Thursday, 20 February 2014

The Man Who Rocked Mozart

I recently provided a guest spot on my friend, Shehanne Moore's blog, where I talked about the infamous song, Jeanny, by Falco. This led to a discussion with others - some who were aware of him and his music and some who weren't. Those who hadn't come across him before, clicked onto the links, listened and enjoyed, so I thought it was high time I provided a little background to the man behind the suave, sophisticated Viennese rapper, singer and musician, who called himself Falco.

Today, outside his native Austria, he is undoubtedly best remembered for the worldwide massive hit, Rock Me Amadeus (1985)but his first European solo hit had come four years earlier with Der Kommissar. This song went onto to develop a life of its own. Not only did Falco himself record a number of different arrangements, English language versions (not translations) were recorded by Laura Branigan (as Deep In The Dark) and rock band, After The Fire, who kept the original title, some of the German lyrics, and had their only US hit.

But who was Falco?

Born in 1957, the sole survivor of a triplet birth, Johann (aka Hans) Hölzel was raised in the Margareten district of Vienna. He began to show musical talent as soon as he could walk, and his fourth birthday present was a baby grand piano. At the age of five, he auditioned for the Vienna Music Academy. They were impressed with his musical abilities which placed him in the 'child prodigy' category. Comparisons were even made with the young Mozart, who became one of Hans's idols. The Academy also confirmed he had perfect pitch. 

A bright child, Hans attended a Roman Catholic private school, followed by the Rainer Gymnasium at the age of ten. His parents split up shortly afterwards and, from then on, Hans was raised by his mother and grandmother. He enjoyed a close relationship with both.

Hans wasn't interested in school and, at the age of sixteen there was little point in him remaining, as his absenteeism had reached unacceptable levels. His mother insisted he train for a 'proper' job, so he began an apprenticeship with the pension insurance institute - an occupation that was never going to hold his interest for long. He left, and entered the Vienna Music Conservatory at the age of seventeen but felt frustrated by its strictures. He lasted one semester. 

Following Austria's mandatory eight months National Service, Hans left Vienna briefly to live in West Berlin.There he joined a rock band and, by the time he returned to Vienna, was calling himself Falco (possibly in tribute to East German ski jumper Falko Weisspflog). He played bass guitar in a number of bands and began writing his own songs.

His solo career took off in Austria and Germany with his debut album Einzelhaft (1981), followed by another chart-topping album, Junge Römer (1984). Not content with purely domestic success, Falco set his sights on the American market and started to incorporate English lyrics into his songs. Rock Me Amadeus brought him his only UK and US Number One, with an iconic video, at least in part inspired by the film, Amadeus. The music world had never seen anyone like Falco. A white, Austrian rapper? Surely not. Moreover, one with slicked back short hair, dressed in a Tuxedo!

His album containing Rock me Amadeus - Falco 3 - became the first Billboard Top Ten R and B chart hit by a white artist since Blondie's Rapture (six years earlier). His follow up single - Vienna Calling - again mixed German and English (a combination often called 'Denglish' - Deutsch-English). The controversial Jeanny became the third single from the Falco 3 album and took mainland Europe by storm in more ways than one.

It topped the charts across Europe and raised a storm of protest, with radio stations in Austria and Germany refusing to play it. Why? To find the answer, you need to go to the lyrics. Falco was accused of glorifying rape and paedophilia. Personally I can't see that in the song at all. I do see an older man obsessed with a nineteen year old girl. Nineteen is hardly a child. And I don't think Jeanny went unwillingly with the man, although I think, judging by the newsflash, the police think she has been abducted. OK, that's my perception anyway. When asked, Falco himself is reported to have said it represented the musings of a stalker. He may, or may not, have been serious.

A year later, he released the second part of the planned 'Jeanny Trilogy' - a song that echoed its predecessor and was called, Coming Home (One Year Later). In this 'episode', the man has been away for a year (in prison?). He's returned, but will Jeanny still want him? Does she still think of him? We will never know...

