BRIEF BLOG INTRO:
I'm a man on a mission. A mission to convince everyone I meet that life is worth living, no matter how many obstacles are placed in your way.

I'm a singer/songwriter and actor from Texas "Living in the Bonus Round" in New York City. That is my way of describing how I feel having cheated death. (In a game show, the Bonus Round is where time speeds up and the prizes are better.) Accepting my death changed me. Now, I'm consuming life as quickly and as fully as I can, while still taking time to breathe and appreciate every single day as an utter miracle.

Last year, I turned 60 and I had a set of goals, all of which came true, including composing -- and performing in -- a Mass, recording a solo album (selling 10s of copies), headlining to a sold out house at a major night club in New York City and played the lead role in a staged reading of a play not written by myself. I update a few times a month these days, and I don't spam. So it's easier to keep up with me by following by Email. When this blog began, it was to track my death. I'm told it was the first AIDS blog. You can start at the gruesome beginning if you want. Or just jump in and maybe we can learn some life lessons together. Welcome to the Bonus Round. I'm Steve [SHACK-lin].

Friday, September 12, 2014

Death of Steinbeck.

[I didn't know, when I began writing this diary entry that morning at 3am, that Steinbeck would be dead by the end of the night. He had had a stroke and couldn't eat. We thought about having him put to sleep, but it was a holiday and nothing was open. What you'll read was written in real time with only slight editing. As you might expect, this is a very emotional diary entry, so if you are prone to crying and don't want to do it in public, I suggest setting it aside and reading it later.]
Steinbeck asleep in his favorite place: Jim's chair.

DEATH OF STEINBECK

SEPT 1 2014

He can barely walk
Tonight, for the first time, I heard him whimper
When he tried to get up
His bony hind legs like teepee sticks
Collapsing this way and that
And tonight, for the first time, I can hear his breath.
There’s a catch in it.

I can remember when he fit into the palm of my hand
On the day the man delivered him
His mother killed by a truck
On a movie lot
they were gonna bury the newborn kittens
Our friend called, “You guys want a blond boy?”
“Never turned down a blond boy in my life.”

A man the size of the doorframe
Held a tiny ball of fluff in his hands
Like in those Warner Bros. cartoons
Where the tiny kitten nustles into the back of the huge dog

He chased our feet and conquered the other cat
The previous top cat
Without the flick of a wrist

He was barely old enough to drink milk
Suckling on the folds of my fingers
Unweaned.


Now he’s hiding in corners
And under tables
Ashamed to show his age
And his back legs fall when he tries the floor

He doesn’t drink
The kitchen seems so far away
He cannot find it
I bring him tuna juice
Which is normally like kitty crack
He turns his nose up

It’s time for him to die
And I want to help him die
But all I do is listen to his breath
Rattle in his dry empty cage of ribs

He wanders from corner to corner
Beneath chairs and tables
Hiding

Just now I heard his nails haltingly
Scratch the floor in the hall on the way to the kitchen
Or to the catbox.
As if, in his fight to find comfort,
He vaguely remembered being pleasured
By the contents of something in that direction

But, halfway between them, he shlumped over
Exhausted by the effort
And tried to breathe some more

Hu- Hu- Hu- his mouth open
His lungs gasping
His tiny, atrophied muscles trying desperately
To separate that towering rib cage
And jerk some air into his lungs

Hu- Hu- Hu-
I crawled to him earlier, but it only annoyed him
And he stumbled four or five steps to get away
So, now, I just let him lie
And my heart is breaking
And rivers of tears
Are pouring out into the JC Penney carpet

Hu- Hu- Hu-
Like a “huh” but cut off.
Hu- Hu- Hu-

Wait. I can’t hear him now.
Like a ghost, he has vanished from the midway point.
It’s dark. Early morning. Before sunrise.

The A/C is humming and churning
Outside, the air is thick and moist and warm
The kind of weather I detest

I tried to go out there onto the back porch

We have a terrace which we call the back porch
Steinbeck loved the back porch.

