Brighton Dome, Monday 30th Nov
The “anarchic Brechitan street-opera trio” the Tiger Lillies last appeared in these parts the Festival before last, with their take on Coleridge's epic poem 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner'. Now they're back with another theatrical song-show. Lulu was the protagonist of two expressionist playswritten by Frank Wedekind between 1895 and 1904.
And many times since. As singer and main man Martin Jacques states in the programme “today the figure of Lulu is one of the most widely known characters in fiction... in many ways Hamlet is perhaps Lulu's closest equivalent, widely recognised but nevertheless mysterious, the inspiration for countless re-interpretations, but without a stable or agreed core meaning.”
In other words, neither are fixed texts. Each iteration of them doesn't re-recite the canon, nor do changes negate what went before – it just adds on another layer. Except of course the Prince's story is about having the power to choose and being paralysed by it. While Lulu's is about being given no choice at all. Though a figure on stage she never sings or speaks. All is narrated by Jacques in the character of malevolent lowlife Shig, her primary pimp and ostensible 'father'.
She first appears pushing flowers at the unaccepting musicians. If it's reminiscent of flower sellers on the street, there's also something childlike and innocent about her movements. For much of the running time she's held between two projection screens situated behind the band, imprisoned and shown off like a fish in a tank. She'll dance to one side, then back again. At one point the struts of a bannister are projected, which come to look like prison bars. Oddly, I was most reminded of Mark Fisher's quote about Carroll's Alice – this story is Lulu's, but she has no place in it. She's essentially a sexualised possession, a flesh sex toy passed from one 'lover' to the next.
In the programme Jacques continues “it was hard writing the songs for 'Lulu'... you have to breathe the putrid air.” And it shows. For one thing, the Tiger Lillies aren't just renowned for their black humour, they celebrate a tradition which commonly found dark humour in stories of sexual abuse. That kind of salaciousness is not confined to cabaret of course, it also appears in blues or rock music, or for that matter tabloid newspapers. But cabaret is more associated with a 'decadent' era where such things went on, or at least happened more openly.Which gave proceedings the unsettling sense of walking a tightrope. I'm a Tiger Lillies fan largely because I share Jacques' black sense of humour. And even I found myself willing them not to screw up and slip into rape gags.
They don't. And yet when they don't, harsh as it sounds for damning them for doing the right thing, they lose something of themselves. That black humour has always been the killer app of the band, the carefree irreverence to offence of songs like 'Hammering in the Nails'. They're not without this, they just hold it in check in places. They have to hold it in check in places. Yet it still feels like they're performing with one arm tied behind their back.
And without the humour we're left with just the black. To use Jacques' analogy, theres a whole lot of putrid air to breathe. It's like hearing the low notes of the piano hammered over and again for seventy-five minutes. Moreover, the sheer arbitrariness of the story adds to this sense of inevitability. You could swap the order of her 'lovers', or cut some out completely, and lose little. For she's but a flower petal on the wind.
With the suggestion Lulu may not have been murdered by Jack but a copycat killer, perhaps planning to pass the blame, its clear that if Lulu stands for our innocence Jack stands for our corruptibility and hypocrisy. They're both part of us. Notably, Jack's the only character to have a song addressed directly to him.
Yet I also overheard a fair few people emerging afterwards to say they found the message obvious. (“Is anyone here likely to think its okay to sell a young woman into prostitution?” and so on.) Which suggests the links between then and now aren’t being made, as if sexual exploitation is considered only a subject for history books. Perhaps a better way to challenge misogyny isn’t to meet it head-on but glove-puppet it and expose it from within. I’ve never heard Lady Sings It Better but the approach seems interesting – take the most misogynistic lyrics you can get hold of, and have a group of women belt them back at you. It also counters the ludicrous-yet-prevalent notion that 'political correctness' is about being too namby-pamby to use those illicitly thrilling bad words.
Ultimately, Jacque's schema works not wisely but too well. In his insistence on the harsh male-dominated world Lulu finds herself in, in his foregrounding of her silence within it he perpetuates that silence. At one point she's compared to a sponge and, rather than a character, she's no more than the accumulation of what a patriarchal world will do to a woman if given the chance.
I confess I'm not sure what I'd suggest to improve proceedings. Perhaps Lulu discovers a voice and gets a song of her own, only briefly before she is killed. Scenes such as when Shunning gives her a gun and orders to shoot herself, and she instead sticks a hole in him, could have been made little moments of proto-feminist triumph. Some hint somewhere she doesn't have to be a total victim or hapless innocent. But perhaps the whole project was intrinsically flawed. After 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner' was such a full-blown success, I wondered if this might have been an earlier prototype of a full-length show, now brought back out from the desk drawer. And while when I checked I found it's first appearance was 2013, a year after 'Mariner', that still feels the way it is.
Brighton Railway Club, Mon 23rd Nov
Most gigs, you'll see at some point all the equipment shunted off stage and the house lights go up. Yet there aren't too many where that's your signal the main act's about to come on. But then there's nights when you know to expect the unexpected.
With the lo-fi DIY indie-punk of Beat Happening, the deconstructed dance music of Dub Narcotic and the founding of the influential K records Calvin Johnson has done much to break the punk mould. If he didn't ship records, he made waves. The stereotype of angry white kids swearing against the system never quite withstood him. Kurt Cobain tattooed himself with the K logo, while Courtney Love namechecked him on 'Olympia'. (Well, depending on which version you listen to.)
Tonight, alone and entirely unamplified, he diffidently strums an acoustic guitar like his eyes might have flicked over a chord book for the first time while backstage. His baritone voice, the sound of deadpan, is delivered from a Easter Island impassive face above a tight black sweater. It has less the air of a punk event than something which might have happened in a Greenwich Village folk club in 1963. But probably didn't.
And it was the absolute absence of anything remotely resembling punk music which came to be the most punk thing about it. It worked as a projection of the artist's personality, to which the actual music and words were mere means to that end. (I'm really not sure that would come over so well on record.) He exudes a childlike 'Being There' persona, while displaying a master comedian's gift for timing, including mutiple meaningful...
...pauses. Entirely unaccompanied, he recites the nonsense dance lyrics of a Dub Narcotic number like they're metaphysical poetry. Returing to the neologism I coined for Goat it's bironic – simultaneously a self-parody and in deadly earnest. You laugh out loud and are entranced at one and the same time. The bizarre choice of venue, a place down a residential cul-de-sac which no-one present seemed to previously know existed, made for the perfect setting.
It perhaps veered too far towards straight songs at times, at which points my attention did start to wonder. I wondered if the best numbers had been written for some different setting, and were now sparking off on the incongruity. As he encores with a cover of 'Diamonds Are Forever' you find yourself thinking “this song is actually really stupid” and “this song is actually a classic” at one and the same time. Which is probably the whole night in microcosm.
From Manchester. But there was punk rock floor-sittin' apleanty at Brighton too...
...and from back in the day, D Narcotic go...
Mentioned in dispatches! After having previously written about both Jeffrey Lewis and the Cravats, there's not really much I could add. But tehre's some YouTube clips just to confirm the things happened. The Lewis clip is not only from elsewhere, but features one of his cartoon lectures he didn't even perform down here. (He said it might be hard for people to see given the venue.) While the Cravats clip is from Brighton but doesn't have much in the way of sound quality. But then that's what makes it punk innit, y'get me bro?