I'm a singer/songwriter and actor from Texas "Living in the Bonus Round" in New York City. That is my way of describing how I feel having cheated death. In a game show, the Bonus Round is where time speeds up and the prizes are better. Seeing your death changes you. Now, I'm consuming life as quickly and as fully as I can, while still taking time to breathe and appreciate every single day as an utter miracle. Last year, I turned 60 and I had a set of goals, all of which came true, including composing -- and performing in -- a Mass, recording a solo album with a few friends and self-released it (selling tens of copies), headlined at a major night club in New York City to two full houses and just played the lead role in the reading play not written by myself. I update a few times a month these days, and I don't spam. So it's easier to keep up with me by following by Email. When this blog began, it was to track my death. I'm told it was the first AIDS blog. You can start at the gruesome beginning if you want. Or just jump in and maybe we can learn some life lessons together. Welcome to the Bonus Round. I'm Steve, The Songwriter.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Singing at St. Clement's.

It was great fun to sing again at St. Clement's, one of my favorite places in New York City. Because of the personal nature of my relationship to this church, I didn't bring a camera nor did I take any video. So, bad blogger, I know. But, having been one of the first to blog and record his life on the Net, I've learned that now that everything can be recorded and broadcast, sacred private spaces take on new gravity.

Nothing dramatic happened. So, don't read this expecting a big revelation or profound epiphany.

It's a church with a small congregation, but there's a community food pantry that provides groceries on Saturday. There is also a theater inside the old building, with the largest Off-Broadway stage in New York that doubles as the sanctuary -- and this past Sunday, there was no set on the stage. It was completely black curtains.

The piano, altar and candles were right there on the stage. It was beautiful. (During the run of Zero Hour, the altar was placed amidst the empty picture frames and half-imagined paintings in a cluttered artist studio).

Sarah, Erika, Clayton, Mark, Jeff and Robin also sang with me. (Did I miss anyone?) We did what I call the "down and dirty" choral arrangement of "My Thanksgiving Prayer," where the instruction on the last chorus is "Sing anything you want." Very Ives-ian, I think.

And we made music!

It was so beautiful.

Darryl Curry, who is the musical director/pianist, even did a little improvisation on the musical theme of "My Thanksgiving Prayer" as they set something up for the next part of the service.

As much as I enjoyed the people in Bay Ridge, it is a long, long subway ride. St. Clement's is three blocks away. I even had a chance to see Dan and Kevin who run the Peccadillo Theater which resides there in the building.

September 7th will be my next "spot." Who wants to sing with me? Someone requested "Lazarus Come Out." I think that's a grand idea.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

My New York Life - Pre-release Video

After much encouragement from friends who wanted copies of this after hearing me sing it live at random open mics, I've recorded "My New York Life." It should pop up on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and all download and streaming services worldwide soon.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Real Texas in Paris (with a surprise bonus round ending)

Saturday night. Jim Morgan, artistic director of the York Theater, says to me:

"Hey! You look like you could play a grizzled old Texas singer of cowboy songs. Want to do a reading? It's a new play. Two characters."

Since I say Yes in the Bonus Round, the script arrived the next day via email.

I've never played a lead in a new play that Jim and I didn't write ourselves. What an exciting adventure!

I saw that the play, Texas in Paris, was based on a true story. Two old Texas singers. One, a white cowboy. And the other, an African American Gospel singer. Plucked up from obscurity (and poverty) by a young hippie-looking musicologist from Boston searching for "real Texas" singers to headline a series of concerts in Paris, France -- the birth of a lifelong friendship.

John, a man who mostly played for himself or at tent revivals and Osceola, daughter of a sharecropper who only ever sang at home or in church. (It was her church members who suggested her). A woman who lived through the days of intense racial violence, whose mothers, to this day, still whisper the words "white people" even in their own homes. (Just in case they are out there in the bushes waiting for a reason to beat you).

As I read it, though I didn't live through that period, I recalled us moving to Buna shortly after they desegregated the schools, the buildings of which were on the same plot of land, but on opposite corners. (The Black school became the new Junior High while the larger White school became the high school.)

But, everyone was "pore." No one down there had much money. They lived off the land or had a job at the paper mill. But it was really country. I remembered encountering some very racist people. And the KKK Store, with robes in the windows not 30 miles away.

John is a devout Christian who grew up just as poor as Osceola and there's a moment in the play where these two connect -- a story he tells about sharing a water scoop out in the fields where he worked alongside the Black kids, where he has a spiritual revelation that everyone is equal in the eyes of God.

