The Deep Waters of Brian King
“Brian is able to put his finger on the thing: The poignancy, contradiction, pain, confusion, the longing behind much of the human experience.”
Cape Ann’s singular craggy character has fostered its share of artists, writers, and bards. A pile of sea-battered rocks — the Dry Salvages — fixed themselves in T.S. Eliot’s memory long enough to become a metaphor for hope in his Four Quartets. Poets Vincent Ferrini and Charles Olson exalted Gloucester as every city and as one measured in flake yards, teased at the edges by Dogtown, the ultimate mythic landscape.
The sometimes-cruelty of this working class city, its consequential beauty, and the sensitive souls drawn to this kind of raw, natural place also raised Gloucester native Brian King into an artist: a lyricist, a composer, and now a playwright.
Many know him as the headliner for What Time is It Mr. Fox?, a performance group King founded with fiddler/violinist Nathan Cohen one Rockport New Year’s Eve. Over coffee at Drift Café, King told me he had known Cohen locally, and the resiny song of bow-on-string called to him.
“I was fascinated by the violin, because I had mostly written keyboard and guitar-based music, and I realized the violin could play these keyboard lines, and make them sound a lot better. My music has always had sort of a theatricality to it, and an eclecticism, and Nathan can just change the whole feel of where we are going.”
Cohen first knew of King when he was still in high school. “I was first aware of Brian through the band Sneaky Golita, of which he was a member. I was in 10th grade. He was a couple years out of high school. Everyone in the band switched instruments almost every song. It changed the way I thought about democracy in music-making. That band was so playful and creative.”
Since that New Year’s Eve, Cohen’s violin has shared the vocals with King’s sometimes coo, sometimes torch, sometimes Indie sound — Dean Martin-meets-Rufus Wainwright. Others have come into the band for a while — at one point there were five backup singers, an accordion player, a singing saw, and an organist.
Mr. Fox music is mostly original with a few covers done in the band’s unique style: shadowy sexuality complicated by the twangy pluck of fiddle, song dappled in monologue, that accordion channeling Edith Piaf, and often a trapeze artist dangling nearby.
Beverly Bronner, a clinical social worker in Montréal, first experienced What Time Is It, Mr. Fox? while visiting Cape Ann. The music moved her to reach out to King and start a friendship. She says, “Brian is able to put his finger on the thing: The poignancy, contradiction, pain, confusion, the longing behind much of the human experience.”
Cape Ann performances of Mr. Fox sell out but this is not a local band. What Time Is It, Mr. Fox? plays fairly regularly in New York City — at The Duplex in Greenwich Village, Joe’s Pub, the Sidewalk Cafe, and The Stonewall, and in Boston at Club Passim and Oberon at the American Repertory Theater.
And yet, page one of Brian King’s origin story — his story, his pain, his questions, and perhaps his healing — opens here, much of his art a response to this granite peninsula’s darkness and light.
“I grew up in Gloucester,” King said. “My Dad was from Lanesville — he was a meat-cutter for Stop and Shop — and my Mom was from Rockport. I went to Veterans Memorial Elementary School, The Fuller School, O’Malley Middle School, and then Gloucester High. It was tough being perceived as being gay. It was tough being artistic. When I was a kid it was me and Julia Garrison (Garrison works around the country as a set designer and scenic artist, but still lives in Rockport) — and we’re still friends — we were the ‘art-y’ kids in the classroom. Other kids would come to us with those assignments (Help me do this thing!) otherwise you were the bottom of the barrel — and gay on top of that.
“But my backyard was awesome. There were a lot of kids in my neighborhood. We were all friends. We would play for hours, make up stories, characters, and put on plays and shows in the backyard — all that stuff. I think that’s where all my creativity comes from. We would do characters. The joke I always say is we got to see the Wizard of Oz once a year, and we improvised the rest of the year. We would make new stories: Where does Dorothy go when it’s cold out? Christmas Wizard of Oz! We would just make those things up and stay in character. My backyard was a safe haven.”
King was six years old when he started writing songs, prompted by an older cousin.
“I was like, wait, we can write a song?” he told me. “Just the whole idea was so strange. ‘Yeah,’ my cousin said, ‘we just make up words and sing them.’ So we did that. Through my entire childhood I was filling up notebooks with lyrics, and it really helped me process whatever I was feeling. I was really into metaphor.”
“What nurtured me? School was hard. My first performances weren’t until I was 21, and I started performing at Art Space — that was nurturing. I found a community of other performers who understood what I was doing.”
King also found a way to connect with Cape Ann’s literary scene, specifically the poet Gerrit Lansing.
“He became a big influence because he was the first gay man I ever met. He was unapologetic and confident and intelligent. He introduced me to a lot of writers, to art, and film. Or if I was into something that he didn’t know about he’d be fascinated, and that was really important when someone with his stature and intelligence and experience was so enthusiastic about whatever you had to share with him. Everything was fascinating to him. I learned a lot about my definition of intellectuals — someone who can find the intelligence in anything or anyone. It’s not someone who says, I know better than you.”
Stevie Nicks, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Prince, Kate Bush, the Eurythmics, Patti Smith, Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell (“She’s leagues above everyone else.”) played on King’s cassette player and Walkman during those years.
