From Your First Cigarette to Your Last Dyin’ Day: Schlong’s Punk Side Story

“Our mothers all are junkies,
Our fathers all are drunks.
Golly Moses, natcherly we’re punks!”

51; “Gee, Officer Krupke”, West Side Story. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

Punk and Broadway musicals: two great tastes that taste great together, like the insouciant pairing of a circle skirt with combat boots. I’ve never doubted that musical theatre is subversive; after all, it only takes a recording of Hair and a very thorough dictionary to impress even the most jaded juvenile ruffian with forbidden knowledge. Everybody loves a 13-year-old that can drop the word “pederasty” and 15 synonyms for marijuana at a family dinner, right? But while I was in junior high in the early ’90s, many of the most prominent figures in the Broadway community were either sick or dead from AIDS, and it broke my little heart to participate in a society that often neglected to discuss such matters.

Referenced record:

Schlong’s Punk Side Story (Hopeless)
US release: 16 April 1995
UK release: Import

I didn’t understand then that I actually had a lot in common with the Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat fans lining the perimeter of the school, and it certainly didn’t occur to them. Punk, like musical theatre, is outsider art. Really, when you break it down to the fundamentals, there’s no difference between a community of surly, but pained, urchins and a community of dapper, but surly, homosexuals and homosexual sympathizers. Yet, while several musicals in the last 40 years have adapted elements of rock music, the creative juices rarely seem to flow the other way, with a few notable exceptions. Me First and the Gimme Gimmes is a punk cover band that released an entire album of show tune covers. Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong has the logo of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar tattooed on his forearm, perhaps shedding some light on the influences of last year’s American Idiot. To say nothing of the Who, another Green Day influence, and the most prolific and adept adapters of the opera form by rock musicians.

However, another Bay Area punk band in the early ’90s, the now-defunct Schlong, took the most radical approach to adapting musical theatre for punk music. Late into a night of drinking in the early ’90s, bassist Pat Mello was performing back flips in exchange for beer at a Southern California bar when he broke into song — the chorus of “Maria”. He then announced that Schlong would release a re-recording of West Side Story to follow up their 13-minute cover of the entire Rumors album by Fleetwood Mac.

Schlong embraced the idea, as the drummer, Dave, formerly of Operation Ivy and Pat’s brother, and guitarist Gavin MacArthur had also grown up listening to West Side Story. Fortunately, Louis Posen, head of Hopeless Records, was on hand to green light the project for his label.

Fittingly, West Side Story is about punks, in the old-school sense. Premiering on Broadway in 1957, it reset Romeo and Juliet in the west side of Manhattan and highlighted the era’s rash of juvenile delinquency and racial tensions with Montague and Capulet analogous gangs, the Jets and the Sharks.

Armed only with a guitar and a remote control CD player, the orchestrations were painstakingly interpreted for punk guitar by Gavin. It doesn’t matter how many times I listen to the album, I’m still impressed with the musical adaptation — the oom-pa beats of “Gee, Officer Krupke”, the high-pitched jazziness of “Prologue”, and the speedy exuberance of “Something’s Coming” are all so accurate to the original while promoting a distinctly punk rock sound. According to Gavin, “It took six weeks and eighty pots of coffee to figure it out, two weeks and eighty cases of beer to rehearse it,” but they eventually recorded Punk Side Story in three days at Oakland, California’s Polymorph Studio. They performed the album in its entirety with the full cast only once, at legendary 924 Gilman in Berkeley, California, on March 12, 1994, immediately after completing the album.

Schlong sought to recreate the show using a real cast of Bay Area punk bands, planning to recruit Rancid to play the Jets and the Voodoo Glow Skulls to be the rival Latino gang, the Sharks. Fat Mike of NOFX had signed on as leading-lover Tony, and Melissa MacArthur of Raouul (sister of Gavin) was set to play Tony’s one and only, Maria. Interestingly, regarding the original Broadway production, Bernstein is quoted as saying he tried “not to cast ‘singers’: anything that sounded more professional would inevitably sound more experienced, and then the ‘kid’ quality would be gone”, which pretty much summarized punk rock’s do-it-yourself aesthetic, 20 years before the Sex Pistols.

