Bringing her past to the stage
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
After her parents divorced, when she was 4, Rain Perry and her mother joined the Bethel Tabernacle in Redondo Beach, Calif., a group that Perry says was “just this side of true cultdom” and was led by a charismatic 19-year-old pastor.
Perry and her mom attended church six days a week, for four hours at a time, surrounded by people speaking in tongues. When not in church, members of the near-cult went to the Redondo Beach Pier, where they would “witness” ” a practice most people would refer to as “being bugged by glassy-eyed strangers about Jesus and the Second Coming.”
“It was very intense, very idealistic young Christian hippies who were truly committed,” said Perry, now 42 and no longer a member of the Bethel Tabernacle.
Perry, who has spent most of her working life as a singer-songwriter, has written a one-person musical play, “Cinderblock Bookshelves,” about how bizarre her childhood was.
The theater piece, however, doesn’t focus on the three years spent in the not-quite-a-cult. Instead, it looks back on the truly weird part of Perry’s early years – the years after her mother died, of toxic shock syndrome, when Rain was 7, after she had moved out of the quasi-cult, left the speaking in tongues behind, bid farewell to her fellow hippie-Christians. The years when she was raised by her father, John, in that strange zeitgeist known as California in the ’70s.
Under the care of her father, an aspiring actor and filmmaker who had come from a well-to-do Midwestern family, Rain estimates that she lived in 25 different places. She hesitates to call any of them home; most of them were spaces bummed from whichever woman John Perry was seeing at the time. Some were garages; others were rooms that Rain shared with her dad. Rain listened to such fatherly advice as this bit she received when she was 11: “If you’re going to smoke pot, smoke it with me.” Each place they would go, her father’s mysterious boxes of files and tapes went with them.
“It was dicey. We ran out of money. Some of the places we lived were scary. It was not really feeling like there was ‘home.’ We just moved from place to place,” said Perry. “When I lived with my mom, bizarre as it is, it felt like home. All my friends were in [the Bethel Tabernacle], and that was just life.”
“Cinderblock Bookshelves,” which Perry will perform tonight at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale, takes an understanding look back at life with dad. The play incorporates excerpts from 11 of Perry’s songs; the one she calls the theme song is about the cycle of parenting: How, inevitably, the mainstream of parenting bounces back and forth between strict rules and the “hey, whatever” approach.
In “Cinderblock Bookshelves,” Perry uses a humorous angle to convey her childhood realities. A postcard used to promote a recent benefit performance in Ojai, the town north of California where she lives, featured the warning: “Contains ’70s parenting references not appropriate for children.”
“It’s surprisingly funny. I guess you can look at life’s challenges and see what’s funny in it,” said Perry of “Cinderblock Bookshelves,” which is also the title of a related CD, and a forthcoming book. There was also a desire to present a certain sort of theater experience: “I feel like humor is the best way to connect to people.”
Perry adds that casting the material in a lighthearted manner wasn’t a great stretch. At the time she lived through it, her childhood didn’t seem horribly out of the norm.
“It was the ’70s. We talked about everything. That was the logic of the time,” said Perry, whose years with dad began in the Marin County town of Inverness. “And my life wasn’t so different than that of my friends. I didn’t see anything unusual. I thought my life was unusual when I visited my grandparents, and I felt I had to present a life that was normal.”
When her father’s life was coming to an end, Perry began putting her thoughts on their relationship into words. “I’d be driving up to see him in Santa Barbara, and I’d pull over and write and write,” she said. “I had to capture what I was feeling. But it wasn’t song material. It was something else.”
When John died, in 1999, Rain inherited his cache of files and tapes. To her surprise, they were a meticulously organized reflection on his life: notes on his dreams, character sketches of friends, commentary on his failed artistic goals. “All the raw material for an epic work, perfectly archived,” said Rain, who came to realize that a stage work would be an ideal forum for her story.
The process of creating “Cinderblock Bookshelves” ” including a workshopping process at Ojai’s Theater 150 that spanned four years ” allowed Perry to gain perspective on a relationship she calls “complicated and intense.”
“I’ve gained a lot of empathy for him in writing this, more than when I was alive,” she said. “Ultimately I’m really grateful for all these different places we lived, lifestyles I was introduced to. It gave me a perspective I’m grateful to have.”
But not one she seeks to perpetuate. Married, and a self-described soccer mom to her two daughters, Perry and her family have lived in the same house for 18 years. “I’ve embraced a lot of stability,” she concludes. Kids may get a useful perspective from getting stoned with their father, changing roommates a few times a year. But they need to feel a sense of security, starting with a familiarity in the place they live.
“The things that you have are what make you feel like you’re home,” she said. “The cinderblock bookshelves, you could carry with you anywhere and set up anywhere and it would look just like the last place you lived.”
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