BRIEF BLOG INTRO:
I'm a man on a mission. A mission to convince everyone I meet that life is worth living, no matter how many obstacles are placed in your way.
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.) Accepting my death changed me. 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 (selling 10s of copies), headlining to a sold out house at a major night club in New York City and played the lead role in a staged reading of a 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 [SHACK-lin].
Thursday, May 29, 2008
Last week, I finally got together with my nephew, Johnathan, who came out here to L.A. earlier in the school year to attend the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandise. And, no, he's not gay like his Uncle Steve. So, girls, have at him. He also has way more cool than his Uncle Steve.
Proof: In addition to going to school, he's making money by throwing parties in hip L.A. night clubs. He's apparently getting very good at it because the clubs are now pursuing him, and he's getting the kinds of hip, young people these clubs crave.
They call him Mr. Casanova, and he has a MySpace page.
The picture adjoining this blog is his current facebook photo, Jonathan standing with a beautiful blond girl. Who knew he had it in him? Not here six months and already he rules this town. Is Hollywood great or what?
Since he's studying design, he said his most favorite discovery is the fact that Los Angeles has more art deco buildings than just about any other city. He said he didn't know much about art deco, but now he's really fascinated by it, and by old Hollywood. For instance, his favorite activity is going to the Silent Movie house on Fairfax and watching an evening of silent movies. (They have an organ and everything.)
So, in six months, he went from a Texas yahoo to a cultured, intelligent, hip, Mr. Casanova who hangs out with the glitterati, rules the Hollywood nightlife and he's my nephew???
Call me Uncle Proud.
Wellington was one of the first persons with AIDS who freely came out both with his disease and being gay, and who has worked tirelessly, both at the community level and in the media to bring attention to the disease in the Bahamas.
He's the kind of person who cannot be replaced. His work and the respect afforded him in the Bahamas was legendary. Here is the link to the news story.
I also did a little poking around on some of the Bahamian discussion boards and discovered that there is a level of anxiety and fear in the community as he's the third murder of a high profile gay man in recent times. On the street, they think there's a serial killer, but the police are saying there is no evidence the crimes were related. However, these three killings happened within blocks of one another.
Still, it is not easy to be out in the Bahamas. So, Wellington's courage stood above most others as he presented a face to the people of the island and fought vigorously for education and care. There are places on this planet where visibility can mean death.
According to the article:
The bodies of those two prominent Bahamians were also found in their homes, which coincidently are not too far away from Delancy Street.
Mr. Adderley was regarded as a well-respected HIV/AIDS activist in the community and in the Caribbean region.
In addition to serving as the administrator for the AIDS Foundation, he was director of the Bahamas National Network for Positive Living.
Some of Mr. Adderley’s relatives and colleagues were on the scene when authorities removed his body from his home.
They wept at the site.
"He was the greatest person to work with and a jewel," said Nurse Rosemae Bain, an official at the Bahamas AIDS Secretariat.
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Sadly, Eric Lowen, a tall, handsome and brilliant musician and singer, has been struck down with ALS. But he and Dan have battled together over these years, keeping the band together and they've recorded a new CD, even. Now comes this note.
Hi guys --
Most of you are friends and colleagues of long standing. You all probably know my 28-year partner in Lowen & Navarro, Eric Lowen, was diagnosed in March 2004 with the progressive neurodegenerative disease ALS, aka Lou Gehrig's Disease. Though he can't walk or play anymore, he sure can sing, and we are still touring. And recording. We're releasing a new album, "Learning To Fall", in a couple of months on our own label, Red Hen Records.
Last November, Eric and I gathered 30 or so people whose lives have been affected by ALS -- PALS (People With ALS), their families, friends, supporters and caregivers -- to sing on the recording of the title track of our new album. The song "Learning To Fall", written by Eric Lowen and Preston Sturges (son of the famed 1940s film director) chronicles Eric's struggle with ALS and life as he's known it.
Among the friends was Five For Fighting's John Ondrasik, who last year launched a website devoted to promoting charitable causes and generating click-through donations for those causes. The site is http://WhatKindOfWorldDoYouWant.com, named after his similarly-titled hit song.
The event was captured by director Mark Waldrep and his wife Mona, and recorded (as was the entire album) by Grammy winning producer and engineer Jim Scott (Tom Petty, Dixie Chicks, Foo Fighters, Wilco, Sting) at his private studio in Valencia. The resulting music video is currently featured on Ondrasik's site, and will be parked there, indefinitely.
When you view the video, you log a credit that earns the benefited charity -- in this case, Augie's Quest, an ALS support and research group associated with the Muscular Dystrophy Assn -- a buck or so for each click. You can also donate directly to the central donations clearinghouse, the California Community Foundation, if you so desire. But this is NOT a request for a donation, and you need not donate to be of help. Just give the video a view and you will make a difference.
Or click here:
Thanks so much for listening. Hope you enjoy the vid, and the music. The album will be out in July.
Monday, May 26, 2008
Friday, May 23, 2008
I used to pour over his issues of Dr. Strange, loving his very human and expressive faces. I could spot a Gene Colan comic a mile away. I'm so sorry to read about his health issues.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
"Oh, man, I didn't want to see that." He looked so sad.
At first, I didn't want him to tell me. But then I decided I'd rather know what he knows, so we can talk freely during the show.
