Rock and roll can be boring if you’ve done it long enough. For a veteran performer like Hawksley Workman, the need for new timbre on the creative pyre is a constant driving factor. “I’ve put out lots of records, 13 or 14 records, and toured. In a way, if you’re restless and have that creative hunger on all the time, the rock and roll business can be kind of boring. Make a record, go on tour, come home, try to remember how to be normal, start it over…that whole thing,” says Workman, talking to me from Calgary in the midst of the first run of performances of his one-man show, The God That Comes — a show that captivated me when I saw it as a work in progress at the 2012 Victoria Uno Fest.
Getting into the world of theatre has been a breath of fresh air for Workman. “What’s been nice for me too is that I’ve been feeling like a bit of a novelty in theatre. The people who have come to the show are like ‘Oh god, there’s this rock and roll guy who’s apparently written a musical.’ On paper I guess it just looks a little bit stranger, but to me it’s just another thing that I decided to put some energy into,” explains Workman. “The performance is very, very fun. It takes a lot of energy out of me. It’s like getting on a toboggan at the top of the hill and then you don’t get to get off until the toboggan hits the bottom of the hill. The show requires me to be so focused and to be so in it that there’s very little room for me to breathe until it’s over.”
The seeds of the show and accompanying album were planted in Workman by stage veteran Christian Barry nearly a decade ago. “Christian Barry and I had been talking about writing some kind of piece of theatre for almost 10 years and it just felt like the right time.”
Though the story Barry brought forth was an ancient one — the story of Bacchus, the Greco-Roman God of Wine — it was unfamiliar to Workman. “When Christian, my cowriter, brought the story to me, I didn’t know about it. I’m just not that clever. He outlined the points of the story — ‘Here’s what we got. We got a nasty king who doesn’t want people having a good time, and he wants to clamp down on this God who’s giving everyone an opportunity to drink wine, dance and have sex.’”
It wasn’t hard for Workman to see why the time was right to rebirth this particular story. “It just seemed to mimic so many elements of modern life. We’re all having this social and political austerity imposed on us, and we’re all being told that the world’s changing and you gotta hold on to your pennies, keep your nose clean. Even the way that politics has become more polarized, there is no room for nuanced thinking anymore. You’re either with us or you’re against us. It’s just not what I grew up with. It’s not the sentiment or the dynamic I felt in Canada for most of my life.”
The confusion and frustration of an entire nation can be heard throughout the music that comprises the show. “In the God that Comes there’s a lyric, ‘Remember the ways that men seek to obey a psychopath with a mandate to take pleasure away.’ There’s lots of people in the world still who wish to follow authority and that believe that these are gentle people who get elected into positions of power with altruism and patriotism at their core,” Workman observes. “I think it’s unfortunate, and I don’t see much evidence that us believing that is getting us anywhere.”
“You know, a song like ‘Remember Our Wars’ [From the show/record] says, ‘Remember the bones crushed under feet in the cinders of homes. Remember the rape of the children it gave,’” Workman recites one of his darkest lines to date. “To me, that’s some of the ugliest stuff I’ve ever written, but that’s what was gurgling inside me, and I really want that to be out there.”
It’s easy for any of us, to get overwhelmed thinking about where our country, our world, is headed, but the trick lies in not ignoring the feelings but in finding a productive way to channel that frustrated energy. “I’ve really tried to contend with some of my negativity and anger around this. I realize the best thing I can do is make the stuff I make and that it’ll connect to the people it’s meant to connect to, maybe a few others.”