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Left Turn, Clyde

After blogging about travel adventures and the unknown, I thought I'd follow the loose tangential connection my mind makes with such things, and post about the next jaunt on my own agenda, and about the way that stepping outside your comfort zone in other ways can sometimes end up in something unexpectedly cool. Cause for me the next journey off my native soil -- flights just booked shortly after that post, actually -- is a wee trip to Chicago in June. It's only a few days, with I don't know what crash space organised for me at the other end, there's no convention to go to, and no publishers to see, and I really can't afford it, but I couldn't resist it, couldn't not go. There's a musical playing, you see, for the first time ever, world premiere. And it's mine.

Yeah, yeah, I'm sure there's some of you out there who're thinking right now of how much you hate musicals. A lot of folk just can't stand the rupture of a perfectly good narrative with a sudden left turn into song and dance. That's your prerogative. Some people love musicals and some people have no soul. Those of you who have no soul feel free to berate me in the comments for infecting the world with one more acoustic atrocity. You are quite entitled to have no soul. Me, I love em. I hate disco music, divas, rainbow flags, and all other such cliches of "gay" culture, but I have to admit, I'm a sucker for jazz hands. (That sounds vaguely dirty, but you know what I mean.) In almost all other respects, I'm about as far from your stereotypical flouncing flameboy as can be, but from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers through to Sweeney Todd, I loves me my show tunes. I draw the line at Andrew Lloyd Weber -- no, wait, even he gets a pass with Jesus Christ Superstar cause "Heaven on My Mind" is just awesome. That's how deep my addiction runs.

I can't help it.

Anyways, this one has been kind of a weird project of mine for the last... um... five years or so, maybe. It would probably have taken considerably less if I had any capacity whatsoever to actually, you know, sing. Or play an instrument. Or write sheet music. Those skills would undoubtedly have come in handy. When you write a musical, I suspect that being able to communicate what it actually sounds like is, generally speaking, a major advantage. But I'm not one to be daunted by such trivial practicalities. Reality? Hah! If I gave a flying fuck for your piddling reality, do you think I'd be writing a fucking musical?

It began -- as is a good place to start with such things -- with a doomed love. I hooked up with a hot young guy via Teh Seedy Intarwebz -- via Gaydar namely, a gay personals site with all too many profile pics of the "put that away!" variety but where occasionally you run into someone who isn't actually advertising themselves as, apparently, little more than a prick or an arse. And so I met this guy, we had a three-day weekend of intensive dating, I fell head over heels for him, and... he didn't return my calls. Shit happens. It wasn't meant to be. I tried, to a level that didn't overstep the bounds into creepy stalker territory, but he just wasn't into me.

So I hit the booze.

I take what I think of as the Bernard Black approach to a broken heart. Red wine, absinthe, beer, whatever. Smoke lots of cigarettes, don't wash for days, and spend all night railling drunkenly at the injustice of the world while listening to Tom Waits. Or Neil Diamond's "Love on the Rocks." That's a good one for the self-pitying. The more overblown the better, cause it gets it out of your system faster; you just have to push yourself to the point where you know you're a caricature, where you can't take yourself seriously any longer, and eventually, after a week or two of cathartic misery, you come out the other end and get on with your life. It may not work for everyone, but that's my recipe. Shit, maybe I'm just fickle.

That was pretty much my approach this time, except somewhere in that gleeful self-abandon to debauchery, I wrote a song, a blues jazz number called "That Great Big Sanatorium in the Sky" that clearly came from listening to Waits's Small Change one too many times. Then I wrote another called "Tango for the Dead" that had pretty much the same dive bar delight in all things self-destructive. Somewhere in there, the story-teller in me kicked in. I couldn't help but imagine them being sung by a Waitsian waster in some seedy piano bar, a character in a story that clicked together as I dug out some old songs -- scribbled down years before when I really, really wanted to have a punk band called Fagsmoke but knew no one insane enough to put up with my... vocal idiosyncracies. Those songs belonged in other characters' mouths, I realised, and those characters fell together into a narrative. Before I knew it I was writing a script and twisting those songs I had into medleys and reprises, ensemble numbers -- a punk anthem here, a Broadway ballad there, West Side Story meets Hedwig and the Angry Inch meets Tommy meets Cabaret, and all of it in my head.

