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adventures in a cappella
i get a text message from brian, my former partner in crime through all of my a cappella groups, the guy who did vocal arrangements for my musical "a mouse who knows me." he asks: "random question do you know Rockapella's version of Zombie Jamboree? we're looking for a last minute replacement for the lead" my response: "i'm very familiar with that arrangement. What are the dates?" for those who don't know it - the song was written & originally released in 1957, a calypso tune about zombies having a carnival in old new york city. harry belafonte, peter tosh, harry nilsson have all recorded versions over the years. it was re-popularized in 1990 when a group called rockapella (the folks who did the "where in the world is carmen san diego?" theme song) performed their version on a PBS special produced by spike lee called "do it a cappella." that live version was one of the songs that hooked me on a cappella music. i must have sung it hundreds of times - in my bedroom, in my car, walking down the street, whatever. it's one of those songs that just gets into your bloodstream. brian replies: "it's a 4 hour in-costume appearance at a party at a private residence in Broadmoor. they want costumed people mingling to burst into song like a flash mob. we are doing Monster Mash and Ghostbusters as well." so, this sounds kind of cool. wednesday-
i get a call from jason, the guy who booked the gig, one of brian's best friends. he runs a professional singing organization that sends out quartets of carolers to private parties and malls and restaurants all throughout the xmas season. so he knows a talent agency who wanted to book a similar group for a halloween party. apparently their lead dropped out with days to go before the gig. if they can find a replacement, they can salvage the paycheck for everybody. i don't care about the money, i just want to sing the song with a live group. i'm prone to this stupidity mind you. it was my dream to play judas in a production of "jesus christ superstar" and once in my 20s i learned about a version that was going to go to burning man. the catch was, it was rehearsing in san francisco, so for two months, i flew down to san francisco every weekend just to sing that part. so jason says, "well, they really care about the mingling part too. you'll be in costume, in character, for four hours, singing sporadically. so i'm looking for people who are outgoing." i said, "i used to perform at theme parks, i think i can handle this." file this under aimless bravado. but really - jason has subbed in on vocal percussion for my groups. brian has done hundreds of hours of arranging on my behalf. these folks are all excited about getting paid to go sing, and without me, they're dead in the water. so - it's happening. thursday-
walking home from work, spend 45 minutes listening to the recording on repeat to boot the lyrics & rhythms back into my brain. i always picture songs from that period as being simple but this one is more rhythmically intricate than that - partially why i like it so much. first rehearsal with the other singers that night. no one is off book. jason had less than 2 weeks' notice about the gig and his singers had only one rehearsal before this one. so i'm not that far behind, i already know the lead to my song, and the backups for Ghostbusters and Monster Mash are simple enough. i'm wildly irritated with the dude singing lead on Ghostbusters. it's like he's never heard it before. he can't remember the lyrics, and he doesn't understand the rhythm. like, he can't figure out when to ask "who you gonna call?" & instead just misses the entrance by some random number of beats which keeps throwing us all off. by contrast, when that song first came out, i remember taping it off the radio and then overdubbing it onto both sides of a 90 minute cassette so that i could listen to it over and over and over and over and over and over and over again until my mother destroyed the tape. i could perhaps literally sing that song in my sleep. but it would be gauche to try to take over a 2nd lead even though i could crush it. so eventually someone asks jason, "tell us more about this party." and he's like, "well i think it's a kid's party actually. i think it's gonna be like 300 kids and their parents." and we're expected to not simply be in costume, but also be in character and be engaged with these kids and their parents, for 4 hours, minus the few moments where we sing. i have zero poker face. i think it's obvious how i feel about this. tanya and i have a running joke when i see her lately - she asks, "hey do you want to hold my baby?" because, see, that's just hilarious to imagine. i don't want to be around 300 kids, and i don't really want to be "engaged" with their parents either. brian tries to cover for my reaction by saying, "scotto just generally hates people." i try to cover for his attempt to cover by saying, "look, i worked at theme parks, i can figure this out." the soprano asks, "oh, is that where you learned to hate people?" "no, that's where i learned to hate theme parks," i reply. "i've always hated people." friday-
