Bruce Barthol, the Musical Conscience of the SF Mime Troupe
The smartest hippie in any room, Bruce married tireless anti-capitalist passion with lyrical wit and musical resourcefulness.
Bruce Barthol, who played bass for Country Joe and the Fish and serve as music director for the San Francisco Mime Troupe for decades, died on Feb. 20. He was 75.
“The Great God Pan is Dead.”
That’s a historical reference so obscure I think my friend Bruce would possibly have been one of the few people to know it.
Two thousand years ago, according to Plutarch, a Roman ship sailing by the island Paxi was suddenly stilled. The wind stopped, all was quiet, and then a clear, loud voice, seemingly from the empty sky above, cried out, “The Great God Pan is dead!” None of the sailors knew who had spoken, or where the voice had come from. All they knew was that the voice had announced that the god of music and passion, of creativity and fun, of playful joy and sex, had passed. When they delivered the news to another island, “A sound of lamentation rose—not of one person, but of many.” It seemed whole world had dimmed.
That is some of what I feel now, knowing that the great Bruce Barthol has passed.
Bruce was the unapologetic, rebellious, musical heart of the Tony-winning, never silent, always revolutionary San Francisco Mime Troupe. With sardonic wit, cutting sarcasm, a vast knowledge of history, and a broad understanding of everything political, Bruce Barthol wrote lyrics that outraged, broke hearts, and inspired. He was spirited, argumentative, brilliant, contrary and collaborative, cool and cranky, passionately pissed and hysterically funny, laidback but always a twitch away from launching into an argument about anything and everything. He was the rock bass-playing radical who became one of the most talented and prolific composer/lyricists in American musical theatre. He was stoned, he was sober, he was high, and he was low—but he was always there for the work of changing the world for the better.
Officially I met Bruce when I auditioned for the Troupe in the late ’80s, but I first saw him a decade earlier, when I was a teen and my father asked me if I wanted to go with him to see a play. We were not much of a theatregoing family, but I said yes, as I wasn’t too teen-angsty to hang out with a parent. He took me to Golden Gate Park, and there, in the middle of a meadow, was a small funky stage, a band, hundreds of audience members, and a wooden sign reading “The San Francisco Mime Troupe.”
I can’t say I was particularly thrilled at the prospect of watching as people in black tights tried to get out of imaginary boxes, walked against imaginary wind, or pulled imaginary ropes. On the other hand, I never understood why people hate silent mime so much. Mimes never oppressed anyone or undermined a democracy, and as a Black kid in a political family, we were never chased from a protest by mimes. As a Black teen it was never mimes that pulled me over or threatened to shoot me. Those were cops.
Then…then the show started.
No imaginary boxes, no wind, no ropes, no tights! And absolutely not silent. Instead it was music, singing, comedy, and best of all: politics! Factwino Meets the Moral Majority was the most wonderful combination of underground comix, zany cartoons, and passionate politics I could imagine. It was all about the importance of reason, truth, and intelligence, and it hilariously skewered the proto-fascistic religious fundamentalists/evangelical con men who preyed on the faithful, promoting prejudice for profit and power. You know: comedy!
Just when I thought these revolutionary truths and hijinks couldn’t get any better, a new character entered the stage: the two-headed villain behind every throne and presidential handshake, the creature behind every curtain. Armageddonman strode onto stage with vicious glee and outrageous enjoyment, and then sang!
Can you guess just who we are?
One part business, one part war.
We own the weapons, banks and land
Call us Armageddonman!
There is less, but we want more
So we take it from the poor
You can’t stop us, no one can
Because we’re Armageddonman!
Karl Marx predicted our demise,
But it’s on crisis that we thrive.
Find a new market, or a war will do
And we’ll see our historic mission through!
Even though our race is almost run
When we are through you’ll all be done
And what we don’t use up we’ll blow away
On that Armageddon day!