Predictably, much of the originally planned cast either was unavailable or didn’t show up. In addition to Schlong and Melissa MacArthur, the ultimately recorded cast included Andy Asp, now of the Pattern, as Tony; Katrina Ford, from JAKS, appears in an excellent turn as Anita; and Jack Canada of Guano as Riff. Unable to get any female singers besides Katrina and Melissa, the female backing vocals were performed by men, creating a sound accurately described by Gavin as “Muppets on speed”. The vocals are not always in tune, but despite the genius of Bernstein’s melodies, it never matters. Melissa MacArthur, in particular, pays no heed to the notes, but it just adds to the oomph of her performance. Maria actually makes more sense as a wailing drunk, as overall, the gritty elements of Punk Side Story authenticate the story, rather than detract from it.

Punk Side Story includes some notable departures from the original score. “Dance at the Gym” is interjected with a tweaky square dance (“Grab yer partner and swing ‘er into the pit”) and “Finale” becomes a ukulele-backed rendition of “Maria” with the name changed to “Kahuna” (“Say it loud and there’s music playing / Say it soft and what the fuck are you saying”). “Cool” alternates between rapid-fire hardcore and smooth finger-snapping jazz, creating an extreme interpretation that in many ways is more appropriate to the lyrical and book content than the original. However, the Punk Side Story track that represents the greatest improvement over the original is “Gee, Officer Krupke”. The comedic track — a bunch of guys joking about their crappy lot in society and the universal detestation of their antics — ceases to be a joke in Schlong’s version, but instead becomes a more sinister expression of rebellion.

For Punk Side Story, Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics are redefined as a hodge-podge of the original Broadway cast recording and the film soundtrack with a few deviances, mostly in the vein of curse words. Even when I was 13, it sounded silly to me for “Gee, Officer Krupke” to close with the line, “Krup You!” I find it downright Zen to listen to the line changed to “Fuck you!”, much like the satisfaction I get from listening to unedited singles after hearing the censor’s versions on television or radio. The slang invented by Arthur Laurents for West Side Story‘s book and film script are made grittier and more sardonic. It doesn’t take someone familiar with the show to know that the parting dialogue between Maria and Tony on the balcony during “Tonight” wasn’t originally:

Maria: Oh, wait, Tony. My Father’ll kick y’r aaaasssssss!
Tony: Fuck yer dad.
Maria: Don’t you talk about my fuckin’ father like that!

Shortly after Punk Side Story was released, Andy Asp received a letter from Nina Bernstein, daughter of Leonard Bernstein. According to Gavin, Asp’s mother met Nina while riding horses in Santa Rosa, California, coincidentally my hometown. Nina’s lawyer had given her a copy of Punk Side Story. “She was surprised that someone of our generation knew her father’s score so well, and said she wouldn’t sue us.” What could have been a mocking of a musical theatre masterpiece is actually a loving tribute and update of the classic. As the movie trailer says, “Unlike other classics, West Side Story grows younger.” So while Arthur Laurents described his intent for the original stage production as “a lyrically and theatrically sharpened illusion of reality”, Schlong stripped that illusion away, and made West Side Story contemporary again.

When I set out to write about my love for Punk Side Story, I was unaware of how the recording was conceived or any of the details behind the production. After tracking down Gavin MacArthur through MySpace, he graciously contributed his comments, in coordination with his ex-bandmates, via e-mail first from New Orleans, and then from Jackson, Mississippi, where he found shelter with a family friend during Hurricane Katrina. He, along with his wife, dog, and a kitten they found at a truck stop while fleeing New Orleans, are now on their way back out to Bay Area to start over. Anyone who would take the time to translate Bernstein for electric guitar is a friend of mine, so please join me in wishing Gavin and his family the best.