Isabella, Falco and Katharina Bianca
Jeanny wasn't the only time Falco courted controversy with his songs. A number of them tackled difficult social issues - among them Mutter, der Mann mit dem Koks ist da ('Mother, the man with the coke is there'). What type of coke? Well, the video shows a coalman but ... and it ain't Coca Cola either! In typically unorthdox Falco fashion, he chooses to retain the services of members of the Vienna Boys' Choir to sing the chorus.

His personal life didn't always run too smoothly either. Falco became known for a lavish lifestyle which, in some respects at least, echoed his hero Mozart's in terms of excess. Problems with drugs, alcohol and an obsessive quest for perfection were supplemented by the discovery that Katharina Bianca - the child he had, for eight years, believed to be his daughter - wasn't in fact his. 

His stormy on-off relationship with her mother, Isabella Vitkovic, had culminated in a brief marriage, lasting only months - from 1988-89. When a paternity test confirmed his worst fears, Falco's world was shattered. He disinherited Katharina and insisted that she and her mother revert back to Isabella's former name. Today, Katharina - now in her late twenties and living in Styria - still regards him as her 'real' father. She said he used to teach her chess, they used to draw pictures together, and he would test her on her English vocabulary. 

Katharina Vitkovic
By 1996, tired of Austrian press intrusion into his private life, Falco established a base in the Dominican Republic. It was there, on February 6th 1998, that he drove out of a parking lot and into the path of a speeding bus. He sustained fatal injuries, ending his life at the tragically early age of 40. The bus driver served three years in prison. Falco's friend, Austrian Formula 1 champion, Niki Lauda, arranged for his body to be flown back to Vienna. He is buried in the city's massive Zentralfriedhof (the cemetery used as the setting for the famous last scene in The Third Man). It is well visited and the glass memorial there is outstanding.

Falco's grave in Zentralfriedhof, Vienna
Following his death, his music was repackaged and various compilations have been released. Perhaps the most interesting - and also the most recent - involves the discovery (thanks to a flood in his former recording studio) of some previously unreleased tapes.

The resulting album - released in 2009 - contains these remastered tracks plus other previously recorded material. The title of the album is taken from the track which Falco's former manager, Horst Bork, claims is the third in the 'Jeanny Trilogy'  - The Spirit Never Dies. This claim is hotly disputed as the song contains no references to Jeanny (unlike Coming Home). 

It is, however, a beautiful, arresting song and a fitting tribute to a musician who dared to be different, didn't always get it right, but was braver than many in that he wasn't afraid to try something new, different and, at times, challenging and controversial. 

We may have lost the man, but his music lives on.


Thursday, 6 February 2014

The Scandalous World of Tamara de Lempicka

Chances are you've seen her work somewhere. Maybe on a Christmas card, or framed in a restaurant. Certainly her style is a case of 'once seen, never forgotten'. But you may never have known her name, or anything about her. Until now. Sit back, put your feet up, grab a cocktail and prepare to enter the unusual and fascinating world of Tamara de Lempicka - art's first glamorous star and a woman born way ahead of her time.

"I live life in the margins of society,

and the rules of normal society

don't apply to those

who live on the fringe."

She was born Maria Gorska on May 16th 1898 in Warsaw. Her parents were well off financially but they divorced and the young Maria was raised by her grandmother - a wealthy woman who spoiled her. Maria lived with her in St Petersburg, travelled widely, wore beautiful clothes, enjoyed a Parisian and Swiss education and enough freedom to develop a clear idea of who she wanted to be, what she wanted and the unstoppable self-confidence and determination to get it. 

