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Candye Kane Is The Toughest Girl Alive

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Aired 1/20/11

San Diego blues singer Candye Kane performs excerpts of her new stage show "The Toughest Girl Alive."

San Diego blues veteran Candye Kane tells her life story in the stage production of "The Toughest Girl Alive."
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Above: San Diego blues veteran Candye Kane tells her life story in the stage production of "The Toughest Girl Alive."

San Diego blues singer Candye Kane has led a life of adversity and redemption. Kane's life story and music is now being told on the theatrical stage in a play called "The Toughest Girl Alive" at Moxie Theater. Kane will perform in our These Days studio.

Guests:

Candye Kane is a San Diego blues singer who has recorded over 10 solo albums and performed all over the world.

Sue Palmer is the musical director and pianist for "The Toughest Girl Alive." She is also a veteran performer in the San Diego blues scene.

Javier Velasco adapted, directed and staged "The Toughest Girl Alive."

Laura Chavez plays guitar in Candye Kane's road band and on stage in "The Toughest Girl Alive."

"The Toughest Girl Alive" is currently on stage at Moxie Theater on El Cajon Blvd. It runs through February 6th.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Lots of people tell you that loving your looks, accepting yourself, and embracing everyone's differences is a good idea. But not many people can show you how it's changed their lives. Right now, blues singer extraordinary, Candye Kane is showing us exactly where she's come from and who she is in a new autobiographical musical at Moxie theatre. Candye Kane has become a fixture in the San Diego music scene for more than two decades, bringing her big voice, voluptuous body, and spicy humor to a host of festivals and venues. But ever about that, Candye struggled as a teenaged mother, and gang member, worked in the six industry, and over came a cocaine addiction. It's been a hell of a life, and she's putting it on stage in the show called Toughest Girl Alive. It's a pleasure to welcome Candye Kane to These Days. Candye, good morning.

CANDYE KANE: Good morning. Thanks so much for having us.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And also joining us is Sue Palmer. She's the musical director and pianist for the Toughest Girl Alive. She is also an award winning blues artist and veteran performer in San Diego. Sue, good morning.

PALMER: Good morning, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Javier Velasco adapted, directed, and staged Toughest Girl Alive. Javier?

VELASCO: Morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Laura Chavez plays guitar in Candye Kane's road band and on stage in Toughest Girl Alive. Good morning, Laura.

CHAVEZ: Hello.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Hey. So people -- Candye, people must tell you all the time that you have to write a book about your life.

CANDYE KANE: Yes, people do tell me that a lot. And I have written a book. It's not complete yet. But the way that the toughest girl alive's stage play was formulated was based on the book proposal, which had three completed chapters. There are 19 completed chapters of the Toughest Girl Alive, but even in doing the stage play, some of the criticisms, constructive criticisms that we've received have given me ideas about how to make the book even better than it is, so I'm gonna hold off a little bit on publishing it till I can refine it so it's perfect.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So was it your idea to actually make the memoir into a play.

CANDYE KANE: Oh, no. Actually I had written a book proposal and sent it out to a few of my prominent friends around the world. One of which is my friend Javier Velasco, who is the artistic director for the San Diego ballet and has been a long time friend of mine. And I think became my musical fan. So I sent him the book proposal, and he wrote back with an amazing adaptation to the stage. I hadn't even thought about that possibly. I'd thought that it could a movie perhaps some day. But over all I just wanted to tell my story, and Javier did a wonderful job of adapting it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So when you got this memoir, Javier, how did it become immediately a stage property for you?

VELASCO: Well, I've worked on a few different musicals from the ground up. And just already from knowing Candye's story, there were so many different dramatic elements in it that I queue that her life was ripe for some sort of adaptation. And when she sent me the memoir, it become apparent that she's not just a wonderful song writer, but she has a great way with words. So then it became evident that we could actually put something together with her own voice that we could then put her songs to as well. It's so wonderful to have a song writer who can also speak for themselves. You don't always find that. Or someone who can speak for themselves but can also do so through music. So having someone -- finding someone who could actually do both of these things just made it a natural idea. Oh, yeah, this is gonna work. This is gonna work. The idea of this woman on stage telling us her story through song and through the very comfortable way that she speaks.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It's interesting, no, and I'm wondering how you felt about it. It's one thing to be a performer and to come out and do a little patter and perform songs. It's another to actually be in a play and have to basically sort of memorize your lines and the whole thing. How did you approach this, Candye?

