Ever tire of the media's quest to identify the country's next hotbed of creativity? In local playwright Steve Patterson's new play, Lost Wavelengths (part of Portland Center Stage's Just Add Water/West playwrights festival), public-radio host Murray pooh-poohs big cities' so-called monopoly on talent and embarks on a search for strange but gifted "outsider" musicians from Middle America. Cave Junction-born Patterson, author of more than 25 plays, spoke with WW about discordant blues, deranged musicians and exploited country folk.
WW: What inspired you to write this play?
Steve Patterson: When I lived in New York, my favorite radio station was WFMU. Irwin Chusid had a show there called the "Incorrect Music Hour," during which he would play really bizarre stuff. He ended up [writing] a book called Songs in the Key of Z, which is about outsider musicians, folks who are not trained but still write original stuff. Sometimes [their music] is naive, sometimes they're deranged, but they have something very unique about them. So I got to thinking about what if you had someone who was...going around recording outsider musicians for his radio show.
What kind of research did you do?
I listened to all these wonderful, crazy musicians like the Shaggs, Daniel Johnston and DJ Snowden. One of the musicians who definitely influenced the play is Jandek, a very obscure guy who a handful of people know about. Until recently he never played in public. [He plays] very discordant, depressed blues.
Is it difficult to avoid being condescending and creating caricatures when writing about "odd and deluded amateurs" from the "wilds of Middle America"?
I think it is. I tried not to. This play brings up the issue of whether Murray is helping these people out, or just exploiting them. So some of the dilemma I faced in doing the play is also part of Murray's dilemma. [Murray] says in the play that having [outsider musicians] do original [songs] pushes up the train-wreck quotient, and we always enjoy a good train wreck. When you hear them, you laugh the first time but then when you listen to them repeatedly you go, "Wow!" There's something really fresh and young and terribly original struggling to get out. It doesn't always come out too pretty. But I think that impulse to create something new is really important.
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