Book Chat with Justin Bond


William Johnson

Entertainer, singer, songwriter and Tony-nominated performer Justin Bond has been described as “a trans-Atlantic cabaret messiah’ by Time Out London and a “ bar of gold in the new depression” by The New Yorker .

After spending some time with Justin, I would describe Mx Bond as an elemental cocktail of politics, pop-cultural commentary, and droll insight.

Imagine if a witty hyper aware- version of earth mother Gaea went radically queer and started singing cabaret to enliven the world weary masses: That would be Justin Bond.

Justin Bond took a moment to talk with MARY about books, the queerness of Patty Hearst and the power of glamour.

How did you initially get your start performing?

Growing up in Maryland, I started performing for my family’s church at a very young age. When I was in high school and I started to prepare for college I wasn’t sure if I wanted to major in voice, or visual art, or acting. I ended up majoring in acting, because I felt it was the skill I was the weakest. In high school I really excelled in visual arts and received little awards and stuff and I took voice and piano lessons starting when I was really young, but I didn’t really have any acting training, so I decided go to college for acting. I went to Adelphi and got my BFA and also I studied Shakespearean theater at Lambda in London.

After I graduated, I felt I had a lot of training, but I did not really like performing other peoples work. Being a queer performer I didn’t see a lot of roles that inspired me or parts that I was interested in playing, so I decided not to act initially. I had the technical skills and I felt I had the talent to be an actor, but I did not see any roles that gave me the inspiration to want to act. I decided to move to San Francisco. I was planning on becoming a California resident, so I could go to a public college in Cali to get my masters. I was thinking about studying art and getting a degree in art history. When I moved to San Francisco it was doing the height of the AIDS crisis and there was lots of cutting edge performances going on. Political art, street theater, queer performance.

I had never been exposed to that before. I got really involved in Queer Nation. Queer Nation was about queer visibly and it ran on a parallel track to Act UP, but Queer Nation was more about Queer Visibility while ACT UP was primarily focused on getting access to AIDS medication and treatment. It was about 1986 to about 1992. It was during this time that High Risk Books formed and Michael Warner put out “Fear of a Queer Planet. “ It was the golden age of queer literature, queer zines and alt. queer self publishing.

I started working at A Different Light Bookstore in San Francisco and we had all these amazing people coming in to the book store. Kathy Acker, Paul Monette, Jon Rechy, Edmund White. People coming and going and doing readings. It was all sort of ground zero for queer politics. It was a meeting place outside of meetings. It was a really exciting hot bed of queer activism, just a really inspiring exciting time. So this is the environment my performances grew out of. I started doing work with these performers called “The Sick and Twisted Players” and we would do these crazy queer interpretations of pop culture movies like “Carrie,” “Wild at Heart” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” I was also doing my own solo work as Justin. Then I met up with Kenny and we eventually started Kiki and Herb and then eventually moved to New York.

I didn’t know you worked at A Different Light? So early on literature had a big impact on your work?

Literature has always been a big part of my life and work. When I did my show “Lustre” two years ago it was inspired by the writings of Lillian Hellman and Joan Didion. I opened up the show by saying I was imagining myself as a Lady Authoress. And in a certain way I live my life as if I’m writing a book to amuse myself. The choices I make, what I do, who I sleep with, is part of “me” telling myself a story about my own life. When I was young I was really into biographies and autobiographies of people like Clara Barton and Lillian Hellman. I know with Lillian people dispute the validity of her autobiography. My point is that who cares? For me it was simply a really good inspiring story

Certain celebrities’ biographies have really served as an important inspiration to me.  People like Eartha Kitt, who were so very talented and political. Her life was actually much more interesting than the work she was allowed to do. And I have always been more interested in woman’s stories, because I identified more with women than with men. Also, I’ve always been interested in glamour, but the artifice of glamour. The way glamour is used by women to manipulate men, and the use of glamour by women to cut a wider swath and create these huge seismic impacts on the world. I have always been interested in glamour as a force of power.

So turning glamour into a sort of feminist power?