CANDYE KANE: Well, it has been a challenge to remember things in a certain chronological order of that's been the biggest challenge for me because I am used to off-the-cuff improvisation and I certainly do that every night from the bandstand. I do a lot of personal anecdotes and a lot of defining what my songs are about and where they come from. So I'm already in the habit of doing that, and a lot of my fans really appreciate that. But certainly being edited was something interesting and has taught me a little bit about myself, and what parts of me tend to be too verbose, and what parts of me could be edited. And Javier's done a very diplomatic job of editing what the core message is. And that's something that I often don't think about. What is my core message? What am I trying to say? And where do I already say it, and then I'm restating it later? That's probably the biggest challenge in Fay live performance when I don't have a script is not repeating what I've already said earlier.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right.

VELASCO: And also if I could add.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sure.

VELASCO: One of the things that I want to the make sure that we have in the play is there are moments in the play where Candye is just talking off of the cuff, where she does have that time where she can just sit down and talk to the audience as herself, extemporaneously, and then there are the other times that are fairly structured. There are two other actors in the show who sort of guide her in her journey through life, and they give some of the information as well. So that way Candye would be able to, during the performance, actually do what she does on stage so well. So if on one night she's feeling like she wants to speak about a particular issue, she can.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So there's that room in the play built in.

VELASCO: There's that room in the play, yes.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Interesting. I'm speaking with the play, Toughest Girl Alive, starring Candye Kane, and it's currently playing at moxie theatre. And I know everybody wants to hear you sing, Candye, but I just want to ask you one more question about the play before we hear you. And that is a lot of people have said that one of the strengths of this play, one of the strengths of your story is that you're very clear that you're not a victim, that you have made some choices, some good choices, some bad choices, but here it is. And is that really just the message? Here it is. I'm just telling you what happened.

CANDYE KANE: Well, that was one of the worries I had about being a play, too, was, like, being an actress. I'm not really very good at acting. I'm pretty much somebody who wears their heart on their sleeve. And so if I'm having a bad day, everyone knows, and if I'm having a good day, everyone knows. And so I'm really -- it's hard for me to censor myself. So I have to say that, yeah, I'm pretty honest about everything that happens that's occurred before and that's happening right now. And so I wasn't sure that I could act or even acting as myself is a challenge. I mean, like to show emotion that's appropriate at the right time and not be distracted by something that's happening live is interesting. I have to say that writing a book was emotional for that reason too because I do live in the moment of positive affirmation almost all the time. And so going back and trying to revisit traumatic episodes of my life was difficult when I didn't want to be in a dark place ever again. So why should I go back and relive it? But I think for the purpose of inspiring other people who are going through a dark period in their lives, and I've gone through a lot of dark periods in my life, so yeah, for that purpose, it's okay. And you're right. I'm unapologetic about some of the mistakes I've made. Because all of them were collective shaping and strengthening of my own character, and all of it prepared me for what was to come. And I often say in a live show that what's to come might be something beautiful that we all need to appreciate more, and what's to come might be more trials and tribulations. But whatever it is, we're being strengthened today to deal with tomorrow. And I think that that optimism spills through both in the play and in the memoir and in my live show.

VELASCO: And in her music.

CANDYE KANE: Thanks.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: A perfect segue. I'm wondering if you would perform a song for us now.

CANDYE KANE: Sure.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What will you play?

VELASCO: Great big woman?

CANDYE KANE: Okay. Thank you Javier. See? This is why he's a good director.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Exactly right. And you listen to him. See?

(Musical Piece Performed)

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's blues singer, Candye Kane, whose life story is currently on stage at the moxie theatre. On piano, Sue Palmer, guitar, Laura Chavez, and also with us today, Javier Velasco who adapted directed and staged the play, Toughest girl alive. You know, I heard that you started out as a country singer, and that is hard to believe.

CANDYE KANE: Well, you can hear it in my voice on certain songs, that's for sure.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. What made you make the transition to blues.

