A semi-long biography
By Dan Kimpel
Former Creative Director for
National Academy of Songwriters
Steve Schalchin has decided to endure the living nightmare of AIDS by writing songs. Vivid, inspirational, brilliant, and sometimes gorgeous songs full of surprises and colorful, vibrant characters; all included in a musical called The Last Session, which he wrote with his partner, playwright Jim Brochu -- and which debuted in a critically hailed hit off-Broadway limited engagement in Oct. 1997. Steve says, "These songs allow the listener to view the world through the eyes of a man with AIDS. It's quite a view."
As recipient of the National Academy of Songwriters' (NAS) John Bettis Fellowship Award for Service to Songwriters, Steve Schalchlin is proud of the very visible role he has played in the Los Angeles songwriting community when he served that organization as its Managing Director. But that was two years ago. Before AIDS. Before it all came crashing down.
He has decided that the best way for him to fight for his own life and to fight for the lives of others inflicted with AIDS is to be "out" and visible. Since January of 1996, he was featured in the monthly NAS publication, Songwriter's Musepaper and then in March of 1996 he was profiled in a cover story in AIDS Project Los Angeles' Positive Living. This was followed by articles in the NY Times, LA Times, NY Newsday, People Magazine, and numerous others.
The Musepaper article was his first "coming out" to the music community announcing his condition. Steve explains, "There are literally thousands of songwriters who know my name because of the work I've done in support of the songwriting community. So many of them do not actually know someone with AIDS. Now they do." As a result of the article, Steve has gotten numerous phone calls from people telling him just that. "People respond to diseases when you put a face on it. Ryan White. Magic Johnson. I'm not famous like them, but if I can change even one person and make that person care, I'll have done what I set out to do."
And for those who don't know him by name, The Last Session will serve as a brilliant introduction. Praises includes NY Post's Clive Barnes: "...an affecting and sharp-edged musical..."; NY Daily News: "...healing... full of pain, sardonic humor and hope..." NY Observer: "...there are songs of love, bigotry and rage that are without equal in musical theatre today..."; NY Times: "...exquisite,"; and the Village Voice cited the song, "Going It Alone" as "...the best [AIDS-inspired] song in 15 years..."
The surprise for many, though, is the fact that, although he had been on the songwriter scene for six years, most of the people didn't even know Steve Schalchlin was a songwriter.
Seven years ago, Steve Schalchlin arrived in Los Angeles broke and looking for direction after nearly 15 years on the road as a musician and songwriter. Upon advice from a friend, he began volunteering at the front desk at National Academy of Songwriters (NAS), which is a non-profit educational organization. It was here that his great love for songwriters began. "They are the most abused persons in show business," he says. About a year went by when fiscal considerations forced the Academy to pink slip most of the full time staff. Steve found suddenly found himself Managing Director of the whole organization.
He quickly taught himself desktop publishing and graphics to save money for the Academy. He began creating workshops, educational programs, and seminars. He updated all the Academy's literature and wrote a handbook for the membership. He oversaw the growth of the professional membership of NAS ("We went from 50 Gold Members to 500 Gold Members."), counseled and helped thousands of young songwriters in the treacherous world of the music business, and organized action groups to fight for songwriter rights.
He also created and hosted live songwriter showcases in L.A. such as the Acoustic Underground and Acoustic Artist of the Year Shows which allowed young writers to share the stage with such legends as Stevie Wonder. These acoustic showcases, held at the legendary Troubadour helped reshape the landscape of L.A.'s music scene by nurturing the birth of, and focusing the industry's attention on, strong songwriting and songwriters. Lance Hubp, who runs the Troubadour, calls Steve one of the founding fathers of L.A.'s modern acoustic music scene.
Then at the peak of his career, Steve Schalchlin suddenly disappeared.
His close friends knew what had happened, but to the rest of the industry, it was as if the ubiquitous Steve Schalchlin had disappeared off the face of the earth.
