In the iconic Weimar swan-song movie ‘Cabaret’, liberal-democratic 1933 Deutschland throws itself a final champagne-soaked party before the Nazis come in and churlishly stomp the balloons with their jackboots. In one of the film’s most famous scenes, a satin-draped Liza Minnelli delivers, from the stage of a nightclub, a vivid 11th-hour lecture on the evils of sitting alone in a room. She waves her arms around, Minnelli-like, shakes her cropped Minnelli hair and using her weird guttural Minnelli vibrato to great effect, preaches hedonism to the martini-quaffing sophisticates at their tables, a doomed pre-war demimonde who seem not to need the lesson. What good is sitting alone your room? she asks them. Life is a Cabaret! It’s a chastening song, particularly for those of us who favor sitting alone in a room. But the point is well taken. Life is happening out there. Get out of the house! For some that ‘s easier said than done. Some of us are trapped behind plate glass, figuratively and otherwise, straining for a glimpse of what the rest of us take for absolute granted. We may all be stardust (CSNY ca 1968) but that message is a hard sell to some. We’re not all made of the stuff that pours into the evening boulevards, we don’t all feel the sparkle. To some the Aurora Borealis is an enormous mildew-stiffened shower curtain. The complicated world is cluttered with half empty glasses.
Enter Shaffy! In 1933, the last year of the Weimar fest (and the last year for quite a little while that fishnet stockings would figure in Berlin nightlife), a future lovable shaggy-dog Dutch troubadour with the unlikely name of Ramses Shaffy was born in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. Half-Egyptian, half French, his dad would leave him, his mom would contract tuberculosis, and the fates would see him shipped off to an Auntie in Holland. This wounded high-school dropout’s self-discovery and reinvention as a young artist in the gezellig candlelit clubs and gathering places of Amsterdam, his rise as a beloved truth-telling cabaret figure in his own right, his lifelong artistic partnership with Lisbeth List (their Shaffy Cantata is a completely strange and surprising choral poptart – you must hear it) – these are the subjects of a lengthier essay. If you can imagine.
In 1972 Shaffy would pen a song of such ringing clarity and uplift it would define him; a crazy diamond called ‘Zing, Vecht, Huil, Bid, Lach, Werk en Bewonder!’ I have come to adore it. It’s a song whose theme and accompanying melody I carry in my pocket like a talisman. It says everything. It’s narrative power is undeniable, it’s pure and transparent lyric an embrace, its urgency to redeem an indecorous 1000 watt light bulb without a shade. The tune unfolds like a supernova on a slow boil. By the end it’s throwing off whatever powerful rays a supernova throws off. The first time I heard it, my sketchy command of Dutch gave me pause. Could he really be singing what it sounded like he was singing? Can you really yell something that transcendently simple in a pop song? The title is the chorus – a command, delivered in a fever of joy. First, though, the verses tenderly catalog the various shades of remove that define the ‘quietly desperate’, as Thoreau has called them.
‘For the one in the corner, behind glass, for the one with the slammed shut windows, for the one who thought he was alone; you must know this now; we are all together.’
‘For the ones with the firmly shut books, for the ones with the soon-forgotten names, for the ones who seek in vain; you must know this now; we are all together!’
The band America tried this sort of outreach with Dan Peek’s pleasant but fairly limp tune ‘This is for All the Lonely People.’ Their advice? ‘Don’t give up until you reach for the silver cup and ride that highway in the sky.’ Uh…thanks America. It always sounded to my teenage ears a little iffy. So I have to reach for this thing, this silver cup? And then, I guess..die trying? What, do I fall off the chair or something? I don’t want the Highway in the Sky yet! Just give me the freaking silver cup! Shaffy’s remedy is more declarative, and in the mesmerizing video of the song has the added benefit of being shouted though a radiant, unrehearsed smile of solidarity.
Sing! Fight! Weep! Pray! Laugh! Work! Admire!/ Sing! Fight! Weep! Pray! Laugh! Work! Admire!/ But not without us.
The basic food groups of Life in a pop chorus, and an assurance. And just incidentally a tidy summation of the Dutch national character, as I’ve come to know it. The Dutch have humor suffused with a kind of informed, nourishing darkness; an artful satisfaction with the quotidian; bracing guileless love, the strength of steel. Oh, and all those tulips. None of the spokes on the Wheel of Life are lost on the Dutch. Shaffy’s litany should be in their national charter.
I’m a huge Sinatra fan, he of the heartfelt, personally penetrating song interpretation. But I have never seen a performer put a song and message across as wholly and triumphantly as Ramses Shaffy does this one. He is an artless singer and a stranger to stage presence. What power Shaffy has is indefinable. At around 2:40 in the vid you can glimpse the power; he is reaching an inner crescendo on the last verse, barely containing himself. (you can see the vid by clicking the image up top; but wait)
For the one with the open expression
For the one with the naked body
For the one in the white light
For the one who knows we are together.
He then lets his imprecating gaze linger pleadingly for an instant, staring straight through the camera as if to say “You, you”. His face and vaguely Egyptian eyes urge the message through the glass to his shuttered benefactors. You can see the effort, the televised effort to link. When he bursts very unprofessionally into a warm smile and pulls away, it’s such a moment. By then he is so taken with his own message he is shambling. He turns his back to the audience and lopes like a hurried teenager to his mildly befuddled, beehived backup singers, spins happily on his heel and faces the audience in an endearing posture that can only be called “Prom Date Photo’, his mic raised awkwardly, his chest puffed out, his grin that of a dear beatific idiot. As Shaffy’s exultation increases, the middle singer in particular looks at him worriedly, or is just possibly in thrall to his carbonated, toothy unprofessionalism. ‘This is a job, dude. What‘s all this?” He wheels on the studio orchestra and you see his bony back exhorting them with the message. He’s beside himself. It’s a strange and moving thing to see.
In later life Ramses Shaffy’s incandescence would dim, as seems to be inevitable in these cases. He would succumb to drink in his late-middle age, then very publicly be swept up in a kind of drink-enhanced Alzheimers called Korsakoff’s Syndrome, making addled public appearances and eventually living in a sort of convalescent group home; the outer flame apparently snuffed by the most mortal and ordinary poisons. He would finally manage to throw off the demon booze in his autumn years and then would be stricken with cancer. The thanks he got.
But holy cow! When he shouts out his message, (and he is still shouting it out) the flame isn’t sputtering, nor will it. Who would dare write a song chorus like this? “Sing! Fight! Weep! Pray! Laugh! Work! Admire!”
But not without Us (Maar niet zonder ons).