From the cramped back row at the Diversionary Theater, the small stage illuminated in red light looks like the beer-soaked platform at a rockin’ blues bar, not a theatrical performance space. A well-worn drum kit, a couple of guitars, a microphone, a wooden stool, all remind me of time spent waiting for some nightly band to take the stage in any number of tasty dives (and I use the word ‘dive’ as a compliment). Except I’m sitting in a theater seat. Without beer.
That’s because the world of balls-out raucous bar performance and the theater are colliding tonight in the form of The Toughest Girl Alive, a staged reading of a musical, featuring local blues legend Candye Kane, staged by Javier Velasco, a well-known name in local theater circles and artistic director of San Diego Ballet.
What do you expect of an ex-sex-worker-diva-blues-mama baring her soul rather than of her body? Sharing intimate details of her personal life, emotional pain, trauma, politics, family memories?
Her story is, as they say, stranger than fiction. Her mother taught her how to shoplift, and she recounts a story of how, at charm school graduation, she wore a stolen dress. She was accepted into, then ex-communicated from, the Mormon church. She won big record deals, then lost them. She made a living in the adult entertainment industry. She battled a virulent cancer. She endured teen motherhood, drug abuse, family dysfunction, and the stigma of being an overweight woman in a world where that’s not accepted, and yet, she didn’t just make it, she thrived. She survived. She triumphed.
Whatever you expect, you get what Candye Kane always delivers: passion, raw emotion, and heartache tinged with a love of the life that caused the pain in the first place.
“I wrote Toughest Girl [the song for which the show is named] after going through my divorce,” Candye recently said in an interview. “I was feeling sorry for myself and then started looking back at all I had been through and realized I had been through much more trauma than just my divorce. I wrote the song as a reminder of the rough times I had overcome.”
The show is “a small production with a female actress playing the female characters in my life and a male actor playing the male ones. It is at times dark, funny, and shocking as it chronicles my dysfunctional childhood and journeys through teenage motherhood, adult entertainment, drug abuse and abusive relationships, and music, music, music. It is an uplifting story of triumph and survival.”
And of course, never one to flinch from the harsh reality of her own past, Kane plays the lead in her own life story. This musical tour through her history isn’t exactly a play; it’s more like a concert with scenes framing the songs. Her music fans aren’t cheated; a sizzling band features long-time collaborator and boogie-woogie keyboard goddess Sue Palmer and Kane’s own son, Evan Caleb, on drums. All this is prelude to a new album, I’m a Super Hero, her first for the Los Angeles-based Delta Groove label, her ninth album overall. “It is a very raw, emotional project since I am still a bit raw and emotional from my struggle with cancer less than a year ago,” Kane says on her blog. “Making this CD is a true triumph and victory for me and I am so grateful for this chance.”
Kane shares a producing credit for the album with 26-year-old guitar phenom Laura Chavez, who co-wrote six of the 14 songs on the album with Kane; Chavez also shared the stage for Toughest Girl Alive. I’m a Super Hero also features work by percussionist Stephen Hodges (Mavis Staples, Tom Waits) and guitarist Dave Gonzales of the Paladins/Hacienda Brothers and sax player Jonny Viau. Paul Loranger played bass on the entire recording and it also features Greg Rutledge on piano.
“Super Hero” is the title of the first song Kane wrote after her April 2008 pancreatic cancer surgery. “Last year at this time, I didn’t even know if I would still be alive, much less making another recording!” she writes on her blog. “I was so fragile when I came home from the hospital and could barely open my mouth to speak audibly, much less sing. I had 150 stitches in my belly after an intense, 11-hour surgery that removed parts of at least five of my organs. Frustrated at my inability to sing normally, I held my guitar and strummed it daily. I believe in the healing power of music and I knew the guitar vibrations would be good for my traumatized body in addition to helping me stay focused on music. Eventually, I was able to muster up the strength to sing just a little and I wrote “Super Hero” as a folk song. My voice was so vulnerable and fragile that it was hard at first to project, but I’m proud to say that I am back and belting like my old self again. “Super Hero” has been revamped as a funky song and it’s a fitting name for this recording that represents victory over the biggest hurdle in my life. I just hope that everyone likes it as much as we have enjoyed making it.”
The new album is a rebirth of sorts, a new project after the staged memoir reading puts a button on her former life, so to speak. The show is just a fraction of what demonstrates this extraordinary strength. With the new CD due out this summer, a European tour, constant media, and even a line of therapeutic bra pillows (guaranteed worn by her) available for purchase, this is one woman who does not sit still. You won’t hear the toughest girl alive complaining. She is the ultimate recycler: she uses every bit of every experience, grinds it up, and spits those jagged rocks out as diamonds. She is, in her words, a survivor. She thrives, too.
With eight albums to her credit, and former record deals with CBS Epic, Rounder, and legendary blues label Antone’s, Kane has been through both the indie music circuit and the established route of so-called “real” record deals. Although Kane is a powerhouse performer that the Washington Post called “a natural wonder like the Grand Canyon,” she’s had to deal with the frustration of a neutered music industry where only the melodic equivalent of landfill sludge seems to make it the airwaves. “It wasn’t just CBS Epic but the whole country music establishment that was/is hypocritical, sexist, and sizist,” she says. “How have big labels changed? Well, this is an even weirder business now with what I call the Mcdonald-ization of the world. In the old days, even with payola, you still had a chance that you could charm some radio DJ into playing your records. Now that kind of human contact is almost impossible unless you have big money and a publicist.”