The show itself I found culturally bizarre, but oddly entertaining, careening back and forth between the sublime and the awkward.
For instance, it makes no sense to me for Simon to always make the point that this competition is about looking for a pop music artist, not a variety or Broadway star type of singer -- remember how much he hated Syesha's choice, and high school Bob Fosse cabaret performance of, "Steam Heat" -- and then put them into these June Taylor Dancer step-turn, step-turn production numbers all wearing the same outfit.
It's the Brady Bunch Variety Hour.
My favorite singers to watch in these horrific numbers are the ones who are most uncomfortable. I think I relate to this because my first music job that wasn't in a band was singing and -- and I use the word loosely here -- "dancing" at the long gone Gran' Crystal Palace in Dallas. (They blessedly kept me out of as many as possible and I remember one afternoon when the choreographer was having a particularly upsetting time trying to get my Baptist feet and body to cooperate. We came to a decided halt and a deadly silence filled the room. From behind me came this tiny little female voice, "That's okay," she assured me. "None of us can write songs." I wanted to die. I was thinking to myself, "ANYONE can write songs. This shit is HARD!")
So, the show proceeded. As I said before, I found it entertainingly jaw-dropping. And any show that has Seal singing is okay with me. Also, I was gleeful at being able to spot the product plug, cringe at the medleys and roll my eyes at Randy's Captain Kangaroo coat.
It was also great to see the "Let my people go" guy from the list of bad singers, who had the same innocent creature look in his eye that David Archuleta has. I felt really sorry for him, even though I was also guiltily laughed along with Randy and Paula.
Anyway, I knew David Cook was going to win and so, rather than waiting to be surprised myself, I was looking forward to seeing his face at the moment of revelation. We also were taping it on our DVR.
For two numbing hours, this thing is going on. Then, finally, they get to the envelope. The envelope guy says a few words. Ryan Seacrest opens it. Then, as slowly as a human being can say the words, he finally gets to "And the winner is... David..."
Suddenly a warning came up on the screen that the recording was finished, then it skipped ahead to a few seconds later. Past the announcement, and it was useless to try to go back. We missed it.
I yelled at Jim, "WHAT DID YOU DO??"
He replied, "I didn't so ANYTHING!"
I thought he had accidentally hit the remote or something. But he hadn't.
I found out another friend had also DVR'd it for later viewing, but it also switched off for them. How weird that it was RIGHT on the last name.
I have praised David Archuleta in this blog. Sometimes the tone of his voice cuts right through me. But I think David Cook is the more mature artist when he remembers to change the songs to sound like himself, something he didn't do in the final competition which is why I thought he would lose.
Win or lose the actual competition, both of these guys have careers ahead of them. Archuleta can hit the adult contemporary circuit and make a mint. There will always be a market for these kinds of concerts, though I'm not sure I could take a whole CD of him. He's much better in small doses.
Cook is going to have a harder time of it because the market for rock is so splintered, and I don't know if he has any talent, for instance, as a songwriter. But he is fun to listen to and, as good as he is singing rock songs, I love his ballads. He paces a song beautifully.
Maybe the two of them should tour together as an act. They probably will when they're in their 50s.
I went into my appointment today expecting the worst. As a matter of fact, I have been feeling listless lately. Not waking up as early as usual. Not feeling the same kind of energy. And also sleeping a lot. A lot.
But, frankly, I hadn't really given it much thought. I just figured I was maybe on an emotional downturn or tired from travel. Or even slightly depressed despite all the good things that have been going on. I don't usually suffer from depression, but I can dip into these little valleys every once in awhile that affect my being able to think clearly. They don't last long, and don't come around very often, so I don't worry about them, preferring to just ride them out. And usually they go away after a few days.
The other thing is that with so much travel, my diet has not been great. My expectation was that everything would be a big mess. My meds have pretty severe metabolic side effects, especially in the area of lipids and triglycerides, etc.
Amazingly, though, most of my test results were pretty normal. In fact, my bad cholesterol was in the low range and my triglycerides, though high, were more in the 230 range than the 1800 range they had been a couple of years ago. So, Dr. Mathur said, "For you, this is good. I'd like it lower, but this is great."
I told her I was surprised at the good results, but yes, I had been feeling tired lately.
The problem was my thyroid. I've been on synthroid for some time now due to the fact that I had had hyperthyroid disease (which gave me too much energy). But the thyroid had finally burned itself out and now I was on synthroid, but the results were that it was swinging back in the wrong direction.
"Do you take this pill on an empty stomach?"
"No. It doesn't say to on the label."
"Well, if you take it with a multi-vitamin, it tends to cling to the vitamin and get flushed out of your system."
"And that's why I've been so tired?"
"Yes. This marker is way off."
"So, what should we do?"
"I could increase the dosage, but I think I'd rather you try taking it on empty stomach for the next couple of months and let's see if that works out. If it doesn't, we'll increase it. Just get back on your good food and exercise program and I think you'll be fine. Your A1c is also too high."
(A1c is the glucose test that gives a baseline blood sugar result.)
"You were doing really well with that before and now it's up to 8. I could give you more meds but I don't want to do that. I want you to get back into your routine because when you do, you tend to improve very quickly. I'll see you in eight weeks."
