Dearest People of UrHo and beyond,
A festival is about to x-plode all over the place. Evidence of this can be found almost everywhere in town. (and out of town – see the mighty article on TBA Artist Antony and the Johnsons from todays NYT below…) Your invited of course- there are lots of free to the public events- and for those of you who want to attend more than that- volunteer. It is easy good stuff with many rewards like that ” i just did something selfless” feeling and that ” i just got free tickets” feeling. email [email protected] or visit TBA Central on 11th and Glisan NW to sign up.
Ok now read about this beautiful warbling man who will be performing right here during TBA…
(Ps. three cheers to Mike, Curt and Jona for the Blogs new outfit. Spiffy.)
TBA PRESS CORP PERSON, Kristan Kennedy
September 4, 2005 / New York Times Magazine
Antony Find His Voice
By JOHN HODGMAN
One morning in early July, I sat next to Antony, of Antony and the Johnsons, in Studio 4 of the BBC’s radio center in Maida Vale, a quiet neighborhood of London. Down below us, the Johnsons — the small, rotating-member chamber ensemble that regularly accompanies Antony — were chatting and tuning up, getting ready to record a few songs for Radio 1. Antony had his laptop open, and he was watching a video of his recent appearance on ”Later,” an influential British TV music program whose host is Jools Holland, who used to be in the band Squeeze. I watched over his shoulder. There on the screen was Antony, in the long brunette hair extensions he has been wearing lately, the straight Karen Carpenter hair framing his gentle, full-moon face. He sang from the piano in his signature high quaver — ”Hope there’s someone/Who’ll take care of me/When I die; will I go?/Hope there’s someone/Who’ll set my heart free. . . . ”
”Hope There’s Someone” is the first song on his second album, ”I Am a Bird Now,” which was released in January. Like most of his songs, it has the pace and intimacy of breathing. And like most of his songs, it’s a sad song. Over two full-length records, two EP’s and a series of downtown New York plays and stage shows going back 15 years, Antony has often returned to a kind of soulful, melancholic pining — for lost friends, dead loves and especially for transformation. Antony, 34, sings often of wanting to become a spirit or to grow wings, to be set loose from a world where he is alone. Or of wanting to become a woman. Gender is a recurring note of disappointment for Antony — not necessarily his own, but the fact of it. Someday, he announces in a song called ”For Today I Am a Boy,” he will grow up to be a beautiful woman, and in his voice you hear the word ”woman” as an embodiment of all the wisdom and power and fearlessness of his idol, Nina Simone. But for today, he then responds in tender resignation, he remains a child, a work in progress: a boy.
And while he has been no stranger to theatrical, gender-twisting finery onstage, and while his earliest work was presented in the queer mecca of the East Village’s Pyramid Club in the early 90′s, it would be wrong to call him a drag act. The makeup and silk slips he has worn onstage have never seemed to be an imitation of womanliness but more a pursuit of a kind of inclusive idea of beauty that he is still in the midst of defining. (He has also appeared in handsome suits and, once, with a sack over his head.)
As I watched him perform on ”Later,” Antony seemed fragile, singing his heart out with an almost unsettling, childlike emotional transparency and power. ”Oh, I’m scared of that middle place between light and nowhere,” he sang. What was harder to see on television was that he is basically gigantic: a broad-shouldered man, more than six feet tall. ”It’s like seeing a Viking!” Laurie Anderson, one of Antony’s many champions, told me, laughing, when I asked her about him. ”You don’t think of someone who has that large a physical presence being so unbelievably delicate.”
As Antony watched, Michelle O’Connor, who works with the company that booked Antony on ”Later,” told him that his appearance spiked sales in England of ”I Am a Bird Now” by 59 percent: some 54,000 copies have shipped as of this writing. ”Hope There’s Someone” was BBC Radio 1′s ”single of the week” in May. And while Antony has lived since age 10 in the United States, his childhood in southern England qualified him for a nomination this year for the Mercury Prize, the U.K.’s most prestigious music honor, which will be awarded on Tuesday. In the U.S., his work has received near universal praise from critics, and he is now an emerging fixture on college radio. He has gone from downtown New York cult status to national alternative status and to Carnegie Hall, where he will appear next month.