Just to breathe and listen to the sounds of the city
On a Labor Day weekend at 3:39 am

It’s weirdly silent
the partiers have finished at the gay dance club down the street
And they’re moving; a silent pack up eastward on 42nd street
Trying to catch a cab
Sometimes, if there are too many drunk ones
The cops will come along and “loud speaker” them along

“Head east! Everyone head east! Move along”

The gay hotel is next to the police station.
Life has changed a lot in my 60 years here.
The gay hotel is next to the police station.

I can’t hear him
I don’t know if he’s trying to hide in order to spare me the pain of hearing it
Or if he is just annoyed when touched
Like, “Jeeesus, people. A little dignity here.”
The same look he gives me when I would spy him pooping in his box

He hasn’t pooped for awhile

I hear his nails on the wooden floors again
Distant. Maybe in the bedroom where Jim is asleep.
I go and make sure the door is open for him.

I imagine the worst.
That he’s in such pain, that he’s just adjusting
To find a place where it hurts the least
Like when I had those kidney stones
And had to take the horrible narcotic
Does he need a narcotic?

It’s Labor Day.

Jim found, online, people who will come
And euthanize your cat in your home
Right now, that seems so comforting

Down on the floor, earlier,
I knew we were in trouble because
He rejected my offer of water on my fingertip.
I stroked his body lightly.
I told him I loved him and that it was okay for him to go.

I know he didn’t understand those words.
But could he feel it in my stroke?
I want so badly to cuddle him and hold him
Upside down in my arms like we used to do.

DIE IN MY ARMS! IT’S OKAY! I WILL HOLD YOU! I LOVE HOLDING YOU!

Jeez. Now my eyes are burning again.
Words getting blurry

What’s he feeling?
No.
WHAT’S HE FEELING?!!??
I direct that cry, noiselessly, to God
Who noiselessly doesn’t respond

I’m not angry at God anymore
I used to be REALLY angry
Like, we’d pass a church and I’d
mentally toss a bomb through the colored glass
I could never actually do it, of course
I hate religions that feel they have to erase other religions
Don’t they realize that people,,,

Oh, who cares. Human nature.
And we do have a human nature.
We are not blank slates.
And human nature is an awful lot like animal nature.

Sometimes I want to crawl off into a quiet place

I find it here in the early morning hours
Places to vent my rage

I keep it bottled up, usually.
Not because I’m a martyr but because
I like other people.
And I want them to want to be around me
And I hate being around rageaholics.

Unless they let me laugh at their rage.
Then, it’s funny. Otherwise, it’s just


I can’t hear the cat
I don’t want to go looking for him.
Earlier,
He vomited up the baby food chicken puree
(a trick Jim picked up online)
Stupid Internet

Jim has been crying almost non-stop. Oh my god he loves that cat.

The games he and Steinbeck used to play
Steinbeck as a hat
The roll the cat up in the belly of the t-shirt
little orange paws sticking up
“Where’s the cat?? Do you see the cat?”

And Steinbeck
Would lie still as a sack of salt
Until he had enough
And then, he’d push his way out
At parties, they were a Vaudeville team

I want to go find him
But he wants to be left alone
Or he’s trying to save me the pain
Of watching him suffer

In all these 15 years together,
I never really knew what was going on in that brain of his
His gaze was as mysterious as a sphinx
Well, duh
I wonder how much he understood of me
It would have been the understanding of a being
That thinks in images, smells and touch
But no real language. No dialogue.
No holding his attention for a chat.

A chat with a cat.

I used to watch Jim talk to the cat
And then turn to me and inform me
Exactly what the cat had said to him.

That, for instance, it was perfectly all right
For us to go on that trip.
Daddy has to work.

And he developed relationships with the people who cared for him.
Michael. Jerzemiah. Jake. Mark. Lori and Eddie.
Lori and Eddie gave us a bag from a fancy store one time, and
Steinbeck all but live in that bag for a month

He had this way of accepting everyone.
At parties we’d throw, like back when I was similarly dying,
He’d splay himself in the middle of the room
His big fat white belly like a fluffy moon
And everyone would rub his belly
And step over him
And he would just stare at us
Or wait for someone to service his chin

Oh, god. I’m crying again.

