Sandra Bernhard On Her NY Shows This Week, Happiness, & Her Legacy

Sandra Bernhard will perform tonight at Carnegie Hall at a fundraiser to raise money for music education programs for underprivileged kids. The Music of Prince show produced by Michael Dorf has Elvis Costello, D’Angelo, Talib Kwell, Bettye Lavette, Amos Lee, Devotcka, and many others performing Prince hits. The Roots are the house band. And on Saturday, Sandra will appear at the Tarrytown Music Hall in the namesake NY suburb. This is part of her national tour which will take her through the summer. Sandra was the go-to gal for me when I opened two clubs back in the day, She wowed them on New Year’s Eve a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away with an all-star cast that she assembled when the Palladium entrusted me to fill it. She also set the tone for me at Life when I first launched that fabulously famous joint. In both cases, I enjoyed the consummate professional who wowed us off and on the stage. This week, I caught up with Sandra and asked her all about it.

First of all, let’s begin where we first met. I booked you two times when I was running nightclubs. I booked you at the Palladium for New Year’s Eve, which was an amazing show. And then I booked you at the opening, or right after the opening at Life, a nightclub I ran on Bleecker street. 
Yeah! 
You were incredible. The first one was you, and you brought along Gianni Versace, Robin Byrd,  André Leon Talley, and there was one other..
It was Donatella Versace.

And we had Debbie Harry open, or after you performed because that’s the way it works. And the Psychedelic Furs performed for the first time in 10 years, and we had PM Dawn perform at dawn. 
Oh my God. 

So it was the biggest booking I think I ever did. 
Those days are gone. And sadly, cause I miss The Palladium. It was a great club. 

 
So you’re playing in Tarrytown this Saturday. Is the show the exact show that you’d do in Vegas or New York, or do you tone it down a bit for the local hoi polloi ?
I might just pull it back a bit, because you’re not gonna do a New York-style show in a place that doesn’t call for it. So in the sense of bringing all my wardrobe? No, I’m not gonna do that. But, I’ll be there with my band! We’ll have a great show. Apparently, a lot of NYers have moved to Tarrytown, as with all the surrounding areas of NYC, so you’re always gonna get a good audience wherever you are.

Tonight you’re playing with Elvis Costello, who’s amazing, at The Music of Prince at Carnegie Hall. What is the music of Prince? 
It’s a fundraiser for music education and it’s like 20 different people covering Prince songs. I’m covering “Little Red Corvette” with the band The Roots. You know, Questlove, it’s his band that’s the backup band. And other people are bringing their own bands, but I’m performing with Questlove. They’re backing me up.

You’re right in the forefront of the movement for LGBT rights. Under this administration, there seems to be exponential strides. Even Dirty Harry himself, Clint Eastwood, came out for gay marriage. Are you running out of material? 
That was never my thrust, the gay movement per se. That was certainly the backdrop, because that’s just sort of where the smart, forward-thinking people have always existed, and still do to a certain extent. But my material is much more eclectic than that and always has been. I mean, I never identified myself as, you know, a “gay performer." That’s just not where I’m at. My work is about taking all the things that I thought were sophisticated and important from all the different worlds. From the art world, from the music scene, the underground scene, from vaudeville, to Broadway, to rock ‘n’ roll, to burlesque, to the Black movement. I’ve always melded my shows together. I’m postmodern, honey. I don’t get caught up in one thing. Never have. 

I booked you back in the day because you know how to make a statement. 
And that’s what I’m still doin, honey, cause there’s plenty to make statements about. Now the statement is: how complacent can our culture be? How lazy can we be? How dependent are we on social media? And the lack of people putting themselves out there, meeting new people face-to-face, being inspired, which is the real human experience! That’s what makes people great and interesting. You can’t do that by hiding behind the veils of social media. I mean, it just cuts off people’s ability to grow as people. 

You have this band called The Flawless Zircons, which I think is an amazing name. Tell me about them.