Antony, a serial self-deprecator, was not swayed by O’Connor’s enthusiasm. ”I look like the fat girl from Heart,” he said with a hangdog expression. Then he sighed, as if to say, Oh, well. ”At least I’m a fat girl.”
For this session at BBC Radio, the Johnsons included some longtime collaborators (Maxim Moston, Julia Kent and Jeff Langston on violin, cello and bass, respectively) and two newer members (Rob Moose on guitar and Uri Sharlin on accordion). They had just come in from Germany and would leave today for Switzerland. An easy camaraderie had developed among them, and they joked quietly as they settled into their seats. They also had a clear affection for Antony, who was now lying on the floor nearby, staring at the ceiling, relaxing and listening. He was wearing a brown-and-green hoodie, black pants and brown, thin-soled, rundown shoes that might have once been suede. (”I finally wore out my lucky shoes,” he would later tell me. ”They just literally disintegrated!”) A modish square black cap was mashed down over his short black hair.
After a few minutes, he got up, sat at the piano and started gently arranging the Johnsons around him. He asked Maxim and Julia to switch places with Uri so that the accordion wouldn’t drown out the strings. ”I want all of our volumes to be as though we were doing a performance in this room,” he said.
Then he asked everyone to move in closer to him, and closer still.
”I want everyone to hear each other perfectly and not have it sound like a mix,” he said. ”Can’t we just get closer?”
Gamely, the Johnsons moved and huddled in. Antony wanted them not to wear headphones, but Rob and Maxim disagreed, and they respectfully wore him down.
”O.K.,” he said. ”I just don’t want to play loud. I want it to be intimate.”
To which Uri raised his eyebrows and replied, ”Have we ever played loud?”
Then Antony cleared the room of us non-Johnsons — the radio bookers, the label rep, the tour manager, the journalist. We went to watch from the mixing room.
Through the window, I watched as Antony, at the piano, closed his eyes, completely immersed. As the Johnsons played, they watched him closely: his mouth curling into a pained grin as he began to sing, his hands curling into loose fists. Then he held his arms out to either side like wings.
ntony’s voice is difficult to describe. It is a largely untrained but instinctive and wholly singular sound that keens in the upper registers, somewhere between male and female, between childish innocence and weary adulthood, at once ethereal and earthy.
It emanates from a diverse tradition of divas and divos, including Nina Simone, but also Boy George and Otis Redding, Marc Almond of Soft Cell and Donny Hathaway. Antony is also arguably part of a more recent pop-musical urge that rejects seamless production and lyrical ironies in favor of heart-on-sleeve sincerity. It is an aesthetic embraced by neo-folkists like Sufjan Stevens and Devendra Banhart and nightclub crooners like the Francophonic chanteuse Keren Ann.
But Antony’s is not a voice to soothe your ride up a trafficky West Side Highway and into the weekend. It is beautiful but unsettling. He often multitracks his own backing vocals, and when his voice occasionally swoops in to accompany itself in spare, churchy harmony, you might almost drive off the road — surely there could not be two such rare and fragile creatures in the world. It’s so arresting that it’s sometimes easier to credit it to some otherworldly being (”angelic” comes up a lot in various descriptions) or some primal earth force. ”Every emotion in the planet is in that gorgeous voice,” the downtown avant-garde singer Diamanda Galas has said.
But if his singing voice overwhelms, his speaking voice comforts and draws you in. It’s low and warm. Sometimes he even sounds a little stuffed up, and you want to offer him a hanky. He is funny and articulate, and he listens generously. When he fears he has spoken too much, or too pretentiously, he calls himself a ”jerkosaurus.” Remnants of his English accent reassert themselves suddenly. He says Manhattan with sharp, crisp T’s; the word ”baby” is stretched out to BAY-bee, ”rowdy” to ROW-dee, as in ”It’s been so crazy. So ROW-dee.”