I remembered getting the "you're no better than anyone else and you're not less than anyone else; all are equal in the eyes of God" speech from my own dad, a Baptist minister who did grew up in a form of John's world over in Arkansas.

In previous readings, I was always nervous, feeling like an amateur who doesn't belong.

But, thanks to my friend Andy Gale, who invited me into his Sunday scene study classes, I sat there feeling totally confident.

Tuesday. 3pm. (I got there at 2:30 because I hate being late for anything.)

In comes this amazing bear of a man with whom I instantly fall in love.

"I'm Akin Babatunde!" Huge smile. Warm handshake. The Director!

I love the name so much, I say it back to him and then "That's a great name! I'm Steve."

Akin is a Brooklyn man who lives in Dallas. So we talked about Dallas for a moment. He also registered that he had heard of The Last Session, but we didn't put the pieces together.

Then came Debra Walton -- who looks 60 years too young to play this role (but then, so do I), but this is just a reading. The point is not to give a performance, but simply read the words, with some direction, so that the author and a select few can hear what they've got, so they can move onto the next rewrite.

I think that's also why I wasn't nervous. My job is to enunciate. I can do that.

I also asked if I should use my Texas accent, which I do anyway. Jim and I almost never speak to each other, when we're alone, any other way. His current favorite show is Hollywood Hillbillies. Memaw is currently the best character on "the teevee."

Jim Morgan came in and also Alan Govenar, the very musicologist who found and recorded them and who is also the author of the play. He is on NPR a lot and has written all these books about Texas blues (and more).

He said neither of them had ever sung professionally. She had only one dress, held together with safety pins, along with a few "amazing" hats from the ladies in her church. John just brought some jeans and jean shirts. And now they were headlining in Paris.

 Looking at the script, I knew the Gospel songs, but I did NOT know all these cowboy songs and there was no score written out. So, the plan was for Debra and me to simply recite the lyrics unless we knew the song.

However, I went on Spotify and found all the songs, made a playlist and just kept playing it over and over. I thought I could learn them at least well enough to give the sound of the songs. The problem is that those old songs kind of sound alike until you really know them. I would start to sing it without a prompt and it would inevitably turn into "Wabash Cannonball."

But it was fun to Hear Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie or, my favorite, Marty Robbins. And also, a raw, guitarist/singer named John Burrus, who wasn't a technically great singer or player, but whom you could imagine out on a campfire, with just friends.

As we began to read, I was grateful that Akin gave us a few performance notes. Like, "not angry" here or "more defensive" there. He really knew the play inside and out. It was a great relief to have those signposts written in my script. In fact, at one point I told him to just tell me fast or slow, loud or soft, it was all good to me.

I think if this were me four years ago, I'd have been terrified and sweating and feeling nauseous. Instead, I just read the words and sang the songs about as well as I could remember them. I wrote numbers of the scale over the words to help me remember the shapes of the melodies. Or I made up my own melodies.

I think the Alan, the author/musicologist, took a liking to my singing. He said, in an intriguing way, "I've never heard anyone sing quite like you before."

I was thinking he was like Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady" listening to people talk and trying to figure out which area of London the accent came from. Except Alan does it with singing.

By the way, remember I told you about the raw recording that I found featuring a singer named John Burrus? Turned out that that's exactly the person I was portraying who I knew only by his first name, John.

There was something very bonus roundy about this. Someone (Alan) knocked on his door, pointed a microphone at him and said, "Sing."

So, he made a kind of "last session" record. 30 years later, another songwriter (me) unknowingly stumbles across his music and studies it in order to play him in a show about that guy's life.

Funny, that could happen to some actor or songwriter in the future. long after I'm gone, who is cast to play Gideon. He may not even know the backstory of the show and was just randomly listening for recordings -- exactly what happened here.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Health Update.

Great results today after three months where I've run almost every day for at least an hour. It's only what I call "maintenance" exercise, but it's something, and that's the key to staying healthy.Just do something physical every day that gets you breathing hard and keep it up for five minutes. It's like a miracle medication. And it's free!

My t-cell count is right where it has been for awhile, in the 600 range and there is ZERO free virus in my blood. That means the drugs are working -- and that has as much to do with my compliance record as it does with the drugs themselves. Quite simply, I do not miss doses.

Other great news: My A1c, which measures blood sugar is 5.9, so it's finally down in the normal range.

