Steve Schalchlin-Part 2

Steve Schalchlin playing acoustic guitarIn Part 1 of my conversation with Steve Schalchlin, we talked about Steve’s Texas roots; growing up gay, as the son of  Baptist, and eventually finding his place as a musician, singer/songwriter and eventually landing the role of West Coast Director of the National Academy of Songwriters in Los Angeles, CA. Later, after being diagnosed with AIDS, he turned his prestigious position over to his protege, Brett Perkins, and pretty much resigns himself to die as a result of being HIV positive in the 80’s with no cure in sight.

In Part Two, Steve Talks about his miraculous recovery. Then, going on to write his internet diary, Living in the Bonus Round – and then, his award winning, long-running Off Broadway play, The Last Session.

Later, he learns how to compose and write a Mass under the tutelage of Mark Janas, talks about playing John Lennon’s “Imagine” piano and then, shares a secret to attaining true success.

This was one of the most (if not THE most) compelling conversations I have ever had the pleasure to have with anyone on Tales of the Road Warriors.

Talking Points (Part 2)

Anson Williams (Potsy Webber from Happy Days)

Arrive Dallas.

2nd time in NYC

Mark Janas

learning to score




Last Session

The Steve Schalchlin survival Site (Living in The Bonus Round)

John Fogerty at the NAS Salute.


Steve Schalchlin 0:00
Couple of years later, after Brett had taken over and then I somehow happened into… I was hosting an open mic at the chimney sweep and then… Jill Holly… I met Jill Holly through that. And Jill was hosting a showcase at Rusty’s Surf Ranch in Santa Monica. And she got a college tour and had to find somebody to take over for so. So she asked me, and that’s how I met why I had already known Matt Kramer, but I sort of like met him again through this whole thing. And

Hal InPhilly 0:35
(Steve) “right”

Hal InPhilly 0:35
So when I was hosting, after I had taken over as host for Rusty’s Surf Ranch Tuesday Night showcase was called acoustic. I was calling mine “Acoustic Soup”. This was “Acoustic Tuesday” or something; I forget what we called it. Then you contacted me about trying out this new show that you had been working on?

Steve Schalchlin 0:55
Yes after… In 1995, after I had been in the hospital, in a horrendous case of pneumonia that took me forever. It wasted all my muscles down to my bones. I look like a concentration camp survivor. And when I got out of the hospital that year, it took me, and that was in ’94 – it took me a year before I could start walking normally again and even sitting up at the piano. And I began writing songs about the experience of living with AIDS. And the writing of the music started to make me stronger. And I’ll never forget, there was a day, the first day that I set up at the piano after this year. I started playing and playing and playing, and I think I played all day long, just big churchy chords and clanging my head against the wood of the piano and just playing. And the next day when I woke up, I felt the measurable difference in my physical strength. rank, like if I had thought to myself that I was like 65%. The next day I was at 90%. And after playing that music, it was a huge leap. And I thought, wow, all of that came from playing music. It’s not a wives tale.

Steve Schalchlin 2:20
Music is great for your body, it really actually has a measurable effect. So that’s when I began writing songs about the experience of living base and Jimmy was giving me ideas for songs and I wrote the whole score in about three months, I think, like from from October to the beginning of December… Two months. And then Jimmy wrote a book around those songs. And that became the last session and so I was playing the songs anywhere I could. I was like an evangelist for music. Yeah. And that was probably about the time that I contacted you or you contacted me about that gig and now I have almost no memory of it.

Hal InPhilly 3:06
The healing power of music. No, you called me! You called me out of the blue., It’s like – Steve Schalchlin’s callin’ me with… I’m like, “Why would I want to talk to me?” And you told me you had written this, this show and, uh, well, what’s the Potsy story? I know you’ve told it a million times, but people who know me out here have no idea what, well,

Steve Schalchlin 3:27
It was the night I went into the hospital with this pneumocystis pneumonia, the terrible pneumonia I was just telling you about. Jim took me into the emergency room. I could barely stand up.

