BRIEF BLOG INTRO: I'm a singer/songwriter and actor from Texas who is "Living in the Bonus Round" in New York City-- having cheated death from AIDS. (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.
I'm a man on a mission to convince you that music is a Super Power, and that life is worth living, no matter how many obstacles are placed in your way. And that you can accomplish great things if you just push ahead and don't let anyone tell you no.
In 2013, I turned 60 and I created 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 (while getting great reviews). Now I'm out to redefine theater and cabaret. 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] and we're just getting started.
Friday, October 30, 2009
This was a particularly egregious and obnoxious law because, first of all, most HIV cases at the time, came FROM the US. Also, it meant that no international meetings about HIV/AIDS could be held in the United States, because people with HIV couldn't attend unless they already lived here.
It also kept couples from different countries apart, one being unable to enter the country if they had HIV.
But, finally, it's over. President Obama has signed an order ending this ban.
It's about time.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Dr. Ruchi called Dr. Tony, my primary care infectious disease doctor, and told him she was worried about pancreatitis. So, Dr. Tony calls me in and we have a confab to decide what to do.
But we already know: diet and exercise. Diet and exercise. Diet and exercise.
Dr. Tony actually had a visiting doctor with him today and said for me to act gay because this doctor is studying gay men's health.
So, I flipped my wrist and said, "Gay, gay, gay!"
Dr. Tony said we could change my antivirals, but then I'd be back on three times a day, and he's not sure it would actually make all that much difference. Currently, I'm taking Atripla, which consists of three AIDS drugs all jammed together in a one dose per day pill.
So: Diet and exercise. Diet and exercise.
I told the visiting doc that we gone through this many times. I get on a healthy diet, and then I want pizza and then I want french fries and Popeyes, and the next thing you know, I forgot I ever ate healthy food.
I'm a Southerner, for god's sake! Fried food is comfort food! (And damn them for inventing fried Twinkies AFTER I became diabetic.)
So, diet and exercise. Diet and exercise.
Monday, October 26, 2009
In other words, they know what they're going to be doing, and where they're doing it, six months from now.
But one of the characters intrigues me. He's a Korean FBI man who saw nothing, meaning he was either asleep or dead (though others said they saw themselves asleep or dreaming). More clues arrive and he learns he's going to be murdered in March.
His reaction, at first, was fear. So, he fought back against the investigation they're going through to piece together a "mosaic" of that day (from as many witnesses as possible).
Then, in this most recent episode, he suddenly began to get giddy and loose. They were all drinking together in a bar, for instance, and one of the characters cautions him about drinking too much.
He looks at the scold and says, hey, man. I know when I'm gonna die. I might as get some living in.
Other characters begin to act in the same way. Released from the normal, daily fears, they suddenly feel free and positive and without a care.
That feeling. That's what I called the bonus round.
I was aware of my giddy freedom, personally, but I wasn't aware of how much I weigh myself down with fear and anxiety until the day they told me I was going to live. I sang about this last week at Kulak's with my original "Lazarus" song. It's on the Bonus Round Sessions CD.
And I've written about it many times over the past years since coming back to life. It was almost visceral. I can tell you the exact moment of the epiphany, when I felt the weight of the world come back down on my shoulders. I was in the living room holding the vacuum cleaner and it descended like a thought, a feather of anxiety touched my clean mind. It flew in and out so quickly, I almost missed it.
For a moment it went away. But then, as if coming out of amnesia, the kind you only see on soap operas, I remembered "the weight." I could feel it pressing down on me. The pre-bonus round Steve. Like a child being reborn into a world of fear and anxiety, and yet created only by my mind.
One second I was carefree and had limitless potential.
The next moment, I was the worry rat thrown back into river of anxiety to drown.
The other night, at Kulak's, as I was about to sing "Lazarus," I was explaining to Tatiana, a young writer on the scene, that Lazarus, in the story, was brought back to life.
Her first question was, "What did he think about that?"
In Flash Forward, some of the characters are saying, "The future saved me."
I remember when I could see my future. And like this FBI character, there was a certain comfort in knowing I had only just so much time and no more.
I'm reminded of the old Chinese saying about how a child who dies has the longest life and an old man, the shortest.
I know that that state of mind, of perfect freedom, is available. I know it is because it's only a state of mind. Having gone there, I know what it feels and tastes and smells like. The question is whether I have to know when I'm gonna die to get there again.