We were sitting on the English Maid, a boat-turned-cafe on the south bank of the Thames. As we pitched and yawed on the choppy water, he told me, beaming, about some of the shows he has been doing. ”It’s amazing to see how diverse the audiences are,” he said. ”It’s a whole panorama of different kinds of people: young people, cute kids, older people, straight guys with shaved heads and beards. I think in the United States I’m still more subcultural. Here I think it’s really straddling the normal world and the underworld.
”It’s a sign of the times,” he went on to say, ”that someone like me could have a forum to present myself.”
He was not gushy, or in the least triumphant when he said it. It was a grateful but distant assessment, as if the idea of breaking through to the normal world had simply never occurred to him. He had always been too busy trying to break into the underworld.
Born Antony Hegarty, in Chichester, England, he is the second of four children. His father, an engineer, and mother, a photographer, moved the family at various points ”in pursuit of their muses,” Antony said, leaving England for the Netherlands and then California. By the time he was 10, Antony’s parents had settled in San Jose, where he went to a Catholic elementary school and then a magnet high school for the performing arts. He sang in the choir and in a death-rock band. It was always apparent that he was gay, though Antony resists the term as he tends to resist all labels. (”I probably would marry a man,” he would tell me after much tortured consideration. ”So that probably answers your question around whom I’m attracted to. I wasn’t really one of those kids who needed to come out.”)
As Antony moved into his teen years, in the early 80′s, punk had already moved on to post-punk, and pop culture was beginning to be subverted in a quieter way by the cool gender-sedition of synth pop and the New Romantics — bands like the Human League, Adam and the Ants, ABC and Spandau Ballet, who casually added cosmetics to sharp suits (or pirate shirts). And then there was Boy George, whose unapologetic androgyny was so brightly obvious that it burned a huge blind spot on the culture’s eye. At the time, Antony told me, the sexuality of a performer like Boy George wasn’t the sort of thing that was even discussed. ”Now a presentation like that would be inextricably linked to a dialogue about sexual orientation, or gender orientation, whereas then it could still fall under the umbrella of ‘plumage,”’ he said as he finished a cup of tea that looked small in his hand. ”People could perceive it as wacky performing — the way they received Little Richard or Liberace.”
Despite its reputation as a glass-brick-and-neon cultural vacuum, the 80′s ”were still a time when rough human things could get through,” Antony suggested. And if some people failed to decode the message Boy George was sending, Antony heard it clearly.
By his late teens, while at U.C. Santa Cruz, he was staging plays based on John Waters movies. Then he saw the 1988 cult documentary ”Mondo New York,” a tour of the underground music and performance-art scene in New York that follows a blond young woman in high-top aerobic shoes as she wanders from the Wooster Group composer Phoebe Legere singing about Marilyn Monroe to the modern geek Joe Coleman biting the heads off mice to a monologue by the performance artist Karen Finley. But what impressed Antony was Joey Arias, the drag diva, dressed as Billie Holiday, singing ”A Hard Day’s Night.” ”It was so aggressive and so extremely beautiful . . . and even curiously vulnerable,” Antony later told me. ”It’s this incredible combination of things that have always attracted me.”
Antony moved across the country in 1990 and enrolled in the Experimental Theater program at New York University, where he met Martin Worman. Worman was a former member of the Cockettes — the San Francisco song-and-dance troupe of cross-dressing hippies led by a young actor with glitter in his beard who took the name Hibiscus. Worman would take Antony aside after class. ”He would sort of bring me to Washington Square Park and say, ‘Here’s your family tree,”’ Antony said. Worman outlined a series of begats, showing where Antony fit into the history of what Antony termed, reluctantly, jerkosaurusly, the history of ”transvestism and the avant-garde.” The filmmaker and performance artist Jack Smith inspired Charles Ludlam, of the 1960′s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, and also inspired Hibiscus to move out to San Francisco and found the Cockettes.
