I loved Max Raabe’s one-liners last night, including his deft allusion to Donald Trump just prior to the encore. With it, he nearly brought the house down at Davies Symphony Hall, though upon reflection, I was glad he didn’t take it further.
If you don’t know who Max Raabe is or why he might be relevant to this blog, especially the recent entries about The Who and Tommy, then bear with me: a few years ago I had no idea who Max Raabe was, but his cultish appeal now grips me, has me delighted in a new form of escapism, ruminating upon that which exists outside of time, lurking in vintage elegance. You see, Max Raabe is a jazz singer, one who exists in a time warp, taking his audience back to an earlier time, circa 1930, when top hats, black ties, silk scarves and reefers were the tailoring alongside the songs of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Bertolt Brecht, to name a few. “Max parties like it’s 1929” is a tag-line that promotes the German baritone singer, who performed Tuesday night with his Palast Orchestra. For two hours, listening to Max and his 13-piece band, you can sink into their ambience, conjuring a night amongst the one percent of another era, and soak up the cabaret. In between numbers, Max deals comic soundbites in a deep, Bela Lugosi voice that has people laughing before he’s even delivered a punchline: “Tonight we have some lovely music for you all; songs that ask the questions, where can we find love? How do we find one another? How to get rid of each other?” His delivery is slow, offbeat, as in unusual, but also timeless. His joke about Donald Trump was buried in an anecdote about Samson and Delilah, relating to a song I can’t remember (I guess the joke was more memorable). Max told the story of Samson, the ancient Israelite hero, whose vigor and authority derives from his hair and who is betrayed by his lover, Delilah, who orders a servant to cut Samson’s hair. Max’s cryptic yet readily understood punchline stemmed from a subsequent musing: why would strength or moral authority be bestowed upon those with unusual hair?
The quip received the biggest of many laughs on the night. Clearly, the San Francisco audience was in sympathy with Max’s implications, and it was the only joke of the night to reference contemporary politics. That it did so in the guise of ancient mythology is important as it allowed Max and his orchestra to maintain their pose of disinterested observers, wryly commenting on the world but remaining detached, a bit like Joel Grey as the master of ceremonies in the similarly-themed musical, Cabaret. For Max Raabe to maintain his cultish outsider status, his ride upon the periphery of pop culture while paradoxically achieving success, he must maintain his distance. To enable escapism, he must be coy and oblique. To be relevant, which he apparently chooses to be, he must comment on the era in which he actually lives, but do so through the veil of allusion.
In 1968, when The Who were themselves cultish, as in not yet superstars, Pete Townshend set about the task of writing Tommy, a rock opera about a boy whose drama exists outside of time, and whose story is now part of the rock and roll mythology. Except The Who’s music did not harken back to an earlier time, but rather to the future. Indeed, at that time they were as cutting edge as anyone, making a noise the likes no one had ever made before, much less think of as entertainment. If you need evidence of this, give a listen to the recently released The Who at Filmore East 68′ CD. Twenty minute jam sessions based upon an original 3-minute single were nobody’s idea of rock and roll in the 50s, but that’s what the kids wanted in 68′, apparently. And The Who, poised to blow those kids’ minds with a new form of pop narrative and not just their glorious noise, were set to oblige.
The story of Tommy bends time to fit a surrealist framework, allowing for imagination and a stirring of feeling. Townshend introduces a dramatic point, an altercation that happens in the year 1921, with the background context being that of World War I and the absence of a father. As The Who’s members are all children of the WWII era, the setting of Tommy is allusive, designed to conjure links but not be explicit. The unnamed crime of 1921 is cryptic, operating as another allusion: what are the atrocities that follow war? What are the traumas that continue, such as the next wars on the docket (Vietnam?), or the crimes that exist upon war’s periphery, like assassinations (MLK? Two Kennedys, Malcolm X?). Hmmm? What might this otherwise unsubtle and loud British group be saying about our world, some might have wondered?
Beyond 1921, the timeline of Tommy drifts apart as if chronology doesn’t matter. This story, like a myth, could happen at any time, anywhere, so it doesn’t matter that we don’t know where the boy grows up exactly; where he becomes a pinball champion and later a spiritual leader; it doesn’t matter whether his stardom coincides with the 1930s, whether his fans are drafted into WWII; where his so-called holiday camp is. I read somewhere that Tommy’s story was meant to end in 1984, which is perhaps an allusion to Orwell, but that mooted time-frame would also be time-bending, as Tommy still seems like a young man with something to learn at the opera’s climax. He strikes me as being the age of his author–a mid-twenty-something–with an uncertain, though promising future, but one that isn’t frozen in time. The Who will be touring again this year, plus recording a new album, to my pleasant surprise. I doubt Max Raabe will be their supporting act. Too quiet. I further suppose that music is supposed to take us forward and back, with something to remember, and then something to look forward to.