Cabaret

Me & Mr. Jones

(Trigger Warnings: Addiction, Disordered Eating, Pedophilia)

Countless articles have been written about David Bowie’s influence, especially as it relates to queer culture. I never had the opportunity to see him perform while he was alive, yet fate had it that the day after he died I saw a brilliant performer named Raquel Cion cover his songs in a tribute show already scheduled to celebrate his 69th birthday.

It felt cosmic since I wholeheartedly believe that seeing Raquel Cion perform Bowie’s songs is truly the next best thing and the closest one can now come to experiencing Bowie’s musical artistry alive and in person.

Photo by Roque Nonini

Cion is one of the most diehard Bowie superfans this world has ever known and a brilliant singer and performer in her own right. Her show Me & Mr. Jones: My Intimate Relationship with David Bowie seems an inevitable conduit for her idol’s spirit while wholeheartedly imbuing every song she covers with her own radiance.

As Raquel entered through the audience singing Moonage Daydream bedecked in her glam rock glory, I found myself weeping. Her sultry jazz voice paired with rockstar bravado was as undeniably captivating as her storytelling.

Photo by Roque Nonini

She spoke of how she spent her teenage years skipping school to avoid her classmates who yelled slurs at David Bowie’s visage painted on the back of her leather jacket and instead found refuge in back-alleys and bars amongst the sort of queer people her classmates antagonized.

Raquel tells the story of seeing her principal cruising for sex, and in her full Nina Hagen-styled punk getup waved hello to him. Yet what stayed with her most from that exchange was the young hustler she witnessed climbing into her principal’s car. She describes the boy in a way that conjured the Peter Hujar photograph Christopher Street Pier #2 (Crossed Legs).

Photo by Peter Hujar

“I do wonder if that feathered blond boy survived. I doubt he did. I hope he did. I doubt he did.”

As she spoke mournfully of this stranger, representative of an entire lost generation, and sang Teenage Wildlife medleyed with Heroes, illustrating the danger and precariousness of growing up at that time.

Photo by Kevin W. Condon

Much of the show was devoted to the concept of Limbic Resonance, the scientifically proven chemical reaction in the brain which can be triggered by music, resulting in the feelings of love, euphoria and feeling understood. Raquel reflects on how the concept relates to her relationship with “her david” as she calls him, and how experiencing David Bowie’s music to her is love. His is the voice that scores her life and that she has heard more than any friend, lover or even her own.

She sang Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me, colored by that feeling of limbic resonance and connection to David Bowie, resulting in the most heartfelt and relatable sort of love song I’ve ever heard.

Throughout the show Raquel reflected on instances of being told she cared too much about her David, feeling genuine concern whenever he seemed frail or in danger. She focused on his physicality in the film Cracked Actor and his antics on Dick Cavett show, gnawing on his cane. Cion spoke of how drugs endangered her David just as they affected her then lover, and although her and her lover parted ways, she watched as Bowie recovered and got clean.

Raquel hypothesized that in spite of David’s constant shapeshifting, the fact that he never legally changed his name from David Robert Jones kept him grounded enough to pull himself out of holes such as addiction. “I think that’s what saved him.”, Cion said.

Photo by Roque Nonini

As she continued, telling both David’s story and her own, Raquel spoke of how, when photos from the rehearsal room of the New York Theatre Workshop production of Lazarus surfaced that same dread and sense of concern once again arose. Much like his days of living on milk, red peppers, and cocaine, David was far too thin.

Raquel spoke of how she knew. Between the pictures and the cryptic messages woven into Blackstar, she knew before it happened.

Photo by Michele Camardella

As she elegized her David, singing Dollar Days she exited through the audience. When she left the space the feeling of losing David was palpable, both David Bowie, the monumental figure, and David Robert Jones, the constant cosmic companion in Raquel’s life.

Raquel returned without her rockstar armor- small and vulnerable, and spoke of her own Cancer diagnosis not long after David’s death. Her level of openness and resilience as she bared the truth of her chemo treatment and grief, antithetical to the bombast she began the show with, felt just as compelling and breathtaking.

