When you receive a gift from someone who was in your life for a brief time, your relationship to the gift will eventually eclipse your memories of the giver. A few summers ago, at party in an apartment above The Matador on West Burnside (before it closed), I met T. and M. They were a good-looking couple from Bend who would drive to Portland every weekend to go out to clubs and party. M. was a schoolteacher with a quick, jealous temper. He liked to punctuate every sentence with an Alyssa Edwards tongue pop. T. was his tall blonde German hunk of a husband. That’s not poetic license, he was literally German, like, from Germany. He seemed bored by Bend. I got into a flirty, drunken conversation with T. and said that I was a singer. He lit up and asked me to sing. I wanted to impress him, so I sang from the first song in Schumann’s Diechterliebe. I performed it in a college recital, and my singer’s German no longer flowed easily, but T. loved it. He started gushing about his favorite song ever: this song from a vampire opera. He made me swear to learn it and sing it for him, and with wholehearted drunken sincerity, I promised. That never happened because the next time I saw him, his boyfriend called me a racist slur and I was so pissed off that I never hung out with their crew again. But I am happy to report that “Die Unstillbare Gier,” the song from the vampire opera, wormed its way into my heart, and I have returned to it again and again and again as a piece of wonderful, glorious, bizarre theater.
The origin of this piece of music begins in a 1967 Roman Polanski movie called The Fearless Vampire Killers, or, Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (no, seriously),starring Sharon Tate and Polanski before they were married. It was a swinging 60’s sexy, farcical sendup of vampire tropes, and apparently a real piece of shit. It was butchered by its USA theatrical distributors in original release. When its original cut was “rediscovered” in the 1980’s, critical opinion was revised from “one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen” to “quite bad.” Despite its TCM at 3:00 in the morning reputation, at least one person believed in the durability of the movie’s plot: in the early 1990’s, a German theater impresario recruited Michael Kunze, a successful director who was the go-to guy for adapting hit Broadway shows into German, to adapt the movie into a musical and write the book. Jim Steinman was recruited to compose. Steinman is best known as the songwriter behind Meat Loaf, he wrote all of Bat Out of Hell parts I, II, and III, as well as hits for other artists, most famously “Total Eclipse of the Heart” for Bonnie Tyler. The result was Tanz der Vampire (Dance of the Vampires). The basic plot of Tanz is: a young woman in a Jewish shtetl in the Carpathian Mountains draws the attention of the vampire Count von Krolock. He lures her to a vampire’s ball. Her young admirer and a vampire hunter go to the ball to rescue her, she escapes. Krolock pursues them into the woods, where he is torn apart by wolves.
Tanz is a maximalist, over-the-top, totally committed work of high Gothic camp. Roman Polanski directed and designed its opening production in Vienna in 1997. While some movies and TV shows in the 90’s like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Interview with the Vampire were deconstructing vampire iconography and adding contemporary elements, Tanz is all-in on classic visual tropes: costumes have capes and codpieces. The graveyard set is lit in purple and green. Krolock sings in an archaic poetic register. If you don’t buy into its sensibility, the whole thing is incredibly mockable, especially since—this is incredibly unfair, I know— Germans expressing themselves passionately always has an edge of silliness (not my most cosmopolitan opinion, but don’t blame me! Blame the Romantic German poets that taught German men that the best way to demonstrate your desire to a girl was to commit suicide at her).
“Die Unstillbare Gier” (The Insatiable Greed) is von Krolock’s big solo number before the climactic finale of the musical. It starts with a mournful oboe melody against ambiguous harmony. Von Krolock enters in a defeated whisper, the stillness and the darkness quieting everything but his agony. The strings enter, a piano ballad riff establishes a new key and a midtempo rock beat. Krolock sinks into reverie, telling the story of memorable past lovers. Every time he opens his heart, he wants to turn them so they can share in eternal life together, but they always die in his arms. He has accepted that this will never work for him—“I still believed I could win,” he remembers with bitterness, of the first time he tried—but he remains forever trapped between his twin desires for love and for blood. In the chorus, his voice soars louder and angrier as he asks for one of these masters to set him free: “I want to be an angel or a devil.” As he builds to a climactic shout of rage towards god, he turns his anger towards the audience, challenging that everything that humans put meaning into—religion, science, art, heroism, virtue—is a delusion to distract us from the ultimate power that guides us: our greed for whatever we can’t have.
