Black Francis and Catastrophic Theatre Stage a Rock Resurrection
It’s been a few days since Monday night when The Pixies came to town on their Doolittle Tour but that doesn’t mean the city has stopped slicing up eyeballs or dancing the manta ray. Art Attack had the pleasure of meeting frontman Black Francis (a.k.a Frank Black, a.k.a. Charles Thompson) earlier that afternoon at DiverseWorks Art Space where a short rehearsal of Catastrophic Theatre’s Bluefinger was being held. Based on the Black Francis album of the same name and featuring two separate on-stage bands, the upcoming play/rock opera still has several weeks before its November 12 opening date, and things are already sounding great.
The Bluefinger album was conceptually inspired by the life of the one-of-a-kind Dutch artist/musician Herman Brood (pronounced “broat”), a legend in his own country who remains relatively unknown to the rest of the world. Catastrophic’s artistic director Jason Nodler, the same man behind the Daniel Johnston musical adaptation Speeding Motorcycle, has combined songs from the album as well as songs by Brood himself to create his own work of epic theatre about the life of this enigmatic artist.
Dropping by between a few bikram yoga sessions, Thompson had a front-row seat to watch the two sets of songs that had been selected for the play. Michael Haaga, who is fronting the on-stage Black Francis band, tells Art Attack that he “began to shake a little bit” when it sunk in: “this is more than a rehearsal, this is a mini-performance for ‘the man’ himself.” Similarly, Matt Kelly says “I’ve only posted one thing on Facebook in my life and it was right after we had played the songs for Charles, and I believe my post was along the lines of ‘Next time I play songs for Frank Black by one of his favorite rock stars, I’m going to know the songs first.'” Kelly is coming down from Austin, where he works as a schoolteacher, to be a part of the show, and he and the Brood band have so far had only a few practices, which Art Attack was dumbfounded to hear, given the heavy rock thunder they were pounding out on Monday. Both front-men agreed that, despite their nerves and so-called “flubs,” playing for Thompson was an amazing experience.
Matt Kelly: “The guy emanates warmth … He just has this way of diffusing any tension or anxiety about the project, and he reminded me just what the reason for the project is. He talked with boyish excitement about YouTube videos of Herman and things he had learned about Herman and how he found out about his music — and it’s not just his music that interests Charles, it’s the whole package, the crazy/distinct persona that is Herman. So he seems to cast a spell of calmness and seems to generate excitement and good feelings about the whole project, and so, though it was intimidating playing for him, I think, ultimately, it was a real honor, it was a privilege, and I tried to get his assurances that he’d be there for the show as well.
Indeed, Thompson cast a presence of serenity and delight as he watched the show, chatted with the bands and crew, posed for photos, and even banged on a guitar for a bit — it must be all that yoga.
And no wonder he and his group weren’t thrilled when a fight broke out during their gig that night — bad energy!
Like most Americans, Art Attack was also unfamiliar with Herman Brood until Bluefinger came around, and since then we have been finding stories (and videos) across the internet. We asked Kelly what it was like to be inhabiting the role of this rock-and-roll-cipher.
MK: “I had not heard of Herman before, and after Jason told me about this rock opera, and after I had gotten my work to agree to let me move to Houston for two months — I’m a high school English teacher, so that took a little bit of work to get them to let me leave, but unbelievably they did agree to let me do that. But anyway, once I learned about him, I just immersed myself in his music. I guess that was the first step. I found every single thing I could find and listened to it all.
Some of it’s glorious, some of it’s cheesy (especially during the 80s), but it didn’t take long for me to become sort of fascinated with him–maybe not in the same way or to the same degree that Charles Thompson did, but I could soon realize what the appeal of his figure was to people and is to people. And that will mean something different to every person you ask, but I guess I’m one of them now. I’m among the fans now. And after I listened to every single thing I could find, I realized it would be in my best interest to go where everybody knows who Herman Brood is, and there’s only one place in the world that is, and that’s Holland. I went there last summer and enjoyed very much the fact that every bar, every party, every train you’re on will have people who can tell you Herman stories. Sometimes you’ll even meet people who knew him, or had an experience with him, or used to see him in the neighborhood trying to find drugs, or whatever the case may be. That was an important step for me as far as immersing myself in all things Herman.
