When August Darnell and his brother Stony Browder grew up in the Bronx in the '50s, the big band swing and zoot suits of '40s Hollywood musicals and gangster films seemed a lot more appealing than the harsh struggle of their immediate neighborhood. All their fantasies of escape took the form of a lavish MGM film.
So when the two brothers finally tasted success with a disco hit in 1967, the song boasted a big-band swing arrangement and the band dressed up like refugees from a postwar MGM back lot. The band was Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band, and the song was "Cherchez la Femme," with lyrics by Darnell and music by Browder.
Browder still runs Dr. Buzzard's, but now Darnell has his own band, Kid Creole & the Coconuts. As he works on his Caribbean version of Gilbert & Sullivan's "Mikado" with the New York Public Theatre's Joseph Papp, August (Kid Creole) Darnell brings his Coconuts to the Carter Barron Amphitheatre Sunday.
"The nightclub scenes in those old movies were very appealing to a child who had never been out of the Bronx," Darnell remembers. "It seemed a way to escape the confinement of the Bronx. The lovers on the dance floor looked so elegant, and the gangsters sitting at the tables looked so appealing. That hooked me, and I associated the music with that style."
Darnell's live show resembles a Hollywood musical set on a tropical cruise ship. He wears a lime zoot suit with a flat hat brim as wide as his shoulders and shoulder pads even wider than that. His cohort, Andy (Coatimundi) Hernandez, wears baggy pants and an oversized bow tie like a vaudeville comic. The three Coconuts strut on stage in leopard-skin bikinis and engage the men in sharp repartee that sets up the song.
This lavish stage show and the beguiling mix of calypso/new wave rock and soul that accompanies it made Kid Creole & the Coconuts big stars in Europe. They haven't hit it big here at home, but their current touring blitz may change that. Moreover, Darnell will finally get his chance to do a full-fledged musical this year.
Ever since Papp was struck by the theatricality of Darnell's stage show, the two have been talking about producing a stage musical. The first thought was to convert the song suite from the second Kid Creole album, "Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places," into a book musical about Kid's Third World odyssey in search of the elusive Mimi. Papp decided the novice playwright needed something with more structure, so he proposed an adaptation of "The Mikado."
"My immediate reaction was I didn't know what he was talking about. I didn't care for the music or dialogue or concept, but I knew I had to give it a chance," says Darnell. "So I went back to it again and again until I understood it. And once I understood it, I loved it. I saw how appropriate it was to the political situation today; all the heavy sarcasm still applies."
Darnell transplanted the action to Cuba in the '40s and renamed the show "El Jefe" (Spanish for "The Chief"), in reference to Batista. He also reset the music in Caribbean motifs with dance grooves played by Latin instruments. Darnell himself will play the traveling musician, Hernandez the executioner and the Coconuts the three maidens. Darnell's regular band will play in the pit.
"In the past, rock musicals have been like fast food," Darnell argues. "They deliberately lack substance, because it's for the immediate gratification of some record company trying to cash in on a fad. Everything is designed for fleeting glory; none of it is meant to last. It goes all the way back to the old Elvis Presley movies, where the plots were very flimsy. That's why they stink.
" 'Dreamgirls' is a classic example of someone not catching the point of what a particular kind of music and scene was all about. There's an inauthenticity to the scores of a lot of rock musicals, because they're handled by people who are outsiders. They usually end up in the hands of bandwagon-hoppers, formula writers. The real rock composers rarely get a chance to stage a musical. Maybe this production signals a change."
Though his music is full of bright melodies and infectious dance rhythms, Darnell's lyrics are full of harsh satire and pungent irony. His listeners often bounce along to his party music and never realize he's singing about impotent macho men, brutal cops or corrupt music execs. In a sense, he's the Randy Newman of the dance music world.
"The romance of the movies is contradicted by the bitterness of knowing that it's not a just world," Darnell points out, "that there are some people who won't be able to live the lives depicted in the movies. So when I started writing in that idiom, I knew that Hollywood was pure escapism, so I wanted to condemn it and at the same time praise it. In the early Savannah days, the music would suggest one thing, and I would try to go in the opposite direction."
Darnell and his brother grew up in a pretty rough part of the Bronx, but their parents insisted that they get an education. Darnell graduated from Hofstra University and taught high school English for two years in Hempstead, Long Island, and dabbled in short-story writing before becoming a full-time songwriter.
"Anyone from that kind of background dreams of escaping," he says. "It's a very American myth of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps and getting to the top. And it happens just often enough, even if it's just one in a thousand, to keep the myth alive. It may very well be one of the greatest tricks America has to play.