Monday, August 1, 2011

Lenya, Kurt, and Bert

I sold my record collection a few days ago.

I began buying 7" singles way back in 1953, but soon switched to Long Play albums, which means I was a record "hound" for nearly 60 years. Not many of those early buys are still around; Fats Domino, Elvis, Rosemary Clooney, the Five Satins, Belafonte, Chuck Berry maybe, were some of the earliest artists I bought. As the many years passed, between collecting, reviewing records for a decade, buying and selling 12" discs as a dealer, searching out "platters" of special interest--sometimes whole collections--I've probably had 25,000 LPs pass through my hands, but after 15 years or more of selling via a now-defunct store and then online (at least I was until recently), I saw a bit less than 10,000 records vacate the premises today in boxes of a hundred or so each. I did decide to keep some favorites, nostalgic reminders or whatever, but they aren't valuable LPs. I left those for the buyer, a successful mail order dealer and a decent enough guy, based out of Portland.

Imagine having 10,000 Long Play records suddenly at your fingertips for a week and a half only, with the challenge to figure out a hundred-plus to keep. I actually had a high old time scanning the shelves and playing sample after sample, hour upon hour, trying to reconnect with whatever magic once was in those grooves. Aside from a few classic LPs, I pulled and kept representative items in general, but much more from the categories of Folk and Reggae, Classical (especially with a Spanish tinge) and Jazz. Rock and Country, World Music and post-Seventies Pop, all got short shrift. (Dig the sacrilege: Tom Rush and the O'Kanes and John Hammond, yes; Beatles, Stones, and Robert Johnson, no. Piano by Alicia de Larocha, si; keys courtesy of Sviatislav Richter, nyet... But wait! Simmer down, kids--the truth is I have a ton of CDs around here, easily replenishing any offloaded LP greats.)

But that's the bigger picture. On the immediate piece-by-piece front, I realized I'd be saying goodbye to whole smaller collections, 20 to 50 items in each--Aaron Copland LPs, versions of Porgy and Bess, Elvis bootlegs, albums with Bill Stout cover art, a massive array of Ellington releases, Bruce Springsteen bootlegs, 60 years of Dave Brubeck with and without Paul Desmond, Dylan LPs legal and otherwise, Fairport Convention and all its spinoffs, Martin Denny albums with various beautiful women on the covers, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. (Hmmm, Yul Brynner musicals? Naaah.)

Actually, the single biggest subset was probably albums celebrating Jazz-influenced composer Kurt Weill, his sometime creative partner, radical playwright Bertolt Brecht, and the always amazing Lotte Lenya, actress/vocalist extraordinaire and Weill's helpmate/wife. I had maybe 80 LPs (kept 10 faves) and still have another 20 CDs detailing the music and lives and lasting works of that explosive threesome. They showed a united front (more or less) for Weimar Republic masterworks The Threepenny Opera, Happy End, and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (plus the earlier bombshell, Mahagonny-Songspiel); after fleeing Nazi Germany managed to regroup in France for The Seven Deadly Sins; and then pretty much split for good, with Kurt and Lenya off to America and the wholly different Broadway musical stage, while Brecht took refuge in Denmark and then briefly in Hollywood before eventually heading up Communist East Berlin's state-run theater for decades.

The Lenya-Weills took some time to get acclimated. Both of them devoted much time and creative energy to the ill-fated project that had drawn them to the U.S., the massive theatrical pageant and financial disaster known as The Eternal Road. Johnny Johnson, Kurt's first American musical, was a small success that, like the later Down in the Valley "citizen cantata," showed how eager he was to embrace all things "American." That small success also promised bigger things--which came quickly as Kurt was invited to collaborate with Moss Hart, Maxwell Anderson, Ira Gershwin, Ogden Nash, Langston Hughes, Alan Jay Lerner, and other Broadway insiders.