Raquel spoke of how, even after death, Bowie’s spirit sustained her and kept her going through the David Bowie Is exhibit. She synthesized her continuous “soul love” with David with the song Days, singing:

“In red-eyed pain I’m knocking on your door again, my crazy brain in tangles pleading for your gentle voice. Those storms keep pounding through my head and heart I pray you’ll soothe my sorry soul. All the days of my life, all the days of my life- all the days I owe you.”

Photo by Kevin W Condon

Since seeing this iteration of Me & Mr. Jones, I keep thinking back to what Raquel said of the rehearsal room of Lazarus during David’s final days. “If I was somebody I’d be in that room.” It breaks my heart that Raquel and her David never were able to collaborate since I truly believe that no other performer in this world is more worthy of being considered his progeny. She truly embodies the full scope of David Robert Jones’ legacy and then some!

I vehemently urge anyone with even a passing interest in David Bowie and his music to witness Raquel’s spellbinding love-letter when Me & Mr. Jones returns to Pangea this winter: December 15th and January 8th (David Bowie’s Birthday)

The Early Southern Gothicism Of Dolly Parton

Nath Ann Carrera delves deep into Dolly Parton’s darker side

(Trigger Warning: Child Death, Drug Addiction, Abuse, Incest)

For many, including myself until recently, the mention of Dolly Parton often elicits thoughts of hokey country-fried love songs, and Dolly’s own ostensibly chipper yet cheeky country girl demeanor. Yet through their captivating cabaret I Don’t Want To Throw Rice, I Want To Throw Rocks: The Early Southern Gothicism Of Dolly Parton, Nath Ann Carrera explores Dolly’s Hidden depths while contextualizing the darker, oft forgotten part of her repertoire.

The Official Poster (Collage by Nath Ann Carrera)

By my count, Nath Ann Carrera has performed over a hundred times at Joe’s Pub, yet it wasn’t until this month that the legendary cabaret venue hosted one of their solo shows. Their encyclopedic knowledge about the lives of musicians, which often is drawn upon and highlighted by those they collaborate with, such as Justin Vivian Bond, this time took the spotlight, along with fascinating tales of their upbringing they regaled the audience with.

Carrera wove together accounts of growing up in Gilroy, California, a place touted, among other things as the garlic capital of the world, the teen pregnancy capital of the world, the cite of the biggest meth bust, and most of all a place irreconcilably linked to intense metaphysical horror. Nath Ann used their hometown’s claims to fame to draw parallels between their life and the contexts that led Dolly Parton to write the sorts of songs that Nath Ann found most compelling.

These songs, all written within a prolific four year time-frame resulting in seven albums, consisted of such light-hearted topics as: “Class-Conscious Incest! Teen Delinquent Anti-Authoritarian Murder! Mental Institution Imprisonment! Speed-Addicted Swingers! Anti-Marriage Retaliation! Stillborn Suicide! Children Bursting Into Flames While Their Parents Tell Dirty Jokes! And BEYOND!” as Nath Ann puts it.

The first of these songs Nath Ann performed was Mendy Never Sleeps which, alongside Robert, a song about avoiding incest, led to Nath Ann talking about Dolly Parton’s interpretation of sexuality formed around her discovery of a swinger’s sanctuary in an abandoned church. This interestingly intersects with queer and radical faerie notions of community formed around public sex and the combination of spirituality and sexuality, which Dolly attested for her were one in the same.

Nath Ann then went on to mention Dolly’s “traveling companion” and “closest confidant” Judy with whom Dolly yet again embraces the confluence of spirituality and sexuality by going for naked full-moon jogs on her property. As if the “gal-pal” implications weren’t yet clear, Nath Ann added with a smirk the crucial sapphic detail that both Dolly and Judy were on drumline in high school.