CANDYE KANE: Well, that's a complicated question, but I started out as country because my -- I was limited to the records my parents had in their collection. And they had a few records that had country music on it. And that's how I started out. But once I moved here to San Diego, I married a musician, Toms Yearsley, who was the base player in the Paladins, and he had a very large record collection, mostly men, Elmore James, muddy waters, sonny boy, and the very first time I heard Elmore James, I got goose bumps, the same way I got goose bumps when I first heard Hank Williams senior. So I thought, wow, this is a music of emotion, and heart and soul. And there were other factors, some of which we talk about in the stage play a little bit of some of the inspirations I had seeing local live musicians. But I did think that blues was relegated to African Americans primarily, and that was why I thought that country was suited to a white girl from a poor family. I eventually found out that there were a lot of large sized women in the blues who accepted their bodies the way they were and who celebrated their sexuality through song, women like Memphis Minnie who wrote songs about prostitution, Big Mabel, Big Mama Thornton were both big women who celebrated their size, and women like Alberta Hunter who was gay and did songs about that. So there were a lot of women in the blues that sort of made me feel at home and had already paved the way for a crusty broad like me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Great answer. Thank you for that. We have to take a short break. When we return, I'll continue talking with Candye Kane and the rest of our guests and about the new -- her new musical autobiography, Toughest Girl Alive. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. .

That's Candye Kane, she's my guest on These Days, we're talking about the new autobiographical musical playing at moxie theatre, Toughest Girl Alive. Welcome back, I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, you're listening to These Days on KPBS. And my guests include Sue Palmer, Javier Velasco, and Laura Chavez. And we're talking about, as I say, Candye Kane's new play at the moxie. Candye, the play dives right in to the time that you worked in the porn industry. And I'm wondering, why did you start working in porn?

CANDYE KANE: Well, I was a teenaged mom at 17. And you know, the skills I had were limited. I had taken the proficiency test to get out of high school, and I did attend college later in life, but I didn't really have any education to fall back on or anything like that. So the jobs I could get were basically working at pizza peat's or I was a switch board operator when they used to have the cords. I knew how to do that. But there weren't a whole lot of opportunities for that. So one thing I did have was a natural set of giant breasts. And hopefully that's not a four letter word -- consider aid four letter word on radio.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: No, certainly not.

CANDYE KANE: I saw an ad in the LA weekly where I lived at the time that said I could make $500 a week from my own home. And that appealed to me because I had a little toddler, and I needed to make money at home. So I had never done anything like that before, but I thought, well, here's an opportunity to make money at home and be home with my child and that's what I needed to do, and being the adaptable person I am, I went in and started doing that. Once I started doing that, you become desensitized a little bit on the language and to the environment.

VELASCO: If I could just jump in.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sure. Javier.

VELASCO: What she started doing was phone sex so that was what the -- phone sex.

CANDYE KANE: That was the job, right. My first sex related job was phone sex, and because of that I was exposed to a bunch of different adult film personalities, and through them I acquired an agent and started doing topless modeling at first. And eventually went into other aspects of the sex work industry. But ironically, I gained an incredible amount of self esteem from that act. And that was part of what the Toughest Girl Alive is about, it's about taking the uncharted maverick road to your destination. And a lot of people are afraid to do that. I'm not saying you should go out and pose naked for your self esteem. It doesn't always work that way. But certainly my beginnings were so dark and rocky that being on the cover of an adult magazine and being given the opportunity to get on an airplane and fly somewhere and be paid for it, was a tremendous opportunity. I had never been on an airplane, I had never made any kind of money on my own, and suddenly I was getting fan mail and feeling body about my large sized body, realizing that I wasn't just an over weight, under aged mother. But I was a sex symbol all of a sudden. And that was hugely emancipating and realizing that I could use that income to finance a musical career, every artist knows that it takes money to make money, and you have to be able to put money into your demos or into your artwork or into the mailings to respective clients. And I didn't have any kind of financial foundation to do that. So it really did facilitate my musical career, and once I saw that that was a way to do it, it was very illuminating.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Do you find that the audience is sort of shocked by the photographs and the stories that open this play? I want hear from both of you, Candye ask Javier.