Well, some of the stuff I’ve written and some of the songs are covers. I have a huge musical repertoire that I draw from depending on the night. I switch it up. I love that element of surprise, just the way I’m sure if you talked to The Stones the night before they did a set, they wouldn’t tell you their set-list  Nobody wants to hear ahead of time what they’re gonna be hearing, you know what I mean? And the name – I love to “wow” you with "the big rock" and it turns out to be diamond-wannabee Zirconia. It just makes me laugh.

You do so many things in your career, but what would you like to be remembered as? What is Sandra Bernhard’s legacy? 
As somebody who constantly breaks down the walls of complacency. I love being somebody who can command attention on stage. Who demands attention. Who earns attention. Is somebody who not only entertains you, but makes you walk away at the end of the night and think, “wow, here’s somebody who shares my emotions, my fears, my hopes." There’s a wave that carries us through life, and throws us on to lots of different shores of interesting, exciting, ongoing, inspiring circumstances. But life should always be inspiring. It shouldn’t suddenly drop off the cliff and not be fun anymore, no matter where we’re at culturally or environmentally. We still gotta find ways of making life inspiring. 

How far is the real Sandra Bernhard from the stage Sandra Bernhard? Are you always on? Is it always you? 
No, not at all. I think I can drop into entertaining mode at the drop of a hat. But day-to-day, it’s work! You gotta roll up your sleeves, deal with so many different elements of this business. I’m on both sides of the live-performing and the creative side, and I’m also on the acting side. You can’t just throw it into somebody else’s lap because it’ll just fall apart. At different junctures, I’ve been with the wrong people, and you just gotta wrestle back control of your career, and be collaborative with people. 

Are you happy, or happier?
I’ve always enjoyed my life. As an artist and creative person, you’re always struggling to find level footing because you see things other people don’t see. If you didn’t see them, you would have nothing to talk about. You may lift up corners of rugs that are filthy, and no one wants to look at the filth, but if you don’t look at the filth then you’ve got nothing to talk about. So, when you look at things that are a little shocking or a little scary, they affect you emotionally and physically. That’s what artists do – painters, sculptors, writers, singers, funny people –  we look at things that other people aren’t willing to look at, and then talk about it in a funny or interesting creative way. 
 
So what’s the future? What comes next? 
Right now, a friend of mine is developing a great television series idea for me and another actress I don’t want to talk about because we’re right in the planning stages. We’re setting up meetings to go out and pitch the idea, and there’s nothing more irritating than when things are in transition. You just gotta let them fall together. But it’s a great idea with another fabulous, highly-visible actress who needs to be seen again, so it’s the two of us. I feel very positive about it, and that’s my next thing that I really wanna get done. 
I remember when you came in for sound check at Palladium, I hadn’t yet met you, and people were saying, " Oh my God, she’s gonna eat you up, and don’t do this…and that…" Then we heard you walk in, and from then on, you were just a joy. You were a joy to work with. So professional.
Thank you, and that’s what you gotta be. I mean, there’s no excuse for being anything less, and there’s no reason not to be. If you’re not professional, you don’t get anything done. You know that, and I know that. And thank you for that gig! It was a great, great night. That was the most fun night. 
 
Transcribed by BlackBook’s superstar intern Nicole Pinhas. 

Let Prince Wake You Up With His New Track, ‘Breakfast Can Wait’

Even when Prince is being absolutely ridiculous, it’s hard not to love everything he does. Following up on his driving, blues-rock single “Screwdriver” released at the end of January, His Royal Badness has released “Breakfast Can Wait,” a smooth, funky little ode to the most important meal of the day, or rather, delaying the most important meal of the day for more intimate activities.

