Symphony's Overture to a Pro-Choicer

Times Staff Writer

An amusing happenstance led to singer James Lee Stanley being chosen as the first pop musician to perform with the Garden Grove Symphony.

But an accident of a far more serious nature--the kind that results in an unwanted pregnancy--led Stanley to write "The Dancer," the pro-choice song he will sing with the orchestra during its free concert Saturday at Village Green Park in Garden Grove.

The inspiration for Stanley's pretty, yearning ballad was a shocking phone conversation he had 10 years ago with his then-girlfriend. Stanley, who has had a steady, if low-profile, touring and recording career since the early 1970s, was about to leave on a trip to Cuba with his friend, novelist Tom Robbins. From the Toronto airport, he placed a last-minute call to Chicago, so his girlfriend could bid him bon voyage .

"She said, 'I'm pregnant. I'm having an abortion in the morning, and I don't want to talk about it,' " Stanley, 43, recalled in a recent phone interview from his home in Hollywood.

"I said, 'Wait a minute, we should talk. You just can't go and have an abortion.' She said, 'This is my body, this is my life. I don't want to get married, and I don't want to be a mother.' "

Stanley had been blithely living the free-booting life of a traveling pop musician. "It just changed around my whole way of thinking," he said. "I had no views on abortion at the time. I was completely unconcerned with everything except having a good time and playing music. Until it was brought right into my own living room, I didn't think anything about it. The more I thought about it, the more I thought she was right."

On the plane to Cuba, a song began to take shape around something Robbins said after Stanley told him about his girlfriend's decision. "He was saying, 'We are all dancers in the dance of life. All we can do is join in.' "

No political tract or soap-box broadside, "The Dancer" speaks in symbolic terms about the choice confronting a pregnant woman.

Listen close, hear the heartbeat?

On it goes and it grows, like a hoofbeat .

Like a stampede, you can hear it thundering.

Take some time for making up your mind

And leave the rest of us behind

There you stand, in the doorway

You command. Is it the Dancer

Or the sure way?

Stanley says that the image of the "dancer" represents the choice he wanted his girlfriend to make--the uncertain, risky proposition of having an unplanned child. "The sure way" is abortion, which he sees as an easy way out.

"It isn't that I'm for abortion," said Stanley, who is now married, but not a father. "I don't like it. It scares me. It upsets me. However, it's nobody's business if you (are a woman who decides to have) an abortion. It's nobody's choice but yours."

Stanley says that he offered "The Dancer" to pro-choice organizations for use in their campaign to win public support for their position. "They didn't think I came out strong enough, that I should have made some (clear) statement. Maybe they're right, but it's not my style. I just wanted to say it as poetically as I could. I don't like these strident things. If I put you in an adversarial position, you're not going to listen."

"The Dancer" received heavy-rotation air play during the spring on "The Wave," Los Angeles radio station KTWV--FM. As far as Stanley knows, the song has not generated any criticism from the anti-abortion camp. Monica Logan, KTWV's music director, said there have been no listener complaints.

"Anti-abortion (activists) don't strike me as deep thinkers, anyhow," Stanley said. "They could listen to the song all day and not get it."

Among those who apparently missed the song's thematic slant was Yaakov Dvir-Djerassi, the Garden Grove Symphony general manager who came up with the idea of inviting Stanley to perform "The Dancer" with the orchestra. Dvir-Djerassi was surprised, but not displeased, when a reporter told him about the song's quietly pro-choice message.

"Frankly, I think that any art form has to paint not just flowers and scenery, but also should reflect the gray lines that we live in," he said. "As a manager of an orchestra, (one) should always provide a stage for these things as well. We are not just a lollipop thing. Although (Stanley) is a pop artist, he comes with a serious issue. This makes it even more intriguing."

No pop fan himself, Dvir-Djerassi said he used to complain about his wife's penchant for playing the soft-rock and New Age music of "the Wave" at the art gallery she runs in Garden Grove.

"I tried several times to switch the station, but unsuccessfully," he said. "I said, 'paintings go with classical music.' They tend to play similar music from day to day. Their programming is a brainwashing type, to me."

But when "The Dancer" wafted out of the art gallery radio, Dvir-Djerassi was struck by "the fact that (Stanley) was very dramatic; I don't hear it too often. He wasn't just a singer. He dramatized the song. It was like the old balladeers in Europe, the chansoniers . This is what attracted me."

Edward Peterson, conductor of the Garden Grove Symphony, also liked "The Dancer" when, in another coincidence, he later heard it on the same art gallery radio while chatting with Dvir-Djerassi. After tracking down Stanley through KTWV, they invited him to perform the song with the orchestra.

Stanley says he had been eager to perform with an orchestra, "but I didn't know how to make it come about. And then, out of the blue, it came about."

"The Dancer" appears on "Simpatico," the eighth album in a recording career that Stanley says began when a friend who happened to be carrying a copy of Stanley's demo tape saw a record executive stopped at a traffic light. Stanley said his friend jumped on the hood of the car and refused to budge until the record mogul agreed to hear the tape. That led to a deal with Wooden Nickel records, a subsidiary of RCA (Stanley had plunged into the music business after a Vietnam War-era hitch as a Chinese-language specialist for the Air Force). In recent years, he has toured extensively as the regular opening act for comedian Steven Wright. Stanley also has composed the music for television specials based on the "Cathy" comic strip.

In 1985, Stanley launched his own record company, Beachwood. Besides putting out his own records, he said, he is producing new Beachwood albums by former Moody Blues member Mike Pinder and by veteran singer-songwriter Danny O'Keefe, best known for "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues." Stanley said he will tape his orchestral performance of "The Dancer," in hopes of using it as a calling card that could lead to further orchestra gigs elsewhere.

"The Dancer," with guest singer James Lee Stanley, is one of six pieces the Garden Grove Symphony will perform in a free concert Saturday at 5 p.m. at Village Green Park, Euclid and Main streets in Garden Grove.

METAL OF HONOR: Area heavy metal bands will bang heads for a good cause in "Metal Mercy Mission," a benefit concert for the Diabetic Educational Foundation, Inc., Sunday night at 7:30 at Goodies in Fullerton.

The Placentia-based foundation was founded recently by local blues musician and concert promoter Jimmy Caravan, who has battled diabetes himself and hopes, through the organization, to inform others afflicted with the disease of the range of treatment options currently available.

The bands, in order of appearance, are Venicide, Alias, Presence, Armd & Dangerous and Alias Smith & Jones. Admission is $6 (21 and older) and $8 (18 to 21). Information: (714) 524-7072.

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