I met his manager Koos, who is an extremely important figure in Herman’s career. I met his friend Ivo de Longe, who was his art dealer and friend, especially toward the last decade or so of his life, and that helped a lot too. I think that the key maxim that we’re heeding here is something that Koos Van Dijk, Herman’s longtime manager, said to us. He said you should “use your own blues.” He said this to Jason, and he said this to me as well. Use your own blues, meaning: Find what it is about Herman that’s appealing to you, something you can latch onto about him, that you share with him, or that you like about him, and who knows if it’s really true or not. Herman was a ‘crazy artist’ figure enough that Koos kept emphasizing to us that it’s not sacred. There’s not a set-in-stone understanding of who Herman is that we are likely to offend if we stay within reason. So I guess that’s a ‘to be continued’ question. I will not be taking tons of speed.”
Still curious as to how all this was going to come together on stage, we talked with writer/director Jason Nodler about all things Brood.
Art Attack: How did the project come about?
Jason Nodler: “I was directing Speeding Motorcycle in Austin and Josh Frank, the Pixies biographer, came to see it. He’s been to a lot of our shows over the years. Josh and my little brother grew up together, they were really good friends, so I’ve known Josh since he was a kid. He’s come to a lot of our shows, and he came to that one, and we went out after and he said ‘you know, I’ve always wanted to do this thing with Charles’s music.’ And, you know, I’m a big fan, so I said if there’s any way I can help, let me know. About two weeks later, he called and said ‘I had lunch with Charles and he’s really interested in a theatrical — something,’ some sort of theatrical adaptation of Bluefinger. I didn’t have the album yet; it had only come out a few months before.”
AA: Choosing Bluefinger came from Charles?
JN: “Yeah. I can imagine making a theatre piece out of a lot of different records or musical sources but Bluefinger really lends itself to it, because it really is a concept album. And I really immediately fell in love with Bluefinger. The story of Herman Brood really spoke to me, and Charles’s sort of abstract explanation of the phenomenon of how we always sort of … you know, there’s this song ‘Your Mouth Into Mine,’ which I really identify with, and I think anybody would, because you know, when I’m driving across the country on the interstate, and I’m singing along with Blood on the Tracks, I’m not singing to Sarah Dylan. These are my songs now, and I wrote them, and they’re about me and some chick that I know. And that was a really good foothold for me. And then I became aware of Herman himself, first through the record and then through extensive study of Herman’s life and his art, and it turns out to be that his life is so fascinating, it’s really the stuff of mythology. It went from feeling like … I’ll just say it’s been through a lot of versions in my mind, how to stage this thing, and as Herman became more and more involved, the play became much more epic in scope. Then you start to explore the events that make up a life like Herman’s, which is so different than anyone else’s in a lot of ways, and yet there’s so much to recognize in it. When I went to the Netherlands and I was talking with Herman’s manager Koos, he instructed me not to try too hard to get the story exactly, literally right, because Herman is so many different things to so many different people and he was constantly changing himself. I’d ask about a particular lyric. I’d say, ‘I can’t quite make out the lyric; is he saying this or that,’ and Koos would say, ‘That’s up to you. Herman changed the songs every night. Now it’s your turn to change them. Use your own blues.’ And that was very easy for me to do, because I identify with Herman on so many levels.”
AA: Is that the concept that ties the whole play together — this sort of food chain of artists — your mouth into mine?