And you’d better believe there’s food imagery happening: “Hotcakes smothered in honey, I’mma have to pass / fresh cup of coffee, no no, I’ve gotta have you in my lap.” The first two thirds or so groove, but then Prince goes into this chipmunk voice pitch distortion thing at the end, which totally kills the mood. But maybe that’s what he was going for. He’s Prince, after all. Still, it’s definitely worth a listen and hopefully an indicator of even more Prince.

If that’s not enough Prince (and it’s never enough Prince), the all-star Prince tribute show at Carnegie Hall is right around the corner on March 7th, featuring an impressive and varied lineup including D’Angelo, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Talib Kweli, Sandra Bernhard, Bettye LaVette, The Roots and Princess with Gretchen Lieberum and Maya Rudloph. Yes, please. And tickets for the show will benefit a number of arts and education programs for New York children. What’s not to love?

Have a listen to “Breakfast Can Wait” below, or if the video doesn’t work, you can download the new track for the low, low price of 0.88 over at Prince’s website.

R&B Legend Bettye LaVette Opens Up About Her Tell-All Memoir

Bettye LaVette has one of the greatest voices in R&B history, but we came very close to never hearing her sing. At sixteen she recorded her first song, “My Man – He’s a Loving Man,” in 1962, and that early success allowed her to tour the country with folks like Otis Redding and offered the promise of R&B stardom. Fate, however, wasn’t kind, and a string of bad luck and broken promises kept her from truly making it big. But with a dedicated circle of friends and fans, LaVette continued to perform, and in the early years of the new millennium she found success with albums released by indie label ANTI-, through which she recorded an album of songs by singer-songwriters like Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, and Lucinda Williams, as well as a collaboration with southern rockers Drive-By Truckers.

It was her performance of The Who’s classic “Love, Reign O’er Me” at the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors that delivered her much-deserved national spotlight, which led to her chance to sing “A Change Is Gonna Come” at Barack Obama’s pre-inauguration concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Now, the singer has a new album as well as a memoir, A Woman Like Me. The book is a no-holds-barred account of the roller coaster ride that was her career, featuring cameos by Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, and Aretha Franklin—all of whom LaVette remembers at times fondly and, at times, with aversion.

I was excited to talk to the singer, who eagerly shared her excitement about writing a book, how she’s happy to share the stories from her life, and how the music industry has drastically changed in the last forty years.

What I really liked about your book was that it wasn’t the typical rock ’n’ roll memoir where you make it really big and than you have this giant tragedy. You kind of see that a lot in movies and books about people in the music industry. Did you have this idea of wanting to set the record straight about things that happened in your career?
No, not at all. These were stories that I’ve told over the years. You have to remember, just a little while ago all I had was these memories, that was absolutely all I had. Someone would always say, “You need to write a book,” and I would say, “I’m sure somebody’s gonna write one, either my daughter or my best friend—the people who have heard these stories a million times or whatever—but I thought it would happen after my death because I didn’t think that I would be around long enough to have somebody write about me and a whole bunch of tawdry stories. So no, it wasn’t conceived in the way that most books are, and I didn’t know it’d be different from what I’m doing now: sharing my stories.

It comes across that way. It’s written with a more personal style, as if I were sitting and listening to you telling me tales. It jumps around a bit; you’ll end one story and pick it up later, and characters come back just as you’re giving your memories of how you remember them. That’s what I liked about it; it wasn’t the standard kind of memoir in that way.
And I want people to know, too, that these stories are about who these people were. They’re not about who you know them to be. People sort of have problems with that because they know Marvin Gaye as a star. But I know Marvin Gaye as a man trying to be a star. So that’s completely different.

You’re pretty brutally honest about a lot people and give a lot of surprising opinions. You mention Ike Turner at one point and talk about the Ike Turner that you knew being different from the person portrayed on film and thought of in the popular culture. Were you at all worried about how people would react to how you were describing the people you were around at the time?
I have the advantage now of almost being 70, so I don’t care what you think! I do not care what you think. You know, the thing of it is: there’s no reason to lie, and there’s nothing to lie about. The only people I would have been worried about were my grandchildren, and they are now 21 and 27, so at least I can explain myself thoroughly to them now. The people I spoke about in the book haven’t spoken to me at all this time. I wouldn’t be losing anything if they decided not to speak to me now.

