I don’t tend to blog about books, especially books that aren’t about music, but sometimes I feel the need to talk about the ones that especially move me. One such is the just-out The Five: the Untold Story of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper. From the refreshing lack of the word ‘victim’ onward, author Hallie Rubenhold offers a fresh re-examination of the Ripper ‘case’ and the unfortunate women who he came across and killed in such cowardly ways, and from a feminist perspective at last. Its a shame that it took a mere 130 years for such a study to emerge, but here it is, and what a fantastic work of social history it is. However, for of the purpose these blogs, I will bring the book into focus alongside the way that the Ripper mythos has impacted on the rock music world. A micro-perspective, but one that mirrors the macro.
The counterculture has made use of Jack the Ripper over the years, even to the extent of portraying him (and we will assume that it is a him) as a curious kind of anti-hero, just as Charles Manson has become such a creature in certain quarters. Or at least a topic of fascination, inevitably, among men. Enter, predictably, good old Nick Cave, with his ‘Jack the Ripper’ from 1992′s Henry’s Dream. He’s trying to be ironic, obviously, but here we go: “I got a woman…She rules my home with an iron fist, I got a woman…she screams out Jack the Ripper, every time I try to give that girl a kiss”. It’s a powerful Bad Seeds track. but Cave’s shtick is tiresomely double standard, the’ got’ female accusing the male protagonist, in hyperbolic fashion, of carrying murderous thoughts and intents, all for the cause of a rollicking bit of rock and roll, pelvic thrusts optional.
Now, I’m as big a Cave fan as the next person, but my problem with him is his rather tedious fascination with violence against women, especially in the 90s. He couched it in ethno-musicological terms as’ Murder Ballads’, but come on, these were excavated women-killing numbers added to some home-grown ones, most absurdly represented by the beyond-parody, attention-stripping ‘O’Malley’s Bar’ from Murder Ballads itself. Utter nonsense, and it still amazes me when this record gets highly rated, as I think its one of Cave’s weakest projects. He followed it by the sublime Boatman’s Call, showing that he could appreciate and venerate the female sex, as opposed to exploring methods of eviscerating them.
Tom Waits, an equally titanic modern presence, explored serial killing in his nineties projects,the Blood Money/Alice albums, as well as the Woyzeck play with Robert Wilson. Not The Ripper exactly, but exploring similar territory. We even had Spinal Tap’s ‘Saucy Jack’ to provide us with a fun house mirror to our unhealthy interest in the first Victorian serial killer. Writer Alan Moore’s (very great) ‘From Hell’ further bedded down the mythos, into incalculable depths of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy tropes of staggering complexity that Johnny Depp’s film of the same name could only feebly approximate.
But it was all from the male gaze, inevitably. So now here comes Hallie Rubenhold, with a new take on this most obsessive of subjects, one that has acute resonance with our own times. Still, even 100 + years on, when we might be forgiven in thinking that the social problems of the 1880′s slums of London’s Eat End might have been consigned to history. On reading ‘The Five…’, I realised that these problems have never really gone away, and are still alive in the Conservative Party-dominated England of our present day. This was yet another wake-up call for me, and I can only recommend most strongly a book that can exert such a call. I will further explain in the next blog..