JN: “Whenever I do any play, I’m really doing it from the perspective of being a fan and finding myself at a point where I’ve enjoyed something so much, and it’s meant so much to me, and it’s had an impact on my life, then the only way to sort of continue with that very meaningful experience to me is to share it with other people and then to experience it again freshly through their experience of it. So I feel the same way about Herman that I did about Daniel Johnston–if all I do is create a couple new Herman Brood fans, I’ll feel like that’s the best thing I could have done. Black Francis doesn’t need my help that way. But I think he felt–I can’t speak for him, but I think he feels similarly–that he wants people to know about Herman. You find out about this guy and one of the most interesting things about him is that he was the biggest star in his country’s contemporary history, and there’s just this incredible wealth of information about him (books, movies, television appearances), and yet it’s all in Dutch. So he’s not just unknown outside of his own country, he’s almost unknowable outside his own country unless you know Dutch! And for a period, his dream was to be an international star, and that really meant America, and that meant he had to make it in America. And he did have a measure of success in America in his rock-and-roll career.”
AA: With “Saturday Night?”
JN: “Yeah. ‘Saturday Night’ was the key to it. That was his biggest hit; it made it to 35 on the Billboard charts. And it resulted in his being brought to America by a management company that gave him a record deal, recorded an album in America, and put him on a tour in support of the Kinks, the Cars and Foreigner, and he was riding really high. And then he had this important showcase at [New York’s] The Bottom Line, which he had insisted on. The Bottom Line was very important to him, because all of his heroes had played important shows there. I mean, it’s a small hall compared to a lot of the places he was playing, but that was the one that he wanted and his agency or management company, or whatever, in America was really high on him, and they had arranged for every A&R person, everyone that was important in the music industry. They even brought representatives from Saturday Night Live, because they were like ‘Saturday Night,’ Saturday Night Live, what a great fit, and they were going to make him into what he dreamed of being.”
JN: (cont.) “He famously blew that gig. Herman was an alcoholic and a speed addict, and those two substances really balanced each other, so he found a good balance in which he could perform, create, live his life, all the time full of booze and full of speed. And when one or the other was gone, the whole thing went to hell. Particularly, when speed was gone, he became incredibly drunk. Otherwise people were like ‘I’ve never seen him drunk,’ and he was drinking a liter of booze every day. But the speed evened it out. And when he did the Bottom Line gig, he had run out of speed. And there’s a very long and complicated and fascinating story that could itself be the focus of an entire play or movie, about the efforts to get him the speed he needed for this particular gig, but they all fell through, and he wound up doing the show incredibly drunk. He was in the laps of the agents, singing in their ears. He thought it was going great; he started singing in Dutch. He made an ass of himself. And he ended his career that night, to a certain extent. He ended any chance for American success; the sky had been the limit in terms of what kind of success he could hope to find in America, and therefore worldwide. Right after that gig, the agents came to him and told him to go home. He was at that point (1979) in his 30s, and he was riding so high–he was like Icarus, and he flew too close to the sun. And he had to go back to the Netherlands, which triggered a very depressive period for him, and what do you do when you’ve come that close to achieving the life you’ve imagined for yourself and then it’s gone and it’s your fault? You’ve done it to yourself. He’s asked often if he has any regrets because he’s a junkie, he’s a thief, he’s a liar — he has a lot of wonderful qualities as well, but he has the qualities of a junkie. And it kind of reminds me of that Bill Hicks line: He’s talking about homeless people and how people always say ‘don’t give them money it’s probably for drugs,’ and he’s like well, ‘you’ve obviously never been a drug addict then. Drugs are pretty important to a drug addict.’ Herman famously said in many different ways on many different occasions: ‘I can’t allow myself to let regret enter into my life. I’ve done so many things bad, so many things wrong, and if I start to look back and feel bad about them, I’ll live the rest of my life there. I have to move forward and just try to do better.’ And that’s another important theme as well.”
AA: Does anyone know what led to his suicide?