Sunday, October 25, 2009
I set "The Steve Schalchlin Survival Site" up in the Broadway community because we had just finished our first staged reading of The Last Session and now I was Sondheim. In fact, I was Jerry Herman, Neil Young AND Stephen Sondheim. (It's a dead link now.)
And, because I was dying of AIDS, no one dared tell me different. I would go out of this life as the suddenly discovered genius that never was, except for this one last work, a testament to his own life.
And then I ruined it all by living. Oh, well. Can't lose 'em all.
Nowadays, with social networking, "having a website," is kind of meaningless unless you're trying to sell something. Virtual neighborhoods aren't really neighborhoods if the people "living next to each other" have no interaction. A nation of monks, as Dean Pitchford described songwriters.
My relationship with Geocities gets even more complex. It was the creation of a gay man, John Rezner, and his partner, David Bohnett. David said it was really John's vision. Until then, those who weren't schooled in computers had only email and listserves and BBS's. Having your own website was huge!
Plus, the interface, which improved over time, made it possible for non-html coding of webpages. I had already taught myself HTML by clicking on websites, picking it up randomly. So, I was slightly ahead of the curve in the early days and my website got some attention, especially because of its unique subject matter: Man dying of AIDS puts diary online.
David took a personal interest because John Rezner had died of AIDS some time before. "The Last Session" was about to, or had just become, a little mini-phenomenon.
So, when Geocities went public, the first big New York Times Business Section story began with three paragraphs about my online diary. I was always very proud of that, to feel newsworthy. I wonder if that article is archived?
But, Geocities just never made any money, and when the web went "social," it became "a cultural relic" (according to this article). And now, Yahoo is shutting it down.
The truth is, though, many people were helped by Geocities. Their lives where changed. I am a living testament to this. Thank you, David. And here's to the memory of John Rezner.
Gabi sent this:
I did a search and on Sunday, March 16, 1997
"MONDAY MORNING NEW YORK TIMES Business Day section. In an article about Geocities, they include my little Survival Site in the story. Of course, they spelled my name wrong, but, HEY! When ya got a name like Schalchlin, you learn to cope. Can't wait until people start typing "Schachlin" into Yahoo and coming up empty. Another brush with fame goes slipping through my fingers. *sigh*"So I put "Schachlin" into search at the NYT archives and found it. :-)
New Neighborhood, No Money Down
By SREENATH SREENIVASAN
Published: Monday, March 17, 1997
03/17/business/new- neighborhood-no-money-down. html
Friday, October 23, 2009
The song is "The Revolution Starts Right Here," which you might remember from earlier this year when I made, for him, a video, which got a lot of notice at the time since we tied it into the how the Internet was changing and helping to fuel the Iranian "green revolution."
I'm also going to sing "Birds" by Neil Young. The simplicity of both the lyric and the chord structure drew me to the song back when it was just an album cut on his "After The Gold Rush" album. It's one of the songs that inspired me to be a songwriter.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Friday, October 16, 2009
Yes. "Zero Hour" is really opening. It's a great little theatre over on the West Side. Theatre at St. Clement's. But, mindful of the times, we're not spending lavishly, so you have to go looking for it. The truth is that Jim could do this show in the dark and it would be just as powerful, so there's no reason to waste money on production values.2. Is Jim gonna be in it?
(We actually call it "show in a box." When he performed it out here in the desert, like a depression era actor, he literally had nothing more than a table, some paints, a chair and his desk lamp that doubles for a microphone for the investigation scene.)
Jim Brochu will be playing Zero.3. Is he really gonna paint a new painting every night during the show?
Yes. And he has pledged them to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS to auction off, just as we have done in DC and Houston.3. Are you gonna do some music while you're there?
I'll be looking for a piano and a mic. But we're going to be focused on getting Jim up and running on Nov. 22. However, we have saved a theatre space (NYR Studios) for December 16.4. Why? What's happening December 16?
A piano, a stage, and maybe an audience. Plus, several members of the original cast of The Last Session, along with yours truly (and Jim). It could be anything from a concert to a panel discussion to a staged reading or all of the above. More information soon. At heart, it's just old friends getting together.