A Scan From Dolly Parton’s Autobiography

This led Nath Ann to talk of their own high school experience, a highlight of which was a particular career day in which they signed up to learn to be a mortician, already keenly familiar with the graveyard they’d picnic in. They spoke of an ineffectively informative VHS tape consisting solely of the same seven melodramatically posed stock-photo tableaus of grieving families on a loop, and being able to lie in the soft dirt of a grave soon to be filled and feeling comfortable lying there after enthusiastically volunteered to do so.

They then sang one of Dolly’s most popular dead baby songs, Jeannie’s Afraid of the Dark, which features the lyrics:

“One day in the summer, we took some flowers to place on some old family graves. Jeannie said, “Mommy, ain’t it dark in the ground? Oh, Daddy, I’d be so afraid” Then she looked up at her daddy and me and said somethin’ that broke both our hearts. She said, “When I die, please don’t bury me ‘cause Jeannie’s afraid of the dark”

The song goes on to a monologue originally performed by Dolly’s performing partner Porter Wagoner, speaking of how Jeannie was “destined to die” but that they put an eternal flame on Jeannie’s grave so there’ll always be a light for her, to which Nath Ann added: “Nothing like parents to go against their child’s dying wish!

Photo by Justin Vivian Bond

Nath Ann then delved into talking about “the invention of hysteria”, their favorite artistic movement alongside art nouveau. They spoke of hysteria as a safe space for queer and female sexuality and the guise of demonic possession as an environment where “you could really be yourself”. They used the true story of a lesbianic nunnery excusing their overt sexuality by cooking up a demonic possession scandal which inspired the Vanessa Redgrave movie The Devils. Nath Ann went on to explain that “hysteria” was an equal opportunity empowerment tactic that informed many Joan Crawford monologues railing against the rich.

Photo by Joy Episalla

This led to Nath Ann really flexing their dramaturgical chops relating to the 1930’s actress Frances Farmer, yet another lesbian and a profoundly fascinating character, simultaneously absurd, tragic, and inspiring, much in the vein of Judee Sill (another person Nath Ann is prone to tell many information-packed stories about) or Bambi Lake, and similarly also struggled with mental health issues.

In talking of how Farmer had to rely on her parents, who instead of taking care of her deceived her into thinking her personhood was revoked long beyond when it was restored in order to manipulate and keep her within their walls. This set up the song Daddy Come Get Me in which a woman is imprisoned by a man who sees her as a threat and must rely on her father to free her or else be held captive in a mental institution indefinitely.

Photo by Joy Episalla

The remainder of the show was devoted to songs that follow the “Children Murdered by God” cautionary tale formula, of which there are many songs, to the point where Nath Ann had to list a few who didn’t make the final cut of the show, yet the death-toll of in-show songs was high nonetheless!

Dolly fans and dark-humored souls were clearly delighted, since due to the first night being such an unbridled success, a second show was promptly added.

Although the later show touched on very similar points, one difference stood out: that being the inclusion of backstory prefacing the song Down From Dover in which Nath Ann spoke about Dolly’s brother Larry.

Nath Ann spoke of how Dolly grew up with her mother constantly having more children, “always one in her and one on her” as Dolly herself phrased it. Thus when a child who Dolly’s mother had told her would be hers to look after died in the womb Dolly was devastated. She grieved profoundly and included a close up photo of his body in the coffin in her memoir, and always lists his name alongside her other siblings in family photos with the caption (not pictured: Larry).

Larry’s Grave

The inclusion of this detail thus further contextualized Dolly’s dead baby songs as something deeply personal and stemming from Dolly’s psyche as opposed to something penned to solely be provocative or edgy. Nath Ann lamented that she did eventually choose a more straight-laced and successful path for her career after Porter Wagoner convinced her that her morose story-songs alienated many audiences, yet whenever she can Dolly returns to her roots, as evident in certain songs Nath Ann namechecked such as These Old Bones.

I Don’t Want To Throw Rice, I Want To Throw Rocks: The Early Southern Gothicism Of Dolly Parton is truly a profoundly masterful piece, integrating stranger-than-fiction tidbits of personal narrative, a vast breadth of knowledge, and brilliant interpretations of Dolly Parton’s music, thus introducing her lesser known songs to a wider audience. Nath Ann Carrera is truly phenomenal performer whose solo work deserves to grace the stage of Joe’s Pub forevermore.

