By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
If the scene onstage accurately portrays Herman Brood's life, you could understand how the Dutch rock and roller might be a little burned out and frayed toward the end. The tableau — a rehearsal for Catastrophic Theatre's new play Bluefinger: The Fall and Rise of Herman Brood — is downright debaucherous.
As not one but two complete rock bands (see "Bluefinger: The Music") provide a sonic backdrop, the actor portraying Brood swaggers into a crowd of adoring and gorgeous, cooing groupies, who ease him onto a bed and, one-by-one, drop to their knees and simulate blowing him. Then two more coax him prone on the bed. While a pouty, curvaceous brunette shakes her ample boobs in his face, a nubile redhead rides him reverse-cowgirl style, all while the two bands sing his praises with kick-ass rock and roll.
Herman Brood is an ideal subject for Catastrophic and Jason Nodler, its all-grown-up former enfant terrible of a dramatist. A Dutch rock star, painter, poet and celebrity, Brood leapt to his death from the ninth floor of the Amsterdam Hilton in 2001, his body wrecked from decades of drug and alcohol abuse.
The play fuses scenes from Brood's life with his own music, as well as the music his life inspired: Black Francis's Herman Brood concept album Bluefinger from 2007. It's not a linear biographical drama — Nodler always attempts to get at things obliquely — but a seamless blend of words and music, sex and drugs, life and death, and deep darkness and high comedy.
That this rehearsal is at Barnevelder Arts Complex, and that the play will be performed at DiverseWorks — both of which stand in northeastern downtown's postindustrial, rescue-mission-dotted scene-scapes — makes sense.
Over on the west side of downtown, by the hot-shot legal eagle office towers and the towering energy company skyscrapers, the Alley Theatre and Jones Hall offer more staid entertainment to the bold-face names of the Houston Chronicle's Style pages. And these centers are very much in the cerebral cortex of Houston's high art scene — the stuff that helps us to keep up with the Joneses in the battle for world-class status.
But if the Alley is the head, this is the heart of Houston's theater scene: the underground. And lately that underground has been capturing as much attention on the international stage as the grand institutions on and around Louisiana Street.
Three-year-old company Catastrophic Theatre rose from the ashes of the mysteriously imploded Infernal Bridegroom Productions, which four years ago staged original production Speeding Motorcycle, a musical play based on the life and songs of eccentric area songwriter Daniel Johnston. The show won Nodler and the company sold-out runs in both Houston and Austin, received effusive praise from The New York Times and marked Nodler as a rising star on the world stage.
But it didn't quite get Nodler all the way, and in that, and many other things, Nodler has much in common with Brood. Just like Brood, Nodler lived on the edge for years. Infernal Bridegroom Productions, the theater company Nodler created and nourished for more than a decade, crashed and burned under circumstances Nodler has never explained. And then there were the monkeys on his back. Nodler now speaks openly of the very heavy drinking that frequently segued many a moonlight mile into hundreds of gray and shamefaced cocaine dawns and the fact that he no longer touches the stuff. And then, after all that, he almost had his star turn, only to be turned away by a talent buy as "not commercial enough."
Now, Nodler's putting on a play about a ten-years-dead Dutch rocker who failed in his quest to be a rock star in the U.S., but who inspired Charles Thompson — the very much alive front man of the Pixies, who's also known as Black Francis and Frank Black — to write the concept album Bluefinger almost 30 years later. And with Thompson's help, Nodler is ready for the start of his life's second act.
It seemed a mere formality: Herman Brood was going to be a huge rock star in America. That was the plan, anyway, when the big shots at RCA brought the Dutchman here for an extended tour in 1979. He would be opening for the likes of classic rock legends the Kinks, up-and-comers the Cars and, somewhat incongruously, corporate AOR stalwarts Foreigner.
And the tour went amazingly well, at every show along the line, with the exception of the one and only show that really mattered. In a rock and roll equivalent of Napoleon's return to power in 1815, the tour culminated in an absolute Waterloo of a gig at New York City's all-too-aptly named Bottom Line. And to paraphrase Napoleon's nemesis Lord Wellington, Brood's failure to ascend to international rock superstardom was the closest-run thing you ever saw.
Brood's manager Koos Van Dijk saw it all firsthand. Van Dijk (who is being portrayed in the play by the Houston Press's Art Attack blog editor Troy Schulze) and the piano-pounding Brood met back in Zwolle, a small town amid the windmills and tulips under Holland's vast, dream-inducing skies. On the surface, they had little in common, as Van Dijk did not drink or drug, but they were both obsessed with American rock and roll, blues and R&B, and they shared a grand vision.