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Roy Nathanson: Auditory Circus

By Published: May 27, 2008

Fire at Keaton's

AAJ: The album Fire at Keaton's Bar & Grill features many other great guest stars who fit seamlessly into the piece. Did you envision who would be singing what first... a sort of later day Ellington effect?

RN: Remember I had already made this kind of super-duper, guest star list record six years before that with Jazz Passengers In Love and Bob Appel was the executive producer on that record too. So in a sense when they hired me, this was different, when they got the Passengers to do Jazz Passengers In Love I was gonna write the songs and Hal was going to produce it so he was going to get these special guests. Then Bob said, "Why don't you do a scored through piece... a whole song cycle?" I said, "OK, I'm going to do that... I'm going to create this whole reality..."

I had this idea with my friend Ray Dobbins, he's done a lot of writing with me over the years. The original idea of Fire At Keaton's Bar & Grill was that I was going to co-write with different lyricists and I was going to just mostly write the music. It was kind of the idea of this utopian bar... I remember years ago I was in a bar in Charleston, South Carolina with Charlie Earland in 1981... This place was incredible. It was in this racist town and they had black and white, gays and straights... It was amazing! There were all these intellectuals talking about all kinds of incredible shit at this bar. So that to me was a utopian environment... So each person was supposed to imagine (his or her) own utopian bar situation and then the bar was supposed to burn down. So it was this virtual idea of a tragedy.

Roy NathansonAAJ: The album took two years to make yet it has a unified feel not at all piecemeal. How did you go about maintaining an overall atmosphere?

RN: It was also, my son had just been born; it was a very moving time for me. I wasn't playing out as much; it was definitely the period where I played out the least. The idea was based on Elvis (Costello), with whom I had already done something before... he was going to do a bunch of the lyrics but he was having a rough time himself. He couldn't get really anything together so that it looked like we were fucked. So me and my friend Ray basically wrote all of the lyrics in like two days. It took a year and a half to write. There's a lot of music on that record. So then Elvis said he loved the lyrics and he'd be happy to sing them. Once Elvis was doing it then it was easy to get anybody else because we just fell in with the right person and we just asked everybody and everybody said yes. I don't think there was anybody who didn't do it

AAJ: In the long course of the album's gestation did it ever lose its flavor for you?

RN: No. Definitely not. I won't go through all my personal stuff but I've had a lot of tragedies in my life; it's funny that I do feel that everything happened organically... not that I don't wish some things had not happened but I guess I feel that an experience for me is not over... until the experience is over. Like the Passengers had started to do a project of the music of the Supremes, about a year and a half ago. There was some good stuff in there but clearly it just didn't feel organic. Years before that we did the music of Slim and Slam and that didn't really work so we just dropped it. We're going to do kind of a combination of Slim and Slam and Spike Jones.

This thing seemed so touching and then David Cole did something, it was also collaborations with people I really knew. Once Debbie was on it and Elvis was on it, it was really interesting and we went different places to record this stuff. We were going to get the guy from Genghis Blues, the throat singer to sing that piece "Lost" that the Dominican guy sang. We went out there and he couldn't get out of bed to do it out in San Francisco. So that's when we came back and found the other guy to do it. That shit was so fucking beautiful. But then the record didn't hardly sell anything.

AAJ: You had mentioned ambitions to do a theatrical production of the album and a video. Are those plans still actively being considered?

RN: I think the time has passed for that kind of thing. That's just the way it is, but it's a shame because we did it at Royal Festival Hall in London, and then we did it at a couple of big festivals. It was sixteen people in the band and all these fancy people, it took a zillion dollars to perform and there was no way to perform it without all those people. It was just too much of a Busby Berkeley thing to be able to do ever again. But the equivalent of PBS in England did a video of it.

It was a big drag because the guy who did the video behind the performance was John Jezerin, who was a guy who won the MacArthur for his video stuff... so he did this thing and instead of making it like a bar set: we filmed ourselves in a bar with Debbie as the bartender and we also had this incredible fireplace, all this shit was really beautiful. But then somehow it got all fucked up where the English company didn't get clearance to use his footage so when we did the piece John didn't want to let them use the footage, there was a whole big fight and it was a big drag. The long and short of it is they didn't make it the way it could've been made, as beautifully as it could've been made. It's OK but it's too bad it could've been an amazing video made of it... So that's already done and it's never going to happen again.

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