VELASCO: Well, for my part, I've only heard good things about this life show that opens the show. People have talked about how pretty it is, actually. All of the nude figures up there. And I've gotten a lot of response about how in good taste it is, to have I respond to them, well, it's really not supposed to be in good taste. It is pornography, but I'm glad that you enjoy the pictures that were chosen. And I just want to -- well, let Candye finish this, then I want to go onto something.

CANDYE KANE: I want to say that the images that are projected aren't only me, there are a lot of vintage, you know, what are considered porno graphic images. It's funny though because during the whole Meese Commission, investigation into what is pornography, they were unable to really determine what is obscene. It was basically ruled as in the eye of the beholder. So to one person it might seem obscene and to another person it might seem like art. And that's one of the provocative questions that we pose through the Toughest Girl Alive.

VELASCO: And that was one of the most interesting things about the show for me. I tend to do a lot of commercial, mainstream things. Like I just did hair spray at the San Diego rep last summer. But just asking people to come to the show, and Candye has very honest, specific ideas and beliefs about a range of things. I don't want people to are listening to think that the show's all about pornography.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sure. It isn't the.

VELASCO: We deal with unwanted pregnancies issue we deal with drug addiction, we deal with actually the making of an artist, which is what I think this story is about. However, with all of these things, I mean, Candye has these beliefs. And we don't expect in the audience to feel the same way that she and. But we want to start this dialogue and taking just pornography as an instance, here we have a billion dollar business on the Internet that pretty much everyone jokes about, and everyone accepts, and everyone accepts that it's either part of their life or part of the life of someone around them. However, the people who are involve willed in this business are treated like lepers. The and once you've done -- once you've gone into this business once, that's it for the rest of your life. I mean, Candye hasn't done anything like this in years, decades. But to this day, whenever she gets a review in the paper, the first thing that ever comes out is X porn star.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yeah. I understand.

VELASCO: So it's asking the audience to have, you know, that dialogue with us and that question, and just -- so that's another reason why the show -- we're deal -- asking -- calling the show a show for mature audiences.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right.

VELASCO: Not because there's nudity or sex going on on stage. There's not. But because we want people to come to the show to have a mature dialogue with us.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Just one more question about this, Candye. And I know that your son is in the band, and he must have heard all these stories before and so forth. But I'm wondering what his reaction is to this.

CANDYE KANE: My eldest son is in the show, I have a younger son who's at UC Berkeley. My eldest is eight years older. So he's was affected more by the adult entertainment aspects of my life. We've actually appeared on the Lisa Gibbons show on a show called X rated moms where he had to talk about his feelings about my activities and his feelings have always been that I'm a great musician and I should be taken seriously as a great musician. So he has a lot of ambivalent feelings about being in this production, and I asked him in the beginning -- you know, I gave him the opt out population if he wanted it. And he insisted on being part of it anyway. I think he still does struggle with some of the images that are portrayed, and some of the graphic language that we use to describe certain scenes. But truth is the absolute defense. I mean, we're not embellishing certainly -- one of the graphic moments in the play a rape scene and he objects to some of the language used during that. But he's 30 years old, and he was given the opportunity to opt out, and he chose to stay. And I think he -- he's -- it's more from a place of -- it's more from a place of wanting his mom to be taken seriously as a musician of that's more from that concern, I think, than anything else.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, we're having just a little bit of a feedback problem or something here. I'm wondering can we do another performance then? Okay, terrific. Will you do another performance for us?

CANDYE KANE: Oh, yeah.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Terrific. And what will you be playing this time?

CANDYE KANE: The song's called I'm not gonna cry today. It's from my CD Guitared and Feathered.

(Musical Piece Performed).

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That was blues singer Candye Kane, and Sue Palmer on piano, and Laura Chavez on guitar. And that's a really pretty guitar for somebody so tired, Laura, fu for that. And we're talking about Candye Kane's new musical at the moxie theatre called Toughest Girl Alive. It's directed by Javier Velasco who's with us as well. I word, cappy, were there certain songs that were so meaningful to you that you had to include them? You felt you had to include them in this musical.

