Issue No. 465, August 26 - Sept 2, 2004

by James Gavin
Photo by Jorg Grosse Gelderman

Burning Issues

Unorthodox vocalist Theo Bleckmann takes a political stand at Joe's Pub

"We are the unwilling/led by the unqualified/doing the unnecessary/the the ungrateful." These are a soldier's words, but they weren't voiced in Iraq. They were scratched on one of the military-issued Zippo lighters that became tiny writing tablets for Vietnam servicemen, many of whom never came home. During the Iraq invasion last year, composer Phil Kline turned those angry, frightened, sometimes witty inscriptions into Zippo songs, an acclaimed antiwar song cycle. Its eerie floating quality evokes the hazy netherworld of the battlefield, a limbo between life and death, rebellion and defeat. Now available on CD from the Cantaloupe label, Zippo songs was written with one singer in mind: Theo Bleckmann, the angel-voiced muse of the avant-garde.

German-born but a longtime New Yorker, the boyishly handsome Bleckmann, 38, is best known for singing ethereal, wordless and often improvised soundscapes that blend ambient music, art song and jazz. For his Joe's Pub solo debut on Saturday 28, however, he has organized a night protest: To greet the Republican convention, he'll sing Kline's Zippo Songs and Rumsfeld Songs (based on the defense secretary's spectacular malapropisms), as well as his own Weimar Kabarett, a set of surprisingly pretty German antiwar compositions. Bleckmann's cool unearthly singing, uncanny in its accuracy, registers everything from shell shock to calm defiance.

Most of the Kabarett numbers feature words by Bertold Brecht, whose excoriation of the Nazis forced him into exile. "I feel that a lot of Americans are in exile in their own country," Bleckmann says. "A lot of my friends feel we've been estranged from the government and from everything that's going on. It's morphed into something very scary - which the Third Reich was too."

Born in Dortmund, a coal-mining town in northwest Germany, then given up for adoption, Bleckmann felt "dropped onto this earth, drifting around without any sense of belonging." In his teens he became a junior ice-dancing champion, but he learned he could soar even more freely with his voice. An early teacher, veteran jazz singer Sheila Jordan, convinced the timid youth that he had something to say, even without words. Since then, Bleckmann has emerged as the hub of a brainy group of uncategorizable New York composer-musicians that includes Meredith monk (with whom he tours regularly), John Hollenbeck, Kirk Nurock, Ben Monder and Todd Reynolds. "I'm on the road all the time with the craziest music in the world!" the singer exclaims with wonder.

Now, in a crucial election year, Bleckmann feels compelled to speak out. He's appalled at the attacks on performers like Linda Ronstadt, who have dared to air their liberal views onstage. In the world we're living in, he say, "silence is the biggest danger."