West Side. 45 east 33rd at NYR theater in the Workmen's Circle Building.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Monday, October 12, 2009
By Dan Smith
firstname.lastname@example.orgPublished: Monday, Oct. 12, 2009 - 8:17 am
Last Modified: Monday, Oct. 12, 2009 - 9:24 am
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed two gay rights bills, one honoring late activist Harvey Milk and another recognizing same-sex marriages performed in other states.
In the last of hundreds of bill actions taken before midnight Sunday, Schwarzenegger approved the two bills by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco.
The governor last year vetoed the measure declaring May 22 a state day of recognition for Milk, suggesting that the former San Francisco supervisor be honored locally. But he subsequently named him to the California Hall of Fame.
Leno's SB 54, meanwhile, requires California to recognize marriages performed in other states where same sex marriage is legal.
In a signing message, Schwarzenegger said California will not recognize the couples as married but will "provide the same legal protections that would otherwise be available to couples that enter into civil unions or domestic partnerships out-of-state. In short, this measure honors the will of the People in enacting Proposition 8 while providing important protections to those unions legally entered into in other states."
He said, affirmatively, that if he was a homosexual, he would hide it from the world, and that it would be no problem whatsoever to make that happen.
My argument to him was that, in this day and age, it is utterly impossible to live in the closet. If you're the new person at the office, for instance -- and, yes, I have worked in a few offices -- people start talking about you the moment your books hit the desk. "Who's in the picture frames?" "Is he wearing a wedding ring?" "Does she seem a little butch?" "Is he dressed a little too well?"
And they won't stop until they find out.
That's just life. It's just human nature. I don't think people generally do it out of spite, as much as information for the dating pool. After all, if you're single, and someone is attractive to you, you want to know if they are taken, and whether you'd have a chance with them. Sexuality is part of that equation. The soldier, Joseph Rocha in this Washington Post op-ed knew he was gay, but he was a person of duty :
But, when you're gay and in the military, and you have to keep it a secret because the rules require you to keep it a secret. But how do you keep it a secret in a locker room where the only conversation during down time is sex and parties with hookers?
However, I chose to put service above my personal life. My understanding of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was that if I kept quiet about my sexuality and didn't break any rules, I would face no punishment. I was wrong.
Once I joined the Navy, I was tormented by my chief and fellow sailors, physically and emotionally, for being gay. The irony of "don't ask, don't tell" is that it protects bigots and punishes gays who comply...
...Within days of arriving at my duty station in Bahrain, I decided that I wanted to earn a place among the elite handlers working with dogs trained to detect explosives. After passing exams and completing training, I went from serving among hundreds of military police to serving in a specialized unit of two dozen handlers and 32 dogs. I was responsible for training and working with two dogs throughout the region. Our goal was to keep explosives and insurgents out of Iraq and Afghanistan.
My higher-ups seemed to think that gave them the right to bind me to chairs, ridicule me, hose me down and lock me in a feces-filled dog kennel.When a new soldier joined the troop, she witnessed the constant abuse being heaped upon this soldier, so she reported it, an investigation started and, finally, with the abuse still happening.
I told no one about what I was living through. I feared that reporting the abuse would lead to an investigation into my sexuality. My leaders and fellow sailors were punishing me for keeping my sexuality to myself, punishing me because I wouldn't "tell."
After receiving a letter of caution, the military's version of a slap on the wrist, my chief was eventually promoted in rank and position.This is "don't ask, don't tell." This is the policy now undermining our military.
In the course of that investigation, the Navy decided to charge my best friend, Petty Officer 1st Class Jennifer Valdivia, a 27-year-old Sailor of the Year and second in command of my unit, for failing to put an end to my chief's tyranny. The idea that she could have stopped the abuse is, to me, unfair and unreasonable. The Navy itself failed to stop him.
Val, as I called her, was set to return home when she was told of the charges and that she wouldn't be leaving Bahrain as planned. She was afraid that she would never see the United States again. My mentor ended up taking her life.
But it also points to the more obvious fact that it's impossible to live in the closet and not drive yourself or someone (or everyone) else to the point of insanity. To live a dishonest life, intentionally. Covering your every move, your every thought. Insane.
Obama, this weekend, promised (again) to end the military ban. It's time.
Saturday, October 10, 2009
In his latest book, The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society, primatologist Frans de Waal argues that social darwinists like Skilling have learned the wrong lessons about the natural world. The nasty, brutish existence dominated by “savage competition, ruthless exploitation, and deceit” that Dawkins describes is far from the norm for animals that live in social groups. They thrive because of the cooperation, conciliation, and, above all, the empathy that they display towards fellow members. The support and protection they receive from living in a group more than compensates for any selfish advantage they might have achieved on their own.