"I got AIDS-related pneumocystis pneumonia, the same thing that just killed Eazy-E, and it almost killed me," Steve explains. After a year and a half of physical therapy and after battling other complications, which still plague him to this day, Steve Schalchlin made a very sudden and startling re-appearance in November of 1995. He showed up at a "soiree," which is held every other month by the organization LA Women In Music.
Appearing second to last on the bill, he took his place at the keyboard and sang "Connected," the first number he wrote during his recovery. "Connected" details a nightmare journey starting with his collapse in an Emergency Room, to being "connected" to meters and bottles, to Potsy from Happy Days(!). It ends with a touching note about survival and "...the ties that bind us all."
"The applause was thunderous. I thought it would never stop. It seemed like every person in the crowd had tears streaming down their faces," says Ronda Espy of Bob-A-Lew Music, who was in the audience that night. "Afterwards, people came up to him and asked for hugs. They asked for hugs! Compare that to the early days of AIDS when people were afraid to be in the same room with People With AIDS," she says with a catch in her throat.
"I'm alive because my friends cared about me. Period. I want people to know that when they really care about someone, when they make real gestures of love and concern, these are not a trivial actions. These are the most powerful things you can do for another human being," Steve says. The song "Connected" is actually a very beautiful and inspirational statement with a little humor and irony thrown in to soften the dark images.
"It's a true story. That's why people react to it so deeply. What surprised me was how funny everyone thought it was. First they were laughing and then they were crying. Then came applause like I've never heard." Steve then gave out 50 cassette copies of "Connected," signed and numbered. "I signed them and numbered them because I wanted people to remember what I have to say. I mean, it's just a demo, but I thought if I sign them and number them, it will look like a collector's item." Sure enough, after the show there there was a rush for the table. "And people came up to me asking for a good number! I laughed and said, "It's just a demo!"
McKinley Marshall, a local songwriter/multi-media performance artist in L.A., was there that night. She took her copy of the tape (3 of 50) and played it for another group of women songwriters, Wine Women and Song, who immediately invited Steve to perform at their January meeting. McKinley says, "Steve Schalchlin has helped thousands of songwriters. We all know Steve and how hard he worked for us, especially those of us who still struggle. The songwriting community owes it to him to help him get his music out. What's weird is that nobody knew he was a songwriter."
In fact, there were those who knew Steve was a songwriter but he didn't advertise the fact while working at NAS. "I didn't want younger writers to see me as the competition, and I didn't want more established writers to see me as having some kind of hidden agenda. 'Cause I didn't. It was my job to serve them, not for them to serve me," Steve says.
In an article in the Musepaper, Harriet Schock ("Ain't No Way To Treat A Lady") tells how she was one of those who knew Steve was a songwriter. "I kept conning him into joining my songwriting workshops so he'd have songwriting deadlines. I always felt he had something very special and I didn't want him to forget it. Plus I liked his songs and I wanted more of them. Steve always had the craft. But these new songs are like nothing I've ever heard. This may be the best example I've ever seen of someone writing straight from the guts."
Multi-award winning songwriter, John Bettis ("Slow Hand," "One Moment In Time") says what he appreciates about Steve's "take" on AIDS is that, "Steve doesn't wag his finger and play guilt trips. It's an incredibly joyful and positive work -- unlike anything I've ever heard before. And 'Connected' is a classic." Steve counters, "I don't know if it's a classic or not but I'll let John Bettis use those words for my music anytime he wants to." Steve says he is very proud that he has talked Bettis into co-writing one of the songs from the show, a hymn called, "When You Care."
The play is set in a former 50s bomb shelter which has been converted into a recording studio. The main character is there to record an audio letter to his friends and family "...telling them his life story, telling them about his battle with AIDS, and telling them how much they all mean to him." Off stage there is a producer/engineer directing the session and three back-up singers who provide some color and feedback regarding what he has to say. One of the back up singers is a born again Christian who knows "Steve" from his days has a Gospel singer and songwriter.
