New Jersey Stage

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Doo Dah Man

By Gary Wien

The Doo Dah Man

Everybody likes to think they have a story in their past that would make a great film.  Somewhat ironically, documentary filmmaker Jack Ballo, had a doozy of a tale that he largely kept to himself for decades.  During a long car ride from Nashville back home to Jersey, he finally told the story to his wife.  The result? A film called The Doo Dah Man which shares his story of hitchhiking to California after graduating high school with a friend, meeting an escaped convict, and finding himself on the run from the cops while traveling from Arizona to Texas.  The film had its world premiere in Atlantic City at the Garden State Film Festival in March.

Ballo and his friend hitchhiked from Sayreville to Huntington Beach, California a few days after graduation.  They stayed there for about a month until they ran out of money and decided to return home, reaching Yuma, Arizona at the end of their first day thumbing rides.

“At the end of the night, we went to sleep in our sleeping bags in the desert,” recalled Ballo.  “We wake up in the morning and start hitchhiking again.  A guy pulls over and, just as we did for every car, we walked up to the car, stuck our head in there to see what was going on.  The guy had his window rolled down and he asked us if we had any money.  We said that we didn’t, that we were broke, and I could tell that he was broke.  He thought for a second and then said “come on in.”

Once Ballo gets in the car, he notices that there’s no key in the ignition — only wires hanging out.  This gave them a funny feeling, but being experienced hitchhikers, they knew how to roll with it.
“The first thing is a ride is a ride,” explained Ballo.  “We’d taken shady rides before and its part of the game.  You just take rides when you can and try to be careful. So this didn’t phase us too much until we saw a cop behind us and the cop kept getting closer and closer.”

The driver’s name was Smitty, something he revealed to them and something they picked up on from the tattoo on his arm.  As the cop followed closely, Ballo noticed Smitty getting a bit nervous.  He kept sticking his fingernails into his thumb.  After a while, Smitty decides to take the next exit, so he puts his blinker on.  The cop puts his blinker on too.  Smitty takes the exit ramp and puts his blinker on to go over the highway, as does the cop.

“I don’t remember whether the cops hit the lights first or Smitty hit the gas first, but before you know it we’re being chased!” said Ballo.

Knowing the area, Smitty took them on a tour of rundown housing projects and dirt roads.  The cop followed them down every road they took until Smitty finally gunned the engine.  Ballo remembers dirt all over the place, the car fishtailing at the end of the road and Smitty opening his door and taking off, leaving the pair of teenagers.

And that was their first hour with Smitty.  Things would only get crazier from then on.

With Smitty gone, the two got out of the car and noticed that the back of the trunk had a big hole in it where the key belonged.  If they had any doubts they were riding in a stolen car, those doubts were instantly erased.  About 10-15 minutes later, Smitty returns and utters the line that Ballo has never forgotten, “Hey guys, I’m in a jam.”

Smitty tells them he’s got to get back to the Interstate and they should come with him because they could die in the desert with the heat.  The original plan was to get dropped off at the next truck stop or an exit ramp where they could get another ride, but one thing led to another and the need for food set in.  With none of them having any money, it was time for improvise.  They stopped at a convenience store and Smitty gave them directions to find the cold cuts.  He said he was going to cause a disturbance and when he did, the two were supposed to grab the meat and head back to the car.

“So, we went into the store and walked over to the meat section,” recalled Ballo.  “Sure enough, Smitty walks in and he begins making this big disturbance.  He yells out, ‘Has anybody seen my little brother Jackie?’ He puts his hand out and says, ‘He’s about this big.’  He’s explaining what he was wearing, what he was doing, and how he’s lost and he has to find him.  It was all nonsense, just rambling, but for about 30 seconds every eye in the store was on this crazy guy.  We put the meat down our pants and walked out the door.  Smitty grabs a loaf of bread and a six pack of beer.  We jump in the car and he takes off.  About 10 minutes later, we had a salami sandwich in one hand, a beer in the other, the radio’s playing, and we were all just getting along.”

The next morning, Smitty conned a Church into giving them some vouchers for gas and food.  With a full tank, they headed to a junkyard.  Ballo and his friend kept the owner busy, while Smitty did a little shopping on his own.  He wound up returning with a pair of license plates and an ignition for the car with a key in it.  They manage to open the trunk with a screwdriver and find some cash in a pair of pants.  So now they have a somewhat legal car, some cash, a full tank of gas, and food.

“All this happened within 24 hours and it just never stopped!” said Ballo.  “We had five days of this.”
After nearly a week on the road together, Ballo could sense a little tension beginning between Smitty and his friend.  Meanwhile, the thought of actually being arrested became more and more of a possibility with each day.  Ballo knew that the cops would likely have let them go if they were picked up during that initial car chase, but days later they would be thrown in jail with Smitty.  The three basically were in agreement that it was time to move on, even though Ballo didn’t want to go.  He had gotten close to Smitty during the adventures and struggled with leaving, but the thought of being sent to jail for a long time made the decision a bit easier.

Ballo says he probably told his wife and friends bits and pieces of the story over the years, but never the whole thing.  There were just so many adventures during those five days that the story seemed unbelievable, even to Ballo.  He spent the entire ride back from Nashville telling her the story and answering her questions.  It was the first time in years that he truly thought back to those days and the memories and details began pouring out.  After finishing, his wife said this should be a movie.  As luck would have it, his wife was headed to London the next day for a business trip where she would meet Claude Green, a former co-worker who had become a filmmaker.  She asked him how things were going.  He had made a couple documentaries, but said, “I need a story.”  She said, “I’ve got a story for you.”

Jack Ballo’s latest documentary is called Destiny’s Bridge.  In it, a homeless minister stands up to a New Jersey town that is evicting him, along with 80 other people living in the woods. Police raids and arrests bring uncertainty to these off-the-grid residents that are staking claim to the unused public land that they have been living on for over six years. With the town closing in and eviction on their doorstep, the innovative homesteaders set out to create their own self-sustained community called Destiny’s Bridge.

The film will be available onDVD and Blu-Ray sometime this spring.  For more information visit


By Eric Hillis,


For a long time, the phrase ‘British crime thriller’ has been associated with a slew of third rate ‘mockney’ geezer flicks that glamourise the criminal lifestyle. In recent years we’ve seen a new wave of British crime thrillers focus their attention on the other side of the law. James McAvoy has played dodgy cops in two of them - Filth and Welcome to the Punch - while Ray Winstone essayed another maverick bobby in the big screen reboot of ‘70s TV drama The Sweeney. The latest in this trend, Hyena, comes from writer-director Gerard Johnson and leading man Peter Ferdinando, the duo who gave us 2009’s Tony, an impressive low budget outing focussed on a socially awkward serial killer and his working class London backdrop.