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
There's a movie in this story. It's just so fun to imagine it playing out. I was always a bit of a rebel, at least in my heart. So, when school administrators get all hot and bothered over nothing, and the kids revolt, it makes me laugh -- no disrespect intended for my many readers who are educators. Call it a character flaw on my part.
As you might recall, my quiet, never causes any trouble nephew, Geoff, was handcuffed and tossed out, and then banned from his Senior class events for stripping down to his boxers on the dance floor of the prom during YMCA. Everyone involved agrees that it was an over-reaction to someone clowning around.
So, now the whole student body has been rebelling against this, including, sadly, someone spray-painting "FREE GEOFF!" on the school building. That's the one really sour note.
The students, though, are taking this whole Geoff thing as a kind of good natured joke, even though they are angry that Geoff has been treated this way. But, maybe because of the spray paint, the administration is now so paranoid, I'm imagining the Principal being played by the Chancellor of the University in the movie "Animal House."
They're starting to imagine rebellion everywhere.
Here is the newest chapter:
Wednesday was our "cap and gown" day at school where we wear our graduation caps and gowns all day at school. Some of the guys wore swimming trunks and t-shirts underneath theirs so that during lunch, they could go to one of the parks in town and run in the playground part that shoots out water when you push a button on it.
When lunch was ending, the guys went back to the school parking lot, but had their shirts off since they were wet from the water. Our principal and a cop rushed over, thinking they were stripping.
The cop put the two boys that had their shirts off in handcuffs, and walked them to the front of the school parking lot, and out of the crowd. The boys explained what happened and were let go.
Talk about jumping to conclusions..we were also not allowed to wear our gowns anymore after lunch, because there was a rumor that we were all going to strip on the lawn after school. Most of us hadn't heard that one..
Another girl was put into In School Suspension because she had a bathing suit on and was running through some sprinklers. It's getting ridiculous, and everyone's hating our principal more and more every day.
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
I can tell you in one simple phrase.
I wasn't there.
Oh, I was sitting in my seat. But somehow I went someplace else because if you asked me how they sounded? I have no idea.
What do I remember. Hm. I remember unadulterated glee.
The sensory input was overwhelming. A chorus. A symphony hall. I remember how great the groove sounded and I remember great singing.
Yes! Tempo. I pieced that rehearsal video together from three different takes of the song. They fit on top of one another perfectly.
Do you know how amazing that is?
Kathleen has some inner clock that is metronome sharp but is all human. This, by the way, is a very good thing for rock and roll or Gospel music because when a great drummer finds, settles into and then locks onto the essential groove in a song, it becomes like a little steam cooker. As you listen, your natural tendency is to want something you like to get faster. This builds up a wonderful anticipation in your body because you're actually enjoying it. So, you push harder.
If the drummer or conductor yields to this urge, the effect, as I was taught one night by an itinerant musician hunched over a vodka tonic in an Indianapolis hotel bar after both of us had just played a luncheon engagement for a disinterested corporate party, is to "suck the energy right outta the song."
Because the audience, if they're enjoying the piece, is also feeling this urge, this push. If you give in to it, you and they will feel a little air being let out of the balloon. Just a little, but enough. Held back by that human groove machine. Human because it's about so much more than tempo. It's groove. The human body has inner rhythms that push and pull and you can feel it when you hit the slot and lock into it.
As an audience member, when you feel it push back against you, you suddenly find yourself relaxing into the groove also--and you all become one. For me, a perfect groove is perfect bliss. Every song has at least one great groove in it. But that can also change depending on the sound of the room and the feel of the audience. You just have to feel it.
And this, to me, is Kathleen's gift over and above her technical qualifications: her ability to find the groove, settle in, and take us on a very nice ride.
Friday night, as "My Rising Up" was announced, I was sitting next to (the handsome and witty) librettist Philip Littel. Already in ecstasy over "Safeer al-Sayl," which opened the program, it continued on pointing ahead to new work, including a collaboration by Philip and the incredibly hunkilicious composer David Conte. Called "Love," it was richly romantic, melodic and inspirational with this beautiful climax which combined the orchestra and the chorus, and totally blissed me out.
I had gotten to know them, just barely, during intermission. We had all been seated together and since Jimmy was home, I kind of chased after them like a kid wanting to be with the grown-ups. We stood in a long line waiting for drinks (Diet Coke for Junior here). Again, I was hoping no one would ask me a question or want my opinion about some second act in something.
Thankfully, the talk was lively and fun, and I felt comfortable. Philip won me over when he said after scoring a quick witticism, "I'm that way about everything, darling. I'm French."
By the time we got to the counter, the chimes were going off and the lights were blinking. We slugged back our drinks. Philip: "I think I just got that ice brain freeze. I've never chugged one of these before."
As we were rushing to our seats, David asked me about the cantata, whether I was writing the text. I told him I was, for the most part. He said, "I glanced through your bio. It was very interesting. I'd love to talk more."
(My bio basically consists of finding newer ways to make two off-Broadway shows look like ten.)
But, the lights were going down. No time to talk.
So, I took stock of exactly where I was. I was with these amazing men, seated in special seats. At the guard door (when I checked in at rehearsal earlier this day) I was listed as "honored guest." We were all dressed up and looking very clean.
And I know I had the biggest, shit-eatin' grin on my face. My facial muscles are still sore.