Steve Schalchlin 3:40
And they put me on a gurney and I’m lying there in the emergency room. I can barely breathe. I feel like I’m at death’s door at that moment. And it looked up and through the doorway comes Potsy! Anthony Williams from the TV show Happy Days. And it was such an unreal experience and I looked up at him and he came over and he said (he could tell that I was just miserable). And he came up to the bed and he said, you know, “What’s wrong with you?” Up to that point, I had not said the word AIDS out loud. I’d said you know, “HIV positive…” I used all these simple flippy words. And finally, I looked at him and just went. “I have…”

Steve Schalchlin 4:23
“AAAAAIIIIIDDDDDSSSS!!!!!!!” and I screamed it out loud.

Steve Schalchlin 4:27
Jim tells the story dishes crashed…lol…

Hal InPhilly 4:28
Heh heheh heh, dishes crashed…

Steve Schalchlin 4:32
You know, people fell, things banked, but I just I yelled it out loud. And he took my hand and he said, You know, I have to tell you, I, this is not going to be the end for you. I really believe that…. something, you know… something… you’re going to survive this and you’re going to do some great things in your life. Now I dunno, maybe that’s just something you say to somebody who’s sick, but I took those words in.

Hal InPhilly 5:01
It’s pretty prolific

Steve Schalchlin 5:03
It’s just what I needed to hear. And we make a joke in our show where I say I decided to live that day because I didn’t want the last celebrity I ever saw my life to be Potsy.

Hal InPhilly 5:15
Yeah, I love that story.

Steve Schalchlin 5:17
Well, after last session after we did, you know, I did my little gigs I did Rusty’s Surf Ranch, and I was playing these songs all over Los Angeles. And we did a workshop, and that was the same time this would be 1996, in March, I started an online blog detailing my symptoms because I was starting to fail again. The writing of the songs sort of picked me up and kept me alive for for from 1995. But that could only last so long the virus was starting to take over and I was starting to die, and I knew I was dying. So I started keeping this online diary called . calledLiving In the Bonus Round – Back then it was called the Steve Shalchlin Survival Site. And I was just detailing all of my symptoms. And we got, we managed to get a little workshop together in Los Angeles to do “The Last Session” there on Melrose Avenue. And about a week before we started, the New AIDS drug came in the mail. It was on compassionate use. There were only so many slots available because you had to take it … Because it was so new, they didn’t have enough manufacturing facilities. And they had a nationwide lottery. And my name got picked in the lottery and I started taking the drug. It’s funny, my recollection of it was it was like, you know, the door opens and golden light comes in and the new drug comes in and but I went back and looked at my diary entries back then. And I remember my actual response to it was, Oh, great. Another stupid drug.”

Hal InPhilly 6:58
And this was like, a clinical trial?

Steve Schalchlin 7:01
It was just passed a clinical trial, they had released it, what they called “compassionate use”. They hadn’t finished the trials. But in the second round, the drug was so effective. They thought; and AIDS activists had had a lot to do with this too, is that they just started to release the drug,Say,”Well, look, it’s bringing people back to life. If it’s got side effects, they’ll kill them, you know, either die or have side effects. You know, take your pick.”

Hal InPhilly 7:29

Steve Schalchlin 7:29
So, they were giving the drug out to a select number of people who were at the end stages, who they knew were going to be they were already feeding me through tubes. through my veins, they only expected me to live for just a few weeks longer.

Hal InPhilly 7:44

Steve Schalchlin 7:46
And I started taking the drug and I’m in the effect of it was almost overnight. I started gaining weight within like a week or two. And right then is when we started rehearsals for the “The Last Session”, the workshop and I started my own show. For three weeks. We did that down on Melrose Avenue. And at the end of the run, the little wire or the little tube that was connecting my feeding tube that would go into my bloodstream and feed me at night had crimped and I was starting to actually have my digestive system had started working again. I had had diarrhea for like three years, and the diarrhea stopped. I was taking in food. And at night, when we took our final bows of our final performance, I took the bandage off my arm and I said to the audience, I said it looks like I’m gonna live.

Hal InPhilly 8:43
Wow. That’s amazing.

Steve Schalchlin 8:48
It was an extraordinary night.

Hal InPhilly 8:50
And what year was this?

