Hearing Damage: The Rat Opera Brings Dialogue and Song to the Life of Rat Bastard

Rob Elba and Brian Franklin have gathered a large and notable cast of local musicians turned actors to perform their rock show Hearing Damage: The Rat Opera. The band -- which also includes Russell Mofsky, Andre Serafini, and William Trev -- started warming up with some Led Zeppelin last Wednesday night during its penultimate practice. They played with big, childlike smiles on their faces. The room was filled with song and laughter, more than a dozen old friends creating together and consuming a decent amount of beer, orzo salad, and sushi in the process.

Next week, they perform the rock opera inspired by the life of noise legend Frank Falestra, AKA Rat Bastard, onstage at Fort Lauderdale's Cinema Paradiso. Rat Bastard has helped guide the Miami music scene for three decades. He's recorded just about every local band or act that's come through town, and he's known as the mastermind behind Scraping Teeth (Spin magazine's worst band in America circa 1993), Laundry Room Squelchers, and the annual International Noise Conference at Churchill's Pub.

The Rat Opera was conceived in 1996, but it was three years before Elba and Franklin actually started working on it and a decade after that before performing it live -- with songs only -- at Cinema Paradiso, Churchill's Pub, and Tobacco Road. The project now includes a story line, dialogue, and cast.

They originally wrote it in three hours on a yellow pad while driving to Orlando to see Guided by Voices -- a favorite band of Rat's. "Just about everyone I know down here discovered Guided by Voices through Rat," Elba explains. Rat used to hand out the band's tapes to his friends. The two musicians even included GBV lead singer Robert Pollard (played by Carey Peak) as a character in their production.

Those who know Rat as the man who rules over the noise scene might assume Hearing Damage will be a cacophonous experience. However, they should look instead to the sounds and tastes of the dudes who wrote it. Elba, of the legendary rock band Holy Terrors, and Franklin -- who emphasizes he's a singer/songwriter -- created an engaging tale within the body of emotionally charged songs with comedic lyrics performed by a powerful group of musicians.

Elba says that though there are some embellishments, "all the things that happen in it is shit that Rat has done or that has happened to Rat, but we just kind of made the story around it." They even put out a call for stories on the internet to create the dialogue. During practice, people have exclaimed: "I heard Rat say that shit!" For instance, Rat is prone to call people hippies. "Rat always says he hates hippies," Elba says, "but the truth is, he really loves them. He is a hippie, really." 

Elba further explains about their muse and friend of three decades: "The myth is more than the man, but without all the myth, the man is something pretty crazy. How many of us could work for 33 years at Delta? He'd work all fucking day, and then at night, he'd be at Churchill's till 3, 4 in the morning, get like an hour of sleep and then go back to work the next day. Fly to Japan to see bands play, fly all around whenever he wasn't working. He doesn't have a TV..." 

Everyone they asked to participate said yes, and for free. "These people are all connected to Rat in some form or fashion. It's very much a labor of love for them," Franklin says. The performers include Steven "Mr. Entertainment" Toth as narrator, Rene Alvarez as Rat, Ed Artigas as Rat's nemesis, Jim Camacho as Herald reporter Rian, Diane Ward as Rat's mom and ex, Ali Culotta of Stop the Presses as Rat's girlfriend, and others. They even have two Jacuzzi Boys acting as Rat's "disciples."

Franklin clarifies about the project, "It's 90 percent making fun of him and 10 percent honoring him. The overarching premise here is that Rat understands something about art and music that we at least didn't initially know, that he has some sort of insight into this. And he does. He was very responsible for educating many of us in the scene. He's a producer for many of us, but he's also seen himself as a teacher."

Elba points out that Rat's sort of mantra, "You all suck," is about "broadening your mind and going beyond what is popular, the flavor of the week. He's very inclusive. He likes a lot of different kinds of music. But at the end of the day, everything sucks but what he does." He kids, adding, "But not really. He's not really like that. All the people in the show, he likes them, and he's worked with them and produced them. And they're all hippies." 

And what Rat is known for is the noise scene, one he has defined largely and developed almost fully in South Florida. "I'm not into it myself," Elba admits. "I'm not a noise guy, and I really can't do it. It takes a certain kind of talent." You'll see that gift in action at the annual International Noise Conference that Rat orchestrates each February at Churchill's Pub in Little Haiti. He points out that some performers just manage to capture the attention of the audience. "It's not so easy to do. You can't be doing just anything." 

The sale of the bar, Rat's second home, coincides with the two Hearing Damage performances. Elba says, "It's about Rat, but it's also kind of a love letter to the scene and to Churchill's too." 

"When Rat started this whole thing, I think he had already decided he enjoyed being disruptive," Franklin muses. "That's always been part of his ethic. Thursday nights at Churchill's became, very early on... he'd already made his name with Scraping Teeth and with Laundry Room Squelchers -- it was much more than just the four girls. It was whoever showed up on Thursday nights; it was part of this noise experiment.

"I'm waiting for the day when Rat decides that it was too mainstream for him. And it's become too commercialized by his own work. He did play lead guitar once, on Miami Beach; there were two witnesses. He played the Allman Brothers, the entire 'Blue Sky' lead on top of a song that I was doing. No one would believe it; it was straightforward rock 'n' roll. He can do it; he just doesn't want to. I think he'll come around." 

Hearing Damage: The Rat Opera. 8 p.m. Saturday, April 26, and 5 p.m. Sunday, April 27, at Cinema Paradiso, 503 SE Sixth St., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $8 in advance and $10 day of the show. Call 954-525-3456, or visit fliff.com.

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