I’ve always been attracted to the pirate archetype. Not real pirates, the kind who actually go around looting and raping and pillaging, although I may well have some of those lurking on the decaying branches of my family tree, whose ragged leaves whisper of merchant seamen and stolen brides along the coasts of Malacca. No, it was not the dirty old brigands I admired, but the glamorized Hollywood ideal of the dashing swashbuckler. I always loved dressing as a pirate for Halloween. I was a shy kid, and Halloween was a rare occasion on which I got to express other aspects of myself that people didn’t usually get to see.
I don’t have a wooden leg, but I am blind in one eye. About 18 years ago I suffered a rupture at the back of my retina, and had emergency laser surgery. It was necessary to wear an eyepatch for about three months. If I took it off everything looked really psychedelic out of that eye, and it could be very distracting (although I could also amuse myself during boring history lectures). I was a bit self-conscious about having to wear the patch, but I was also secretly pleased to cut rather a dashing figure in it. It made people sit up a bit and pay attention, and sometimes they seemed a little bit scared. My art teacher loved it. But no one said anything about being a pirate, and no one screwed up their faces into exaggerated Popeye grimaces to growl “Yarr!” at me.
Aye, that would all come later.
The full story of the Ben Gunn Society is long and complicated. Perhaps I shall publish it one day under the title The Curse of the Jolly Bella. But let it suffice to say that, if you had told me 20 years ago that my secret adolescent pirate/gypsy persona would one day emerge as a glittering, singing, bellydancing, fiddle-sawing Pirate (drag?) Queen, I would have laughed, or possibly punched you. I guess you could say that my latent pirate tendencies were brought to the surface ten years ago when my then boyfriend, the future Mr. Koz, confessed to me that he had written some songs about pirates, inspired by a character from R.L. Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island. I never expected that it would lead to an actual recording, nor that I would be conscripted to sing on it, or eventually write my own songs. Being heavily pregnant during that first recording, my mind was elsewhere, and I never imagined that these funny little ditties about pirates might actually get played on the radio. And the last thing I ever suspected was that there was a thriving underground pirate scene about to burst into the open from two spots near and dear to me: Portland, Oregon, and Hollywood, California.
So many things happened in quick succession. The album was released in the spring, just two weeks before our baby was born. That summer a movie starring Johnny Depp as a pirate came out to much fanfare. And on September 19th, the world celebrated a new holiday invented on a whim by a couple of guys in Oregon.
Why is it that when a group of guys meet up, especially if beer is involved, eventually they will break out the fake Scottish accent? At the bar I used to hang out at when I was in college, it was always this one guy named Rusty who would start it. Next thing, every other guy would be putting on his brogue like a pair of ill-fitting pants, and all the women would roll their eyes. So when Cap’n Slappy and Ol’ Chumbucket upped the ante by declaring Talk Like a Pirate Day, they sent out big waves of infectious guy-pheromone. The scent was picked up by that very paragon of guyness, respected humor columnist Dave Barry. The publicity generated by his endorsement, riding on a huge tidal wave of pirate-mania, thanks to Johnny Depp’s singular performance, crashed ashore at the fifth annual Festival de Piratas in Portland, at precisely the same moment that Mr. Koz and I were paddling into the quay and wondering where to dock our boat.
Mr. Koz, being from Russia, naturally sounds like a pirate without even trying. I sound very piratey myself at times, such as when I have dropped something on my toe or my child tries to wake me up at six in the morning. But truth be told, I have never been very good at learning new languages. And Mr. Koz, who has a fabulous English vocabulary, nevertheless struggles with accents. So when, in the middle of a huge hall echoing with throngs of people roaring “Arr!” and “Avast!” one of the Pirate Guys offered us their new book in exchange for our new CD, we failed to recognize his generosity until long after the opportune moment had passed.
The pirate rock scene in Portland had already been going strong for years, with the lively and charismatic group Captain Bogg & Salty at its core. When Mr. Koz – a computer programmer – and I – a visual artist – stepped out on stage to play music without a real band backing us for the first time, it was supremely terrifying. But a more enthusiastic and supportive audience couldn’t be found. The costumes were great. There was a mermaid MC, who announced the sets by blowing into a conch shell, and my favorite, a robot pirate, made out of silver-painted cardboard boxes, with a robot parrot on his shoulder and “R-R-R-R-R” written on his back in an old school computer font.
The next few years were stormy seas for the Ben Gunn Society (see above about the curse). Nevertheless, several of our songs got radio play, and we became the unofficial mascot of a local pirate boutique. We opened the Talk Like a Pirate Day party at The Enchanted Deva’s for three years, until the store went out of business, pillaged by patrons who took their role-playing too far. “Hollywood” pirates pay too much attention to their “authenticity” anyway and we didn’t quite fit into that scene. For what it’s worth, Errol Flynn didn’t talk like a pirate, although no doubt some of his crew did. We’ve been keeping that in mind as we write our new songs.
You can hear the Ben Gunn Society on Bilgemunky Radio, a weekly webcast hosted by renowned connoisseur of all things pirate and avid supporter of non-traditional pirate music, or “piratecore.” But come Talk Like a Pirate Day, pirates be everywhere, me hearties. So hoist the Jolly Roger and fetch aft the rum!
Arrr you ready to rock?
See The Ben Gunn Society in person at the Aloha Beach Festival, September 18 – 19, 2010!