This is the longest night of my life.

That hovering between life and death.

I remember it. Is this what Jim felt every night,
Back then
Me wheezing next to him?

This pain of this grief is almost unimaginable.
And there’s no soundtrack. I have no music on. Just the hum of the AC
And he’s somewhere going

Hu- Hu- Hu-

I get up and find him on the bed

Jim, teary-eyed, is stroking him,
“He was just lying there on the floor.
So I picked him up and brought him here."
I see Steinbeck’s little mouth open

And I go into the other room and find myself wailing.

Unconsciously, to relieve the tightness in my chest,
I start beating it. I’m beating my chest, facing the Hudson.

I go back in and crouch down and stroke his spiky back
And Jim and I are bawling and I say something like,
It’s okay. You can go.
And Jim says, It’s okay. You can go.

A moment later, Jim says, “I think he’s gone.” We look down.
Check for breathing. Can’t tell.

Then his head jerked twice.
Then his legs jerked twice.
Then his head, twice again.
Not a jerk. More like a shiver. The shiver from the Steinbeck Stretch, A comedy bit he and Jim used to do.


And that was it.
Jim said, “He peed on the bed.”
We wrap him in a towel, strip the bed.


And then we hold each other and weep. And cry out loud a little.

Steinbeck lying in state.
Special bonus video curtain call. Steinbeck and Jim singing:

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Brief Update.

Because of the death of Steinbeck, we are mostly staying to ourselves. 

But I am singing at St. Clement's again this Sunday. This time "Lazarus Come Out." If you want to join me, just show up at 10:30. 46th between 9th and 10th.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Singing at St. Clement's.

It was great fun to sing again at St. Clement's, one of my favorite places in New York City. Because of the personal nature of my relationship to this church, I didn't bring a camera nor did I take any video. So, bad blogger, I know. But, having been one of the first to blog and record his life on the Net, I've learned that now that everything can be recorded and broadcast, sacred private spaces take on new gravity.

Nothing dramatic happened. So, don't read this expecting a big revelation or profound epiphany.

It's a church with a small congregation, but there's a community food pantry that provides groceries on Saturday. There is also a theater inside the old building, with the largest Off-Broadway stage in New York that doubles as the sanctuary -- and this past Sunday, there was no set on the stage. It was completely black curtains.

The piano, altar and candles were right there on the stage. It was beautiful. (During the run of Zero Hour, the altar was placed amidst the empty picture frames and half-imagined paintings in a cluttered artist studio).

Sarah, Erika, Clayton, Mark, Jeff and Robin also sang with me. (Did I miss anyone?) We did what I call the "down and dirty" choral arrangement of "My Thanksgiving Prayer," where the instruction on the last chorus is "Sing anything you want." Very Ives-ian, I think.

And we made music!

It was so beautiful.

Darryl Curry, who is the musical director/pianist, even did a little improvisation on the musical theme of "My Thanksgiving Prayer" as they set something up for the next part of the service.

As much as I enjoyed the people in Bay Ridge, it is a long, long subway ride. St. Clement's is three blocks away. I even had a chance to see Dan and Kevin who run the Peccadillo Theater which resides there in the building.

September 7th will be my next "spot." Who wants to sing with me? Someone requested "Lazarus Come Out." I think that's a grand idea.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

My New York Life - Pre-release Video





After much encouragement from friends who wanted copies of this after hearing me sing it live at random open mics, I've recorded "My New York Life." It should pop up on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and all download and streaming services worldwide soon.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Real Texas in Paris (with a surprise bonus round ending)

Saturday night. Jim Morgan, artistic director of the York Theater, says to me:

"Hey! You look like you could play a grizzled old Texas singer of cowboy songs. Want to do a reading? It's a new play. Two characters."

Since I say Yes in the Bonus Round, the script arrived the next day via email.

I've never played a lead in a new play that Jim and I didn't write ourselves. What an exciting adventure!

I saw that the play, Texas in Paris, was based on a true story. Two old Texas singers. One, a white cowboy. And the other, an African American Gospel singer. Plucked up from obscurity (and poverty) by a young hippie-looking musicologist from Boston searching for "real Texas" singers to headline a series of concerts in Paris, France -- the birth of a lifelong friendship.