Actually, Armageddonman was two guys in a single costume—two artists dedicated to overthrowing the military industrial complex by any means necessary, including farcically embodying it in a dual supervillain suit. Individually they were Dan Chumley and the composer/lyricist of the Mime Troupe, Bruce Barthol.
Some would say Bruce was already rock ’n’ roll royalty by then, but if that were true I think he would have immediately fomented a revolution against himself. Raised by two teachers, Bruce was imbued from childhood with a hunger for justice, and had developed a generous well of pissed-offed-ness he could draw on at any time. As a kid he visited Gettysburg, joyfully reenacting the battlefield defeat of the “damned slave-ocrats.” Then for a brief time he learned about fascism firsthand when his family experienced Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. When they returned to the U.S., his parents pointed out the fascistic tendencies here at home, along with all our homegrown class warfare, hypocrisy, and violent racism.
He ended up studying at the University of California at Berkeley, back in the days when higher education was affordable and the goal was to educate working-class kids rather than impoverish them. Bruce arrived at UCB just in time for the explosion of the Free Speech Movement, that amazing moment in American political history we all benefit from, and which conservatives have been at war with ever since. Sit-ins, strikes, occupying buildings—all in the name of educational freedom, of Civil Rights, of teaching real politics and history rather than just corporatist propaganda. You know, all the freedoms of educational thought the right-wing governor of a certain dangly Southern state is trying to undo today.
Bruce was in the thick of the Movement, a freshman who brought his guitar to pass the time and entertain his fellow rebels. It was in that cauldron of revolution that a fellow musician invited Bruce to join him in a jam session with another musician, Joe Macdonald, who went by the nickname Country Joe.
A year later Bruce had dropped out of Berkeley, switched to playing bass, and was off touring with Country Joe and the Fish, one of the biggest political folk-rock bands of the ’60s. Suddenly he was in the vanguard of artists speaking out against the Vietnam War, and the band’s song “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag,” became an anthem of the anti-war movement, performed at protests and in concerts across the U.S. and Europe, including the legendary 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Bruce’s strong political views are ultimately what led to the end of that period, when he was voted out of the band for refusing to endorse a denouncement of Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies before the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. (Trust me—it’s a long, weird story.)
After a stint in Europe with a new band, Bruce returned to the Bay Area, where drummer Barry Levitan introduced him to the Mime Troupe. Bruce of course had heard of the company, which was founded in 1959 and had been at the forefront of the Free Speech Movement. Future rock impresario Bill Graham had gotten his start with the Troupe, organizing concerts to fund the defense for the company’s free speech court case. The company had worked with people as varied as Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, Tom Hayden of the Chicago Seven, and Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale.
Bruce joined the Troupe band in the early ’70s, during the heyday of the San Francisco street theatre revolution. The Pickle Family Circus, Fratelli Bologna, Make-A-Circus, the Flying Karamazov Brothers—there was anarchic commedia, circus, and free shows everywhere. But the company that inspired them all was the Mime Troupe, a theatre of, by, and for the working class, speaking truth to power, with shows at a price every worker could afford—free! Joan Holden had become principal playwright and composer/lyricist Andrea Snow had helped create some of the Troupe’s biggest hits. But Andrea was in the process of moving on, and when she did Bruce was ready to go, with a million ideas and the passion and skill to bring them to life.
I couldn’t possibly note all the work by Bruce during the Reagan years—just so many wrongs to ridicule and critique—but of particular note were his songs about the U.S.’s habit of supporting any dictator, however brutal, who promised to support capitalism over socialism.
From “The Three Dictators Song“ in the show 1985:
Hey, we’re glad to see ya, American guy!
We’re the best friends that your money can buy
We’re fighting for freedom, and getting paid
We’re Marcos, Mubutu, and Pinochet!
For the show Steeltown he wrote “Standing With the Union” with Eduardo Robledo:
Supervisor tell me
“Rose, you better go on home”
I came three thousand miles
Now they’re telling me to go!
Then Rudy from the union say
There’s one he know
“Rose is working here—
The rest of you can go!”
