Saturday, May 8, 2010

A clumsy latecomer to the magic in the clearing in the mountains

I was in Washington, D.C. for the Friday night premiere of a play witten by a friend, sleeping on the friend's floor, and he had family coming to town for Saturday night; best I scatter.

The Irish rover in Baltimore suggested I meet him in Virginia. How would I get to Virginia? I wanted to know. "I'll get you sorted out," he said.

I thought something as simple as a ride from the city; but no.

The Irish rover, Pat Egan, was playing a festival that afternoon in Staunton. That night he was playing sessions and partying in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Between Staunton and the mountains was a college town, Charlottesville, Virginia, with a train stop. He put me on a one-way train.

"Get off the train, wander into town. Grab a beer. Watch the girls," was the Irish rover's advice. I did those things, and waited.

He appeared on cue, in a minivan driven by his exwife - still his flautist, on certain gigs - and her new boyfriend. No hard feelings there, Jeez.

I didn't know what to expect of the party in the mountains, was not given any clues about it - specifically was denied all detail by the Irish rover. But he had gone through some trouble, and indeed personal expense, to get me there; and that was encouraging.

For we had wandered together, in a simpler time. We had packed up with an African bush man drummer, a Merchant Marine songster, and a redheaded blues guitar orphan, and driven to a hippie commune in the Missouri Ozarks, where clothing was optional; where so many things were optional.

I am sorry that sounds like a tall tale, for it is strictly factual. Pat Egan and I were together with the Stone Age African drum, the melodies of the seaports of the wide open world, the American blues guitar, the rolling Irish music, and whatever is mine. It was not to be forgotten, that coming together; that confluence. We have not forgotten it. We are always looking for it, for something like it.

Far down a winding mountain road, we climbed out of the vehicle and into a clearing. A house that had been growing under a craftsman's hands bloomed to one side of the clearing; a barn for music he had built stood on the other. Between them, Bass beer was cold on tap, with a tequila bottle atop the cooler. And behind them both, a swimming pool, left in a natural state, with diverted creek water for pool water, and frogs in the pool singing lustily in the night.

The frog is my totem animal; pardon again, for what might be taken as pretention, but is only simply true. I was ecstatic to take in the deep peals of the frogs, singing for their sex. It was a church to me.

A dog wandered up, a bull dog. Simon was his name. I have known many dogs, many wonderful dogs, in many fantastic places. Simon immediately appeared to me as the perfect dog. As I shared this perception with people at the party, I encountered only quiet agreement with an obvious fact to which I was a clumsy latecomer.

Music was here, and there, and over yonder, and further down the trail, closer to the lake, where more frogs sang, and sang more loudly. I was a clumsy latecomer to all this magic in this clearing in the mountains.

Further down the trail were the youth, one young man strumming chords and singing a twenty-first century mountain lad's equivalent of gangsta rap power ballads, all "Fuck you," and "you," and "you," as his buddy nodded along, in the dark with the frogs.

Over yonder a tall rangy journalist, working on a heroic immigrant newspaper story about a Mexican man who swam the Rio Grande thirty years ago to come into this country and ended up in these mountains, stroked story songs on a guitar, carefully heeded by a bearded man from New Zealand.

There, in the music barn, fiddlers and guitarists clustered around the piano, where a bearded man - so many, many bearded men in these Virginia mountains - comp'd along on chords and runs as they all sang familiar songs, filigree'd by a dobro, played by another bearded man.

Here, inside the partly reconstucted house, where I wandered, were young people, gathered in a circle in the shadows, out of view of the party and unto themselves. We play in the dark and the inaccessible places, they seemed to say, in the way they were settled in. We like to play this way. We don't like for you to creep up on us while we play this play, while we play "The Cumberland Gap" and fight over whether it is a two-part song, or a three-part song.

A girl guitar player said, "Peter, you're the fiddler; you're supposed to be the jerk." So then Peter the fiddler roared, "THREE PARTS, DAMN IT!" and they all broke into a three-part "Cumberland Gap," damn it.

I had rambled through these mountains, a little to the west, years before, and sat with the family of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, who did so much to capture these songs, and save them for us, waiting in the future. I wanted so much to romanticize these competent, talented, physically striking, and somewhat dangerous looking young people, crowded together in the dark, playing for no one.

Each time I stepped closer for a closer look, for a fuller sound, someone would look up from their instrument, squinting nervously through eyeglasses, as if I were an intruder, not a listener. I was an intruder; I was a listener.

And then they did the thing musicians have always done in the bands of my dreams, they switched instruments around; and in every new grouping, the music was a little more intense, as the person stuck playing a less familiar instrument compensated for absent technique with guts and emotion, and the spirit of the music was laid raw.

It was laid most raw when the girl banjo player ended up standing up and thumping the double bass like she was born to do it, like she would die doing it. At the end of that song, she spoke of thirst; and to keep the music from stopping, to keep her from stopping with the death throttle on the double bass, I offered to fetch her water.

She handed me a plastic cup, with a trace of wine in the bottom: "Just pour the water on the wine."

