From the archives: Lou Reed, Frank Wedekind, Metallica and Lulu (2011)

July 16, 2012

As great 20th century writers go, Frank Wedekind (1864-1918) is far from a household name. Once controversial and censored, this German-born playwright, poet, novelist and cabaret artist has long sat in the shadows of modern literature. What can critics do with a writer who once wrote “Search fearlessly for every sin, for out of sin comes joy.”

Wedekind’s obscurity may be coming to an end – if the music world has anything to do with it.**In 2006, Wedekind’s first major play, Spring Awakening (1891), was adapted by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater into a smash-hit rock musical on Broadway. It won eight Tony Awards and four Drama Desk Awards, while its London production garnered four Olivier Awards. Local productions of the musical continue to pop-up across the country.

Last year, acclaimed singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright riffed off Wedekind’s Lulu when he released All Days Are Nights: Song for Lulu. Wainwright admitted in an interview his song suite also owed a little something to his interest in the silent film star, Louise Brooks. She played Lulu in the 1929 film, Pandora’s Box.

And word broke last month that former Velvet Underground front man Lou Reed has teamed up with local rockers Metallica on Reed’s latest project, an adaption of the songs Reed wrote for Robert Wilson’s recent avant-garde staging of Lulu – Wedekind’s “monster tragedie,” in Berlin.

Lou Reed, seated right, in the studio with Metallica. Photo via metallica.com

Lou Reed, seated right, in the studio with Metallica. Photo via metallica.com

In an interview with New York magazine, Reed stated “There are two stories Lulu’s based on, and I rewrote Lulu from the get-go, taking the original plot – mostly Earth Spirit, not Pandora’s Box – and followed it essentially from the point of view of Lulu and the various people who love her, until she gets involved with Jack the Ripper. The basics. So the Metallica version will have absolutely all of that and more. It’ll probably come out by November.”

We can only hope. Reed does not have a record deal, and Metallica are no longer on Warner Bros. “We are free to go wherever,” Lars Ulrich said on David Fricke’s blog on rollingstone.com. “I’m obviously psyched for people to hear this, in whatever way we feel is right.” Metallica’s James Hetfield had one condition. “I told Lou I want to be there when people hear it. . . . I want to see their faces.”

Will Lulu end up on Broadway, like Spring Awakening? It’s unlikely. “I don’t think Metallica wants to be a band on Broadway!” Reed quipped in the New Yorker interview.

According to online reports, the as yet unnamed, 10 song, Lou Reed / Metallica collaboration was completed at Metallica’s studio north of San Francisco. That’s appropriate, as Wedekind got “his start” here in the Bay Area.

Frank Wedekind, radical writer and unlikely rock music muse.

Frank Wedekind, radical writer and unlikely rock music muse.

As it turns out, Wedekind’s parents were both German immigrants resident in San Francisco in the years following the Gold Rush. His father was a respected physician and progressive democrat whose participation in the Revolutions of 1848 in the German states led him to escape to America; his mother was a saloon entertainer, singer and actress twenty-three years his junior. (Some scholars have speculated that this unconventional relationship might have served as a model for the similar relationship between Dr. Schon and Lulu in Pandora’s Box.)

A search of city directories for 1858, 1860, and 1862 reveals that the future playwright’s Father, Friedrich Wilhelm Wedekind, had a medical practice at 136 and later 524 Montgomery Street in San Francisco. Doctor Wedekind was also a prominent member of the local German General Benevolent Society as well as President of the local German Club.

Friedrich Wedekind and Emilie Kammerer’s second child – the future writer – was conceived in San Francisco, though born in what is now Hanover, Germany. Early in the pregnancy, the still patriotic couple decided to visit their native land. And that’s where Benjamin Franklin Wedekind (named for the free-thinking American writer and revolutionary) was born in 1864.

And the rest, as they say, is history . . . a curious chain of events crisscrossing through time and place and literature and music.

** Of course, the first musical adaption of one of Wedekind’s works was by composer Alban Berg, who fashioned his unfinished 1937 opera Lulu out of Wedekind’s two Lulu plays, Earth Spirit(1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904). In 1965, the San Francisco Opera staged the work’s West Coast premiere. Berg’s masterpiece was seen most recently in the Bay Area in 2003, as part of the San Francisco Opera’s Femmes Fatales Festival.

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