Category Archives: Bluer Than Midnight

Time Waits for No One, Not on My Side


Where’s the “off” button on this thing, anyway?

Sorry it’s been so long between postings, but, some time during early October, life accidentally bumped the hyperdrive switch, and I’ve been violently sucked into an uber-accelerated time vortex, and it’s been all I can do just to clutch the safety bar while my rattling little cart has climbed, dived, slid, and shuddered into the curves.

Hyperbole? Well, yes. But it has been busy. In addition to working 50+ hour weeks at my day job as a mild-mannered technical editor, I finished the working draft of Immaterial Matters–a new full-length drama I’ve very pleased with.

I’m helping Playwrights West, a new Portland theatre company, get off the ground (including building and launching a last-minute Web site to serve as a placeholder until we can build a better site).

I shot, framed, and hung a photo project for a production of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love and served on a public panel discussing Sam’s work.

I reconnected with one of my oldest friends (then promptly dropped the ball when the schedule overwhelmed me–sorry, Scott), and I got together with Jack Boulware, a college/journalist buddy, in town to promote his terrific new book Gimme’ Someting Better (and more to come on that).

Deb and I managed to go see Bob Dylan and B.B. King, both beyond wonderful but Tuesday-night concerts which left me wasted the rest of the week.

I shot a portrait of a charming transvestite for Pulp Diction, a January new works reading series and part of Portland’s Fertile Ground New Works Festival, which includes my newish full-length play The Rewrite Man–which, of course, I had to rewrite.

I’ve made huge leaps forward with my guitar playing (I think), bought Deb a new Ibanez acoustic as an anniversary present (we’ve been jamming together, which has been wonderful), bought and broke in a new Vox amp (because Deb’s new guitar has an electronic pick-up, and I happily returned the great Roland amp she’d been loaning me), and, this week, completely lost my mind and bought an Epiphone Sheraton II semi-hollow body electric (more on that to come as well).

Plus the car blew up and needed major repairs, we had a small dinner party for my yearly winter dish, Beef Bourguignon, and, after writing three full-length plays in two years, I decided to take a break from playwriting…to write a non-fiction book (and stil more on that down the road, naturally). In my spare time, I managed to begin writing a song. Because, you know, I didn’t have enough to do.

Finally, three vetebras in my neck went out (stress, perhaps?), and I’ve pretty much been in constant pain for weeks, but I’ve been so busy that I couldn’t get to my doctor until this past week. (Getting better, thanks.)

Things, pleasantly, look to slow down in a little while–right after the PR I have to do for Playwrights West (also part of Fertile Ground), rehearsals for The Rewrite Man (and possible rewrite), two grants I should hear yea or nay on this month, a new round of play submissions, some work as a regional Dramatists Guild representative, photos I owe some friends, revamps of Playwrights West’s and my own Web sites, research on the new writing project, and then this upcoming “Christmas” event…whatever that is. Plus another couple play rewrites with looming deadlines.

So my apologies for the posts I haven’t written, phone calls and e-mails I haven’t returned, or any other balls I’ve managed to drop. I’ve been lucky to hang on to the pair I was issued years ago.

At some point, the fatigue morphs from agony to giddiness. At least that’s what they tell me: I’m still waiting.

In short, if I owe any of you stuff–scripts, pictures, calls, or new blog posts–please bear with me. I’ll get to it right after…. Well, it’s on my mind, okay?

My to-do list includes: “update to-do list.”

S


Talk About Bluer Than Midnight


Riding with the King….

Tonight, boys and girls. Believe it.


