THE STORIES BEHIND THE SONGS...
THE LAST SESSION
words and music by Steve Schalchlin
After "Connected" was a few months old, Jimmy started giving me homework assignments. He saw how singing "Connected" for friends seemed to bring new life into this tired, sick body. So I began waking up at 3:30 am and the first songs that began coming in the early stages were "The Group," "Going It Alone," "Save Me A Seat" and "When You Care."
"The Group" was based upon a real experience. It came from two experiences I had attending the AIDS Project Los Angeles Monday night "drop-in" group. I went there the summer of 1993, I think. It was after the experience in "Connected." At first the pneumonia had so weakened and wasted my body I couldn't walk more than a few steps. After months and months of physical therapy I finally became somewhat functional but I was feeling really lost and terribly confused. So...
I heard of a
group with others like me
who felt the way I feel
I felt sorry for myself like the only man on earth
and someone said a group would help me heal
So I dropped in
on a Monday
where they all sat in a circle
and they told each other stories of the war
Some were old
and some were young
but mostly they were young
and mostly I kept looking at the floor
The last line was the only one that was changed from something less than stellar. My technique is to write the words down furiously as they are coming, keeping lines that either don't fit rhythmically or don't sound good. Then I go back and rewrite rather than stopping the flow and trying to fix it on the spot.
So, after writing the above introduction -- and I never write intros to songs, so I don't know why this one had one -- I sat back in my seat remembering Jimmy's mantra, "Just tell the story."
And I put myself back in that little room looking around and trying to remember the people that were there. Immediately came these absolutely true stories.
Dave was only
twenty and he said his life was over
and he asked if this was all the life he'd get
"Dave" -- I don't remember his real name -- his was the story that got to me first. I was sitting there having a private pity party, scared and lost. Then Dave, a sweet beautiful boy, with absolute fear in his eyes looked up at us and said, "I'm only 20 and my whole life is over. I mean, is this it? Is this all the life I'm going to get?"
I thought to myself, "Geez, at least I've have 41 years. What do I have to complain about?"
Bill was fifty,
going blind, complaining of infections
which he got from tubes connected to his chest.
This guy, "Bill" was one of those talkers you meet in support groups. He thought every word that anyone said was directed at him and so he proceeded to dominate the group with non-stop talk which consisted mostly of the infections in the tubes that were treating his CMV retinitis.
John at thirty
had some spots
He didn't like to go outside
He said his mother hated him
That he was just a prisoner and he wished
he had the guts for suicide
This guy really got to me. He was sitting right across from me and he kept pulling on his sleeve to hide the skin cancer spots. He seemed so sad and told us that he lived at home with his mother, that he never went outside, had no friends and that she was down in the parking lot that very moment waiting for him to finish with the group. And yes, he said he wished he had the guts for suicide.
After the session, I met him in the elevator and gave him a card and asked him to call me. He didn't.
Carrie was a
Christian and a housewife and a mother
but she hated all her so-called Christian friends
Cuz they judged her and they told her
if she really loved her Jesus
He's have healed her cause
the blood of Christ will cleanse
She was very
disappointed in the Lord
cuz she'd done everything from
speaking in tongues to laying on of hands
She said if this was celestial retribution
Then none of us stood any kind of chance
And the group just listened kind of in a trance
This character is based on someone I met on the net. The line "He'd have healed her cuz the blood of Christ will cleanse" is based on a preacher telling me that if I were REALLY a Christian, Jesus would have made into a heterosexual. And therefore, the fact that I am still gay means I'm not saved.
Now you know why I absolutely will never trust another human being's word on what God will or won't do. The theology of death and destruction is starting to get real old.
"THIS IS GOD SPEAKING AND I'M PISSED." (line from TLS)
Maxie liked to
party and she said she'd never stop it
After all this thing would kill no matter what
She said we looked pathetic and that
she would not stop living
til they threw her in a box and slammed it shut
The original line here was "Threw her in the ground and slammed it shut." I liked it better but everyone kept telling me that you can't slam the ground shut. Yeah, well, fences were made for people who can't fly.
Then she showed
us all the track marks
on her arms and on her body
and invited us to join in later on
and then she staggered for a moment
and fell into her chair
and the group just listened helpless but to stare
I met so many of these people -- cynical, bitter, angry -- in my life with AIDS. And you don't need AIDS to turn bitter, cynical and angry. But it works for me!
The next part is the bridge. It was actually written before the previous two verses. It was attempt to just sit and try to remember EXACTLY how it felt to be in the group. I was trying to capture my emotions.
And the sickest
ones were scaring me
the youngest made me sad
and the ones who looked pathetic
just made me feel pathetic
There was one
who seemed to know a lot
and one who had no clue
There was one who spoke of vitamins
who said we needed vitamins
and as they said what they were going through
I cried 'cause I was going through it too.
I actually don't remember if I cried while sitting there in that group. I think I was mostly stunned and overwhelmed by all the new information I was getting on peoples' lives.
I also laughed to myself when people, early on in the process, kept trying to talk me out of repeating words. "You already said 'pathetic,'" or "'vitamins" doesn't rhyme with vitamins.'"
I tried to tell them that part of living with AIDS is how much repetition there is. I sang about this in "Somebody's Friend," but it goes back to how many cures and treatments are constantly being thrown at you. AND how many lectures you get about vitamins and minerals and phony cures.
I'm including the next verse even though it's been cut from the show. As far as I'm concerned it's still a part of the song, but we cut it because it made the song too long and because we deal with the gay/Christian thing in the dialogue and plot of the play. To include this verse felt like "piling on." Part of the agony of art, as they say, is cutting your best stuff for the good of the whole.