I went and fetched the water and poured the water on the wine and handed it to her, to help wth her thirst; then I wandered out the half-built house, out onto the patio outside. The patio looked down to the swimming pool frog pond. The frogs sang for their sex.

I thought of Nymah Kumah, the African bush man drummer who had taught the Irish rover and I so much. "Man stole music from the birds, anyway," Nymah told me once.

Man stole music from the frogs, anyway, I told the darkness.

The Irish rover strolled up. Then the flautist, Laura Byrne, who had been his wife. She said, "They cry out until they find their mates, then they quiet down. Then they start having sex. That's how it goes." She wandered back off into the night.

I marveled at the stray frog who continues to sing, after the others have found their mates. There always seems to be the one, in every round of mating. There goes one again. "He's fucking floating," the Irish rover said, pointing out the lonesome, musical frog on the float. "Look at your man over there: 'This is my chance!'"

I wondered if that was the origin of song: not the one who sings for sex, but the one who is nourished on the song, not the sex; the one who sings a song beyond sex.

The mysterious young mountain musicians had come out of the dark house now, out onto the patio, to smoke and talk. A pair gathered around the Irish rover. They knew each other, as old acquantainces, inklings of friends. They were not, to the Irish rover, the creatures of mystery, and a little danger, that they were to me; that I wanted them to be.

The girl banjo player who had played the double bass to death paired off with the more silent, cragged, handsome of the fiddlers. He looked much like the youngest son of the Merchant Marine songster I had known and played music with, when he was young and inarticulate, with swooping bangs and forbidding looks.

Someone called the cragged fiddler by name: "Chance." Of course. Of course, this cragged young mountain fiddler would have to be "Chance". He would have to be, in fact, "Chance McCoy," a name imported wholesale from American folklore.

Chance lost some of his clothes, and jumped into the swimming pool frog pond. "It's really warm," he said to his girl, whose name was and would have to be "Liz Mead" ("mead": an ancient form of honeyed wine). "Just jump right in."

Liz Mead lost some of her clothes and jumped right in. It was not really warm. It was really cold. Chance McCoy had set her up. She cursed him, then kissed him.

Then these two mysterious to me mountain people were out of the water and next to me by the swimming pool frog pond, wet and cold. Chance jumped up and wandered off into the night; Liz stayed put to shake dry her hair. I told Liz how much I had fancied her bass playing; how much she had brought the band alive with the double bass.

"But you can't really hitchhike with it," she said.

Peter, the fiddler obliged to be a jerk, approached and asked if Chance had any more tobacco. Liz searched for Chance's tobacco, found a stick of it, it slipped out of her hand and into the frog pond.

"It went away," Liz said.

I said, "You dropped it in the pond."

Liz said, "It jumped in the pond. It wasn't my tobacco."

And then Chance McCoy was back, with more beer. With more beer there would be more music, soon, there could be no doubt about that. I would intrude again; I would listen again.

I would think of the frogs and the birds, who gave us their music. I would think of the African bush man drummer; now dead. I would think of the Merchant Marine songster, Pops Farrar, now dead. I would think of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, long dead, and his mountain music, still alive, still alive and changing in these competent, unpredictable, dangerous hands.

In the morning, I would leave these mountains with a heart full of hope.

But for a moment that night, before the music came back, there was only beer, and frogs, and tobacco, and friends, and intruders. There were young mountain lovers, less wet, less cold, sitting together by the dark pond, and the frog songs.

"Can we just come back here tomorrow?" Liz Mead asked of Chance McCoy.

Chance McCoy shook his wet head and said, "Let's do that. Fuck whatever we have to do tomorrow!"


Photograph of Liz Mead, on another day, in another mountain clearing, from her MySpace page.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

At a Taffety Punk Theatre opening night cast party: "Burn Your Bookes"

It turned out to be a naieve question. I asked the actor if she had found the language difficult.

She said, basically, the only difficult language is the language that is not written well; and the language in Richard Byrne's play Burn Your Bookes was written very, very well. It is a pleasure to speak language like that, she said.

She had just spoken a mouthful of that language. This actor, the bright-eyed Kimberly Gilbert, has the last major role to take the stage in the play. Not an hour before we were speaking, the curtain had come down on opening night of Taffety Punk Theatre's premiere production of the play.

Kimberly plays the stepdaughter of a famous alchemist. Yes, at one time, there were famous alchemists. Her character's stepfather was Edward Kelley, who got bottled up in a Bohemian court longer than his English family would have wished. This was during the European Renaissance, when alchemists were sort of weapons of mass destruction, or of potential mass wealth creation, base metals into the ever-elusive gold - secrets of state to be hoarded. Or eliminated.

Kimberly was a bright-eyed actor, with no one waiting for her on opening night. I was a guest of the playwright, the man of the hour, who didn't need me under his heels. I needed her, or someone for the company of the night, and I thought she needed me; but was a fool. She migrated to the cast party, and was a life of that party. And it was a lively party.

It was a pleasure to see Daniel Flint, who had commanded so much of the stage in the lead role of Edward Kelley, returned to himself, a contemporary man, an actor with an attitude and a winning way. He had on a grey porkpie hat, and sideburns had claimed swaths of his craggy face.