And then I had a musical. In my head.

It's kind of weird having a musical in your head. An earworm you just want to get rid of, but when it's your own invention you sorta love that earworm. You know your eyes are glazing over as people talk to you, but all you can think of is the tune playing inside your skull. You try to pay attention but you've just come up with a really awesome lyric. It would be fine if you could lay it down. If you could only sing it properly. If you could only play the piano or guitar. If you could only write sheet music. If you could only find some way to communicate it. But, no. There's a fucking orchestra in your head, and half a dozen voices singing different refrains in harmonies over each other, and you have a voice that... well, when it comes to voices breaking, mine took that to mean like when you throw a spanner in the works of some heavy machinery. Christ, they wouldn't let me in the school choir even before it broke.

But I tried. Neil Williamson of the Glasgow SF Writers Circle, God bless him, being as talented a musician as he is a writer, and an all-round good guy, suffered through my ungodly attempts to get across a couple of the tunes; but he'd had to have been psychic to figure out what fucking key I was aiming for most of the time, let alone what note. So eventually, I stuck the script in the drawer and got on with projects that might actually come to something. Cause, really... a musical? Like even if I got the basic melodies in sheet music, what was I going to do? Set myself up as the Ed Wood of Glaswegian musical theatre? Use my wild-eyed passion to convince the score or more people I'd need to stage it at the Edinburgh Fringe as some grand folly? How the fuck did I think I was ever going to get this on the stage when I don't know shit about the million things that matter there?

This sort of applies to writing too, I think. I mean, really, every creative endeavour is something of a madcap scheme. A lot of aspiring writers I've talked to are daunted by the odds that can seem insurmountable, and sometimes it's not so much that they doubt their talent as that they just... feel like Luke Skywalker at the start of Star Wars. That they're a nobody stuck in the middle of nowhere. They're never going to be in the right place at the right time. They're just that shitkicking kid from a town of dicks, pricks and fucking hicks. I felt like that myself for most of the time I was working on what was to become Vellum. Who the fuck am I to think I can do this?

But don't worry. I'm not going to get all inspirational on your ass, trot out the old chestnuts about soldiering on and lucky breaks. This is about left turns.

So. Fast forward to a year or so back and I pick up my first Mac as a replacement for a kaput IBM ThinkPad. If you know Macs, you might have messed around with GarageBand, that oh-so-easy-to-use music mixing application with all these loops of piano, guitar, drums and whatnot that you can slap down in multiple tracks, splice and dice, generally fuck around with till you come up with something listenable. It's kind of fun, especially if you're a writer who likes meddling in other media. You can't fool yourself that email and interwebs are anything other than procrastination, because there's nothing constructive going on. Me, I'm shit at video games, so I can't even throw myself into one of those and at least feel I've finished something. But slapping together a tune in GarageBand... now that I can do. It's a great way to avoid work.

So, you're sitting there staring at the outline, writing a word here and there, knocking up against some mini-block where you know something's wrong but your unconscious hasn't figured out what yet. So you take a left turn. Or at least I do. I open up GarageBand and start fucking about with piano loops, and I discover one that sounds... strangely right. It is, I realise, exactly the refrain I had in my head as the backbone of the musical's title song. I slap it down, start fucking around some more. Long story short, a week or so later I have all but two of the numbers laid down -- in files so big, so layered in tracks, I have to do jiggery-pokery to run them without stalling, but near as damn it exactly the way they've always sounded in my head. Awesome! And with a few button clicks and a fileshare site, it's a piece of piss to mix them down to mp3s and stick them up on the web, embed some little doohickeys in a blog post or five so you can share them with the world. Wouldn't inflict my singing on a Tory Shadow Home Secretary, but at least anyone who wants to can hear the instrumental version and get the gist of it, as they read the downloadable libretto.

It's sort of a weird free giveaway but it's a form of fiction. And it's not like I'm really in a position to do anything with it, so what the fuck? Why not?

