Interview: Beacon Hill musician/playwright Gretta Harley

Gretta Harley performs with  Mitch Ebert and Fiia McGann in These Streets. Photo by Charles Peterson.
Gretta Harley performs with Mitch Ebert and Fiia McGann in These Streets. Photo by Charles Peterson.
Among many other creative lifetimes including co-founding the Home Alive organization for women’s self-defense and graduating from and then working for Cornish College Of The Arts, Beacon Hill’s Gretta Harley co-created (with Sarah Rudinoff and Elizabeth Kenny) These Streets, a rock musical derived from interviews with women on the Seattle rock scene. She graciously took a few questions over email.

Beacon Hill Blog: How is Beacon Hill like, and unlike, Long Island, where you grew up? How long have you lived on Beacon Hill and what are your impressions of the place? How, if at all, does it influence your work?

Gretta Harley: I bought my condo on Beacon Hill at the height of the market, 2006 — so I am “stuck” here. I love Beacon Hill. It is a neighborhood, with small businesses and a lot of families, and diversity. Tree-lined streets are an easy place for me to walk my dog. Fantastic views! Jefferson Park is awesome! I know a lot of my neighbors. There are block parties and neighborhood watches. Long Island was suburban, so the tree lined streets and neighborhood feel are similar in that way.

There were no good views on Long Island. It’s completely flat with lots of concrete and fewer parks, but the beach was a stone’s throw away. The Atlantic Ocean is beautiful and the beaches where I grew up were gorgeous (before Hurricane Sandy).

“I was never a fan of Ken. I thought he was a dweeb.”

Long Island is a very very different culture. Where do I begin? Long Island is a trip. The people are a little harder on the outside… very direct with their opinions (which I like), and not as PC as in Seattle. I like the liberal ideals of Seattle. Several famous hip-hop artists from my generation come from my section of Long Island, but the Island was extremely segregated when I grew up. A bit of white, macho, braggadociousness. I still have a lot of connections and love over there though. Ya know, this is a conversation over a martini…

I am not sure if I can identify specifically how the place I live influences my work, but I do believe that any environment does. I did say Beacon Hill has a neighborhood feel, but I live on the main drag, so the energy of movement and city is always right outside of my windows. It’s not quiet. I like that.

Beacon Hill Blog: You mention in your bio that your Barbie dolls gave rock concerts. What were their favorite jams?

Gretta Harley: Ha ha. When I was a little kid playing with dolls, I listened to The Beatles, Grass Roots, Argent, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Carol King, Elton John — so those were the jams those dolls’d be jammin’. I got most of the records by stealing a mailer for a Columbia Records offer. “Buy 10 Records For A Penny.” I thought that sounded good. And I had a penny. I went through the catalog and checked off my records (largely by liking band names and record artwork), and put my choices and a penny in an envelope.

When the box of records came, my mother was furious. She got on the phone immediately and chewed out the person who answered the phone from Columbia (because the deal was that you got charged every month after the first delivery for the 5-10 records they’d send you every month, at full price). My mom let me keep the records I ordered, and thus began the merging of my pastime of doll weirdness, with music.

I recall building a stage for the dolls out of spare wood blocks my dad would bring home from his shop, stored in an old refrigerator box for my using. Those blocks were a constant source of re-building “sets” I designed for my pleasure.

Ya know, back in the 60s, we weren’t scheduled like kids are today. We made our own entertainment. I spent a lot of time alone. I didn’t have a ton of toys, so I made do with what I had. I never felt like I was missing anything. My turntable was as much my joy as the “characters” I created out of my Barbies and “Little Kiddles.” I also remember making clothes for my dolls, ’cause I didn’t like the ones they came with. And I cut their hair and drew on their bodies.

I was never a fan of Ken. I thought he was a dweeb.

Beacon Hill Blog: You also mention creating childhood solo plays to the music of “Jesus Christ Superstar, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Deodato.” Did any one of these three dominate over the other two? Did the several patently misogynistic songs on Goodbye Yellow Brick Road give you any pause? Did you have costumes?

Gretta Harley: When I was 7 (which is when we are talking about), I had no ideas about misogyny, but I can tell you I was exposed to it for sure. New York in the 60’s? You bet! I did not have costumes that I recall, but I did use scarves from my mother’s drawer. I know this sounds wacky, but if you knew how I was later attracted to Dalcroze Eurhythmics (which I have a teaching certificate in), it is a straight line in a bizarro kind of way.

Deodato, I remember really liking the cover which is what probably attracted me to it. I remember the cover being various shades of green. I also liked Deodato’s name. (Why we are attracted to things as a kid?) I just LOVED his arrangement of 2001. It was jazzy in that 70s kind of way, with the Rhodes piano, and has a good beat that a kid would love. It is dynamic in energy. 60’s/early 70’s horn parts a la Nelson Riddle. Great bass lines. I remember that I had never heard anything like it. It was great to dance to!

Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road — I think that was the record that made me want to play piano. I didn’t love all the songs, but there seemed to be a story line to it — a connection that all the songs had. I loved reading the liner notes and looking at the artwork, and reading the English names of the musicians. Names like Nigel. The music made me want to dance. I really think that this was the record that made me want to create music.

“Neeley looked me in the eye and gave me a personal wave and I was smitten. And that moment shaped my life.”

Jesus Christ Superstar, first of all, I am talking about the original recording, with Ian Gillan of Deep Purple singing [the part of Jesus]. THAT is the quintessential recording. Not the film version…although that’s good, and Ted Neeley [as Jesus] is great, it didn’t touch me as much as that Ian Gillan version.

What struck me in the song [“Gethsemane (I Only Want To Say)“] even as a kid is the personal conversation and anger and doubt with God. I learned about words like “omnipresent.” I later had my own doubts about God, and I think that this show, rather than making me pious, gave me another option — toward art — my “salvation.” We grew up with my dad reading the Old Testament, and I grew up Catholic. It was a story that I could follow, but the love of the play and the music was not about the religion thing for me.

More specifically about the music: I loved the horns, the strings — the full orchestra, the dynamics of the music. I started understanding in a visceral way about motifs. I had never heard anything like this music before this record. My father first brought the record home and put it on the old console stereo. I wore his copy out and we had to buy another one. (I think this when I stopped the doll rock concerts.)

I remember loving the humor in Tim Rice’s lyrics. “What’s the buzz, tell me what’s happening…” It always made me laugh. I was amazed at the bass voice of Caiaphas, and the jokiness of Herod. I loved Yvonne Elliman’s voice. It was a tender love story. That music is amazing, and I still know the whole opera by heart. Those guys were in their early 20s when they wrote it. Wow.

Beacon Hill Blog: When your parents took you to see Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway, did you see Jeff Fenholt or Ted Neeley as Jesus? Ben Vereen or Carl Anderson as Judas? How did the production compare and contrast from your many spins of the album? Did any of this shape/change your thoughts on Jesus’ divinity and/or message, in any way?

Gretta Harley: Ted Neeley, Ben Vereen, and Yvonne Elliman were in the show I saw on Broadway.

The show was amazing. I remember everything — sets, costumes. Again, it wasn’t about the Jesus God thing. It was all about the pageantry, costumes, lights, the theatre, and the music… I was in the second row and at the standing ovation at the end of the show on a Wednesday matinee, Ted Neeley bent down, looked me in the eye and gave me a personal wave and I was smitten. And that moment shaped my life.

Beacon Hill Blog: At your EMP presentation, I was struck especially by one line: “It may not be complete, but finish it.” Does this mean having to walk away from certain ideas you’d prefer to explore, given enough time/money? How does it apply specifically to These Streets?

Gretta Harley: Yes! Hell yes! There are always “dead babies” and unfinished ideas and processes in artwork. Otherwise, nothing would get out into the world, at least from my experience I am never satisfied. I am always cringing at the work I put out.

Specifically to These Streets — the script was not finished. We were making script changes up to dress rehearsal. We were working on a deadline. We were still working out so much and having “a-ha” moments that we realized we couldn’t fully explore, but the beautiful thing about a deadline is that your work does get experienced by the public. It was very difficult being a producer and writer and a performer.

The time management was difficult. Sarah and I, on many occasions, admitted that by producing the show, the show itself suffered in some ways — purely because there isn’t enough time to give everything as specifically and thoroughly as you wish you could. Time and energy are finite. Especially when you have a full time job that pays the bills! But we needed to produce it. And I don’t mean to complain. I am very proud of the production. And the entire process, although very difficult, was a joyous experience from start to finish.

Beacon Hill Blog: Having everything you’ve done so far, what are your plans for the future, 2013 specifically, and beyond generally?

Gretta Harley: I am currently working on new music that I hope to record early next year. Also, We Are Golden (my band with Sarah) is planning on releasing a record in 2014. I am working with filmmaker Daryle Connors, who filmed 4 nights of These Streets, editing her footage of the production. We are hopeful that there might be further interest in a re-mounting (of which major re-writes would be involved), possibly touring the play with a smaller cast doing music festivals…or maybe writing a film version.

I think that the story would be enjoyed by a wider audience. I think the music is great. It was so difficult to edit the hundreds of songs from that era, written by women that we collected, to 18 songs. The music is strong. People from outside that culture might think they know about grunge and what happened here 20 years ago. But they only get the same stories from the same handful of people. These Streets is really the story from the underground, and told from the inside. Every documentary, book, whatever, has been produced by a New Yorker, or someone from Los Angeles — someone outside of the experience. This play is the first story told from the inside. And it’s told from the perspective of women. It’s not necessarily only about women, but the perspective is truly female.

I am curating a set of music for the opening of the “Women Who Rock” exhibit at EMP on June 14th. It is a touring exhibit from the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. Our set of music will include the real women that These Streets was based on. I am also speaking at Carla DeSantis’ MEOW conference in Austin this October about the show. That will be my fifth appearance speaking to people about the show since the production. I am so happy for the many ripples that have appeared from the show.

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