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. 

Some Songs About Margaret Thatcher

Welcome to the internet, where lists published on Wikipedia can quickly be turned into blog posts. Did you know that recently deceased Margaret Thatcher was a very divisive figure in cultural history? I am sure you did, especially if you saw that terrible movie about her that starred Meryl Streep. Naturally, people wrote a lot of songs about her. Here are a few. 

Morrissey – "Margaret on the Guillotine"

Paul McCartney – "All My Trials"

The Beat – "Stand Down Margaret"

Pete Wylie – "The Day That Margaret Thatcher Dies"

Elvis Costello – "Tramp the Dirt Down"

Pink Floyd – "The Fletcher Memorial Home"

Elvis Costello, The Roots, Living Colour, Bettye LaVette & Others Pay Tribute to Robert Johnson

According to a tall tale, legendary guitarist Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in order to become a great musician. There’s no real proof of this Faustian legend save for Johnson’s immense talent and status as the root of the blues genre. Last night, in celebration of his 100th birthday, a stellar line-up of musicians gathered at the historical Apollo Theater in Harlem to pay tribute to the man who has inspired generations of artists across the globe. A benefit for the building of a Blues Hall of Fame in Memphis, Tennessee, the event was co-produced and hosted by actor Joe Morton in league with the Blues Foundation in Memphis. 

Opening the show was the house band, made up of Steve Jordan, James Blood Ulmer, Keb Mo, Colin Linden, Sugar Blue, and Willie Weeks — a group that Morton asserted was "the greatest blues band ever assembled." After performing "Terraplane Blues," Otis Taylor came onstage with a banjo to perform a solo rendition of "Kindhearted Woman." Immediately afterward, Todd Rundgren stepped out to perform a second version of the song; Morton explained that multiple versions of songs would be performed, as Johnson himself would sometimes put the same song on a record more than once. Soon after came The Roots, performing a spirited "Milkcow’s Calf Blues."

In a surprising turn displaying his versatility, "star of stage and screen and anywhere he wants to be" Jeffrey Wright joined Keb Mo at the microphone to sing "Stones in My Passway." Tony-award winning actor and dancer Hinton Battle glided across the stage while Public Enemy frontman Chuck D rapped the verses of "Last Fair Deal Gone Down." A choir joined Macy Gray onstage for "Come on in My Kitchen," and things really heated up when the great Bettye LaVette and Taj Mahal performed "When You Got a Good Friend" together. Following Sarah Dash and Keb Mo’s "Honeymoon Blues," funk metal band Living Colour earned the first standing ovation of the night after an electric rendition of "Preachin’ Blues," featuring gut-busting basslines and ear-piercing vocals from Corey Glover. Soon they were joined by Shemekia Copeland for the first of three versions of "Stop Breakin’ Down."

In the second half of the show, Sam Moore sang a consumate cover of "Sweet Home Chicago," Predito Martinez Group performed a Latin-inspired "Travelin’ Riverside Blues," and Elvis Costello wandered out to perform a single song: "From Four Till Late." One of the night’s highlights, however was the lovely Bettye LaVette, who returned to the stage to sing "I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man" accompanied by Kevin Kiley on harmonica. Before she twisted around, encouraging cheers from the audience, the venerable soul singer announced, "I haven’t stood on this stage since 1965 — and it seemed much bigger." 

Other than Todd Rundgren’s second performance, before which he mentioned that it was also the 100th birthday of the Oreo cookie and likened himself to "an inside-out Oreo" to an awkward silence, the end of the show was full of energy, with the group of performers, including Keb Mo, Taj Mahal, Living Colour, Sarah Dash, Jeffrey Wright, and Bettye LaVette, joining Patrick Droney, the 2006 winner of the Robert Johnson Blues Foundation New Generation award, in "If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day." The cheering audience jumped out of their seats at Sam Moore’s insistence. The event proved that Johnson, despite meeting an early death at the age of 27, was eternally influential, and most contemporary musicians owe a debt to his trail-blazing music. 

Watch John Legend & The Roots Cover Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’ on ‘Fallon’

It’s Bruce Springsteen Week at Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, but because the Boss is the Boss, he need not always be there to receive the show’s love. Last night, Bruce took a night off from performing so John Legend took to the stage to perform a cover of "Dancing in the Dark" from the landmark Born in the U.S.A. album. Backed by the Roots, Legend turns Springsteen’s ’80s cheese into lounge jazz, closer to a YouTube original than a rock n’ roll showdown. But hey, it sounds pretty great. Watch it after the click, via Prefix.

