America’s most protean rogue, an outrageously creative id-monster and anti-hero with a thousand faces – the one and only Florida Man– gets his long-awaited salute in song this week. Four Songs from Florida Man, a new cycle by composer Phil Kline, gets a preview performance on June 8 at Roulette, as part of a program presented by the String Orchestra of Brooklyn program.
The concert – which also includes the world premiere of Gregory Spears’ Concerto for Two Trumpets and Strings, and a new arrangement of Julius Eastman’s 1979 Gay Guerrilla – spotlights the prolific misadventures of the Sunshine State phenomenon and meme-gone-wild. Theo Bleckmann, a versatile and expressive improvising vocalist and a frequent Kline collaborator, will perform the song-cycle-in-progress.
The subject, for those completely untouched by the Internet and news accounts that herald the dubious achievements of the mythic (yet all too real) Florida Man, arises from Florida’s open-records law, which for decades has allowed journalists to report on police arrests in all their gory detail.
When social media came along, the headlines found a new platform online, and Florida Man – as in “Florida Man Caught Exposing Himself in Wal-Mart Pillow Aisle” or “Florida Man Caught on Camera Licking Doorbell” – became a star.
“I started collecting the headlines years ago,” explains Kline, sitting at a desk in his Chinatown studio, keyboard close at hand. “It was one of those things I kept putting in a drawer.” The composer, whose best-known efforts include 2004’s Zippo Songs (also with Bleckmann, and likewise drawn from found sources) and the Yuletide boombox parades known as Unsilent Night, hadn’t acted on their inspiration until recently. Among other projects, he is busy with a major production devoted to the inventor Nikola Tesla, in collaboration with the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, due in 2022-23.
Yet when an opportunity to work with the String Orchestra of Brooklyn arose, Kline saw it as a timely spark to write some new songs. What to do? “I pulled out the Florida Man stuff.” In a couple of weeks, he had distilled a hundred headlines into the concise catastrophes of “Florida Man,” whose lyrics track the exploits of one individual who “sets himself on fire / while trying to burn a cross” and another who is “tasered after his marriage proposal in the nude goes wrong, so wrong.” The litany of absurdist tragedies alternate with accounts of Florida Woman, who is not to be ignored or outdone. (You’ll hear why).
“They’ve added immeasurably to American poetry,” Kline says of the headlines extolling these exploits. While it’s easy enough to laugh at the expense of luckless and self-destructive individuals gone off the rails in so many bizarre ways, the surreal humor also can exert a melancholy undertow. And Kline is sympathetic.
“I don’t know whether this has anything to do with it but I’ve had moments in life when I could have been one of those headlines,” he says. “It seems like such an American kind of insanity. Florida, like California, is a dream destination; it’s where you go to fulfill your dream. Then what do you do when that doesn’t work? You go crazy.”
Geography also factors in. As anyone who has ever driven from the Florida Panhandle in the north to Miami in the south, can tell you: Florida is unending. “It’s the peninsula thing,” Kline says. “If you’re bored in Wisconsin, you drive to Minnesota. If you’re bored in Florida, you’re going to jump in that swamp or that gulf. I’ve sort of been there. I never did anything that crazy, that inebriated, with my shirt off, and there were no alligators around. [But] I think I related to people, and after awhile began to realize how sad it was. We’re talking about a distinct subset of the American population, and it’s a desperate, end-of-the-line, and – most cases with Florida Man headlines – white trash kind of personality.” Indeed, Florida Man is hardly ever an African-American (Donald Glover’s TV series Atlanta described him as a “racist Johnny Appleseed.”), although Florida Woman sometimes is.
The piece is complemented by related songs, with music composed in a style that Kline describes as “very lucha libre.” One that he’d written previously for Bleckmann, “Thoughts and Prayers,” is an elegy for victims of the Parkland, Florida, school massacre. “Search and Destroy” is the Detroit rock classic by Iggy and the Stooges. “I had an arrangement for child’s voice and toy piano, but I wanted to do it again, differently,” Kline says. Iggy Pop was himself an honorary Florida Man, having once infamously smeared his body with peanut butter onstage. In his relatively genteel autumn years, he’s made it legit, taking residence in Miami.
Another brand-new piece, “Waffle House,” came about when Kline’s wife, the publicist Aleba Gartner, began sending him photos of billboards with various slogans while traveling cross-country by bus with their daughter, Clementine, who was performing in a national tour of the Broadway musical A Christmas Story. The lyrics exhale an air of ecstatic Americana that feels contagious:
Here it is Breakfast all day Waffles and WiFi Your comfort is near…
I mention that “Waffle House” and “Florida Man” both evoke something of Allen Ginsberg or, really, Walt Whitman, in their use of vernacular language and incantatory structure. Kline nods, noting that when he had studied with the poet Kenneth Koch, “he was teaching Leaves of Grass and said, ‘It’s as if [Whitman] is flying over the country’ saying ‘and this and this and this’—which later reminded me of Chuck Berry.”
The song “Florida Man” also features a prelude whose opening lines are based on a century-old poem by the Florida real estate developer George E. Merrick, an Atlantic Coast Renaissance Man who not only designed Coral Gables, but penned an entire book of purpled verse, Song of the Wind on a Southern Shore.
Bleckmann listened to the pieces for the first time while on tour in Europe. “I could not stop crying (on the train!!),” he says via an email. “Even the MIDI files brought me to my knees. I think they are beautiful, funny, disturbing, and most of all deeply moving. They are a Requiem for America, reflecting on the absurdity, hilarity, grandiosity, and loneliness that seems to be prevalent in today’s society.”
The pure products of America, as Kline quotes William Carlos Williams, go crazy. And out of their madness, we can sometimes squeeze a little orange juice.
“It just took me somewhere,” he says, “I didn’t really expect to go.”
The String Orchestra of Brooklyn performs works by Phil Kline, Gregory Spears, and Julius Eastman at Roulette on June 8 at 8pm; roulette.org
Steve Dollar is a freelance journalist and critic for the Wall Street Journal and other publications.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.