By Jeff Walsh
Steve Schalchlin radiates an honesty when you see him perform. When he tours, he tells the stories of his life, and what led him to write the songs he composed for "The Last Session," a musical about an HIV-positive singer who reunites with his bandmates to record one last album.
The show had a successful run off-Broadway, and will open later this month in Laguna, Calif. Schalchlin also maintains a separate tour schedule, where he plays the songs from the show on a piano, and talks about his life, growing up gay, being the son of a preacher, and the emotional and physical state he was in when he initially wrote his beautiful, haunting songs.
Schalchlin, 44, expected to be dead shortly after writing the songs two years ago. The HIV-positive songwriter had failed his first protease inhibitor, and had lost a lot of weight. His Web site at http://www.bonusround.com/ initially chronicled his illness, and is now aptly titled "Living in the Bonus Round," the same name as his solo piano tour.
Schalchlin (whose name is pronounced Shack-Lin) recently took some time to talk to Oasis about his life, his songs and his views on the world. The show was written by Schalchlin's partner, Jim Brochu, who is also directing the Laguna production. Schalchlin was ecstatic about the Laguna production, which is still in rehearsals until later this month.
"The cast is wildly talented and we're going to have a remarkable production," he said. "This one has more production value, so theoretically it could be a better production."
For those of you who aren't familiar with the show, the main character is an HIV-positive musician who feels he has nothing to live for. He invites his old band back into the studio to record what will be his last session.
"One of the main conflicts in the play is this gay/Christian debate that's been going on and driving everyone nuts lately," Schalchlin said. "We tackle that issue in a humorous way and find a resolution that is not political."
Schalchlin is no stranger to the issue of how to balance a person's spirituality with his or her sexuality.
"I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian environment and I know a lot of gay young people write me because they are so conflicted about what they've been taught and the feelings they have inside," he said. "This is one of the reasons gay kids commit suicide and get into a lot of self-destructive behaviors because they think God hates them or that they can't fix something, and it causes self-destructive behavior. Part of my mission is to show that God doesn't hate you, he loves you just as you are, assuming you care about that sort of thing. A lot of people don't believe in religion at all, which is fine by me."
Schalchlin avoided delving into the spirituality issue until recently, having previously not wanted to think about it. He credits Bruce Bawer's "Stealing Jesus" as an amazingly profound book in understanding the spirituality/sexuality issue.
"It's only been in the past couple of years, maybe because I was contemplating my own death and all that sort of stuff that people do when they get old like me, that I really started to look at this stuff, because I really wanted to have some peace for myself. And I started to see that most fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible are extremely destructive," he said. "It's inconsistent on their part, because they will run down an anti-gay verse and use it like a club against gay people, while ignoring everything else in the Bible that they so supposedly adore. But even more, the interpretations about homosexuality have nothing to do with homosexuality as we know it. It's just an example of people who are already prejudiced using the Bible to reinforce their own bigotry."
Schalchlin didn't come out until his mid-20s. When he was in high school, he said "being gay" wasn't something he knew existed. But not having a name to attach to his feelings didn't prevent him from having them.
"I knew I was attracted to other men and I was not like anybody else, but because I'm a preacher's kid, I hid behind the Bible and used that as a weapon to stave off anybody," he said. "I grew up in that Christian environment, but I couldn't be un-gay, and that's what I tried. I tried to be un-gay. And then I realized that it's not a choice and when I came out in my mid-20s (I grew up in East Texas), I just drove off to Dallas, wiped the dust off my feet from the small town bigots and homophobes, walked into a gay bar and it felt like I was coming home for the first time in my life."
Schalchlin said gay people are at a disadvantage when it comes to dating, because we don't start until years after our heterosexual peers have already learned the ropes.
"As gay people, we're not trained to date. We come up in high school, and I'm encouraged that more kids are recognizing their sexuality and coming out earlier and trying to have some semblance of a dating relationship before they hit 20," he said. "For someone like me, I didn't have a date or a sexual encounter, except for brief little-bits with friends along the way, until I was 25. That means at 25 I had the mental attitude of a 13-year-old.
"Girls and boys, when they start dating each other, realize how many fruitcakes and idiots there are out there. They start learning the warning signs, but I fell in love with everybody I met. I was so in love so many times and had my heart broken so many times," he said. "I know this happens to a lot of gay people, especially young gay people who enter into the dating market very wide-eyed. They think, 'wow, now everything will be OK, I'm finally around gay people.' And there are people who are just professional fuckers who screw other people with no heart, and they'll think they're getting into a romance and then the guy goes, 'that was great, bye.' He's out the door, and you're lying there with a broken heart."
One love that stayed true to Schalchlin was music. He started writing songs in his late teens, when he wrote music to accompany a poem written by traveling preacher. He sang in his church, landed a music scholarship, and then dropped out of school to join a rock band. He moved to New York, which was his first run-in with musical theater and jazz standards. He eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he received his AIDS diagnosis and started getting sick. He went through two years of physical therapy and then wrote the songs which make up The Last Session.
"When I was writing the piece, I was absolutely one hundred percent sure that I would be dead within a few months. I was remarkably peaceful about it, too. The songs were really written at a point of desperation, where I needed to tell everything and get it all out, like this huge emotional catharsis," he said. "Now, two years later, I've gained back the weight, gained back my health, and I use the songs to remind me of that period and how extreme my emotions were and the situation was."