The Best of Old, Weird America

William S. Burroughs once wrote that America is not a new land, but rather is old, cursed, and strange, which resonates with me, given my taste for the old, cursed, and strange. In college, I well remember a lecture by Professor Barbara Mossberg which lodged in my head like a barbed arrow: she put forth that an intrinsic part of the country’s nature is that we’re both blessed and damned: blessed with what we’ve been given (or, in the case of the European Boat People, taken) and what we’ve done with it. That the rich, verdant woods of New England offered game, birds, and new plant foods, but also harbored dark spirits and demons ready to draw us astray: the kind of demons that can, say, lure a Bible-thumping, holier-than-thou Southern politician and suddenly immerse him in a train-wrecking affair with a lonely Argentinian and a public fall from grace so spectacular that it boggles our already over-boggled minds.

Griel Marcus wrote a book on American music that’s steeped in this tradition. Mystery Train, which is ostensibly about The Basement Tapes, a weird and righteous collection of uncategorizable music that Bob Dylan made with The Band in a pink barn in Woodstock when Dylan was recuperating from a near-fatal motorcycle accident, and which simultaneously removed himself from a star-making machinery that was increasingly frenetic, out-of-control, and destined to make Dylan yet another pop culture martyr.

Dylan, one of our most wiley artists, feinted left and cut right, escaping his fate and delving into a deep well of folk/Americana, revamping it with electric instruments and an outlook shaped by what he called “medicine.” (“Drugs are bad for you, but medicine–beer, wine, dope, opium, acid–that’s good for almost everybody.” Subsequently, everybody did get stoned.) Until 1975, the only hints of what happened in Woodstock (which is more or less a sleepy Catskills town, despite its ties to the gigantic Woodstock Festival), emerged in The Band’s magnificent album “Music from Big Pink” and a few stray live Dylan performances where tunes like “Nothing was Delivered” and “Down in the Flood” emerged. There were, however, so many bootleg copies of the music floating around that Columbia Records finally talked Dylan and The Band into releasing “The Basement Tapes,” which still sound pretty damned good on a warm summer night…with a little medicine.

Marcus drew a connection between the strange, antique but forward-looking music that came from that session–which could arguably be seen as the genesis of both country rock and alt rock–and the supremely odd, little known music of Dock Boggs, Charley Patton, and Appalachin murder ballads–a music both blessed and damned.

These themes have stuck with me and, I think, carried through to a number of my plays–“Malaria,” “Farmhouse,” “Bombardment”–but especially to the two “music plays” I’ve written: “Lost Wavelengths” (a piece about outsider musicians done at JAW in 2006 and winner of the Oregon Book Award last year) and “Bluer Than Midnight” (a piece about the Civil Rights Movement, the Blues, and the Afterlife, written last year and yet to have a public reading…I’m waiting to hear back reactions from a number of friends and colleagues who are reading the piece–you know who you are–but an earlier draft was well received in Portland Center Stage’s late, great PlayGroup playwrights workshop). After the JAW reading of “Lost Wavelengths,” a fellow playwright clapped me on the shoulder, laughed, and said, “What are you? An audiophile?” I’ve never thought of myself that way, but I said, “I guess I am now.”

Fast forward to…well, the week before last, when I was browsing at Powell’s on a summery afternoon, and found a neat little book called The Best Music You’ve Never Heard,” which is, pretty much, what the title says: short pieces on terrific bands and musicians who, for a myriad of reasons–from bad business moves, self-destructive tendencies, and abject weirdness–never broke into the mainstream. I was surprised to see some names I was completely familiar with, which either means the book was more inclusive than I would expect or that I’m more of a music nerd than I suspected…probably a bit of both. Nobody, for example, who’s lived in New Orleans considers Professor Longhair obscure. There were, however, a wealth of splendid people I’d never heard of, and the book has been opened a terrific treasure chest of wild sounds.

I haven’t made it though the entire book yet, as a band will catch my attention, and then I track them down on the Internet, but the one band that especially blew my mind was The Handsome Family, a husband-wife duo from New Mexico, who write achingly gorgeous alt.country melodies matched with some of the strangest, most surreal lyrics imaginable, about whispering plants and invisible birds singing on ends of tree limbs. I’ve been trying to come up with some sort of description of their work, and closest I can come up with is “Johnny Cash Sings Edgar Allen Poe’s Greatest Hits.” It’s music that takes you to a strange, head-spinning place and then walks icy fingers up your spine. In a word: sublime.

