One More SongThe music Steve Schalchlin wrote for "The Last Session" has the haunting quality of a dirge and the lyrics of a folk song. It's a series of tunes about a songwriter with AIDS who, when he finishes a recording session, is going to end his life because he can't stand the pain anymore.
by Al Martinez
But those around him convince the writer, whose name is Gideon, that he's got more music in him, and that the will to live is mightier than the disease that is eroding his life.
They call upon him to "play upon the black keys, play upon the white, play those chords and melodies, play them day and night. . . ." In its way, "The Last Session," a musical, is more life-affirming than dreary, about a man trying to fight his way through turmoil to reestablish his identity as a victim of a war raging through his system and through society. "At least I know what's killing me," he tells the homophobes who enter his life. "At least I know the enemy. . . ."
Schalchlin, 42, plays Gideon in the musical and, in fact, is Gideon, the sometimes lonely, sometimes anguished, sometimes hopeful songwriter with AIDS who sits at the piano and searches for "one more song, one more breath, one more chance. . . ."
As I write this, I have Schalchlin's music playing in the background as a reminder of both the haunting quality of his melodies and the impact of his words. It plays upon a corner of the mind like a child's whisper.
I'll sing all the secrets/I'm too ashamed to share/I'll sing about courage/That came from God knows where. . . .
He wrote the music and most of the lyrics to "Last Session" from a book by his life partner Jim Brochu. It was presented to a packed house at a benefit sponsored by ASCAP and the National Academy of Songwriters to raise money for Schalchlin's medical expenses.
Its emotional impact was astounding, the response overwhelming. One reviewer predicts it will end up off-Broadway in New York.
I heard about Schalchlin through a message on the Internet that described both the man's talent and his struggle with acquired immune deficiency syndrome. He was yet one more gifted artist spinning down into an abyss of choking darkness.
Much is unique about Schalchlin, a preacher's son and gospel singer from Arkansas who once played in a "Jesus band" and who weaves a gentle spirituality through the tunes that compose "Last Session."
A gaunt and soft-spoken man, he told me of his loving family, his diagnosis of HIV positive, his brush with death from pneumonia, and his screaming affirmation "I HAVE AIDS!" in a hospital emergency room.
It was the first time he had faced it head-on.
The outburst came in response to a question from actor Anson Williams who, Schalchlin says, was in the emergency room at the time for an unknown reason. Williams played Potsie Weber on the old "Happy Days" television series.
"I knew when I realized who he was that I couldn't die," Schalchlin said the other day as we sat in the living room of his North Hollywood apartment. "I didn't want the last celebrity I'd see on Earth to be Potsie."
It has been weeks since I interviewed Schalchlin. I didn't use his story immediately because I have written so much about AIDS and its victims that I wasn't sure I wanted to write another column so soon. There is much to observe and to chronicle in a county of 9 million, and the responsibility of my observations reaches beyond those with the terrible, killing malady.
But in the interim I spent a few days in New York, during which I saw the Broadway performance of "Rent," a magnificent rock opera about youth and AIDS and living and dying.
I memorized a segment of the lyrics from one tune. A lead character, horrified by the devastating e devastating impact of AIDS on his friends, sings: "I can't believe he's gone, I can't believe you're going, I can't believe this family has to die. . . ."
Later, walking through a light rain that fell over the city, I thought about Schalchlin, about the disease that eats like acid into our world family and about the need to employ whatever means available to remind everyone of its growing presence.
It's the reason Jonathan Larson wrote "Rent" and the reason Steve Schalchlin wrote "The Last Session" and the reason I'm writing this. Further delay is simply not possible.
We are, after all, a family in the broad sense of the similarities that unite us, and if it takes music to alert us to a plague that threatens our house, then let the band play on.
And let the family, for the sake of us all, listen.
Al Martinez can be reached via the Internet at firstname.lastname@example.org ΚΚΚΚΚ
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