It’s kind of surprising, I guess, when you think about your family reading it. I’ve seen so many movies and read stories about this era and of people in rock ’n’ roll, and it’s not super surprising—
But Tyler, if you’re just twenty-something, you haven’t seen too many!

Well, I mean, there’s probably more of an expectation that I would get out of reading a book by a musician than maybe a that person’s grandchildren would have.
Really, why?

Well,  I can’t imagine my grandparents writing about sex and drugs.
Ha, I love it!

But that’s interesting! It didn’t even cross my mind—thinking about how your family would react to it. I was thinking, “What if Diana Ross read this book, and what would she think about it?”
I don’t know if I would have even written it had my mother still been alive. You were just saying about your grandparents—I know how much of it my mother would have understood, and it wouldn’t have been enough. If I were trying to explain it to a young kid, what they would understand would not be enough. Those are the only people I was concerned about.

I saw you perform at the Robert Johnson tribute show back in March, and I remember you saying it was the first time you had been at the Apollo since like some time in the mid-’60s and how it seemed a lot bigger to you when you were there the first time.
It seemed like a little community theater!

It was the first time I had been there, too, and I was surprised because I had expected it to be much bigger. It’s such an iconic place, especially for R&B and African American artists. Was that a place you always strived to get to?
Oh, absolutely. You certainly wanted to work at the Apollo—that was absolutely it. I remember touring Otis Redding and The Shirelles. When we got to Philadelphia, Otis and I headed back down south and The Shirelles would go on up to the Apollo. Then everything happened so fast, and it wasn’t a long time before Otis was at the Apollo—it was maybe like six months later.

I didn’t know much about the industry at the time, but these days it seems artists are getting a lot buzz before they’ve come out with a proper album and can tour on that early successful buzz. That’s what I thought of when I was reading your story; you had a lot of singles that were getting some pick-up, and you would get the chance to record an album and then that opportunity fell through. It seems like before there was the major crossover for African American artists the industry was much more competitive. Looking at how the industry works now, have things changed that much for new artists?
I think the record industry today is virtually unrecognizable to anyone my age unless they’re, like, Clive Davis. My manager once introduced me to Billy Eckstine, who had a record on the charts for the first time in his twenty-year career. Whereas today you can sing for thirteen weeks and be on the cover of Vogue. The children have taken over! It’s just like the children running the house.

People are becoming successful based on nothing, but it doesn’t seem like there’s a long shelf life for them.
Oh, no, they’re almost disposable. And I think that the thing that keeps me from being terrified of them; I know that they are disposable, and that none of them are going to run up against me way late at night in a little small joint where there’s nothing but a baby grand piano. So those two things keep me sane.

What you are doing even now is a little more classical in a way—you’re singing songs and interpreting them in your own way, and you can continue to find an audience. I first discovered you from hearing your covers of Fiona Apple’s “Sleep to Dream” and Aimee Mann’s “How Am I Different.” I’m a big fan of Marianne Faithfull, and she recently did an album where she covered a lot of contemporary indie-rock songs and recorded them in her own style, and that something she’s been doing for decades. Was that approach introduced to you and did someone suggest you record those covers?
The songs, first of all, are just songs to me. Some people have small churches they have built dedicated to some of those tunes, and I don’t. They’re just songs to me. And I have always sung all kinds of songs because I’ve always heard all kinds of songs. It doesn’t make any difference what kind of song it is. If I sing, it’s gonna be rhythm and blues. None of them frighten me. I don’t think of them in categories or anything, because I know that if I did a song by Roy Rogers, it won’t sound like a Roy Rogers song when I sing it. It’ll sound like me.

 

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