But I was just so happy! I couldn't help it. It wasn't just about "My Rising Up." It was everything. It was being in San Francisco on the hottest day of the year. On the day after the California Supreme Court legalized marriage for same sex couples. It was my friend, Ken McPherson's, birthday. It was 10 years ago on May 13th that it was Steve Schalchlin Day in San Francisco. It was the first peek people would get at the cantata.
But there was also a part of me sitting on a creaky piano bench in the pine-forested back corner of the Big Thicket forest in East Texas, my swampy Tatooine). Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined this night. It wasn't something that was remotely in my consciousness. And yet it was happening and, even more encouragingly, I actually might possibly belong here. My face is in the program, after all.
And it was more than just what was happening in the room. The Last Session is alive again on the east coast with more and more people clamoring for a new run in Manhattan.
That's what was going through my head as the choir lifted the roof off the building.
The gay community, at least here, turned a new chapter, a new birth, this weekend and my songs are now and forever a part of it.
"My Rising Up" closed the show. It was the finale.
A song about rebirth!
In Egypt, the guide told us that everything in their culture was based upon rebirth because the sun died every day and then was reborn every day. The cycle of life is all life, death and rebirth. Every religion and psychological program has a name for this renewal, this chance and ability and opportunity, to become new again.
Hell, Madonna does it constantly.
Some people think the song is about friendship. Some people think the song is about God. Some people think the song is about just keeping an eye on yourself knowing that you yourself are the one person you can't get away from.
To me, it's the acknowledgment that I am not alone. That I live, now, this day, because friends reached out to me when I was at the point of death and reminded me that a part of them would die when I die. And I didn't want to kill off parts of my friends. So I chose life.
The knowledge that we are all so very interconnected on such profound levels. And that, as an artist, I get to search these connections of the heart out.
Yes, it's esoteric! Yes, it's concrete!
It's not just my rising up. It's all of us rising up together.
In music. In song. In laughter. In love.
And that's how I felt. Wouldn't you?
The thing everyone agrees on about my nephew Geoff, who lives in Borger Texas, and who I have seen maybe only once or twice in his lifetime -- I'm a very bad uncle -- is that he is a very sweet boy. He's graduating high school this year. Never causes trouble. Everyone adores him. His teachers adore him. The other students adore him.
Apparently, at the prom, he stripped to his boxers during the song "YMCA." Everyone at the prom laughed, even the teachers, I'm told. But the principal was not amused. He grabbed a cop and threw Geoff out, and then imposed a very stiff campus restriction. But now the student body is rebelling and a "Free Geoff" campaign has been started.
Apparently, my nephew has been punished unjustly at Borger High School in Borger, Texas.
My niece, Emily, his sister, tells the story:
<--Geoff with his date. You can forward this or whatever: Well, this past Saturday, Borger had its prom. Near the end of it, YMCA came on, and Geoff decided to strip down to his boxer briefs. If you know Geoff, you know he does crazy stuff like this, and no one ever thinks twice about it, it's just funny. Everyone cheered and laughed, even the adults, except for one: our principal. He called Geoff over, and talked to him (along with one of Borger's finest). He was escorted out of the prom with promises of punishment on the following Monday. So Monday came around, and Geoff went to the principal's office for almost an hour waiting for them to decide what to do. The vice principals thought he should just get "In School Suspension," but our principal wouldn't budge and stuck him with three days in the "Alternate Education Program," which is an off campus program for the REALLY bad kids, like ones caught with drugs, or for fighting, etc.My nephew. Locked out. The new Marlon Brando. I like it!
He isn't even allowed to be on the school property.
Everyone was angry about this, especially the students. T-shirts were made, flyers, buttons, all kinds of stuff. Flyers were thrown all through the hall all day, people were taping paper onto their clothes to support him, used window chalk to write "Free Geoff!" on their cars, everything they could think of.
So when Monday night came around, it was time for the seniors annual candle lighting ceremony.
Geoff was told he would not be able to attend it, considering it was on school grounds, in the auditorium. This affects not only Geoff, but his friends and family too because he isn't there to spend this emotional and special time with us, so it's just all around not fair.
During the ceremony, with everyone seated, there was a slide show of pictures we had submitted earlier in the year.
Every picture that came up, there were a few yells, but any time a picture with Geoff in it came up, everyone cheered as loud as they could. The seniors got up to go around to the back of the stage, because then, two at a time, we were to take candles out and light them, then surround to outter part of the auditorium.
Back stage, I grabbed two candles, and when it was my turn to go onto the stage, I lit both, walked to the end and said "This is for Geoff!" and everyone cheered once again. Our principal didn't look too happy, but I think he should be realizing that he did the wrong thing, to the wrong person.
Monday, May 19, 2008
The topic, of course, will be Jack Kirby and my new book on the guy...though the interviewer (we taped it this afternoon) spent more time than I would have liked asking me about me. Why you'd discuss me when you could be discussing Jack Kirby, I cannot begin to explain. We recorded much more interview than they're going to broadcast so perhaps most of that will get excised. Either way, there'll be a podcast link here whenever one is available...or you could do the unusual trick of actually listening to a radio show on the radio. This link will take you to the home page for the series and from there, you can find info on your local station.
Sunday, May 18, 2008
She conducts with her entire body.