In other words, the “selfish gene” has discovered that the most successful approach is to behave unselfishly. De Waal thus argues that the age of empathy is far older than our own species and that we must keep this in mind as we try to apply these lessons ourselves.
The newest episode is with Todd Rundgren, and I'm in blue-eyed Philly soul heaven. Take a taste of "Expressway to your Heart," originally by the Soul Survivors. (The individual songs are available via links on the page). Also, Rundgren's "Sweet" is pure bliss, as is Daryl's vocals, and the band's kick-ass performance of "Why Can't We Be Friends."
I guess I live with my head in a basket, but I never realized how much Philly Soul is in Rundgren's music. You can really feel it, though, when he and Daryl start trading licks. It's like they're two halves of a whole. It's spooky and spectacular.
Great music. Put on your head phones or crank up the volume. This rocks.
Sean Strub is featured in the NY Times. He created POZ magazine and was an early AIDS activist, one of the few who survive, and I met him a couple of times during the New York/TLS days. POZ did a really nice feature story about me, "Living in the Bonus Round" (both as the title of my online diary and as a phrase I coined) and The Last Session, which was making its New York debut. (And then, in the next issue, the critic panned us. Oh well.)
If not for people like Sean, I wouldn't be alive today. He retired from activism shortly after receiving the Bonus Round diagnosis that he would live. (Every issue used to feature a report from Sean's doctor. It was one of the most educational and illuminating parts of the magazine).
From the article by Michael Winerip:
...by the time he was tested and his disease formally diagnosed it was 1985. “The doctor held my hand, looked into my eyes and said, ‘Sean, these days you can have a good two years.’ He was trying to cheer me up.” That doctor, Nathaniel Pier, died of AIDS, as did another who treated Mr. Strub, Dr. James Nall.I was on the road as a musician in those days. The "gay cancer" wasn't really on my radar. All I knew was hotel rooms.
Five of the six men he had roomed with in New York City during the 1980s, including Andre Ledoux, Michael Misove, Bob Barrios and Paul Friedman, died of AIDS.Early on, Mr. Strub helped support himself by building mass mailing lists of people involved in gay causes. (“If a gay travel agency went out of business, I’d buy that list.”) In those pre-Internet days, his lists made him invaluable for fund-raising and political activism as he joined groups like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and Act Up.
This moment for me happened in real time during the writing of the original online diary, which you can access from this blog. I believe the drug arrived, for me (late because of a screw-up in some office -- almost too late) in May of 1996.
And then in January 1996, protease inhibitors that stopped H.I.V. from replicating were approved by the Food and Drug Administration; Mr. Strub started on a daily dose of 16 pills.
In one week, he felt better. In a month, others noticed.
Then, I began documenting when I'd gain a pound. The transformation was almost immediate.
Funny, before I read this article I thought of a song I hadn't sung in a very long time. It was called "Lazarus," but it's not the "Lazarus" from New World Waking. It's on the "Bonus Round Sessions" CD. It's about feeling betrayed by death, after it had soothed me for so long with his promises of sweet comfort and respite from the pain.
“For the first time I thought I’d be alive in a year,” he said. “My planning window changed.” He bought a new suit, visited the dentist again.
He worried that the drugs, like others he had taken, would stop working. But as lesions disappeared, the weight returned, his energy remained good and time passed, “I crossed the line.” He grew accustomed to good health, though he’d changed. “I was more reflective, grateful, guilty, thinking about the ones who were so close, who’d made it to ’94 and ’95 and just missed being saved.”
Sometimes it felt as if he was the last one out before the building collapsed.
The first "Lazarus" was written shortly after I received my "you're gonna live" diagnosis in the summer of 1996, just as we were finishing up the last performance of the month-long workshop here in Los Angeles. I remember I stood on the stage and revealed that I had pulled the I.V. tube out of my arm that very day.
Sean Strub, however, at just about that time, retired from the scene. Ironically, he moved to Milford, Pennsylvania, a place Jim and I lived right after we decided to make a life together. Stunningly beautiful but economically depressed, Milford is a town up in the Poconos. Sean bought an old hotel there and began promoting the area as a bed and breakfast haven for people who love trees and fresh apples and all the lovely things one finds in forested hills. (We left there in the late 80s to come to Los Angeles).