THE HANDSOME FAMILY STANDING IN A CORNFIELD

So naturally, I had to track down The Handsome Family’s Web site, and, lo and behold, their tour schedule shows they’ll be playing Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge on July 21st. If at all possible, I’ll be there. If you want to hear something remarkable, I suggest you are too.

Now, if you ‘scuse me for a minute, I got to play my guitar.


Axe of Kindness

Last August, I was deep in the process of writing Bluer Than Midnight, a weird, noir-insprired two-act about The Blues, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Afterlife (no, really), when, taken with a wild notion, I went and bought a guitar because I figured, well, how can you write about the Blues from the inside without trying to play it? A quaint notion, but still….

Anyway, after a year of struggling with my Strat, I finally managed, this weekend, to play a Blues song above my usual profound level of lameness such that I enjoyed myself. It’s “You Gotta Move,” a Fred McDowell tune that the Stones covered on “Sticky Fingers.” I’d looked up the tabs on the Internet, but the key was a challenging one for me, so I actually, honest-to-God transposed it to a key I could play (that’s “A” boys and girls), and the pieces came together. Plus, the song’s within my extensive, five-note vocal range; so I could actually sing the goddamn thing without hellishly embarassing myself.

Afterwards, I kind of sat back in a fugue state, my left hand aching like hell because I ended up playing it nonstop for about a half-hour, and thought: “Damn…I really did it. I’ll be go to hell. I feel incredibly high.”

And then I tried to play something else and was immediately humbled.

The play’s more or less finished until it goes on to the next stage–a workshop or public reading–and I’m happy with it and looking forward to seeing where its journey next takes it. But whether it lives or dies, it’s given me a moment I’ll always remember.


A Little Midnight


I’ve talked a little bit about “Bluer Than Midnight”–my play about the Civil Rights Movement, the Blues…and the Afterlife–a little bit here, but I haven’t shared any of it. So, just for the hell of it, here’s a sample. Virgil’s trying to track down a missing Freedom Rider and aspiring blues musician…on the other side. Naturally, his quest leads him to the Crossroads, where he meets a Stranger. Try reading it while playing the Little Junior Parker tune in the post below….

STRANGER
What brings you to these crossroads on such a disagreeable night?

VIRGIL
It’s beautiful this evening.

Flash of lightning. Thunder. This continues throughout scene.

VIRGIL
Here to meet someone.

STRANGER
And who might that be?

VIRGIL
Not sure. Thought you might know.

STRANGER
Me? I don’t even know you. How would I know your party?

VIRGIL
Thought you might be the guy.

STRANGER
Is that so? What’s your name?

VIRGIL
Virgil. What’s yours?

STRANGER
Can’t you guess? Call me…. Well, what difference does it make? Let’s suppose, for conversation sake, I’d be the person you’re looking for. What would you want from me?

VIRGIL
Information.

STRANGER
Oh? I can provide many kinds of information. The thing is, for the information to be of any value to you, it would have to be of value to me. I’m just as helpful as I can be, but I’m not in the habit of giving things away. One must get by, you know?

VIRGIL
Got about a hundred bucks left. You can have that.

STRANGER
A whole hundred dollars? That’s gracious. But I’m hesitant to traffic in currency. It’s so uncertain. One day, everybody wants it. Time passes, it’s just paper.

VIRGIL
If I had gold, I’d give you that. I don’t.

STRANGER
Gold is so…heavy. And basically I’m very, very lazy.

VIRGIL
What would you suggest?

STRANGER
Sir…I don’t make suggestions.


Okay…

The new piece is called Bluer Than Midnight. It has to do with The Blues, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Afterlife. Just another ordinary, average drama.

S