”Jimmy Camicia saw Angels of Light, an offshoot of the Cockettes, and started the Hot Peaches,” Antony told me. ”Bette Bourne saw Hot Peaches and started Bloolips. And actually I saw Bloolips when I was 16, and I started Blacklips. And you start piecing it all together in your mind. You find out about Joey Arias and Klaus Nomi” — the German androgyne who sang opera while dressed as a spaceman. ”You just piece it together in your mind.”
But what Antony soon discovered was that it was all vanishing before his eyes. New York’s seedy refuges were being reclaimed by the straight world. And then there was AIDS.
”I was sort of a little historian when I arrived in New York,” Antony said as we sat on the English Maid. His eyes were level and serious; his mouth was turned down at the corners. ”Especially because of the climate, with all these stars and mentor-age people dropping like flies. There were all these little black holes in the skies. They might have been people who in a different time I might have talked to and fallen under their wings. But instead I was pursuing stories and trying to find out what had happened.”
Martin Worman died, leaving his voluminous research and memories of the Cockettes behind, nearly forgotten. Antony began building new worlds, staging plays and musicals and seeking out contemporaries. Blacklips was the performance collective he founded in 1992 with his friend Johanna Constantine, a performance ”cult” that, according to a Web site devoted to its memory, consisted of 15 or so ”downtown artists, gender mutants and drug-addicted hybrids.” Late at night at the Pyramid Club they would stage gory, outrageous variety programs that typically concluded with Antony appearing at the end singing, dressed as God or Charles Manson.
After Blacklips he formed a new performance group, which he called the Johnsons, in order to focus more squarely on his own plays and songs. In 1995 the Johnsons staged a play at P.S. 122, an East Village performance space, in which a businessman becomes mysteriously pregnant and ends up giving birth to Anne Frank. It garnered him a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, which he would use later that year to record his first album, the self-titled ”Antony and the Johnsons.” It’s a heartbroken album, documenting the dark rapture that had taken so many of the heroes Antony had sought and never known. The album includes a moving ode to Divine, the muse of John Waters who was also known as Harris Glenn Milstead, the ”Mother of America” whose ”big fat heart” Antony offers to carry in his hands to the future.
But when he was done recording the album, Antony endured a medical condition that stole his voice just as he was finding it. It would eventually be alleviated by a series of steroid treatments, but for about a year, Antony could not hit his notes, and he did not know if his voice would ever come back again. ”All I could do was sit and sort of scream hoarsely,” he told me. ”It was a kind of meet-your-maker type of situation. I remember lying on the floor just screaming: ‘I’m going down with this ship if you do this to me! I’m going down with the ship!”’
fter the English Maid had made us sufficiently queasy, Antony and I walked around London, and we talked about the cover of his new album — Peter Hujar’s haunting deathbed photograph of Candy Darling, the transvestite Warhol superstar who died young of leukemia.
”He took portraits of New York underground artists, painters, photographers, writers, drag queens,” Antony said of Hujar. ”He was a peer of Mapplethorpe’s, but where all of Mapplethorpe’s pictures were obsessed with the perfection of the surface, Hujar’s were obsessed with the essence. In a way, he says everything I would like to say in a song. His pictures show someone who is suspended between light and darkness.”
Hujar, too, died in the 80′s, and Antony still seems actively astonished and humbled that two of Hujar’s friends, John Erdman and Gary Schneider, helped Antony secure the rights to the image.
I asked him how he felt about all the people who had, in recent years, come to his aid.
”I’m the luckiest dog in the world,” he said quietly, and then: ”Should we have a sandwich maybe?”
Things began to gather momentum for Antony four years ago. He released his EP, ”I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy,” which featured a cover image of Antony writhing on the ground beneath the gaze of a nude Japanese hermaphrodite named Julia Yasuda and also the performance artist Johanna Constantine, Antony’s old friend — nude but for antlers, leaves and body paint.
This image caught the attention of the producer Hal Willner, who bought the EP and played it for Lou Reed, with whom he was working at the time.
”I said, ‘Who is that?”’ Reed recalled. ”So we set out to find him, and he was a few blocks away as it turns out.” Antony came by not long after. I asked Reed how Antony seemed at that first meeting. Nervous? Shy?