"I feel like a kid in a candy store."
This is what I said to celebrated choral conductor Vance George as we stood at the foot of the stage at Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall.
The 250-voice male chorus towered above us as they took over the entire wall of the performance space, including the several rows of seating set up for audience members who like sitting above and behind the orchestra (or are those the cheap seats?).
(Forgive the namedropping, I had the chilling thrill of doing this -- overlooking an orchestra -- once at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine on my birthday one year, which also happens to be St. Francis of Assisi Day, though we Baptists were never knew who St. Francis of Assisi was. No one was supposed to be seated up in the choir loft, but we arrived late. We were also escorting Ruth Warrick, the movie and soap star of "All My Children." You can't not seat Phoebe Tyler!Anyway, the maestro, Dr. George, looked over at me with a knowing smile and said... something. God I wish I could remember what he said, but it felt like, "Go for it, kid. It's all yours." I know it wasn't that, but that's how I took it. And, for a brief moment, I could see the joy of it all in his face as if he were remembering his first time.
So, Jim and I sat with Mrs. Citizen Kane up to the left overlooking The Paul Winter Ensemble who were set up in the pulpit area. When the massive wooden back doors of the Gothic Cathedral came open and the light flooded in from the outside and the elephant and camel came down the aisle in response to the actual whale sounds Paul Winter had incorporated into his piece, I cried like a baby.)
Gathering myself, though, I began to feel at home and started looking at and feeling the cavernous space, hearing the sound, observing the technical limitations (and advantages), etc. In considering the staging of his piece, I had had some ideas, but until I was really there, I couldn't know what was possible and what wasn't. I also learned that, as much as I love the orchestra, which joins the chorus, it's the sound of those voices that thrills me and sometimes makes me weep at nothing more than just the sonority.
I totally enjoyed this weekend, but I was also a bit nervous. After all, I was meeting people from a different world. Smart people. Educated people. Cultured people. Massively talented people. To be even allowed entrance humbled me.
But as overwhelming as it was, it's also a familiar world because I loved choir at Jacksonville Baptist College, where I got my Associate of Arts degree (which I lost long ago, probably languishing in some seedy hotel room). I also loved the man who ran the music department, Dr. Gerald Orr (who I used to call Mr. Door because of how saying his name made his last name sound like "door").
He was the first academic I ever met. I was kind of a self-taught church musician from way out in the booger woods. He was a brilliant pianist, arranger and conductor. The college only had a couple of hundred students, so he was a true gift. They've since named a building after him. And he liked me because I picked up stuff fast. By the end of my first year, I was writing arrangements for all the choral groups in the school, especially our male Gospel Quartet.
But when I left the Baptist world, I cut myself off completely from JBC and, also, sadly, a lot of family and friends who I was cordial with, but who I was also holding at arm's distance -- much easier to do pre-Internet. At the time, I didn't know what else to do. I was not really like them. And I knew they couldn't handle the truth of me because the only thing I knew from that world was that I was the worst possible form of human being. So ugly, so filty, so disgusting, that it couldn't even be talked about. So, in a kind of a big f*** you to them, I not only disappeared behind the curtain and vanished, but I erased those years and that life and those people and that institution from my mind.
Standing there in front of that beautiful chorus, so much came flooding back to me. It was almost overwhelming. I kept thinking how, in a different world, I would be welcomed back there as a celebrated alumnus.
But Baptists haven't changed their mind about homosexuality, you understand. Not even a remote micro-inch. I've written a few emails to them but the silence has been deafening, except for a few classmates who looked me up and totally support my work.
So, here I was again, entering yet another new world a new beginning. A church musician and singer who became a cover band road musician who wrote songs on his own time who stumbled into musical theater, hit the lights of (Off-) Broadway and has now made his way back home to the choral stage thanks to the ears of another great conductor and musician, Kathleen McGuire.
Friday night, at the concert, I remembered back to when I entered the world of musical theater with "The Last Session." It was a foreign world of people and conversations and references and people who finished college. I was the Junior High science student at a NASA cocktail party.
I would stand around these people as they referenced musicals, operas, symphonies and composers, smiling like I knew what the hell they were talking about, petrified that they were going to ask me a question.
I don't know protocol in this world. For instance, I kept calling it the SFGMC a "choir" (which is what we called ourselves at JBC). But I was quickly corrected that "choir" is for church groups. That the proper word is "chorus."
Still, no matter how overwhelming it might be to be standing among these giants, I feel absolutely confident about "Pantheon." The songs are completely finished. My lead sheets for Kathleen are finished. The concept is sound. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that if we did nothing but stand there and sing, it would be enough.
But, that's the beauty of a chorus. There is so much more one can do without having to spend a single penny or build a single set.
And I have a wall of men to play with.
How hot is that?
I snuck my camera in. I'll tell you all about the concert in my next blog. But for now, here they are in rehearsal:
Saturday, May 17, 2008
The musical’s strength comes from witty dialogue, fascinating characters and the great rhythm-and-blues sound blasting down to the very souls of the audience. It will knock your socks off, and make you laugh and cry with amazing grace.I'm so very proud of this cast and thrilled that they were so wonderfully praised.
Friday, May 16, 2008
And it was completely in Arabic.
