Saturday, March 8, 2008

A conversation with Stew


For a profile of Bill Bragin, the former director of Joe’s Pub, I interviewed Stew, whose semiautobiographical show “Passing Strange” just opened on Broadway. Bragin booked Stew and his band the Negro Problem at Joe’s many times, and by all accounts had a hand in the show’s early stages of development. (It originally ran last summer at the Public Theater, although I never saw it there.)

I wasn’t wild about the Broadway “Passing Strange.” The music is good, and while I found the theme of black identity fascinating, the main character’s bohemian/soul-searching wanderings in Europe seemed drawn-out and repetitive, and the focus on “the real” shallow and heavy-handed. (Not so for Charles Isherwood, who raved in the Times.)

And as it happened I wasn’t able to use any of Stew’s quotes. But his interview is an interesting look at an underground artist about to leap into the unfamiliar big leagues. Stew’s mantra: “When you come up here, man, you have to either stick to your guns or turn around and put on the Vaseline.” I wish him luck, but so far it’s not looking great. According to the Broadway League, which certifies box-office receipts, the show ran at just 31 percent capacity last week. I hope the reviews will help that pick up, otherwise it won’t last long.

This interview took place by phone on the afternoon of Thursday, February 21, seven days before the show’s opening.

I’ve heard that Bill had an important but unofficial role in the development of “Passing Strange.” Tell me about that.

Without Bill it wouldn’t have happened. He is without a doubt the only person you can actually say that without him it wouldn’t have happened.

Except for you, maybe.

Yeah, although, you know, they could have used one of those blond, blue-eyed starlets to play me. But yeah, Bill is a champion of underground culture, and he puts his heart where is mind is. When he believes in something, it doesn’t matter if it’s particularly hip; in fact, Bill tends to get in on stuff before it’s hip, and tries to make it hip. He’s just one of those guys that when he believes in something, he’s really into spreading the gospel. And he encouraged Heidi [Rodewald, Negro Problem bassist and “Passing Strange” collaborator] and me and helped us every step of the way, from our beginning gigs at Joe’s Pub, when we were not even sure if we could draw people because our crowd was a little more down market, like rock-club type folks. We were scared at the idea of people paying $20 because we were used to people paying $10.

He just became a fantastic supporter of ours. He’s the one that basically took us over next door, so to speak, to the Public, and he and Rebecca Rugg, who is I would say the second person who you could say that without her it wouldn’t have happened. Rebecca Rugg was the dramaturg at the Public at the time, and between the two of them and Heidi and myself we just cooked up this crazy idea of trying to bring actual rock music into the theater, not rock music with quotation marks around it.

Was Bill saying to you as you played gigs, “What you do might be cool theater,” or did you say to him, “What we do might be cool theater”?

Bill and I, because we both don’t have the best memories, already have conflicting versions of how “Passing Strange” came to be. You should ask him his version. My version is that in an email to Bill, among saying other things that we were working on which were true, I told a bold-faced lie that Heidi and I were working on musical. It was a complete lie. I had not written one note or one word toward a musical, nor had Heidi. And Bill immediately responds, like 30 seconds after getting the email, “Oh, you guys are writing a musical! Let me hear something from it!” And I looked at Heidi and said, “Oh shit, we better throw something together.”

I think Bill’s version is that he said, “Oh, you guys should try writing a musical,” or something like that. But I know what happened. I lied, he took me up on my lie, and the next thing you know the lie turned into a play.

The way all great art should begin.


So he’s going from Joe’s Pub up to Lincoln Center, and you’re going from elsewhere in the Public Theater up to Broadway ...


Do you have any reservations about these moves? Or do you feel like you’re colonizing the uptown world?