The only negative count was in triglycerides and cholesterol, which are abnormally high. This is a consequence of side effects of my HIV meds, but also, I confess I have been hitting the french fries a bit heavily lately.

Everything else is in the normal range.

So, the lesson here is keep up the daily exercise and cut down on the french fries.

(And my other weakness: cheddar cheese popcorn.)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Boxes and Bubble Wrap.

That's an idea for either a song or a horror movie.

We are still putting our new home together. Boxes and bubble wrap. They are my life right now.

But I have a couple of announcements for fans.

First, the London Original Cast Recording of The Last Session is now on iTunes. I would most appreciate it if you'd spread the word far and wide.

Secondly, on August 3rd, Jim Brochu will talk with Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked, Pippin, etc.) Called "A Conversation with Music," it will feature vocalists Michael McCorry Rose and Kelli Rabki -- at the spectacular night club 54 Below.

I also will be performing "My Thanksgiving Prayer" on August 24th at St. Clement's here in mid-town for their Sunday morning services.

Okay, back to unpacking.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Moving, Moving...

After 11 years on the waiting list, we are finally moving into Manhattan Plaza, the subsidized housing for actors and other miscreants. So, this week has been about boxes, boxes, boxes. Packing and tossing things out and moving things around.

At the same time, Samuel French, who licenses "The Last Session," has asked for an electronic version of the score, which we never had. The old photocopies are wearing out and they need new!

Trouble is, we never had one of those. It was made back before electronic scoring was really available. So, this has given me the chance to look at the score and make all the changes I've been dying to do for the past 20 years.

Back then, I didn't know how to write out a score, and also I was just too sick. So the version we have now is a transcription of single performance done in New York one night, complete with all the improvisations the cast and musician were doing on that night -- which sounded great then, but which are not really a part of the score. (I want new casts to do their own improvisations.)

So, as all this packing is going on, I'm taking the score one note at a time, revising and reworking everything. Not that it will sound all that different to the untrained ear. But each time we've had new productions, I've had to talk to the various casts and musical directors, explaining that, "No, you don't have to sing that note." And "No, you don't have to play the part that way."

Luckily, I had begun this process already when I met with Tom Turner for the London production. He had a great instinct for how I preferred the songs to be played, and when we tried it out, it worked beautifully. For instance, "Save Me A Seat" should be sung in A-minor. Bob Stillman sang it in B-minor, which is fine, but it's too high for most singers. And it got frozen into the score in his key.

But it's little things like that which I'm now working out. It's a HUGE job and I'm devoting massive amounts of time to it. But this is my chance for the score to look and sound like what I originally intended and I'm loving it. But boy, this is a lot of work.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

A Most Unexpected Honor.

On, a new article by Stephen Hanks includes me in the list of "The Best (and Favorite) 20 Shows and Performances (So Far) of 2014."

Given the fact that I'm listed alongside such cabaret present legends as Ann Hampton Callaway, this is really, as my folks would say, walkin' in high cotton.

I don't think I ever thought of myself as a cabaret performer. To me, a stage is a stage. An audience is an audience. And most of the best stages in this city host cabaret perfermers, which is alive and thriving like crazy in New York despite not exactly being in the middle of the current electronic cultural stream. And the definition of "cabaret" has morphed to encompass a simple singer/songwriter like myself as well as the more traditional and jazz performers. The American Songbook is dead if it's not also growing and adding.

Also, all the electronics, pre-records or auto-tunes in the world will never match the emotional intensity of a human being connecting with a live audience in a small space with great acoustics. 

I only booked myself, you might recall, out of frustration that I wanted more of my songs sung in this city. As a relatively new arrival on the scene, getting the word out is tough! And if others aren't singing them, I would do it myself. Why not?

I more or less secretly invited Stephen Hanks, who reviews everyone in this town, to my show because I knew he didn't really know my music and I wanted to see how a stranger with great ears would react.

Little did I know what I was in store for when he finally wrote his mind-blowing review.

And now this:
Steve Schalchlin: Tales From the Bonus Round, Metropolitan Room/Urban Stages--Schalchlin presented this intensely personal set of original songs in two different venues between late October and March, and it was arguably one of the surprisingly satisfying shows of the year (the CD was a 2013 BWW Award nominee). Many numbers chronicled the songwriter's emotions when he was near death from AIDS in the 1990s, but the set was also uplifting and life affirming, and he delivered his own songs with clarity and passion. Projected BWW Award nomination category: Best Male Vocalist

The Evidence of Your Life.