Ferdinando was fantastic as Tony, and he’s equally winning as Michael, the anti-hero (with a capital A) of Hyena. The leader of a corrupt unit of coke-addicted coppers, Michael is about to cut a deal with a Turkish gangster when he witnesses his bloody execution by a pair of Albanian mobsters. Despite having witnessed their handywork, Michael ingratiates himself with the Albanians, striking a deal that amounts to the police equivalent of a protection racket.

Things get messy when internal affairs begin looking into Michael and his buddies and a former partner of his (Graham) arrives on the scene. Add a Travis Bickle-esque crusade to free a hooker from the clutches of the Albanians and Michael finds himself juggling too many foes.

Where the gangster focused British crime movies have taken Tarantino and Ritchie as their template, these new cop movies hark back further to the work of William Friedkin and Michael Mann, none more so than Hyena. With most of the movie set either at night or inside seedy windowless bars and brothels, the frame is constantly soaked in the sort of neon lighting so beloved by Mann, while the movie’s title card employs the very same blue font as Mann’s 1981 thriller Thief. Add a throbbing score by synthmeisters The The and it’s all too clear from where Johnson’s stylistic influence emanates. In terms of plot, the spirit of Friedkin’s cop movies looms large, with Ferdinando’s Michael very much the bastard son of Popeye Doyle and Richard Chance. But where the former duo refused to do things by the book, Michael tears pages out of the book, rolls them up and snorts coke through them.

For all its style and Ferdinando’s enthusiastic embracing of his character, Hyena ultimately offers little new to the cops ‘n mobsters milieu and ultimately serves as an extended showreel for its director and star, both of whom have done enough to hint at a potentially great future.

                                 Hyena 5/10

        Directed by:      Gerard Johnson

        Starring:            Peter Ferdinando, Stephen Graham

                                 Neil Maskell, Myanna Buring

                                 Elisa Lasowski, Richard Dormer

REVIEW: The Water Diviner

By Eric Hillis,

REVIEW: The Water Diviner

Antipodean cinema’s biggest star, Russell Crowe, makes his feature directorial debut in ambitious style with an epic that, though wrought from an original screenplay from Andrews Anastasios and Knight, bears the hallmarks of a filmic adaptation of some much loved ‘Great Australian Novel’. It’s not the movie you might expect from a first time actor turned megaphone wielder, though Crowe may have been chiefly attracted to a scene in which his character saves the day by clobbering a villain with a cricket bat; an iconic image of Aussie heroism if ever there was one.

It’s 1919, and Crowe is Joshua, a farmer on a patch of outback land bearing the postal address ‘middle of nowhere’. He possesses the valuable titular gift of being able to find water through a combination of psychic powers and divining rods, detailed in an opening scene that owes much to the beginning sequence of There Will be Blood. Though he’s eked out an existence in this formidable wilderness, he and his wife are far from living the good life, thanks to the presumed death of their three boys at the notorious battle of Gallipoli (think Pearl Harbour or Dunkirk for Aussies and Kiwis) in Turkey. When his wife takes her own life - curiously in the exact same manner as Ruth Wilson’s distraught Aussie housewife in Saving Mr. Banks - Joshua decides to make for the Turkish battlefield in order to find the bodies of his sons and bury them in the family plot.

Crowe’s film is very much an old school Sunday afternoon epic. It never quite nails its flag to any political mast, detailing the horrors of war without ever critiquing its motivations. We get epic, and at times blood-soaked and gruesome, battle scenes, as well as an old-fashioned quivering lips romance between Joshua and Olga Kurylenko’s Ayshe, the widowed proprietor of the Turkish bed and breakfast he makes the base of his conquest. The movie is most effective when portraying the former, with Crowe displaying a knack for conveying scale, and the film has an impressive sub-Spielberg grandeur in its moments of action. It’s the romantic angle that Crowe fudges, with too many cheesy moments of slo-mo and lingering glances employed to sell the burgeoning relationship between two shattered souls. We never quite buy into their entanglement, mainly because the cultural gulf between the two isn’t remotely explored beyond gags about eating habits, and it all comes off a bit Lasse Hallstrom. The actress tries her best, but it’s difficult to accept Kurylenko as a Turk. The movie was shot in Turkey, so there’s no excuse for not giving the part to a local - Winter Sleep’s Melisa Sozen would have been ideal!

The oddest aspect of Crowe’s debut is Joshua’s ability to locate water, which also translates into a supernatural skill in finding needle-like corpses in the haystack fields of Gallipoli. The use of flashback confuses the issue, leaving us scratching our heads as to whether we are sharing Joshua’s psychic visions or it’s simply a matter of clumsy editing.

If you can ignore the film’s undeveloped mystical subplot and its misjudged romance, The Water Diviner makes for a perfectly fine watch for those who pine for the lost days of the Sunday afternoon epic.

An Interview With Griffen House

By Gary Wien

An Interview With Griffin HouseScott Stamper, the owner of The Saint in Asbury Park, has been high on you for a while.  How important is it to have club owners in your corner? Well, a lot of the time I’m not even aware of it to be honest.  It’s hard to know.  When you show up to an event, you sort of feel like they see bands and artists night after night and you wonder if they get bored or tired of it or if anyone really ever stands out.  So you telling me that makes me feel good, I didn’t know.  That’s cool.

I’ll always have a special relationship with Asbury because I was around 24 when my first record came out and I was new at everything.  I had just gotten a deal and a management company took me on and an agent took me on.  I was at my mom’s house in Ohio when my agent called me about three months into me doing this and said, “Hey, I’ve got Springsteen’s phone number here.  They want you to call him.” I was like “What?”

It was crazy, they had invited me to go open for Springsteen’s wife, Patti Scialfa.  I did a run of shows with her and the first show was in Asbury Park.  I came up there with my buddy Paul and we met the whole Springsteen crew and Patti.  Everybody was just so nice and cool, it was a surreal experience for somebody just starting out to have that kind of thing happen so quickly.  We played a show at The Paramount Theatre and Bruce was there for a few nights of the tour.

It was just such a fun experience and I think of that every time I come there and drive by The Paramount Theatre.  I have such great memories.  For people in New Jersey it’s probably not that big of a deal but for someone from Ohio you feel like you’re walking into a 1985 music video or something!

According to your publicist, “Griffin House is a pretty happy man.  He’s got a trifecta of life — music, golf, and family.”  Have you found a nice balance between writing, recording, touring, and everyday life? Yeah, I’ve started to do that.  I’ve been married a little over five years now.  Before that, I think I was trying to search for fulfillment just through my music and having success doing that.  There was a lot of pressure because it felt like everything hinged on one single and depending on how that was going, it was as if all of my chips were in one basket.  It’s been nice to have a more well-rounded motivations.  Music’s not even close to my number one anymore.  It’s way down there after family and taking care of myself and having a well-rounded life with my wife and kids and all that stuff.

