Pixies Singer Black Francis and Catastrophic Theatre Bring the World Premier of “Bluefinger: The Fall and Rise of Herman Brood” to Houston

“The most important thing to know about Herman is that he was Dutch, and white. But he wanted to be American, and black.” That was among the first lines I heard as I sat in on rehearsals for the stage play Bluefinger: The Fall and Rise of Herman Brood. Herman Brood is the subject of both the Black Francis concept album Bluefinger and the stage adaptation, the debut of which is happening right here in Houston at the Catastrophic Theatre.

If you’re new to the Houston music scene, or even if you’re just young, this is really an amazing time and place to get involved. This connects us to the world in a way that few things have in the past 15-20 years. As news of this production trickles out of town, the world is watching Houston, and we’re witnessing the birth of a work that will stand for years and travel the globe — for now, though, SCR has this exclusive look inside the rehearsals.

Pixies singer Black Francis (or Frank Black, or Charles Thompson if you prefer) describes Herman Brood as his favorite rock star, and the rest of the world describes him as The Netherlands’ only rock star.

The scene comes after the Black Francis song “Angels Come to Comfort You,” and continues with Brood’s wife (Xandra Brood), managers (Ivo de Longe, Koos Van Dijk), and a friend speaking of him both humorously and harshly. Herman Brood was known to be a wild man of extremes, but to hear his friends tell it is epic. There is such a full range of human experience in the dialogue; it set me up, hungry to learn more from the very beginning.

Black Francis’ “Captain Pasty” played next, and though I heard them rehearse it impeccably many times that day, this was the only time I saw it with the full cast in motion. Matt Kelly, as Herman Brood, danced wildly across a 40-foot span of stage space, with three partners acting out a scene of frantic, hilarious slapstick, and it was still, by far, the most restrained performance I’ve ever seen Matt Kelly deliver onstage. Then the cast and crew split into two groups. The actors and dancers left to rehearse in another space while the musicians stayed put.

Bluefinger is set up with two stand-alone bands, side by side, on stage, with dialogue taking place in the foreground between them. Michael Haaga (as Black Francis) leads the Bluefinger band, telling his version of Herman Brood’s life, while on the other side of the stage, Matt Kelly (as Herman Brood) leads his band portraying the crazed glory of the Dutch rock star, who died in 2001 by jumping off the roof of the Amsterdam Hilton. (“Good enough for John and Yoko,” as Black Francis says at one point.)

Next I saw the Herman Brood band rehearse “Proud.” Brood’s band, though progressive and sometimes even punk, is constantly drawn to the earliest American blues-rock conventions. The mixture of those vocabularies settles them on a driving, unhurried sound like a cross between the earliest KISS records and The Rolling Stones. Brood’s lyrics are simplistic, like the song arrangements, and with his three backup singers and the saxophone, the sound often borders on Motown. Fitting for a man whose friends said he wanted to be black, and American. The song itself is a lament; the man who made everyone’s life fast, fascinating, and thrilling also made their lives hellish. (Just wait, you’ll see. They say so themselves!) And in this song, he’s at a low point, hopefully a turning point, promising anyone who’ll listen that, for now, at least, he wants to make them “feel proud.”

“Rock-n-Roll Junkie” plays after a scene where a handler is corralling Brood for a trip to the airport. Except for the lyrics, this could be a 1950s sock-hop hit. I can almost hear a teeny-bopper telling Dick Clark, “Its got a good beat, and you can dance to it.” But the innovation and perhaps the source of the fascination with Brood is that it comes with the context of Brood refusing to move until he finds his dope needle. The handler promptly locates it, Brood’s mood lightens, and he makes the flight and hires the needle-finding handler as his manager. We’ve witnessed a bit of the origin story.

Then Brood speaks through his microphone to an unseen Boston radio audience as he introduces “Dope Sucks.” From his speech we know that he is playing live on the air for 14 different radio stations, two of which have asked him not to play the song.

“But,” he protests, “The song says dope sucks, not suck dope, or dope is good,” and he names the pantheon of rock stars from the ’60s and ’70s who died from drug overdoses and suggests that the stations that do not want to air the song should air commercials instead. The song is, again, very 1950s-sounding, except for Scott Ayers‘ shreddy, bridge-building, generation-gapping guitar.

Then it segues into Brood singing a few lines of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” and then I saw something I was unprepared for.

But more on that in a moment. Besides “Captain Pasty,” I also heard the Black Francis Bluefinger band rehearse “Tight, Black Rubber,” and the title track, “Bluefinger.” Each song has a bit of its originator and its interpreter infused into the performance.

In “Tight Black Rubber,” Haaga’s strong, loud voice interprets the song, rather than impersonating it. The band’s three-guitar setup sounds lush compared to the original Bluefinger album, which carries a bit of the Pixies “loud-quiet-loud” when it goes between the rich, full sound and then retreats dramatically into a sparseness that abruptly drops you back into the forgotten spaces of your reality, reminding you that you are in a theater.

The title track “Bluefinger” is, in the words of the director, the moral of the story. The word “bluefinger” is an Americanization of the proper Dutch name for a person from Brood’s hometown (Blauwvinger). So it’s a song about Brood’s home, his leaving home, and though it’s a lament for all the pain he’s caused, the art of the lyrics are in his defiance. The man made himself great by taking many, many chances. As they say, there is no roadmap to greatness. So his imperfect pursuit of it was fraught with danger, pain, and serendipity.