I didn't understand a single word. But I was transfixed. When they rehearsed the song again, I looked over at the composer, Ilyas Iliya, standing on my left in the aisle. Though the song is sung completely a cappella and consists of long lines of harmony, tightly twisted together (in minor twos) leaping under and over each other in unexpected dashes and turns, he stood there, rigidly tapping out a steady 4/4 pace with his foot.
Part of the promotional appeal of this piece was that it was the first time a gay men's chorus has performed a song in Arabic. Ilyas Iliya is from Lebanon. He is a modest, charming man with deeply kind eyes.
His story is that when he was young, his family immigrated to America. Dallas. He saw the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus there and it changed him to see men like him, freely out (and talented!).
The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus was the first gay chorus in the world. It was a brave act back then because you could lose your job or your family by being out. In fact, tonight, the chorus was given a special award, this being their 30th anniversary. But the point is that back then, as the chorus traveled, they became the first "out" persons others would ever meet.
"Others" like Ilyas, a gay man in a Lebanese family living in Dallas.
It's only fitting that this song, Safeer el-Layl (Ambassador of the Night), would be world premiered this night because it's a perfect tribute to the legacy of the chorus itself. It was born from this chorus, and not just because they commissioned it this evening. This song is a result of those early men, many of whom have died from AIDS, going out bravely into the world.
And, best of all, it's a work of art. It's a complex, amazing, stunning work of art.
Sitting in front of me at the rehearsal was the great conductor and maestro, Vance George. When the song ended, I let out some kind of whoop. I don't even remember. I was so transported out of myself. I was having a major eargasm. He turned around with a wink in his eye and said, of the song, "That's a lot harder than it sounds."
I said, "That song doesn't sound remotely easy."
And I knew it wasn't.
But what I did know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, was that I had heard the kind of Art that touches the heart, translates across culture and language, and digs into your heart as strongly as it digs into your head.
The question, of course, is that composers and artists tend to like lots of things that the general public totally hates. Was I just hearing something meant only for the ears of other writers or artists or intellectuals (and other full of shit people like myself) or could it be more?
The night comes (which I will go into, at length in another blog entry), Dr. McGuire introduces Ilya to the audience. He tells his story.
The piece starts. The sounds of the words are wide and rich, but also harsh on the edges sometimes, and caressing at others. And the harmonies! It's minimalism and yet there's more. I told him later that I thought the score probably looked like a wadded up rubber band, with all the notes twisted around each other. (He laughed.)
The chorus, divided into four groups, delicately and with confidence, masterfully handled the difficult language and mind-bending harmonies, producing a hypnotic, sonorous tone that mesmerized, bouncing back and forth from all sides as each group traded riffs and chants, doubling back on top of each other in layer upon layer of glorious sound.
Sitting next to me was one of the writers of the great and legendary "Naked Man." Librettist Philip Littel. This was our first meeting, but he, composer David Conte, and myself were all seated together and were having a blast.
I said to him, "Have you heard this?"
He said he didn't think so.
I told him how good I thought it was. He said, "Oh, is this the Arabic song?"
"So it's good?"
After the song started, I looked over at him and he had his eyes closed, head pointed up and he was in total heaven.
The piece ends on this long, tranquil chord, held and held, then released. Complete peace settled over the magnificent 2500 seat Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall.
Kathleen lowered her baton.
The place erupted into the kind of instantaneous standing ovation most writers only dream of. Rapturous, thunderous waves of applause rolling up to the chorus and then back out to Ilyas Iliya sitting halfway back with his family.
They make him stand. His brothers are slapping him.
The ovation continues. Now the chorus has joined in. People are shouting out loud. I was so happy!
I felt myself melt in absolute, pure love for this special man.
And history was made tonight by Ilyas Iliya, Dr. Kathleen McGuire and the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus.
But then this chorus is used to making history, aren't they?
I met with Dr. Kathleen McGuire of the SF Gay Men's Chorus before and we had a brief chat about the cantata. Then, a number of the chorus members gathered to sing at the rally -- and Kathleen invited me to join them.
So, we were gathered outside the meeting room there in the GLBT Center and began rehearsing songs like the Star Spangled Banner -- it was thrilling -- when there was a little lull as we waited. So she asked me if I wanted to hear "My Rising Up." Hell, yes!
Then, she raised her hand to start, looked over at me and said, "Okay, sing the solo."
Stumbling around trying to remember the words, I began singing the solo. And when the choir kicked in, we rocked the house. What an exciting experience! The people standing around gave us a huge hand of applause.
Mayor Newsom, who really started all this by marrying same sex couples four years ago in San Francisco gave a fantastic speech and that was followed by many others. Lined up on the podium behind him were all the couples involved in the lawsuit. I managed to catch some footage, also, of the lead attorneys who encouraged everyone to get involved in the upcoming election because the hatemongers out there are already trying to change the Constitution to steal these marriage right back from us using a Constitutional amendment.
Meanwhile, it's been HOT here. San Francisco doesn't have heat waves that often, but this is really oppressive. Few of the homes have air conditioning since it's just not needed. As we walked down the street, we saw at least one person with heat stroke being attended to by paramedics.
I'll have video and pictures soon.
Thursday, May 15, 2008
Hopefully, they'll have an actual gay person on talking about it. It annoys me that when they discuss gay issues, it's always straight people talking about us like we don't exist.