Where is golf on the list? (Laughs) It’s down there probably even further than music! But it’s something I enjoy so much, I get a lot of relief just going out and hitting the ball around.  I don’t take it too seriously.  I have a lot of fun doing it though.   I used to be really serious about golf in high school.  I had a scholarship offer to Ohio State and thought maybe I would play in college and try to continue on and go as far as I could.  But one thing led to another and I decided not to take the scholarship and went to Miami University (in Ohio) and got into music there.

Starting in college is later than most people, did learning guitar come naturally to you? No, it didn’t.  It was hard.  I tried playing guitar and took a lesson or two, but couldn’t get the hang of it.  I got very frustrated and put it down for a while.  I did some theatre in high school and sang with some friends who could play guitar.  When I went away to college, I brought my guitar with me and saw so many kids playing that I started to think I needed to give it another try.  So I spent a lot of time practicing and playing chords.  It was tough to get over that initial hangup of getting your hands to do these awkward things and then change them fast and do another chord.  But I kept practicing and practicing.  I think it probably was harder for me as an 18 year old trying to learn it for the first time rather than if I had trained myself early on, but I eventually picked it up.

I lived in an arts dorm where everybody was playing music or painting or creating some kind of art.  It was a good environment to be around.  There were a lot of music majors in there and I learned some great guitar stuff from them.  We’d just sit around and jam and that’s how I learned how to play; just having them teach me songs that I liked and it took off from there.  I started writing my own songs pretty quickly after that.

Do you think it’s easier or harder to build a following in the internet and social media age? It’s kind of a mystery.  Artists don’t live in the day and age when you could just plug into a record label and have them float you down the mainstream and make sure everything goes smoothly for you.  There’s so many people doing it that it can feel like you’re just lost in a sea of music.  But, at the same time, I wake up every day and go, “I can’t believe that I’m going there and playing a show and 200 people are buying tickets.”  That amazes me giving the fact that there’s so many people doing this and they’re coming to see me.  When I first started out I might have thought I was going to be U2 or Bruce Springsteen.  I’m not like them, but I think it’s still a miracle that I can go play for a few hundred people here and there.

I imagine you got this a lot early in your career, but do you still have people think Griffin House is the name of a band? Yeah, that happens all the time.  I have to let them know it’s my real name.  House is my last name and Griffin is my first name — it’s my mother’s Maiden name.   It can be a little weird and frustrating…

Griffin was such an unusual name when I was growing up and now there are hotels called The Griffin House, recovery centers called The Griffin House, even some place in Massachusetts called The Griffin House, a home for aged men or something like that.  When your last name is House, there are going to be a lot of jokes.

Tell me about playing the prison, which led to your latest release, Songs For a Prisoner. It was cool.  It was not something I wanted to do, but I did it because I was invited by my friend/former roommate Jordan Lawhead, who heads up an organization called YouInspire.  I figured whatever experience this was going to be would definitely not be like Johnny Cash Live from Folsom Prison.  I thought the guys were going to either tear me apart or be bored that I’m there.  I didn’t know whatever type of music they liked, but I doubted it was acoustic music from a white guy with a guitar!

So, I went in there and played and they were great.  They were hooting and hollering and clapping along.  When they heard a line they like they started screaming.  All of a sudden I’m thinking this kind of does feel like Live at Folsom Prison.  It was really fun.  Luckily, he recorded the whole thing and we were able to release some of it.  I think you can feel some of the energy in the room on a few of the recordings.  It’s nice to have that capture.  It was a good surprise for me.

Songs For A Prisoner was the latest release by Griffin House but he’s currently running a PledgeMusic campaign to raise funds to put another CD out.    At press time, the campaign was at around 40% of its goal with roughly 50 days left.  Griffin House has several personalized items for those who donate ranging from a custom voicemail greeting to private shows to your name listed in the liner notes of the CD.

Upcoming shows in the area:
4/28 at City Winery, New York City
4/29 at World Cafe Live, Philadelphia
5/6 at The Saint, Asbury Park, NJ

The Story Of Nils & Bruce

By Gary Wien

The Story Of Nils & BruceNils Lofgren replaced Steven Van Zandt just before the Born In The USA Tour in 1984 and has been with the band ever since.  He first met Bruce Springsteen in 1970 when his band Grin shared a bill with Steel Mill at the Fillmore West.  Over the years, Lofgren saw Springsteen perform live several times and the two became friends.

“In 1984, I was having a rough period,” recalled Lofgren.  “I couldn’t get a record deal and was feeling pretty bad.  Bruce was kind enough to invite me up to his home and we went around jamming through the weekend.  He played me the new album, Born In The USA, which was spectacular. I knew “Dancing In The Dark” should be a big hit and it was, but nobody had an idea it would go on to be the massive seller it was. I used to talk to him about how much fun it was to work with Neil Young and be in a band and not be the band leader, and how I embraced that.  I think he filed that away.

“So when Steve (Van Zandt) decided he had to go and do his solo stuff, Bruce needed a guitar player,” continued Lofgren.  “I don’t know the details, but eventually I got a call.  I went up there and jammed for a couple of days and it worked out beautifully and I got the job.  To this day I’m still thrilled.  To be in a great band and not be a band leader is exciting.  I’ve done that with Ringo Starr and the first All-Starr Band and certainly have done it with Neil Young and Patti Scialfa a couple of times.  It’s all part of the same musical journey, but as a band leader you’re going to sing every song and you’re not going to sing much harmony;  you’re probably going to play every solo and not going to do a lot of the more band parts like rhythm guitar.”

In 1999, Van Zandt returned to the E Street Band, which meant they now had four guitarists in the band.  Lofgren saw this as an opportunity to learn a few new instruments.  He challenged himself to learn bottleneck and pedal steel, dobro, lap steel, and six-string banjo.  The end result breathed new life into old classics and actually enhanced the band’s live performance.  For Lofgren, it meant being able to continue a career balanced between being a member of a band and leading one.

“What happens is after a long tour with E Street, I come off the road refreshed and excited to get back to my own music,” said Lofgren.  “There’s a new life and excitement to get up and sing your own songs again.  For me, it’s been a very healthy thing to go from my own solo career to a band.  I’m a band person by nature.”

Ironically, Lofgren is aware that many of the most memorable experiences he’s had in music would probably have never happened if he had success with Grin or his early solo albums.  If there were hit records at the beginning of his career, he would not have performed and toured with Neil Young or Ringo or Springsteen.