That’s why I’m standing with the union
Yeah, I’m standing with the union
‘Cause the union stood by me!
And in Spain, his powerful and haunting musical documenting a massacre of fighters for the Republic by fascist soldiers during the Spanish Civil War, he wrote the song “Badajoz”:
We saw the dust clouds grow large in the distance
We shut the strong gates, and we took to the walls
But rifles can’t hold off a motorized column
And rifles are useless when bombs start to fall
Bruce was writing for the oppressed, creating wrenchingly personal songs and soaring, inspiring anthems, chronicling revolutions big and small. His music and lyrics played no small part in the Troupe being awarded the Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre, among many other awards. When I began to audition for the Troupe, Bruce was welcoming, encouraging, and willing to listen to my ideas when I had the temerity to say anything. He was open to creativity and always ready to geek out with me about history. And Bruce was the person who asked me about joining the collective. (For those who don’t know, since the early ’70s a collective of actors, directors, writers, designers, and musicians have fulfilled the role of artistic director at the Mime Troupe. That’s over 50 years, and we’re still here. Remember that any time someone says a company “needs” an AD.)
In the second show I performed with the Troupe, Seeing Double, about the struggle for a two-state solution between Palestine and Israel, Bruce wrote one of the most beautiful, hopeful songs of his I ever sang, “This Is the Year”:
This is the year of the possibility
Take a chance, stop the downward slide
Drop the guns, and take the hand
That’s reaching out from the other side
You can hear the clock is ticking
You can see there’s not much time
There is no god in the Holy Land
Just people screaming
“I want mine“
A tragic farce, Seeing Double toured for years across the United States, including runs Off-Broadway, at the Kennedy Center, and a short run in East and West Jerusalem. Bruce’s song was the climax of the show, and brought audiences to tears of hope and heartbreak whenever we performed it. It was an honor to sing it.
In the early ’90s, when I became a contributing writer for the Troupe, Bruce inspired me by his example of making, creating, and being relentless with his passion. Bruce showed me how to structure scenes to build emotionally and comedically to justify song moments, and how to find the outrageousness in heartbreaking situations in such a way that did not undermine the terrible truth.
In “Social Work,” from Steal, Murder, and Lie, he wrote:
It’s not just that they’re ignorant
Or that they loot and rob
But as rulers of the Earth
They’re doing a very bad job!
Their arrogance is monstrous
Their ignorance profound
But the world will not stand still for them
The wheel will turn around
They stand on a volcano
And they do not even know,
Unless there is some justice soon
The whole thing’s gonna blow!
Because they steal, murder, and lie!
Or in Offshore, our show about the impoverishment wrought by free trade, which was designed to enrich the wealthiest 20 percent while further immiserating the already poor 80 percent, he wrote “80/20”:
20 percent live on dry land
While 80 percent drift out to sea!
20 percent have more then they need
While 80 percent have next to nothing!
On a good day you will assemble chips
On a bad day you’ll wash windows and beg for tips
Or go out to the dump, and pick through the trash
And scheme and dream of any way to get some cash
Anthems were Bruce’s specialty. For instance, in “Eating It,” from Rule of the Bottom Line, our play about environmental degradation food poverty in the name of profit, he wrote:
I think we all must be from Mars
Or from some planet circling a distant star
That’s why we can take the risks we take
And why we can make the choices that we make
We’re just visiting, not staying around
So we can poison the water, the air and ground
After all, why should we care?
We know we’ll be returning to our home out there
In 2000, when Joan Holden retired from the Troupe, I became resident playwright. But Bruce stayed on, always fighting the good fight to overthrow capitalism one musical comedy at a time, fighting the rising tide of fascism, or, in A Shot and a Bottle of Beer, chronicling the lament of a homeless vet in our play about an America perpetually at war. The song “Veronique of the Mounties” includes these lines:
I came back sick from the first Gulf War
The V.A. said I was fine
I punched my commanding officer
When he told me not to whine!
