1990s Music Miracle
It's not so easy to wrap your head about the big blue finger. Fear not, the Arthropologist is on the job.
Here's the need-to-know scoop. Bluefinger is a rock opus based on the life of Dutch rocker Herman Brood, tied to the 2007 concept album by former Pixies frontman Charles Thompson aka Black Francis/Frank Black, related to an idea by Pixies biographer Josh Frank, with a script by Catastrophic chief Jason Nodler, with music by Thompson and Herman Brood, arranged by composer and the last Infernal Bridegroom Productions (IBP) director (now founder of Blackbird Books) Anthony Barillo, with on stage music direction by John Duboise, movement direction by Tamarie Cooper, with the legendary Matt Kelly as Brood and the legendary Michael Haaga as Charles Thompson (just about everyone is legendary in this story), two bands pieced together by IBP/Catastrophic house bands and other 1990s musicians you may have seen at The Axiom and other locales, performed by 30 Catastrophic company members, with a set by Catastrophic managing director Kirk Markley and lighting by Horse Head artistic director Kevin Holden.
Got all that? Good, let's move on.
I found Nodler in an unusually talkative mood the other day as he spilled the Bluefinger beans on this rather all-consuming play, much of which has occupied the past few years of his life. Nodler offered the story, the story behind the story, the mysterious details, the difficulties and the bumpy history involving his old IBP days with a relaxed generosity.
For Houston music freaks from the 1990s, the experience has nostalgic overtones. Yet Nodler warns us to not get too focused on the music alone.
"It's as much of a play as a rock opera," he says.
Now about Brood. Who is this guy?
He's Herman Brood of the Wild Romance (a group Brood started and headlined). He's the Dutch Elvis and Michael Jackson in one, famous for his music, drug use, gambling, artwork, commotion causing lifestyle, and in the latter years of his life, for simply being famous. He's known as a "troeteljunk," which roughly translates as "cudely junkie."
Think junkie you want to hug," says Nodler. "He became the national cuddle junkie and was very much beloved, sincere to a fault."
Brood lived larger-than-life and makes today's celebrities look junior league. Claiming to survive on only two hours a sleep a night, Brood was refreshingly open about his habits (sex, heroin, alcohol, but no cigarettes). Curiously, Brood bombed in the United States.
No matter, he reinvented himself as a visual artist. Fame ensued again. I never heard of him, but neither had Nodler when he started this project. He sure knows his music now. Brood's life has been heavily documented through films and books, mostly in Dutch, which provided another curious obstacle to Nodler's mission.
"The play is partly written in broken English," Nodler says.
Nodler totally immersed himself in the remnants of Brood's life, traveling to the Netherlands to interview key people close to Brood, including his infamous manager Koos van Dijk (played by a dashingly handsome and now bald Troy Schulze), who gave Nodler a handy piece of advice that ended up guiding the project.:"Don't worry about the details, use your own blues."
And that Noder did, finding a soul mate of sorts in Brood.
"Nothing is original in pop music, there's always a responding to great artists, Herman was like that a lot," he says. Brood's song, "Your Mouth into Mine," says it all for Nodler.
"If you take the work of an artist personally enough you are no longer singing someone else's story," he says.
Unlike the two Daniel Johnston plays Catastrophic put on (SpeedingMotorcycle and Life is Happy and Sad), which were assembled, Nodler has written and re-written the script several times now.
"I just re-wrote the whole show two days ago," he admits. He feels blessed to have a team of performers game to shape and re-shape the show.
"There's a play four times as long on the cutting room floor," Nodler says.
Nodler gave Kelly the freedom to take Brood's story inside his mind, body and music. Most known for his seven piece funk-punk band Sprawl; Kelly later co-founded the ska-punk band Middlefinger. Recent bands include Les Saucy Pants, and Lick Lick, which blends 1970s prog nerdiness with the sonic fury of punk and metal.
The now-Austin based singer turned high school teacher Kelly did his own research, interviewing some of the same people as Nodler, but coming up with a slightly different story. The play constructs an imagined life, crafted from various strains of digging into an ultimately unknowable public figure. Nodler gave Kelly a list of quotes, some actual, some from Nodler's own hand, as a fun little quiz.
Kelly identified 50 percent of the quotes, telling Nodler he was on the right track in taking Brood's life and work into his own consciousness.
Haaga started Dead Horse when he was 17. He's most known for the Plus and Minus Show, which cleaned up the Houston Press Music Awards. Many of Bluefinger's musicians hark back to the 1990s. A renegade production of Jesus Christ Superstar performed by local bands at the Axiom lured Nodler back to Houston after finishing his playwrighting degree at New York University, and trying his hand in the Portland, Oregon theater scene.
Kelly played Judas in the show. A Public News review claiming "Houston Bands Make Better Theater than Houston Theater" piqued his interest enough to return to his hometown, eventually launching the now-defunct, but still notorious IBP, with Nodler's signature play, In theUnder Thunderloo.
Nodler speaks with a certain authority about the glory days of the Axiom and the scene back then. "In the 1990s, there wasn't a room big enough for Sprawl, Dead Horse and the Pain Teens," he says.
Many of these musicians were idols to Nodler. Brood is a new idol.
"But Brood is dead" I tell Nodler. "Not entirely," he counters. "Artists cheat death, they survive longer because of the impact they have. Herman lived large, he remains in the air."
Brood died with the same drama by which he lived. He jumped off the roof of the Amsterdam Hilton in 2001 at the age of 54.
"If you consider all the sleep he missed, he was really more like 104," suggests Nodler. He finds Brood's famous quote, "The junkie and society both feel sorry for each other," most telling.
I've seen every play that has come out of Catastrophic since it launched and a good deal of the IBP years. Nodler is on to something, only that something keeps shifting, as it should in the volatile world of live theater.
"This is the most epic play I've written and the biggest challenge to wrap my head around," he says, with his characteristic humility.
This is a lot of information. Honestly, I don't think Nodler cares whether you know or have lived through any of this stuff. Bluefinger is a play, not a re-enactment of Houston's music scene, Charles Thompson's album or Brood's daredevil career. Of all those things, perhaps Brood's persona remains central.
"I did identify with him," Nodler admits, not filling in the details.
The "wild romance" proved a particularly potent way of describing the largesse of Brood's life. Dijk told Nodler he thought he would have got on well with Brood, professing, "Now, you too my boy are part of the wild romance."
Charles Thompson/Black Francis singing by the stature of Herman Brood on the Bluefinger tour:
Herman Brood -Saturday Night 1978: