Justin Vivian Bond is a transgender writer, singer, painter, and activist constantly adding projects to an already lengthy list of accomplishments. Having played Carnegie Hall and Broadway as Kiki DuRane, the more vocal half of beloved punk-lounge act Kiki and Herb, Mx. Bond made the transition to solo work under v’s own name with the 2011 album Dendrophile. V’s next album is called Silver Wells, after the fictional hometown of Joan Didion’s protagonist in Play It As It Lays, and it features sparse piano and vocal covers arranged by Bond and Thomas Bartlett. The artists covered include Ronee Blakley, Leonard Cohen, Mark Eitzel, Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush, Brecht and Weill, and more. We spoke for a long time about the book and the songs Justin chose to channel its mood and themes. Minutes into our conversation, Justin Vivian and I remembered an evening we both attended where Joan Didion spoke in conversation with Griffin Dunne at Symphony Space. The evening was notable for veering off the rails more than once; Griffin set aside the questions he was going to ask because they felt too difficult to address, and Didion was clearly more interested in reminiscing about the past with her nephew. She could hardly stand the Q&A, particularly one young woman who asked why there was no redemption in Blue Nights. “There is no redemption,” Didion curtly interrupted. “Sorry.” That blunt, dark humor runs throughout Play It As It Lays, and it’s easy to see the overlap between Didion’s style and Justin’s work. Ultimately, the two share a compulsion toward taking control of a story and turning it inside out. You can catch Mx. Bond at a six-week residency at 54 Below, the new cabaret venue at Studio 54, starting June 5.
Spoiler warning: if you have not read Play It As It Lays and want to read it without knowing anything about it, some details about the book are discussed in this interview.
I just saw the cover of Silver Wells you posted recently on your Kickstarter. It’s so beautiful.
Thank you. A.L. Steiner did it. We went out right by the spot on the Pear Blossom highway where David Hockney did his amazing collage of the desert. I was like, that’s where we need to do it. It was on the way to Vegas. It was on our way to Silver Wells.
I noticed you’re cracking a hard-boiled egg on the steering wheel [like Maria Wyeth, the protagonist of Play It As It Lays does]. Could you talk a bit about other details like that, the ones that pop out at you from Play It As It Lays?
Well, I read that book when I was in high school. I was sort of raised in a backwards environment, so when I read the book the first time, I had to read it several times before I even knew what it was about, because it was such an alien world to me. It had all these resonances for me, and I didn’t really understand why. I was feeling alienated from my family, knowing that I was queer and not having any way to deal with that. Being transgender, and knowing that I was not what I appeared to be, when I was reading a book where a character was saying that nothing matters…somehow hearing that nothing matters was the best thing I could have heard. It freed me up to let go of a lot of the things that would have caused me anxiety.
Also I think that her writing style is so stylish, and the Zen quality to it, the spareness, makes it so much richer. When I decided to make this record, I chose songs that are first person narratives, which is how [Joan Didion’s] best novels and essays are. All of these songs could be written to somebody, and they’re all evocative emotional and literal landscapes, but also landscapes that no longer exist, which I love about Silver Wells. Maria saying, There is no Silver Wells. That’s another thing I like: the idea of choosing your own story. I love the end where her friend, the gay guy, decides to kill himself, and she decides not to kill herself but she allows him to die in her arms in a hotel room. That’s respecting his wish to tell himself his story in the way he wants to tell it, but somehow simultaneously keeping hers genuine and authentically her own. I love that the book illustrates people accommodating each other’s realities and acknowledging them at the same time.
Maybe I need to reread it again, but I didn’t really read BZ as gay. I read him as incredibly depressed, but…
No, BZ is gay.
Well, the whole thing about BZ’s mother paying them to stay married.
Oh my god, that’s right.
If you reread it and you read it as BZ being gay, it makes a lot more sense. And, of course, Maria got along with him so well because of her relationship with the camera, with being filmed, with what is projected onto her by her husband and these movies about her. She can relate to BZ in that way of presenting something that other people expect, in order to play the game. You know, even though he was gay, I definitely identified a lot more with her.
I can see that. Based on Dendrophile and things you’ve said about Karen Carpenter and the song choices you’ve made for this album, it seems like you’re really drawn to fragility, or at least the presentation of fragility as the way to relate to somebody.
I think people that can express fragility oftentimes have a tremendous amount of inner strength. Otherwise they wouldn’t even be able to show that sort of vulnerability. I think [Maria’s] decision not to commit suicide resonates now even, within the gay community—not only all of the young people committing suicide, but there was a story about a middle-aged guy in New York committing suicide recently. When I was young, I guess when I was maybe 13 or 14, my best girlfriend attempted suicide. Knowing how someone that intimate with you can get to that point, and how we all, if we’re thinking or fragile people, contemplate suicide at some point or another, or our power over our own life or lack thereof…I think that the book, even though it’s very nihilistic, at the end of the day is about how it becomes possible for you to make the choice to keep going and to stay alive, while you’re aware of all that.
Let’s talk about the songs that you chose. Let’s first talk about Ronee Blakley.
Ronee Blakley’s song is the very first song on the record, and that song is “Dues” from Nashville. I always loved her character, and I loved the song. Thomas and I made it almost a hymn. It sets up the record because it’s about a disappointment; coming to terms with someone else not giving you what you need emotionally; and getting to this place of realizing that you have to make a decision or make a move. And of course I love that she wrote it for the movie and she wrote it for a fictitious character. It’s part of her narrative she made up for this character she made up with Robert Altman, but also it’s a show business story. And the song itself is, I think, just really beautiful.
What Leonard Cohen song did you choose and how does it play into your interpretation of what Maria goes through?