Between 1937 and 1950 when Kurt died suddenly and unexpectedly, in addition to many partial but unrealized projects, he wrote complete scores for Knickerbocker Holiday, Lady in the Dark, One Touch of Venus, The Firebrand of Florence, Street Scene, Love Life, and Lost in the Stars, offering adventurous, inventive music and a few lovely tunes that were soon revered musical standards, even as their source playbooks receded into Broadway history--"Speak Low," "My Ship," "September Song," "Lost in the Stars," "It Never Was You," "Lonely House," maybe "I'm a Stranger Here Myself," all joining Kurt's German precedent-setters from "Alabama Song" and "Bilbao" to "Pirate Jenny" and "Surabaya Johnny."

Lenya had left the stage for several years. Now she became the fierce proponent and defender of Weill's long list of serious Classical and lighter-hearted American compositions. She starred in the 1954 reconfiguration of Threepenny (steamlined a bit for modern tastes by Marc Blitzstein). She oversaw--with amusement, one assumes--the astonishing popular success of "Mack the Knife." She teamed with Columbia Records to record definitive versions of the earthshaking Weimar successes as well as the American highlights. She became "Rosa Klebs," a murderous East German villainess, in the second James Bond film, From Russia with Love. She came out of retirement for a star turn in Cabaret. She enlisted Teresa Stratas to carry on the dissemination of Kurt's songs. She established a major Weill Foundation in New York City. And then, some years ago now, she died peacefully--respected, honored, unique, sometimes unruly, yet routinely rated the greatest "no voice" singer of the 20th century.

I no longer recall what led me to Lenya, Kurt, and Bert, perhaps something as uncomplicated as Bobby Darin piping, "Look out, old Mackie's back!" Or Tony Bennett (on the live album with Count Basie) so hauntingly "Lost out here in the stars..." Doesn't matter. By the Seventies I was hooked, and a decade later hip-deep in books and records as I worked to shape a musical play about the collaboration between Brecht und Weill (Lenya figuring importantly), at its peak with Threepenny's astonishing Berlin--then European--popular and critical success and collapsing by the time of Mahagonny's Nazi-threatened opening night.

Anyway, seeing those pieces of my life boxed and handtrucked away was... a bit sad... in anticipation of which I snapped photos of the more interesting items (many shown below), and I still intend to examine the subject of Kurt and Jazz in a second blog piece, coming soon I hope. As his "September Song" insists,

When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame,
One hasn't got time for the waiting game.
Oh, the days dwindle down
To a precious few


Steve Provizer said...

That's a lot of wax to part with, although it sounds like you managed without too much pain. CD backup is useful.

Brecht/Weill were not only a good keystone combo, they were fair writers. I don't know the canon as well as you do, but some swath of it. Mahogonny gets my nod. It's incredibly ambitious and, I think, successful most of the time. I was psyched to see it at the Met and was disappointed they did it in English translation. I don't think translators get the raw meat feel of it-especially Blitstein. To translate "the bordello where we cohabitated" as "the two by four where we played house" is pretty unforgivable. If it was the censor's fault, then screw him.

Steve Provizer said...

Oh yea-I saw Lotte in the 1960's Cabaret in NYC. Charismatic performance.

IWitnessEd said...

Your experiences with Mahagonny and Cabaret make me closer to regretting a mostly West Coast life... opportunities not available and all that. My encounters with LK&B were all second and third hand save for a visit in the mid-Eighties to the East German theatre Brecht bossed around (St. Joan, Mother Courage, Chalk Circle, etc.) and his drab flat, enlivened only by beat-up copies of American noir novels. More to come when I get the nerve to discuss Weill's connection to Jazz...

Steve Provizer said...

Hey, you got some culture out there, too. Weimar and Gangsta are most definitely connected.

I was thinking about doing the same thing (B/W and jazz). Be interesting to see what we each came up with.

IWitnessEd said...

You mean I gotta compete with The Provizer now? Couldn't we maybe work a deal?

Steve Provizer said...

Yea, let's collaborate. But I warn you, I'm not competitive, I'm lazy.