Some months later I get an email from some kids at the University of Chicago. They're fans of my books, they read the blog, and they've fallen in love with the musical. Would I give permission for them to stage it through the university theatre group? They'd need sheet music, of course, for the proposal, and they'd need to know how the lyrics are meant to be sung, but would I be open to the idea in principle. Is that a lucky break or a left turn? Is it their left turn or mine? Maybe we both took left turns while facing different ways, and found ourselves looking at each other. The point is just, I guess, that sometimes madcap schemes are just crazy enough that others fall in love with the glorious folly of them. They like that sort of left turn too.

I mean, I couldn't give them sheet music. You can produce sheet music of sorts from some of the tracks in GarageBand but it's a far cry from just hitting a button and printing out a usable score. But they got themselves a musical director who was up for taking the mp3s and the project files and working my multi-layered mess -- where a melody might well be based on the way three different piano tracks interact with each other, the refrain woven between them -- and arranging it so it could actually be performed. My singing may be shite, but with some saintly friends at this end, I could lay down my own vocals, play the tracks to them what can sing, and try and direct them as they navigated their way by the music to what I was aiming for.

The result? In a three day run from the 3rd to the 5th of June, University of Chicago Theater Group is proud to present the world premiere of Nowhere Town by Hal Duncan. It may not be Broadway, but it's fucking awesome as far as I'm concerned. It's a madcap scheme born in a week of caprice and chaos, and now it's coming to fruition. It's a left turn, taken on the spur of the moment because a bit of distraction isn't always a bad thing. I like left turns. They might seem to take you completely off the track, but sometimes you stumble onto a whole other path, and if you follow it, you find yourself somewhere you never expected to be. For me, a couple of months from now, that's going to be sitting in the audience on the opening night as my words and music are made real on stage.

As I say, I used to have that mentality that's... not fatalist, not defeatist, but... daunted. Wrapped up in the sense that certain things just don't happen to some snot-nosed scruff from a shithole in the West of Scotland. And when you look at it in terms of soldiering on and lucky breaks, I'm not sure that helps that much. They're words to the wise, these warnings that you have to work your arse off and even then you might not get the golden opportunity, just have to do your damnedest, cross your fingers and hope for the best. But they're words spoken so often that those who need to be persuaded of those realities are as often as not in deep denial of them already. And those who already get that... well, that reality is pretty daunting.

But now I just say, fuck it. Take the left turn and see where it goes. So while I'm waiting for those two long months to pass, I've got two other madcap schemes on the go -- an illustrated children's book with Eric Orchard, and a screenplay for a high school movie based on As You Like It, with the female lead changed to male. Eric's artwork is awesome, so I think I've had a lucky break in hooking up with him, but the idea of a potty-mouthed waster like me writing for kids? Heh. And as for the screenplay? Man, the main reason I wrote it is because "gay kid" and "high school movie" don't mix in Hollywood. (I know this for a fact cause if you Google those strings the top hit is a post on my blog -- not an IMDB entry or a proper review, but a post on my fucking blog -- and I know how low my traffic is. But that's another rant.) Every last scrap of sanity in me says that trying to sell such a project is an act of utter folly. But fuck it.

Fuck knows if anything will come of these left turns, but it was fun to take them. And, hey, if in June I'm going to be sitting in a theatre, maybe one day I'll be sitting in a cinema...

33 Comments

1:

I'm all for left turns, but don't forget the sign, I mean, you didn't forget to put it up? Eh, I mean, the link to the post on your blog where these MP3s can be found. Just being very curious what a blue earworm in the head put into a garage band may sound like.

2:

I must now confront the terrible thought that I have no soul. Music and theater are both noble arts on their own, but the combination of the two invariably results in negative synergy.

Purgatory, here I come. Good luck with your opening, though.

3:

I am SO. Completely. In awe... This is the best thing I've read all week. Congratulations on your musical! Wow!

4:

(sorry for double-comment... But. I can't stop thinking about your process of creating music with GarageBand and friends. And left turns. If we are all turning left, and the project flows nicely, why - that's dancing, of course. So it made me wish for something like GarageBand for choreography. I'd call it MoshPit. Hmm...)

