Bobby Darin, Bertolt Brecht & Mack The Knife

What’s the story with the song Mack The Knife? I always knew it as a Bobby Darin tune, with which he achieved his only number one, in the US in 1959. You know it, even if you don’t think you do, chances are you danced to it at a wedding or warbled it at your grandmother’s eightieth birthday party or indeed awkwardly slow danced to it at an early nineties Ireland disco – yes that was still a floor filler in 1992 where I came from, I know – but hey so too were Rock the Boat and Macarena – so Mack The Knife was something to savor.

Bobby Darin

Mack the Knife was sandwiched uneasily between the Bobby Darin chart toppers, Dream Lover and Beyond The Sea. I say uneasily because, well, have you ever paid attention to the lyrics? Check them out –

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 out of sight

You know when that shark bites with his teeth, babe
Scarlet billows start to spread
Fancy gloves, though wears old MacHeath, babe
So there’s never, never a trace of red, oh, let it swing, yeah

On a sidewalk, blue Sunday morning
Lies a body oozing life
Some, someone’s sneaking ’round a corner
Tell me, could that someone be Old Mack the Knife?

There’s a tugboat down by the river, don’t you know?
Where a cement bag, just a dropping on down
Yes, that cement is there strictly for the weight, dear
Five’ll get you ten Old Macky’s back in town

D’ja hear ’bout Louie Miller? He got disappeared babe
After drawin’ out all his hard earned cash
And now MacHeath spends just like a sailor
Could it be our boy done somethin’ rash?

Jenny Diver, yeah, yeah, Sukey Tawdry
Hello Miss Lotte Lenya, good evening Lucy Brown
You know that line forms, way on the right, babe
Now, that Macky’s back in old biggest town

I said, “Jenny Diver, look out too”, Sukey Tawdry
Sit back Miss Lotte Lenya and wait Old Lucy Brown
I mean, I tell you that line forms way on the right, babe
Now, that Macky’s back in town
Look out, Old Macky is back

Yes, you got it, it’s about a serial killer of prostitutes and assorted others. Jesus, Bobby Darin? Who would have known? So, what’s this got to do with Vanishing Berlin? Well, its got to do with old Bertolt Brecht. I was rummaging around Dorotheensradt cemetery looking for Schinkel’s grave, which I found –

And I stumbled across Heinrich Mann’s –

Source – Wikimedia Commons

And his neighbour is Bertolt Brecht –

Brecht has always perplexed me, well, more than perplexed me, I haven’t really the foggiest idea about him. And, I suppose I should, I know heaps about Beckett and a good deal about Artaud, but nothing at all about Brecht. Those three are ordinarily pointed to by literature boffins, as the triumvirate that dictated twentieth century European theater. Well, it turns out, that if I had wanted to know more about Brecht, then I had come to the right place, because overlooking Dorotheenstadt cemetery is the house in which Bertolt Brecht lived with his wife Helene Wiegel.

So what is Mack the knife? It appears to be such a modern title and its lyrics are more akin to Gangsta rap than late 1920s German theater. Well, The Threepenny Opera was Brecht’s first and greatest commercial success, and it remains one of his best-loved and most-performed plays. Based on John Gay’s eighteenth-century Beggar’s Opera, the play is set in Victorian England’s Soho but satirizes the bourgeois society of the Weimar Republic through its wry love story of Polly Peachum and “Mack the Knife” Macheath. With Kurt Weill’s amazing music score, which was a fusion of American jazz and German cabaret, it became a popular hit throughout the Western world.

Mack the Knife or The Ballad of Mack the Knife as it was originally known became the most popular song from The Threepenny Opera. It opens and closes the play, comparing Macheath with a shark and telling tales of his heinous crimes of robbery, rape and murder. Louis Armstrong stuck swing into in 1958 and Bobby had his hit with it in 1959. Darin’s is the definitive version, that’s according to Frank Sinatra, and if Frank says its so, its so, despite the best efforts of Ella Fitzgerald, Dave van Ronk, Tony Bennett, Bing Crosby, Dr. John, Marianne Faithfull, Nick Cave, Westlife and Michael Buble who have all recorded it.

Brecht’s Front Door

So, I know a little more about Brecht, but I need to know more, you can visit his house, but it was closed when I was there so I decide to dip across to the Oscar Wilde Bar to have a beer, but alas, that too has vanished.

It’s sad to see poor Oscar gone, I had some good times in the past in the old Oscar Wilde watching Ireland playing rugby at odd parts of the day. I remember one fine day with my parents and brother in there, getting to see Ireland hockey England. But hey in the words of Axl Rose, ‘nothing lasts forever and we both know hearts can change.’

Bertolt Brecht

That is glib, Brecht wasn’t and requires detailed study. Cosmo Pappas reviewing Stephen Parker’s biography on Brecht, writes, ‘Parker strikes a delicate balance between the historical events and the more temperamental qualities of Brecht’s (personality) that informed his writing, be it his lifelong inability to temper his sexual appetite or manage his frail body. In particular, Parker emphasizes the latter in the way that Brecht’s writings, even at his most Leninist moments, revolve around a feeling of bodily precarity and appetite-driven excess. Parker’s success is the caution and deliberateness with which he traces Brecht’s multifaceted, contradictory personality and artistic corpus…. succeeds remarkably in animating the world of political instability and terror that Brecht lived through…’ Like I say, Brecht for me, requires further study but for now check out Bobby Darin’s Mack The Knife, all together now – ‘oh the shark babe, has such teeth…’

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