John, a man who mostly played for himself or at tent revivals and Osceola, daughter of a sharecropper who only ever sang at home or in church. (It was her church members who suggested her). A woman who lived through the days of intense racial violence, whose mothers, to this day, still whisper the words "white people" even in their own homes. (Just in case they are out there in the bushes waiting for a reason to beat you).

As I read it, though I didn't live through that period, I recalled us moving to Buna shortly after they desegregated the schools, the buildings of which were on the same plot of land, but on opposite corners. (The Black school became the new Junior High while the larger White school became the high school.)

But, everyone was "pore." No one down there had much money. They lived off the land or had a job at the paper mill. But it was really country. I remembered encountering some very racist people. And the KKK Store, with robes in the windows not 30 miles away.

John is a devout Christian who grew up just as poor as Osceola and there's a moment in the play where these two connect -- a story he tells about sharing a water scoop out in the fields where he worked alongside the Black kids, where he has a spiritual revelation that everyone is equal in the eyes of God.

I remembered getting the "you're no better than anyone else and you're not less than anyone else; all are equal in the eyes of God" speech from my own dad, a Baptist minister who did grew up in a form of John's world over in Arkansas.

In previous readings, I was always nervous, feeling like an amateur who doesn't belong.

But, thanks to my friend Andy Gale, who invited me into his Sunday scene study classes, I sat there feeling totally confident.

Tuesday. 3pm. (I got there at 2:30 because I hate being late for anything.)

In comes this amazing bear of a man with whom I instantly fall in love.

"I'm Akin Babatunde!" Huge smile. Warm handshake. The Director!

I love the name so much, I say it back to him and then "That's a great name! I'm Steve."

Akin is a Brooklyn man who lives in Dallas. So we talked about Dallas for a moment. He also registered that he had heard of The Last Session, but we didn't put the pieces together.

Then came Debra Walton -- who looks 60 years too young to play this role (but then, so do I), but this is just a reading. The point is not to give a performance, but simply read the words, with some direction, so that the author and a select few can hear what they've got, so they can move onto the next rewrite.

I think that's also why I wasn't nervous. My job is to enunciate. I can do that.

I also asked if I should use my Texas accent, which I do anyway. Jim and I almost never speak to each other, when we're alone, any other way. His current favorite show is Hollywood Hillbillies. Memaw is currently the best character on "the teevee."

Jim Morgan came in and also Alan Govenar, the very musicologist who found and recorded them and who is also the author of the play. He is on NPR a lot and has written all these books about Texas blues (and more).

He said neither of them had ever sung professionally. She had only one dress, held together with safety pins, along with a few "amazing" hats from the ladies in her church. John just brought some jeans and jean shirts. And now they were headlining in Paris.

 Looking at the script, I knew the Gospel songs, but I did NOT know all these cowboy songs and there was no score written out. So, the plan was for Debra and me to simply recite the lyrics unless we knew the song.

However, I went on Spotify and found all the songs, made a playlist and just kept playing it over and over. I thought I could learn them at least well enough to give the sound of the songs. The problem is that those old songs kind of sound alike until you really know them. I would start to sing it without a prompt and it would inevitably turn into "Wabash Cannonball."

But it was fun to Hear Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie or, my favorite, Marty Robbins. And also, a raw, guitarist/singer named John Burrus, who wasn't a technically great singer or player, but whom you could imagine out on a campfire, with just friends.

As we began to read, I was grateful that Akin gave us a few performance notes. Like, "not angry" here or "more defensive" there. He really knew the play inside and out. It was a great relief to have those signposts written in my script. In fact, at one point I told him to just tell me fast or slow, loud or soft, it was all good to me.

I think if this were me four years ago, I'd have been terrified and sweating and feeling nauseous. Instead, I just read the words and sang the songs about as well as I could remember them. I wrote numbers of the scale over the words to help me remember the shapes of the melodies. Or I made up my own melodies.