5:

Wow, that is some weird shit. It also sadly aligns to Apple's propaganda of being a catalyst for creation, and I really wish it were Audacity or Rosegarden or something else, but oh well.

6:

I may not have a soul, but that soul is not going to be tormented by stupid turns of phrase and insipid melody. See, if I had a soul, then I could also believe in hell.

No soul, no hell, no chained-to-a-seat-and-forced-to-watch-musicals-over-and-over hell, if you get my meaning.

Well, I did like Hedwig, but I make allowances for rock and/or roll.

7:

A lot of musicals are one guy writing the words, another the music. It's rare for one guy to do both.

8:

This is absolutely (insert adjective of choice) MARVELOUS. I don't normally go capslock on people I like, but this is worth it.

(and there's this chorus in my head from "The Death of Ivan Ilyich", including the last three notes of the whole shebang...I haven't touched an Apple computer since 1984, but this GarageBand thing really does sound interesting).

Sa-LUTE! And have fun in Chicago.

9:

"Gay kid" and "high school movie" may seem like a clear no-go, but who would have ever thought "gay cowboys movie" would make it to the screen at all, let alone do as well with movie-goers as it did? Shoot for the Moon!

10:

Till: Ach, I didn't want to co-opt Charlie's blog with blatant self-pimpage, but I guess it's not *too* gauche. I've updated the post with a wee link at the end of the first paragraph.

Cicely: I think there's an interesting disparity if you look deeper. Brokeback Mountain *was* unexpected because it was Hollywood to the core, with a major director and major stars, but My Beautiful Launderette, say, was made over 20 years ago (albeit not Hollywood). I reckon *serious* cinema with gay protagonists isn't so much of an issue, in truth. But would Hollywood make a full-on Western with gay cowboys in gunfights a la Tombstone, The Magnificent Seven, etc.? Would they make a pure-bred high school movie -- one with a gay protagonist but that's 100% mainstream popcorn flick, like 10 Things I Hate About You -- rather than something ponderous and "worthy"?

But of course, I'm hoping they might now, with the success of things like Glee. Damn straight, I'm shooting for the moon! :)

11:

clvrmnky: Liking Hedwig renders all judgements regarding soul and the presence thereof null and void, far as I'm concerned. Were I the vengeful god of musical theatre, that alone would be a Get Out of Hades Free card.

12:

Man, I haven't read any of your books, but now I'm off to find them.

13:

First tales of travel gone deliciously awry, and now a GarageBand musical. You, sir, are a badass. I'm gonna have to start reading Vellum (which, I apologetically admit, has been sitting on my shelf for about three years now).

14:

PS - Are you aware of the Jam Packs for GarageBand? They're expansion packs that each add about 2000 new loops and a whole bunch of software instruments to the library. They're not inexpensive ($100 each here in the old US of A, which for a poor college writer/musician like myself is a pretty penny), but they add a lot more options and potential.

15:

Well, I like musicals too, but it's the dancing that really gets to me. I was raised on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and Damn Yankees, and I'd rather watch 5 minutes of Bob Fosse dancing on YouTube than most anything else (except maybe Farscape or the Muppet Show, but then I'm a fan of puppets).

It's really amazing how much you can do with relatively simple tools like GarageBand and iMovie. It's even more amazing how many people there are out there who have an idea or two that they can conjure into real bits with those tools. And the GateKeepers of Uptight Morality don't have much control over those people or their work. I bet it's the end of Western Civilization as we know it, and a good thing, too.

16:

Left turn?

Are you sure? Aren't you the ones that hoover up funding that should go to hospitals, schools, etc? I think you should at least learn the babies' names before they die.

17:

Having no musical training, and making a full-scale musical in GarageBand? That's fantastic!

Now, to find out if it's any good :-)

18:

Congratulations! I love musicals, except the ones I've been in way too often, with The Sound of Music at the top. I used to write musicals for the at-risk teens I volunteered with and most of them started liking them about a quarter of the way through.

19:

Congratulations on use of "jiggery-pokery" and an honourable mention for "doohicky" too!

