May 31: The mere announcement that La Mama ETC would be presenting Cherchez La Femme (subtitled “A Musical Excuse”), a show created by August Darnell and Vivien Goldman (pictured below), for three weeks (May 19-June 12), sent me on a high-speed excursion down Memory Lane. Darnell was a founding member of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band and the creator of the pop group Kid Creole and the Coconuts. I was a huge fan of those acts and as a young pop-culture journalist spent a couple of years obsessively following their work. I wrote big feature stories about Darnell for the Soho News and the Boston Phoenix. For Rolling Stone, I reviewed the first two Kid Creole albums (Off the Coast of Me and Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places), the Savannah Band’s third album, and the solo album by Savannah Band’s lead singer Cory Daye. I also wrote a Soho News review of what I think was the first and only live concert in New York City by the Savannah Band, which was pretty shambolic; my reward for writing honestly about its painful shortcomings was a soggy package of dogshit delivered to the Soho News office. But for a short period of time, I had a friendly relationship with Darnell, and my Boston Phoenix feature details his emergence as an artist better than anything else I’ve read, at least until Jon Pareles’ feature in the Arts and Leisure section of the New York Times last week (which was where I learned that Stony Browder Jr., Darnell’s brother and mentor, had died in 2001).
Andy and I and our friends Bob and Phil attended the second preview of Cherchez La Femme, which was pretty rocky. The book rambled, the staging was awkward, and the lively performers struggled to do their best while singing to prerecorded tracks blasted at uneven volume. But several production numbers stood out, thanks to the snappy choreographer of Kyndra “Binkie” Reevey and the snazzy costumes by Adriana Kaegi (Darnell’s ex-wife and former Coconut). I somehow expected the score to feature a nonstop barrage of Savannah Band/Kid Creole favorites. Instead most of the songs came from later, lesser-known Kid Creole albums, released after many listeners (including me) had lost interest. But the little bits of familiar music that did show up were a blast – besides scene-change snippets of “I’ll Play the Fool” and “Sour and Sweet,” we heard the title song (reprised as a curtain call), “Annie, I’m Not Your Daddy” (the lyric changed to “Addy,” after a character in the play), and a song from a Gichy Dan album called “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” that now I can’t get out of my head.
I’m delighted for Darnell that he’s gone back to his first love, writing plays (he did write the original songs for an Eric Overmyer musical called In a Pig’s Valise produced by the Second Stage in 1989). And it has been fun if slightly unnerving to revisit a cultural obsession from 36 years ago. I look back at my coverage of these artists and cringe a little at my naivete about drugs (Stony Browder didn’t get his name by being stoical) and my somewhat provincial white-boy attitude about world music. I am impressed how ahead of the game August Darnell was with his own variations on sampling and appropriation. And at the time the only corollary to the extended social/artistic Savannah Band scene I could point to was George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic. Nowadays there are numerous similar enclaves of loosely affiliated artists, especially in the hiphop world (Odd Future, the Internet).