Yeah, but music is a big part of culture now, right? Look at all the quality performing generated by certain television shows that treat music like a gladiatorial death match. “Shows like American Idol have done nothing to help music and have only clouded the airwaves with more crap,” Kane agrees. “The internet, though it has opened the door to worldwide networking, has also diluted the market with mediocrity because anyone can record in the privacy of their own home. Add to that the piracy and download problems and you can see how the music industry is failing, like so many businesses today. The record industry has lost some of what little integrity they had. They promote only commercial products with no attention paid to originality, in my opinion. There are very few outsiders on major labels these days and I think they will continue to disintegrate until they are obsolete.”
So, what’s a true original to do? Kane doesn’t give up; borne originally of “an overarching desire for fame,” her motivation to succeed has transcended that need for approval, which sparked her early entry into both the music and film industries. Now it’s not all about getting approval of the industry, or even the audience. Now Candye Kane has matured into an artist who creates art because she has a mission.
“I have been driven to succeed in music and I have been supported by the belief that I have something important to say and to demonstrate: that is, that anyone can realize their dreams if they are determined enough. That it’s not so important that you have the best of everything but that you do your best with everything you have.”
In her memoir stage show, Candye Kane freely discusses her time spent in the adult entertainment industry. “I used sex as a stepping stone to fame,” she tells the audience from the stage. But in a separate interview, she notes, “I have always been honest about my background, but it is frustrating sometimes since I am 47 years old and have been in this business for so long. I was only in the sex business for four of those 47 years but they are the years that everyone dwells on.”
Although people are fascinated with her blue movie beginnings, and she freely discusses them in her memoir show, she admits that it’s frustrating to be pigeon-holed as a “porn star” when that part of her life was only a small slice when compared to the time she’s invested as a yeoman vocalist.
“I guess they think I opened my mouth at 30 and suddenly realized I could sing! The ignorance is astounding,” she says. “ I have always been a singer. I became a teenage mom and had to support a child. I did what I had to do to survive. I don’t know why it’s a subject that no one can let go, even 20 years later. I don’t know why people think I cannot do a family style show. I have played for ambassadors and presidents and for children’s street fairs. I know when to keep my mouth shut and when to be candid. It’s a shame that others can’t figure out how to do that. People make lots of assumptions based on those four years of my life.”
But she doesn’t try to cover up that part of her life; she has chosen to become an activist for those who work in the industry. “Whenever I have the opportunity, I am vocal about how I used my past sex work to facilitate my musical dreams. In this way, I feel I am helping my sisters and brothers in sex work and the community at large to look beyond stereotypes and limitations. All of us are more than our bodies, and more than our jobs. We have dreams inside of us and all of us should have a chance to realize our full potential without unnecessary obstacles, whether self imposed or culturally or morally implied.”
And, as previously mentioned, Kane has also won battles with another formidable enemy: cancer. “Cancer is the exclusive club that no one wants to belong to,” she says. “I have had people share incredible stories of survival and heartbreak with me. I am still answering more than 1,000 emails and letters that I received while I was in the hospital and recovering. It was incredible; the outpouring of love and support I received from people all around the world. I believe the collective energy of people worldwide helped to heal me. That, a great surgeon, and some really good luck and determination have made all the difference.”
At last check, Candye Kane had kicked the cancer and was back doing what she loves best: performing.
A byproduct of her cancer treatment was a weight loss of over 100 pounds. Since Kane has always been, by her own description, “big and beautiful,” did the weight loss make a difference? “I have received overwhelming emails of support from large-sized people worldwide, including famous activists such author Marilyn Wann (author of Fat? So!). There are a few people, though, in the large-sized acceptance movement who don’t want to be judged by how they look but are quick to assume that thin people they see have lived a life of privilege and luxury because they are thin. I am still a body activist now more than ever. I know I am lucky to still have a body and to be alive each day. I still believe we all have to embrace the bodies we are in, right now, while we have them. Cancer has been a blessing for me because it has made me reevaluate my life, my role in music, and my health. I am better for having experienced this challenge, and, whatever happens, I will go out singing and swinging, hopefully until I’m in my nineties.”
As she says, she’s the toughest girl alive, and it’s hard to imagine anything stopping her. “I am making a new CD for Delta Groove featuring my guitarist Laura Chavez. I am also doing my stage play and hope to be able to bring that to cities worldwide so I can stay in one place for a week or two. With blues clubs closing right and left, I think we are all going to have to be creative to survive. I am teaming up also with my daughter-in-law to-be, British blues singer Dani Wilde. Dani will appear on some co-bills with me this summer.”
Last month Kane performed in Europe, and one of her gigs was for a charity for special needs kids in the Netherlands called United By Music (http://www.unitedbymusic.eu/). This is an amazing group that, according to the website, “supports talented people with intellectual and physical disabilities and gives them the chance to perform blues and swing music on stage with a live band for the general public.” Candye Kane spurred the creation of this organization, which has inspired and helped countless people in a way that is unconventional, but especially wonderful because of it unconventionality. “I will continue my work with that project and hope to one day bring it here to the states. We use blues music to teach people with disabilities how to transcend their daily challenges with song. I teach them some songwriting tricks and they gain confidence and flexibility by appearing onstage with a big band. It’s a wonderful experience and the best project I am
“Every day that I am awake on this planet is a real blessing. I hope to continue to inspire people to be self aware and positive and to fight to overcome health, economic and day-to-day obstacles. I am a fighter and I am grateful for more time on this planet to perhaps inspire others to fight for their own lives and their own dreams.”
Her story is stranger than fiction, and perhaps more satisfying. It’s good to know someone who doesn’t give up even when life throws its worst curve ball. Candye Kane takes the curves, puts them in a feather boa and a push-up bra, and flaunts them in the face of fate. And that’s good for all of us.