His date, his partner, was the woman who had sat beside me during the premiere performance, which I had found riveting. I was swollen with pride for Richard Byrne, the playwright, whom I have known for half my life, almost exactly. If a writer might dream, he might dream of fashioning a play from difficult materials, hocus pocus and wife-swapping from the 16th century alchemists in what is now Prague; and then catalyzing a rowdy crew of creative souls in a magnificent city like Washington, D.C. to manifest this fitful dream on the stage.

I was just as riveted by the neighbor of my neighbor in the audience. With Daniel's lady friend was her friend, Chelsey. Chelsey is tall as God and far more beautiful. We small-talked about Twitter, the only kind of talk that is possible about Twitter. I have since found her there, and now listen to her playlists; good stuff.

But, at the cast party, Chelsey was in the embrace of a tall bloke who had a minor role in the play, a nice man named Eric, who looked like a taller make of the motor force behind the Taffety Punks, Marcus Kyd. Marcus has the easy smile and charisma that even a straight man would have to describe as attractive, as cute. It was not difficult to see how he could get immensely creative people to go along with him in producing difficult plays for no money, for almost no money.

And his company's production of this difficult play was equal in every way to the occasion of the world premiere. The Taffety Punks' roots in the culture of D.C. punk was on display, with punk band posters more or less stapled onto the backs of minor alchemists, and the boots of Renaissance tricksters held fast by duct tape, as if they were frayed guitar cords.


That would be Richard Byrne, playwright; and Daniel Flint, star, at the cast party.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A hybrid play mined from a hybrid art

I was in Washington, D.C. Friday night for the opening of Taffety Punk Theatre's premiere production of Burn Your Bookes by my old friend Richard Byrne.

It is a challenging play, set in Bohemia during the flux of the European Renaissance. The title is, at a glance, misleading, because this is not a play about censorship. It is a play about alchemy - the art (con art, many would say) of transmuting less valuable metals into gold.

Alchemy was a hybrid pursuit, and Richard crafted a hybrid play out of it. He subtitles his play, in three acts, as a "tryptych," to signal its hybrid character. It tells three different stories, about the same cast of characters, with three different techniques, rather than plotting one storyline through three mutually modulated acts.

When I took my seat in the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop on Friday night, I had read acts one and two and seen a video of act two workshopped at the Kennedy Center in 2008. Though Richard had entrusted me with a PDF of the entire play, I purposefully held off on reading the third act, wanting to be surprised at the premiere; and indeed I was surprised, very pleasantly so.

Act one is, in essence, a domestic drama about relationships in and between the families of two English alchemists, Edward Kelley and John Dee, who both have turned up in the court of Emperor Rudolph II in Bohemia. There was a sort of free agency in alchemists at this time, with monarchs and emperors poaching from each other the alchemists that had the buzz of having a hot hand - the mystical ability of enriching the treasury without finding and mining for gold.

One problem with mystics, among many others, is that you can't contain their mysticism to the sphere of infuence that interests you. Kelley also has seen faeries in his glass (in essence, his crystal ball) that speak of wife swapping; and if there is one thing more volatile than two alchemists cooped up in a foreign court, it is two wife-swapping alchemists so cooped up. Richard mines some vivid, if at times confusing, dramatics out of this rich material.

Act two is another animal altogether. If act one resembles a superheated Jacobean domestic drama in form, the technique of act two is taken straight out of Samuel Beckett, with all his forlorn, infighting, often paralyzed duets. The act is almost entirely a dialogue between two stationary alchemists, imprisoned in adjacent cages for fraud and failure.

The fraud has grown accustomed to his fate. He knows he has cheated and was caught and is determined to make the most out of whatever life is left to him. His neighbor has failed, rather than faked, and like most failures in most media, he is certain that success almost had been his and certainly would be, if he could only be let out of his cage and back into the fire of active pursuit.

Their duality is an idiosyncratic variant of a classic opposition - and the playwright makes the most of it, alternating howlers with lines of sparking beauty and metaphysical truth.

I have digested act three less fully, since Friday was my first exposure to it and I have not found the time to return to the text since I got back home to St. Louis. After the entirely male domain of act two, it opens into the female world of Elizabeth Jane Weston, aka Westonia, a pioneering woman poet and the stepdaughter of the alchemist Kelley.

Really, act three is about the struggles of composition and the agonies of enduring someone else's editorial judgments, all finely tempered by gender politics which came as a major surprise to me. The alchemical themes and storylines of acts one and two are revisited and wrapped up, while the imagination is taken in an entirely new direction.

This new departure near the end that does not feel gratuitous nor irrelevant is a defining hallmark of successful longform writing. Just try to do it - I have tried - it is amazingly difficult to achieve.

I find I have said nothing about the production, directed by Marcus Kyd, but this is getting long, as it is; so I will return, later, to discuss the fun the Taffety Punks had with this difficult but rich play.


Image of Dee and Kelley raising a ghost is out there all over the web without attribution; hence none here.