Catastrophic Theatre Teams With Pixies Legend Black Francis to Create New Rock Opera
Bluefinger premieres November 12.
The Catastrophic Theatre is pleased to announce the world premiere of the new Black Francis rock opera Bluefinger: The Fall and Rise of Herman Brood, featuring songs and concepts by Black Francis and Herman Brood and adapted for the stage by Jason Nodler from an idea by Pixies biographer Josh Frank.
Bluefinger was inspired by the critically acclaimed 2007 Black Francis album of the same name. The album was Francis’ first concept album and was also significant for marking a return to the stage name he’d used with his legendary band Pixies after a long solo career under the name of Frank Black. The album focuses entirely on the life and death of Herman Brood, a Dutch artist, rocker and junkie who leapt to his death from the roof of the Amsterdam Hilton in 2001 at the age of 54.
In 2008, Josh Frank attended the Austin production of the original Daniel Johnston phantasmagoria Speeding Motorcycle, created and directed by Nodler. After the performance, Frank expressed his longstanding desire to do the same sort of thing with the work of Charles Thompson (a.k.a. Black Francis/Frank Black). A few weeks later Thompson and Frank met and Thompson expressed an interest in a theatrical version of his recent album Bluefinger. Frank introduced Thompson to Nodler who began to listen to the record in the interest of developing the play.
Among the songs on the album, one stood out to Nodler as the lynchpin of any stage version; “Your Mouth Into Mine” seemed to be an almost religious expression of that phenomenon of taking the work of another artist so personally that we go beyond identifying with them and almost become them – where the artist, more than just speaking for us, provides the inspiration for us to speak for ourselves. According to Thompson this song is about Brood feeling this way towards his American rock heroes, but in listening to it Nodler had the same experience with the music of Black Francis. As he further researched Brood’s own music, the floodgates opened. The deep and personal connection he felt with the songs of both of these artists would become the basis for the early development of the play.
All my days, I’ve been listening to you play
I’ve spent all my days driving, all my nights trying
You are so big but that don’t make me so small
You rule the world but now I’m standing tall
I’m taking your mouth into mine
Over the play’s two-year development, Nodler received useful advice and guidance from many people: Frank, Francis, and Nodler’s longtime collaborator Anthony Barilla who joined him in a month-long NEA fellowship at The MacDowell Colony where early work on the project began in earnest. But perhaps the most useful guiding principle came from Brood’s manager and friend of 30 years Koos Van Dijk when he said, “Don’t worry too much about Herman. He will be there. Use your own blues.”
Bluefinger is the story of Herman Brood to be sure but it is also the story of each of the artists that have laid fingers on it, living or not. It is the story of a long lineage of artists who have taken the mouths of those that went before into their own, creating in the process work that spans generations and transcends the work of any one of them in favor of work that belongs to our historic culture. In this case, Brood took from Little Richard and Mose Allison (among so many others), Francis took from Brood and Nodler took from them all. This is how artists become legend, how they outwit death.
Brood was famous in his native Holland for his music and art, but he was equally well known for his wild lifestyle. A masterful manipulator of the media, he was the subject of a biographical film, various TV and film documentaries and countless books dedicated to chronicling his biography, his musical career, his writings and his art. He was also notoriously addicted to speed and alcohol and stood apart from other celebrities by speaking openly and unapologetically about his habits to the media. He was also addicted to sex and gambling but his most powerful and enduring addiction was for the spotlight.
For more than 30 years, Brood was the most unique character on the scene in Holland. For weeks at a time he would appear in public dressed as an airline stewardess or in pajamas or with a parrot on his head and parrot shit on his hair and shoulders. For a period he carried two guns on his waist, though they were illegal in his country. For more than a year he wore a saxophone around his neck though he could not play it. He was constantly performing street actions and causing commotions. He was romantically linked for a time to the German musician Nina Hagen and appeared in a feature film with her which launched yet another career for Brood. Indeed he was an actor, a poet, a singer, a piano player, a songwriter, a rock and roll star, a highly successful visual artist and a media phenomenon.
What most sets Brood’s life apart from other rock and roll stories was his philosophy toward life and the way in which it played out in public. He was as famous for his ever-changing costumes and daily public antics as he was for his music and paintings. More than any other contemporary figure, Brood’s life was his art.
And yet, apart from a brief period of success in the U.S. during the late 1970’s (a period that ended abruptly with a disastrous New York showcase), his notoriety was confined almost exclusively to his native Holland. He has been called The Netherlands’ “most famous and only rock star,” his paintings are omnipresent throughout his country, and millions of words have been used to explore the impact he made. But they are all in Dutch. Until Black Francis made the record dedicated to him, few on this side of the Atlantic even knew Brood existed. The true story of his life is one of the most interesting, dynamic and dramatic stories still to be told and yet, until the album and the upcoming play, one had to go to Holland to hear it.
Inspired by Black Francis’ characteristically abstract lyrics, the play’s story is told in a non-linear fashion, emphasizing themes over biographical narrative including the desire to make a mark on the world before departing it and to live life fiercely and to its fullest. Stylistically the play takes a cue from Brecht in its use of stand-alone scenes and songs which accrete into larger ideas. The audience will be free to draw its own conclusions and those conclusions will likely be as diverse and far-ranging as those his countrymen had to Brood’s own life and work.
The play has been conceived and will be directed by The Catastrophic Theatre’s Artistic Director Jason Nodler, a playwright and director who has collaborated with artists as eclectic as legendary outsider artist Daniel Johnston, Pulitzer prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and Emmy award-winning actor Jim Parsons. Nodler has worked closely with Francis to realize the theatrical adaptation of his album.
Texas musicians Matt Kelly (as Brood) and Michael Haaga (as Black Francis) will star. During the 1990’s, Kelly and Haaga fronted two of the most influential and popular bands in Texas: the funk act Sprawl and the metal explosion Dead Horse, respectively. Kelly’s subsequent bands Rugrash, middlefinger, Les Saucy Pants and Lick Lick, which alternately combined punk, rock, pop, blues and lounge music, have each been wildly popular in Houston and Austin. Haaga went on to play with Superjoint Ritual before creating his acclaimed solo album The Plus and Minus Show which featured an all-star line-up, swept local award shows and was universally praised in the press as the best pop album produced in Texas in recent memory.
The music, more than 20 songs by Francis and Brood, will be performed by two live bands comprised of some of the best musicians in Houston and Austin.
Nodler’s longtime collaborator Anthony Barilla, a resident of Kosovo, will travel to Texas to provide support in creating and arranging the play and music. Barilla is an accomplished and prolific writer, musician, composer and theatre artist. His work, both for Infernal Bridegroom Productions and his band seximals, has received extensive play on college radio stations and was included in NPR’s official release of music from This American Life. Houston composer, musician and arranger John Duboise, best known for his participation in local string quartet Two Star Symphony and his own original compositions inspired by the work of Edward Gorey, will direct the music from onstage.
Bluefinger received support from The MAP Fund, a program of Creative Capital supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.