Above: Iconic painting of Adam Cockburn in front of Washington. “He’s our main villain, and his big song, ‘Too Rocking to Lose,’ is the first number on Sunday.”
This Sunday, Baltimore-based journalist David Dudley and Dave Israel bring the Battle of Baltimore to the Creative Alliance. But instead of muskets and cannon blasts, expect guitar riffs and a light show preview. That’s right, they’re retelling the battle that inspired our National Anthem as a (comedic) rock opera. I was able to talk to Dudley about the upcoming double-song preview event, which will be taped by a Canadian TV station.
What made you and your collaborator want to tackle the Battle of Baltimore?
Well, we first started working on it in the late 90’s, and at the time Dave and I were both living in South Baltimore, a few blocks away from Fort McHenry. We would put on this party every September to celebrate the battle and Baltimore’s victory over the British – we called it the “defender bender.” Over the years we started integrating interactive events into the party, and then Dave and I, who were in a band at the time, began writing songs about the battle, just as a thing to do. We had already been involved in writing another historical rock opera–about the Donner Party–purely for our own amusement. Then we started messing around with the idea of another rock opera, telling the story of the Battle of Baltimore. The subject is so misunderstood–it was battle that had a debatable influence on a war that ended on an ambiguous note. The attraction for us was to explore an event that’s been so mythologized. We didn’t have any real agenda; we just enjoyed using the medium.
And why did you enjoy the medium – why a rock opera?
This is a very traditional rock opera. There’s no dialogue, it’s just a cycle of rock songs that tell a story. It’s kind of a pretentious way to approach it, but it’s also so fundamentally goofy. The framing device of the show is that we’re seeing the very loose semi-accurate memory of a guy trying to explain to his son what the Battle of Baltimore was about – the whole opera is sort of a cartoon version of what really happened.
[Check out the teaser trailer after the jump.]
So why is it that you waited 10 years to finish the show?
We didn’t have the logistical acumen to make this kind of thing happen in the 1990s, so for a long time it remained a sort of thing we’d talk about and play with. We just sort of plugged away at it, making a couple songs a year with a vague idea of creating something out of it. We used to joke we had to finish it by 2012, which was this far away, futuristic time. But now it’s here. And the world has changed in the interim; it’s a lot easier now to sort of plug in with people that might think this is worth doing. Now we were able to meet and work with members of the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, who’ve been a huge assist. Back when it started we were in an era where the only way to get out word of mouth was to run around with a staple gun and post flyers everywhere, so we never really advanced the cause. And then musically, the opera was technically different than what we were able to handle. It wasn’t material where we could just pull out a couple guitars and do it ourselves.
How do you and Dave Israel know each other?
Dave and I went to college together – he was a year ahead of me at Johns Hopkins. After graduation we were housemates for a while, and then I rented a house a couple blocks away from him, so we were hanging out basically through our twenties. I left Baltimore in 2000, so we stopped playing music together, but Dave joined up with another band – National Razor FDIC. And now that’s really nice for the rock opera because we’ve been able to plug those musicians right into this.
What have been the best and worst parts about making this opera?
So far we’re just enjoying it. This Sunday we’re just putting on a preview, with two songs, full band, light show, costumes, all that. I think the two tunes we chose encapsulate a lot of the opera. You know, the main achievement of the Battle of Baltimore is that the people of Baltimore were willing to not flee. The very fact that there was a defense mounted was enough to deter the British – that’s always sort of interested me about Baltimore. We’re not celebrating the fact that we won; we’re just celebrating that we didn’t lose. In a way that still holds true for the city today. As long as we don’t lose, we’ve won.
“1814!” will have a FREE preview this Sunday at the Creative Alliance. If you come, you’re invited to dress up in your best 1812 apparel. Get full details on the event here, and check out the teaser trailer below.