The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets is a lesser-known project of William S. Burroughs (who wrote the opera’s book) and a somewhat better-known work of Tom Waits (who composed the majority of the music and lyrics). The pair collaborated on the piece at the behest of theatrical visionary Robert Wilson, who staged and directed the avant-garde production which premiered in a German-language version at Hamburg’s Thalia Theatre on March 31,1990.
The Black Rider is based on a gruesome German folktale with supernatural themes called Der Freischütz, which had previously been made into an opera by the Romantic school composer Carl Maria von Weber. Historically, it is considered to be one of the very first “nationalist” German operas.
The story is simple: A mild-mannered clerk falls in love with a hunter’s daughter and seeks his approval in order to marry. He is offered magic bullets in a Faustian bargain. On the day of their wedding, the final bullet kills his love. He loses his mind and joins other of the devil’s victims in a hellish carnival.
Worth noting that while The Black Rider is based on German folklore, the book has a bit of unavoidable overlap with William Burroughs’ own life, the sordid “William Tell” incident that ended in the death of his common-law wife Joan Vollmer in Mexico in 1951.
In the late 90s, English language versions of the opera started to occur. In 2004, Robert Wilson and Tom Waits teamed up again for an English language version of The Black Rider that would tour the world. Casts members included performers such as Marianne Faithfull (who essayed the devil character), eccentric Canadian chanteuse Mary Margaret O’Hara and Richard Strange from The Doctors of Madness. The opera has been staged several times since then by various companies.
Waits’ own version of his songs from The Black Rider came out in 1993 and featured William Burroughs’ distinctive vocalizing on “‘T’ Ain’t No Sin”:
In 1978 or 1979 (we’ll get to that in a minute), Tom Waits was touring Europe. He had a concert in Vienna the day after a show in Amsterdam. He showed up in Vienna and was greeted by two young men named Rudi Dolezal and Hannes Rossacher, employees of ORF (Österreichischer Rundfunk, i.e. Austrian television) with the proposal of shooting an interview while he was in town. Waits countered with a better idea.
As Barney Hoskyns tells it in Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits:
Waits and band flew to Holland for a short European tour that took in Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Vienna, London, Dublin, Brussels, and Paris. … In Vienna on 19 April, Waits was filmed by Rudi Dolezal and Hannes Rossacher for a short documentary that incorporated live performances of “Sweet Little Bullet,” “Christmas Card,” and a loose-limbed take on “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” “He came in from Amsterdam saying he hadn’t slept all night, but he agreed on the spot to let us film him,” says Rossacher. “He said he didn’t want to do a proper interview but instead he wanted to tell stories.”
The film’s credit at the very end itself says quite clearly that it dates from 1978, but everyone else seems to think it was really 1979. For one thing, the video ends with a rendition of “On the Nickel,” which first appeared on 1980’s Heartattack and Vine.
The concert in the footage was at the Konzerthaus, specifically the Mozartsaal, which seats 704. The European tour was in support of 1978’s Blue Valentine, and in the footage Waits plays “A Sweet Little Bullet From A Pretty Blue Gun” and “Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis” off of that album. We get three songs from Waits’ 1976 album Small Change (“Jitterbug Boy,” “Pasties and a G-String (At the Two O’Clock Club),” and “I Can’t Wait to Get Off Work (And See My Baby on Montgomery Avenue)”). Waits’ rendition of “Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis” folds in a few bars of “Goin’ Out of My Head” when he gets to the Little Anthony and the Imperials line and ends with “Silent Night”—this was his usual practice in the late 1970s.
At the end of the video Waits does a slow dance with what Hoskyns calls “a Thai prostitute” in a joint called the Moulin Rouge on Walfischgasse in the city’s 1st district. The Moulin Rouge is still there, but that area is completely different today. Walfischgasse intersects with Kärntner Strasse, which is kind of like Times Square/42nd Street in more ways than one. In the 1970s it was a red-light district, but today it is one of the most commercialized avenues in Vienna. I love the footage in the middle where Waits tells the story of the saxophonist who can’t manage the bridge to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”—few things are more “Vienna” than a little table crowded with beer glasses and stately little cups of coffee.
Embedding of the full video is disabled by request, so here’s a short clip but really, check out the whole thing.
Tom Waits, wedding singer, on America 2-Night in 1978. Waits croons “Better Off Without A Wife” after a snarkily funny intro by Barth Gimbel (Martin Mull):
“I think there’s no better way to really make a tribute to these people than through music. And fortunately we have a very special guest with us… Mr. Tom Waits! And when he plays and sings, it’s almost like music.”
Waits had appeared the previous year on Fernwood Tonight before the show moved to Alta Coma, California (“the unfinished furniture capital of the world”) and changed its name.