Tadeusz Lempicki
War broke out in 1914 and soon after, she fell in love with Tadeusz Lempicki -  a handsome lawyer also originally from Warsaw. They married in 1916, when Tamara was already pregnant with their daughter, Kizette. They lived in Russia, but their time there was cut short in 1918, with the October Revolution, and they fled, as refugees, to Copenhagen, London and then Paris. Maria had studied art there as a young girl and now, with the need to earn money increasingly urgent, she took up painting seriously. Her distinctive style - in the fashionable Art Deco tradition - earned her sales, although, until 1925, she signed her works using the masculine form of her name - Lempicki. She became a well known portrait painter and between the wars painted writers, artists, musicians and a host of celebrities and exiled nobility.

Her first major show, under the patronage of Count Emmanuele Castelbargo, took place in Milan in 1925. To prepare for this, Tamara painted 28 new works within six months, in her distinctive clear, vivid style. Now she mixed in circles including Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Andre Gide. She discovered and embraced a bohemian lifestyle and indulged her bisexuality in liaisons with Vita Sackville-West, Violet Trefusis and French author, Colette. She also conducted an affair with a night club singer called Suzy Solidor. Her behaviour was anything but discreet and caused major scandals at the time

On one of many notorious occasions, and possibly fuelled by cocaine, she was dancing with an attractive woman in a nightclub. She told her amused audience that she was assessing her as a possible model and began to undress her - in public. She fondled the woman's breasts and pronounced them to be 'round enough'. Then she thrust her hand between the woman's legs. She shook her head, in mock regret. "Too wet," she said. "How is an artist to concentrate?"

In 1925, she painted her self-portrait, Auto-Portrait (Tamara in the Green Bugatti) which has been widely printed, and today represents an iconic image of the whole Art Deco period and style. Tamara frequently painted nudes, injecting eroticism and sensuality into every brushstroke.

Suzy Solidor
By 1927, her lifestyle and numerous affairs with both men and women had put an intolerable strain on her marriage and Tadeusz left her. They were divorced in 1931, right at the peak of her success. But Tamara was far from finished yet. Her fame brought her considerable wealth and she found her second husband in the form of her longtime lover, Baron Raoul Kuffner. The couple were married in 1934 and moved to Beverly Hills and then to New York, in 1943, where she continued to paint in her own distinctive style for a few more years.

The end of the Second World War saw Tamara return to Paris to reopen her studio in the rue Mechain, which she redorated in rococo style. Soon afterwards, friends started asking her to decorate their apartments in New York and a new career was born.

The Baron died in 1962 and Tamara moved to Houston to be closer to her daughter. At that time, she changed her style and began painting abstracts with a palette knife - popular at the time. Sadly the galleries weren't too impressed.  One - the Iolas, in New York - did mount an exhibition, but it wasn't well received and Tamara vowed never to exhibit again. By now, increasingly forgotten and ignored, she continued to pain, but just stored the paintings away in an attic and warehouse.

Auto Portrait (Tamara in the Green Bugatti)
 Meanwhile, art's first glamour girl was losing her looks and mourning their loss, preferring to surround herself with young people.

She did however live long enough to see a revival in interest in her work, which accompanied a general revival in Art Deco's lost fortunes. An exhibition at the newly opened Galerie de Luxembourg in 1972 was followed by an invitation by the Knoedler Gallery in New York. Unfortunately, her advancing age had done nothing to stem Tamara's cantankerous and obstinate personality. Her imperious demands on how the exhibition was to be mounted, resulted in the curate of the gallery withdrawing the offer.

Tamara de Lempicka became increasingly difficult as old age curtailed her lifestyle. She died in her sleep in 1980, in Mexico, where she had moved a couple of years earlier. Her longsuffering daughter, Kizette, was at her side and ensured her wish to have her ashes scattered at the top of the volcano, Popocatapetl, was carried out.

Tamara de Lempicka's philosophy of life was that, "an artist should try everything." In her 81 years, she came pretty close!

For more information on the artist, her life and work, visit her official website

Judith Mackrell has also written her story: Tamara's Story