Steve Schalchlin 8:53
This would be 1996 in July. It’s all documented of my online diary. So then came the next big event which was,”OK, now I’m going to live what do I do next? You know, writing the diary… writing the musical was like my last big blow out look I’ve done I’ve done my life’s work I’ve written a musical it’s, the songs are really fantastic – and they were! The songs are great!. And I thought I have reached the pinnacle. And I’m going to go out like a, you know, like a fireworks in the sky. Except that I didn’t die and it was like waking up and going, “Okay, now what do I DOOO?”

Hal InPhilly 9:36
Anti-climax? Let’s go find Potsy and tell them you made it!

Steve Schalchlin 9:39
Hahaha… Exactly. And it is a year later we were in New York and “The Last Session” was off Broadway and we ran for nine months. And that turned into me taking the songs out of the context of the show and I got an agent that and I started tour colleges and universities and high schools doing AIDS education concerts. So I became a performing artist.

Hal InPhilly 10:07
Which you are still today, no?

Steve Schalchlin 10:10
Which I still am today. I don’t Yeah, I guess I sort of am. I fell a couple years ago and I broke my arm and I’m still in the middle of trying to get my arm back. ‘Cause I had a shoulder replacement and it didn’t work and they had to do it all over again. So I’m a little bit

Steve Schalchlin 10:29
what did you have bread say that I’m accident prone?

Steve Schalchlin 10:32
I’ve been a piano player all my life. Yeah.

Hal InPhilly 10:32
Accident prone! Yeah! And this because this all happened shortly after you started playing the guitar. You were uh, keyboards all your life and then you decided…

Hal InPhilly 10:41
And then you decide “I’m gonna play guitar” and as soon as you start playing guitar, there goes the shoulder… You still play play.

Steve Schalchlin 10:52
What’s that?

Hal InPhilly 10:53
Have you been playing guitar lately?

Steve Schalchlin 10:55
I have. I have for the past year now for the past six months or so. I’ve gotten I started playing again. Still a piano player who plays guitar. I’m not great at it.

Steve Schalchlin 11:05
Have you written any songs on the guitar? Like,

Unknown Speaker 11:07
I’ve written a number of songs on guitar, I love writing songs. It’s completely different experience. When I write on the piano, I usually write lyrics. And then I fit music to write to the lyrics. What I’m playing guitar, I’ve come up with a rhythm and I start singing along and the song comes out of the rhythm.

Hal InPhilly 11:26
So now you know we did.

Steve Schalchlin 11:28
And now I know and it’s a lot more fun. It’s a lot more fun. I’ve always been jealous. Jealous of guitar players.

Hal InPhilly 11:36
Now, I don’t have to be you

Steve Schalchlin 11:38
I didn’t realize how easy it was.

Hal InPhilly 11:43
Looking over my notes, I was wondering if I skipped anything. I see “Janus.” So that was way back in New York.

Steve Schalchlin 11:51
We were living in Los Angeles after after “Last Session”. I mean, the New York production played out here and we were still Living in LA. And I was going around and doing all those concerts. And then Jimmy (Brochu) wrote another play for himself where he played the character of Zero Mostel and we took it to New York. And it was such a hit out here that we decided to move. Now I came into the exact same place I was when I first hit LA. I came to New York and I didn’t know anybody. And I thought now, where do I start? Because it’s like starting over, right? And I thought, well, I’d love to learn, since I’ve started this career in theater… I wasn’t a theater major in – I didn’t go to Conservatory, most of my music education for some two years of Baptist college and just being on the road. I could read music. I couldn’t write it down very well. And I wanted to…

Hal InPhilly 12:49
when you move back to New York, was it easier for you to get kind of get back into then it was initially when you went to LA I would think New York be would be easier to Get back into your groove then it was

Steve Schalchlin 13:02
Well, what I did was I decided to, to follow my own advice. The same thing that I did in LA is, we… Here in New York, there was a fella named Mark Janus, who Jimmy had worked with on a musical. So he was my friend. And he teaches at Manhattan School of Music; he conducted for Leonard Bernstein. He’s a great arranger and musician, like a monster monster musician, the type that I’m not. And so I called him up in the first week, we’re here and I said, Mark, I would love to learn choral arranging, and more advanced forms of composition. How about if I come over and clean your toilets and sweep your floor. If I if I can be of use to you, and then I can just watch you work? So I can just learn from you.” He’s a really great guy and he said, “No, no, no, no”, he said, “My to place is too small. That’s dumb. I don’t want you cleaning my toilet.” He said, “But look, I have a church choir. And it’s in Brooklyn. And the church choir consists of a lot of my vocal students from Manhattan School of Music, which are opera singers, musical theatre singers, all legit legit, advanced musicians, songwriters, who can read music like crazy and not songwriters, but singers.” And he said, “If you want to, I can always use another voice in the in the choir.”