While Waits’ appearance on Fernwood Tonight from 1976 has been viewable on Youtube for awhile, this America 2-Night clip is a bit of a rarity.
“I get a little choked up on occasions like this. Actually the closest I have ever been to a marriage is… I was the best man at a friend of mine’s divorce.”
I have no idea what the source is behind this clipping or quote. Who is “Jack”? Why is Tom Waits wearing “Jack’s” pants and not his own? Is he referring to Jack Kerouac? Why doesn’t Tom Waits want Rickie’s bare feets all over “Jack’s” pants?
Below, Tom Waits responding to a 2002 article in The Nation by John Densmore of The Doors regarding musicians and artists “allowing their songs to be used in commercials.”
Woodland Hills, Calif.
Thank you for your eloquent “rant” by John Densmore of The Doors on the subject of artists allowing their songs to be used in commercials [“Riders on the Storm,” July 8]. I spoke out whenever possible on the topic even before the Frito Lay case (Waits v. Frito Lay), where they used a sound-alike version of my song “Step Right Up” so convincingly that I thought it was me. Ultimately, after much trial and tribulation, we prevailed and the court determined that my voice is my property.
Songs carry emotional information and some transport us back to a poignant time, place or event in our lives. It’s no wonder a corporation would want to hitch a ride on the spell these songs cast and encourage you to buy soft drinks, underwear or automobiles while you’re in the trance. Artists who take money for ads poison and pervert their songs. It reduces them to the level of a jingle, a word that describes the sound of change in your pocket, which is what your songs become. Remember, when you sell your songs for commercials, you are selling your audience as well.
When I was a kid, if I saw an artist I admired doing a commercial, I’d think, “Too bad, he must really need the money.” But now it’s so pervasive. It’s a virus. Artists are lining up to do ads. The money and exposure are too tantalizing for most artists to decline. Corporations are hoping to hijack a culture’s memories for their product. They want an artist’s audience, credibility, good will and all the energy the songs have gathered as well as given over the years. They suck the life and meaning from the songs and impregnate them with promises of a better life with their product.
Eventually, artists will be going onstage like race-car drivers covered in hundreds of logos. John, stay pure. Your credibility, your integrity and your honor are things no company should be able to buy.
Big Time filmed at San Francisco’s Warfield Theater and the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles, is like entering a sideshow tent in Tom Waits’s brain. Directed by Chris Blum and written by Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan, Big Time makes use of minimal sets and simple disguises to create a wildly evocative musical that draws from elements of vaudeville and burlesque. A truly unique vision from the always inventive Mr. Waits.
When the film was released in 1988, the press notes (grappling for some reference point) described it as a mix of…
[...] avant-garde composer Harry Partch, Howlin’ Wolf, Frank Sinatra, Astor Piazzolla, Irish tenor John McCormack, Kurt Weill, Louis Prima, Mexican norteno bands and Vegas lounge singers.
Tom Waits: organ, vocals
Michael Blair: percussion, bongos, drums
Ralph Carney: clarinet, horn, sax
Greg Cohen: bass, horn
Richard Hayward: drums
Marc Ribot: guitar
Long out of print on VHS (used copies are fetching a couple hundred bucks) and never released on DVD, it’s a treat to find Big Time in its entirety on YouTube. Dig it while you can.
Fernwood 2Night was a talk show satire starring Martin Mull and Fred Willard. Preceding Alan Partridge and Larry Sanders by quite some years, Fernwood 2Night came on the air in 1977 when I was eleven years old and I thought it was the funniest thing I had ever seen. Where I lived, it was on a station called Channel 53, a low rent UHF channel in Pittsburgh that was like a junkyard of cheaply licensed television. Like a real life version of the fictional cheapo cable channel in SCTV, Channel 53 showed an insane low-budget mix of Marx Brothers, WC Fields, Aussie women in prison soaps, Monty Python, Flash Gordon serials, The Avengers, Hammer horror, Sgt. Bilko, My Favorite Martian, Jack Benny, Tom Baker-era Doctor Who shows, freakazoid televangelist, Dr. Gene Scott, Dave Allen at Large, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman five days a week. It was TV heaven for some, telly hell for others. Me, I loved it.
That’s where Fernwood 2Night comes in. Fernwood 2Night was the summer replacement series so that Mary Hartman’s cast and crew could take a much-needed break from pumping out five weekly episodes. It was my favorite TV show and I would throw a FIT if my parents wanted me to go someplace when it was on. Like Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, it was on five nights a week, too, and I probably saw ALL of them.
Martin Mull was brilliant as Barth Gimble, the twin brother of Garth Gimble, a caddish wife-beater character Mull portrayed on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman who had come to a gruesome end (he was impaled on a Christmas tree!). It is implied that Barth has legal issues (which may or may not involve an underage girl in Miami) so after his brother’s death, he’s stuck working in the podunk town of Fernwood, where he feels smugly superior to everyone, especially his announcer/side-kick Jerry Hubbard. played by Fred Willard.