“I wouldn’t change a thing looking back at it,” said Lofgren.  “I’m still trying to reach more people because you make music to share.  I’m still excited to have the daydream — some might call it a pipedream in the music industry — but I’m still trying to get better and make albums to share.  I’m not holding my breath for anything.  I’m grateful right now that I’ve got these shows coming up.  I’m preparing myself physically, mentally, and spiritually.  Doing boring stuff like physical therapy for the legs and pains is all part of it because once you walk out there you want to be lost in the music and the moment and the energy of the crowd.  You want to just roll with it and do something special, which I found when I grew up is something right up my alley.  It’s what I love and it’s more of a calling than a job at this point.  Most musicians get off the road after 15 years if they don’t love being in front of an audience, I’m 46 years and counting.  The live experience is the heart and soul of what inspires me and keeps me going.”

Upcoming Shows In New Jersey
    May 1 — Carl Pfeiffer Performing Arts Stage, Wyckoff, NJ
    May 3 — The Newton Theatre, Newton, NJ
    May 8 — Levoy Theatre, Millville, NJ
    May 9 — Pollak Theatre at Monmouth University,  West Long Branch, NJ

Nils Lofgren Faces The Music

By Gary Wien

Nils Lofgren Faces The Music

After 26 months on tour, many musicians would be ready for a break, but Nils Lofgren is excited to be heading back on the road.   The E Street band member is moving back to his role as front man and touring in support of Face The Music, a ten disc set that serves as a comprehensive retrospective of his career as an artist.  The tour will bring him back to the Garden State in May with shows in Wyckoff, Newton, Millville, and West Long Branch.

Lofgren is one of the most unsung musicians in rock and roll history.  He’s performed on classic albums by Neil Young, toured with a Beatle, and earned his place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the E Street Band since 1984.  He’s also released more than 20 records on his own and with his former band, Grin — the majority of which has long been out of print.

For decades, fans of Lofgren have searched for used vinyl copies of his records with only a handful of his work from the seventies and eighties available on compact disc.  Record labels refused to sell the rights to his old catalog until Fantasy Records came forward with the idea of creating the box set.  The label secured the rights to every song Lofgren wanted to include, ultimately leading to 169 tracks (including 40 previously released songs and rarities), a DVD featuring 20 video clips, and a 136-page booklet with an introduction by rock journalist Dave Marsh, track by track commentary and reflections by Nils, plus homages from musicians including Bonnie Raitt, Joe Walsh, Sting, Bono, and Paul Rodgers.

“It was a little shocking to look at what I’d actually done because I’m so focused on my next record or the next batch of songs or my work with all the great bands that I’ve been in,” said Lofgren, who spent two years on the project, listening to every song, finding bonus tracks, and creating a new running order for the music which defined his career.  “It’s pretty extraordinary and something I thought would never happen.”

Some of the surprises on the disc include unreleased songs by Grin and even material that reaches back to his work with the pre-Grin band Paul Dowell and the Dolphin.  “The piece de resistance for me was finding an old master tape of Neil Young singing and playing piano on ‘Keith Don’t Go’ with Grin, and getting his permission to use it after we remixed it,” added Lofgren.

He is currently on tour with Greg Varlotta performing favorites like “I Came To Dance,” “No Mercy,” and “Keith Don’t Go” along with nuggets that Lofgren stumbled upon while compiling the box set.  He says the two present a “really colorful show with electric, acoustic, and lots of jamming.”  Varlotta plays keyboards, guitars, and trumpet while Lofgren plays his trademark guitar and the occasional piano.  The pair also have a new twist in store for fans.

Throughout the seventies and into the eighties, Lofgren (a former gymnast) was famous for playing guitar while doing flips on a trampoline.  It was a signature move during his solo shows and something he brought with him to the E Street Band during the legendary Born In The USA tour.  Unfortunately, years of backflips and basketball punished his body to the point in which he now sports two metal hips.  Thanks to Varlotta, he’s been able to add tap dance to his act.

“I was always a great fan of tap dance since I was little kid watching Bill Robinson and the Shirley Temple movies,” he explained.  “I was always a big fan of Savion Glover and Gregory Hines.  Greg Varlotta is a great tap dancer and he gave me lessons.  I’m certainly a beginner, but I’m at a point now where I’ll actually jump on the board and have a go at it in my own shows.  At worst, hopefully it’s a hoot and a laugh and at best it’s something of a little musical number with two guys tap dancing.  We don’t over do it, just little touches here and there.”

His wife, Amy, originally hated the idea of adding tap dance to the mix, thinking it would be too hokey.  She changed her mind after seeing Nils rehearsing one day in his garage.  “That might work,” she said after seeing the tap dance.  After people loved it during the first show, it became part of the act.

“You never know what’s going to work,” explained Lofgren.  “As someone who loves performing, rest assured if something flops it’s not going to stay in the show long.  You yank it! I’ve found a new appreciation and love for performing over these last few years.  I realized that I get to walk out in front of an audience and they don’t care if I have an album deal or what chart position I don’t have.  They’re coming to root for me and want something special.  I find myself very at home in front of an audience.  It remains a therapeutic, healing experience even though you’re being judged and you want people to feel like they saw a very special night and will come back the next time.”

Touring in support of a box set undoubtedly encourages requests for old songs, which doesn’t bother Lofgren at all.

“I’m grateful anyone has a favorite from any era,” said Lofgren.  “I never get tired of playing the old songs because I don’t play them so much at home.  At home I’m working on the next batch of songs or shows.  The audience makes those old songs new every night in a way I cannot do anymore.  That’s kind of a magical thing about live performances.  It might be the only time they hear “Like Rain” or “Keith Don’t Go” in five years.  So, there’s a whole other energy or expectation and hope that I can’t personally bring to any of my songs at home.  That’s one of the magical qualities of the live performance and getting out and touring.

“After 26 months with the E Street Band, I was kind of delirious and beat up a bit, but I wasn’t musically rusty so these last number of months getting back to doing my own shows is kind of exciting,” continued Lofgren.  “It’s a good musical journey to get back to being the front man and singing the songs, playing the solos, and just remembering what that’s like.  It’s been quite a while since I’ve done a run of the Northeast so I’m excited in particular to get back to a few towns in Jersey.”

Lofgren, who was born in Chicago and grew up just outside Washington, D.C., cemented his status as an honorary New Jerseyan when he married a girl from West Orange whom he met at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park.  However, it wasn’t the traditional storybook meeting as Nils had to leave for Boston the next day.  He tried convincing her to go with him, but she stayed in Jersey.  Since Nils was playing shows in New Jersey every few months, he figured he would see her again sometime, but never did.  Their paths crossed again 19 years ago when Nils played The Rocking Horse in Scottsdale, Arizona.  They were each at the end of divorces at the time, began dating, and have been together ever since.

“I wish she had come to Boston.  It would have saved me 15 years of relationship hell,” said Lofgren.  “But I was pretty crazy and drinking pretty heavy at the time.  Maybe we needed those 15 years to mature enough to have the beautiful last 19 we’ve had.”

