We spent one night, then two, then three, then the better part of a week trying to list contemporary music writers who write plays. Not that there’s any prohibition on that, not that we might not be missing some playwright posse somewhere, but it seemed curious, anomalous. Alex Ross over at The New Yorker can squeeze out well semicoloned observations from within the classical wilds of Europe, but one is hard-pressed to see him creating the next Hedda Gabler. Or a farce.
But Marc Spitz is a music writer who writes plays and they’re quite good. Not to be confused with the 1972 Olympic gold medalist swimmer, he’s covered rock and roll and popular culture for years — with bylines in, among other venues, Spin, The New York Times, Maxim, Nylon and the New York Post. (This list is what journalists would call “covering the spectrum.”) Oh, and he’s also a contributing music writer for Vanity Fair, too. (Now it’s covered.) Spitz also authored a novel, How Soon Is Never, one of several paeans to The Smiths that occurs in his work (not to mention a Spin cover story on Morrissey). And he’s written bios of Jagger, Bowie and Green Day and been translated into French, Danish, German and Dutch. (Ziggy Stardust does not translate into Boodschappen Kopen in Dutch.)
Yet it’s downtown, in equally the geographic and spiritual sense, where Spitz’s heart lies and where his plays cackle, guffaw, soar and crest. With an affinity for farce his rocket fuel, his earliest stage works personified the Ludlow Street scene in the ’90s — before the Lower East Side became a holy temple for overindulged and enviably trust-funded narcissistic hipsters. Such plays as Retail Sluts, The Rise and Fall of the Farewell Drugs and Shyness Is Nice put the millennial geist back in the zeit — especially Shyness Is Nice, which appeared in various best-plays anthologies. And now comes his latest play, Revenge and Guilt, a “violent, sexy, pop-savvy farce”:
Cal (Peter Buck Dettmann), an aging New Yorker, has a serious grudge against his teenaged guitar teacher, Major (Tom Vaught). Cal blames Major and their one disastrous lesson for why he never became a rock star and after life as a loser, he wants payback. Encouraged by his new kleptomaniac ex-con girlfriend Gina (Emily Russell) he tracks down his former instructor (through social media) and learns he’s still teaching guitar on Long Island and that life hasn’t exactly gone smashingly for him either. Think an indie rock version of the Don Ciccio scene in The Godfather Part 2.
It’s been a good year for Spitz — his latest book, Poseur: A Memoir of Downtown New York in the ’90s, came out earlier this year — and he’s directing Revenge and Guilt, which salutes a vintage quote by Elvis Costello (“the only two things that motivate me and that matter to me are revenge and guilt”). The play runs through Oct. 19 at the Kraine Theater (85 E. 4th St.). Click here for tickets.
And now, 5 questions Marc Spitz has never been asked:
What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
“I love it when people come up to me and say ‘I saw your play last night. What happened?'” — Bill Murray in Tootsie. Nobody has technically asked me that in life but I am still waiting, hoping.
What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
A relative used to ask me after every single play, “How do you think of this stuff?” She meant well but I always wanted to look her in the eye and say, “I’m a fucking writer.”
What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
Morrissey once asked me how much of my first novel was real, i.e., did I really travel to Manchester in an effort to reunite his old band. It was pretty weird to be sitting across form Morrissey while I was interviewing him for Spin and answering (really evading) a question he was asking about my book…about him.
We’re trying to list current music journalists who write plays. That the list is short makes us wonder why you write them. We also wonder why most people into contemporary music (of whatever genre) are still unlikely to pick Off-Off-Broadway for live entertainment. Any thoughts?
Do you think I am the only one? What others have you come up with? I studied theater in college. Never journalism. I only became a music writer because it was, at the time, a job and I needed one. It obviously escalated into a kind of identity. If I never had to write another piece about another rock star and could only do theatre, I would be extremely happy. In An American Werewolf in London, the undead Griffin Dunne asks, “Have you ever talked to a corpse? It’s boring! I’m lonely!” That’s kind of how I felt as a rock writer (and a novelist, except I was the corpse), whereas actors are never not fun (unless you are a liver).
I just realized I didn’t answer that last bit of the question. Probably deterred by the rats and roaches.
We’re not sure what a “violent, sexy, pop-savvy farce” is, but we know it’s a genre of play you’re fond of. What does farce enable you to achieve as a playwright that some other genre doesn’t?
Yeah, “pop savvy farce” — a farce that mentions Elvis Costello a lot? Pinter didn’t mention him much, did he?
Nearly 10 years have passed since the so-called Smiths musical, Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others, ran in London, with permission granted by Morrissey and Johnny Marr for use of their catalogue. Tomorrow night, Morrissey calls and asks you to write the book for a Smiths musical. Assuming you say yes, where do you start? Which five songs, for you, would be absolute must-haves? What major and minor plots immediately spring to mind?
I would turn him down, I think. I do want to write an original musical and have actually approached a pretty successful songwriter recently about it, but I absolutely hate jukebox musicals. They are, to borrow from Moz, criminally vulgar. But if you dragged me to one, I would hope “Stretch Out And Wait” was in it. My fave Smiths song.
Extra bonus question:
What if it wasn’t a jukebox musical but a real musical with a real plot that artfully places Smiths songs? “William, It Was Really Nothing” is theatrical; “Everyday Is Like Sunday” (OK, post-Smiths) the same. Can you imagine a scene in which “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” is a plot device?
I would still feel like it was playing with dynamite. If you got a Smiths musical wrong, they’d hang you like the DJ. Even when I was writing my Smiths book, I was wary of that. But if I had to log line it for you (for someone else to write) I would say: Morrissey and Marr, Sandie Shaw and a talking cow travel the North and sometimes time and space together and being slagged off and inspired at intervals and reacting in song.