Global Politics

Ute Lemper and The Bukowski Project

Ute Lemper is a singer perhaps most famous for interpreting the music of Kurt Weill. But now Lemper's drawing on the sounds of Weimar Germany to portray another world entirely:the bitter, lonely Los Angeles of American poet Charles Bukowski. Alex Gallafent has the Global Hit.

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Ute Lemper is a singer perhaps most famous for her interpretations of the music of Kurt Weill. She's at home in the German cabaret tradition, but also in the theater: you may remember her starring on Broadway in the show Chicago.

Over the last year, Lemper's been drawing on the sound of European cabaret songs from the 1920s and 30s to portray another world entirely: Mid-century Los Angeles.

�Earthquake. Americans don't know what tragedy is. A little 6.5 earthquake can send them to chattering like monkeys.�

So speaks Ute Lemper's inspiration: the American writer Charles Bukowski�a man Time magazine dubbed �the laureate of American lowlife'.

�They sit in their cars, they're all driving around, where are they going? A little excitement has broken into their canned lives�, he wrote.

Bukowski didn't really like other people, and he didn't like himself, either. But his reputation as a chronicler of seedy and mundane life has grown over the decades. That appealed to Ute Lemper, who has set some of his poems to music.

�It is an amazing pleasure�, she says, �a theatrical satisfaction to crawl into the labyrinth of his mind, his opinions, his aggression, his anger, his outrage, his suffering, his loneliness, his hatred, his rage and his extremism: it's a pleasure to act it out.�

The poems of Charles Bukowski might seem an odd choice for an artist like Ute Lemper, someone more used to performing songs by Kurt Weill. But it does make sense. First, Bukowski wrote a lot of short poems, ready-made for turning into songs. Second, he's always been well regarded in Europe�maybe more than in the United States.

�I think we might have even read a poem in school in the 70s in Germany, I don't quite remember but maybe..� says Lemper.

Third, Bukowski's writing is preoccupied by some of the same things as Kurt Weill and his collaborator, Bertolt Brecht: loneliness, alienation, and the role of the individual in society. Lemper says Bukowski captures these things as well as Brecht and other poets.

Finally, Bukowski was born in Germany. Before he was Charles Bukowski he was Heinrich Karl Bukowski. Bukowski was a toddler when his family emigrated to the United States in 1923. By the time he was a teenager, he'd found alcohol and writing�two habits that lasted a lifetime.

Over the last year, Ute Lemper has built a whole evening around Charles Bukowski's poetry�and his unhappy universe.

�First from the very personal situations with women, then to his memories with his abusive father and his hatred, and then his to just his normal life, his job, his daily life.�

�Also the sexual things,� Lemper continues, �the disguise and disgust about it, and then the political, of course, the apocalyptic visions of life and the world�so we have different chapters.�

Here's another excerpt from Bukowski's own words:

�We are born like this, into this / into hospitals which are so expensive that it's cheaper to die / Into lawyers who charge so much it's cheaper to plead guilty / Into a country where the jails are full and the madhouses closed / Into a place where the masses elevate fools into rich heroes.�

An accurate prophecy, or a selectively pessimistic vision of things�take your pick. But performing someone else's nightmare suits Ute Lemper.

�You put me in a romantic character and I'll be a very bad actress,� she says. �The darker the better for me, I would say: dark as hell.�

Lemper returns to New York in March. She'll again be singing songs by Kurt Weill.

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