JN: “Herman began singing about suicide when he was in his 20s and two of the best representative quotes are: ‘When I do my suicide for you, I hope you’ll miss me, too.’ That’s in ‘Rock’n’Roll Junkie.’ And then in a song called ‘Never Be Clever’ — this is maybe a more telling one –he says ‘some say I’m suicidal with a sense of humor; some say I’m faking it all, trying to start rumors.’ He imagined that he wrote his entire story from an early age, much like Daniel Johnston did in a way. He had it all figured out; he knew what he was doing. Even if he didn’t necessarily know in a conscious way at the front of his mind, he knew which way to walk. He was always moving forward towards a goal, and suicide seemed to be the end of that story as he told it. It kind of reminds me of [Samuel] Beckett in a way. Beckett always talked about suicide and, in fact, in his early plays (Waiting for Godot, Endgame, Happy Days), suicide is always the comforting notion: Things are bad, but they’re not so bad because we have the means to end things. It’s like [Albert] Camus saying the only real question is whether or not to commit suicide — that’s the only philosophical question of value; everything else is kind of irrelevant. But you notice that Beckett was comforted by the availability of suicide as an option, but he never got around to it. And Herman was probably not ever going to get around to it either. And there are several quotes–when he married his wife Sandra, he said, ‘Now I never have to think about suicide again.’ When he had his daughter, Lola, and then Kurt Cobain killed himself, he had a quote about Kurt Cobain where he says (I’m paraphrasing), ‘I can’t understand how Kurt Cobain does this. When you have a child, then you finally understand the meaning of life, and you understand the importance of sticking around. And now his daughter will never have any rest. She’ll forever be known as the girl whose daddy took his life.’ And Herman did that. He left three daughters and a son behind — Lola and the son being his only natural children.
JN: (cont.) But when he committed suicide his health had actually failed so badly and so quickly that at the age of 54, his liver had failed. Through years of drug use and alcohol abuse, his kidneys were failing. He knew he didn’t have a year to live, and his quality of life had just gone to hell, immediately. He couldn’t walk a lot of the time; he couldn’t get out of the bed. And Herman was an active guy, so for him this was a special kind of hell. And the way that Sandra, his wife (his widow), explained it to me, is she figured one day he realized he could walk, so he better take advantage of that opportunity and go out on his own terms.”
AA: Sure sounds like Beckett. What span of Herman’s life are you picking scenes out of?
JN: “It’s his entire life. I can’t tell it all, because we don’t have time. A lot of people say that because Herman only slept two hours a night, and because he was so busy, he wasn’t really 54 when he died, he was more 108. So there’s so much material — critically important material — and I’m not trying to tell a comprehensive biography. As I’ve written it, I’ve moved further and further away from anything that might be mistaken for a theatrical version of a biopic, and moved more and more toward impressionistic scenes from a life–some factual, some imagined, some a combination of the two.”
AA: What’s the role of the Black Francis character? Does he give you the opportunity to pick these impressionistic glances? He never met Herman, he can’t interact with him on stage — so the scenes with him, do they have that mechanical role of moving things along? Or …
JN: “Black Francis is sort of … if you know [Bertolt Brecht’s] Three Penny Opera, he plays the role of the Street Singer. Brecht talks about street scenes, and it’s a means to stand outside of the action and to comment on it. But there’s a twist on it, because the character of Black Francis, who Michael Haaga plays, begins as a stand-apart narrator of sorts and then begins to take Herman’s mouth into his own and begins to — in no way that’s entirely clear — insert himself into the narrative and become a part of the story. One of the really romantic notions about the entire story of the making of the play, or the making of the album, is that Herman dreamed of being an American rock-and-roll star, and he never quite achieved that dream, but then in a way, through the making of the album, Black Francis made him one. He introduced him to American audiences and redeemed him in a lot of ways that he had failed himself. Herman lives, and he’ll never die. It’s not just in that kind of way that we use to comfort each other when we lose someone and we’re grieving and we say, well, they remain in our memories, so they live on. His work and his life continue to have an impact.”