i am introduced to my costume. the package says "haunting ghost." it's a silver shroud with a bunch of silvery gauze strips. i have a gauze hat. dude still can't remember the lyrics or the rhythms to Ghostbusters. oh and hey, we need to learn a 4th chart - the talent agent wants us to sing the Addams Family theme. we keep fucking up the existing charts but sure, let's throw another one in, because REASONS. saturday-
we meet at 3pm for last minute rehearsals and then we get into costume & makeup. brian has acquired a vaguely doctor horrible style costume; dude who can't remember Ghostbusters is our vampire; our soprano is a green skinned witch; our 19-year-old alto is a victorian zombie; and i'm "haunting ghost" - sunken black eyes, shrouded in gauze, see photo attached. broadmoor is a gated community in madison park. waved in by security, we arrive at what appears to be a pretty swank mansion, with an army of valets in front to whisk your car away - unless you're the help, like us, in which case you are directed to park down the street and around the corner. the front lawn features a gourmet hot dog stand, and a trailer-borne wood-fired pizza oven which supplies pizza to the event all night. i've certainly been to more elaborate houses. one time, i went to a party in LA at the house of the guy who wrote the screenplay for "jurassic park." this house in broadmoor is not that fancy. still. you would want this floorplan. two-story treehouse for the kids in the backyard. multiple open bars indoors and out, peopled heavily by a rent-a-butler service. pavilions for pizza and snacks and giant towers of cupcakes. and a raised dance floor in a backyard tent where the DJ is playing such hits as yello's "oh yeah" - and hilariously, i watch an entire dance floor full of children obliviously getting down to "pumped up kicks" by foster the people (a song about how you better run before i shoot you and steal your expensive shoes). they've hired a magician to do a magic show, they've hired a guy who can make balloon animals, and they've hired us. so we start wandering. i'm supposed to be "in character." the american school of acting would start internally and work outwards: what is the character motivation for "haunting ghost"? what are the given circumstances - how was i killed and why must i remain here? how can i express my sad but rich inner life and find sympathy among the other guests? meanwhile, the british school of acting would be like - walk slow; don't speak; stare at people; the end. snap decision: i will walk slow, i will not speak, i will stare at people. i do this for 4 hours. well, to be fair, we sing a few times during that 4 hours. but initially as the party is ramping up and all these costumed people and their kids arrive, it's clear no one gives a fuck about the random a cappella group in the corner. but what's interesting to me is - without much effort, i am genuinely scary to some of these kids that are coming in. the area i choose to haunt is this long outdoor walkway toward the front door of the house and man, these kids don't have any idea what to think of me. depending on the age range, if they're with their parents they'll stop in their tracks when they see me and kind of hide or hesitate until their parents scoot them past me. the trick is: a) make eye contact, b) maintain eye contact, c) scare kids. i have a gleeful moment where i realize that yes, i am being paid to scare children, before i calm down and realize that they just want me to be ambiance, not a psychopath on the loose. still, one time i accidentally connect with a kid who is on his own - no parents, no friends - and he looks at me and says "don't scare me!" and then immediately starts crying. i didn't mean it i swear. i don't want jason to lose gigs because he hired an overly sadistic "haunting ghost." i make one girl cry and then every time i shamble past her later in the evening, her mom has to cover her eyes. look - this costume was supplied by the damn client! who, by the way, winds up referring to me as "creepy no-talky guy" by the end of the party. but sometimes, a kid isn't scared, and they smile at you, and they wave, and all you can do is smile and wave back. it's a party, after all. anyway. we sing like six or seven times, but it's only the last couple times where the party has thinned down enough that people are interested in what we're doing and can actually hear it. dude never does actually remember how to sing Ghostbusters. but Zombie Jamboree is kind of a hit. it's the most complex arrangement so it's already got that going for it. we sing it one last time at the end, then sing Addams Family as we're walking out the door and heading off into the street. there is a moment where the five of us - the witch, the zombie, the vampire, the mad professor, and the haunting ghost - are walking down the middle of the street in the heart of a gated community imagining that we are in the closing credits scene of a john hughes movie. then we're in a minivan getting the fuck out of there. here is a very raw recording of our final rehearsal before we left for the gig. it has a very halting start, and i break very badly in the middle because i'm not warmed up yet. by the end of the night, this song was delectable, but this is the best recording i could grab of the process:
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