JUSTIN VIVIAN BOND with Jarrett Earnest
Justin Vivian Bond is a writer and singer who became famous in the 1990s as Kiki DuRane, half of the cabaret duo Kiki and Herb. An icon of the transgender community, Bond uses “V” in place of gendered pronouns, and has published a moving account of growing-up called Tango: My Childhood Backward and in Heels (Feminist Press, 2011). The latest installment of V’s holiday special, “Star of Light! An Evening of Bi-Polar Witchy Wonder,” will run December 17 – 23 at Joe’s Pub, combining Bond’s signature mix of a comedic storytelling and holiday torch songs. V met with the Rail’s Jarrett Earnest to discuss “Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer,” “Future Feminism,” and “Feelings.”
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): “Holiday Specials” are a special event, what are some that were important to you as a child?
Justin Vivian Bond: The first one I remember and that I still love the most is “Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer” (1964)—I still watch it every year. Rudolph was an outcast and had a little red shiny nose that got him into a lot of trouble; he had to go on an Odyssean journey, overcoming various obstacles in order to return to his family and be appreciated for who he truly was. I’ve always appreciated that story and the fact that his girlfriend Clarice was so glamorous—I also really loved “Meet me in St. Louis” (1944).
Rail: The darkest of all Christmas movies—
Bond: Yes! I sing the song from that movie knowing that the original lyric was not “have yourself a merry little Christmas, may your heart be light,” but “have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last.” They changed it because Judy Garland said, “I can’t sing that to little Margaret O’Brian, I’ll be public enemy number one!”
Rail: I know the Rudolph thing is kind of a joke but—
Bond: It’s not a joke!
Rail: Well, to take it a bit too seriously: isn’t it a little troubling that Rudolph is ostracized but then welcomed back and celebrated for his difference only when he becomes useful to them? I feel that is a little bit like “gay visibility” right now, like as long as you are good consumers and good citizens—that you want to get married and have babies and be in the army—we’ll let you pull the sleigh.
Bond: I guess the question is: once they found the island of misfit toys, why did they leave? They could have just stayed there. I think it was his thing for Clarice—love made him go back I guess.
Rail: I always thought the island of misfit toys was the most exciting part of that movie.
Bond: This is why I think people are so disappointed in the things that have been happening in my two favorite cities, New York and San Francisco, because the islands of misfit toys have been overrun by Donner and Blitzen and their reindeer games. It’s so tragic. We have to find a new island. And the misfit toys—let’s face it—fix things up real nice and then everyone want to move into the misfit toys’ neighborhood and kick them out. It’s the way it’s been for thousands of years, since the invention of language.
Rail: Your memoir Tango focuses on childhood sexuality and not the beginnings of your artistic life. I’m very interested in your life as a singer—when did you begin?
Bond: I always sang when I was a kid. I remember having a solo of “High Hopes” (1994) when I was in the forth grade, thanks to Mr. McGruder, a second grade teacher at my elementary school, who I realized many years later must have been gay. I was beyond thrilled. I never felt that I would be a popular singer because I didn’t feel I was the kind of person who would sing the kind of songs that were on the radio. Finally with Kiki and Herb I found a way to do popular songs in a punk-cabaret style that felt unique at the time we were doing it, though a lot of people are doing that now. People liked my monologues and stories so I guess I developed a lot of different tricks as a way of justifying asking people to listen to me sing. It’s only been within the last few years I’ve started to think I’m actually a good singer and that is mainly because I’ve put out a few records and people seem to like them. So up until I began putting out records I wasn’t sure.
Rail: Silver Wells (2012) is such a beautiful album—you have a very specific and unusual voice and a lot of the singers you cover have singular voices: Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, or Kate Bush. One thing I’ve been wondering is, “What is in the aesthetic reality of a voice—these women’s voices and your voice?”
