Rock operas are badass. They're tragic yet hilarious, dramatic to the point of hysterics, and they're full of some sweet ass props. What more could you ask for?
And when it comes to all things rock opera, The Slow Poisoner -- or Andrew Garfield, as his parents know him -- knows those rock-opera necessities well. The San Francisco native has been on a one-man rock-opera mission since '96, spreading the word on headless chickens, miracle tonic, and wily women with the help of a kick drum, some sleigh bells, and his guitar. Oh, and some felt.
That's right, some felt. Like, the crafty stuff used to make, well, whatever it is people make with felt. Rocks Off spoke with The Slow Poisoner by email recently to find out how one comes about crafting prop monsters and belting out rock operas for a living, and his answer -- which involves one hell of a back road and a bad batch of pea soup -- was the best thing ever. We'll let him explain.
Since I live in San Francisco and play frequently in Los Angeles, I often travel across the barren wastelands between.
To break up the drive, I'll usually stop at a pea-soup restaurant that's about halfway between the two. One day I ordered a cup of soup but the waitress, either due to mistake, pity, or sinister avarice, bestowed upon my a family-size container with gallons of the green muck, which I downed immediately in its entirety.
A few hours later, making my way towards the mountains that lead over to the Southern California smog, I started feeling really sick - a bad feeling in my gut. I pulled into the next town, which was called Lost Hills.
After puking a vibrant chartreuse bile onto the side of the road, I decided to explore a little, and followed Lost Hills road, which rambled past a rusty playground and a boarded-up beauty salon, and got more and more decrepit until it was nothing but dust and potholes and eventually became too difficult to drive on.
I sat and imagined what could be at the end of the road, and that's when the idea for a roots-rock opera about liquor, ghosts and a traveling salesman occurred to me.
Inspired by his frustration with other rock operas -- even critically adored works like The Who's Tommy or Green Day's American Idiot -- The Slow Poisoner set out to create the easiest-to-follow concept album ever recorded. Where the others had narratives he calls"vague" and "hard to follow," he strove to make his opera, Lost Hills, the polar opposite, a performance that comes complete with felt cut-outs and other relatively awesome shit.
I think more acts are putting out narrative pieces now -- I think every musician should write at least one. Live, I sometimes use felt cutouts to act out the action as I play the songs. Lately I've been employing a giant monster head that swallows me mid-set; once I'm inside I sing about getting chewed upon by teeth as sharp as knives.
Usually when I'm in the bowels of a 7 foot high mouth full of fangs, topped by luminescent eyeballs, I do get the sense that I'm doing exactly what I was put on earth to do. Everyone must heed their calling.
The life of a traveling rock-opera guru can be a dangerous one; The Slow Poisoner has dodged rattlesnakes and searing heat while trekking to Fruita, Colorado, in search of the home of Mike the Headless Chicken. No, really. That's a thing.
What brought me to Fruita, Colorado was this was where a chicken lived without its head for 2 years, in the 1940s. I have a song called "Run Rooster Run" which was inspired by Mike the Headless Chicken.
The farmer's wife enjoyed neck meat, so when the farmer chopped off Mike's head, the neck and brain stem remained and the chicken stayed alive, flapping its feathers and trying to peck at the ground with its stump. Eventually he started feeding it with a turkey baster into the gaping wound.
They have a statue of him (the chicken) in the town square, constructed of wrenches. Every year they have Headless Chicken Races (with people dressed as chickens).
Dangerous rattlesnakes be damned; The Slow Poisoner tells us where the real danger comes in is when you try to take up a side job selling miracle tonic in Oregon. I knew I avoided that place for a reason.
The Genuine Slow Poisoner Enervating Elixir and Miracle Tonic was a purple fluid that proved an effective cure for Elephantiasis, Cholera, Consumption, Onanism, Disinterested Bladder, Gout, Neuralgia, Women's Troubles, Lavender Fever and Wandering Limbs.
Every town is different and some are sicker than others. In Medford, Oregon they have particular afflictions that require liberal applications of medications, and demand there for my tonic is high, even insatiable. When supplies ran out, the crowd turned on me on more than one occasion.
Other patrons have taken issue with the occasional lack of immediate effects, and have proven threatening. I no longer provide this tonic, however, as its not intended for children and at an outdoor show in Texas a few years back a child stole into my curio cabinet and drank an entire bottle. He was fine, though. Better than fine, really. But I've decided not to take any further chances."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The Slow Poisoner plays at 7 p.m. Sunday, July 21 at Super Happy Fun Land, 3801 Polk.