INSIDE MUSIC: Did Bob Dylan Really Steal James Damiano’s Songs?

By Rosemary Conte

INSIDE MUSIC: Did Bob Dylan Really Steal  James Damiano’s Songs?The copyright infringement case of James Damiano vs. Bob Dylan eclipses the conflict between Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke and the Marvin Gaye Estate, which was settled relatively quickly.  Bob Dylan’s alleged stealing of James Damiano’s songs and the law suit may be the most controversial story in the history of Rock ’n Roll. The Damiano camp says it’s been hidden from the public by the mainstream press for over 20 years.

That will change if and when there is a public showing of a documentary film called, “Eleven Years: --- Bob Dylan’s Stealing of James Damiano’s Songs,” presumably made when the law suit was eleven years old.

Damiano claims to have copyrighted his songs and submitted them in the 1980s at the request of executives of CBS Records, now owned by Sony.  He sued, he said, after he heard his words and music on Dylan’s 1989 Oh, Mercy album and in 1990 on Dylan’s Under the Red Sky album.

Point of interest: Damiano, from Budd Lake, NJ, auditioned for the legendary CBS Record producer John Hammond, Sr., who influenced the career of Dylan, and after that, Damiano filed the copyright infringement suit against Dylan and Sony Music Entertainment, Inc. in Federal Court in Camden, NJ. The ongoing litigation has cost many millions of dollars, and in 22 years there has been no countersuit or other legal response by the defendants. Maybe they thought that if they ignored him by not countersuing, Damiano would just go away.

There’s been not a peep from Dylan/Sony---that is until March 13 of this year when they became aware of the documentary film and had their lawyers send Damiano a letter threatening court action if the film, which contains “controversial discovery,” is shown.

Damiano feels it’s ironic that Dylan was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama while utilizing a “Gag Order” on him that designated all discovery materials including videotaped depositions that incriminated Dylan.

It’s a fascinating case. You can read about it all over the web, and read the actual letter from the Dylan/Sony attorney here: . The e-book info, “The James Damiano Story” is here:

By the way, Paul D. Greene, musicologist from Pennsylvania State University testified in an affidavit that he compared Damiano’s song called “Steel Guitars” and Dylan’s “Dignity” and found them strikingly similar.

I think all this fuss about works of art being too much like others is fundamentally invalid…maybe even stupid. Laws are created without awareness and appreciation of the fact that artists, like all other people, are influenced by everything they have experienced with their five senses. There is no escaping unconsciously dipping into the cache of another artist’s work. I analyze my own songwriting all the time, and invariably hear references to other compositions. Unconscious homage. And I’m careful. I know when I should abandon a phrase, quit a work-in-progress and move on.

By contrast, look at Billy Joel’s songs, and Barry Manilow’s.  Their’s was a conscience and deliberate stealing of classical themes for many of their hits.  Lucky for them Chopin’s estate is long gone and they can mine the public domain for as long as they can hum a tune!

originally published: 2015-04-20 11:27:43

Sights and Sounds of Note: April 2015

 By Rich and Laura Lynch

Sights and Sounds of Note: April 2015They say that “April showers bring May flowers” and the offices of have been showered with an abundance of music this month. Springing forth from our speakers is a colorful and eclectic array of sounds from heavy rockers, jam band favorites, living legends and disco darlings!

KC and the Sunshine Band’s on-going goal has been “to create instant happiness through music.” The group rose to superstardom in the 1970’s with their innovative blend of Caribbean, dance, pop and R&B. Hits such as “Get Down Tonight” and “Shake Your Booty” ruled the airwaves. Today, KC and The Sunshine Band are paying tribute to the music of the 1960’s, which had a big influence in shaping their goal. KC wanted to create up-beat music to help people forget about the personal and political turmoil that they were facing. Since the world still needs that ray of hope KC and The Sunshine Band has released Feeling You! The 60’s. A combination of up-tempo grooves with plenty of harmonies and horns shine new light on seventeen 1960’s classics.

KC adds a warm touch to timeless tunes such as Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind.” The Sunshine Band gives it a different mood with horns and heavier rhythms, yet Dylan’s message is still relevant. The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” once a guitar driven song, is now funkier. Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” is closer to its original form whereas KC and The Sunshine Band put their own unique spin on the majority of the other songs including a standout “Stand By Me”. Feeling You! The 60’s is a danceable feel good record that should make your day brighter.

Although Swift was released in 2014 it may be a new discovery for folks. Keyboardist Marco Benevento is well respected for combining his skills on the ivories with his innovative use of drum machines, pedals, sequencers and toys. Swift, Benevento’s fifth album, is different from his previous, mostly instrumental efforts as Marco steps into the role of vocalist. The CD was produced by Richard Swift after whom the record was named. Richard gives this nine track album a unique feel allowing Marco additional freedom to focus on the creative rather than the production process.

The feisty, shorter songs on Swift could easily entice music fans in the EDM and jam worlds. Andy Borger (bass) and Dave Dreiwitz (drums) craft robust rhythms that range from snappy to sturdy in animated arrangements where the piano plays a prominent role. The opening tune “At The Show” is a gathering of good up-tempo grooves backed by a big bottom that is an attention grabber. The edgy “Eye To Eye” engages the listener with its plodding beats that punctuate pondering lyrics. “Coyote Hearing” howls on heavy rhythms paired with cool keyboards parts. The CD closes with the lively “Free Us All.” Swift is a fast fun album from Marco Benevento who continues to grow as an artist.

Master shredder Michael Schenker and his Temple of Rock have released the spirited Spirit On A Mission that is a high-powered collection of all-new material. Schenker, who is best known for his work in the Scorpions, UFO, and MSG, has a particularly flavorful band this time around that features the former Scorpions rhythm section of drummer Herman Rarebell and bassist Francis Buchholz. On vocals is the ex-Rainbow powerhouse Doogie White and Wayne Findlay rounds things out on guitar and keyboards.

To ensure that Spirit On A Mission would see the light of day the band had to double down to bring the project to fruition. That’s because during the recording of the new album thieves on a malevolent mission of their own, broke into Kidroom Studios in Greven and made off with several guitars and the computers that contained all the work the band had processed up to that point.

“Yes, we got robbed and got very upset about it,” recalls Schenker. “Fortunately, it was just performances and not compositions. We caught up and performed the music better than before. It forced us to work extra hard and longer but it made it stronger.”

The powerful platter opens with “Live & Let Live” that sets the hard rockin’ tone for the rest of the album. “Vigilante Man” soars on White’s expressive and explosive vocals and an energizing and awe-inspiring lick from Schenker. “Savior Machine” is a satisfying and crushing crucible reminiscent of classic-era Ozzy with a lyrical nod to the unlikely source of soft-rocker James Taylor before Schenker hammers the whole thing home again with his piercing set of solos. Get ready to bow down at the Temple of Rock because Spirit On A Mission is worthy.