In a scene-stealing role that defined his entire career playing the clueless white guy—is there ANYONE more Caucasian that Fred Willard?—Willard portrays what is quite possibly the dumbest, most dense character in all of television history. I’ve always thought that Willard was a comedic genius—the obtuse angles of his observations, so off the cuff and spontaneous, so REAL—and he was never funnier than he is in this role. The core cast was rounded out by their dour band leader, “Happy” Kyne” (Frank De Vol) and his “Mirthmakers.”
The Fernwood 2Night writers overlapped somewhat with the Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman crew, but by and large (I think) Harry Shearer seemed to be the head writer, with other material provided by Mull and Willard and future rightwing shill Ben Stein. Alan Thicke—who must’ve been a hip, hip guy before Growing Pains, he even wrote for Richard Pryor—was the producer and the whole enchilada was, of course, executive produced by the great Norman Lear. Guest appearances included Dabney Coleman, Kenneth Mars, Jim Varney and even Tom Waits
In the second season—which was renamed America 2Night—the show “moved” out of small town Fernwood to the fictional town of Alta Coma, California, “the unfinished furniture capital of the world” (mainly so the writers could stop having to come up with contrivances for why a particular celebrity would happen to be in Fernwood, Ohio in the first place). The America 2Night series saw the likes of Gary Coleman, Vincent Price, Robin Williams, Peter Frampton, Steven Allen, Paul Lynde, Milton Berle, Burt Lancaster, Charlton Heston and many others making guest appearances. America 2Night was shown on the United Broadcasting System, or UBS, “the network that puts U before the BS.”
Other than sporadic showings on TV Land in the early 90s, the 130 episodes of Fernwood 2Night and America 2Night have seldom been seen since they originally aired. It’s a comedy goldmine that’s remained untapped for a long time—as brilliant as the original SNL if you ask me. Back in my Disinformation days I tried to license the show for DVD release but even Norman Lear’s company had no idea who owned it (turns out it was Sony who still haven’t done anything with them). A couple of years ago, I was able to download the entire series of Fernwood 2Night from a rare TV torrent tracker and I was in absolute TV heaven again.
Dr. Emanuel Kazinsky explains the differences between the races:
A spanking demonstration by Marshall Petty:
After the jump, more Fernwood 2Night and America 2Night clips…
Keith Richards and Marc Ribot provide suitably down and dirty guitar riffs for this tune by Tom Waits that sounds eerily like Captain Beefheart. It’s been obvious from the get-go that Waits owes a big debt to Beefheart but this enters the realm of mystical channeling. And I like it.
Here’s Waits writing about Trout Mask Replica:
The roughest diamond in the mine, his musical inventions are made of bone and mud. Enter the strange matrix of his mind and lose yours. This is indispensable for the serious listener. An expedition into the centre of the earth, this is the high jump record that’ll never be beat, it’s a merlot reduction sauce. He takes da bait. Dante doing the buck and wing at a Skip James suku jump. Drink once and thirst no more.
“Satisfied” by Tom Waits from the new album Bad As Me Directed by Jesse Dylan.
For those of our readers lucky enough to live here in Los Angles (try to get that earlier post out of your mind, if possible) tonight at the Hammer Museum as part of their Flux series, Dangeorus Minds pal Syd Garon will debut his new film, co-directed with Sam Spiegal: N.A.S.A. The Spirit of Apollo..
I’ve been working on a documentary about the band N.A.S.A. and the making of their first record for a few years now. We took behind the scenes footage from recording sessions and mixed it in with animation on top of the picture as well as excerpts from the animated music videos. The animation was a collaboration between fine artists like Marcel Dzama, The Date Farmers, Sage Vaughn, Shepard Fairy and director/animators such as Logan, 3 Legged Leg, Florescent Hill as well as myself. The music is based around unusual collaborations, David Byrne and Chuck D., Tom Waits and Kool Keith, Method Man and E-40, Old Dirty Bastard and Karen O.
The show starts Tuesday Aug 2nd, 8 pm sharp at The Hammer Museum in L.A. The will be live custom screen printed t-shirts, food, drinks, N.A.S.A. will play a DJ set after the show, and a bunch of other stuff. The screening is free, open to the public and there is plenty of cheap parking. RSVP suggested.
An exclusive excerpt from the upcoming film N.A.S.A. The Spirit of Apollo. Sam records Kool Keith in his studio while Tom Waits literally phones it in. The animation here is incredible.
Below, N.A.S.A. “Money” (feat. David Byrne, Chuck D, Ras Congo, Seu Jorge, & Z-Trip). Art by Shepard Fairey. Directors: Syd Garon & Paul Griswold