The reason that I return time and again to this song is that I believe Krolock. There’s a level of authenticity in song when the voice carries the emotion directly. It’s in music about joy that’s joyful, or music about anger that’s angry, or music about sorrow that’s sorrowful. This is a song about desire that wants. I am not a vampire aristocrat (although I would love to own property and a better wardrobe, so consider this an official expression of interest), but in my moments of deepest despair, I too wish that I wasn’t burdened by my own wants. I fear that I invite disaster by getting too close (“…when I reached for life, nothing remained in my grasp/I want to turn to flame and ashes, but I cannot be burned”). There is a fantasy version of myself that is better looking, richer, more charismatic, more powerful. When I let myself sink into feelings of jealousy and an angry entitlement at the world that this is it? This is all I was given?, my bitterness sounds like this song.
Even if your tolerance for camp is lower than mine, the song itself has had a fascinating journey towards becoming itself. Jim Steinman has a method of recycling the same material over and over (others might call it creative exhaustion), and Tanz was assembled out of pieces of music used in other songs for other projects (“Total Eclipse of the Heart” has charmingly bizarre lyrics anyway, but it got much, much weirder when it was recycled into a horny vampire duet. “Die Unstillbarre Gier” had two lives before Tanz, as “Surf’s Up” on Steinman’s 1981 solo album Bad for Good, and as “Objects in the Rearview Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are” on Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell.
“Surf’s Up” is a terrible song. I have a bias: it comes from my least favorite era of rock and roll, when pretentious male songwriters seemed to confuse priapism with a mystical experience. The central nature metaphor is that the singer wants to give you a pounding like waves on the shore. “Surf’s up, so am I” he cries erectly. Steinman has a perfectly serviceable voice, but it’s not quite up to his music in range and power. Only a small amount of musical material survived from “Surf” to “Gier,” it’s a piano ballad with a similar build and shape, but only a fragment of the first melody phrase in the verses and some of the verse chord progression are recognizable in “Gier,” the bridge and chorus are completely unconnected. The most interesting thing about the I-vi-IV-V verse chord progression is how conventional it is. What is interesting and memorable in “Objects” and “Gier” is just one or two chords away from being foursquare and forgettable. Present from the very beginning, though, is the unexpected vi chord that delays resolution to the dominant (on “never be like this again”). That surprising suspension, over the two revisions, will expand into the dramatic climax of “Gier” (“the real power that rules is/is the shameful, infinite, consuming, destructive/insatiable greed”).
“Objects in the Rearview Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are” is a messy failure for a different set of reasons. The verse melody and chords have been heavily rewritten; they appear more or less intact in “Gier.” Steinman upgraded the voice by giving it to Meat Loaf who has more power in his upper range and enough energy to sell the soaring climaxes. It’s not quite right, however, “Objects” fails musically and, more importantly, in emotional tone. The musical failure is in the chorus. The entire chorus is the title line repeated in two symmetrical melodies. As if the repetition wasn’t enough, it drops in volume and energy, stopping the momentum of the song cold. A bigger failure is its emotional incoherence. The central metaphor is that “if life is just a highway, then the soul is just a car;” the singer reflects on three people that haunt his past like cars in the rearview mirror. The lyrics are both lurid and superficial, about the death of a boyhood friend, abuse at the hands of his father, and, with trademark Steinman horniness, bangin’ a girl named Julie in the back of a car (this is, presumably, a different car). Despite the singer’s different attitudes toward these ghosts of the past—affection and grief for Kenny, anger at his father, nostalgia for good times with Julie—the tone doesn’t change, and none of them fits the music convincingly. If my criticism wasn’t enough to make you hate the song, listen to Steinman’s praise:
It’s a very passionate song. It’s really, I think maybe, the most passionate one on the record. I mean, I’m really proud of it because that’s really one that goes over-the-top in the sense that it’s got images – it has religious imagery of resurrection, it’s got images of fertility and rebirth, it has really very good sexual images, images of cars – which I always like.
