Art and death are so perfect together that the union at times is wholly symbiotic. Art is all about creation. Some artists even use birth-related terminology when creating new works, such as referring to their various creations as “my children.” Where you have birth, you must have death. Ah yes here they are folks, the bookends of our lives. Death fascinates and frightens us, which is why it can be such a huge thread in so many works of art.
Now there are common ways for death to co-mingle with art. People in their lives die and that naturally will have an effect on their art. The fear of death or even the embracing of it can also be a big ingredient too. But the artist as a man and woman being the literal bringer of death has been a pretty rare thing. You have the obvious examples, like Varg Vikernes from Mayhem and Burzum, Phil Spector and of course Charles Manson.
But to have an actual serial killer get legally released from prison because of the strength of his creative talent is practically unheard of. However that very thing happened in the early 1990’s in Austria with Johann “Jack” Unterweger aka the Poet of Death.
If ever there was one with a classic prone to serial killing childhood, Unterweger was it. His mother had been a prostitute and his father an American soldier that was long out of the picture before his son was officially in it. At some point early on, young Johann was abandoned and sent to live with his grandparents. His grandfather was an alleged severe alcoholic with violent tendencies, though Jack’s Aunt came out later on to say that he had a poor but loving upbringing. Whatever the case, he certainly had a troubled childhood that begat a very troubled young man, whose first crime was roughing up a sex worker at age 16. It was only a matter of time that a serious transgression was bound to happen.
And happen it did, as a young woman was found dead in the woods. According to Unterweger himself, that before his first killing he had already committed numerous rapes and burglaries. It was the murder of 18 year old Margaret Schafer, whom he strangled to death with her own bra, that got him ultimately convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Where this story starts to get really weird is that going into prison, Unterweger was reportedly illiterate. While there, he began to devour book after book, educating himself, as both a reader and a writer. The even more amazing thing is that he unearthed a talent strong enough that he started to get notice from the outside world. Poems, plays and short prose began to emerge, but much like Jack Abbot before him, it was his autobiography Purgatory (Fegefeur) that got him the biggest notice and ended up being a bestseller. How many serial killers can claim to be award winning and best selling?
By the time he was up for parole, he had a bevy of prison reformists, writers and critics championing for his release with the reasoning that this sexual sadist and murderer had been reformed by art. This man’s intellect and creativity along with some well meaning but extremely naïve people got him out of prison and back into society.
Jack Unterweger went into prison an illiterate, poor, ex-pimp psychopathic murderer and came out a media darling and was immediately welcomed into high moving social circles. Book launches and society parties all welcomed the now stylish and handsome ex-criminal. Fegefeur even became a movie, making Unterweger one of the few serial murderers to have a writing credit on the IMDB. To anyone with any real logic about crime, it will come as absolutely no shock that prostitutes started showing up dead yet again in Vienna, a city with a usually very low crime rate towards sex workers in general.
The police suspected him immediately, but despite the surveillance, they couldn’t nail him on any suspicious behavior. Of course, Unterweger, like a lot of serial murderers was far from stupid and knew better than to do anything blatantly shady. (Well, aside from the whole murdering bit.) Also, like a lot of his fellow bloodthirsty spiritual kin, he quickly got cocky. He even challenged the police about what they were going to do about the string of fresh murders, with his bravura being displayed under the guise of a probing journalist. An act such as that either signifies brass balls or brass ignorance. In Unterweger’s case, it was a little bit of both.
Nevertheless, the police had nothing solid on him until Unterweger flew to Los Angeles for research on an article about crime for a local Austrian magazine. During this five week period, the killings in Vienna stopped and suddenly three prostitutes were found strangled with their own garments in the City of Lost Angels. What followed after this was a fascinating case of hubris and fear, with the collaborative efforts of the Austrian police and the LAPD ultimately sealing Unterweger’s fate. He was convicted of murdering 9 women and was sent to prison, where he hung himself with some string he pulled out of his jumpsuit. The ultimate irony was that he utilized the very knot that he had used to murder so many women on himself.
There is something else tied to this figure that makes the story even stranger, all thanks to the very unlikely form of Austrian pop star Falco. In 1985, he released his massively successful Falco 3 album, which included his biggest known song Rock Me Amadeus. Also on that album was a creepy and completely overlooked in the US pop song called Jeanny. This song, inspired by the Unterweger murders, went all the way to number one in Austria, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland and the Netherlands. All that despite being banned by some radio stations and being protested by various groups, including some misinformed “feminists.”
Falco is an underrated artist, especially in this country where he pretty much is regarded as a “one-hit wonder,” despite having some moderate success with both Der Kommisaar and Vienna Calling. He did some really strange things under the pop music umbrella that still makes him stand out and Jeanny is further proof of this. The chorus is in English while the spoken word parts are in German, giving the listener a weird dysphoria especially given how near desperate sounding the speaker sounds. Just one look at the lyrics should tell you that this is not your momma’s pop tune:
NOTE: Lines in italics were in English in the original German version.
[spoken] Newsflash, newsflash…
“Official government reports…”
Jeanny, come, come on
Stand up please
You’re getting all wet
It’s getting late, come
We must leave here
Out of the woods
Don’t you understand?
Where is your shoe?
You lost it
When I had to show you the way
Which of us lost?
Or… we ourselves?
Jeanny, quit livin’ on dreams
Jeanny, life is not what it seems
Such a lonely little girl in a cold, cold world
There’s someone who needs you
Jeanny quit livin’ on dreams
Jeanny, life is not what it seems
You’re lost in the night
Don’t wanna struggle and fight
There’s someone who needs you
We must leave here
Your lipstick is smeared
You bought it and
And I saw it
Too much red on your lips
And you said, “Leave me alone”
But I saw right through you
Eyes say more than words
You need me, don’t you, hmmmh?
Everyone knows, that we’re together
Now I can hear them, they are coming!
They are coming to get you.
They won’t find you.
Nobody will find you!
You’re with me.
Jeanny quit livin’ on dreams…
In the last months the number of missing persons has dramatically increased. The latest account from the local police reports another tragic case. It is a matter of a nineteen year old girl who was last seen two weeks ago. The police have not excluded the possibility that a crime has been committed.
Jeanny, quit livin’ on dreams…
Pleasant dreams, right? The best part is that the video is equally unsettling with Falco playing the part of the predator. For anyone used to seeing the man all suave and dapper will be very surprised as he lets go of the pop ego and immerses himself into character. It’s quite reminiscent of Golden Earring’s brilliant and disturbing clip for When the Lady Smiles sans the black humor. There’s no humor here to cushion just subtle queasiness, especially when thinking about the true crime connection to boot.
Sadly, Falco left this plane on February 6th, 1998 after having a fatal auto collision in the Dominican Republic. But he got to leave behind a truly special thumbprint in the pop landscape of the 80’s. It’s sad to think of some of the crap that hit it big in the US while Jeanny was darkening up the European airwaves and dancefloors.
As for Jack Unterweger, perhaps one of the best lessons that one can learn from this is the importance of separating the art from the artists. Phil Spector is a genius that forever changed the soundscape of music but he is also an egomaniacal, abusive individual who murdered Lana Clarkson. Roman Polanski has made some of the best films in the past fifty years but he also drugged and raped a 13 year old girl. And despite what the Modern Lovers claim, a lot of people called Pablo Picasso an asshole. Every human being on this planet is capable of great acts of kindness and beauty as well as total horror. There are no born monsters, just man-made ones.