Billy Joel sang it well, upbeat but sadly, in his 1977 song, “Only the Good Die Young.” The losses seem especially acute among musicians and performers: France’s Joe Dassin and Claude Francois, Buddy Holly, Janis Joplin, John Lennon, Jim Morrison, and Selena. The list could go on. We still have their music and hear their voices, but there’s a yearning for what might have been. Songs unsung, songs unheard. Too much silence.
One name has special meaning for me: Bobby Darin, who died in 1973 at age 37 after heart surgery. His song “Mack the Knife” appeared in 1959, sold some two million copies, and won a Record-of-the-Year Grammy. Ever since I heard “Mack the Knife” as a boy, it has remained, hands-down, my all-time favorite song.
BBC Radio music critic Simon Cowell deemed “Mack the Knife” the best song ever written. Singers with their own versions include Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Michael Buble, Ella Fitzgerald, Quincy Jones, Frank Sinatra, and Sting. Overlooking the fact that the song first appeared in “The Threepenny Opera,” an anti-capitalist, anti-bourgeois musical celebrating an anti-hero, McDonald’s once introduced the character Mac Tonight with “Mack the Knife” as background music. Call that a whopper.
I was reminded of “Mack the Knife’s” anniversary recently when reading a book on Weimar Germany that discussed “The Threepenny Opera,” its history and its creators, playwright Bertolt Brecht and songwriter Kurt Weill. Unpack “The Threepenny Opera” and you’ll discover its rich background and its significance as a milestone of 20th Century modernism. The opera captures the essence of Weimar Germany, a period of remarkable advances in art, architecture, literature, and music. The politics of the period, however, ultimately disintegrated and led to Adolph Hitler and the Nazis.
“The Threepenny Opera” premiered in 1928, inspired by John Gay’s 1728 work, “The Beggar’s Opera,” about a rambunctious highwayman named Macheath. Brecht-Weill’s version updated the underworld characters with cops, prostitutes, and beggars in a format that nods to Mozart, Verdi, and Strauss for structure but grounds the action in the context of a contemporary critique of modern capitalism, punctuated by underworld violence, sexuality, plus catchy jazz and swing rhythms.
Gay’s Macheath becomes Mackie Messer, a/k/a the petty, vicious, rakish criminal Mack the Knife, a human shark with glistening white teeth who keeps his jackknife out of sight, covers his tracks, dispatches his enemies, and carves up a slew of mostly female victims. All this unfolds against a driving upbeat tune that playfully asks, after all the mayhem, “Could it be our boy’s done somethin’ rash?”
The opera’s modernist critique of bourgeois values is apparent but also subtle: when it first opened in 1928, many audiences missed the irony. Darin’s version blurs the edginess further with its jazzy tempo and a cabaret-style swing that is louche but not crass.
“The Threepenny Opera” opened off Broadway in Greenwich Village in 1954, with Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya, playing Pirate Jenny. Minus one 15-month period, it ran continuously until 1961. Louis Armstrong’s 1956 version of “Mack the Knife” adlibbed a reference to Weill’s widow (Weill died in 1950): “Look out to Miss Lotte Lenya, and old Lucy Brown.”
When Darin released “Mack the Knife,” America was two years into the Sputnik era, and Sen. Joseph McCarthy saw communists hiding everywhere. Eisenhower’s presidency was a conservative period of relative stability. At the same time, America was changing. “Mack the Knife” hinted at our future and propelled us forward: it offered an edgy inflection point, a time when our increasingly mass society was moving from postwar innocence to a more open, chaotic morality.
In his famous 1967 poem “Annus Mirabilis,” British poet Philip Larkin confessed that sexual intercourse came rather late for him, in 1963, “[b]etween the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP.” The censorship ban on D.H. Lawrence’s sexually explicit novel, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” was lifted the same year that Darin’s “Mack the Knife” appeared, and the Beatles’ first record arrived in 1964. Before “Mack the Knife,” Bobby Darin was known for more innocent, saccharine hits like “Dream Lover” and “Splish Splash.” “Mack the Knife” changed everything; rock and roll, Elvis, and the Beatles were on their way.
Forget the history; just listen to the song. It’s hardly a dated period piece. Before there was hip hop, there was hip, and “Mack the Knife” is quintessential hip. But if you find the tune too troubling, too disturbing, don’t despair. Neil Sedaka at age 80 continues to belt out old favorites like “Calendar Girl” and “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen.”
Charles Kolb was deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy in the George H.W. Bush White House from 1990-1992. From 1997-2012, he was president of the nonpartisan, business-led think tank, the Committee for Economic Development.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.