AGNES BERNELLE s death last month brought a truly remarkable life to a close. SIOBHAN LONG looks back, in the company of Gavin Friday, Philip Chevron and Alan Amsby.
She was the queen of the slipstream, was Agnes Bernelle, or Aggie , as her protegis called her. And since her death a fortnight ago, stories have been ricocheting across the city of her teutonic nonchalance, her indomitable spirit of adventure, and her fondness for the dying art of having tea . Yes, Agnes Bernelle was certainly a renaissance woman, and a force to be reckoned with, if any of her friends and acquaintances are to be believed. Ask any one of them to recall the highlights (and lowlights) and you ll be faced with a torrent of bellywrenching tales of skites and skirmishes from the world of dance, music and theatre. Agnes Bernelle left an impression that will last. Forever.
Gavin Friday, a longtime fan and friend, recalls his first encounter with the woman who was to become his mentor and friend.
It was when I was with The Virgin Prunes, he recalls, and her daughter Antonia came to see us playing an afternoon gig (imagine we used to play gigs in the afternoon!) in McGonagles. I saw this woman in the audience with this wonderful feather boa, and after that, she almost adopted me. She opened the door to people like Brecht and Kurt Weill for me; she really opened my mind to all of that.
And that was the beginning of what was to become a beautiful and lasting relationship between Friday and Bernelle. Later, she lent an air of grandeur to his nightclub venture, The Blue Jaysus .
I remember Aggie coming down, Friday continues, and she brought with her such an air of magic. It was the kind of place where you d have a performance for 30 minutes, and then wine and food would be served for an hour. An intelligent thing for Dublin, you know?
Later Bernelle went on tour with The Virgin Prunes, and took to the stage with a matchless panache.
We toured Britain and Europe, Gavin relates, and she would open for us. I always remember her doing Mac The Knife . Then at the end of our set, we would do a song together, from The Threepenny Opera which was basically a whore s duet!
If he were to capture just one impression of Agnes Bernelle, it would be that of the queen mum of cabaret , Friday avers. She was a very, very intelligent, articulate woman, who was the bright shining star. She was our Lili Marlene. Her elegance and her exoticness were what I ll remember. With her strange, erotic, burlesque poetry, she lit up the skies in Dublin at a time when there was so little colour, when life in the city was so dark and dreary. You felt like you were with Gloria Swanson.
Bernelle was born in Berlin on March 7th 1923, the daughter of a Hungarian Jew, Rudolph Bernauer, who was a theatrical entrepreneur, and found her stage feet at a very young age. Her early childhood memories include attending Marlene Dietrich s daughter s birthday party, by which time the young Agnes was already advising her father on likely roles for the budding star. Forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1936, Agnes found out very early what it meant to re-invent herself, and it was a skill she practiced with consummate ease for the rest of her theatrical life.
Alan Amsby, aka Mr. Pussy, echoes Friday s fond reminiscences, and laughs at the memory of their first encounter:
I first met Agnes nearly 30 years ago, he offers, and one particular event that stands out in my mind is when we did a play in the Project called Ha penny Place which was directed by Jim Sheridan. We shared a dressing table together and she was great fun. I loved her. We took our bow at the end and we d walk out together, arm in arm. Now, whenever I see anything on the telly that s Berlin-ish, I think of Agnes.
If Gavin Friday was one of Agnes protegis, or little chicks as she liked to call them, then The Radiators Philip Chevron was surely another. Chevron can trace his connections with her right back to his schooldays, and in fact, is anxious to credit her with freeing him from the shackles of the Christian Brothers at a time when he was badly in need of release from the tedium of schooldays.
It was around 1974/75 and as far as I was concerned, Dublin was the seven circles of hell, Chevron declares, with what can only be described as Bernellian panache. One fateful day during a lunchtime recess from school, I turned on the radio and heard this extraordinary woman, this creature, amazing exotic woman, singing in our midst. She was singing a Kurt Weill song called Surabiya Johnny , and I just felt that my life would never be the same again. I made it my mission a) to track her down, and b) when I discovered that she hadn t made any records, I decided to remedy that situation by recording her.
So, in one fell swoop, Chevron became talent scout and record producer, simply by boldly accosting her outside the Project Arts Centre one day.
Later, she claimed, and not truthfully, that I looked like a particularly unpromising 16-year-old specimen, dressed in my father s clothes! I suppose that was some sort of value judgement on my sartorial style, but anyway, she invited me out to her house to listen to her tapes, flung a ticket for the show she was directing at me, and then said Now if you don t mind darling, I have a rehearsal to get on with .
From there Chevron pursued Bernelle, and finally found himself in her bedroom, a nervous boy teetering on the edge of her voluptuous bed , and she draped carelessly over the rest of it . It was an experience he won t easily forget.
In the course of one afternoon, he declares, she educated me not in the ways of famously beautiful older women, but in the way of real cabaret and Berlin theatre music. I was just enraptured with this of course, and from there we progressed to record the album.
And so began a long and winding relationship that encompassed record production, playwriting and acting in the West End, as well as in Dublin. She used to joke that she was my protegi, but actually there was a bit of both in it. She reckoned I made her the oldest punk rocker in the world!
Bernelle s paths criss-crossed with all of the best leftfield players such as Elvis Costello (his label released Agnes second album, Father s Lying Dead On The Ironing Board), Marc Almond, Marianne Faithfull, David Norris and Mary Coughlan. Nothing was out of bounds for Agnes, a fact noted by NME who chose her to grace their cover in the company of Chevron and Costello on the occasion of the Ironing Board album release.
Agnes nurtured whole generations of Irish talent, Chevron insists, and she was never really given credit for that. Very often, it was raw or unpromising talent to the naked eye, but she saw the screen hearthrob or Broadway choreographer or Oscar winning director or rock star or Tony award-winning actress, that one of her little chicks was going to become. Then later, by some sort of cosmic balance, she herself was discovered by me, and Elvis and Marc Almond who made her third album, Mother, The Wardrobe Is Full of Infantry Men.
Chevron recalls hearing how Tom Waits used to ring Agnes up for advice.
Father s Lying Dead was a real influence on Tom Waits during his Rain Dogs period, he remarks, and to all these people, it was just obvious that there should be Agnes Bernelle records in the world. Which wasn t always obvious to record producers who didn t know how to market her.
Chevron smiled at her final parting gesture.
I heard that at the funeral, which I wasn t able to attend, that her favourite boa was draped over the coffin, and I thought: that s great. Even in her final moments, cocking a snoop at the absurdities of life. Which is what she was so wonderful at.
Agnes Bernelle. Truly the queen of cabaret. And of the slipstream.