Today is Mother’s Day, and it’s also my younger brother’s birthday, so I’m reaching back to a song we had in the house as kids. It’s Bobby Darin’s #1 recording of “Mack the Knife.” Darin, whose birthday is the 14th, owns this song, though it has been covered by many. His is the first version I heard and none other I’ve heard compares. It was #1 for six weeks six weeks after I was born. We had it on a record album called The Bobby Darin Story along with other hits like “Dream Lover,” “Splish Splash,” “Beyond the Sea,” his rather unorthodox take on “Clementine,” and another morbid little ditty called “Artificial Flowers”
Today’s song is a grisly little gem, which is no doubt one reason I liked it as a kid. You don’t get many hit songs with tales of murder and mayhem. In fact, the details of the song are so unsavory that indirection and rhetorical questions and euphemisms keep it all above board. “Scarlet billows” for bleeding, yeah, but the “body just oozin’ life” is pretty graphic. The tugboat and the cement might be a little vague to a kid. And the line “Now MacHeath spends just like a sailor” wouldn’t be transparent, but that delivery! It’s one of my favorite lines thanks to how Darin sings it.
As a “murder ballad” the song could be very sinister, and that’s what makes the arrangement as done by Darin—true, Louis Armstrong turned the song into a “standard” first—so much fun. It pops, Top of the Pops style, and how about that band, ladies and gentlemen!
Darin was great at throwing in little inflections and sound effects, like “Now on the sidewalk, huh huh,” and the way he slurs “Ooh, one Sunday morning, uh huh,” and the “Eek! And someone’s sneakin’ ‘round the corner.” It’s very delightful to listen to and delightful to imitate. Darin’s voice and manner are so tongue-in-cheek and playful, it all sounds almost harmless. But then lines like “Could it be our boy’s done something rash” promote the tone of wry indulgence to “our boy” Mackie Messer or MacHeath, or Mack the Knife.
The song, of course, comes from The Threepenny Opera, with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht; many years later when I learned who Brecht was, it was funny to think of him as the co-author of this Hit Parade song. As Ophelia might say, “Lord, we know what we are but not what we may be.”
|Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya, Bertolt Brecht|
Darin also throws in things like “hard-earned cash” and “five’ll getcha ten” said with a huckster’s sense of how to drum up interest in his subject. The whole song becomes a kind of celebration of Mack’s slyness and his lethal skills. When I was very little I used to assume that the ending, “now the line forms on the right, dear,” was some kind of cryptic reference to MacHeath getting his just deserts. But that’s not what it means at all. The girls are lining up—including Lotte Lenya, wife and muse of Kurt Weill, whose name Armstrong threw into the mix and it stuck—to avail themselves of MacHeath’s ill-gotten gains. In other words, as the song ends, MacHeath is scot-free and ready to strike again.
The singer of the song in the musical is a street-singer, indicating that the “word on the street” is that MacHeath is known and so the song coyly asks and suggests rather than stating outright. As a radio hit, though, the song could simply seem a way of saying “whatya expect, the evil do get away with it, even when we know what they did and how they did it.” You sort of expect the song would be a hit in Vegas.
Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, this song is American all the way, though its origins say otherwise. We’re very familiar with sharks here and we also have a tendency to celebrate them for being cold-blooded and remaining at large.
It remains one of my favorite songs of all time, all because of Darin’s vocal.
Look out ol’ Mackie’s back!