Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Musical Education.

I had this idea the other day -- no doubt while I was stoned -- that I should work up a set of my theater songs to play live, so I dragged everything out of the storage closet to get out the box of old cassette tapes (of course it was at the very bottom of the stack of boxes at the very back of the closet) and listen to my old work. Now of course I'm all nostalgic and self-congratulatory.

I have a substantial body of work, which is not surprising since I'm 46 and I've been doing this since I was in my early twenties, but when you're 46 and you've been doing this since your early twenties and you're not famous or at least "making a living at it," there's a lot of pressure to conclude that you haven't accomplished a damn thing. Trying to explain that you have been successful despite the fact that your dream of stardom didn't come true is like trying to tell people that you don't consider your divorce to be the failure of your marriage. (And, in my case, the two are exactly the same.)

The story I tell is that theater school ruined theater for me and art school ruined art, so when I started playing in bands and writing songs I willfully avoiding studying music so as not to ruin that. And, as we do of all those stories we tell, I've often wondered whether this was a true story or just a good story. Turns out it is true.

Listening to this old work -- a lot of it is very rough work tapes and demos, just me in my bedroom with a 4-track cassette porta-studio, my thrift store electric guitar and a toy Casio; it's refreshing to see how naive I was, how willing to let my collaborators see how unschooled I was, and how much I loved that distortion pedal -- I can trace my career from those first songs, when I just jumped in and started doing it, all the way to Y'all and beyond, when I had become a fine songwriter, I would even say a first-rate songwriter. And I think the real success is that every bit of the work, good and bad, was genuine. My scheme took decades, but it worked.

In this box is a rehearsal tape of a Tiny Mythic Theatre Company production of Lorca's Blood Wedding from 1989. It was right after I broke up with my first long-term boyfriend -- six years, an apartment in Brooklyn, three cats and a dog, and he was the one who pulled me into music, playing with a band he was forming with a lesbian couple who were moving to New York from Baltimore. The sequence leading up to my work on Blood Wedding led to my decision to leave that relationship. (The director asked us to write the music, since we had worked together on two of the company's productions the previous season. My partner didn't want to do it -- the time commitment of a theater production was grueling -- so I decided to do it alone. Finding a separate life for myself after being part of a couple for so many years was exhilarating. I wanted to be single again. I left him.)

The task was more challenging by far than anything I had done. Lorca's play contained all these "songs," or sections written in verse with no music. It was like being handed the lyrics for a full-length musical and being asked to set them to music. I like to think of Tiny Mythic Theatre Company as my informal MFA program in music for theater. I worked with them on several productions in the late 80s and early 90s, writing and performing music. How often does a songwriter with barely any experience get to see all his first efforts put on a stage straightaway? It was a rare gift.

After Blood Wedding, Tim Maner (one of the founding directors of the company and subsequently of HERE Arts Center) came to me with the idea of turning the Lizzie Borden story into a rock musical. The first incarnation of Lizzie Borden was a one-act, 5 songs, it was wild and loud and the audience loved it as much as we loved creating it. I think it was while we were working on Lizzie Borden that I was at Tim's apartment and saw a copy of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein sitting on a table. I said, "That's my favorite book!" Tim said, "Really? I think it would make a great musical."

Frankenstein kicked our asses, and after Lizzie Borden I hope we get a chance to revisit it. It was too big for us, and it didn't come together, but listening to the songs on tape this week -- we made a soundtrack recording, faithfully documenting every brilliant and dreadful moment -- I still think it's some of our best work. It's easier to see the flaws now, and it would be easier to fix them. At the time, we never questioned our ability to stage a musical with some 18 songs, a cast of 20 or so (mostly non-musical theater performers), with pop rock songs whose lyrics were all taken verbatim from a Romantic novel. We just plowed ahead. It was an inspired process, but it didn't show in the finished production. Half the audience walked out at intermission every night. It broke our hearts.

I think the next thing I did with Tim after that was Las Sirenas, a performance based on the Odyssey, film noir dialogue, and 70s pop music. Most of the songs in it were appropriated pop songs, but I did write an ABBAesque disco song for the girl-groupish Sirens to sing. And then -- or do I have the order reversed? -- Tim did A, a sprawling environmental theater work based on The Scarlet Letter. For that, I wrote a sort of Brechtian ballad about bulimia and a song about transcendence through S/M sung by a full gospel choir.


Dagon said...

These songs sound great; it's also very cool that you went back and investigated whether one of your personal mythologies (your reasons for avoiding studying music) was in fact true.
I love that "A" included a bulimia subplot, and S&M.
It's already strange looking back on the 90s--it's almost a kind of camp, how everything is so saturated with identity politics.

Steven said...

That's so true about the 90s (and late 80s). I was big into Queer Nation then, and we turned the Lizzie Borden story into a sort of horror fable about oppressed lesbians. And in Frankenstein, we made Victor and his childhood friend into gay lovers (which was easy and fun to do because the novel is so full of steamy Romantic language).

Looking back, I think we were motivated mostly by our desire to see some same-sex kissing on stage. Now, it feels like we've seen a little too much. I don't have any regret or embarrassment about doing work that was a little didactic. It's just strange that things have changed so much in so short a time that we have to remind ourselves why that work felt (and was, I think) necessary then.

Dagon said...

Right before I moved back to TX I was taking plant bio classes at Columbia, at Barnard actually, and was pissed off to see what a big production they were making about staging "The Vagina Monologues" yet again.

It was like you're saying, things have just changed so much...there really isn't much of a point in publicly reclaiming the words "vagina" and "cunt" in 2007. The internet has just brought us so much celebrity vagina...

Do you think all this means that the whole identity politics project is a victim of its own success at this point?

And for some reason, all the storylines you've mentioned remind me of "Desperate Living"...I guess it's all the purely gratuitous lesbian stuff John Waters included. Do you remember the scene at the dyke bar where a chick shoves her tits through some kind of lesbo-gloryhole?

Mike M said...

Good to see ya today. Hope the Anderson's coffee helped with the chore at hand. Steven, I think you write great music, from the song you gave me during your time in The Woods, to the later ones from your more "experienced" days. I didn't know you did something with Blood Wedding. I saw a production of that when I was about 10 years old at some college in Manhattan.

Cool about the J Waters subversive lesbian politic plot brought up in Dagon's comment. My favorite scene has to be the penis removal and subsequent eating by a passing dog. Penis bad. Lesbian good. Waters was always good at pointing out the the camp and kitch in truly important religious and sexual imagery.

You'all be so smart. I am here to learn.