Jamie was a
rocker and he wanted us to know
that he was straight and that he
never fucked with guys
Afraid his friend would call him gay
he kept it all a secret
but the stress was buried deeply in his eyes
And he ranted
it's e-goddammed-nuff to
think I might be dying
must they judge me like I'm just some fucking queer
and then he looked around
and realized who he was talking to
But the group
That's why there were here
And he was not the first to hate a queer
Now, I'll tell a story I've never told -- how that verse came to be:
I was helping out at the Songwriters Expo in Los Angeles, listening to new writers play their demo tapes and giving critiques. One writer, a rock and roller had this song that I couldn't make heads or tales of. It was very gothic with demons and blood and stuff. I told him it was difficult to understand and that I preferred a more tangible lyric.
Afterward, it was time for lunch and he was standing there in the hall so I said, "Wanna go have lunch?" And we did. During the walk over, I could tell that he was very hyper about something. Finally he said, "That song was from real life."
"Oh?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. "It's about a close friend of mine who has AIDS."
I almost laughed. How amazing it is when fate steps in. I didn't tell him my story right then. I waited until we got to the burger joint.
"Uh, actually," he said as we sat, "it's not about a friend. It's about my brother. He's a straight guy who got it from a girlfriend who had herpes. I'm the only one who knows and he won't let me talk about it."
"That's why the words were unclear," I said.
"Yes," he continued. "He's afraid that if all his friends find out he has HIV they'll stop talking to him and start treating him like he's 'a fag.' I finally took him to a support group..."
Now right about this time, I was in the middle of writing The Group. In fact, in my bag at that very moment I had the first few verses written and I had hit a wall, not sure where I was going next.
"...and it was so strange. He thought it would be nothing but drug addicts and old queers. But he walked into a room with women, people who looked well off, you know. Normal people."
When he said "old queers," he wasn't using it in a derogatory way. He was describing his brother's mindset and helping me understand what they were thinking.
In my mind, I'm thinking, "Good Lord. This guy is spilling the next verse to this song all over the table here. All I have to do is just pick up the pieces and put them in my bag.
I said to him, "You know, you're not going to believe this, but you're lookin' at a man with AIDS. I know exactly what those groups are like. Then I reached into my bag and pulled out the unfinished lyrics and read them to him. "I hope you don't mind but you just wrote my next verse for me."
Then I went home and the "Jamie" verse flew onto the page almost exactly word for word.
This is where I really got stuck, though. The Jamie verse was like a gift from God but I had no idea how to finish. I looked down at the pages of lyrics and I saw how I had this whole little group together. The boys, the girls, the straight boy... what was missing?
What was missing was me. I always used to tell songwriters asking for advice that they should remember to include themselves in their songs. So, taking my own advice I mentally put myself down into this little group. Then I went back to the group at APLA and brought it all back.
I finally took
my turn and said,
"I guess I got it easy 'cause
all my friends and family really care
They call me and they take me
out to dinner and they tell me
if I ever needed them they'd soon be there
I remember this point in the writing of these lyrics. It was just before dawn. The room was lit by a little lamp just behind me. I'm at the desk in the living room. The computer is off and I'm looking at yellow legal pad pages.
I remember my pulse began to race. My mouth dried up and I took a huge breath. Like a light suddenly snapping on illuminating the road ahead of me, I hit the gas and just started writing furiously, barely able to get the words down in time.
looked like they were dying in the desert
begging for some kind of comfort from the heat
and I had water
I was the only one with water
And I couldn't spare a drop of it to drink
Wow. What an image. It just formed itself in my head without me even thinking, "Oh, now I should have a really cool metaphor." It perfectly described how I felt.
I was glad when
it was over
and I raced to get back home
and I felt a little better
and quite so alone
I just kept writing. It was all flowing freely and without effort.
But how strange
to be a member of a club
that nobody wants to be a member of
and for all the good it did
I still cannot recoup
From the time I
I believe I had to fiddle with a few of the words on the final few lines but the thrill of knowing when the song was finished was only matched by the fact that I was now ready to write the music. At last I could go to the piano.
(I had a rule during this period. I told myself that I was not allowed to even TOUCH the piano until the lyric was absolutely and completely finished. It was the worst form of torture.)
Finally, later in the day I got Jimmy out of the house (can't write music with an audience) and I put the lyrics up on the piano and put my hands on the keys. Key of C.
I read the lyrics out loud, listening for the rhythm of the words allowing the melody to be shaped by the natural ups and downs of the language. The music happened almost instantaneously. It was as if no other music were even possible for these words.
Long lines of music, fused together with pedal point bass and some cool 5 over 1 chords. I was thinking Eno or Peter Gabriel drone sound. Moody and insistent.
The first time I played this song for John Bettis he was sitting on the couch reading the lyrics which were lying on the floor at his feet. I finished the song. He leaned over and put his hands on the sheets of paper and said, "It's perfect." (Remember he was the one who had told me earlier that year that I needed another verse on "Connected" so John doesn't cut slack when it comes to music.)
In New York as we were trying to get Bob Stillman, who had just been working with Andrew Lloyd Webber and who had Broadway credits, to work for free on our miniscule production on 29th Street, he said it was this song, "The Group," that was the final thing that made him say "Yes."
I love this song. When I'm just sitting around the house and want to put myself into a peaceful, contemplative mood, I play The Group.
NEXT: Going It Alone
BACK to list of songs
The Group copyright 1996 by See No Evil/Lil Shack O Tunes