You know, it just occurred to me that someone from the town told us that "some gays" had bought the place. I never put two and two together. Isn't that funny.
But now Sean has moved back to Manhattan.
That's probably natural. When you share things in common, especially a disease, you have instant common ground.
So many longtime advocates he’d known from the ’80s and ’90s now suffer from substance abuse and mental health issues like depression, that he has come to think of these problems as a form of post-traumatic stress caused from being so immersed in death.
The book that most brings back the feeling of that time to him is not about AIDS, but about Vietnam: Michael Herr’s “Dispatches.”
“You lived never knowing who would die next, where the next bomb would go off,” Mr. Strub said.
It’s probably a sign of his own trauma that as bad as things were then, “I miss the camaraderie the epidemic created,” he said. “An incredible clarity of purpose. An incredible sense of community.” He finds making new friends easier if it’s someone H.I.V.-positive.
Having moved back to Manhattan, he's witnessing the aftermath of the war. He's working with people again and giving them the benefit of his experienced life.
When we get to New York next month, I'll try to hunt him down, cuz it occurs to me that I owe him a great, big hug. Glad to have you back on the scene, Sean.
Mr. Singleton was a colorful Nashville record producer and entrepreneur who resurrected the historic Sun Records catalog.
Link to NY Times obituary.
Friday, October 09, 2009
- Chorus Presents 8th Annual Cabaret Production
- Donna Sachet To Host
On October 23rd and 24th at The Regency Center, San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus presents its 8th annual Cabaret, which this year takes its name from the Louis Armstrong classic, “What A Wonderful World.”
“Even when storm clouds gather, music can lift our hearts and inspire us like nothing else,” said Artistic Director, Dr. Kathleen McGuire.
Directed by Carl Pantle, the program features soloists from the chorus and ensemble, Vocal Minority, performing touching, humorous and exhilarating selections made famous by the likes of Cat Stevens, Sam Cooke, and Burt Bacharach. The production also includes hits from musicals such as Moulin Rouge, Kiss Me Kate, and Carousel, together with classic songs by Irving Berlin, “that have been given the world-renowned gay men’s chorus twist,” according to McGuire.
Topping the bill, as emcee, is Chorus alumnus, Donna Sachet, whose character was born at a Chorus retreat. “I had created the character Donna Winter in reference to a well-known diva, but when folks commented ‘just look at that sachet,’ the character was born,” said Donna, adding: “The Chorus has made this a wonderful world for so many and I am really looking forward to taking the stage with these amazing men once again, especially at such a landmark venue.”
What A Wonderful World is being presented in the sumptuous Lodge of the Regency Center. “We invite you to glide into the luxury zone,” said McGuire: “Glorious wood paneling and intimate table seating for all patrons form the basis for a rich, musical treat.”
Seats for the concert start at $25 and are available from the Community Box Office at the LGBT Community Center, by phone at (415) 865-2787 or on-line at www.sfgmc.org. A special $10 ticket is available for “unwaged” supporters e.g., students. Showtime is 8 p.m., with a special 2 p.m., matinee performance on 10.24.09 benefitting Larkin Street Youth Services.
“What a wonderful world we live in! Love, community, song, Donna Sachet - there’s so much for which to be grateful. Battles remain, for sure, but we are closer now to freedom than at any time in our history. Take some time-out to relax and join us as we celebrate in song,” concluded McGuire.
Thursday, October 08, 2009
The Profane Cafe
A true story (uncut version)
by Steve Schalchlin
I looked over at the little empty cafe from a baby grand piano, which was positioned between two massive marble pillars in the expansive, historical lobby of the DC Jewish Community Center, itself proudly located within viewing distance of the White House on 16th street in Washington DC.
It was the night before Rosh Hashannah.
The bare set of tables and chairs, kitchen door was sealed shut, seemed odd and out of place because all the other rooms of the busy community center with its gym, meeting rooms, school rooms, library and theater were usually teeming with life. But this small area had a sign posted in front that said CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE, followed by a list of nice restaurants over on 17th.
Jim Brochu and I had been here, at Theater J, located upstairs, for a couple of weeks with the run of his play, "Zero Hour," about the art, career, life and blacklisting of Zero Mostel, and we passed by the unplayed piano every day. Out here in this public space. Just waiting to be played. But, no. I was terrified of making a scene and being told to stop.
