A rock opera interrupted [Commentary]

Editor's note: This op-ed has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Billie Holiday's name. The Sun regrets the error. 

I traveled back to my hometown of Baltimore last weekend to reprise my role as that important historical figure, The Devil, in a rock opera about the Battle of Baltimore. This was the long-anticipated bicentennial performance of "1814!: The War of 1812 Rock Opera," a project some old friends of mine, Dave Israel and David Dudley, conceived in the bars of Fort Avenue back in 1992, before we had anything worse to do. They'd always envisioned mounting a spectacular, all-star production of the thing on the 200th anniversary of the bombardment of Fort McHenry, in the unimaginable science-fiction year of 2014.

At last Sunday's Hampstead Hill Festival, they found their crazy barroom dream come improbably true, with a date to perform their raucous, saucy, patriotic rock opera on one of the sites of the battle, Patterson Park. In another development no one could have imagined back at Cox's Pub circa '92, the state's governor opened for us, riling up the crowd with his Irish rock band. The audience resoundingly booed our villains, the sniggering Judas Priest-like British, and cheered their allegiance to charismatic front man for the Americans, Gen. Sam Smith. When, at the lowest moment of the battle, our narrator sang: "Our story turns now/To the hope that's sowing/Up north — in Baltimore…" the crowd roared defiance in the dark. You could almost imagine them holding off an army.

General Smith had just driven the despot's heel offstage when the Baltimore City Police cut our mikes off and turned the lights up. The day's schedule of events had run long, so we had to start late and had gone 15 minutes over the time allotted by permit to use the park. It seemed oddly capricious and vindictive not to give us seven minutes to finish the show. (Fellow rocker Martin O'Malley seemed as peeved and mystified as the rest of us.) For whatever reason, somewhere up the chain of command, someone had made the decision: Stop the fun.

A thousand people booed The Man as we all stood awkwardly onstage, mortified and furious, unable to say thanks or goodnight. Our cast of young singers — all of whom were unpaid and had given every performance what looked like about 117 percent — were denied a proper curtain call. And the audience never got to hear the show-stopping reprise of "(All We Need Is A) Big Ass Flag." Cops immediately strode through the crowd of families trying to gather up backpacks and blankets, strobing flashlights in people's faces and yelling at them to clear the park, as if dispersing a mob.

It felt depressingly typical: a city that busts its own party. Baltimore is the kind of cheap, hard-drinking, genuinely eccentric and creative town where kids can still put on a show, where brilliant and driven amateurs contrive absurd, hilarious, shockingly accomplished art, less to further their careers than for the sheer joyous hell of it — the same way John Waters and his degenerate friends ran around with a 16 mm camera committing acts of inspired depravity and making film history. But sometimes, it also seems run by the kind of ignorant, small-town mentality that reflexively tickets or bulldozes whatever's real and vital and best about itself — splurging to import national acts for a telecast in the touristy downtown while pulling the plug on its own unknown young stars.

It's often the provinces, "that vast obscurity beyond the city," that produce a nation's great dreamers — and that, inevitably, stifle and drive them out. In this sense Baltimore's a little like Ireland or Spain, one of those oppressive parochial places that artists with any ambition traditionally flee. Whenever one of these exiles manages to make good out in the world — a James Joyce or Picasso — his abandoned backwater always belatedly claims him as one of their own and turns his birthplace into a museum to bring in a few tourist dollars. Billie Holiday and Frank Zappa both have statues in Baltimore, although they both left when they were 12. Poe accidentally died here, so he got a monument placed on top of him, although schoolchildren had to raise the pennies for it. Of all Baltimore's homegrown artists, H.L. Mencken felt most happily at home here: "I have lived in one house in Baltimore for nearly forty-five years," he wrote. "If I had to leave it I'd be as certainly crippled as if I lost a leg." His house is currently closed.

I'm writing this the day after that truncated show, on Amtrak's Northeast Regional, returning, with regrets, to my own home-in-exile, New York City. New York is as hostile to artists as to anyone else who can't afford the rent, and also has its own famously bullying police force. It's hard to imagine anyone in that city of clamorous egos doing anything as pointlessly involved as mounting a historical rock opera without hope of getting a high-profile review or landing an agent. But it is, at least, a city where they don't regard art as a public nuisance, and they never turn the lights up at 9 p.m.

And yet, remembering the moment when our exuberant young cast ran out in costume to dance with the crowd while the governor's band played — it makes me hope I get to go home someday.

Tim Kreider, a former Baltimore City Paper cartoonist, is a frequent contributor to the New York Times. His email is tim@thepaincomics.com.


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