The song is “Famous Blue Raincoat,” and I still don’t know who “Famous Blue Raincoat” was written for, but I’ve loved that song since I was young. I changed one line which is “You treated my woman to a flake of your life…” and I changed it to “You treated my lover to a flake of your life….” Just to make it a little bit more personal, just to get people to listen more about what these encounters could be instead of just assuming or just glossing over how people’s perceptions impact their interpretation of narrative and their assumptions aren’t always necessarily accurate.
You’ve covered Leonard Cohen in the past, but with Kiki and Herb, which was a wholly different project. I’m wondering how you approach covering the same artists now that you’re doing something new. Do you approach these artists in a consciously different way, or is there something that you’re subconsciously drawn to about them?
Well, the thing that’s interesting about Kiki, or the thing that was so appealing to so many people about Kiki, was her invulnerability. You would see Kiki going through all these emotions, but it was all kind of an overblown comment on people in show business going through these emotions. People could live through Kiki and watch someone being so out of control and over the top and yet know that it was an act and there was no real vulnerability. And so therefore Kiki acted as, I think, a cathartic experience for people, whereas hopefully when I’m interpreting these songs, they’re coming from a more genuine place. My connection with these songs has more of a genuine, emotional resonance. It may not be cathartic when people hear the songs, but it will be an experience that makes them feel things, and so it might begin a process of transformation, as opposed to catharsis. Part of the reason why I chose to do covers for this record was these songs. These songs speak so truly for me and from my heart and my experience.
I remember reading that anecdote about how you felt like you had written “Superstar” by the Carpenters. Is there something similar going on with these songs where you feel like you could have written them?
I think in order to really interpret a song, and really make it your own, you really have to put it through a kind of emotional and intellectual rigor within yourself, to present it in a way that is fresh and genuine. I feel like I made the effort to write songs for my last album, which was so gratifying and so helpful in my process of finding my own voice apart from Kiki. And now I’m able to interpret a song again, which is something I think is one of my greatest strengths as a performer, and not feel like I’m overshadowed by it all.
Let’s talk about Brecht. What Brecht song are you doing?
“The Alabama Song.” It’s the one that was made famous by the Doors. That song is about prostitutes marching on this town and sort of taking over. The song is sort of really about a sex positive workers’ revolt and it’s very pro-woman, whereas Jim Morrison was such an infamous misogynist. It’s kind of nice to return it to its original intention. I have three prostitution songs in a row basically. I have that song and then “Patriot’s Heart,” which is written by Mark Eitzel, followed by “Until the Real Thing Comes Along,” which Thomas [Bartlett] plays on this honkytonk piano and it sounds like it could be 3 o’clock in the morning at a brothel somewhere.
Did you choose so many songs about prostitution because of the passage in Play It As It Lays where Maria says she sees her life as one long uninterrupted sexual encounter? Or is prostitution more of a comment on show business?
I think it’s about how we value ourselves, and not necessarily our bodies in exchange for sex, but that’s clearly a part of it. If you’re gay or queer or transgender, when you’re young, whether or not you are particularly sexual, you’re defined by your sexuality or people’s fear of what your sexuality is, long before you know what your sexuality is. In our minds and in the way we’re treated, we’re sexualized even before we’re ready sometimes. And of course there are all those allusions to sexual misconduct in the book. Even in the very opening passage, when she’s in the psychiatric hospital, the doctor asking her, “Do you believe most people are guilty of sexual misconduct?” It’s addressing this undercurrent of sexual tension in our culture.
But the Joni Mitchell song you chose is not about prostitution though, I imagine. Wait, is it? Are there any Joni songs about prostitution?
No, but there’s the line in one of the two songs I do, “Let the Wind Carry Me,” where she says, “She don’t like my kick pleat skirt / she don’t like my eyelids painted green / she don’t like me staying up late in my high-heeled shoes / living for that rock ‘n roll dancing scene.” It’s basically talking about how her mother disapproves of her burgeoning sexuality and her expression of it. When I think of Joni and Joan Didion and this record, I think of the bleached bones of the Southern California desert, or of the Southwest and Santa Fe, like Georgia O’Keefe, that kind of real, spare ferociousness. When I moved to California in 1988, I drove cross-country, and the records that I was listening to were mostly Court and Spark and Hejira. Silver Wells is kind of a California record, and those are [Joni’s] quintessential California records. Even though the songs I covered on this record are from For the Roses, which I think she wrote in Canada. But you know, you can’t be a stickler for details. Can’t be too literal. [laughs]
Which Kate Bush song did you choose?
I chose “The Kick Inside.” No matter how often I listen to Kate Bush, I always find something new because her poetry is so complex. There’s also this total silly side to her too, where you can just completely laugh at her because she can be so ridiculous. Her videos, her choreography: it’s just so over the top. I love it. It seems so free, and by being so free and unselfconscious, it makes me feel that I can be more free and unselfconscious myself.
Totally. Do you like her new album?
I do. It’s beautiful, the 2,004 words for snow. I was concerned, because I wasn’t sure where all those words for snow came from, and of course all my friends were like, “Oh, it’s cultural appropriation!” But then I heard that they weren’t even all Inuit, she made some of them up, which just made me love her even more.
I know, I think she even used Klingon? She’s so goofy.
She’s very goofy too, that Joan Didion. Don’t you think? I think she’s so funny. She was killing me that night [at Symphony Space].
Yeah, oh my God. What she said to that girl!
“There is no redemption. Sorry!” And when she corrected Griffin Dunne on the color of that corvette. “It was Daytona Yellow, not banana yellow.”
I forgot about that!
She was just waving at him with her withered claw. I loved it.
Photo: A.L. Steiner