Motor Sister is a super group consisting of Jim Wilson, Scott Ian, Pearl Aday, Joey Vera & John Tempesta, paying tribute to the band Mother Superior. It started with Anthrax’s Scott Ian (guitarist) assembling a jam session for his 50th birthday party performing the music of Mother Superior. They hit it on all cylinders and with the support of Metal Blade Records; Motor Sister released an album capturing the energy and enthusiasm of the group. Both bands were inspired by classic rockers such as Cream, Kiss and UFO.

Motor Sister’s Ride is a fast, free styling CD. The 12 tracks featured were recorded basically live in the studio over the course of a few days. Ride kicks into high gear with the aggressive opener “A Hole”. “Beg Borrow Steal” is a prime example of Motor Sister’s hard rocking, heavy hook sound that drives much of the album. “Get That Girl” is another attention grabber with its catchy refrain paired with dueling guitar riffs. This high octane CD closes with the dramatic “Devil Wind.”

“It would be great to keep this thing going,” Jim Wilson founder of Mother Superior concluded. “I enjoyed playing these songs with Motor Sister more than I’ve ever enjoyed them before. Scott’s like a brother, John Tempesta is such a monster drummer, Joey is incredible and Pearl’s harmonies and background vocals are amazing. This feels like a continuation of trip I started long ago and it’s a real blessing.”

Classic rock legend Todd Rundgren has been at times called “God” by his most ardent adherents and he’s now taking his musical gospel Global to the masses with his second consecutive EDM-based effort. After getting his feet wet in the genre with 2013’s State, Rundgren returns with a more balanced offering that incorporates many of the doctrinal elements that converted hordes of disciples over the course of his multi-decade career.

Global is an extremely satisfying blend of the blue-eyed soul, rock and singer-songwriter stylings of the man known as a wizard and true star combined with his latest interests in the electronic dance scene that should get the feet moving the world over.

Tying the whole project together is a new message from the much beloved musical messiah -- that we must be much better stewards on this planet while adopting a deeper appreciation for our fellow man if we expect to get anywhere in this world.

Case in point are songs like “Rise” when Todd sings “if we don’t rise then we will fall” over a hypnotic trance base while firmly warning that “time keeps ticking away.” On “Blind” Rundgren sees a world full of myopic media-types and leaders who fail to acknowledge the myriad of problems we face as a people because they choose to ignore the “writing on the wall”. He points out that we have overcome in the past by giving a shout-out to Rosa Parks and others who have proven our potential to put things on a more positive path while telling the rest of us to get “out there and heal the world” on “Earth Mother.” And he offers an acknowledgement for those that may be hurting or down and out on “Soothe.”  On his 25th solo album, Todd Rundgren has risen to the occasion and has given us reason to have hope in these hard times - and that’s a cause for celebration - or at least a Global dance party.

EVEN MORE NOTABLE RELEASES! The Furious Seasons’ 4th release My Love is Strong reflects classic pop and rock influences in broad strokes of sound. There are horns, slide, and stringed instruments woven into stories often supported by lush harmonies as found on “Understood” a melodic murder ballad featuring a 10-person chorus... Blues Traveler’s Blow Up the Moon showcases 14 creative collaborations. Stylistically, songs run the range from country, hip-hop, pop, reggae and rock with that signature harmonic woven into the music. We particularly liked the island flavored “Castaway” and the beguiling vocal blends on “Hearts Are Still Awake” featuring Jewel... Dwayna Litz is a collaborator, singer and songwriter. Her music reflects both classic and contemporary elements of bluegrass, country and rock. I’m The Girl I Used To Know Again is her latest CD. “Yes I Would” reveals that Litz is a fine storyteller and vocalist. This opening song sets the tone for the next nine tracks that features an array of instruments to complement Dwayna’s expressive vocals. The CD closes with a glowing rendition of “This Train Is Bound For Glory.” See ya next month!

Richard J. Lynch and Laura Turner Lynch are the founders of, an Internet-based music industry magazine and review site, online since 1999. Laura is a published author of the inspirational Positive Power Secrets From A to Z ( ). Rich regularly interviews famous rock stars for the site's radio show and he has recently launched his own recording career at ( ).

originally published: 2015-04-20 11:16:51


By Gary Wien

Dreamgirls“We try to do things we think are innovative and interesting and we don’t run away from them because of their size,” explained Sam Scalamoni, Artistic Director of Skyline Theatre Company in Fair Lawn, NJ.  This April, the company presents Dreamgirls, winner of six Tony Awards, which is based on R&B acts like The Supremes, The Shirelles, James Brown, and Jackie Wilson.

The story follows a young female singing trio from Chicago called “The Dreams” who become music superstars.

Even with unforgettable hits such as “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” “One Night Only,” and “Listen,” the show is rarely performed — mainly due to the costs involved in staging it.  Skyline has decided to strip the show down and simply focus on the story, the music, and the costumes — many, many costumes.

Skyline ran a KickStarter crowdfunding campaign last year to help raise funds for this production.  Most of that money is going towards the costumes.  Scalamoni says the play has about 10-12 costume changes and everybody has to match in order to tell the story of how the artists grow from their humble beginnings to being superstars.  The clothing helps tell that story and also speaks to the time periods involved as well.

While the costs for a production like this are high, Scalamoni believes it is important for a theatre company to show that they can tell a story in any form.  “Theatre companies all across the country right now are figuring out ways to do big musicals in scaled down, interesting ways,” he explained.  “I think if you have a good story and you have a good score you can do a big musical.  It’s all about the story and how well you can tell that story.”

Apparently actors were very interested in telling the story as well.  Skyline received more than 600 submissions for the show.  This made casting very easy for the company.  They had choices for every character and were fortunately enough to have all of their first choices accept the roles — including the iconic role of Effie, which earned Jennifer Holliday a Tony Award in the original Broadway production.  In Skyline’s production, Effie will be played by Keisha Gilles who was the understudy in the last national tour of Dreamgirls.

“To cast a role like Effie for me was a challenge because I had a certain idea in mind of what I wanted,” said Scalamoni.  “I think people came in with a pre-conceived notion of Jennifer Holliday from the original production and I wasn’t necessarily looking for that.  I was looking for a couple of other things and I found them in Keisha and we’re excited that we got her.”

As a director, Scalamoni says the play excites him because of the way it constantly moves.  He credits Michael Bennett, the choreographer of the original production, for crafting the way the show is structured.  In addition to Gilles, the play stars Taylor Almonte (Deena), Jennifer Theriot (Lorrell), Randall Holloway (Curtis), Marq Johnson (Jimmy), Michael Fisher (CC), Jerome Foster (Marty), and Ayana Bey (Michelle).

