|Not to be confused with an actual rock star|
This goes on for a while. Caught some kind of wave and couldn't stop.
So there we were on the Lower East Side.
I wish I could paint it from memory and drop you right down into it, but memory lies and as usual I wasn’t paying all that much attention.
Rat City, 1990.
David Dinkins is in charge and the city is going down. AIDS is killing everyone, you watch your friends turn Biafran overnight and two weeks later they’re gone. Crack is everywhere and unlike every other drug plague, this one turns every user into a psychotic zombie. They’re out of it but they’re fucking aggressive, so crime is like the weather, it’s a fact, a thing you accept.
Nancy’s working Off-Broadway and doing some soap opera work, I’m writing crazy shit no one wants to produce and auditioning for roles I don’t want in shows that suck and getting a few callbacks but no gigs. Nancy recognizes the larger implications and says,
“Let’s do it ourselves. Let’s just put up these shows. Why not?”
We’d hooked up with two brilliant producer/hipsters from Boston and they called themselves House of Borax. In Boston, or so the legend went, you’d staplegun an empty box of Borax or Tide or some other detergent onto a warehouse door and that was the signal that Wild Theater was going to go down on the other side. They were trying to bring this theater rave scene to Gotham and Nancy and I climbed aboard the train.
The Boraxians had made a deal with a dealer named Cam who oversaw a place called The Piano Store on Ludlow. Cam was running an illegal after-hours club and he had it set up nice with a bar and hash brownies on the counter and a real sound system. He wanted some kind of entertainment to happen around 10:30, some kind of faintly legitimate beard for those few authorities who might be paying attention. The plan was we’d do a show at 10:30, we’d be down by midnight, people would hang out afterwards and then come 2:00, 2:30 the real crowd would roll in.
And thanks to the guerilla producing genius of the Boraxians and our hustling every friend we knew to come down, it was a success. We played through the summer of ’91, a different show every weekend and the place was packed. Aaron Beall was starting his empire across the street and we didn’t even know.
Like all too many good things it ended bad. I didn’t think their stuff was as good as ours and said so. Tried to make a deal where the Boraxians would produce and we’d be in charge of the artistic side. After an epic twelve hour conversation/argument around my aunt’s dining room table in Gramercy Park we parted ways.
Thank you, David and Karen. You threw us into the deep end and you knew how to swim.
So that blew up but we had managed to make enough noise to get an echo back, so we kept putting up shows wherever we could.
Looking back, I know now where we made our first fateful misstep, but it seemed like the logical path at the time. We were performing in bars that summer. Bars without liquor licenses. Speakeasys, so everyone knew as soon as they walked in that something was fundamentally wrong.
Very rock and roll.
But that wasn’t a choice or any kind of plan, that’s just what happened. So now we’re looking at theaters. And we start playing little tiny theaters. And it’s still cool, we’re still getting an audience but it’s not quite as much fun. We’re too young and green to calibrate what’s happening, we think maybe it’s the show or the script or the fact that we’re too tired from working all day, but the high is definitely not the same.
But people are coming and the mailing list is growing, so we start an actual company, The Present Company, and we print up business cards and we meet Elena Holy and she’s all business thank god and we’re in the game.
And then Aaron Beall walks into our lives.
The story of Beall is too good and long and unbelievable to get shoe-horned in here, but give me a quick moment of your life to prep you for the eventual telling, if it ever comes to pass. Go grab a drink or check your email and come back, this is good.
Aaron was a little guy, couldn’t have been more than five foot seven, but he walked like a giant and in his day, when it was working for him, he ruled every room he was in. He played the trickster fool and revealed the power only at the end, turning over the ace in the hole only at the last pass when all the money was on the table.
He ran Todo con Nada, one of the perfectly named outfits on the street. The others were Surf Reality and Collective Unconscious, so you get a sense of the careless genius and surfeit knowledge that was hanging in the very air of the neighborhood in those days.
Nada was a pit, a basement room with seven foot ceilings, no wing space, seventy seats and you changed in the back in Aaron’s office. Depending on where you hung the back curtain you had a couple of feet backstage and behind you, always at your back, was the roaring nightlife of Ludlow Street. People screaming, cops arresting the screaming people, other people screaming at the cops arresting their once screaming now silent friends, it was something all right.
So you had to be more interesting than the street. A great challenge, something the Elizabethans would have instantly understood.
And Aaron hooked us up with Brian Parks who had written an odd little comedy called Vomit and Roses and we put on that show at Nada and things started getting strange and wonderful.
And more people showed up and I remember like this morning a winter night when I stood in the backyard of Nada and looked up at the night sky and listened to a full house of complete strangers howling and shrieking in joy while Vomit and Roses thrashed around on the stage in front of them and I thought
We’ve made it. This is show biz. We’ve got a hit.
Of course, none of us made a dime, not even Aaron who tried to rip us off.
Remember: you changed in Aaron’s office.
So when the show started, I was stuck in the back.
In Aaron’s office.
I’d listen to the beginning of the show and then I’d go out to the backyard and smoke, but other than that there I was sitting at his desk. And I saw the envelopes, each night’s take, sitting there on the desk in front of me. The envelopes were empty, of course, but written on the front of each one was the total take. So I’d copy down the amount in a notebook and at the end of the run I knew exactly how much money we’d brought in. So when it came time to settle, about a month after we closed, Aaron says
Looks like you did good. I owe you 855 dollars.
And I say smoothly
We did do good. I think you owe us 1,346.
And I hear the pause and the swallow and the penny dropping and Aaron comes back smoother than me,
Yeah, that sounds right.
My partner in crime, my downtown mentor, the man who stole my youth and made me grow up, Aaron Beall.