CANDYE KANE: Well, yes, the one we just played, I'm not gonna cry today, was actually written after we staged the stage play initially so I asked Javier to add it, because it was a song that I had written about empowerment. And so he agreed. But Javier had a real -- a wonderful knowledge of my full catalog. So he really did a fine job of integrating the songs in parts throughout the play. So there'll be a piece of dialog, and then there'll be a moment of where I sing a snippet of a song, and then we'll go back into the dialogue. And there's not many people who would be able to have that mastery over my entire catalog besides me that would know which song was appropriate. Heap did a wonderful job doing that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, part of the message of empowerment that runs through this play is the fact that you actually not only encountered all of these problems like drug abuse and having to get your musical career started and so forth, but you also had a very severe health issue a couple of years ago.

CANDYE KANE: I did. It's not really addressed much in the stage play because the stage play -- well, the memoir itself only went to 1989 because the whole theme of the play was my quest for a musical career and how being a victim of domestic violence, how being a sex worker, how being a child of verbal abuse with a father in prison and my childhood was marred by alcoholism and a lot of certifiably mentally ill people in my family. So there were a lot of obstacles from the beginning. But it really sort of actualized, you know, and strengthened me for the moment that I would get diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2008. And that's why i really am thinking about extending my memoir further, because there are a lot of people who are curious about my bought with pancreatic cancer. There's not a lot of people who can live to talk about their survival of it. And I was very lucky to have survived such of a thing. But as I say, I was uniquely prepared by a hard knock life the whole way. So that which I get pancreatic cancer it wasn't as daunting of a prospect as it might be for someone else. I already was ready.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering when you hear about people say I can't do this in my life, I can't do that in my life because this happened to me in a childhood or I got a bad break and things never went my way, does it make you angry?

CANDYE KANE: No, I just feel badly for them. Because I believe everyone has the strength indeed us to tackle any obstacle that comes to us. We have it. And there's a lot of people waiting for an external source of strength, whether it's a marital partner or a God or a miraculous intervention. And really, we have the strength right now and the power to self actualize. And people scoff at that and I don't think they can. But I'm not -- it's not some sort of new age mumbo jumbo, it really is stating your intention and not giving up on that intention of it's sort of like planning a seed in your guard other than and watering that seed every day, and one day you get tired of watering it because the seed isn't gonna come, and you dent know that that day you give up and say forget it, I'm not gonna water this seed anymore, it's not gonna grow, it could be just under the surface right there, ready to grow tomorrow. And you give up and go, okay, this isn't gonna happen for me. I'm just not a quitter. I can't give up. And that relentless determination and sometimes naive optimism has served me well on my road to survival.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm gonna ask you if you would do one more performance for us. What will you do in.

CANDYE KANE: What was the other song? I forgot.

VELASCO: The toughest girl live.

CANDYE KANE: How could I forget? Here is our song that is the title song of the play.

VELASCO: If I could just very quickly, the show is very optimistic and very funny. So even though we're talking about this very difficult life, I mean, the fact that Candye has always been optimistic and always taken a very humorous approach to her life that comes through in the show. I just want to make sure that people understand when they come to the show, they're not gonna be watching 90 minutes of strum and drang, and then she finds herself at the end. I mean, it's a joyful but dramatic journey.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It's a good point and I think we can tell it just from your voice.

CANDYE KANE: It's very inspiration. And I think everyone who sees it will leave feeling uplifted and it is funny. There are humorous moments in every dark chapter. And seeing that and being able to embrace the humorous in the darkest situations can really make it a little bit lighter, I think.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Here's Candye Kane, Toughest Girl Alive.

(Musical Piece Performed)

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Toughest Girl Alive, Candye Kane, thank you so much, I appreciate it. Thanks for talking with us.

CANDYE KANE: Thank you so much, and please let your listeners know that it is play, the Toughest Girl Alive runs at the moxie theatre through February 6th.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I was just gonna do that! I was to thank you Sue Palmer, are Laura Chavez, and Javier Velasco as well.

VELASCO: Thank you, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And once again, Toughest Girl Alive, currently on stage at moxie theatre, on El Cajon boulevard, it runs through February 6th. And coming up next, the weekend preview as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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