Imagine the worst thing that could possibly happen to you as a child. Now, imagine something worse.
For groundbreaking multi-hyphenate David Cale ( singer-composer-actor-writer ), there's no "imagine" in the exercise. Growing up in one of England's most crime-plagued towns, his childhood would be dismissed as an exploitive, Dickensian knockoff were it the stuff of fiction.
With his musical memoir We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time, Cale lays bare a secret he's been carrying for most of his life, exposing the violent event that defined his childhood and shaped everything that followed. "Most people, even people I've known for decades, they don't know why I left London," said Cale of his abrupt departure from England in the late 1960s. "I've told only a few people. And they've freaked out. When people know, they look at me differently. They say they can't see me the same way anymore. It changes things."
Running Sept. 15-Oct. 21 at the Goodman's Albert Theatre, We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time features half a dozen songs composed by frequent Cale collaborator Matthew Dean Marsh. Cale sings all of them, backed by Marsh's on-stage quintet. Cale says the showdirected by Goodman Artistic Director Robert Fallsis wholly unlike any of the previous six productions he's brought to the Goodman over the past 30 years.
The pice has the hallmarks of Greek tragedywith a few key differences. In Cale's story, brutality goes unavenged. A young man's odyssey across continents and oceans does not, ultimately, lead him back home.
Cale plays numerous roles in the show, but the main character is his mother. Cale was 16 the last time he saw her in person. After that, she became a paper woman, existing only in lurid headlines and endless tabloid tell-alls, her life as a factory worker in Luton, England rewritten for salacious impact and mass consumption.
"Basically she was put on trial, but she was never able to defend herself," Cale said.
Cale has spent decades writing tunes for the likes of Debbie Harry and Elvis Costello and establishing a himself as one the country's foremost monologists. But he says he's "lost the map" with We're Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time.
"It's a new form for me," he said of the one-person autobiographical story-with-music. "I think I'm doing something that hasn't been done before. At least, I haven't seen anything like this out there."
Music has long been crucial to Cale's life. Growing up, he spent hours in his room listening to Judy Garland records. ( In one of Cale's earlier shows, his mother snaps at him that it's not normal for a boy to spend his life listening to a dead woman sing ). Garland's voice provided an escape from his parents' volatile marriage. But not even Judy could soften the violence that eventually consumed the household.
In talking about the production, Cale keeps circling back to his mother, who is featured on the show's promotional materials.
"She was a gifted, creative woman who had everything stamped out of her. There was no context for a woman like her in our town," he said. Cale grew up in industrial Luton, a place whereas he tells it"you had two options. You could work in the hat factory or you could work in the car factory."
"It was brutal," Cale added. "When I was there, it had the highest crime rate in England. My mother would have flourished in a big city, someplace where there is an outlet for creativity. For people who think differently. But not in Luton. She never had a chance."
At 16, Cale dropped out of high school and left Luton for London. At 20, he left London and flew to the United States. "It wasn't a tortured decision," he said. "I had absolutely nothing to lose. If I'd stayed, I might have been killed. I never looked back."
Now he is looking back, and taking the audience with him. He's done three performances of "We're Only Alive" in New York, where the piece had an unexpected impact. "After people saw it, I was immediately asked to start speaking about trauma to various groups. To come lecture about survival and trauma. I turned everyone down. I'm not a spokesperson. I'm not a social worker. I don't want to be," Cale said.
"This showit doesn't right any of the wrongs," Cale said. "But it gives me a chance to represent my mother. And I think she is representative of a lot of people. It's a complicated, tragic story. But I think it's life-affirming, too. In a way, what I do realizes my mother's potential. I wouldn't be an artist if it weren't for her."
Cale has this to say to people who feel as trapped as he did in Luton. "If it's killing your spirit, you have to leave. You have to. There was a certain point with my childhood when I felt like a kid standing with a bucket of water next to a house completely on fire. That bucket of water isn't going to do anything. So you have to flee."
Cale's longtime partneran art conservationistis apt to join him for part of the run. "We broke up, but I think we're getting back together. Yes, I would definitely say we're getting back together. He's coming here to see the show," Cale said.
"We met at a friend's birthday party," Cale continued. "I didn't think he was gay. So when he offered to give me a ride home I was a little cool. But I was tired, so I took the ride. Then he called me up and asked me out. It was all very old fashioned. He knows everything. "
We're Only Alive for A Short Amount of Time marks runs Sept. 15-Oct. 21 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets are $25 — 75.; visit www.goodmantheatre.org .