Stories will be told and facts will be disputed and if it goes right, someday, blood will be shed but that’s all I’ve got for now.
And with Aaron and a few others, the New York Fringe was born in 1997.
And that was full-on, no-brakes, hide-your-daughters, pray-to-Jesus rock and roll.
You’ve got blisters on your fingers?
Fuck you, I’ve got blisters on my feet from running down box offices all over the Lower East Side. I haven’t slept in a bed in ten days motherfucker and I’m just waiting for someone to die so they’ll shut us down and I can go the hell home.
And that’s where and when I met Ian Hill and Kirk Bromley and Art Wallace and Al Orensanz and Rob Prichard and Bob and Patrick and everyone else at Collective Unconscious and for a brief moment there, maybe two years, there was an uneasy but very enjoyable unification of the tribes.
And then that blew up, mostly just because of real estate prices and the fact that all good things go bad if you’re not tending them carefully.
But this is supposed to be about rock and roll and theater and how they’re not the same thing.
Goddamned Aaron Beall, got me off-track again.
So fast forward ten years or so and we’ve left the Fringe behind and improbably become minor art stars overseas. And we’re touring and getting crazy good reviews and awards and all of that, but it’s not actually rock and roll.
As I’ve written elsewhere, it’s an American jazz musician’s life, playing an essential, original American style, wailing as hard as you know how and looking out at a crowd of Europeans. Wonderful and you’re thankful to be there, but a little weird.
It was this last time, out on the road with Apocalypse, when the pieces started coming together for me.
It takes me a while sometimes, but I usually get it in the end.
We were in one of the smaller venues, New Pitsligo or Braemar, and the crowd had come in and we were about to start and instead of thinking “I hope they like it” or “Let’s blow the roof off of this place” I had a strange thought that was something like,
I hope the show respects these people and I hope they recognize that respect and listen to what it’s trying to say.
Not something you usually associate with rock and roll.
Because rock and roll is outlaw. All of it, that’s the whole territory. The best rock and roll announces its lack of respect at the very top and kicks it up harder from there.
The job of the rock and roll musician is to drive the crowd insane, to focus them on desire and release and personal power and complete abandon. Watch Shine a Light and you’ll see a group of trained, experienced rock and roll artists doing exactly that with extraordinary precision. They’re old men and they’re consciously and patiently invoking Dionysus with every move.
The job of the theater artist couldn’t be more different. We’re trying to create consensus. We’re trying to scare out the inner spirits and thoughts and demons, just like rock and roll, but then we freeze the moment, shine the light, so to speak, and ask the crowd
Is this what we want? Is this who we are?
Rock and roll is all about being reckless.
Theater is all about responsibility.
Rock and roll is all about me.
Theater's about us.
It’s something C.J. Hopkins taught me, patiently, over many years and many shows. Great theater, powerful theater and the most subversive theater is all about being on the inside. Being fully complicit with the crowd and acknowledging that fact, clearly and constantly. Being aware of the crowd and respectful of the room.
It’s the difference between shouting at a drunk in the street
What’s the matter with you? Go home, sober up, you’re throwing your life away!
and sitting down with your brother and saying,
Look man, I love you and I think you’ve got a problem and I’m sorry to be an asshole and bring it up, but you’ve got to stop drinking, you don’t do it well.
One is an arrogant, misguided intrusion into a stranger’s life.
The other is an act of love and concern.
One is rock and roll, brash, loud and public.
The other is theater, thoughtful and controlled and one on one.
And that’s the whole thing.
It also has a lot to do with my father’s great insight, something that makes no sense when you hear it as a young man but something you know in your bones is true a little later:
Nothing of any consequence happens after midnight.
The key word being consequence. Because we all know that most of the amazing and terrifying and hilarious things we’ve survived all happened after midnight, well after midnight, in those small hours when nothing matters but who you’re with and what you want and what you think you can get away with and that, my friends, is rock and roll.
And if you’re not up past midnight, if instead you’ve retired sensibly with a book, you miss out on the madness.
But you get the morning.
You get those quiet hours before the world starts calling and knocking on your door and waving that goddamned watch in your face telling you exactly how late you’re going to be to that thing you don’t even want to got to in the first place.
You get the morning and your head is clear and you can look at things and watch things weigh themselves and maybe write a few things down that you can look over later.
Rock and roll kicks in best after midnight when you stop thinking too clearly.
Theater rewards the thoughtful and reflective and those paying the most attention.
So theater isn’t rock and roll.
It’s taken me half a lifetime (Gob willing) to figure that out.
I’m no rock star. I make plays and try to put them on and make enough money to do it again down the road. And I love that I get to do what I do.
But I also know if I were given the terrible choice and the two bonfires were laid out before me, one stacked high with every play ever written and the other a great pyre of every rock and roll album ever released and they handed me the lit match, well…
I’d like to think that I’d hesitate, at least for a moment.
Shakespeare. Aeschylus and Sophocles and Brecht and Wilder and Genet and Shepard and Williams. Everything I’ve ever written and directed and performed and seen.
But I know what I’d do and the pages and speeches and stage directions would all burn.
And I suspect, or at least I hope, that every American theater artist of my generation (and certainly every theater artist of my temperament) would make the same choice.
Without theater, I’d have to create a whole new life.
But if I never heard the opening chords of You Shook Me All Night Long again?
How would I even know I was alive?
And that’s why I’m standing here before you now, digitally speaking.
Because at 16, I didn’t have the talent or courage to pick up an instrument and become a rock and roll casualty.
I chose the theater, this bizarre shifting plot of holy ground where I try to do honorable battle every time I get the chance. It was the right choice, no question.
But it ain’t rock and roll.