Rat Opera Soundtrack

Published on February 6th, 2016

Rat Opera Soundtrack

ART1Have you ever been at a comedy show hearing jokes and everyone in the audience is laughing and then another joke and you laugh and then realize you didn’t get the joke and don’t even know why you’re laughing? Yeah, me neither, but that’s the essence of the most recent permutation of the protracted collaboration between singer-songwriter-frontmen Brian Franklin and Rob Elba, first staged in 2009 as “Hearing Damage: The Rat Opera.”

Now we get a masterfully realized studio version that provides a fulgent rock-and-roll companion to “The Marriage of Figaro” or “The Magic Flute.” Indeed, Mozart himself receives a shout-out in the lyrics of  A Boy Called Rat” when the maternal Mrs. Falestra character – via the roar of Diane Ward’s vocals — worries about the audio tapes beneath the bed and voices in the head of her little Rat Bastard boy.

At that point in the libretto – the second of seventeen sections – our protagonist is still a child, his glorious fate only hinted at in the previous track, “Wings & Parts 1,” which preludes Francis “Frank” Falestra’s future as an airport ramp rat and backbone of South Florida’s original-music world.

ART3From takeoff we’re in the realm of metaphor and obscurantism: the lyric “Live and shave” is one example of crypticity — Frank/Rat was part of the Noise act “To Live and Shave in L.A.” years ago. (The time I saw them, as colleague Tom Smith genuflected and screamed his lungs raw, Rat, his fingers wrapped with adhesive tape, ripped apart a bass’s strings and blew the circuits of the radio studio in which they were playing on the air. Despite the tape, Rat’s fingers bled and our board op cried.)

The job of opera is to evoke, not explain, emotions; to plant ideas that can lead to various conclusions, not to draw the conclusions for us. Of course, to bring a legend to ground for artistic examination requires some literalism: Rat Bastard’s own Noise collective (Laundry Room Squelchers) is lyrically saluted in “Squelcher.” Also sonically well celebrated are his award from Spin magazine for his act Scraping Teeth as “Worst Band in America” in the song of that name, and his work as a record producer (“Asleep at the Board”). That last is especially touching as a wannabe-rock-star character flails and wails at the alternative altar of the great Rat, who dozes happily oblivious to the wants and wonts of wannabe rock stars.

ART2While songs such as “Squelcher” are specific, almost anecdotal, others are representative and figurative. Not a single one of them sucks, and combined they thread together a sort of highlight reel of Rat’s profound prominence in the history of South Florida music. (The entire story of Frank Falestra’s life as the Bastard will never be told, in part because even he probably can’t remember half of it.) The tone of the thing in its entirety creates the feel of an audiography; erase the lyrics and the constructs of the songs still evoke the asymmetrical abundance of the subject’s musical life.

Like that time in the early 1990s when I was staggering around the XS Music Festival in Fort Lauderdale and the club where Rooster Head was about to play had run out of cold beer. “No problem, man, c’mon,” says Rat, and we go to a 7-Eleven and buy a 12-pack and stuff the cans inside our clothes and brazen past the doorman and totter to stagefront like the lumpy drunkards we were. We enjoyed the set riveted and consumed every frosty brew we smuggled in except one Rat gave to some sloppy hot chick.

Or when I scammed my editors at a local weekly into letting me write a cover feature about a beer festival that, unknown to them, was being put on by our main publishing competitor. I got yelled at for the stunt but it was worth it.

I couldn’t drive, drink beer all night, then drive home – never mind do any reporting. So I had called Rat on the off chance he might agree to be my proxy taster. “What time ya picking me up?” And he gave the goofy assignment a gold-medal effort, just as he’s always given everything a gold-medal effort. After I dropped him home in South Beach he asked me if I wanted to wait till dawn and go out in his little boat, maybe do some fishing. He didn’t have to be at his day job for a few hours.

One of my favorite memories was a night when I found myself in some club alone with Rat — who’d engineered the soundboard for whatever bands had played. It was now long after closing. “Don’t leave, man. Wait. You feckin’ gotta hear this man.” I did not want to have to endure one of Rat’s Noise attacks; I wanted sleep. He played a bootleg tape, full blast on the club’s PA, an a cappella rendering of “Outside This Bar” by Mark Eitzel of American Music Club. One of the many stunning tracks that comprise the Rat Opera  is an Elba/Franklin original called “Outside This Bar” (which includes a piece of Eitzel’s song). Super symmetry.

Another time my radio-show partner and I put on a big festival at a club in Broward County. (Like Archbishop Curley High School grad Frank Falestra, my colleague and I were both  from Miami.) Rat Bastard was booked to close the event. In the middle of sets by various bands on three stages the club’s management ordered us to pull the plugs – by law the club had to close at 2:00 a.m. Rat, who had probably canceled a recording session for some rock star wannabe to play our thing pro bono, was informed that he would not be performing after all. “Wanna bet?” As the crowd made their way to their cars, they had to pass by Rat standing in the middle of the parking lot belting out his set.

Pretty much everyone involved in any way with rock and roll in this part of the world has stories like these. Franklin and Elba solicited anecdotes while writing their piece. Along with the live performances of the opera, they devoted several years to crafting this remarkable CD. They had to be selective – one can cram only so much unbound glory into a 17-song record.

But this magic flight’s greatest accomplishment is that even if you never heard of Rat Bastard, even if you know nothing of South Florida music, this soundtrack is well worth your time as a stand-alone album of ripping riffs, impaling hooks, ingenious lyrics.

With help from guitarist Russell Mofsky and drummer Andre Serafini (both former members of Quit), bassist William Trev (who was in Holy Terrors with Elba), plus Diane Ward, Ali Culotta, Amy Baxter (apparently the castrati thing has gone out of style), Bobby MacIntyre and Tony Landa,  Elba and Franklin have created an album good enough for even Rat Bastard’s imprimatur. Whether he gives it is up to him.

You can obtain the CD and digital download as well as all production details and story points at www.ratopera.com or facebook.com/Rat Opera. Filmmaker Rose Gargiulo has created an animated video of “A Boy Called Rat” and Kreamy ’Lectric Santa’s Priya Ray has made one for “Worst Band in America” and Tony Qualls (of the legendary punk band Load) for “Squelcher.” These unique and worthwhile visual interpretations are available at the above noted sites and at YouTube.com.

~ Greg Baker

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