Springsteen Week continues at Fallon, with Elvis Costello dropping by tonight to perform "Brilliant Disguise" and the Boss coming back tomorrow to do more songs off his new album, Wrecking Ball (or so I presume, maybe he’ll bust out some DEEP CUTS). Legend recently announced he’ll contribute to Danny Glover’s documentary about the civil rights movement, Soundtrack for a Revolution, so keep an ear out for that.

Elvis Costello Urges Fans Not to Buy His New Album

In what is either an admirable defense of his fans’ hard-earned cash, or an overly complicated marketing ploy based on reverse psychology, Elvis Costello has published a note on his website urging people not to buy his new box set. The Return Of The Spectacular Spinning Songbook goes for over $200, a price that, according to ElivsCostello.com, “appears to be either a misprint or a satire.”

The Telegraph points us to the post, which alludes to Costello’s fruitless efforts to get the price reduced. Instead, he offers an alternative to his own music: Louis Armstrong. “If you want to buy something special for your loved one at this time of seasonal giving, we suggest, Ambassador Of Jazz – a cute little imitation suitcase containing ten re-mastered albums by one of the most beautiful and loving revolutionaries who ever lived.”

Armstrong’s Ambassador of Jazz costs fifty bucks less than The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook, and Costello’s website concedes, “Frankly the music is vastly superior.”

Costello’s website assures fans that if they wait, the songs from the overpriced box set will be available separately for less money starting next year. That is, “unless you are one of those pirates who imagines they are evangelists or that other people’s rights absolve their own thievery, in which case this is between you and your dim conscience.”

The Spectacular Spinning Songbook will be released on December 6th, in case you want to how long you have to wait to not buy it.

Radio Waves: Zach from Rogue Wave

Zach Rogue (née Zach Schwartz) is the frontman for Oakland indie rock band Rogue Wave. The five-piece popped onto my radar after I formed an unhealthy fascination with the song “Chicago x 12” from the band’s third album, Asleep at Heaven’s Gate, and played it on repeat for days on end. I later learned that Rogue’s right hand man and drummer, Pat Spurgeon, was the subject of the documentary film, D tour, about his struggles while waiting for a kidney transplant. At that point, I officially classified Rogue Wave in my personal music database as ‘Things That I Like’ and ‘Interesting Story’. The band’s fourth studio album, Permalight, dropped in March on Brushfire Records, and the band will be back on tour starting this Sunday with an appearance at the House of Blues in Boston. I had a minute to chat with Rogue about changing his name, the bullshit that takes place at festivals, and sharing a zip code with James Hetfield from Metallica.

What’s been going on since the album came out in March? We’ve been on the road ever since. We started touring a few days before that so we’re having a bit of a break. Take a couple weeks off to recharge and then we’re going to be back out again real soon, so just taking a kind of a little break so we don’t lose our minds.

It’s been a long road since Asleep at Heaven’s Gate was released in ’07… The process of making Asleep at Heaven’s Gate was a really cathartic one for me and Pat especially. Pat had just gotten his life back after he got a kidney, and that was a real transformational experience for all of us. We’d also seen some real negative things happen and our guitar player’s father died. We were just feeling the realities of what was happening as adults. On Asleep at Heaven’s Gate we got it all out there and it’s a really long, experimental, ambient album. When we finished that experience, my body just broke down on me. I slipped two disks in my neck, I lost feeling in my arm and my hand, and I was bedridden for almost three months. The doctors don’t really know how it happened. I’ve seen video before of us performing, and I used to throw my neck around, and I know I have a predisposition for that kind of a problem. I was told by my doctor that I had to stop playing music entirely. I had to stop playing guitar and I couldn’t do any activities that required me to look down. My whole coping mechanism is completely bound to the physical interaction between me and an instrument, and that’s how I think about my life. I thought it was going to be taken away from me so I felt really helpless, powerless, and I felt like an old man. I was terrified that I wasn’t going to be able to pick up my own daughter. That was the lowest point ever. I finally had an epidural injection in my neck, and started feeling better, and I started ignoring my doctor. At the beginning of the year, in 2009, I actually picked up a guitar and I started strumming again, and I felt so excited because the dark clouds were lifted a little bit.

