By Tom Austin
Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini and the figurehead of this country’s most unlikely pop juggernaut is on the phone, poised between his orchestra’s past triumphs — Carnegie Hall last summer and a turn as "musical wallpaper” at the post-Academy Awards Governor’s Ball — and the group’s Miami debut.
On Friday at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Pink Martini will launch the inaugural concert of the Miami Pops Orchestra, the new Concert Association of Florida ensemble featuring musicians who normally accompany artists on the order of the late Luciano Pavarotti. These days, all art is a Starbuckian, let’s-split-the-difference-between-mid-and-highbrow jumble, an evolution of taste that happens to be right up Lauderdale’s line.
"We’ll do our full program with an emphasis on Afro-Cuban and Latin American music, things like the samba number Tempo Perdido, the 1934 Carmen Miranda song about the end of love," Lauderdale says.
"This will be my first visit to Miami, and I’m up for trying it all. To me, it’s a brand new foreign country. Everything I know about the city came from Edna Buchanan. I sat next to her for an entire weekend at an American Academy of Achievement retreat, and her stories about Miami were really fascinating. I love all that noir stuff, and when I got back to Portland, I went out and bought The Corpse had a Familiar Face. Apparently, Miami is, like Portland, changing fast, the inevitable history of real estate development. But to me it’s an exciting prospect with all kinds of neon scandals."
THE DANK SIDE
At 37, Lauderdale has learned to savor the dank side of life — a favorite movie is the noir standard Portland Exposé — but he’s also a classically trained pianist, Harvard graduate and musical director of an orchestra that has produced three smart, bestselling albums — Sympathique, Hang on Little Tomato and Hey Eugene!
Fronted by lead singer and fellow composer China Forbes, a classmate of Lauderdale at Harvard who works a retro-sultry persona, the orchestra has refused to acknowledge any boundaries in its repertoire, which spans Una Notte a Napoli, a collaboration with downtown New York royalty Alba Clemente and Johnny Dynell, and Kikuchiyo to Mohshimasu, an obscure piece first performed in 1964 by Hiroshi Wada and his Mahina Stars.
At a time when the United States is becoming ever more xenophobic, belligerent and unpopular, Pink Martini has inspired a devoted international following by remaining ambassadors of arcane, multi-cultural pop, embracing diversity and performing songs in Arabic, French, Spanish and whatever else might come up. The group might be musical archaeologists to the universe, but it’s still all about sweet home Portland, the edgiest city in the country and a place that makes the Lower East Side look like a shopping mall.
Portland is a cross between early South Beach and way-early Seattle, home to a heady witches’ brew of eco-warriors, organic fetishists, devoutly alternative rock bands, strip bars and anarchists: the first President Bush once dismissed Portland as "Little Beirut."
The frankly gay Lauderdale came to Portland in 1982 as a 12 year old: he grew up in Indiana, the adopted son of a family touched by scandal. His father ran off with a German employee, though things settled down when everyone moved to live-and-let-live Portland. Lauderdale’s father eventually became a pastor and officiated at his mother’s
second wedding. As a teenager, Lauderdale was an official "youth mayor” of Portland and toyed with the idea of running for the real mayor’s office in the mid-1990s.
He founded Pink Martini in 1994 to provide entertainment during rallies for his various political causes. In need of an opening act for the Del Rubio Triplets at one of his benefits, Lauderdale threw on a cocktail dress and performed the theme song from I Dream of Jeannie. Thankfully, the orchestra has evolved artistically, becoming homegrown stars in a music scene that also includes such bands as The Shins, the Dandy Warhols, Modest Mouse and The Decemberists. To Marty Hughley, arts writer at The Oregonian, Pink Martini’s success represents the best of Portland.
WILD SIDE GONE
"We’re so sophisticated here in certain respects, so inclusive, that the campier and naughtier aspects of the band’s beginnings are pretty much forgotten," he says.
"As a young man, Thomas had a promising career as a classical pianist, and certain people thought he was in danger of losing his artistic focus with what they considered a frivolous orchestra. But I think Thomas always saw Pink Martini as a way to reach out to an international audience, take the party around the world with his aesthetic, this idea of beautiful music overcoming the chintziness of modern American culture."
No matter how far Pink Martini travels around the globe, its command headquarters is still a funky old building in downtown Portland, close to Mary’s — an ancient, intensely atmospheric heterosexual strip bar that’s one of Lauderdale’s camp hangouts — and the old Silverado, a legendary gay strip bar that was torn down to make way for a high rise.
Lauderdale’s loft is above the band’s offices, and it’s full of general bric-a-brac and artifacts of his cultivated interests. He’s fond of "documenting my day with snapshots," a project that can begin with parties in New York with society photographer Patrick McMullan and end with off-hand portraits of clothed, if inebriated, patrons in the bathroom at the Silverado. Apart from the photographs, Lauderdale’s apartment contains a 1964 issue of Life with an ad for Hunt’s Ketchup and the rejoinder "Hang on Little Tomato," a Stephen Sprouse painting of Sid Vicious that captures his infamous Baton Rouge concert; biographies of Peggy Lee, James Dean and jazz legend Jimmy Scott, who sings Tea for Two with China Forbes on Hey Eugene!
In a place of goof honor is a scrawled letter from ”Queers Against Lauderdale," a Portland-based anti-fan club that’s not buying into the whole hometown genius routine, "No other city would stand for such blatant mediocrity."
Naturally, the parties at Lauderdale’s building embrace a similarly ecumenical cast of regulars: film directors Gus Van Sant and Todd Haynes; novelist Tom Spanbauer; Penny Lane, the immortal groupie in Almost Famous; former Interview magazine publisher, animal rights activist and Portland sweetheart Paige Powell.
Last Christmas, Lauderdale crammed in 500 people, a 25-foot tree and a crowd that encompassed mayoral candidates, ballet dancers and bridge club matrons for a little holiday affair.
His 36th birthday party was fun beyond reckoning, with all manner of curious musical interludes: Sneakin’ Out, billed as "a gay bear band," consisted of three guys in neo-lumberjack ensembles doing covers of Led Zeppelin songs with mandolins and such. After that opener, Lauderdale sat down at the piano and rehearsed the Philippine protest anthem Bayan Ko with drag star Empress Aleksa Manila, whose voice was the most lilting instrument imaginable. That was some moment, and Miami will, no doubt, be treated to some other singular moments when Pink Martini and Lauderdale get to town.
Like Portland, Miami is also on the breaking edge of U.S. culture, a city forever spinning between light and darkness, hope and despair:
"In contemporary life, we all have fleeting moments of joy in a floating world of sadness and suffering," Lauderdale says. "Our music is often considered this light, happy thing, but all the hopelessness of life is there, too — just listen to our version of Que Sera, Sera. But we’re also trying to change the culture a bit: in a world of bad lighting and bad sex, Pink Martini is bringing better lighting and better sex to modern life."
If You Go
What: Pink Martini
When: 8 p.m. Friday, March 21
Where: John S. and James L. Knight Concert Hall, Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami
Info: 305-949-6722; www.carnivalcenter.org