But, today, no one was around except Monty, an open-hearted woman watching over the door, usually buzzing people in. But it was quiet. So, heart thumping in my chest, I sat down and...god bless every one involved, but the shiny Steinway was in tune. Thank you.
The harmonies of strings and wood enriched the air as they reverberated off the tall, storied walls of the lobby/reception area/cafe; complex, yet clear and clean. Like adding oxygen to confined space.
I felt like a VW driver who suddenly gets to drive a Mazzarati. A well tuned piano in a room with perfect acoustics, with just enough reverb, is a space made in heaven. I decided right then and there that someday I would sing a concert in this place.
But, still, something felt wrong when I again looked over at the cafe behind me and off to the right. CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.
I saw barren wooden furniture -- black sticks like charred empty tree branches -- silhouetted by stark light from behind.
I scanned toward the door until I saw the pillars of the wall opposite mine. There, before me, as if suspended from the ceiling, were long rows of golden nameplates -- brass -- honoring the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and families who sacrificed to make sure this community center would always stand proudly in our nation's capital.
I couldn't see Monty because there was a marble pillar between us. Delia, who works for Theater J, passed through and stopped, briefly, but she was setting up a play reading in the library adjoining.
So, essentially, I was just singing to myself. The sound that the room brought to the piano was so beautiful, I got caught up in the moment. Not just in the self-satisfaction one has of hearing one's own voice actually sounding good, like in a perfect shower stall, but awed by the history and the tradition of the community that built this monument to its own survival and culture.
I thought to myself, "This is a sacred space."
At the conclusion of the song, I peeked around the pillar and then walked over to Monty; she had tears in her eyes.
She said, "You made me cry. You're good. But you know you're good, don't you?"
I hate that question. No, I think I suck, but yes, I've written and played music my whole life and I can fake it with the best of them.
I asked her about the empty cafe and she said it had been shut down for breaking a religious food law.
Later, I read about it online. It seems some kitchen worker, on a busy night, had "sneaked in" some sirloins from Safeway during a dinner rush, and the kosher officer, on duty that night, had seen it and reported it to the Board of Rabbis, and now the word was that it might be shut down forever.
My initial Gentile/Baptist instinct was to pronounce the whole thing "stupid," of course. Luckily, I didn't say it out loud. What hubris! To stand in judgment of the religious authorities and their traditions.
It wasn't my place to judge them. After all, this is not my place and not my community. I'm an outsider. Right?
Was that really the point of the Holocaust Museum and the DC Jewish Community Center? To create "outsiders?" Or is my outsider status all in my head? Funny, but seeing these things had opposite effect on me. These things pulled me in.
As the run of "Zero Hour" progressed, I attended almost every public talk-back and "town hall meeting" run by Ari Roth, the artistic director of Theater J. And, yeah, since I'm not Jewish, I didn't always relate to specifics, but what I did hear were lively discussions over "identity," and what it means to be Jewish, and to be human.
What startled me was the breadth and scope of the community. A devoutly religious Jew next to a committed atheist, but still finding common ground. But in what? Humor? Theater? Not politics.
Finally, Ari asked, "What is Jewish humor? What is Jewish thought? What are Jewish values?"
Growing up in the bubble of conservative Christianity, I can tell you that my knowledge of what was "Jewish" and what wasn't, was at zero. When someone said, on a TV show that they were Jewish, it made no more of an impression to me than if they said they were left-handed. My dad's left handed.
But, sitting in that theater, listening to the town hall meeting, I felt completely included.
Ari, again asking questions, "Do you have to be Jewish to understand and appreciate Jewish values?"
After the town hall, food was served in the hallway. And that's when everyone really came alive. Another "ping" moment. Back in Texas, it was "dinner on the ground." The great equalizer is the Buffet Run, to make sure you get the best fried chicken and not get stuck with the jello with the stuff in it!
I was sitting again at the piano, after seeing Monty's tears, and began playing again. A song about a mom who's just sent her son back to Iraq.
I looked back over at the profane cafe and thought, "Here we are at the most sacred moment of the year for Jewish people, and those tables are not filled with families breaking bread." The golden nameplates across the lobby were now catching the sun but there would be no happy faces reflected in them.
Immediately, I flashed back to the day before, to a room in the Holocaust museum. It had been my first time to see it, so the sorrowful ache of the experience still lingered in my bones. A room full of names. No, photographs.