Justin Sayre Makes The Case For America

(Trigger Warning: Rape)

The Official Poster

It’s far from breaking news to say that America’s current political climate is objectively devastating, yet this version of America is still what we have to work with. In Justin Elizabeth Sayre’s most recent Joe’s Pub show: Justin Sayre Makes The Case For America, the performer makes a profoundly persuasive case for how and why America can still be saved.

They modeled the night off their tradition of getting “bonkers stoned”, cooking fried chicken and thinking through their sadness, in this case, their sadness at the state of our country. The stage of Joe’s Pub was fashioned to look like Sayre’s apartment in California, complete with a couch, throw-pillows, a table, framed photographs and an ensemble of tchotchkes played by members of the audience. Around the time the show was set to begin, Sayre entered nonchalantly, and walked across the stage and into the house to cast audience members as ceramic figurines. The cast included a trio of dogs named after the Bronte sisters, Lord Byron, a bearded Jesus (to bless the fruit), Little Edie, and Saint Maria Goretti.

Sayre with their Tchotchkes (Photo by SmithByMatt on Instagram)

Saint Maria Goretti was an especially fitting patron for the experience, given that all proceeds from ticket sales went directly to the Me Too Movement. Sayre provided context to the lesser known saint, explaining that Saint Maria Goretti was a young girl who had a vision of being raped. Thus when a man broke into her house in an attempt to rape her, she preemptively told him not to, because God was watching. So instead of sexually assaulting her, the man murdered her. After her death Maria Goretti was canonized as a saint, while the man who attempted to rape her became a celebrated priest. Justin Sayre concluded that this story is indicative of why the Catholic church is the way it is.

Je Suis Dorkus

Justin Vivian Bond celebrates the stars of their youth

 

Poster by Christina D’Angelo

Reflecting upon celebrity is a topic that permeates Justin Vivian Bond’s work. From their Kiki and Herb monologue Show-Business Martyrs, to their essay, art installations and cabaret devoted to their idolization of Karen Graham, to their many shows reflecting on The Carpenters, much of Mx.Viv’s work actively pays homage to those Mx.Viv looks up to.

Often, when talking about such idols, the thesis Justin Vivian Bond conveys is “celebrities are human too; allow me to count the ways in which I see myself in these people”. Thus I suspected the stories and monologue portions of their most recent show at Joe’s Pub, A Star Is Borned: The New Adventures of Chipra, to be Mx.Viv to drawing parallels between themself and the three divas to embody the role of the titular star, Judy, Barbra, and Gaga.

Photo by Russell Wagner

Instead, A Star Is Borned felt more akin to something Mx.Viv said when speaking at the University of Michigan’s School of Art and Design. In introducing their song Stars, Mx.Viv talks about how, when people, especially queer people, are young and/or “struggling through hard times”, a strategy that makes things easier for many is to latch onto what is seen as extraordinary in our idols and use that to try to be extraordinary ourselves as a way to survive. “But it’s not important to be special, it’s important to be happy.” 

Justin Vivian Bond’s Pride Show “For The Children”

Justin Vivian Bond showed what Pride truly means amidst the Trump Presidency

From the moment I first saw Justin Vivian Bond perform live, I’ve taken up the mantle of being v’s groupie, and thankfully v hasn’t shooed me away. Needless to say, when Mx. Bond performed twice at (le) Poisson Rouge during Pride weekend I was in attendance for both shows.

The Poster for v’s 2018 Pride Show

Justin Vivian Bond’s work is always inexorably political, for instance a central topic in v’s last Christmas show was the condemnation of rape culture, thus utilizing the platform to shine light on pertinent social issues. Mx. Bond continued this tradition by highlighting radical empathy. V asserted the imperative that queer people must do everything in their power to support other marginalized groups that the Trump administration is dead set on dehumanizing, particularly immigrants, refugees, people of color, and sex-workers.