No, Reed said. ”He seemed normal. Whatever that means. He’s a great guy, absurdly talented, and he seemed ready to sing.” But it’s not only that he can sing, Reed added. ”It’s these parts he can come up with, these ways of double tracking, these really unusual harmonies. . . . I could listen to Antony all day.” Reed invited Antony to tour with him throughout 2003, and every night Antony would sing ”Candy Says,” Reed’s spare, sad tribute to Candy Darling.
By this time Antony and the Johnsons had had a semiregular gig at Joe’s Pub, and in 2004 he created a show called ”Turning” with the video artist Charles Atlas as part of the Whitney Biennial. In it, Antony serenaded a group of 13 models who took turns standing on a rotating platform. Some were biological women, some were transgendered, and Antony referred to them equally, beguilingly, as ”Beauties.”
Meanwhile, he had fallen in with a group of younger musicians, most notably Devendra Banhart and the sister act known as CocoRosie, who were defining a new scene sometimes called ”freak folk,” an atmospheric music that takes blues, folk, hip-hop and noise — from tape hiss to busy boxes — and spins them into something that sounds like a kind of found recording, a tape Alan Lomax might have discovered lying on the floor of an abandoned Ozark cabin that had previously been inhabited by a time-traveling French spaceman. Banhart included Antony on his compilation ”The Golden Apples of the Sun” in 2004 — the closest thing the scene would have to a manifesto. ”It sort of unified this idea and tied all these threads together in his world and tied me into it,” Antony now said as we sat in a humid sandwich shop. ”They swept me off my feet and said, You can be with us. And in a way it was the first time I’d ever had a group, musically.”
Inspired in part by Banhart’s low-tech approach to recording, Antony began stripping away many of the theatrics from his music and his act. While recording his next album, he worked to capture the warmth and closeness of a live performance. For the first time, he left center stage and performed behind the piano, where he could better direct the careful pacing his songs required.
”For several years I’d do these huge plays with 50 people doing fan kicks around me,” he recalled. ”It was a fortification I needed.” Now, however, he was ready to be himself. ”I didn’t like the artifice, the plumage, the archness of a cupcakey costume,” he said. ”I just wanted to wear something that reflected me.”
Most of all, the soul and blues and jazz that he had been listening to since he was a teenager began to assert itself more prominently in his phrasing and arrangements. ”Fistful of Love,” a song he performed back in his Blacklips days, was, on ”I Am a Bird Now,” heated up by horns into a chugging, growling wonder that almost lets you forget that it is sung from the point of view of an abused lover celebrating his own bruises.
Lou Reed opens that particular song with a short soliloquy (”I was lying in my bed last night staring/At a ceiling full of stars/When suddenly it hit me/I just have to let you know how I feel”). He’s one of many guest voices on ”I Am a Bird Now,” including Devendra Banhart, Rufus Wainwright and, perhaps most notably, Boy George, whom Antony got to know through working briefly on ”Taboo” before its short run on Broadway.
”Antony’s vulnerability is so honest and powerful, and that is what makes a true star,” Boy George wrote me in an e-mail message. But, he pointed out, ”I’ve seen live audiences twitching when he performs, because some people get very uncomfortable with such raw vulnerability. I love it. It’s what we need now.”
Once again, Antony was arranging a world around him, but this time filling it with legends, heroes, survivors. The song he sings with Boy George is a slow, stately duet called ”You Are My Sister.” Earlier this year, they sang it together at Joe’s Pub, and Boy George says he saw Lou Reed in the audience with tears in his eyes.
And then, when his spring tour swung through Ireland, Antony had to sing it in Belfast by himself. ”You seemed to move through the places that I feared,” he sang. ”You lived inside my world so softly. . . . ”
And the crowd, already knowing the words, sang Boy George’s chorus back to him: ”You are my sister, and I love you/May all of your dreams come true.”