Schalchlin said the songs were all taken from his own life experiences.
"They're deeply emotional. They're not the greatest songs in the whole world, but they're very honest and emotional," he said. "I think they have a cleansing effect on people, and most of the critics and writers have mentioned that about the show. People kind of go through the dark places, but then I always try and engage a catharsis toward the end."
And the songs remain the same, as Schalchlin has never returned to them to see if he could improve them.
"I don't think I could ever write these songs better now. These songs came from a place where I don't even know where to begin. I still look at them and think, 'who wrote this? This is really good.' I really found everything I was looking for, and everything I wanted to say," he said. "So many times as writers we have an inclination to say something and we just can't find it. It eludes, it runs around, hides behind bushes and you just can't seem to get it out. Last Session was not like that. These songs just came and they were everything I wanted to say. I still can't believe I wrote it. I'll hear people sing it and go, 'wow, that's a good tune,' and then I'll realize, 'wait a minute, it's mine.' I don't know if that sounds egotistical or not, but it's just true."
The Last Session also marks the first collaboration between Schalchlin and his husband of 15 years. Schalchlin had written about five of the songs, and played them for some friends on Thanksgiving Day in 1995.
"Jim said, 'I just saw the whole play in my mind.' He went to the typewriter and pounded it out in three days and spent a month polishing. He figured out how to integrate the songs and the plot," he said.
The two actually met while cruising. Schalchlin was working at a piano bar on a cruise ship and Brochu was a passenger.
"We connected from the very first moment. He made me laugh, and that's pretty much my only requirement, somebody who has a good sense of humor and themselves. That's what makes a difference for me," he said.
The show has caused a little tension between the couple. They actually split up last year and eventually got back together. Schalchlin said they don't plan to work together professionally anymore. Even with the Laguna production, Brochu is directing, and Schalchlin is there in no official capacity.
Schalchlin said that The Last Session is considered a controversial piece in Laguna.
"In New York, we were like The Sound of Music, about as controversial as Annie. But in Laguna, in Orange County, the most controversial corner of the globe, we're discussing issues that are very hot," he said. "Is it OK to be gay? Can you be gay and a Christian? What should the conservative Christian response to homosexuality be? Should it be standing on the sidelines throwing rocks? These are very pertinent questions for Orange County, and it will be interesting to see if the audiences respond as well as audiences in New York responded."
Schalchlin said the show was well received by very mixed crowds in New York.
"We've had conservative Christians come in and love it, as well as the radical gay atheists. The heart of the show is not about politics, it's about how you get through things by caring for each other," he said.
During Schalchlin's solo performances, he carries around his bag of pills, which is about as big as a backpack. He does this to counteract the notion that HIV is now a manageable disease, which was brought up with recent debates about bareback sex and people who actually try to get infected so they no longer have to have the constant worry of HIV hanging over them.
"When I appear live, I say, 'If you think AIDS is easy to live with, here you go.' (displaying the bag of pills) I can only eat during certain hours of the day. I have to take my pills at exactly the right hour," he said. "It's like being chained to a clock. It is more manageable as a disease, anybody who would say that it's not isn't lying, but who would want to be chained to a clock 24 hours a day, and always with the fear that if you miss a few doses, you might have to go looking for brand new drugs to take over for the ones that just failed on you. It's a terrible nightmare. I'm better than I was, I'm still alive, so from my perspective, it's keeping me alive. I'm a living example of someone saying please don't get infected. You don't want to live with this. Even at its best, it's still a huge pain in the ass."
Schalchlin understands that people do tune out the relentless message of safe sex, which he said is the nature of being young.
"One of the problems I had when I was younger is people exaggerating stuff in order to keep you from doing it. If you smoke pot, you're immediately going to become a heroin addict. If you have any kind of gay sex, you're immediately going to have AIDS," he said. "The warning signs were so extreme that I got to the point that I didn't believe any warning signs from anybody. I thought it was all lies. I smoked pot and I didn't become a heroin addict. Young people are bombarded with 'don't do this, don't do this, don't do this,' and it is hard to know what to believe."
Schalchlin said he never discusses sex in his concerts or on his Web diary, instead just putting his songs and his words out there so people can make their own decisions. And with over a thousand people a day hitting his diary, he knows he has the power to change lives.
"I don't tell people what to do, how they should act, I don't care. I just try to be myself and let people know they are loved, that they have worth, and when people hear that their behavior starts to modify anyway, because we all know the fucking rules," he said. "We all know the rules about safe sex, you can't go anywhere without seeing something or someone putting their finger in your face. Through my music, people know what it's like to be sick and that they don't want to be sick. Through my diary page, I hope I'm able to lavish large amount of love coming back through the screen, so people can see they're worthy, worthwhile and deserve to live. If I can just reach one or two people and give them the inspiration to live and change other people's lives, that's saving the world."
The sentiment echoes one of The Last Session's powerful songs, "When You Care":
It seems to me life's mystery
Is written in the language of the heart
We learn to read from what we need
And everything the poetry of living teaches us
Schalchlin's words and music are an example to everyone as to how to best live your life. Of course, not everyone gets a "bonus round," so many of us will have to make our difference the first time around.