“This play is not done that often and when things aren’t done often I want to read them and see why they’re not done,” he continued.  “I think this one isn’t done that often because it might be challenging to stage.  It moves constantly and the size of it might scare some people, but we have a good handle on how to tell this story without it being all about crazy sets and big production values.  It’s going to be much more about costumes and the lights and how we tell the story and more about the people.”

Above all, Scalamoni wants people to know that Skyline’s main goal is to inspire people and to entertain.  He wants people to leave the theatre feeling as if they’ve seen a good professional cast and had a top notch theatrical experience.  See for yourself when he brings Dreamgirls on stage.  The show runs for two weekends only so get your tickets now.  Performances are on April 24-26, and May 1-3 at the Fair Lawn Community Center.  For more information visit the Skyline website.

originally published: 2015-04-20 11:11:05

The Realization Of Emily Linder
By Gary Wien

The Realization of Emily LinderRichard Strand penned Butler, one of the best new works to premiere last year.  He returns to NJ Rep in April with The Realization of Emily Linder, a comic-drama about an eccentric, retired university professor who has come to the “realization” that she knows the exact day that she will pass away.

She gathers her two daughters to her side to inform them of her imminent demise and to give each of them explicit instructions and assignments to fulfill prior to her earthly departure. We spoke to the playwright about Emily and the new play.

What was the inspiration behind this work.  Is Emily based on someone you know or work with?  All my characters are composites of people I know.  Mostly, Emily is me, although I’ve disguised myself so that I no longer recognize me.  I learned to do that from Jeff Sweet’s book on playwriting.  It’s really great advice.
Would you personally like to know the exact day you die? I would not.  I’m very uncomfortable about even setting a date for my retirement, which I suppose is inevitable, but I don’t care to admit that.  The only thing that makes sense to me is to assume I will go on forever and then act surprised when that doesn’t work out.

Do you think  someone actually have a life knowing that information? Maybe someone can.  Not me.

Emily is described as aneccentric.  How is she eccentric? She has obsessions – like the need to control the writing of her own obituary and a fixation with the movie Cat Ballou.  I think those quirks – which all of us have – have become magnified in Emily because she senses her own demise.  She knows that her brain doesn’t function as well as it once did and she misses her recently deceased husband on whom she relied more than she was aware.  Her fear of dying and her fading memory have caused her to focus on things that are familiar, and therefore reassuring, to her.  For that reason, Cat Ballou isn’t merely her favorite movie; it is the only movie she watches.  

Some male playwrights have difficulty writing female characters.  In this play you have four.  You’ve also written female characters in the past.  Do you find yourself doing anything different when writing a female character?  Characters are defined by the choices they make.  As I’m writing a play, when my characters, male or female, are confronted by a choice, I always ask myself what choice I would make.  I never ask myself, “What would a woman do in this situation?”  Because, if I ask the latter question, the only answer I could come up with would be, “I don’t know.”  For me, focusing on what I would do is the only productive way to work.

You’ve had several plays produced in recent years.  How often do you write?  Do you work on one play at a time or multiple plays?   My writing has been very erratic.  I wrote a play called Clown in 1978.  Then a couple more plays in 1979 and 1980.  Then I quite writing for several years.  I was writing pretty consistently – maybe a play a year – from 1989 to 1999.  Then I stopped again for 12 years.  I wrote Butler in 2011 and, since that time, I have written six more plays.  But, right now, I couldn’t say whether or not I have one more play in me.  I hope so.

I keep a file of ideas for plays, each idea described in a single sentence.  But if I start working on one of those ideas, it is the only play I am working on.  I can’t imagine being able to clear my brain enough to work on two plays at once.  Are there people who can?

In your last play at NJ Rep (Butler), you had some wonderful moments for the actors to really shine.  Did you start out as an actor yourself?  How did you first get into playwriting? I did start as an actor.  When I started going to college my declared major was acting.  I think most people who work in theater, regardless of what discipline they ended up in, started off wanting to be actors.  But I’ve been interested in dramatic writing since I was very young – maybe ten.  I can remember writing short plays, in French, with a childhood friend – his name was Frank Ritt – when we were both in fourth grade.  We had a French teacher who would allow us to perform skits at any time provided they were written entirely in French.  We took advantage of that opportunity throughout fourth, fifth and sixth grade.  I could be deluding myself, but I think some of them were pretty good.

The Realization of Emily Linder Who are some of the playwrights that have inspired you over the years? I’ve thought about this question quite a lot.  I’ve answered it many times.  My answer has changed often, and I don’t think I’ve ever been quite honest about it.  But here’s what I think right now.  The older I get, the harder it is to influence my fundamental notions about what makes good writing.  I don’t think that is necessarily something I should brag about, but I believe it is true.  And, to take that premise even further, the writers who got to me when I started writing have had a more profound influence on me than those I encountered later in life.  I first started forming opinions about what constituted good dramatic writing when I was quite young – ten, eleven, twelve.  Now, to be sure, I hadn’t seen very many plays at that age, but I did watch a lot of television.  And I remember becoming aware that some of the writing on television was noticeably better than other writing.  Fortunately for me, some of the best television writing from that time survived in reruns, so I could watch the episodes many times.  If you keep watching the same episodes over and over, the mechanics of the writing starts to reveal itself. You can start to see the structure, and you can observe why some writing works and other writing doesn’t.  So, what was I watching?  The Twilight Zone and The Dick Van Dyke Show.  I know that Rod Serling and Carl Reiner – and the many other writers who contributed to those two shows – have had a more profound effect on my writing than anyone else.  I wish the answer were Arthur Miller or William Shakespeare or Mary Chase – all of whom I love.  But the truth is: it was Serling and Reiner.  

How important is it for a playwright to establish a relationship with a theatre like NJ Rep that focuses so much on showcasing new works? It’s everything, and it’s so hard to find.  Ideally, a playwright would find a theater that would want to do every play he or she wrote, but that’s not realistic.  Gabe and SuzAnne can’t do everything – and theaters that are as dedicated to new work as NJRep are few and far between.   I’m so grateful to have worked with NJRep – this will be my third time.  I just wish we lived on the same coast.

originally published: 2015-04-20 11:58:49

Summer Of '77 

By Gary Wien

Summer Of '77

Tar Beach revolves around sixteen year old Mary Claire and her best friend Mary Francis as they begin the day sunning themselves on the roof of an Ozone Park row house.  Claire’s younger sister Reenie is searching for her lost Greek Mythology class project, while their parents are consumed by the battles of their troubled marriage. The boy crazy girls hatch a plan to stay out all night, but an overstressed electrical grid leads to a city-wide blackout and a sudden loss of innocence.

