Mark Lanegan and ‘Mack the Knife’

One of the highlights of Mark Lanegan’s enchanting concert tonight at the Old Town School of Folk Music was his performance of the classic Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht song “Mack the Knife,” which he recorded for his new album, the covers collection Imitations. After the concert, I was talking about that song with some friends. It has been a subject of fascination for me — how this grim ballad of murder ever became a jaunty, jazzy pop hit. Lanegan’s version ranks up there with the best, thanks to those gritty, sandpaper vocals of his. But I don’t know that there is such a thing as a definitive version of “Mack the Knife.”

For one thing, which lyrics are definitive? Marc Blitzstein’s translation is the most famous English version, but it doesn’t convey all of the terrifying details in Brecht’s original German lyrics. Here’s a translation I made myself, back when I was taking German classes. (I haven’t stayed in practice, and I’m nowhere close to fluent in German these days. Feel free to offer corrections or suggested changes.) I tried to make the translation as literal as possible.

The Ballad of Mack the Knife

And the shark, oh, it has teeth
And it wears them in its face.
And Macheath, he has a knife,
But this knife, no one sees. 

Oh, how red is the shark’s fin,
when the blood flows.
Mack the Knife, he wears a glove,
From which no atrocity can be read.

In the Thames’ green waters,
People suddenly fall.
Is it either plague or cholera?
No, it means Macheath’s been around.

On a beautiful blue Sunday,
A dead man lies on the beach
And a man goes around the corner
Known as Mackie the Knife.

And Schul Meier is still missing
And so many rich men,
Mackie the Knife has his money,
But no one can prove anything.

Jenny Towler was found
With a knife in her breast,
And on the dock goes Macheath,
Who knows nothing at all.

Where is Alfons Gilte, the cabman?
Will this ever come to light?
Anyone could know.
Macheath knows nothing.

And the great fire in Soho,
Seven children and an old man.
In the crowd, Mackie the Knife —
He’s not asked and doesn’t know.

And the underaged widow
Whose name everyone knows,
Woke up and was raped.
Mackie, what was your price?

For some are in darkness
And some are in light.
One sees those in light,
But those in darkness, one sees not.

The original German lyrics:

Die Moritat von Mackie Messer

Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne
und die trägt er im Gesicht
und Macheath, der hat ein Messer
doch das Messer sieht man nicht.

Ach, es sind des Haifischs Flossen
rot, wenn dieser Blut vergießt.
Mackie Messer trägt ‘nen Handschuh
drauf man keine Untat liest.

An der Themse grünem Wasser
Fallen plötzlich Leute um!
Es ist weder Pest noch Cholera
Doch es heißt: Macheath geht um.

An ‘nem schönen blauen Sonntag
liegt ein toter Mann am Strand
und ein Mensch geht um die Ecke
den man Mackie Messer nennt.

Und Schmul Meier bleibt verschwunden
und so mancher reiche Mann
und sein Geld hat Mackie Messer
dem man nichts beweisen kann.

Jenny Towler ward gefunden
mit ‘nem Messer in der Brust
und am Kai geht Mackie Messer
der von allem nichts gewußt.

Wo ist Alfons Gilte, der Fuhrherr?
Kommt das je ans Sonnenlicht?
Wer es immer wissen könnte —
Mackie Messer weiß nicht. 

Und das große Feuer in Soho
sieben Kinder und ein Greis —
in der Menge Mackie Messer, den
man nicht fragt und der nichts weiß.

Und die minderjährige Witwe
deren Namen jeder weiß
wachte auf und war geschändet —
Mackie, welches war dein Preis?

Denn die einen sind im Dunkeln
und die and’ren sind im Licht,
und man siehet die im Lichte,
die im Dunkeln sieht man nicht.

Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan

Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan have recorded three albums together, but they’ve never toured the United States as a duo until now. They finally made their Chicago debut Friday night (Oct. 22) at Lincoln Hall. Campbell used to sing and play cello in Belle and Sebastian; Lanegan has sung with numerous rock bands over the years, including the Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age, the Gutter Twins and the Twilight Singers (not to overlook his solo music, including the excellent 2004 album Bubblegum). Together, they sing chilled-out duets, with Campbell soft, wispy vocals whispering alongside the gruff half-spoken word that seem to be emerging from deep inside Lanegan’s chest. Their sound owes a lot to the 1960s records by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, and other musical acts over the years that have featured contrasting male-female vocal mixes. It’s enticing and beautiful, if somewhat sleepy, music.

That was exemplified with the stunning performance that opened Friday’s concert, the song “We Die and See Beauty Reign” (which also opens the third and latest record by Campbell and Lanegan, Hawk). Backed by a band of four musicians, the two singers performed the song in super-hushed tones, and the audience watched in utter silence. It was almost spooky how quiet it was. On their records, Campbell and Lanegan sound like lovers or friends whispering secrets to each other. That’s how they sounded in concert, too, although they didn’t look like that. The two spent most of the show, standing at their microphones, not moving around a great deal. They sometimes glanced across the stage at each other — Lanegan squinting or cocking his eyebrow — but didn’t interact a whole lot beyond that. But most of these songs are so low-key that the laid-back performance style seemed appropriate.

Midway through the concert, some audience members suddenly grew rowdy. A few guys yelled out comments about how sexy Campbell is — which she did her best to ignore. The rude shouting was an unwelcome disruption of the concert’s enchanting mood.


The opening act was Willy Mason, an impressive singer-songwriter, who played solo-acoustic. He also made an appearance during the Campbell-Lanegan set, singing three songs with Campbell. (He also appears on a couple of tracks on Hawk.) The dynamic between Mason and Campbell was quite different from that between Lanegan and Campbell — he has more vocal range than Lanegan, and more of a country-folk sound. His mini-set brought some nice variety to the concert. / / /