I'd say it shouldn't matter how much the tickets cost, you've simply got to be there!
It's also a great excuse to spend a bit of time in Chicago too ... I reckoned it was like NYC without the attitude!

Do let us know how the show goes ...

20:

For anyone fearing for the existence of their souls, surely The Rocky Horror Picture Show grabs us all? Or the Scrubs musical episode? Most musicals do nothing for me, though I am the only Western person I know of who watched the Peking Opera version of Mu Lan and loved it.

Someone has to mention John Scalzi's recent, popular but fake idea for "AC/DC" the love story musical of Edison and Tesla. Looks like he's only about 400 miles from Chicago ;)

Love the four tracks I have listened to so far.

21:

eddie: Is this some mad American thing about left turns on the road causing accidents? As a non-driver in a country where we drive on tother side, I'm just guessing that's how the dying babies factor in. Cause otherwise that would be a *real* left turn in the thread.

22:

Lysander: yeah, I drool at the sight of those Jam Packs. Trying to get a decent tango beat from the basic loops was one of the most gnarly parts of the project.

Hope you enjoy the book(s). Same goes for kvenlander and anyone else whose interest is piqued by my scribblings here.

As an aside on that, prospective readers might well get a heads-up of what they're in for from this post. I reckon the rupturing of narrative you get in musicals when people burst into song and dance isn't a bad comparison to what I'm doing in the layered-and-folded narratives of Vellum and Ink. Like, all that experimentalist malarkey isn't trying to be "clever"; it's just trying to do a rock opera rather than a play.

Still, some will invariably throw the book across the room after the first X pages because they loathe that shit, which is fair enough; some people just want to see a play without the song and dance; the breaches of idiom annoy the fuck out of them, this whole artifice of music woven through. If you bounce off that, you can bounce off that *hard*. So, yeah, that's my disclaimer. Anyone looking for something more straight-up story-telling, try "Escape from Hell!"

23:

"Some people love musicals and some people have no soul. Those of you who have no soul feel free to berate me in the comments for infecting the world with one more acoustic atrocity."

Whatever this "soul" thing may be, some people like musicals, the rest of us have good taste.

24:

John Morales:

1. You're being an asshole.

2. You especially don't get to be an asshole to the guest posters on my blog.

3. Do it again and you're banned.

25:

To be fair to John, I did sort of invite good-natured banter. I read that as tongue-in-cheek badinage with no offense intended.

26:

HOW DARE YOU --

No, wait ...?

(In next week's thrilling installment, watch me overreact repeatedly while nine time zones out of whack and hung-over.)

27:

[meta]

Charlie, Hal: I unreservedly apologise for any offense I caused; it was not my intent and Hal read me aright (thank you!).

I've been (mostly) lurking for here for a long time, and even though I hardly comment I'd feel sad if I lost the opportunity to do so.

28:

Hal-

If I can help out at the Chicago end, please let me know.

29:

Just listening to the new Rufus Wainwright album, catching up with the blogs; Ken MacLeod.... Trotsky and the Hotel Bristol, strange stuff; Charles Stross... "what the...." Checks date, no sign of any unicorns, wonders what might be in the herbal tea, nope just rooibos, checks top of page, aha, right! read it again.... Gaun yirsel, Hal!

30:

...so we don't get to be assholes on the Internet now?

But... but... that's what it's for!

My world view is going to need some adjusting...

31:

Gay-kids and High School don't mix in Hollywood? Clearly you have never seen the Fox TV show Glee.

32:

Liking musicals is having no soul.
Because the music of musicals has no soul.
No Charlie Mingus, no Patsy Cline, no Louis Jordan, no Aretha Franklin, no Joan Baez, no Screamin' Jay Hawkins, no Neil Young, no Janice Joplin, no Ella Fitzgerald, no King Pleasure, no Willie Nelson, no Alex Chilton, no Cyndi Lauper, no..., no..., no...
There may be an exception or two.
But I never heard one.
And if there is one, Cats erases it.
Hell, if any exist, Cats erases all of them.

On the other hand, there is Bebe Neuwirth...

33:

How about Sophisticated Ladies?

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This page contains a single entry by Hal Duncan published on April 9, 2010 8:15 AM.

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