In real life, before joining NAS in 1988, Steve Schalchlin was a musican and singer who began his career as a Gospel singer and songwriter. One sing-along chorus he wrote when he was 19 still gets published in books every year. "Steve makes almost $20 a year royalties from 'I Will Trust The Lord,'" laughs playwright Jim Brochu who wrote the book for The Last Session. "I told Steve it would be fun to include the song and the character of a Christian boy named Buddy who idolizes him only to show up to the session to find out his hero is both gay and has AIDS. Buddy doesn't know which of these facts scares him most."
Steve says, "This is Buddy's worst nightmare. To be locked in an air-tight room with an AIDS 'patient.' And the fact that buddy's been singing this gay man's songs his whole life is major overload. Finally he explodes."
Steve explains, "I was raised Fundamentalist Christian by two very loving and wonderful parents: a Preacher and a Nurse. They taught me the concept of unconditional love by example. The modern fundamentalists, I fear, have been led astray from the true meaning of the Word of God by a weird influx is strict legalism, which has taken the place of compassion and care. It's why my dad never really liked TV evangelists. Who are their flock? Whom do they minister to? My dad spent time at the hospitals and my family took in people who needed shelter. Our church fed people. Who do these televangelists feed? Themselves mostly."
He addresses this issue in the song, "At Least I know What's Killing Me." "It's dedicated to people who are far sicker than I am, most of whom have big hair and raise a lot of money on TV. At least my sickness can be detailed on paper."
One of the most vivid and powerful songs in The Last Session is one called, "The Group" which describes characters Steve met upon his first visit to an AIDS support group. He sings about a Christian housewife who feels betrayed by her church, a 20 year old boy who says his life is over, a suicidal 30 year old who doesn't like to go outside and feels imprisoned by his mother, and a straight rock and roll musician who is hiding his condition from his friends cause he thinks they'll call him gay and desert him. As Steve describes, "I dropped in on this group feeling sorry for myself and came out of it realizing that I had it pretty good. I have people who love me and I don't care at all if someone thinks I'm gay."
Steve describes his music as part John Fogerty, part Elton John, part Harry Chapin (because he tells stories with beginnings, middles and endings), and part Sondheim (because he loves wordplay and sophisticated ideas).
A song he's most proud of is a love song called, "Going It Alone," which began its life as a battle song. "For 'Going It Alone,' I had this whole battle sequence envisioned with these great phrases like "Battlefield of blood" and "Microscopic Armageddon,' but somewhere on the road to writing a song about how lonely the battle is and how hard it has been for me, I suddenly looked over at the person I love and thought, Geez, what the hell am I doing to him? Suddenly, it was a love song for caregivers. And you realize, the people with AIDS are not the only victims in this hideous war. We're all victims when we lose loved ones or when we lose great artists," he explains.
"Where the HIV-free party never ends," is a lyric from a song called, "Somebody's Friend" and it describes a mythical place the singer is looking for where resides all the "friends of friends" he keeps hearing about who have supposedly rid themselves of HIV, the virus associated with AIDS. "At least twice a week, someone comes up to me and tells me of a friend or someone he read about who, quote, wiped the virus from his body, unquote. I keep hearing about all these people and I never seem to meet any of them. What's sad is, like, a year later, I'll hear that that person died of AIDS," Steve says sadly.
"It's part of the torture of AIDS. It's not enough that you must endure nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, skin lesions, massive weight loss and endless fatigue. You also must endure countless well-meaning people telling you that you are taking the wrong things and killing yourself! Pile on the quacks and the conspiracy theories, the moral judgments made against People With AIDS, the medications that make you sick, the Jesse Helms' and our friends, the big-hair evangelists; then combine that with the general boredom and irritation the public feels when anyone talks about AIDS, and you've got a living nightmare."
Steve insists, "I just want to make a contribution. If a man with AIDS can find joy and happiness through all the suffering AIDS has to offer, how much more should people who are 'healthy' be able to enjoy their own lives."
Steve Schalchlin has been gone too long and he wants everyone to know that he's very glad to be back. But mostly he's very glad to be alive.
If you want more information about anything at all, please write me or call me at:
Bob-A-Lew Music, 11712 Moorpark St. #111, Studio City, CA 91604
© 1996 firstname.lastname@example.org