Lansing introduced King to people like Eileen Myles and Beat poet Diane di Prima. Words and music offered asylum. They opened emotional doors that weren’t available on Gloucester’s main streets, and they allowed King to translate what was available here into the deeper messages he needed to share. Late night swims in Cape Ann’s quarries — midnight dives into the deep pools cached throughout the Dogtown woods — provided a haunting and hyper-local metaphor for “blossoming sexuality, coming out, and fears about HIV/AIDS,” as the song’s notes say.
She said, don’t you go near the edge, boy,
The bottom is black and still,
She said don’t you go near the edge, boy
Though I know some day you probably will…
All that deep water...looks good to me.
Cabaret has emerged as the medium that best suits King’s mood and sense of showbiz. King calls it “tell your story, play a song, tell your story, play a song” — sometimes with clowns and those trapeze artists. In July 2014, the What Time Is It, Mr. Fox? performance piece Gravitational Fool: A Musical Circus Cabaret, debuted at the Afterglow Festival in Provincetown. In 2018, King and Fox performed the piece at Endicott College in Beverly as part of a theater residency.
Nancy Bauer, Dean of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, wrote this about the show: “Brian King’s fool explores all facets of the clown/jester/dunce figure — his ironic self-awareness, floating on a deep pool of painful emotions, endlessly trumped by his innocent exuberance, his sense of humor, and his pure love for his collaborators and audience.”
King’s exploration of veiled gay sexuality, so well metaphored in Cape Ann’s mysterious quarries, matured into something more complete, more fabulously entertaining, from spooky to nuanced and joyous.
In his most recent creation, Medusa, Reclaiming the Myth, King tries on a brand new form — a sympathetic account of the snake-haired Medusa, told in a radio play with What Time Is It, Mr. Fox? performing live in the center of the stage, and the animated set projected onto the walls of the Charles Hayden Planetarium at Boston’s Museum of Science, where all this is happening.
“This is very unique,” King says, “the Planetarium has produced plays and theatrical shows before, including drag performances, rock shows, and psychedelic music shows, but this is the first time they've presented a live band performance with a narrative audio play along with a team of animators to visualize the play action on the dome. It’s been hard to tell people what it is: Is it a play, is it a concert, is it a movie? It’s all those things.”
This the first performance piece for King that is not a self examination, but he confessed he’d been quietly serving the mythic priestess for years.
“I’ve always loved Greek Mythology. In my own life I’m sort of pagan. Many many years ago, just dealing around issues of how I look, and my body, I felt like I was never right. I never fit in. Some people look to God and deities as a way to make sense of the universe. And I thought, maybe I should light a candle to Aphrodite, you know, the god of beauty. And then I thought — no! — Medusa. Because she’s worked through her shit. She’s the symbol of the opposite of Aphrodite.”
Once a beautiful priestess to Athena, Medusa suffered Poseidon’s rape inconveniently in her mistress’s temple. Athena punished her priestess by turning her into a snake-haired monster with ugliness powerful enough to turn onlookers into stone. Exploiting the woman’s last remaining power, Perseus decapitated Medusa, used the head to turn his own enemies into rocks, and ultimately returned the skull of snakes back to Athena, who emblazoned it on her shield.
“It’s so problematic,” King says, “victim-blaming and all that.”
King spent a year researching the Medusa myth, including months on the Greek Island of Crete interviewing archeologists and scholars, but ultimately the metaphor is the power of this story for him. In a Boston Magazine interview King says, “It’s really easy to project what we want on the shadow, on the monster, the threat, and then when we get underneath, there’s the real story, which is difference.” Medusa becomes a symbol of the way ‘we other those that we don’t know,’ and the tale ultimately is a saga of how we can transform those perceptions.”
Outside music and stage, King works as a medical case manager for people living with HIV/AIDS. The work includes advocacy for health care, health insurance, housing, social security, benefits, general health and wellbeing. As Mr. Fox partner Nathan Cohen points out, King is in the business of “harm reduction,” a fitting role for this generous personality. Cohen says of his friend, “he is an enormously giving human being.”
By all accounts, King’s youthfulness defies calendar years. He is 45, but the delight that six-year-old Brian experienced writing his first song is as green in him as ever. Darkness and pain may have quickened King’s art but it hasn’t jaded or tired him. The joy he brings to a performance — or just meeting someone for a cup of coffee — has kept the Mr. Fox music vital, and is now nurturing the next generation. When young people speak of Brian King, they sound a lot like he did describing his long-ago mentor, Gerrit Lansing.
Nathan Cohen says of his friend, “Brian King is a force of nature. He is so creative and thoughtful and curious. He forces me outside of my comfort zone in the best ways, musically and otherwise. Musically I would say his biggest gift to me is an appreciation of space, of letting things breathe, of not over-playing. And that's something that applies to the rest of life too.”
An anonymous friend said this: “He’s got such a wealth of knowledge and he is so happy to share it with people. If he references something in conversation that isn’t universally known, he is quick to offer up the context to ensure everyone can fully participate in the conversation. Some people use their intelligence as a tool for social power, but Brian uses his to foster connection.”
Maybe it’s the winds off the Dry Salvages. Maybe it’s the quarry water. Or maybe it’s the hard-knock lessons of O’Malley Middle School, but Cape Ann has raised itself a bard — gentle, joyous, with a gift for songwriting — for the 21st century.
▶︎ For more information on What Time Is It, Mr Fox?, visit their website.