Bond: The first singer that I fell in love with is Judy Collins, her voice is just so purely beautiful—in my opinion the ideal of what a beautiful female voice would sound like. She can sing these crazy high soprano notes but she also has a very rich alto. If I ever needed something as a child to soothe me, Judy Collins is what I went to—she is my musical mother. But the voice that really opened my ears to the possibilities of being a singer was Melanie. I found Melanie at the library when I was in middle school, I checked out a record that had “Candles in the Rain,” “Leftover Wine,” and her version of “Carolina in My Mind” by James Taylor. What I heard in Melanie’s voice that I hadn’t found in any other, and that I wanted in my own singing, is where the lyrics and the voice were only there to serve expressing the emotion. Her voice, unlike Judy Collins, was not traditionally beautiful. It was powerful, interesting, emotional, really intense, but it wasn’t “pretty.” I thought, “that is what I want to be able to do.” With Kiki I had a lot of rage and there was stuff going on emotionally in the world that I thought I could channel. At the end of the 15 years of doing Kiki I didn’t want to have to manufacture rage in order to serve what that character had become. Then I decided I needed to rediscover my own natural voice, instead of a character voice, and that is when I started writing my own songs and discovering my own voice. I did some originals and some covers on Dendrophile (2011). I had a series at Joe’s Pub with Thomas Bartlett and we did all of the songs that would eventually become Silver Wells. It was very spare and raw—just vocals and piano. We thought the simplicity of the arrangements were very strong so we decided to make a record. At that time I was depressed and feeling that the only way I could be happy at that time was to sing these particular songs because I just couldn’t do anything else. I had to sing sad songs because sad songs cheered me up.
Rail: Part of what I like about Silver Wells is that it’s a lot of songs I already had deep relationships with—you made the decision to subtly strip and intensify them to the point where they feel like incantations. The first song is the Ronee Blakley song “Dues,” which I fell in love with in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975). Then comes Kate Bush’s “The Kick Inside” (1978) and then Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” (1965). Those are such different types of performers and voices. How did you approach singing them?
Bond: Here is what we all have in common and what makes them such great singers: when you listen to Ronee Blakley you enter a world, a world that is exclusive to Ronee Blakley—her song writing style and way of singing is so uniquely “Ronee Blakley.” In the same way when you step into a Kate Bush record you step into a world, same with Nina Simone—those people and their voices take you to a specific place. My goal as a singer is to somehow manage to not only live in the worlds they created, but to also bring in my own experiences and express what I’ve experienced in my world. By doing that I’m not trying to subvert them, but honor them, and share in a way that reflects the world which my audiences are a part of. That is why I loved Melanie: “Melanie—child of the ’60s” was channeling this ’60s flower child thing, but she was also channeling the flipside, which is the isolated vulnerability that comes when you become a representation of that movement. As an artist you somehow need to maintain your individuality and your vulnerability within your iconography or you’re lost.
Rail: In these songs you keep the phrasing the same but they do feel completely new: that is an amazing thing to pull off. You know it’s a Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell skeleton, but it has been beautifully re-embodied as a Justin Vivian Bond song.
Bond: I don’t feel it’s important to gratuitously change a song just so it’s different, but I do try and make it my own. I’ve thought about that before and asked myself if I should make some major effort to reinvent this song. I don’t think that is necessary in most cases if you’re coming from an honest place.
Rail: One of the reasons I think it is effective to not change them is that most of the songs you choose already have powerful feelings attached to them for people, so keeping the skeleton of the song the same you tap directly into that pre-existing emotional reservoir, but you’re reanimating it so it can go somewhere else because your voice is so different.
Bond: I feel that those songs are iconic but, as you know, there are so many people that have never heard them—they are not particularly popular songs by the artists themselves who originally performed them—“Let the Wind Carry Me” is not the first song you think of when you think of Joni Mitchell.
Rail: They are songs that most people haven’t heard, unless they are a specific kind of person. I think that is what makes them special and that is a way of community building, of talking to a community. One thing I’d like to understand a little better is the context of Kiki and Herb emerging in San Francisco with all of their anger and rage, out of the AIDS crisis and culture wars—
Bond: When I created the character of Kiki I had been reading “Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret” (1991) by Jim Gavin. By the 1950s cabaret was a very popular art, singing standards and jazz in these nightclub venues—a hugely successful and dynamic thing in New York City. Then rock ‘n’ roll came along and suddenly everyone covering Lennon-McCartney songs to death to seem relevant. Cabaret singers went from being at the heights of their creative and professional lives to being completely irrelevant—footnotes in history. At the time I was reading that the same thing was happening to gay people and gay culture—choreographers and fashion designers, amazing people who were vital parts of culture were just suddenly gone. Willi Smith for instance was this great designer and then he was dead—who knows about Willi Smith now? I thought it was interesting when thinking in terms of these parallels to have these characters teetering on that edge. To many people, Kiki was a kind of death figure, a survivor. She was operating from a place of: “What do you do to maintain relevance for an audience? Do you desperately cling to an idea of what you have been, or who you were, or do you adapt and fight to survive in the face of all but certain erasure?” At that time, as queers, we knew the Reagan administration, or the Bush administration, or Jesse Helms, or certain politicians, literally wanted us dead. They did not want to help—they wanted us to die. That is all there was to it—and there we were, “look everybody is dying!” At the same time there was also this great spirit of joy and anarchy because we were young and believed we could win the battle, so Kiki and Herb wasn’t a dreary show to see at all—it was crazy, fun, and chaotic with dark gallows humor, and it gave people a chance to laugh at what they were really experiencing as a horrible, terrifying time in their lives—so that is where that came from.
