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.
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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.
"There was no band then, only two farmer boys, he and me," Van Dijk says over the phone from The Netherlands. "And he had a dream: to do something with music and to go to America, because in America there is the roots of rock and roll. And we said, 'Okay, let's do it.'"
As with so many Dutch, Van Dijk's English is very good, even if he sometimes struggles to find the precise phrase he's looking for. The Dutch often lilt upwards on words we don't, and the effect sometimes comes across that Van Dijk is asking several questions in one declaratory sentence.
"And everything happened?" he continues. "It all came true. The only thing different is there was a bottom line."
By 1979, Brood had conquered Holland. The road there had not been easy: He had been in and out of several bands, not to mention prison, where he was sent for peddling LSD, but by 1976 he had formed the Wild Romance, his most famous band. In 1978, they released Shpritsz, Brood's most enduringly successful album. Taking its title from the German street slang term for a syringe, Shpritsz featured the three songs for which Brood would be fleetingly known in the U.S., "Rock and Roll Junkie," "Dope Sucks" and "Saturday Night," the last of which would eventually crack, just barely, the Billboard Top 40.
In the summer and fall of 1979, RCA thought the time was ripe for the Wild Romance to storm America. There would be an extended tour and a recording session, and at the end, in what seemed a mere formality, Brood would be anointed a new star at a showcase in New York City's Bottom Line. Herman Brood was going to be the new Mick Jagger.
For a time, it was all going according to plan. "We were a national breakout all over America," Van Dijk remembers. "We had club gigs in places like L.A. (at the Whiskey A Go Go), where we sold out three times. It was all over neon lights, everywhere we went 'Herman Brood Welcome' at every hotel. It was great — very, very big success."
But just as Napoleon's army marched on its stomach, the Wild Romance's tour marched on booze and high-grade Dutch speed. As Van Dijk puts it in a Zen-like koan, "The drugs were not important. They just had to be there."
At heart a shy man, Brood said he drank to be more outgoing and he took speed to both balance the booze and inspire himself creatively. And it couldn't be just any old bathtub biker crank, or the trucker speed that almost drove Johnny Cash over the edge in the early '60s — it had to be the premium-type of stuff "Heisenberg" from Breaking Bad would cook up. If he didn't have it, Brood would drink anyway and simply take the stage as a garden-variety drunkard.
"American speed didn't work for Herman, those little pills, mother's little helpers as the Stones called them, or bombitas or whatever, it didn't work," Van Dijk says. "But we took a lot of speed to America. By 'we,' I mean I did. I hid it in amplifiers and mixers." He thought he had brought enough for a year.
It was a few days before the all-important gig at the Bottom Line. Everybody was going to be there: All the hotshots who would make or break the rest of his career. If, and only if, Brood completely bombed would this show be anything other than the final stage in his coronation.
Van Dijk can't recall if he was in Boston or Washington on that terrible day when Brood casually informed him in Dutch that he was almost out of "backbone" — their code word for speed. "Herman, what is happening?" Van Dijk demanded.
Brood, who could never keep a secret, spilled the beans. He told Van Dijk he had been freely sharing his drugs with all comers — roadies and crew, the Kinks, anybody who asked. "Everybody was sniffing, licking, eating this speed, because it was so, so, so very good," Van Dijk remembers. "I always said, 'A dead horse is rising from this speed.'"
And it was almost gone. The blood drained from Van Dijk's face. Unless there was some kind of emergency re-up, Brood would face them all as shit-faced as Shane MacGowan on a bad night.
What to do? Van Dijk knew Brood could not perform well without his drugs, and the stuff available in America was no substitute. There was no other choice. Van Dijk would go back to Holland and get more. And while he was there, since there was also the recording session coming up, he'd stock up big time. He says he purchased a truly enormous amount.
He made it through customs but was dismayed when he finally opened the bag in a motel room. "Empty! Empty! Empty! No lock was broken, anything," Van Dijk wails, aghast again all these years later. "At that time we had no speed and we had to go to New York."
He theorizes now that the tour's drivers had ripped off the stash. Brood had talked too much about the trove that was on its way, and now it was gone. Van Dijk had risked decades in federal prison an ocean from home, not once but twice, and all for naught.
There was one last brilliant show, as Brood enjoyed the last of the old stash, and then came New York.
"And then Herman started drinking like always," Van Dijk recalls. Brood favored sweet booze — stuff like liqueurs. "He was nervous."
The lights went up, Brood was introduced, the band kicked in and...there ensued the all-too-predictable disaster.
