From The Desk Of The Black Watch: Musicals (And Samuel Fucking Johnson)

John Andrew Fredrick has spent the last three decades as the sole constant in one of music’s most perfect and unheralded rock outfits, the black watch. Using the Beatles as a tracing template, Fredrick has applied a kitchen-sink approach to the album at hand since his 1988 debut, St. Valentine, the opening volley in a catalog that would ultimately encompass 15 albums and five EPs, all of which inspired varying levels of critical halleleujahs and a deafening chorus of crickets at the nation’s cash registers. Fredrick will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week. Read our band new feature with him.

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I abominate musicals, so I wrote one last year. That’s my motivation in a nutshell—I did the same thing with a screenplay a few years ago: wrote one in a week, sold it in a month, just to prove to my screenwriter friends that screenwriting’s not writing, it’s typing (to crib from Capote’s quip about Kerouac). You plug in a formula, rev up some characters, The End. Now musicals, people talking then bursting into sooooongggg!!! Dreadful. Such kitsch. And yet. I’m so in love with a dead guy that I just had to write a play about him and his buddy and biographer James Goddam Boswell. I think playwrights have the hardest job: You have to have a plot. And, for me, plots are for graveyards. I can’t plot. Plots do emerge in my novels from character—but I never ever lay them out; they just come. It’s thrilling to write that way. It’s sort of like songwriting: You pick up your Epiphone Casino and play one strange chord and go to one that answers it, in a way, in a word. Any old road, I wrote this thing called Dr Johnson And Mr Boswell: a kinda/sorta musical, and I had a table reading of it with some actor “friends” (you can’t be friends with actors; there’s no one there to be friends with) and now I have no idea what to do with it on account of I really don’t know anyone in theatre and can’t be bothered to go plumping round the fringey venues to try to find someone to stage it. It’s really pretty funny, though. And there are modern characters who interact with the 18th century ones. It’s about this beautiful recent PhD who doesn’t want to be an academic (I can relate to that!) and her ex-beau who’s having a hard time being a songwriter (uh, yeah), and she wants to make art and she goes to London and she and this former flame sort of rekindle their interest in art and each other by way of writing a play about her hobby horse, Sam Johnson—perhaps the greatest writer/man who ever lived. And the saddest and most tortured and human. Late in my career I became an 18th century guy. In grad school, you’re young and romantic and you get carried away with Keats and Shelley and Shakepeare and love and romance. Then you grow up and come to The Age of Reason. If you’re me. Read Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of Johnson. Read my pal Henry Hitchings’ recent book on The Great Cham. It’ll open up a whole new world of psychology and humanist thinking and gorgeous pathos for you. Then, if you’re a director and a literary one and you’re reading this, get in touch with me and I’ll send you a musical with really fun and funny songs and a lot of things to think about and some lovable characters and bawdy 18th century frilly witting charming cockles-warming stuff as well. Rollicking, eh?

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