For the first time in a long time, Antony began to feel hopeful. But, he said as we finished our lunch, ”I love that quote from Candy Darling, from her diaries, when she says, ‘Love is a delicate spirit that loses its essence under scrutiny.’ I think sometimes hope is the same way. Do you know what I mean? You have to be gentle with it.”
“You may be concerned about the lack of, well, of upbeat songs,” said Antony to the audience. This was at Town Hall in New York, in late July. And then, after a perfect comedic pause: ”I can assure you this is something I’ve been working on.”
Antony was wearing loose, comfortable clothes and a kind of black spiderwebby sweater — and, of course, that dark, glossy hair of mysterious origin. Whenever I asked him if the hair had a special significance, he would tend to demur. ”Long hair has a certain earthiness and a certain femininity that I like,” he wrote me in an e-mail message. ”It frames my face better and I feel better.” When I asked him if it was a wig, and if so, was it one of many, he would not say. ”If Elton John and Beyonce divulge their beauty secrets, I promise I shall follow suit!” he wrote.
The Town Hall show was the first since Antony returned from Europe, and his first since his Mercury nomination. The house was packed with the devoted and the curious. I spotted at least as many hetero couples cuddling as male couples, and sprinkled throughout were a few white-haired bohemians and their preternaturally hip grandchildren. Some among the crowd were clearly initiates (afterward, one woman boasted to her friend that she had been moved to tears on three separate occasions).
Antony had never played Town Hall before as a headliner, and there was an argument to be made that this would be his toughest crowd. This was not Belfast, where people apparently are eager to burst into song. This was jaded Manhattan, home to those Americans perhaps most likely to twitch uncomfortably at the first signs of honesty or vulnerability.
I began to think about Klaus Nomi. One thing that has encouraged Antony to hope lately is the number of people who have rediscovered the secret history of transvestism and the avant-garde that he felt was slipping through his fingers. In 1997, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens presented a Jack Smith retrospective. Worman’s notes and interviews with the surviving Cockettes became the core material for a new documentary on the group, ”The Cockettes,” while Andrew Horn’s film ”The Nomi Song” has similarly retraced the life of Klaus Nomi.
Nomi was a classically trained opera singer and gay man who came to Manhattan in the 70′s and began performing at downtown hipster vaudeville nights. He would sing opera and pop songs in an unearthly, womanly falsetto while performing elaborate, proto-break-dancing robot maneuvers with his arms. And unlike many of the early ironists he performed with, he was so honest and sincere about it that everyone was left speechless.
Nomi had a pretty fine career by downtown standards, recording a couple of albums in France, at least one of which went gold, and translating his act to several TV appearances. In 1979 he and Joey Arias were asked by David Bowie to sing backup in an appearance on ”Saturday Night Live,” and their appearance together is reproduced in the documentary. It is a moment of resplendent and triumphant weirdness: Nomi off to the side and in the back, earnestly doing his little androgynous robot dance, compelling and authentically alien, while Bowie, front and center, did his simultaneous translation for the crowd, with his matinee looks and unnervingly suave voice — even in a triangular vinyl tuxedo and makeup, he was a pop star. Nomi, according to the film, considered this his big break, and perhaps it was. But three years later, he died of AIDS. We will never know if he might have moved into the spotlight, into the Bowie position. Or what might have happened once he got there.
Now, on the Town Hall stage, the Johnsons grew quiet, and Antony turned from the piano to the darkened hall, his round eyes scanning the audience mischievously. He whistled — a crystalline little bird call that lasted for maybe five seconds. And then he did it again.
The hall was silent. No one knew what he was doing. He seemed to feel the weight of many blank stares. But as he whistled again and kept at it, it became clear that Antony would not stop. For all his delicacy, he is, like Lou Reed and Boy George, a survivor — an angel and a Viking at once.
And then it happened. From way up in the balcony you could hear, just barely, a distant whistle back. Then more joined, and more. The whistling bounced around the hall, filling it with birdsong, and Antony sat back, smiled and listened, relieved and grateful.
John Hodgman is a contributing writer for the magazine. His first book, ”The Areas of My Expertise,” will be published next month.