And then came Permalight When I was able to write music, I felt like a little kid again. I wrote the song “Permalight”, which is the title track of the record. It was just remembering what I was like when I was a kid, and I was really modeling it after the song “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang. That was the song that I heard when I was a little boy, when I’d go to baseball games and the A’s would win. That was the song they played and that was the height of youthful excitement. Life was really simple then and that was the best sound you could hear. I just felt really rejuvenated and I wanted to make a record that was visceral — and not superficial, mind you — but a record that would express how happy I was to be alive. I wanted to make short songs and have narrative structures that were really direct. I wanted it to be something that you could consume in one sitting, or even hear it twice. I wanted to make it sound urgent, and optimistic, and not naïve, about a better future. What was the first song that you ever wrote? There were always instruments around the house when I was a kid; my stepdad played guitar, piano, and drums, and they would have friends over. I’m not really sure when it started, because there was always stuff. I kind of wanted to play drums first when I was like ten, but I am not very coordinated so that didn’t work out very well. I started playing on this Casio that my parents had, and then guitar, and I think I wrote this song where I completely ripped off “The Last Train to Clarksville” by the Monkees. I just kind of changed the words and then made up a chorus.

Some of your favorite musicians who have also changed their names? When I started the band it was just me, so it was more like a Ramones kind of thing, where I felt like I wanted to completely be in the band by virtue of my name and make that kind of a commitment. At that time it wasn’t a band so I didn’t expect future members to do it because there weren’t any. It was really just for myself to start over in life. I wasn’t really trying to model myself after a certain artist, but it was more of the spirit of things. Since I met Elvis Costello when we were working on Permalight, I’ll say Elvis Costello.

How’d you meet Elvis Costello? We were working on the record in Oxford, Mississippi, and Elvis had worked on a record with our producer, Dennis Herring. He was visiting town to play a blues festival or something, and we all went to this dinner for a mutual friend who’d just won the James Beard award. It was assigned seating, and of course my seat was assigned next to Elvis, so I spent the evening talking to Elvis Costello. To be honest; I was kind of hoping I wouldn’t be assigned next to him, because I was just so nervous that I wouldn’t have anything to say and I didn’t want to have that awkward silence and think that I pissed away an evening of talking to Elvis Costello because I wasn’t interesting enough. But he couldn’t have been more gracious and fun. He’s hilarious and so charming.

One of my favorite songs on the album is “I’ll Never Leave You”. It’s a tribute to your daughter. Have you played it for her? Actually I was playing a bunch of the songs around the house before I recorded them. I wrote the song sleepwalker with her sitting on my lap. She’s three and a half now, so yeah she’s really little. I play songs for her, I play that for her. She seems to like it. I think she’s little enough where, I think she gets upset if I’m playing music and not playing with her.

Favorite venue in the world? I feel like a venue is special when it has a spiritual component to it, and you can actually feel the history. One of the places that does that the most, I think, is The Fillmore in San Francisco. It’s like you can feel the spirit of the ‘60s. I love the 9:30 club (in Washington, D.C.), I love playing almost anywhere in Chicago, because it’s like the best rock city of all time — we played at Lincoln Hall recently and I think we may be at The Metro in the fall. We actually played in the upstairs of the Unitarian Church in Philadelphia on this last tour, and it was one of the most special shows we’ve had.

What are your feelings on doing festivals? We’re so unknown that usually we play in the daytime, like the first slot of the festival, so it’s kind of a bummer. It’s like you’re invited to the party but you have to stay on the porch. You end up doing press the entire time you’re there, making you think that it actually matters, but the press is largely never released. You don’t even get to hear any of the music at the festival because you’re talking to people all day who ultimately don’t even care what you have to say. That sounds very cynical, but sometimes it can be fun. I will say the one thing that is fun about doing certain festivals is that we get to actually see our friends that are in bands that we normally wouldn’t get to see and you’re hanging out together, that’s pretty fun. We did Coachella once and it seemed like everywhere I went, I’d run in to someone in some band that was super nice.

Where are you living these days? I just moved North of San Francisco into Marin County. I live in the same town, actually, as James Hetfield from Metallica. All of my friends joked around with me about that like, “You moved to San Rafael, where James Hetfield lives. I think you’ll run into him!” And sure enough, I did. I ran into him at a restaurant having lunch one day, he was sitting right next to me. I couldn’t believe how long it didn’t take for that to happen.

What are your go-to places? One of my favorite places to get beer is called The Traffic, this kind of small pub and they have all Belgian style beers. The place I love to get dinner in San Francisco is a place called Lolo. My favorite place to get a cup of coffee is in Oakland, and it’s called Subrosa; nice little espresso café that opened up. If you can’t live in Brooklyn, you can stop by Subrosa and feel like you do.

Photo: Zach Rogue (left) and Pat Spurgeon by Lauren Dukoff.