"He thought he was funny, he thought he was great," Van Dijk recalls. "He goes to the director of our record company with his microphone and sat in his lap" — one can all too easily imagine Brood's sickly miasma of Grand Marnier-infused breath, sweat and spittle — "and he started to sing a Dutch song, a kind of blues in Dutch, and the lyrics meant, 'Deep in my heart, I'm only thinking about you.'"
Brood thought this was hilarious. Nobody else got the joke. "After the show, it was cold. Cold," says Van Dijk.
"It was over," Van Dijk says. "So we did not stay? There? We had to go back to Holland. And the [American-recorded] record was also a disaster. After we went back to Holland, the band split, and Herman went back to heroin, and that was the end for awhile. He started to be very-very-very crazy, like schizophrenic, two persons in one."
Brood would eventually make it out of this funk and craft a second act for his life, but it was a brutal defeat that took two years to overcome. "Later we had a lot of success again and we made a lot of money — but the dream, in America?" It was dead.
Brood would claw his way back to make the curtain call for a second act. In addition to the painting, there would be more music, too, and more women and drugs and booze, until Brood's mind could no longer tolerate the limitations his body placed on him.
"And then Herman jumped? Actually? From the Hilton, you know?" declares Van Dijk in his interrogatory accent. "The same Hilton where Yoko Ono and John Lennon were a week in bed, and in that same bed wrote 'Give Peace a Chance.' And from that Hilton jumped Herman."
Five days later, mourners lined the streets and watched as Brood's coffin was conveyed from the Hilton to the Paradiso, a landmark nightclub and the site of many a memorable Brood performance. Brood's version of "My Way" perched atop the Dutch pop charts for three weeks. U2 dedicated three songs to him on their subsequent Dutch tour, with Bono expending some of his world-renowned eloquence on an earnest eulogy at one show. A statue of Brood now stands in Zwolle.
And then his ghost started whispering in the ear of the Pixies' Charles Thompson...
All my days, I've been listening to you play
I've spent all my days driving, all my nights trying
You are so big but that don't make me so small
You rule the world but now I'm standing tall
I'm taking your mouth into mine
— Charles Thompson, a.k.a. Black Francis
Pixies front man Charles Thompson found out about Herman Brood from a poster on the wall of an Amsterdam nightclub in the middle of the last decade. He says Brood's smoldering gaze transmitted a plea to him. And after seeing some concert footage on the Internet, he was transfixed.
"He had really rare charisma," Thompson says. "There was just something about him." He was also touched by episodes in Brood's life: the fact that Brood's first band had kicked him out for drug use, the Bottom Line. They weren't the most tearjerking stories he'd ever read, Thompson says, but there was something about them to which he related very deeply.
He set about creating Bluefinger, his 2007 Herman Brood concept album (released under Thompson's Black Francis moniker), which is the Catastrophic play's immediate inspiration. Thompson returned to Holland to speak to Brood's friends and associates. Prominent among them was Koos Van Dijk, Brood's fellow Zwolle native. (Natives of Zwolle are called Bluefingers — it's a long, 500-year-old story featuring a church bell and a debt paid in pennies.) Van Dijk took Thompson on a tour of Brood's atelier — the studio where he whiled away the last two decades of his life painting, drinking, shooting speed and fucking. It has remained exactly as Brood left it in 2001, and Thompson says his Van Dijk-guided visit was a very strange experience.
Thompson characterizes the place as a shrine, and Brood's friends as keepers of a messianic flame. "I think the word you would best use to describe Koos is 'enthusiastic,'" Thompson says. "The way he's kept everything exactly the way it was when Brood died — the drinks in the fridge, the dope on the table."
Little accidents of grace kept piling up, Thompson remembers. By that time, Thompson had already written a Bluefinger song called "Angels Come to Comfort You." At Brood's grave, a statue of an angel stood guard. "That's not very unusual, but I still thought it was a little weird," Thompson says. Things would get weirder still as he toured Brood's former living space. He discovered that the two of them wore the same cologne. And then, on a desk, prominent among Brood's personal effects, there lay a dusty copy of a Pixies album.
Thompson had not known Brood was a fan, but Van Dijk knew. Boy, did he ever. "I don't say I hate the Pixies, but you know?" For once the voluble Dutchman is at a loss for words, and then the flow begins again when he recalls how Brood's Pixie-fixation began.
A tired Van Dijk accompanied Brood to a Pixies show in Holland in the early '90s, and then drove Brood home, an hour or so away. Brood was keyed up and feeling the need for more stimulation, which he sought, as ever, in a shot of speed. "He did this because the show had him inspired to do painting and maybe meet with a girl," Van Dijk says. "And then he asked me, 'Can you make me a favor? Yeah? Can you play me the Pixies?'"
