbing all at the same time. Especially when things turn ugly.
Which makes it mesmerizing Halloween fare if you’re in the right frame of mind. So I’m pleased to have found that original Hamburg stage production, in its entirety, to share with you tonight. I should stress that it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste. Don’t go into this thing expecting realistic stage drama, because it’s anything but. This is an art piece that’s deeply, utterly, PROUDLY weird, and if you’re not into that sort of thing, you’re not going to like it. At all. I love that sort of thing, and even I had to get used to it.
Also don’t go in expecting, you know… a lot of English. Though all the songs are in Waits’ native tongue, the dialogue is about 90% in German, and there are no sub-titles. Now, remember: I’m just an -over-edjumacated hick. The only German I know is what I picked up from old Invaders comics and episodes of Hogan’s Heroes. So I’m sure I missed a lot. But, knowing the story going in, I was able to follow along and just drink in the visuals.
So, again, that’s really weird and strident, and almost totally not in English. Maybe for hardcore Waits fans only. But if you fall into that category… Enjoy!
If that YouTube video has disappeared, here’s a link to it on Robert Wilson’s personal website. Hopefully, that one’ll be more permanent (the picture quality might be better, as well).