V began the show with an invocation to those we have to thank for our existence in the here and now, both calling out to trancestors who paved the way for us as Queer people, and the indigenous people and people of color who were brutalized and died in order for “America” to exist. As the band began to play Nocturn by Kate Bush v took out v’s phone and read The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus:

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Photo by Jill H Casid

V then devoted much of the show to sex work in solidarity to those affected by SESTA/FOSTA legislation. The first song v sang was Viking Dan, sweet wholesome song about queer love between sex workers written by the brilliant transgender songwriter Bambi Lake. The song begins, “Viking Dan was occasionally arrested for soliciting on market street” thus setting up the danger inherent in the profession due to inane criminalization laws that put people at risk. Viking Dan continues with the speaker of the song extolling her love for the titular character and her own transition. If this world were fair, not only would sex work be safe and legal, but Bambi Lake would be recognized as one of the most skillful lyricists ever, but thankfully v recognizes her as a national treasure and works to amplify her voice and broaden her audience.

Photo by Kristina Feliciano

During the second show, v told the story of an interaction v had with a transphobe at the supermarket. This person kept sizing v up and down, ostensibly attempting to decipher v’s anatomy, and then purposely left his cart in the checkout line blockading v and the other grocery-store patrons. Mx. Bond’s response was to forcibly make eye contact with the transphobe and slam v’s cart into the one he left, clearing the way for other customers while making a point to the transphobe that v is a force to be reckoned with. To me, that incident is indicative of Justin Vivian Bond’s method of activism; brazen and confrontational to those who attempt to oppress, while using v’s power to metaphorically clean up after others and make things better for everyone. The same aggressive bravado was present in v’s portrayal of the American Music Club song Patriot’s Heart, which has been in v’s repertoire for over a decade.

The song about a nihilistic stripper is dark and melancholy, written about the Reagan administration amidst the AIDS epidemic, thus to feel this song resonate so thoroughly in our current political climate is far from comforting. V leaned in to this collective cultural anxiety that queer people have due to echoes of Reagan’s presidency seen in Trump’s behavior. V got in the audience’s face, snarling and seducing all within the same breath, “give me all your money but don’t tell me what you’re thinking / I’m the past you wasted, I’m the future you’re obliterating / Oh, c’mon grandpa, remind me what you’re celebrating / That your heart finally dried up, or that it finally stopped working?” V casts the audience (often a cis white man) as the politicians deserving of scorn and strikes with tenacity and fervor until the last note of the song.

In v’s own words, the show was meant to celebrate “the outsider children [Judy Garland’s] legacy has come to represent- immigrants, sex workers, witches, and queers.” V spoke of how mythologizing the Stonewall Riot as a result of Judy Garland’s death erases the trans people of color who were instrumental in the uprising at Stonewall. Nevertheless, v embraced Judy Garland as a symbol to speak about the desire for belonging that binds marginalized peoples.

A running concept throughout the show was dedicating songs to the children: those who had been separated from their families, subjugated, locked in cages, and conveniently misplaced by the US government. V spoke of these children and their families striving for a better place where they can be free. Justin Vivian Bond drew parallels to LGBTQ+ people migrating from unsafe living situations to cities and communities where they can strive towards a life they want to live, made up of people who love them. After v illustrated the similarities, v spoke of The Wizard of Oz and how the crux of Somewhere Over The Rainbow applies to immigrants and refugees as much as it applies to the LGBTQ+ community, v sang the legendary song with the utmost sincerity dedicated to the children who deserve so much better.

Photo by Kristina Feliciano

The final, most poignant song of the show was v’s cover of the David Bowie song Rock n Roll Suicide. V admitted that this song was v’s outlet to work through v’s own sadness and anger and it showed. V imbued it with both desperation and empowerment, crying out for connection, fearlessly and shamelessly crying onstage as v pleaded to the audience with arms outstretched, “Give me your hands”.

This conclusion mirrors how the show began and synthesizes what Pride means in this tumultuous political storm, calling to the suffering and subjugated and welcoming them in as our family.

“I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain- You’re not alone!”