They stretched from the floor to the ceiling. Hundreds of photographs of a town that was massacred. These pictures and names were all that were left.
But in this room, the names were put there in support. Perhaps, even in defiance. "Yes, I am a Jew! Yes! This is my community center! Yes, this is for my people! This is who I am!"
I felt sad and the whole thing felt unjust.
Rules or no rules, the idea that we could be in the middle of Rosh Hashannah and the tables stand silent. And the newspaper had said it might be permanent!
And it all just seemed so sad. Is it really a principle of Judaism that there can be no redemption? Not even for a set of inanimate objects?
I am not, at this stage of my life, much of an iconoclast, though I was when I was younger. In fact, I feel it's mandatory to be skeptical of institutions when you are young. Everything that becomes self-important is much more tolerable when you know you can throw a spit ball at it.
But, and this is going to be the most ridiculous part, I actually felt insulted. For my music. I felt nothing but sacred beauty in here, and now someone was telling me that I was wrong. I should have been hearing, what? Shame and disgust?
Did my songs became profane when they entered the airspace of the unkosher cafe? The profane cafe?
I went back to the piano and played out loud. I sang out loud.
I wondered if whatever was wrong here could be made right again and whether music...
Without hesitation, I began the opening, tender piano intro of "Rescue." I sang it as a love song to the DC Jewish Community Center and to Theater J.
When I rescued you
You rescued me
You are the gift I never thought I would see
And though it seems backwards
That's the way it should be
When I rescued you
You rescued me
The song washed through the room, quietly and gushed over the profane cafe. The piano, the voice -- filled the air, the floor, the ceiling, immersing everything in vibrations of healing and peace.
As I sang the last few words, pulling back into the carport, I can safely report that the space was restored to its full and proper sacred state.
Music can do this, you know. I swear. It's one of the rules of the universe.
Now, I realize the board of governing rabbis must make it official, but surely that's just a formality.
So, there. An entreaty and a small gift of redemptive music from an outsider who loves you.
Your cafe is not unclean. I promise. Not here. And not now.
And since this is DC, I can see the headline now:
Wayward Baptist refugee inadvertently consecrates the Jewish Community Center in Washington DC.
Now, there's a musical waiting to happen.
Besides, it's a mitzvah! L'Shana Tovah.
Wednesday, October 07, 2009
At the end of the run of "Zero Hour," Jim donated a number of the paintings he actually creates, one by one, during the performance. He uses no template or guidelines, but paints a completely original work during the show.
Theater J has now uploaded these original paintings to eBay. (On the site, it uses the term "prints," but these are not prints. They are the original paintings themselves.) The full price of the painting will be donated to Theater J.
Own your own piece of Theater J history!
In our recent production, Zero Hour, Jim Brochu slipped on a smock in the spirit of Zero Mostel and every night painted a portrait of his visiting interviewer. And at the close of the run...Jim graciously signed a few choice prints which we now offer to you!
There are 11 prints to choose from but only 6 days to make your bid!
Saturday, October 03, 2009
We didn't really have much in the way of money, so we were living in a flophouse which used to be a glamorous Hollywood high rise on Franklin and Cahuenga, which was dusty, noisy and filled with old furniture. We lived on the second floor overlooking Cahuenga, facing west. In the late afternoon, with no A/C, it was gas fumes, horn honks and dust. Lots and lots of dust.
I was anxious to do something in L.A. that involved music. The place suggested for me was the National Academy of Songwriters. A friend said, "Just show up and volunteer. Best way to learn the business." There, I introduced myself as a wayward ex-Gospel singer / Neil Young lover turned rock musician turned musical director for a lounge act turned piano bar singer.
They put me on the front desk answering phones.
One day, the managing director, Dan Kirkpatrick, a guitarist from Kansas, told me a friend of his, a TV producer who made it big with "Married With Children," was looking for a musical director for a club act, one night only, and would I want the gig? I said sure.
The Producer, a woman, had a dear friend who was dying of AIDS. He had one last wish before going out. A fantasy he had harbored his entire life:
To sing and perform a night club act.
The Producer told him she would make it happen. So, she hired me to put together his act. Also, a band of musicians (who all turned out to be straight, but called themselves The Nancy Boys).