Which brings us to “Die Unstillbare Gier.” The biggest improvement from “Objects” is that the lyrics are not written by Steinman. They are hilariously dense, but match the mournful, nostalgic, angry tone of the music perfectly. Surprisingly, one piece of syntax appears in all three versions of the song: “The grain was golden and the sky was clear” echoes “The sky is trembling and the moon is pale” in “Surf’s Up” and “The skies were pure and the fields were green” in “Objects.” Steinman made three notable musical improvements: the first is the addition of a slow, quiet introduction, which turns the entrance of the piano verse theme into a musical scene change as Krolock sinks into memory. Steinman also recognized that the two-part verse in “Objects” actually works as a verse and chorus, and cuts out the “Objects” chorus completely, which fixes the pacing. Finally, by adding a whispered, cabaret-like introduction and throwing some more hot sauce on the climax, it restructured into a much better overall shape and turned into a real showpiece for the voice. “Surfs Up” has been left far back in the rearview mirror.
There is a fourth revision for this song that never quite was. You could write a book about everything went wrong with the disastrous attempt to bring Tanz to Broadway. Warring creative visions, an inexperienced director, a past-his-prime star that was preoccupied by his public image and didn’t like the campy sensibility of the show, clunky English translations, a cast that couldn’t stand each other. As if that weren’t enough, Dance of the Vampires opened the first week of September 2001. It played for three months before closing, a cast album was never even recorded. It lost $12m, one of the biggest Broadway flops ever. Tanz has been revived in Germany and Austria many times, but as far as I can tell the English adaptation has never been resurrected. There is one video of “The Insatiable Appetite” available online, you can see Michael Crawford lumber through the song, all the poetry gone from the lyrics, in a Count Chocula-esque accent.
I think that may be the final chapter in this journey. Tanz will return every now then, Dance of the Vampires will remain radioactive. Every now and then, I’ll play the video for a friend, introducing it as “a song from a German vampire opera,” and enjoy watching them put together what it is they’re watching. I can see the questions going through their heads. They are the same questions that have fueled my own obsession: This musical looks crazy, what the fuck is he wearing? Why is he so serious? Is that a boner or a part of his costume? Am I liking this? Wait, is this good? Oh my god, am I having actual feelings about this? They’re questions that one can contemplate for a lifetime, or more.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall
There’s a cute shout out to Tanz Der Vampire in the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The brief selections we get from Peter’s puppet vampire opera lovingly spoofs the tone of Tanz, and the song “Die, I Can’t” pushes the same buttons as “Gier:” dead sincerity, total commitment to the performance, and a very silly setting.
The late 80’s and early 90’s were the high water mark for the sexy bisexual villain and sexy bisexual vampire tropes. I have an ambiguous relationship to this trope. It is undeniably rooted in homophobia, treating the villain’s perverted attraction to the hero as an extra danger, with rape being the underlying threat. On the other hand, these characters are often the most charismatic and stylish characters in the movie. Tanz nods to this trope; while Krolock mostly revisits memories of lust for virginal women, he also mentions a page in Napoleon’s entourage: “I can’t forgive myself for his grief not breaking my heart.”
Notable Performances on YouTube
The definitive performance on YouTube is the video I embedded at the top, featuring American tenor Kevin Tarte. Tarte has an opera background; his performance is very polished and he does a good job bringing the melody out. Kevin Barton originated the role, his performance has more of a brassy musical theater tone. Jonas Hein interprets it with more conversational line readings. Flippo Strocchi seems a little miscast, his pretty and youthful voice work at odds with the heavy, regret-filled affect of the song. Rio Uehara sings it in Japanese with a deep stentorian tone. My second favorite performance is this cabaret performance by Jan Amman, who needs costumes and a set when you can emote with your face like this?
I mentioned that the German lyrics are dense, here’s an example of what that means. In the very first line of narration, the singer has to sing the word “eintausendsechshundertzehn” (sixteen-ten) in two beats. German is a difficult language to translate because, although its syntax and grammar are cousins to English, it has the ability to encode a lot of information in its nouns. A noun that takes a whole sentence to describe in English (“a face you’d like to slap”) can be rendered in a single word in German (“das Backpfeifengesicht”). This is a real challenge for song translators.