Steve Schalchlin 14:29
So I showed up the following Sunday. And I said, “Just put me in the back row in the tenor and I’ll be happy to just sing along and learn.” And he said, “No,” he said, “I can’t have you just doing that. You’re a songwriter of note. You’ve had two hit musicals in New York. Why don’t you sing a solo and teach the choir the song, and I’ll feature you in the service.”

Steve Schalchlin 14:56
And this is an Episcopal Church. So it’s not like the Baptist Church. It’s a much different layout. So I sang a song, I got the choir sing along with me. And I showed up the next Sunday. And he he made me do it again. So I did another song. And the next thing you know, I’m choral arranging for the choir and I’m writing. And eventually, I became I gave myself a title of “Composer in Residence.”

Hal InPhilly 14:56

Hal InPhilly 15:23
I like that.

Steve Schalchlin 15:25
Because I thought I’m volunteering titles are great. And the church to lead along with it. So I became “Composer in Residence”. And I thought, well, I know how to teach myself how to compose; I’m going to, I’m going to write out a mass to compose a mass. Now, I didn’t actually know what was in a mass, so I had to look it up on Google.

Hal InPhilly 15:50
Search to mass

Steve Schalchlin 15:52
And I find that there’s five, there’s five movements to a mess and they all have the same words have been each move. It has has a set of lyrics. So it’s a exercise in music composition. And I had written a bunch of single songs for the service that were more like gospel songs, that we’ve been using over the past couple of years. So I merge the two I wrote these very heavy choral arrangements to go for the mass and I intersperse the songs that I’ve been writing over the last several years and compose the full Mass and we performed it and recorded it.

Steve Schalchlin 16:29
When was this?

Steve Schalchlin 16:31
This was just a few years ago.

Steve Schalchlin 16:33
That’s what I thought… It was recent.

Hal InPhilly 16:35
Yes. So… I guess I should bring this up to date and bring this up to date. So what’s going on with you? I know you just came back from a cruise with Jim.

Steve Schalchlin 16:45
Yeah. Jim works on cruise ships and I get to tag along. What I’m doing now is there’s a software group out here called the Jack Hardy Songwriter Group. They’ve been around forever since Jack Hardy. He was a folk singer. He passed away, but he was a really great songwriter. And every week, he had a group of songwriters and everybody has to bring a brand new song every week. And you play it for the group.

Hal InPhilly 17:14
And you bring the lyric sheets in?

Steve Schalchlin 17:17
You write the lyrics and the music, you sing it and then that you get a critique from the group, right?

Hal InPhilly 17:21
I love those. I just us went to one recently with NSAI out here in Philly.

Steve Schalchlin 17:27
Oh, sure. But Suzanne Vega has been through here Michelle Shocked is in the group.

Hal InPhilly 17:33

Steve Schalchlin 17:33
There’s some really songwriters of great note, who are who drift in and out of the group. That has been my focus ever since for the past two years now because of my arm. And and, but also for the for the past 10 years that we’ve been here I’ve been going faithfully.

Hal InPhilly 17:52
So you’ve been writing bringing a new song and every week to the…?

Steve Schalchlin 17:57
Yep, new song in every week. And it makes you. It makes you really ripe. You know, and a lot of them really suck and that’s okay because it means you can get the bad ones out along with the good ones.

Hal InPhilly 18:09

Steve Schalchlin 18:10
And then I make demos and I set up a little home recording studio here in the house. Also since since “The Last Session”, I wrote a song cycle along with my mass. I also wrote a song cycle called “New World Waking” . And this brings the John Lennon story around full circle. A friend of mine named Gabby, who lives out in Olympia, Washington… Her son, a bisexual teenager had committed suicide after gay bashing.