Rail: One thing I find delightful: recently it seems like any time there is a trans issue, media outlets use you as a talking head to weigh in on it. What is the experience of dealing with Justin Vivian Bond as a public entity?
Bond: I’ve always had such a big fucking mouth. One time when I was performing in D.C. I was being put up in a fabulous bed and breakfast run by this amazing queen named Gerald Duval. When I arrived he was wearing a jaunty beret with a red cashmere sweater and he immediately sat me down and insisted on reading to me from this book that would tell you about your personality based on the day you were born—according to this book I was born on “the day of moral courage.” I guess that explains things as much as anything does, if I disagree with somebody and I think they are making a call that is essentially offensive or incorrect I cannot but help throw my two cents worth in—I guess that is how I ended up being a spokesperson. I felt that Kiki and Herb were intrinsically political, and I continue to feel that most of what I do is intrinsically political. And notice I say “feel” instead of “think”—that must mean something too.
Rail: I liked when you said that when you listen to singers like Kate Bush or Nina Simone you “enter their world.” Part of what I admire about you is just your way of being in the world, that all of these things—performing, writing, singing, talking to the Huffington Post, etc.—are extensions of your larger world view.
Bond: I think my greatest skill is contextualization—I’m a contexualizer. With Kiki and Herb, that character was powerful because of the context given to it by the community in which it was originally created. When I stepped away from that character I discovered that by surrounding myself with my community it once again helped me ease into my voice as a performer. When I finally got to the point when I was recording Silver Wells, if you knew anything about me, then those world-making songs by the individual artists would be re-contextualized and would reflect where I was coming from when I sang them. I guess that is, in essence, what you’re saying—and why it all somehow works together, and I think that is very liberating.
Rail: What is exciting about you as a public figure is the way that you refuse a gender binary, which falls outside all easy categories. That is not a comfortable place to be. How did you become able to articulate that place?
Bond: That is a good way of putting the question because I was already in that place, so getting to the part of where I was able to articulate it, and where I felt that it was worth the trouble of articulating it, was something that I have struggled with all of my life. I was fortunate that I met Kate Bornstein in San Francisco and she asked me to do “Hidden: A Gender” (1989) playing Herculine Barbin, the 19th-century intersex person. I didn’t want to do the show. I had this really amazing roommate, the only time I had a straight male roommate, who was a really smart and lovely guy. I said to him ,“read this script and tell me what you think.” He said “it’s a great script, you really should do it. I can’t imagine anyone else playing this part.” I didn’t want to do it because at that time I had lived in San Francisco for about a year and I was finally, for the first time in my life, able to enjoy the company of men, specifically gay men, specifically queens. I was enjoying running around in my combat boots and having grown my hair out and being androgynous, though perceived as a young cute boy. I’d never felt like a sexual object as before and I liked it. I had this fear that once everyone knew I was trans, all of that was going to disappear. And I knew that once that happened there was going to be no going back, just like when I was outed as gay at the age of 10 or 11 and everyone said I was a fag in the sixth grade—there was never any going back. Fortunately, I had the wonderful experience of working with Kate who is a very nurturing person and who explained that you didn’t have to be a man or a woman. She basically understood what I was and helped me to become better able to articulate myself. Kiki was much less challenging to people. Kiki was perceived by some people to be a drag queen but in my mind I was playing the character of a woman so they didn’t have to deal with the aspects of me that would confuse them, there were specifics that they could latch onto. Meeting Nath Ann Carrera who became my lover for several years, and surrounding myself with community, made it possible for me to express being trans without identifying as “male” or “female.” Contextualizing that is not necessarily easy but I do feel that it’s important to try—many people don’t articulate it themselves but they understand. When I went to the Future Feminism show at The Hole (September 11 – 17, 2014) their 13th tenet was “THE FUTURE IS FEMALE” and I was so disappointed. Seeing that etched in rose quartz made me feel so utterly hopeless.
