Rock for the Cabaret Crowd

Actor/singer Philip Littell's words - at an L.A. cafe - give rock tunes a witty, ironic dimension

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE performance calendar at Cafe Largo, an avant-garde supper club in this city's Fairfax district, lists an unusual act: ``Philip Littell & What Is Said ... the inventor of cabarock.'' Mr. Littell, a singer, actor, and dancer, would hesitate to add ``poet,'' but the word is apt: He writes and performs his own lyrics, set to a collaborator's music. The style is primarily rock but also embraces ballad, jazz, even rap.

``What Is Said'' is Littell's band. And ``cabarock'' is (in the words of one fan) a kind of ``Wagnerian'' performance incorporating drama, music, words, and dance. As the prefix ``caba'' suggests, the songs are witty and ironic - geared to a sophisticated cabaret audience.

The crowd here - professional people in their 20s and 30s, plus a sprinkling of older people - listened raptly to a recent performance. ``He writes wonderful lyrics and sings them so that you can hear every word,'' said one fan.

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Some audience members return week after week. What do they find so exciting? Their answers range from ``His energy'' to ``The songs are so funny and intelligent'' and ``What he does always surprises me. It keeps changing.''

Indeed, the songs vary from satire and social comedy to intimate self-revelation, from the whimsical to the serious, from high-voltage verbal barrages to soft ballads. The subjects range over love, betrayal, anxieties - the minor irritation of ``My Date is Late'' to the larger question of homelessness in ``Where Do They Sleep at Night?''

``Philip handles the social issues very well,'' says Jean-Pierre Bocarra, owner of the cafe. ``Not preachy, but just the right amount to touch people and get them thinking. ... The songs are filled with phrases that you remember. ... Not just the same old love songs - she came, she left me, dah, dah, dah. He has a vision of something that can be a whole territory of his own.''

``Let's Get Out of Here,'' for instance, is a number that's half-spoken, half-sung, with the loose rhythms of conversation. It deals with the meeting of two people who quickly become romantically interested in one another. Littel's lyrics capture their mood of charm tempered by wariness:

``I think it's swell that we are so well matched/ I also think that you are otherwise attached./ I don't mean to hurt your feelings, but we're past a certain point./ See, when an opposite attracts/ I need facts.''

Littell agreed to discuss his work in an interview at a small Ethiopian restaurant in the anything-but-trendy area where he lives. Arriving on a bicycle, he looked younger than his 39 years. Over a meal of spiced meat and spongy Ethiopian bread, he spoke with poise, wit, and quiet passion about what he's doing.

LITTELL likes to talk about the rhythm of words, about timing, about the way that words sometimes assert their own wit. He recites a poem he's written but not set to music. He talks about a desire to find more time to write - although he's composed well over 60 lyrics in the past three years.

``I write what's on my mind,'' he says. ``I come from a family of writers and journalists - going back to the War of 1812.''

A typical Littell song contains more words and verses than a song by anyone since W.S. Gilbert. Asked about Broadway lyricist Stephen Sondheim (``West Side Story,'' ``Sunday in the Park With George,'' ``Into the Woods''), Littell politely disdains the comparison: ``What he's saying is: `These are lyrics.' What I'm saying is: `These are thoughts.'''

Mention of Lorenz Hart (``The Girl Friend,'' ``The Boys from Syracuse,'' ``Pal Joey'') pleases him better. ``He's my favorite lyricist!'' Indeed, Littell's lyrics display a similar verbal inventiveness and a capacity for expressing complex emotions: ``My father's family - they're all very witty: Enter and exit on a laugh. My natural inclination is to be soppy and serious. The wit is a defense but also a way into the material.''

Littell agrees that his lyrics are strongest when he's sailing closest to the edge of self-revelation. ``I'm not indulging in self-pity, I hope, but in self-examination. One of my lyrics, `Only a Man Could Be So Foolish,' came directly out of a time when I had acted like a jerk.'' A typical couplet: ``Nothing but dust is left of a man/ While time does its worst I will do what I can.''

``Even when I write about subjects outside myself, like homelessness or the killings in Tienanmen Square, I relate them to my own feelings and experience.''

Littell began writing and performing his music in 1986, spurred by the death of a friend to try to realize his own goals in life. Before that, he was primarily an actor on the avant-garde scene. He continues to act and teach.

``I wanted to be an actor since I was seven,'' he says. He spent much of his youth abroad; his father, Blaine Littell, was a correspondent for CBS News. He attended private schools in London and America before entering Columbia University. He soon dropped out and joined the army in 1969.

Returning after his army stint to attend acting school in his native New York, he was repeatedly told he was ``too smart'' to be an actor. ``But I was incredibly stupid and idealistic,'' he protests. ``I kept thinking, `I'm talented; therefore, something should happen.'''

He came to Los Angeles in 1976. ``New York was a place to avoid myself. Los Angeles challenged me like nowhere else.'' Working at Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, he acquired a ``taste for undisciplined audiences,'' playing Shakespeare and Greek classics to picnickers. Director David Schweizer, who worked with him, notes, ``Philip could have gone as a repertory actor. But part of his creative impulse is the subversive streak that motivates experimental artists.''

``I made every mistake an actor can make,'' says Littell. As for taking a more commercial road, ``I wasn't offered the option.'' He smiles. ``I sure could have used the residuals from one of those doctor shows!''

As his own producer, publicist, and agent, he finds himself spending as much money as he makes to pay his musicians and print and mail publicity material. ``I'm still appalled that I'm not making a living,'' he admits. ``As I look back, it's been a career of wanting things desperately.... But at this point, I've bought my freedom, writing.''

ERIC CUNNINGHAM lead guitarist for the What Is Said band composes the music for Littell's lyrics. ``What we're doing is very different from what goes on in big, alienating rock clubs,'' he says. Working the 100- to 150-person crowd creates a feeling of intimacy, he feels. But Littell, Cunningham, and the band are also interested in expanding to other venues from concerts to recordings.

``Philip and I are both extremely driven,'' says Cunningham. ``I've never run across anyone as professional: He has concentration, memory, complete dedication to performance.''

A few weeks ago after a cabarock performance, Littell and Cunningham previewed an embryonic musical, ``Kiss the Glass,'' for two performances at Cafe Largo. Despite the limitations of the tiny stage, the show featured three women singers in addition to the band and Littell. The songs in ``Kiss the Glass'' explore love and war between the sexes with fast-paced lyrics like: ``When you're young, men will treat you fine/ But don't ever get older than 29.''

Will the appeal of his music reach beyond the limited Los Angeles cabaret audience?

Rae Allen, Littell's mentor since acting school, thinks so. ``It's almost as though he'd been waiting for these times. Ten years ago, even five, there wasn't a forum for someone doing what he's doing.''

Rich Bruland, owner of the Bebop, a performance-art record shop and art gallery where Littell has performed his songs, takes a dim view of record company priorities but a bright view of Littell's future. ``They're always looking for the next whoever-it-was that last made it. They never seem to realize that the next big thing will be unlike anything they've heard before.

``No one else out there really sounds like Philip,'' Mr. Bruland continues. ``He fulfills the most important criterion I have for evaluating any performance: that at the end, I know more about the performer. ... Philip is adventurous enough not to limit himself to one category of music. Yet, whatever he tries, it's always recognizably him.''

``All my career I've been told I'm too intelligent,'' says Littell. ``But I don't believe that; I can't believe that. I think there's room for me.''

Littell performs with the band at Cafe Largo Nov. 9, 16, and 30 and in ``Kiss the Glass'' Nov. 11 and 12.

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