I think the Alan, the author/musicologist, took a liking to my singing. He said, in an intriguing way, "I've never heard anyone sing quite like you before."

I was thinking he was like Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady" listening to people talk and trying to figure out which area of London the accent came from. Except Alan does it with singing.

A BONUS ROUND ENDING
By the way, remember I told you about the raw recording that I found featuring a singer named John Burrus? Turned out that that's exactly the person I was portraying who I knew only by his first name, John.

There was something very bonus roundy about this. Someone (Alan) knocked on his door, pointed a microphone at him and said, "Sing."

So, he made a kind of "last session" record. 30 years later, another songwriter (me) unknowingly stumbles across his music and studies it in order to play him in a show about that guy's life.

Funny, that could happen to some actor or songwriter in the future. long after I'm gone, who is cast to play Gideon. He may not even know the backstory of the show and was just randomly listening for recordings -- exactly what happened here.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Health Update.

Great results today after three months where I've run almost every day for at least an hour. It's only what I call "maintenance" exercise, but it's something, and that's the key to staying healthy.Just do something physical every day that gets you breathing hard and keep it up for five minutes. It's like a miracle medication. And it's free!

My t-cell count is right where it has been for awhile, in the 600 range and there is ZERO free virus in my blood. That means the drugs are working -- and that has as much to do with my compliance record as it does with the drugs themselves. Quite simply, I do not miss doses.

Other great news: My A1c, which measures blood sugar is 5.9, so it's finally down in the normal range.

The only negative count was in triglycerides and cholesterol, which are abnormally high. This is a consequence of side effects of my HIV meds, but also, I confess I have been hitting the french fries a bit heavily lately.

Everything else is in the normal range.

So, the lesson here is keep up the daily exercise and cut down on the french fries.

(And my other weakness: cheddar cheese popcorn.)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Boxes and Bubble Wrap.

That's an idea for either a song or a horror movie.

We are still putting our new home together. Boxes and bubble wrap. They are my life right now.

But I have a couple of announcements for fans.

First, the London Original Cast Recording of The Last Session is now on iTunes. I would most appreciate it if you'd spread the word far and wide.

Secondly, on August 3rd, Jim Brochu will talk with Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked, Pippin, etc.) Called "A Conversation with Music," it will feature vocalists Michael McCorry Rose and Kelli Rabki -- at the spectacular night club 54 Below.

I also will be performing "My Thanksgiving Prayer" on August 24th at St. Clement's here in mid-town for their Sunday morning services.

Okay, back to unpacking.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Moving, Moving...

After 11 years on the waiting list, we are finally moving into Manhattan Plaza, the subsidized housing for actors and other miscreants. So, this week has been about boxes, boxes, boxes. Packing and tossing things out and moving things around.

At the same time, Samuel French, who licenses "The Last Session," has asked for an electronic version of the score, which we never had. The old photocopies are wearing out and they need new!

Trouble is, we never had one of those. It was made back before electronic scoring was really available. So, this has given me the chance to look at the score and make all the changes I've been dying to do for the past 20 years.

Back then, I didn't know how to write out a score, and also I was just too sick. So the version we have now is a transcription of single performance done in New York one night, complete with all the improvisations the cast and musician were doing on that night -- which sounded great then, but which are not really a part of the score. (I want new casts to do their own improvisations.)

So, as all this packing is going on, I'm taking the score one note at a time, revising and reworking everything. Not that it will sound all that different to the untrained ear. But each time we've had new productions, I've had to talk to the various casts and musical directors, explaining that, "No, you don't have to sing that note." And "No, you don't have to play the part that way."

Luckily, I had begun this process already when I met with Tom Turner for the London production. He had a great instinct for how I preferred the songs to be played, and when we tried it out, it worked beautifully. For instance, "Save Me A Seat" should be sung in A-minor. Bob Stillman sang it in B-minor, which is fine, but it's too high for most singers. And it got frozen into the score in his key.

But it's little things like that which I'm now working out. It's a HUGE job and I'm devoting massive amounts of time to it. But this is my chance for the score to look and sound like what I originally intended and I'm loving it. But boy, this is a lot of work.