The question will be how the right wing will use this in the election. What they can't do is point to Massachusetts, which also allows gay marriage, and say, "Look how society got destroyed in Massacusetts!"
Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Those of us who grew up in church and had little exposure to outside music eventually were startled to discover that that song was also known to some people as "Danny Boy." (Go ahead and read the title again to the last phrase of "Danny Boy").
Her name was Dottie Rambo and she died this past Sunday at the age of 74 after a liftime of singing and touring and writing when her tour bus ran off a highway. No church was complete without the "Dottie Rambo Songbook." The NY Times obit also notes:
So, bonus round salutes one of the great women of Gospel music: Dottie Rambo.
With songs recorded by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill and Whitney Houston, and a busy recording and touring career of her own, Ms. Rambo has been ubiquitous in gospel since the early 1960s. Many of her songs have become hymnal standards, including “I Go to the Rock,” “We Shall Behold Him,” “I Will Glory in the Cross” and “He Looked Beyond My Fault (and Saw My Need),” which uses the tune of “Danny Boy.”
The audience for Ms. Rambo’s style of Southern gospel is chiefly white. But she broke through the genre’s racial boundaries as one of the first white artists to use black backup singers. Her 1968 album of spirituals, “It’s the Soul of Me,” became one of her most successful solo projects, but it caused a stir in the gospel world when it won a Grammy Award for Best Soul Gospel Performance, a category whose winners were usually black.
Born Joyce Reba Luttrell in Anton, Ky., she left home at 12 and married Buck Rambo at 16. While still a teenager she made a publishing deal with Jimmie Davis, a two-time governor of Louisiana who was both composer and singer of “You Are My Sunshine” and other hits.
In her group with her husband, the Singing Rambos (later the Rambos), she sang inspirational lyrics in a folksy alto and helped develop a sound that had links to both country music and black gospel.
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
Kevin Wood brings a whole new vibe to the role as Gideon. He's spontaneous and, since he's a genuine rock artist, he is completely present when he performs, taking unexpected turns and pauses, and musical twists during his solos. One wants to be there with a mic getting every last performance.
I have doctor visits and labs to do this morning, so I don't have time to edit the video or talk about the whole weekend yet.
And tomorrow, I'm off to San Francisco to see the Gay Men's Chorus on Friday.
Busy, busy Steve!
Meanwhile, here's a picture Amy Shapiro took of me out in front of the theatre. You can see the magnificent old court house behind me.
Thursday, May 08, 2008
Exactly. And even more to the point, I dig deeply into their minds and psyches to find points of view that would never occur to me. It's in the individuality and specificity that great songs are born.
May 3, 2008, 9:22 pm
It Takes Two, BabyBy Darrell Brown
I love people. I could not even begin to count how many times my dear friends have tortured me — lovingly, of course — about my unlimited affection for any and every stranger who comes my way. I have made myself late to many a movie or dinner engagement by getting into impromptu conversations with the valet, the police officer, the mailman, the crossing guard, the paperboy, the street vendor, the truck driver. They could be 4 years old, 98 years old, it doesn’t matter. I have gotten lost in conversations with them. I can’t help it. I just love people.
When it comes to writing songs, I’m the same way. I just love co-writing. I can write songs by myself all day long, but it’s simply not as much fun for me as writing with someone else. As it turns out, most of the songs I write are collaborations. So I am happy on that count. I have found collaboration to be a brilliant way to grow as a writer, take a new path or discover a different view of a song. It always teaches me something.(snip)
Sometimes, if I know I am going to be writing with someone else, whose personality and style I don’t know that well, I may gather the scraps of a musical or lyrical idea on my own, but I intentionally don’t go past a certain point with some aspect of the song, to leave room for my collaborator’s input. It’s like being an actor and preparing for a scene. You do your homework, show up, then react to what your partner gives back.
I go into each co-writing experience with the belief that the other person I am writing with has a voice as important as my own.(snip)
My technique is to ask the singer to write me an essay about some very intense experience. Just tell the story without regard to form or rhymes or anything else. Then, I'll take that paragraph and start breaking it down, sentence by sentence, trimming words, rearranging phrases and looking for ways to make it all rhyme.One evening LeAnn and her husband Dean came over to our house for dinner. As it happened, LeAnn had been having some family issues, and that day had been a weird and emotionally cathartic day for her. I was going through a similar experience myself and so we ended the evening talking for an hour or so about learning to let go of people and things in our life that we have no control over. Basically, we were having our own little therapy session (actually, a lot of songwriting sessions start out that way).
Well, near the end of our talk I started typing out phrases. Just as she was about to knock me on my head for playing with my computer and not listening to her, I read her back a lot of what she had said. Right there and then we started arranging the sentences and phrases into couplets, then arranging the couplets in verse order. The mood of everything we were talking about was still hanging deep in the air, so the tempo and the chords fell naturally into place. The verses came out in that one session.
Darrell continues telling the story of how this one song was born. I suggest reading it. It's very much like how I've ever written anything. In little bits over a period of time, letting each new section announce itself in due course.
Appended to the blog is a humorous listing of the traits of bad songwriting partners.
I've known and worked with all types. But usually, I'm best with singers who haven't written much. I like opening them up to the creative process and showing them that they, too, have a point of view -- and having an original and specific point of view, after all, is what makes one a true artist.