I feel glamour is casting a spell. Glamour is witchcraft. Literally it’s creating an illusion. It’s casting a spell by using words, actions, deeds and visual stimuli to bewitch people to get them to think in a way you want them to think. If you can get your thoughts into people’s minds; have them see things in ways they have never seen them before, they can go back to their old ways of thinking, but it won’t change the fact that they had those thoughts in their heads. They are going to have to deal with them somehow, one way or another. In terms of feminism, it was around 1969 or 1970 when I learned about the feminist movement on TV . I came to the conclusion that if a woman can get equal rights then boys who want to be women can have equal rights too (laughs). That was my logic. I think a lot of the ideology used to suppress feminism is homophobic and a lot of the ideology used to suppress homosexuality is sexist.

How do you feel about the state of queer activism? I hear a lot of older activist complain about the state of queer/gay activism?

I hear a lot of people complain,  but  I don’t really have any complaints about it. I know a lot of really engaged, very astute, very vocal, young queer people.  My art has always been political. The immediacy of seeing all your friends dying was a kick in the ass to go out and do something, but after a certain amount of time you become exhausted by it. Throughout the history of activism one generation kicks in a bunch of doors, then there is a lull, then all of a sudden there is an inspiration for another generation to get active. Things have not been bad enough for young people to really experience what we went through and I am perfectly happy about that. Granted people are up in arms about gay marriage, but I don’t care that much about gay marriage. For me universal health care is a much bigger issue than gay marriage. I don’t have issues with the movement. I feel people will rise again when it is time. In a way I just hope it’s less about having a hetero-normative bourgeois existence. I don’t begrudge anyone wanting that mind you, it’s just not the life I want.

What is a book that you think a young gay person coming out should read?

“The Man Who Fell In Love With The Moon” by Tom Spanbauer. It’s not a political treatise, but it addresses self-righteous religious zealots and their violence. It also addresses our storied American history in terms of dealing with race and gender.

He wrote another book “In The City of Shy Hunters which is a great book, but it’s devastating. It’s a great document about what it was like living in New York during the AIDS crisis… They should read that book. It is really harrowing. It really does not pull any punches.

When you worked at Different Light did you meet any writers who made you feel a little star struck?

I was young and a lot of us working at the store were queer activists, and we were very arrogant (laughs). We were thrilled to have all these different people coming in, but working at Different Light you would look up and there was some fantastic person and you just got used to it. All these fantastic people coming and going. You would look up and there was John Rechy or Edmund White. I don’t remember being completely overwhelmed because most of us working there were to full of ourselves (laughs) to be impressed by anyone. In terms of authors, I think I would’ve freaked out a little if I met Joan Didion. I have been told at parties that I have been standing right next to her and you know she is so little and tiny and she probably just faded right into the wood work. I’ve been at parties and people would say later “I can’t believe you didn’t speak to Joan”. I mean I’m tall, so I must have towered over her, but I never met her.

Why do you think Gays love Joan?

Joan Didion’s writing is so precise, so glamorous, but it also contains a certain level of nihilism. I think the first book I read by her was “A Book of Common Prayer”. And I just loved this woman’s story. It was based on the Patty Hearst kidnapping. When I was young I had dreams about Patty Hearst. I was very young when she was kidnapped. I remember having dreams that Patty Hearst came and took refuge in my house and I became really good friends with her.

The idea of her story always fascinated me. This idea that there is a persona that your family believes is “you” and then there is another persona that the public imagines and neither of these perceived personas adequately sum up who you really are. So being a closeted queer person, who had gender issues, Patty’s story really resonated with me. Who is the real Patty Hearst? Is she the person who is voluntarily fucking kidnappers in the closet, or she is this person that has been taken away from her perfect Christian existence; a good girl who dresses perfectly and is happy to be a perfect extension of her parents egos. Also I loved how “The Book of Common Prayer” has no moral center, it is so obscure. It contains no easy answers.

The second novel I read by Joan was “Play It as It Lays which is about this starlet and her relationship to her closeted gay friend. It’s all about materialism and the emptiness of fame and the disillusions that people create for themselves in order to survive. It is probably where I got my philosophies on living my life like “I am writing my own story.” I really do believe in what the main character in that story says…”in the end nothing matters but yet I choose to stay in the game”. I personally found no comfort or solace in the religion my parents were giving me and yet I knew that those religious parables provided them comfort and that is fine with me, but none of it spoke to me. I don’t know what matters, but I know it makes life more interesting to stay in the game, and live life like a story that amuses you.

