“My ideal listener is someone who’s
smoked a little pot and is playing dress-up in their room, getting ready to go
It’s balmy, almost sweltering in my
Market Street flat, not a breeze stirring as I dial up Justin Vivian Bond,
cabaret artist extraordinaire who, as we speak, is standing on the corner of Fifth
Avenue and Nineteenth Street, late on a cold drizzly Manhattan afternoon.
As I rhapsodize about our little
heat wave Justin cries out, “Don’t rub it in. I just hope it lasts until I can
get there.” Proclaimed “the best cabaret artist of his generation,” by New
Yorker critic Hilton Als, Bond is doing his second live show in a year at
the Castro Theatre (Saturday, April 9th at 8pm), again produced by
Marc Huestis, this time a live concert in celebration of his first full-length
solo CD, Dendrophile.
The title is Bond’s affectionate
term for his self-proclaimed tribe of fans. “A dendrophile gets an erotic
charge out of nature which I do – I lost my virginity in a tree house at the
age of thirteen -- so I use dendrophile to describe those who honor nature and
honor their own nature. Dendrophile is a freak flag for us
to fly under.”
Bond admits that cutting a record
is a whole new experience, one that never seemed quite the appropriate medium
for his previous incarnation as the way past her prime saloon singer Kiki
DuRane, one half of the Kiki and Herb lounge act that brought fame and a Tony
nomination for himself and musician partner Kenny Mellman.
“I wasn’t into the idea of Kiki and
Herb being recording artists so we did one Christmas record and we had our
Carnegie Hall CD. I never went into the studio as Kiki because that was
intended to be a live experience.
“When people see my shows a lot of
them say, ‘Well, we just feel that we’re in your living room.’ That’s because
I’m very intimate, very conversational – I wanted to make the record seem
intimate, so it’s very quiet, it’s not like I’m doing a show, I’m just singing
these beautiful songs for people.”
Bond is especially proud of the
album’s original compositions. American Wedding features poetry by late
Essex Hemphill set to music by Bond.
“In America I place my ring on your
cock where it belongs.
“No horseman bearing terror, no
soldiers of doom will swoop in and sweep us apart.”
“I’ve never been a huge proponent
of marriage so I can’t wait until marriage is legal so I can go back to not
caring about it anymore.”
The album features an eclectic mix
of cover songs, songs once performed by Karen Carpenter, Nina Simone, Phoebe
Snow, Melanie, Harry Nilson, Joni Mitchell and Odetta. A highlight of Bond’s
stage show is a moving rendition of The Golden Age of Hustlers by San
Francisco transsexual artist Bambi Lake.
Lamble: How would you describe your voice, it’s not a
traditional one, not even for cabaret but it really works well for a wide range
Bond: I’d like to think that it’s a voice that
conveys the life I’ve lived. I was trained for musical theatre but I wasn’t
ultimately very interested in musical theatre. I have always loved cabaret and
my voice is just another way of expressing who I am.
Lamble: These things develop a life of their own,
don’t they, without necessarily involving conscious effort.
Bond: I mean there was no way I was going to sound
like Judy Collins or Joni Mitchell so I had to sound like myself.
Lamble: Cabaret is not particularly thriving in San
Francisco these days – it’s more vital in New York but still you have to keep
reinventing it. It does seem to hang on with a new generation of artists, just
when you think it’s caput it sort of bounces back.
Bond: Cabaret by its very nature is not supposed to
remain the same, that’s what killed it when people tried to make cabaret be
something about nostalgia. Cabaret originates in Switzerland and Germany in the
beginning of the last century as a sort of political form – it was intimate, in
small rooms, it’s about an audience coalescing about ideas. Then it became very
stylish and stylized in the middle of the last century and made itself
Cabaret evolves -- it’s there when
people need it and when artists decide to express themselves in an original
way: it’s very, very big in the UK right now. Time Out London just did a
cabaret issue and they had ten different covers with ten different artists in
one week. And I do think it’s flourishing in San Francisco, it’s just that it’s
not in the traditional venues – there are so many great young queer performers
doing off-the-wall things in smaller venues, in peoples’ homes and in their
lofts and on the street.
There’s not much difference between
punk performance and cabaret if they’re done right. I went to a performance
that was under a freeway overpass in the East Bay that had a lot of young queer
bands which I consider a kind of cabaret type scenario the way they were
presenting themselves. It’s very underground but I think it exists.
Lamble: Now the Castro where you’ll be performing is
not exactly our Radio City Music Hall but it appears to be tilting towards live
performance and away from movies just the way Radio City did. Talk about
performing at the Castro.
Bond: I think it’s a real tribute to what Marc
Huestis has done there. Hilton Als sent me a link to a recording of Sylvester
and Martha Wash singing at the Castro in the 70’s. Hilton said when he talked
to Martha Wash about the performance she said they were terrified that the
balcony was going to collapse because the audience was going crazy. I’m so
happy to be a part of the Castro’s ongoing live performance history.