The space-aged, cinematic soundtrack, lounge orchestrations of Pink Martini and its out leader, arranger and pianist Thomas Lauderdale could hardly be described as a political statement.
Whether it’s the Bacharach-ian French chanson and Portuguese fado mix of its debut, Sympathique (1997), its Christmas albums such as Joy to the World, or its newest, most cosmopolitan and collaborative album with cabaret chanteuse Meow Meow (and additional special guests Rufus Wainwright and Dame Edna) Hotel Amour, you’d be hard pressed to find commentary toward the left or the right. And yet, as Lauderdale, Meow and the people of Pink head to World Café Live on March 26, its leader claims that the Martini marches into life as a political action.
“Living in Portland, I worked in City Hall for years,” he said, “in 1994, there was a horrible thing on the ballot put forth by the Oregon Citizens Alliance to amend the state constitution to declare homosexuality illegal, along with bestiality, pedophilia and necrophilia. Unreal.”
Lauderdale, working on the campaign to oppose the measure (“it almost passed”), held events with the legendary singing-guitar playing Del Rubio Triplets (“all in their 70s and 80s”) doing covers of “Whip It” and “Walk Like An Egyptian” in hospitals and retirement homes. At the end of their sets, they would say, very sweetly, “Please vote ‘No’ on 13.” But for the main fundraiser, we needed an opening act, so I threw on a cocktail dress and I started Pink Martini.”
For its first several years, Pink Martini did nothing but play for progressive causes – Democrats, public radio, affordable housing – without straying from Portland city limits. Until, like its sound, Pink Martini began to spread its wings, and thusly, so did Lauderdale. Growing up gay in Portland, though, wasn’t as painful as it all sounded, “My father went back and forth between plants and God, as an Indiana minister for the Church of the Brethren. He resigned from the ministry to open a plant nursery. By 1980, he finally came out of the closet and had an affair with a German guy who is an Episcopal priest in Philadelphia.”
Though divorced, supportive mother and gay father Lauderdale stayed best friends and moved to Portland with the rest of their (adopted) multicultural/racial brood, and even tried to ‘out’ their son while he was still in high school. “I was too freaked out. I didn’t come out until college. I wanted to be in politics, Mayor of Portland, and didn’t know how I could be openly gay and running for public office.”
Lauderdale remarks how now it is a different world with kids coming out, as entire middle school classes have gay student alliances, but must also go beyond advocating for LGBTQ rights into additional progressive causes. “It’s a very different world. The population promoting homophobia will grow old and be dead soon.”
Instead of becoming Portland’s mayor back in the 90s, Lauderdale grew into his role as the el duce of Pink Martini for lo these many years, and with an outsider’s love of 60s lounge sound heroes such as Esquivel and Martin Denny (“who I met – he’s in the Hawaii phone book – and spent the day with him, his wife and his poodle”), sallied forth. “I always gravitated to things, and people, that were older, better friends with parents than kids,” said Lauderdale. “I didn’t care that I was heading the opposite way from current pop culture, because pop culture is ridiculous. So starting an d maintaining Pink Martini was based on the things I wanted to see and hear. And as long as I followed my gut instinct, I would be alight.”
What Lauderdale and his instincts want to see and hear now is the flinty, sensual, smart tones of Meow Meow and, for the first time, a set of the pianist’s own snazzy jazzy compositions a la Hotel Amour, a labor of love based on the pair’s decades-long friendship and each composer’s love (and need) of songs that speak of bittersweet tragedy, humor, and politics.
“I have loved accompanying Meow Meow all over the world – for the last 15 years since we’ve met practically,” said Lauderdale of Melissa Madden Gray, the Australian-born actress, dancer and cabaret chanteuse behind the Double Meow brand. “She’s wondrous. If you come to see the show we’re doing together, you’ll be sold. I wish I could tell you more. It’s so very hard to describe. It’s harder to describe than a Pink Martini show that is saying something. She gets people to participate in our show in a way that is never false or phony. It’s an extension of her, and therefore an extension of mem and therefore an extension of Pink Martini.” n