Since shedding the Kiki persona do you feel that performing as “Justin Bond” is just another persona you are trying on?

That is an interesting dilemma. I spent so many years playing Kiki when I was with Kenny, and there was so much tension between us over the years. I think in hindsight I was diminishing myself in order to make Kenny comfortable. I think there were some jealousies and discomforts with the attention I was getting. When I got through with Kiki, I started to focus on myself and maintaining a voice that was authentically my own. I still take on personas, like I did in my show “Lustre”, when I take on the persona of a Lady Authoress, but I think the story I am telling is very much my own story. Now the focus is really about being more authentic.

So what are you currently working on?

I am doing four shows at Joe’s Pub in New York between now and November. I am curating a show at the La Mama Art gallery for the Performa Art festival with Hilton Als. We are curating a collection of visual work by performers. We are including artist like Theo Coogan, who is in Theo and Skyscrapers and who used to be in the LunaChicks, Rufus Wainwright is going to have some of his work in it, Tilda Switon, Kim Gordon, Thurston Moore, Diane Keaton and Chris Tanner it will be opening November 7th. I am doing a Halloween show based around Persephone, and I’m also working on some Christmas shows.

What is the inspiration for the Halloween Persephone show?

Well I always had an affinity for the Greek myth surrounding Persephone. She was out picking flowers one day and Satan saw her and thought she was hot. He brought her down to hell and kept her in purgatory. Her mother, the goddess Demeter traveled the planet and got the other goddesses angry and told Satan, ‘you need to let her go’. So before he let her go he fed her pomegranate seeds and because she ate those pomegranate seeds for some odd reason that meant she had to come back to Hell and visit. Maybe Persephone got addicted to those seeds and the only place she found them was in hell. So half the year she was in the daylight and the other half she was in the underworld. Being a night club entertainer I’ve spent a lot of time in dark seedy bars, but on the other hand I love nature and I love being outside and outdoors. I am Taurus, so I have this very bucolic Ferdinand the bull with a gold hoop through my nose sitting in nature, doing nothing vibe half of the time and then other times I am in these insane dark night clubs doing these wild performances. They also say that Halloween is the thinnest veil between the underworld and the outer world, so I thought it would be appropriate to spin some Persephone inspired magic for my Halloween show.

One last thing, your work is both sincere and ironic at the same time. I imagine that is a difficult kind of thing to pull off?

I don’t think sincerity and irony are mutually exclusive, because the world is so absurd. I do think there is a way that you can express yourself with general emotion and at the same time be fully aware of the absurdity of those emotions. You can be sincerely upset about some horrible sequence of events and then look at the narrative and see how ridiculous the whole thing is. I remember several years back this young girl, Polly Klass, was kidnapped from her home in California. It became this huge national story and Winona Ryder became involved in trying to find her, and the whole media world was focused on this one girl. I was thinking there is this one girl taken from her house in California and it becomes this odd national tragedy, but there are children that go missing from more economically challenged neighborhoods everyday and no one says word one. So one night I was performing as Kiki and I was tripping on shrooms and I said to the audience “Let’s face it ladies and gentleman, Polly’s dead. She is in a shallow grave by the highway”. And we did this old folk song, “Polly Pretty Polly” which is this harrowing old folk song about a woman being kidnapped. It’s an old folk song, so it just goes to show how long these kind of horrible things have been going on, and the song opens with lyrics “Polly pretty Polly come go along with me…” We performed the piece with total earnestness and initially people laughed, but by the end of the song people were moved by this disturbing sad song. We were simultaneously commenting on the ridiculousness of the media attention this story was getting and how this awful terrible stuff keeps happening over and over and over. It’s never going to end. Eventually, It turns out the real Polly Klass was dead in a shallow grave by the highway. So I think in life sincerity and irony are often not mutually exclusive at all. I think it’s just a bizarre intricate combination of both.

Justin Bond will be performing two Halloween shows on Oct31 at Joe’s Pub in NYC. Support the arts and sodomy in one fell swoop, go see this show!

(Photo Credit: Matthu Placek)

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