The speed now coursing through his veins, live renditions of "Debaser" and "Monkey Gone to Heaven" still ringing in his ears, Brood launched into a canvas. A weary, sober Van Dijk would urge Brood to take it easy, but the artist would hear none of it.
"Again! The Pixies!" Brood would demand. "That singer is wonder-full," Brood would growl. "And the lyrics!"
That scene would unfold often, and while it did inspire plenty of paintings, Van Dijk still grumbles. "Always Pixies, Pixies, Pixies!" Van Dijk exclaims.
It was not until Thompson called Van Dijk out of the blue and introduced himself as the singer of the Pixies that Van Dijk would change his view of the band. When it became plain that Thompson really was who he said he was, and not a prankster as Van Dijk initially thought, and that Thompson was obsessed by Brood, Van Dijk was overjoyed. "He knew everything! He knew the name Bluefinger. I mean, Charles knew everything of Herman!"
At Ziggy's on Fairview on a balmy early October mid-morning, Jason Nodler's Malkovichian mien — intense hazel-green eyes, barking, nicotine-steeped voice, under a shiny clean dome — hangs over his vegan feast. George Harrison wonders "What Is Life" through the speakers amid Ziggy's mid-morning lull, while Nodler speaks about his tumultuous last two years and how he came to be the leader of Herman Brood's posthumous attempt to conquer America .
Riffing off the Black Francis song, Nodler talks about "taking Brood's mouth into his," just as Brood had been inspired by his heroes Little Richard and Mose Allison, and in turn, Black Francis had drawn from Brood.
In 2008, Pixies biographer Josh Frank — a family friend of Nodler's — caught a performance of Speeding Motorcycle, and Frank thought Nodler's sensibilities were a perfect match for a play based on Bluefinger. He introduced the rocker to the playwright, and it was a go.
Nodler needed to research Brood's life in detail, so he headed to Holland to meet Brood's surviving friends and associates. He was there for only a few hours when his leg was crushed by a passing taxi. Nodler returned to the States for the long road back to health. He couldn't walk unaided for nine months. The first chunk of that time he was wheelchair-bound, and he took stock of his life.
He was also suffering from a bout of depression, and a psychiatrist told him to quit drinking. One of his doctors told him that cigarettes were hindering his bones' healing, and that he would face a painful bone graft if he didn't quit, so he put down the Kools for the first time since his teens. And a friend advised him to eat meat for its health benefits. So there he was, as he puts it, "sober, and not smoking, but eating meat."
He doesn't eat meat anymore these days, but he doesn't drink, either. "I had a bit of an identity crisis with all that, because before, if you had asked me to tell you three things about myself, I would tell you I was an alcoholic, chain-smoking vegan. When none of those things were true, it really had some profound disassociative effects. I found myself not knowing what I thought about a light cue, which was really alarming because I need to have that point of view. So naturally, I started smoking again."
Nodler set about creating Bluefinger. He wrote and wrote — the adaptation of Bluefinger from album to play took place at an artists' colony in New Hampshire, an East Texas lake house, a tiny room in Nodler's Third Ward basement, and hotels in Houston, Austin, Los Angeles and Amsterdam. He overcame the loss of a promise of personnel and other assistance from the University of Houston's school of drama and moved on with new people.
Along the way, he was also casting. He realized he knew the perfect person to play Herman Brood: Matt Kelly, a consummate rock showman whose performances are still spoken of in awe, the former front man of epic '90s Houston bands Sprawl and Middlefinger, seemed a perfect fit. "In the early days of IBP, I would send my actors to Middlefinger shows and say, 'Watch Matt. Do it like that,'" Nodler says. "He always performed with such abandon. It wasn't straight punk — it had a sense of humor, he indulged a full range of emotions, he could turn on a dime and it all seemed to come from a sincere place."
Kelly, a teacher, was granted a leave of absence by his school and went to Amsterdam to research the life of Brood, a man he had not heard of until Nodler put the bug in his ear. There Kelly was struck full in the face by the magnitude of the role he had been entrusted with. In Holland, literally every single person knows who Brood was — he is known as the Dutch Elvis. And Kelly had to walk lightly around the performer's friends, all while asking many personal questions about a tragedy that was still fresh in their minds. "I was trying really hard not to be an idiot and to be sensitive to where they are coming from," he says.