AIDS was all around me, but since I had been an itinerant musician up until the day I met Jim aboard the Galileo on that fateful trip out of New York, I hadn't been really touched by it. All my college friends were Baptists and I had long left them behind. And in Dallas, where I came out, I had left before the plague hit and had spent most of those years living hotel room to hotel room, gig to gig.
If my friends back in Dallas were dying, there was no way to know.
Meeting The Star that night, where we had a lavish feast from Pollo Loco, I was anxious because a lot was at stake. I could tell he was sick. But he was headstrong. His goal was to make this the biggest night of his life.
I could just imagine how many years he must have put in, in front of the mirror. He had expectations that this would be his vindication. This would be the greatest show ever conceived.
He had chosen nearly every song in the American Songbook for inclusion in the show. It was gonna run about five hours long. So, my first job with him was editing. Every song we pulled was like driving a dagger deeper and deeper into his "last big moment on earth" finale. But I knew he wouldn't have been able to sustain a show like that. And I was right.
As we rehearsed, I could tell he wasn't really a performer. His ambitious show was overwhelming him. There came a time in the process where eliminating a song was an act of mercy and I could see the sense of relief wash over him as he let himself be talked out of this song or that song.
I took my role very seriously. I had to weigh what he was fantasizing against what was possible. I would not let him get up there and make a fool of himself.
Finally, the big night arrives.
The Nancy Boys, who I had just met, were setting up. The venue was a New York style piano bar with a big room, where people sat at tables, though I think they might have cleared out the tables to accommodate the crowd. Everyone had come to see him.
And then I get a phone call.
He's too sick to go on.
His body had finally started failing and he was too weak to stand. "He wants you to go on," The Producer told me over the phone.
"You have to go on in his stead and sing the songs he would have sung. Do his act! This is his request."
I have to sing his program and, what, be him? Say a few words about him? Are any of the attendees really coming tonight to "enjoy" a night on the town, a fun-filled evening of show tunes, frolic and laughs? No. They're coming because they love him and they want to see him.
Why would any of them even remotely care to listen to me sing? They don't know me. Honestly, I felt embarrassed. But it was his wish. He was insisting. He wanted them to have a party and he was supplying the party.
By now, the band has set up and we're ready to go. I start scanning on the music, trying to remember the lyrics so that I don't have to do the night with my head pointed down. But, worse, this isn't my music. Sure, I've done some piano bars, but this is Liza stuff. Barbra stuff. I don't sing this!
I can't remember much after that except that I think he drifted in at some point during the night, wrapped in blankets, sitting there watching me do his show.
I never felt so out of place in my life. Every move felt like the wrong move. Like an overweight girl in a narrow room full of glass figurines. Every word out of my mouth, "He said he wanted to sing this for you..." felt clumsy, awkward and leaden.
And this ghost of a person watching me use his toothpaste and wear his clothes and kiss his date.
But I finished his show with a big smile on my face. I know that, on the outside, I was cool and present and uplifting and gracious because everyone said I was. But, on the inside, I felt this dead numbness of not knowing what truck just hit me.
I was an impersonator of a person I had never seen perform. A person with AIDS. A person dying of AIDS.
I know I was thinking of him when I was writing the songs for The Last Session. My original idea was that I would gather all my friends at the Hollywood Roosevelt and just give myself one last concert.
And the great miracle of that night was that it actually happened. Except it wasn't a concert; it was a musical. And that was me at the piano. I was coughing and hacking, but I did it.
But in the back of my mind, no matter where or when I sing, I will always think of that guy who had dreamed his whole life to have his own night club act -- but who had to watch someone else do it.
So, guess what I'm getting for my birthday tomorrow?
Yep. A house. A piano. And a bunch of people who have to listen to me sing.
And that's all I ever want for a birthday.
Friday, October 02, 2009
After we got home, we did a quick shopping for food, and we've barely moved since.
He's been hibernating with his laptop doing his picture collages of the trip, and I've been catching up on sleep, playing my keyboard and getting reacquainted with my music (!), and generally just following my body tempo.
Last night, I fell asleep early, then woke up at 1, then back asleep, then up again at 4, then back again. The Sustiva that I take for HIV was really mixing with the jetlag to disturb my sleep patterns. This is not going to be easy, getting back into my regular routine. However, I do plan to volunteer down at Kulak's tonight. I miss my friends!
So, all is well. If we don't answer the phone, it's because we probably unplugged it.