Then the Army they cashiered me
After serving 19 years
So come on, Dot, gimme a shot
A shot and a bottle of beer
I’m an invisible man who sleeps in his van
I don’t know how I got this way
But I’m heading down the tubes
Along with the U.S. of A.
Or in GodFellas, our play about the fight for reason against impending American theocracy, he wrote in the song “There Are the Times That Try Men’s Souls”:
This very life you lead, even you’re right to be
Comes with intrinsic responsibilities
You must engage, and to not ignore
The threat to freedom standing at the door!
We can see the armies of the night
Whose superstitions kill the light
Of reason and of liberty
Is that the world we want to see?
Survival is a form of resistance!
If we die or give up, then they win
I don’t have a plan or a road map, but
Let’s begin, let’s begin, let’s begin!
I can’t say Bruce was always easy to work with. But who is? Not me. Sometimes I would work on a scene, Bruce would write something brilliant for it—and then I’d cut the entire scene because it had become unnecessary. He would be furious that all his hard work wasn’t going to be included. And then he’d get back to work on the next song. (Eventually he took all the songs cut from Mime Troupe shows and assembled them on an album called The Decline and Fall of Everything.)
After more than 30 years Bruce left the Troupe, though I kept inviting him to come back and work with us, which he did a few times. One of his last Troupe songs was in a play about a scrappy political theatre forced by a corporate grant requirement to do a show about a mysterious end-of-the-world-event, rather than do an exposé about who benefits from the existential fear instilled in the working class. In many ways it was a perfect Bruce Barthol call to arms: rebellious, truthful, angrily anti-capitalist, inspiring, and hopeful. And I got to sing it! It was called “Armageddon,” and it was in the show 2012, the Musical!:
Armageddon—just a distraction
To help the forces of reaction!
Apocalyptic visions of annihilation
Breed more fear and alienation
In the U.S. of amnesia
Where so many seek anesthesia
Crucial to controlling us is that we be afraid
So we don’t see how we’re being played
Played by the bankers who made the economy fail
Who kept what they stole and stayed out of jail
Played by the media moguls who constantly lie
Who distract and distort while democracy dies
Life—just a series of business transactions
With ever increasing resource extraction!
The world, sustained, can meet all of our needs
But not when run for corporate greed!
When the people are no longer afraid
Is when they’ll take to the barricades!
So stride on through the lies and spin
You just can’t let the bastards win!
We just can’t let…..the bastards win!
Kinda weird that my Mime Troupe experience with Bruce Barthol was bookended by songs that involve the word “Armageddon.”
After Bruce left, he got together with some of his old mates from the Fish and other bands, and formed “The Formers Members,” which started over a decade of annual touring. He sang songs old and new, criss-crossing Europe and the U.K. with his friends as they did what they loved, playing music, for appreciative crowds. But every summer he’d make sure to be back in the Bay Area in time to come out to the park in his red star T-shirt and see our latest show.
He was always a Trouper. Bruce never stopped being an artist, a history nerd, a defiant defender of the Left, and the smartest hippie in the room.
I will miss him forever.
But then again…The Great God Pan cannot have died. The gods are living embodiments of abstract ideas—love, beauty, wisdom, justice, knowledge—and the gods cannot die as long as we are inspired by those ideas, and ideals.
The Great God Pan will always be alive, to inspire us to be our most outrageous, most anarchic, most rebellious, untameable selves. And wherever there is a gritty revolutionary trying to rhyme “oligarchical capitalist swine” so that it’s both impactful and hilarious, or a band is blaring out a worker’s anthem designed to uplift, infuriate, inform, and inspire, I have to think that Bruce will be in the corner, his fist in the air, a sly smile on his face, and his gravelly voice whispering, “Right on, brother!”
Michale Gene Sullivan is an actor, writer, director, blogger, and teacher. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is an alumni of the Playwright’s Foundation, a Djerassi Center Artist Fellow, a Guggenheim Fellows, and collective member and resident director of the San Francisco Mime Troupe.
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