Ryan says the play is based on events that happened around that summer, but it is not autobiographical.  She previously took a look at the summer of 1977 in her play, Dark Part of the Forest, which was seen through the point of view of the mother; Tar Beach, however, is seen through the experience of the young girls. 

“It was the late seventies, which was a weird time in New York,” recalled Ryan.  “Financially, there was crisis; socially, there was upheaval.  It was a time of people unmooring, I think.  Children weren’t supervised.  Parents were going wild too.  It was just a crazy, crazy time.”

It was also a very dangerous period of time.  The Son of Sam began killing people in 1976 and wasn’t caught until August the next year.  He is famous for using a .44 caliber Bulldog revolver and believed he was merely following the orders of a demon that took the form of a neighbor’s dog.  And those orders were to kill young women.

Ryan describes the play as a coming-of-age story for two young girls in a society where sometimes it is dangerous to be a female.  The time period forms the perfect setting for her with the blackout and the Son of Sam serving as the ultimate predators.

“It was this pressure cooker,” recalled Ryan.  “You knew something was going to blow.”

Fear of the dark is seen in the play as a primal experience, something that has been with humans since the dawn of time.  Mary’s father is afraid because he thinks the only thing keeping society from anarchy is electricity.  As looting spreads across the city, his fears are somewhat realized.

The play also focuses on the relationship of the two siblings.  In fact, the original concept for the play came from a writing workshop at Premiere Stages which utilized an exercise called “On the Roof.”  The instructor had the class write very quickly with constant stops and restarts.  The idea was to write without even thinking about what was being written.  For Ryan, the exercise led to the teenagers on the roof.  The early stages of the play was entirely focused on the relationship of the family.

Summer Of '77“I don’t know exactly when the Son of Sam came in, but if I’m going back to the seventies with the point of view of a teenager, I’m going to think of the Son of Sam,” said Ryan.  “It was that impactful in my life.  Growing up in Queens and being that age — sort of sexually coming of age at a time when he was killing young girls making out in cars — there was that connection that it was dangerous to be a young girl.  That connection is what always pulls me back there.”

In the back of her mind, she may have been thinking about her own girls.  Her youngest is entering her teenage years.  She wonders what lessons from the Summer of 1977 she might be passing on to her own children.

“The girls in the play think Son of Sam is what they all need to be afraid of, but it actually turns out to be closer to home,” add Ryan.

Tar Beach was named a finalist for the Terrence McNally Playwriting Award, The Source Theater Festival and a Jane Chambers Playwriting Award honoree.  The play was included in the 2014 edition of The List compiled by The Kilroys as “one of the most excellent new plays by female-identified authors of last year.”

Since moving to Pittsburgh 25 years ago, where her work is often performed, Ryan’s plays have been staged all across the United States and she’s found something of a second home in New Jersey.  It began in 2006 when Premiere Stages presented one of her works.  In the years to follow, her work has debuted at Premiere Stages, the Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, and now Luna Stage.

“The connection with New Jersey probably stems from my voice sounding familiar being from New York,” said Ryan.   “It’s nice to kind of have two homes.”

originally published: 2015-04-20 13:34:10

An Interview with Michael Whistler

By Henrik Eger, Ph.D. Editor of

An Interview with Michael WhistlerIn the March issue of New Jersey Stage, Dr. Eger took a look at Mickle Street, a new play by Michael Whistler about a chance meeting between Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman in Camden, NJ.

How did you come up with the subject of a play on the famous encounter between Britain’s Wilde and America’s Whitman in New Jersey?  I first read about the encounter between Wilde and Whitman when I read Richard Ellman’s biography of Oscar Wilde as a young man. I thought immediately that it was a very exciting meeting of minds, and had always filed the idea in the back of my head to explore one day.

I visited Walt Whitman’s house at 328 Mickle Street (in Camden, NJ) a few years ago when I thought I might want to explore the territory, and was struck by the writing room and how eclectic it was. Although the actual meeting of Wilde and Whitman  did not happen in the Mickle Street house, I saw there a very pronounced and mature personality for Walt, and I decided that I wanted the young Oscar to meet that, and to see Walt on his own turf. I wanted to create a world of which Oscar was in awe . . . and perhaps a little jealous. When I saw the house, that started my thinking about how the setting might help to do exactly that.

How did you research the historic visit of Wilde at Whitman’s Camden home? The research for a play like this takes many forms: I did spend a lot of time with biographies of the two men, as well as a pair of marvelous books about Wilde’s American tour—Declaring His Genius, by Roy Morris, Jr.; and Oscar Wilde Discovers America, by L. Lewis and H.J. Smith. I spent a lot of time revisiting the writings of each man, to see their worldviews, their letters, and to hear their voices. I also had to meet the “young Wilde”—Oscar in 1882, before he had written all the work for which he is known.
One of my great fascinations is to see how an artist’s life is expressed in his creations—to explore the young Wilde, I got to do some “literary archeology,” and look at his early writings, before he developed his voice, and see if I could uncover the traces of the writer he would become.

What surprised you the most about the literature that you read? One of the surprises was to discover how green Oscar Wilde was: his early lectures are described as dull and his voice unmusical. The lectures are very dry, and not filled with the humor we associate with Wilde. That led me to think that there was a “new” Oscar to be discovered in America, and perhaps those discoveries start early on in his tour, in his time with Whitman.

What did you see as the driving forces in the lives of the young and wealthy Wilde and the famous but poor and aging Whitman, especially during their encounter? In Mickle Street, I made decisions about what I felt these men would want from one another. In my mind, aside from the dialectics, the two men debate on their own viewpoints on Art, Science, and Beauty. I wanted to explore how a young man wants the approbation of respect and age; and the older man wants the energy and fearlessness of youth.

A number of writers have speculated that Wilde and Whitman had an erotic encounter. What was your sense of the evidence, or lack of evidence? Wilde’s famous quote, “I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips,” actually is a statement Wilde made after his second visit with Whitman, in April of 1882. It has been hotly debated what Wilde meant by this, although one thing is certain: Wilde loved the notoriety the statement gave him, and saw that it was well documented.

In truth, there is little to suggest that Wilde had any homosexual encounters before 1885, which is years after the meeting with Whitman. In fact, Wilde had recently been thwarted in a marriage proposal to Florence Balcombe. His own letter suggests that the proposal was in earnest, and that he was quite shattered by her refusal. He went to lengths to have his letters and mementos returned. In the years following the visit to Whitman, Wilde would court and wed Constance Mary Lloyd, and they would have two children together. I chose to draw from these facts that Wilde did not have a sexual relationship with Whitman—although the tension and sexual curiosity of a young man is present.

An Interview with Michael Whistler

originally published: 2015-04-20 12:14:39