Rail: I felt that too. It was almost right, but it wasn’t.
Bond: Yes, in many ways they were so right on! But I felt that tenet 13 was problematic because that sort of language feeds the patriarchal power structures it’s trying to eliminate. By using binaristic categorizations and playing into the “us vs. them” mentality we defeat our own argument. The future is not certain. At most it is, at this point, a concept. Since when are concepts gendered? Together we could work towards achieving a more balanced future but it won’t be “female.” Is the past male? Is the present trans? Maybe for some people, but not for everyone. Regardless, if you want to cast off oppressive patriarchal tactics you can’t do it by adopting patriarchal tropes. Using binaristic language is easy, but it’s lazy. I felt completely erased from Future Feminism when I read that statement and I have to believe that was not their intention.
Rail: One thing I was disturbed by when I was reading an article about you in New York Magazine was a whole section that was like, “I asked all of these friends of Justin Vivian Bond about V’s taking hormones and they seemed shocked and didn’t know what to say,” followed by a string of quotes. And I just wondered what the hell was going on—
Bond: I guess certain people were disappointed that I started taking hormones. It’s just something that I chose to do because more than anything I thought it actually made a medical record of me being trans rather than me just saying it. By working with my doctor I was able to find the right balance so I could really feel right. I know a lot of trans women don’t want any testosterone—they take testosterone blockers—they want to look as much like their idea of a “real woman” as possible and to have that be the way that they express themselves. That is great for them and I totally support that choice, but when I was on the testosterone blockers I was so depressed and I didn’t have any sexual desire and I was really in a horrible state. It was confusing because everyone kept telling me how great I looked because I was looking really feminine and my skin looked great. I liked that I was developing breasts and that I appeared softer but when I was in Australia on tour and was researching this drug I was taking I read that it was what they give to sexual predators and I thought, “I don’t want to take drugs they give to sexual predators! This isn’t supposed to be a punishment!” I’m just trying to figure out where I want to be and what feels right for me. For now I seem to have found the right balance. It’s not just a political choice—if it were maybe I wouldn’t have taken estrogen at all. For me it’s also a personal and aesthetic choice because it helps me to me look and feel the way I want to look and feel. So my decisions are ultimately made for myself and no one else and I think that’s as it should be. When I’m naked I like the way I look. It’s my choice to present myself as the gendered and sexualized being that I want to be. Other people have the ability to wear lipstick, or go to the gym and work out, or to do the things they want to do in order to have the kind of body that they want in order to make themselves feel desirable and whole, so if people are upset about me taking estrogen it’s just because they are selfish narcissists who think that everyone should be what they think is the ideal. Fuck ’em.
Rail: I’ve watched that video of Nina Simone singing “Feelings” live in 1976 a hundred thousand times. There are these waves of antagonism and vulnerability—she wants the audience with her. I know exactly that maneuver because I feel it too: when people aren’t playing along I want to make them play along and sometimes you can do that by pushing them and they push back and then you can go somewhere. I really tune into that kind of deviated desire in her performances—wanting a connection with people that is special. That is one of the interesting things in thinking about cabaret performances as “intimate nights”—how do you create an intimacy with an audience as a performer?
Bond: I feel like that is one of my gifts. Joe’s Pub has always felt like my living room. When we were doing Kiki and Herb at Flamingo East in back in the ’90s people would come every week and meet each other, become friends; they would come to see us and they would also see each other. By the time we stopped playing there all these new relationships had been formed. I love that and I’m really pleased that I continue to be a catalyst in that way! If you stay in the same town and perform there over and over again you do have the opportunity to really develop an intimate communal relationship with your audience, which is not something that Nina Simone is going to experience on stage at the Montreux Jazz Festival as much as she might want to. That is why I didn’t enjoy performing on Broadway, or playing extended run off-Broadway—it was too impersonal. I don’t want to be much more famous than I am—and I use that word “famous” as a shortcut—because if I was really famous I wouldn’t experience that pleasure anymore: being able to actually connect and communicate with the special people that come to see my shows is really what it’s all about for me.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.