Surabaya Johnny

(Uncle) Nick, who’s technically not my uncle but more like uncle-in-law, is a huge opera fan. He could fly to Switzerland or Germany for the weekend just to watch the performance. His and Alison’s house is full of opera singers and shows posters from all over the world.

One night Alison asked Nick to show me one performance called Surabaya Johnny. The song has been sung in several languages: I have seen it in English, German, and Italian that night. It’s also performed by many artists, including Bette Midler.

I am most fascinated by the title Surabaya Johnny. Surabaya, as you surely know, is the capital city of East Java, Indonesia. And just like any other cities in Indonesia, it still carries Dutch influence almost in every corner. But the song – a famous song, apparently – is composed by a German Kurt Weill. I couldn’t find his relationship with Surabaya, and I couldn’t think of a link between German and Surabaya – although strangely several of my aunties and cousins are married to Germans.


B
ut when I listen to the lyrics, this Johnny chap – a rat or swine, according to the song – claimed himself from Burma. So he could be a Burmese. But it still puzzling, because I know some people are named by the city like Paris (Hilton) or Dakota (Fanning), and I know an Indonesian artist actually named his son Indonesia. But Surabaya? Never. Until now.

The song Surabaya Johnny even becomes an inspiration for some folk to open a bar with the same name in Surabaya (click Surabaya Johnny), although I have never heard that until today.

So who is this Johnny? Was he from Burma or Surabaya? I hope the song is not based on true story, but if it is, I am glad to announce that I don’t have an uncle or cousin named Johnny.

I had just turned sixteen that season
When you came up from Burma to stay.
And you told me I ought to travel with you,
You were sure it would be OK.
When I asked how you earned your living,
I can still hear what you said to me:
You had some kind of job on the railway
And had nothing to do with the sea.

You said a lot, Johnny,
All one big lie, Johnny.
You cheated me blind, Johnny,
From the minute we met.
I hate you so, Johnny,
When you stand there grinning, Johnny.
Take that damn pipe out of your mouth, you rat.

Surabaya Johnny,
No one’s meaner than you.
Surabaya Johnny,
My God €” and I still love you so.
Surabaya Johnny,
Why am I feeling so blue ?
You have no heart, Johnny,
And I still love you so.

At the start, every day was Sunday,
Till we went on our way one fine night.
And before two more weeks were over,
You thought nothing I did was right.
So we trekked up and down through the Punjab,
From the source of the river to the sea.
When I look at my face in the mirror,
There’s an old woman staring back at me.

You didn’t want love, Johnny,
You wanted cash, Johnny.
But I sewed your lips, Johnny,
And that was that.
You wanted it all, Johnny,
I gave you more, Johnny.
Take that damn pipe out of your mouth, you rat.

Surabaya Johnny.
No one’s meaner than you.
Surabaya Johnny.
My God €” and I still love you so.
Surabaya Johnny,
Why am I feeling so blue ?
You have no heart, Johnny.
And I still love you so.

I would never have thought of asking
How you’d got that peculiar name,
But from one end of the coast to the other
You were known everywhere we came.
And one day in a two-bit flophouse
I’ll wake up to the roar of the sea,
And you’ll leave without one word of warning
On a ship waiting down at the quay.

You have no heart, Johnny!
You’re just a louse, Johnny!
How could you go, Johnny,
And leave me flat ?
You’re still my love, Johnny,
Like the day we met, Johnny.
Take that damn pipe out of your mouth, you rat.

Surabaya Johnny.
No one’s meaner than you.
Surabaya Johnny,
My God €” and I still love you so.
Surabaya Johnny,
Why am I feeling so blue ?
You have no heart, Johnny.
And I still love you so.

Comments

  1. I don’t know the relation too, however, nice song indeed.

  2. colson says:

    Surabaja Johnny – I love the music as well as its denunciation of the social injustice of those days. Not only the fabulous composer, but there was also Bertolt Brecht (lyrics), Lotte Lenya, (singer) and on top of that the Beggar’s Opera ( Dreigroschenoper) which is still going strong.

    Wow.

    (btw: I don’t think Brecht had a particular person in mind when he choose the name. I guess he made it up, to make it sound shady and international to the spectators)

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