Kelly adds that it is always hard to do justice to an icon. "There's a pretty well-known biopic of Herman out there, and most of the people I talked to didn't like it. So how do you pull that off? How do you pull off the movie about Jim Morrison or anybody else of that mythical stature?"
There's a prominent role for a Black Francis character, too, and again, Nodler dipped into the same well he himself emerged from: the 1990s Houston rock scene centered on the Axiom, which guided his selection of former dead horse front man Michael Haaga for the Black Francis role.
That Haaga had not acted since he was a child did not faze Nodler at all. Using untrained actors has always been a hallmark of his productions, ever since In The Under Thunderloo, his first, in which Matt Kelly spoke the very first line.
Nodler says the casting process of Bluefinger has been very similar to that of his first show. "When I was a much younger man, even though I worked in theater, I thought theater was bullshit," he says. "I was writing plays for people who might rather be in a bar drinking, so I cast virtually the whole show with local musicians, very few of whom had any acting experience."
Puffing on a smoke outside of DiverseWorks during a break from rehearsals, Haaga says that the Pixies' Doolittle is still in his regular rotation, and that he loves the music from the Bluefinger concept album, especially Black Francis's poppy tune "Discotheque 36." Haaga has a world of respect for the chrome-domed Thompson's skills on the mike: "The fucker can scream better than I did in dead horse!" he says, and notes that Thompson's alternating between screaming and then mellow singing is similar to his own on his psychedelic 2006 power-pop masterpiece The Plus and Minus Show album.
Nevertheless, Haaga says he never dreamed he would one day be portraying Black Francis in a play. He says he's not that nervous about it, at least not about the role per se, but there is one thing he is regarding with fear and loathing right now, one that at first seemed like a selling point. "I've always wanted to shave my head," he says, but as the date with the clippers loomed, he was not so sure. "Now I am scared shitless."
Haaga's not the only one who's had to shave his head for this production. Brood's manager Vin Dijk had a shaved head, too, so Troy Schulze had to submit to the shears as well (see "Bluefinger: The Bald Truth").
In the converted bungalow near the Menil that houses Catastrophic's office and also serves as a practice space, actors portraying Brood's widow Xandra (Mikelle Johnson), art dealer Ivo De Lange (Kyle Sturdivant), Van Dijk (Schulze), and his biographer (Matt Carter) are rehearsing a scene in which they dissect Brood's life. They talk about how the man's music was his religion, about how he rehearsed his suicidal leap by bungee jumping, about how because he lived so hard he was really 108 and not 54 at his death, about how he considered himself the world champion at cunnilingus, about whether or not he ever really loved his widow, and about his R. Kelly-like predilection for teenage girls.
Suddenly the scene grinds to a halt after Sturdivant stage-whispers something in Johnson's ear that causes her to practically fall out of her chair laughing.
"I'm sorry," she says, regaining some of her composure. "Kyle just told me that Troy should be wearing a condom on his head."
The scene goes on, with Nodler taking out lines here, instructing Schulze to be more jittery there, refining the actors' motivation, getting at the truth as he sees it.
As for Thompson, he feels he's said all he has to say about Brood. The head Pixie's obsession with Brood has not lingered beyond the album — which he says he wrote in a frenzy — and its aftermath. Though he dropped in on a very early rehearsal at DiverseWorks, he says he hasn't read the scripts of the play Nodler has sent his way. As he is not a theater director, he says he doesn't feel like it's his place to weigh in, and once Nodler picked up the mantle, Thompson says that his work was done.
The stakes are very high. Thanks to the success of Speeding Motorcycle, Nodler's name alone draws recognition, as of course does the Pixie dust surrounding that of Thompson's many monikers. Advance word of the play's progress can be found not just in Dutch and English, but also every other Romance and Germanic language, not to mention Greek, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Mandarin and Japanese.
Herman Brood might yet conquer America, and who knows? Maybe Catastrophic Theatre might conquer the world too. Nodler certainly hopes so — he sees Haaga and Kelly as two potential international rock stars who never quite got the recognition they deserved, just like Brood, just as he sees himself as someone perpetually on the brink of something bigger.
Or it might not. All involved claim not to care.
Van Dijk is pleased with everything he has seen so far. He seems to sincerely believe that his old friend is guiding the proceedings from somewhere beyond, and that Nodler is the man for the job of remembering Brood. "I told Jason, 'You are actually Herman yourself,'" says Van Dijk. "You had the drugs, you had the downers, you were in the street, you were in the gutter. I told him, 'Do your own pain in this thing and then you will touch Herman Brood the closest. Use your own blues.'"
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