American Routes Shortcuts: Heath Allen
I've known pianist, songmaker, and performer Heath Allen for over fifty years. We met at Penn in Philadelphia where Heath studied under composer George Crumb. Heath Allen is originally from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but stayed on in West Philly, building a career as a cabaret band leader, in musical theater, and creator of the Popera, Andy, an opera about Andy Warhol, among many other activities. Over the years, Heath has worked with performers ranging from singer-songwriter Susan Werner to a legendary troupe called the Bearded Ladies. Today, at home in the large light filled piano room of his stately West Philadelphia row house, surrounded by electronic keyboards, books, and paintings, Heath Allen sits barefoot at his Steinway Grand Model A, looking out over Japanese maple and Juneberry trees.
Heath Allen: This one I imagined I had read Whitman's Specimen Days. And he's taking these walks out of his house in Camden, New Jersey, across the river from Philadelphia. And he catalogs all the birds he sees and taking a bath, and a waterfall and everything.
Nick Spitzer: This is the good Whitman.
HA: And I couldn't, I couldn't, I couldn't put that together with Camden, New Jersey. I'm going like, what happened to this–
NS: It’s a big industrial landscape.
HA: To this nature, bucolic scenes of nature? And so I imagined my grandsons putting me on trial, like what would be my defense? And also in the Specimen Days, he goes on about being a nurse in the Civil War. And then it made me think about–and the suffering that people did–but then it made me think about like in the development of–and later on at this, at the end of his life, he was at a birthday party, and he talks about the conquering of pain as a great achievement of humankind. And then now we live, you know, when I wrote this, we're in the midst of this, in the midst of an opiate crisis. And so I'm kind of like wondering about that. So anyways, this is called "In My Defense."
NS: So, I know over the years you've really been drawn to cabaret.
Heath Allen: Yeah.
NS: Tell me, you know, what is cabaret and what is the appeal of cabaret to somebody with your background?
HA: I think that the reason it really appeals to me is because it brings in so many elements. I mean, I write lyrics, I write music. I really am interested in the history of music and the history of particular songs. And also it's transgressive, and has-
NS: Wait, wait. What do you mean by that?
HA: It's always, it's, it's poking the establishment. There's a great–
NS: With a smile on your face.
HA: With a–well, that's Friedrich Hollaender has a great quote about cabaret being a poison cookie, which makes the lazy mind to think. And I think that that's what appeals to me because I'm–it is that sweetness, but also it makes me think about what kind of poison I would like to–
NS: Little tartness in the sweet.
HA: I would like to-
NS: Before they know it.
HA: I would like to deliver.
NS: Well, these are poison cookie times.
HA: They are poison cookie times. And I try to, you know, think very carefully about what poison I am delivering with each song.
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