Thursday, February 24, 2011

Lotte Lenya: We've lost our good old Mama

The Doors - Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)

So. This Alabama song has nothing to do with Alabama, surprisingly, but is the best-known ditty from Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's dark vision of social corruption, Mahagonny. It's not exactly the kind of tune you can tap yer toe to.

When I found out the Doors had done it, I nearly fell over. The Lotte Lenya version isn't exactly what I remember either, but it's close. See, when I was a kid, I was a misfit, an outcast, a square peg (as in another brilliant song by The Doors, "When you're Strange"). I was just odd. But my sister, thirteen years older than me, was odder.

She was always going off to Munich as an exchange student, spoke fluent German (why? No one in our connection was even remotely German or Teutonic or anything), and wrote her Master's thesis in German on this strange, incomprehensible Mahagonny. It was plenty weird, but no weirder than the brick-and-board bookcases in the den that groaned under the weight of Schiller, Goethe and Freud.

In those days, everybody who was anybody had a hi-fi, and you played your hi-fi extremely loud. The louder it was, the more the bass rattled your teeth, the better your hi-fi was. When I brought friends home from school, the Moon of Alabama song would be on the hi-fi, and I'd have to try to explain.

But I didn't understand it myself. There was a lot I didn't understand, because nobody explained it to me. So I concluded that everyone else in the world already understood these things, and I didn't because I was feeble-minded and intellectually inferior (even though I was in a special advanced educational stream, for which I received no family praise at all). As a result, in order to compensate, I became very entertaining.

Things got even more confusing when my sister's drunken married friends groped me at adult parties, at which my glass of gin was always kept topped up. I was fifteen years old and they were something like thirty and it was supposed to be all right. My parents were sure it was all right: my older siblings were looking after me! They were doing me a favor, giving me a social life which I could never have on my own, and I was supposed to be grateful. It nearly destroyed me, but I figured I didn't understand that, either, and kept silent. Just as well, because if they didn't listen to me then, they sure don't want to listen to me now.

Oh, don't ask why. Oh, don't ask why.