One of the first distinctly Portland things I encountered after moving here was Storm Large and her secret penis.
It was October 2008, and I was flipping through the channels in a motel near Portland State when I came across Candidates Gone Wild, the election-year variety show put on by my future employer. One of that year's gags included a filmed sketch in which then-City Commissioner Randy Leonard tracks Mayor-to-be Sam Adams in an attempt to "out" him as not actually gay. In the final moments, Leonard follows Adams to his house, where he's found canoodling with Large, who is blond, buxom and seemingly female. Leonard busts in, hoping to catch them in the act, only to find Large in the bathroom, peeing standing up.
"Storm Large peed on me!" Leonard yells. "With a penis!"
Although it was only my second night in town, the context of all this was clear. I had just one question: Who is Storm Large?
Seven years later, I'm still not totally clear on that. Sure, I know who she is in the literal sense. It's the phenomenon of Storm Large that still mystifies me. She's written a memoir, starred in a stage play based on her life at Portland Center Stage, and headlined the Schnitz with the Oregon Symphony. She's appeared on the cover of this paper three times in 11 years—pretty good for someone who isn't a disgraced politician. And yet, I don't know if I could adequately explain why, exactly.
If you moved here after I did, you're probably even more confused. Like Pink Martini, of which she is now a member, Large's main appeal these days is with a specific demographic—namely, people who still buy CDs, and drop $150 for tickets to the lone concert they attend each year—and if you're outside it, her popularity can seem mystifying.
With her annual (sold-out) holiday shows approaching, I've heard the question "Who is Storm Large?" a few times recently. Here is the primer I wish someone would have given me.
So, who is this person?
In the simplest terms, she is a singer. She started with a weekly show at Dante's, singing loungey versions of punk and metal songs.
Oh, so she's like Richard Cheese?
Sort of, except with a drama-kid-gone-bad aesthetic and big, Broadway-level pipes. So, more like Amanda Palmer meets Rock of Ages meets Samantha from Sex and the City.
OK, but that sounds a little gimmicky for someone who's so popular with the West Hills crowd. What else has she done?
Well, in 2006, she was a contestant on Rock Star: Supernova.
Say what now?
It was like the hard-rock American Idol. In her season, Large competed to front a band consisting of Tommy Lee and castoffs from Guns N' Roses and Metallica. She didn't win, but she recorded a single with Dave Navarro, which is the rock equivalent of winning a year's supply of soap on The Price Is Right.
Doesn't Portland hate people who were on television?
You've got to remember, this was pre-Portlandia. Back before blaming a TV show for Portland's changing socioeconomic realities was de rigueur, Large's run was much more of a "local girl does good" kind of thing.
So, why does Portland love her so much?
Well, her voice is pretty stunning. She's also plotted her career well, going from playing the "brassy broad" singing about her vagina to doing standards with the symphony. As Lady Gaga proved, well-to-do liberals love that kind of juxtaposition, and she started down that road a little earlier.
Wait, "her vagina"?
Yeah. It was called "Eight Miles Wide." People were pretty into it.
I thought you said she had a penis?
Oh, no. I should probably clarify that she is a woman, which made the whole "She's got a dick!" punch line extra funny. Portland—so weird, right?
SEE IT: Storm Large's Holiday Ordeal is at Aladdin Theater, 3017 SE Milwaukie Ave., on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 27-28. 8 pm. Sold out. Under 21 permitted with legal guardian.