Last night I saw a brilliant performance by Justin Bond at Joe’s Pub. I have been an ardent fan of Justin Bond since the early 1990’s when I used to see her sing rock and roll at Squeezebox! and host an East Village party called FOXY. And for many years I enjoyed the visceral and poignant performances of her alter ego, the fictional character, Kiki DuRane, a boozy, aging, over-the-hill lounge singer who is one part of the fantastic, dynamic duo, Kiki & Herb.
Last night Justin Bond seemed a bit mellower, more in control than the extremely raw and out of control performances of Kiki who always vented anger and frustration as she covered songs from Kate Bush to Nirvana. But this emotional venting was in a sense Kiki’s reason for being. At Joe’s Pub Justin Bond was not a character, but just him/herself. And while her performance was not visceral or angry, it still had the poignancy and heightened emotion of his performances as Kiki and perhaps more so. In a set, that included covers of Yoko Ono’s What A Bastard The World Is, Roberta Flack and Donna Hathaway’s 1972 hit Where Is the Love?, Bambi Lake’s The Golden Age of Hustlers, the English folk song John Riley and a tweaked version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, to some of Justin’s own songs like the haunting Salome, the show was magical, ethereal, beautiful, smart and filled with desire, longing, lost love, female power, laughter, tears and sighs.
Within history Salome is understood as “a wicked mistress of the ages” who through her sexual power and deviancy expressed in the dance of the seven veils, forces King Herod to execute John the Baptist and present her with his decapitated head as her prize. In the song Salome Justin Bond imagines this historical outsider as a symbol of female power who has been demonized by history for her sexuality and her desire for the head of the Baptist. As Justin sings, “…self-righteous men have denied your power…” Her power could be understood symbolically as the act of castration/decapitation which Salome wields as a kind of Phallic Mother. The song is a beautiful and eerie endeavor to recoup the “wicked mistress” as a real and independent woman of desire and not as an evil, selfish seductress. The song ends, “So, say your prayers when glamour turns at midnight cause there’s a chance you’re gonna lose your head.”
Like Salome in the course of history, the woman in Yoko Ono’s What A Bastard The World Is is being mistreated by a man. It chronicles the tale of a woman who is waking up in the early morning after a night spent wondering where her man is and why he is not with her. Justin sings:
Where were you all night if I may ask you so?
Though I don’t care at all, Id just like to know.
Right! you weren’t near the phone to call me from,
Or is it you were afraid to wake me up?
I’m sick and tired of listening to the same old crap.
And while she threatens to leave him, reminds her man of women’s liberation and calls him a pig and a bastard, she in the end cannot leave. She apologizes and stays. The world is a bastard not for the way men treat women, but for taking her man away from her. It is the world’s failing not her man’s. Justin sings the last few lines:
Female lib is nice for joan of arc,
But its a long, long way for terry and jill.
Most of us were taught not to shout our will,
Few of us are encouraged to get a job for skill.
And all of us live under the mercy of male society,
Thinking that their want is our need.
The song is on one level about frustrated desire, desire for liberation, desire for power, desire for equality and it shows that things have not changed that much since the time of Salome. Women live within a society created by male rules and needs. As the song states, they are taught that male wants and desires are in actuality the needs of women. The woman in the song cannot escape this trap. She may despise what her man does, but she believes or has been taught to believe that without him she is nothing.
The Golden Age of Hustlers is another song about the outsider, the other, the prostitute just like the woman in Yoko Ono’s What A Bastard The World Is and Justin’s Salome. Yet, despite their marginalization the hookers endure, they survive and to a degree they triumph in the their life on their terms.
It is a song about desire, self-realization and also importantly nostalgia. The title itself is a combination of disparate elements- golden age indicating the zenith of a particular nation or art and hustlers conjuring up negative connotations of disease, drugs, exploitation and the selling of one’s body. But in this song and in the world there was indeed a golden age of hustlers- a moment in San Francisco in the 1970’s when a family was created, “my hustler husbands,” that allowed these sex workers to persist and for the singer of the song, one of the sex workers, to look back fondly and with desire, singing:
Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me. The queens and the hustlers of the red light zones never did desert me.
I saw the best bodies of my generation sold, bartered and destroyed by prostitution.
The prettiest boy I ever saw was San Jose Johnny the Libra, they don’t make’m like that anymore, baby face gentlemen outlaw.
Today, (male) prostitution operates mainly through online agencies and sites that display advertisements of individual sex workers. While street hooking still exists, it like so much of life has been transformed by technology, hence the nostalgic aspect of the song. The song creates a glamorous world of prostitution, yet in the end it is quite sad. Lurking behind the endurance, survival and the camaraderie of the hustlers is violence, disease and desperation. While the audience revels in the song’s triumph and glorified past, “names can never hurt me,” it is haunted by the ultimate reality of such a life “destroyed by prostitution” which makes the song all the more poignant.
At some point during the show at Joe’s Pub Justin related a story about meeting the one and only Jane Fonda who apparently asked him if he was transgendered. Justin replied yes and Jane went on to talk about how transgendered man is the ultimate threat to the patriarchy because a male is giving up literally his phallic privileges. And Jane rightly concluded that this sacrificing of the Phallus could also be achieved whether or not the individual actually removed their penis. It is an apt encounter for Justin Bond whose blurring of the masculine and the feminine is a subversive act. In this regard, the songs he chooses to perform whether his own or someone else’s are all about the other, the outsider, the woman, the queer all who must struggle in the face of straight male oppression. They are a celebration of a feminine power often denied within history. His performance is more than entertainment, more than funny, more than poignant, it is an act of political revolution and it is for me always a moment of pure bliss.