I don’t know about colonizing, but I feel like we are definitely infiltrating. If it didn’t sound so aggressive I would say that we’re behind enemy lines, and I mean that in the most positive way. I’m not saying that Broadway is my enemy, but aesthetically it certainly is. Broadway is certainly my aesthetic enemy. I like the people up here, they’re perfectly fine. They’re wonderful, actually. But I think what we’re doing is the same thing that Bill is going to do when he goes to Lincoln Center — you’re going to get Bill Bragin. And when you come up to Broadway, you’re going to get me and Heidi. You’re going to get the Negro Problem. You’re going to get our real music. We’re not going to turn into this other thing. People who have seen the show at the Public say it is even edgier now than it was before, and that’s just because we’re too old and jaded to worry about selling out. We’re so used to doing our own thing. It’s not like, “Oh, we’re these great mavericks, these young guns.” It’s the opposite: we’re just so set in our ways we don’t even know how to sell out anymore.

You’re maybe even trying a little harder now.

Yes yes yes yes.

Is that because of the institutional mindset of what surrounds you?

Oh, definitely. When you come up here, man, you have to either stick to your guns or turn around and put on the Vaseline. These people will try to get you to ... When there’s money involved, suddenly everybody wants you to make the play that they want it to be. You have to stick to your guns up here.

Compromise happens gradually. It doesn’t happen overnight. People think that you get handed a big check and you shut up. Maybe in Hollywood that happens. Maybe in Hollywood Spielberg hands you a big check and says, “I’m buying your screenplay and I’ll do whatever I want to do with it.” Well, fine, you go buy a house with that big check and then you’re fine. But up here a lot of forces can chip away at your integrity if you’re not careful. We’re really lucky because our team is a threesome: me and Heidi and Annie Dorsen, our director. It’s not like they can take one of us in a room and force-feed us caviar and do water torture with Champagne and then when we come out the next morning and be like, “I want to be the next horrible musical now because they just fed me all this caviar.” No, we have to check in with each other. So they don’t take us in any dark rooms with the light bulb swinging.

Thank God.

But that’s because there’s three of us. I think sometimes if one person comes up here, man, you can get wined and dined and next thing you know you’re making some stuff that’s like, crap.

Next thing you know you’re making “Gypsy.”

Right. And you don’t even know it. But every once in a while we just look across the table at each other and go, “Hey, look at these notes from these folks. We’re not doing this.”

Are you still in touch with Bill?

Oh yeah, all the time. Bill and I became friends long after we were working together. It’s not like I’m his friend from high school and then he started booking me. Bill knew about our music before he knew about us. But I consider the guy a friend. And I’m a fan of his work, so to speak, and obviously he’s a fan of ours. I’ve talked to him. He’s busy and I’m busy. We’re both busier than we’ve ever been in our lives now.

When you heard the news, did you think, “All right, now I’m going to have a gig at Lincoln Center”?

[Laughs.] It’s funny because we once had a really big, breakthrough gig for ourselves at Lincoln Center. A lot of people we were working with at the time said, “You and Heidi, the pinnacle of your New York existence would be if you got booked at Joe’s Pub, it’s such a great club for you.” And we got booked at Joe’s Pub at the same time that we got booked at Lincoln Center, so we ended up having to play Lincoln Center because they had first dibs. And we were like, “Oh man, have we blown it with Joe’s Pub? Now they’re going to get mad at us for playing Lincoln Center before them.” But yeah, we played Lincoln Center and it was a complete conflict with Joe’s Pub, so it’s kind of funny that now Bill is there.

The first thing I thought when Bill got the job was just, “Wow, this could be really exciting.” And it’s kind of what makes New York great, I have to say, that a guy like Bill Bragin, with this super-eclectic taste and this underground sensibility, would go to Lincoln Center. And Lincoln Center would be smart enough to get a guy like him.

And quite frankly, it’s also a testament to New York that a crazy underground band — you know, we’re not even underground, we’re like sub-underground — could actually end up on Broadway. It could not happen in any other city in the world. Because the line between low culture and high culture and middlebrow here is kind of blurry. I’ve been in and out of New York since the early ’80s. I remember when graffiti first went into an art gallery. And it took a long time for graffiti to get into an art gallery anywhere else. It happened here first.

I’m not a big fan of living in New York. [Laughs.] But there is no way in hell that we would be on Broadway or Bill would be in a place like Lincoln Center if we were in any other city. I’m really convinced of that.

[Thanks, congrats.]

Previously on “L.A. Law”: Lou Reed, M.I.A.

No comments: