Clare E. Potter reviews Tiger Lillies unique and hypnotic performance of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency as part of Cardiff’s Festival of Voice.
Off stage the Tiger Lillies are Martyn Jaques, Adrian Stout and Jonas Golland; on stage this extraordinary trio defies any definition. They enter a darkened auditorium, only their chalked Day of the Dead makeup visible—their faces glow like three moons; at the centre, an enormous screen on which Nan Goldin’s epic photographic suite begins to roll. The whole of the first act is the journey of this collaborative piece: 700 images of demi-monde pleasure-seekers morph like a dance, one to the other as the trio begin to conjure up a musical melange that works in episodes. There is hardly a break between these musical junctures, which are punctuated somewhat by the repetition of
There’s no talk with the audience. This way, the persona of the band and the world of the images retain their presence. The presentation is reminiscent of the silent film era, live music evoking emotion and tension, tone and release.
However, this music is not mere accompaniment for the images; these two offerings are so deeply entwined that one intensifies the other, deepening the sense experience of the audience; it is beautiful and strange, shocking and hypnotic. It is obvious that Nan Goldin has a great respect for the ‘sub-culture’ of people she has captured for this collection. They are ordered in a way that also seems musical, arranged either by theme or posture; there are stunning images of sex and birth and friendship, counterpointed with excesses of drugs and other addictions. The last frames show no people, only grave stones. Perhaps she is making us question how willing we are to be alive, to be flesh and ecstasy given that we will all die and become cold and flesh-less. As Martyn Jaques refrains throughout: ‘Death to you and death to me/You and me are shit and pee.’
Jaques, the band’s founder-frontman, spent formative years living in a brothel, and was a one-time choir boy. He has an incredible voice like no other and has even been called ‘a criminal castrato’; his sometimes androgynous falsetto is imbued with gypsy tones, French Chanson, is disquieting and at times utterly tender and heart-breaking. Jaques has been keenly influenced by Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, German cabaret and English Hall music. And it is in all of these traditions (and more) that the music and the artistry finds its unique offering.
By the end of the first half, the refrain of ‘sexual dependency’ lingering, the audience really need the break. The energy required to be immersed for 45 minutes in the images and lyrics and music needs time to defuse. We have been held and led by songs and photographs that are at once plaintive and celebratory. How can they be both sorrowful and exultant? It’s what both The Tiger Lillies and Nan Goldin have mastered, they understand and serve up our contradictions, make us question our morality, admit to our proclivities and the hypocrisy of our revulsions.
This bleeds well into the second half where the lights now make the trio focal. We get to delight in their individual personalities and hear some songs that are both repellent and enticing. Take Harriet for instance, the child who plays with matches and burns to death, but all is well, her pretty red shoes survive, and then there’s little Conrad who has his thumb-sucking-thumb snipped off with a scissors and bleeds to death. These songs find their root in Heinrich Hoffman’s nineteenth century Struwwelpeter, children’s stories aimed at controlling children’s behaviour. But it’s bad behaviour that this band relishes, while also examining it, and this sleight-of-hand means the audience is joining the chorus about the benefits of lobotomy and nailing Christ to the cross. There is a song too about Jack the Ripper where Jaques takes his register more deeply for the first time in the evening, thus allowing the focus to be on the century of voices who have tried to understand this mutilator-murderer. It’s all very macabre and very delicious.
Adrian Stout is a master on the double bass, the heart thrum of the night, and for the encore (when the trio do engage verbally with the audience) he sends a quip about them being the support act for the Rolling Stones. Stout is a magician too, waving his hands over a Theremin which is as haunting and lamenting as the saw he also plays to great effect. Jonas Golland on drums and other sounds is the face and persona that really draws attention. He is like the quintessential mime artist, embodying an early twentieth century Parisian street artist. His facial effects and sound effects add a richness and a humour; he is at times commenting on the band, on the audience, with a shift of his eyes.
For the encore, it becomes obvious that this band have a cult following. There are many Tiger Lillies fans who begin raucously shouting at the band as if throwing cabbages, ‘Open your Legs!’ ‘Sex with Flies!’ ‘Blow Job!’ The band seem to relax and interact with their fans who sing along and get to their feet in cheer.
To explore Clare E. Potter’s work for the Wales Arts Review‘s residency click here.