The “Legal Beagle” Songwriter : They approach co-writing as if they are negotiating a contract, constantly looking to make sure everything is “even Steven.” For example: “You wrote 49 words so far and I wrote 37 words so in the bridge I get to write at least 12 more words than you — because if I don’t the song won’t feel like it is half mine. And the next time we write I get to bring in the idea unless of course you have a better idea and in that case I get to write more than 50 percent of the chord structure.” So on and so forth.
The “Factory” Songwriter: They write as if they are working on an assembly line. Put the nut in, turn screw to the left two times — next please. Put the nut in, turn screw to the left two times — next please. Try to change the design or break the mold to get something different out and that songwriter’s machinery will shut down saying, “that isn’t how it is suppose to be done.”
Oh, yes, and then there’s the dreaded Songwriter Bully. This is a co-writer who wants his or her way no matter what. It is their song or no song at all. They will wear you out. The bullying usually comes with the rolling of eyes and some belittling of your ideas or just plain ignoring you as if you are not in the room. No fun to be in the songwriting playground sandbox with them and what’s the point of writing songs if you can’t have fun at least most of the time?
Wednesday, May 07, 2008
The thing I feel especially humbled by is that in this Spring concert are works by such distinguished composers as Philip Littell and David Conte (NakedMan), Vance George, the brilliant Eric Lane Barnes, and Ilyas Iliya, who "came to San Francisco from Lebanon in 1991. The performance of this new work, sung in Arabic, Ilyas believes will mark the first time a gay chorus has sung such a work by a gay Middle Eastern composer. The haunting music, using indigenous tonalities, is an a cappella antiphonal piece unlike anything SFGMC has ever performed. Ilyas has attended most rehearsals, working closely with the chorus to assist with pronunciation of the Arabic. The music represents the struggle faced by the gay community in the Middle East today."
Along with Randall Thompson's The Testament of Freedom, with words from letters and writings by Thomas Jefferson, the selections from this concert are eclectic, serious, and artistically challenging and meaningful. I feel so very honored to be included.
About your favorite songwriter, she said:
My Rising Up by Steve SchalchlinSo! It's an exciting time for me. The new revival of The Last Session this next weekend. And the SF Gay Men's Chorus, the next. Then Big Voice in June in Philadelphia.
Musical theater performer and composer, Steve Schalchlin (pictured) is a name many of you will recognize from his recent appearance at New Conservatory Theater in The Big Voice: God or Merman?, written by himself and partner Jim Brochu (Zero Mostel in Zero Hour). Steve is also renowned for his musical, The Last Session, about his personal struggle with AIDS, for which he received a GLAAD Media Award. Steve has written an amazing peace cantata called Pantheon Bar and Grill. "My Rising Up" is sneak preview of the entire work that will receive its full premiere at Davies at our 30th Anniversary Concert on December 1. Like NakedMan, Pantheon covers many aspects of our community, and also many styles of music. "My Rising Up" is an uplifting gospel-rock song; its inspired lyrics sum up SFGMC's rise from the decimation caused by AIDS and the many strides we've made for gay rights over the last 30 years.
Since we met last fall, Steve and I have become close friends, and he has asked me to write the choral and instrumental arrangements for the entire work. I plan to spend a few weeks on sabbatical this summer working on the music. Steve has been working on this amazing cantata for five years, and has been looking for the right vehicle to launch it. We are indeed honored that SFGMC will bring this wonderful music to life. If you are interested in sponsoring this project, please contact our office: firstname.lastname@example.org, ph: 415-865-3650.
I like it!
Tuesday, May 06, 2008
Monday, May 05, 2008
They began previews already and I'm so excited to see what Brett has done. In conversation by phone, he expressed so much enthusiasm and energy, he was almost ridiculously beside himself. I don't know the rest of the cast, so I cannot speak for them, but I do know that it will be a monumental pleasure to hear Kevin Wood sing my songs. His voice is just achingly beautiful.
Jim has been in Boston this weekend doing Zero Hour. So, I've been home alone and I hate it. I thought it would be fun. You know, get naked, run through the house, throw everything down and leave it there, watch TV shows Jim hates.
And that was fun for about an hour.
So, I spent time focusing on music scoring and editing some video, which will be ready soon. The problem with being home alone is that I lose track of time. I forget when it's time to eat. So, I'll be hunched over the computer. Then, I'm hungry! So, I go to the kitchen and unless I can grab it and eat it RIGHT THEN, I get frustrated and choose the lowest common denominator, like hummus and crackers or a bowl of cereal.
Finally, last night, I stopped and prepared a nice salad with broiled chicken, spinach, strawberries and non-fat balsamic vinegar salad dressing.
Saturday, I spent a nice afternoon with my friend Michael who lost his cat, Figaro, this week. He seems to be holding up well, though he says he really misses him at night. We went to an all-you-can-eat Indian buffet on Ventura Blvd. called "Bollywood."
Boy, do I love that place! So much good food. I just ate and ate and ate.
Jim gets home today, so I'm looking forward to ... Oh, god. Now I have to clean this place up.
I hate being alone.
Saturday, May 03, 2008
They used to sit with their arms wrapped around each other.
Sometimes I meet someone new and that's how I want to sit and talk with them.
But that's not how the world works.
In the world, you sit in chairs.