These days anyone in Germany who is a fan of Reinhard Mey, one of their great performers, must be thinking of his 1997 song “Narrenschiff” (Ship of Fools) as they gaze across the Atlantic at what was once the United States of America. Mey is one of those rarities: a poet who can also write his own music, sing his own songs, and powerfully deliver either a personal or political message. What Georges Brassens did for France, Mey is doing for Germany.
I’m not sure what was going on politically in Germany in 1997 to get Mey so steamed up, but this song really packs a punch today. It’s about a ship full of idiotic passengers more interested in partying and money than in getting somewhere safely. They ignore the high seas outside and are focused only on the high life on board. The crew is even worse. The chorus goes like this (it’s better in rhyming couplets of course):
The helmsman is a liar, the captain is drunk
And the engineer has sunk into a dull stupor
The crew, pure lying scoundrels,
The radioman too cowardly to send an SOS,
The Klabautermann is steering the Ship of Fools:
Full speed ahead and set course for the reef!
Now, this Klabautermann (Hobgoblin) is an interesting guy in German folklore. He’s a kind of invisible water spirit of the Baltic who can be quite amusing at times. He sometimes helps sailors in distress, but if you ever actually see him, the legends say, your vessel is doomed.
The ship is full of pimps, money launderers, and slot-machine barons (casino-builders!) on their way to a “treasure island”,
…..where even the president
Has lost his shame and doesn’t hesitate
To adorn his entourage with the tax dodger.
So much of this song applies to the Trump administration and Donald Trump in particular, it’s really uncanny:
And smug old men strut around brashly
On the upper deck with ladies who are always much too young
Who warm their flabby limbs and chew their food for them
Mey wrote this song as a warning. All of us have the capacity to blind ourselves to what’s going on around us to an incredible degree. He could have been writing about global warming, or speculation on Wall Street, or our culture in general with its overemphasis on buying stuff and good times. Too many of us are ignoring the signs:
The lookout calls from the highest mast: Endtime in sight!
But it’s like they’re turned to stone and they don’t hear him
They follow like lemmings in hordes, their wills gone,
It’s as if everyone had lost their reason
Sworn themselves to destruction and decay
And a will-o’-the-wisp has become their guiding light.