Thursday, February 11, 2010

Song of the Week: Mack the Knife

Last night the wife and I watched Kevin Spacey’s “Beyond the Sea.” I’ve yet to see a truly terrible Kevin Spacey film, and his performance in “21” has only heightened my curiosity since seeing it last spring. Being a passive fan of Bobby Darin’s the movie looked like a slam-dunk Netflix order for the middle of the week.

We were not disappointed.

In the film, Spacey plays the part of crooner Bobby Darin, and actually sings all of Darin’s hits in the film (soundtrack available here), including our Pax Plena Song of the Week Mack the Knife.

Originally set to the 1928, Brecht - Weill Threepenny Opera, the German text of Mack the Knife tells the dark and twisted tale of murderer Mackie Messer, old Macheath, a.k.a. Mack the Knife. The opera opens with a minstrel solo comparing the villainous Macheath to the menacing teeth of a shark, before recounting Mack the Knife’s manifold robberies and murders.

In the 1959 Bobby Darin hit Mack the Knife, the early verse tells much the same story as the Brecht - Weill version, yet it continues apace offering a modern rendition of the tale. But what really ‘makes’ the song  is the contrast between its subject matter and its music. If one compares Brecht & Weill’s german moritat with the version sung by Darin, well, one could be forgiven for thinking the two have nothing in common at all. Far from becoming Brecht’s sinister figure, Bobby Darin’s Mack the Knife could probably be a part of the show dancing on stage at The Copa with the legend himself.

Musically, the song captures the essence of the crooner/lounge era of American music – a point in time often referred to as music’s golden age. The song begins softly with a steady baseline, and builds with casual ease as Darin tells the tale of Mack the Knife. In a voice thick with coquetry, Darin ticks off Mack’s bloody murders to his female audience, subtly mocking any fears the story might conjure. Like most crooner songs, the swinging tempo makes an unmistakable cameo appearance, all while pressing toward the song’s denouement where Darin jubilantly proclaims: Macky is back in town! In the end, the big band music is so alive, and so exciting, it’s as if welcoming a serial killer to the city were a perfectly logical thing to do.

The video below is take from one of Darin’s early performances of the song. Alas, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Lyrics follow after the jump. Enjoy!

Mack the Knife

by Bobby Darin

Oh, the shark, babe, has such teeth, dear
And it shows them pearly white
Just a jackknife has old MacHeath, babe
And he keeps it, ah, out of sight

Ya know when that shark bites with his teeth, babe
Scarlet billows start to spread
Fancy gloves, oh, wears old MacHeath, babe
So there's never, never a trace of red

Now on the sidewalk, huh, huh, whoo sunny mornin', uh huh
Lies a body just oozin' life, eek!
And someone's sneakin' 'round the corner
Could that someone be Mack the Knife?

There's a tugboat, huh, huh, down by the river don'tcha know
Where a cement bag just a'droopin' on down
Oh, that cement is just, it's there for the weight, dear
Five'll get ya ten old Macky's back in town

Now d'ja hear 'bout Louie Miller? He disappeared, babe
After drawin' out all his hard-earned cash
And now MacHeath spends just like a sailor
Could it be our boy's done somethin' rash?

Now Jenny Diver, ho, ho, yeah, Sukey Tawdry
Ooh, Miss Lotte Lenya and old Lucy Brown
Oh, the line forms on the right, babe
Now that Macky's back in town

I said Jenny Diver, whoa, Sukey Tawdry
Look out to Miss Lotte Lenya and old Lucy Brown
Yes, that line forms on the right, babe
Now that Macky's back in town....................
........ look out old Macky’s back!

UPDATE: The women referred to, toward the end of the song, left me puzzled. A quick search on the web reveals that Jenny Driver, Sukey Tawdry, and Lucy Brown were all characters in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. Lotte Lenya sang the original german moritat written by her husband,  composer Kurt Weill (i.e., of Brecht – Weill acclaim). A video of her performance, lo so many years ago is below. It makes for an interesting contrast with the Darin version above. Some similarities are obvious after watching both – proving once again the music tends to influence music.

© Pax Plena
Maira Gall