The ’60s has a new voice

Phil Maddocks, Natick Bulletin and Tab — July 2004

Many in the audience for last week’s show at The Center for Arts in Natick were too young to have grown up with Vietnam War protests and the music from the 1960s and early 1970s that serve as the narrative spine for Celia Slattery’s “What’s Goin’ On?”

But they had little trouble picking up on the activist theme of the earlier era or the lyrics of many of the songs culled by Slattery for her show. Something of the “60s spirit – and even a few of the recognizable faces from the period – seem to have resurfaced of late.

Populist films that question the policy and veracity of the government, the media, and business culture are finding an audience. Musicians are again lightening rods for protest, Jimmy Buffett is at the top of the music charts. And some veterans of the Vietnam era protests like Slattery are finding themselves joining in anti-war protests again 30 years later.

Some familiar faces and events also resurface in “What’s Goin’ On?”

Slattery recalls coming across a chanting Allen Ginsberg during a Vietnam War protest that had turned violent. She remembers how idealism and teenage hormones inspired her to chain herself to the door of the National Draft Board with a dashing protest figure named Tony. And she reveals she and several protest cohorts were once arrested for flying a kite near the Washington Monument.

There is also a familiar question at the heart of the show’s mix of music and personal vignettes: How much have we really learned from our past? The awakening to a bewilderment about what is going on seems to be what is driving the interest in counterculture entertainment.

If some of the questions raised in “What’s Goin’ On?” are familiar, the means Slattery’s uses to introduce them are not. She moves seamlessly from song to storytelling and back and forth between her the happenings of her youth and present day. Though it is clear that she is an accomplished singer and storyteller, her technique never upstages the story.

Slattery, who has a master’s in theater, is now in her 50s and lives in Somerville. She is an adjunct faculty member at Lesly University in the creative arts and learning program and she holds workshops and private tutoring in acting and performance skills.

She grew up attending Catholic school first in California and later in Washington, D.C. After moving to the Boston area in the 1970s she trained at an experimental company in Boston, Reality Theater, and began to perform original songs on the acoustic/coffeehouse circuit, including performances at Club Passim in Cambridge and the Iron Horse in Northampton.

She studied voice and music at New England Conservatory, expanded her repertoire to sing jazz, pop, and rhythm and blues, and for a time performed six nights a week at the Bamboo Bar at the famous Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, Thailand. In 2001 she released a CD, “Movin’ On.”

For “What’s, Goin’ On?” she draws on both her life experiences and professional skills. She also uses an element that isn’t generally associated with the ’60s, a storytelling restraint.

Taking the stage dressed in jeans and a sleeveless print blouse and accompanied by pianist Mark Shilansky and guitarist Eric Byers, Slattery takes the audience through a musical and personal collage that includes songs by The Who, the Beatles, Cat Stevens, Lucy Kaplansky, and Bruce Springsteen and vignettes about the suicide of her daughter’ s father, life in a loft where an old car-seat is used as a sofa, and of the overwhelming need to hear the voice of her daughter, who works in Manhattan, following the attacks of Sept 11.

“It’s 9:08. I’m listening to NPR. Bob Edwards is on. BBC is always on at that time,” is the way she begins the 9-11 story. She recalls hearing the report that a plane had hit the one of the World Trade Center towers, gradually realizing that it wasn’t a private plane but a jet liner and that this was unfolding near where her daughter works.

“I’m trying not to panic,” Slattery remembers. “I try her cell phone. All circuits are busy. I’m trying to make all sorts of deals with God.”

She finally reaches her daughter.

“She is in her midtown office. She’s safe.”

What Slattery leaves out of her stories is as important as what she includes. Her words have way of inviting the audience to connect a visual scene around them. The experience is closer to reading a book than watching a television program.

“I’m not trying to draw too many conclusions,” she said during an interview before last week’s show. “It’s my experiences along with the music. I hope it has an evocative effect on people – that it gets people to laugh a laugh bit and maybe cry.”

Slattery said “What’s Goin’ On” is a product of the show “Moving Target,” which she began performing in 1997.

She and her director, Bill Castellino, came up with the idea at the time as a way to revive interest in a period that seemed to have fallen into neglect.

“Frankly, the whole era meant so much to me,” Slattery said. “It changed the whole course of my life. I felt it had been trivialized.”

Then, about three years after she began performing her show, came the attacks of Sept. 11 and a sense that “Moving Target” might be off target at that moment.

“I wasn’t sure if I should do it,” she said. “It was all a little disturbing. But I found people were moved in a whole different way.”

Then came the war in Iraq and protests and references to quagmires and Vietnam and the themes of Slattery’s look back at her own coming of age and the music and events that time had a sudden present-day relevance.

During her stage show, she notes some similarities between the era of her youth and the present day – war, protest. Bob Woodward, duck and cover and duct tape, and attention-grabbing linguistics of each period’s vice presidents. But the hour-long show, which Slattery refers to as a “countercultural cabaret,” is personal rather than polemical.

Even the ease with which she shifts from narrative to song – sometimes interrupting her own singing to add a brief observation about a lyric – is a reminder that life’s experiences, aren’t easily separated from one another. All of it, the good and the bad, the naive and the wise, the fortunate and the unfortunate are part of the same piece.

As she notes at one point in “What’s Goin’On?”: “Everything that happens to us contributes to who we are – you can’t edit out the bad parts.”

Slattery said which has played at various venues, has generally been favorably received. She said she is not surprised at the new passion for public involvement and for works that question policies and values.

“People are turning again to the political arena. They are realizing the ’80s and ’90s, where the focus was personal financial gain, only took us so far,” she said.

She’s also not surprised that some filmmakers, playwrights, singers seem to have taken the lead in this public dialogue.

“Artists,” she said, “reflect the society and times.”

“It’s always healthy to look at history, to discuss it honestly and openly, to look at what mistakes were made and ask how can we avoid them again,” she adds.

But as Slattery reminds her audience in “What’s Goin’ On?” we’re often more tied to the past than we’d care to admit. The show also seems to suggest that acknowledging those limitations offers a certain liberation.

“We think we have control of our lives,” she says during the show, “but we’re such a product of our time.”