We are moving across the street into Manhattan Plaza after 11 years on the waiting list.

It will be our home. I feel like I'm moving into a retirement community. But it's filled with actors and musicians and dancers and singers. And we know so many of them already! It'll be like moving home to a home you haven't lived in yet.

But the process of moving. Even though it's only across the street, Jim is now sitting and going through every single piece of paper in the place. Papers found in folders in boxes, in drawers.

It's a weird sensation to go through the evidence of your existence on this planet from materials that pre-date the Internet. News clippings. Like one from Omaha where my face and my newly-googly eye graced the top half of the page, with the cast of The Last Session rehearsing behind me.

I did this four years ago when I single-handedly, with a few close friends, did this. Went through every piece of paper. And I jettisoned a lot. Especially if there was two of anything. But I kept stuff that didn't need to be kept, but which I wanted Jim to look at.

Emotions and memories of your life come crashing like waves. I can feel it in my chest when I think about it, even as I'm typing these words.

I like the evidence of my life. When I worked on the cruise ship, when I sang with bands.

The most embarrassing papers are stacks of notebooks of lyrics I wrote along the way, on my journey from hippie church musician to rock and roll to theater to musical directing to acceptable songwriter to composer.

Hundreds of lyrics! All terrible! And the worst part is that when I read them, I can go back to how I felt when I wrote them. I usually felt they were terrible, too, but only after trying them out and singing them, thinking that maybe I was wrong and someone would hear something I don't hear. (They didn't).

Except for one or two. Sitting the front seat of a car with Bobby Cox, my guitarist, both of us jamming out on a cassette of a recording we just made. The song is juvenile, but boy did we have fun. I'm a lead guitar junkie/groupie.

And so it goes.

The great thing about living in the bonus round is that I get to relive those days. They are rich and they make me cry. And they make me remember that life is less about events than it is about the moments when you were with people who made you feel good.

People want to be rich so they can do big things. But all the money in the world couldn't give me a more 'scream out loud' and laugh ourselves stupid experience. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

When the piano's dead.

I sat there playing, but it wasn't music coming from those keys. It was just noise. Damn Charles Ives. I started listening to this amazing album using Spotify of two people I never heard of before. Susan Graham and Pierre-Laurent Aimard singing a selections of songs from Ives, along with the amazing Concord Sonata.

I had it on in background while reading a new biography of him that was just released. And this music is like a magic trick. Sometimes the songs sound like the voice is in one key and the piano in another. And yet, my brain doesn't process the dissonance as dissonance. It sounds right. And yet, logically, I know that these are not "normal" note/chord relationships.

I suppose it takes a bit of an "educated ear" for this to happen. I don't see putting this on in a bar. It would probably sound like noise to a lot of people.

But what's also doing is making my brain crave it more, like craving sugar. And when I sit down to write my "song of the week" for the Jack Hardy Exchange, all the chords sound boring. Everything sounds boring next to Ives. It's like rock and roll for the brain.

In his own time, after the turn of the previous century, he was departing from conventional harmonics and rhythms and was mostly ignored or ridiculed. So, he wrote largely in obscurity until a concert of his ridiculously difficult Concord Sonata was played in New York in 1939, I believe.

Then, he was criticized for copying other similarly bent composers even though his works predated them.

So, what am I saying about myself? What Ives did came from his heart. His dissonance is used in service to what he's hearing in his head. Many "modern" composers work almost from a place of mathematics in putting together tone rows and other forms of dissonance. Clever but soulless, not that I am all that educated about them. Perhaps I'm just displaying my own ignorance.

Well, I take that back. It does have something to do with me. I put moments of dissonance in my Mass because there was a narrative going on in my head that was a comment on what was being sung. In the Agnus Dei, instead of writing something really beautiful, I thought of it asking for peace in a world where there is no peace. I had this gut instinct to just clash all the voices together like a trainwreck.

Not saying I am on the level of virtuosity of an Ives. Far, far from it. Just that I listen to his songs and they cut right through me. As the book explained, he almost seemed to be able to write what a songwriter thinks before he turns it into a song. It's mesmerizing.

So when I hit the keys and "pretty" sounds boring, maybe it's because there's something more beneath it all that needs to be excavated. I do hope so. I also hope it makes sense.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

First Review of the London Cast Recording of "The Last Session."


Rob Lester sums up his rave review on the website Talking Broadway, "...the recording crackles with energy and drama, capturing the performance of a committed cast-in a show with a lot to say (still)."