Hal InPhilly 18:39
Oh no….

Steve Schalchlin 18:40
And she wrote about it and I put it on my blog and I helped her write up this story is a is an amazing story about her survival as a mother and taking that story and into schools. Well, George Michael, the pop star, had bought John Lennon’s “Imagine” piano as a rock memorabilia. The blonde Steinway upright that he wrote…

Hal InPhilly 19:06

Steve Schalchlin 19:08
“Imagine” on and he was touring around the United States to places with a camera crew – to places where acts of violence that occurred so he took it to Ford’s Theatre. They took it to Memphis, where Dr.. right in front of the hotel where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. And to Columbine, and George Michaels husband, his name is Kenny, he had an art gallery in Dallas. And he read the story about Gabby son. Now, I was in Houston, and I get a phone call from my friend Gabby, and she says… Now, imagine getting this phone call. “Hello. Hi, Steve. George Michael wants to know if you’ll fly it to Olympia Washington and play John Lennon’s “Imagine” piano

Hal InPhilly 19:57

Steve Schalchlin 19:57
…and I said, “WHAT???…” Because I didn’t know any of this that was going on. “George Michael wants you to fly to Olympia Washington and play John Lennon’s “Imagine” piano. I said, “Who? This is somebody pranking you because she got pranked a lot from from homophobes and bigots. I said, “This can’t be true That’s, th-it’s-th this is no way this is true.” And she said, “Well, I got the phone call. And I said, I’ll tell you what, “I’ll believe it…” What happened is they called her. They wanted to bring it. And she told them, “No, only if Steve Schalchlin – if you’ll fly Steve Shalchlin up to play it.” Because I helped her write her story out. And telling telling them no only is my friend from you know, if you’ll fly my friend who they don’t have any idea who he is across country to play the piano. So anyway, they said yes, and I said, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll believe it when the plane ticket comes in. Oh. The plane tickets arrived. I flew up there. And I’ll tell you I had a transcendent moment. They pulled up the big truck, they hauled out the piano, they put it in the front yard underneath the tree. And I sit down at that piano. And over on the right hand side, just on the side of the keyboard where the wood is. There was a cigarette burn. Like a groove.

Steve Schalchlin 21:31
That’s John Lennon’s cigarette groove.

Hal InPhilly 21:36
John Lennon’s cigarette groove! Heh heh… Wow!

Steve Schalchlin 21:39
John Lennon’s cigarette groove. Right there. So, I’ve always, whenever I write a song on a piano, the sound of that particular instrument that I’m playing at that moment, always influences the notes that I play to write that song because I always look for the sweetest part of that pen when that’s where the song gets written. So I thought, I wonder what Imagine is going to sound like on the actual piano where he wrote it on because you know, he found the best place in the piano to write that song. Because it sounds probably inspired it.

Hal InPhilly 22:20

Steve Schalchlin 22:20
Well, the moment I started playing that little figure dunn dah dah, dunn….

Steve Schalchlin 22:31
… as I started playing that piano, I felt it. It was, it was perfect. Perfect. sonarity unbelievable.

Steve Schalchlin 22:42
I had to give you chills like the hairs with your arms like this while you’re playing and standing up. Like static.

Steve Schalchlin 22:47
It did that. It did that and even more. I looked around because Gabby had invited all of Bills, )her son’s) friends and family members and there were about 20 of us. They were in a circle around The piano, the camera crew was there. And I had been playing a few other songs because I’d written a song about Gabby and about her son and I played that. I played a few other songs. The minute I started to play, “Imagine”, I looked up and I could see everyone’s shoulders, relax. Everyone just kind of went into this Zen place. And as a songwriter, I thought, what would it feel like to write a song of perfect peace? What would it feel like to write a song that has an immediate effect on everyone from the first notes to just make everyone go… (Inhale…DEEP EXHALE)

Steve Schalchlin 22:49
That’s what “Imagine” does.