“In this song you’re not a rock band,” the director told the Black Francis musicians by way of helping them to find their level. “You’re a symphony.” And they are. A symphony. And a symphony in an opera, at that. Whereas I spend my life plotting my way around tragedy, seeking consistency and routine at every turn, Brood sought out the extremities of what his body and mind could sustain. It took his friends and family on a rollercoaster of successes and failures, but it also took him around the world, to near-fame and fortune in LA and New York, and, after his death, to Houston and the Catastrophic Theatre.

So, back to “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” Brood has just explained “Dope Sucks” to Boston’s live simulcast radio audience. He’s recounted all the rock gods who have died from drugs; he’s bitten the hand that fed him by refusing to play by the radio station’s rules, and played “Dope Sucks” anyway. Then, inexplicably, he introduces what he calls “a religious song,” and sings Bob Dylan’s words, in English with his pronounced Dutch accent: “Momma take these guns from me. I can’t shoot them anymore. I’m getting tired, too tired to see. Feels like I’m knocking on heaven’s door.” And then, for the first time in the four hours I’ve been watching them, I realize that rather than one drummer, there are two. Two bass players, four guitars, four backup singers, and two dueling/duetting singers.

Because at this moment, the young Bostonian named Charles Thompson became Black Francis. We assume that as he sat in his apartment listening to Herman Brood’s live radio performance, he was inspired to create the Pixies, thereby and change American music forever. So the bands play the most emotive sequence I ever hope to hear, side by side, with intricate cues and unseen passages between players. The music is passed back and forth, with energy deftly transferred in waves; the artists share so much with the audience the experience is nearly religious. I actually caught myself daydreaming against the swirling angel-singing and their world of guitars, thinking, “With all this art in the world, how can we ever fight?” If you’ve ever had an experience like that, whether at church, on a mountaintop, in a museum, or in a rock club, you’ve craved it again. And I found one, listening to these 14 players interpret the intentions of Black Francis.

The song they play is “Taking Your Mouth into Mine.” The bands join to create an unbroken line from the swing of the ’40s to 1950s rock-n-roll and on through the renaissance of the 1960s and ’70s. Brood’s band linked to American blues, and the Black Francis band links to invention, to the unknown and the undiscovered future of rock, as if through his travels, his worldly influences inform him, and therefore the rest of us. Black Francis writes, plays, and sings with authority in the Biblical sense. And here we share in his most intimate origin story, where he reveals to us the birth of his greatest influence. Where he stands before us in a glorious crescendo of guitar rock opera, nakedly singing with his idol about taking his mouth, his voice, his life story, into his own, making it his own, and making his art still greater because of it.

And perhaps that is the only way that Herman Brood can find his redemption. Through living on in the voice of still greater men. In case all of his wrongs were not righted before he leapt from the roof of the hotel where John Lennon once held the Bed-In, perhaps through the great Black Francis and his album, and further still, through the men who took from His work to make their own bold experiments, maybe the greatest parts of Herman Brood can be reconciled here, on the stages of our theaters, in Houston.

Bluefinger: The Fall and Rise of Herman Brood opens November 12 and runs through December 18th, Wednesday though Saturday at Diverseworks Artspace.

Directed by Jason Nodler and featuring songs and concepts by Black Francis and Herman Brood.

Adapted for the stage by Jason Nodler from an idea by Pixies biographer Josh Frank.

Starring Matt Kelly as Herman Brood and Michael Haaga as Black Francis.

Photos by Creg Lovett.

[Bluefinger: The Fall and Rise of Herman Brood opens November 12 and runs through December 18th, Wednesday though Saturday at Diverseworks Artspace.]

Interview by . Interview posted Tuesday, November 9th, 2010. Filed under Features, Interviews.

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6 Responses to “Pixies Singer Black Francis and Catastrophic Theatre Bring the World Premier of “Bluefinger: The Fall and Rise of Herman Brood” to Houston”

  1. tommy koenig on November 8th, 2010 at 11:56 pm

    why is this not all over the front page?

  2. Jeremy Hart on November 9th, 2010 at 12:19 am

    Ours, or the Chronicle’s? It *is* on the front page of our little site… :)

  3. tommy koenig on November 9th, 2010 at 12:34 am

    both!

  4. Jeremy Hart on November 9th, 2010 at 12:48 pm

    Got the interview w/Jason Nodler, Matt Kelly, & Michael Haaga up now…

  5. SPACE CITY ROCK » Dead Horse Reunion Scheduled — Lead Singer Controversy Developing on June 21st, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    […] Rise of Herman Brood for Catastrophic Theater at DiverseWorks. (See our coverage of that up over here, here, & here, by the […]

  6. SPACE CITY ROCK » Yr. Weekend, Pt. 2: Indian Jewelry + Roky Moon & BOLT Do-Over + Girls Rock Camp + Temporary Insanity II + Jesse Dayton + More on July 11th, 2011 at 9:38 am

    […] On top of all that, the other bands playing are like a who’s-who of amazing bands I love, from classic rock re-invigorators Paris Falls to quirky/loud popsters Woozyhelmet to one-man jam-band/hypnotist Benjamin Wesley to cool, strange experimenters A Thousand Cranes. And then there’s what was supposed to be ex-Sprawl frontman Matt Kelly‘s band Lick Lick…which is apparently now going to be playing as “Bluefinger”, from the recently-running play of the same name at the Catastrophic Theatre. […]

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