Steve Schalchlin 23:50
And that’s what gave me the spark to write a song cycle called “New World Waking”, which is a song cycle, about a search for a song of perfect peace. And we did it several years later, with a full orchestra and 200 voice choir in San Francisco for the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and Community Orchestra. And then I took that, and I pared it down so that I could do it with a cast of 13 as a musical theater piece. And we did it in New York. And that’s all up on YouTube. It’s called New World Waking.

Steve Schalchlin 24:27
I think I want to just say one last thing. And this is to aspiring songwriters, aspiring composers, aspiring singers. Everything I’ve gotten in my life, from learning about the business, from learning about choral arranging; from writing – has been because I put myself out there in service to somebody else. I found out where I wanted to go, and I volunteered my time. And every time I did that, placing myself in the place where I wanted to be That’s how I learned everything. And that’s where all my success came from. It doesn’t come from sitting at home. It comes from putting yourself out there. And I love saying, “To be of service to someone”, just like I volunteered to, you know, clean Mark Janus’s toilets. I didn’t do that. But I did help him in his choir. And NAS, when I got there, I didn’t know anything about the business, but I volunteered at the front desk.

Hal InPhilly 25:26
That’s a remarkable advice. You know, one of the best song leaders that ever lived vote, “You Gotta Serve Somebody”, and so that brings new meaning to that or it. It highlights the meaning of that.

Steve Schalchlin 25:40
And it works. When you give. It comes back to you, because you can’t help but learn and you put yourself at service to somebody else who you want to learn from. You will learn and it will put you in the place that you need to be. So now I have two Off Broadway musicals that have gotten rave reviews. – and I’ve got awards up the Ying Yang. And but I didn’t go to I didn’t go to musical theater school. I didn’t, I wasn’t a music major in that sense. But I’ve achieved all of these things through sheer effort, volunteering and learning. And I just really believe that anyone can do it if they really just get out of their bedrooms and go out and find and look and search and put yourself in service.

Hal InPhilly 26:30
Well, you’ve inspired me,

Steve Schalchlin 26:31

Hal InPhilly 26:32
So hopefully, you’ve just inspired as many people as I can possibly reach with this podcast.

Steve Schalchlin 26:39
I am very happy to have been invited even though Brett Perkins was on there, but I guess

Steve Schalchlin 26:47
I guess something.

Hal InPhilly 26:49
I’m glad I got a chance to talk to you both because I think the two of you are… have both made some great contributions to the world of songwriting and then, to the world at large.

Steve Schalchlin 27:02
I’m very proud of Brett. You know, he’s he’s made a great career for himself in Europe. And he leads songwriters and he helps develop new songwriters and he gives them chances of workshops all over the world. It’s really a remarkable career that he’s carved out for himself and so I really – I joke about him because I love him so much and and I can do that but you know, God bless him. And God bless Bob Malone! When Bob Malone came into National Academy of Songwriters he came in on the first day and he played music for me and I thought, what he’s pretty good. And but the first thing I said to him was, “Hey, stop wearing mall clothes.” (laughter)

Steve Schalchlin 27:41
I said, “Get a costume! Get some, get some clothes on your back and go out there and be an artist”. And we’ve laughed about that ever since. And now he’s touring with with John Fogarty, who is my songwriting hero of all time and I got to meet him at the National Academy of Songwriters event after I was sick. And I came back after I wrote “The Last Session”, I got to shake his hand. I was in the audience and I got to shake his hand and just tell him how much he meant to me. And what an inspiration he was to me when I was sick. So I you know, it’s a remarkable life I feel like that I’ve been living and I’m still living some schools.

Hal InPhilly 28:18
And you’re Yeah, you’re still doing it. That’s the story is not over yet. And we’re just gonna keep looking for new great things from you.

Steve Schalchlin 28:29
I got it comin’, babe.

Hal InPhilly 28:32
All right, keep on keepin on. Thank you so much for talking to me, Steve. This was this was like a hoot. I’m ecstatic.

Steve Schalchlin 28:41
Thank you, Hal. I appreciate it very much.

Steve Schalchlin 28:43
Keep it going.

Hal InPhilly 28:44
I’m gonna.

Steve Schalchlin 28:45
Okay, bye bye.

Transcribed by

Leave a Reply