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. 
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. 

Industry Insiders: Michael Dorf, Wine and Music Maven

Michael Dorf first opened the legendary Knitting Factory in 1987. More recently, he’s built City Winery, a fully functioning winery in downtown Manhattan. Never one to forget his musical roots, the space doubles as a concert venue. Dorf’s vision of music and wine coexisting in the same place has people flocking to City Winery to sample the grapes and sounds.

Point of Origin: I came to New York with $20,000 in 1985. I was managing a band called Swamp Thing and trying to get them booked. I eventually convinced myself that I should rent a small office on Houston Street. With $20,000 we were able to put up the walls and serve coffee and tea for a month and get the ball rolling. I got lucky along the way, met great artists and moved up. I used radio to distribute the name the Knitting Factory, and I was very fair in terms of the door policy. 70% of the gate went to the artist so we were honest about what was coming in. Artists were freaking out about that. We could survive because we kept the bar money.

Concept of City Winery: It was a combination of epiphanies. When I left Knitting Factory, I never thought I’d do another club. I did a few big concerts and festivals, and then one day had a chance to make a barrel of wine with my brother out in California and had so much fun. The ego of being a producer came out when I started giving away the bottles that said, “Michael Dorf” on the labels. It got me thinking that there was no precedent for a winery in Manhattan, bringing grapes in from high quality locations like California, Oregon and South America. I had to do some real homework. What’s really unique about us is that we’ve created a place where people can learn about wine and enjoy it and share. I eventually thought, “Let’s do a winery and let’s do a music venue.”

Choosing wines vs choosing bands: I wish I could get as many bottles of wine as I got demo tapes at the Knitting Factory. The wine list is much more of a pure, artistic art form while there’s some pragmatism that goes into it. In the Knitting Factory days, it was always a balancing act between pure art and commerce. If we didn’t do so well at the door and the bar, but I really liked it, then that’s all that mattered. I’m a big jazz fan and I feel guilty that I’m not able to support more jazz or avant garde performance, but I can’t do as much cutting edge material here because it can’t sell 300 tickets. People’s palates aren’t usually sophisticated enough to know a cutting edge winemaker, but they’ll know if it’s shit, so in that case the two are a little different.

Membership programs: There’s a very small group of about 150 people who are making their own wine. They get 250 bottles with their name on the bottle. Wired magazine and NBC are doing it as well as some law firms. It’s a unique insight into wine making. Then the other program is called the Vino File membership, which is a rewards program that costs $15 a year and three or four days before we let the world know about a show, we let the Vino File members know. You can buy tickets with no service fees. If you use the Vino File card you can also track which wines you drank and the sommeliers can recommend a wine for you based on your taste.

Future projects: Since 2004, I’ve been doing an annual concert at Carnegie Hall. This March will be the music of The Who. These are benefits for music education for underprivileged children. Springstein showed up and played the encore at one and REM did the same thing. I’m also going to expand to Chicago, I hope, for the next City Winery. Then I hope Paris and London and Shanghai. That’s why I named it City Winery.

Industry Icons: On the music side, Bill Graham really inspired me as a promoter. George Wein from the Newport Jazz Festival. He’s the grandfather of large festivals. As a fellow wannabe megalomaniac, David Geffen has an amazing story. In the wine industry I’m fascinated by these winemakers that are just farmers. They aren’t flashy even though they’re millionaires. They get on a tractor and they get in the dirt and taste it. That, to me, is pretty remarkable.

Go-to places: Now I don’t go out anymore, which is pretty tragic. I could alternate between Nobu and Babbo every night if I could afford it. I dig going to Joe’s Pub to see music, and I do still sneak to the Village Vanguard because there’s nothing like it.

Favorite band: I’m really into singer/songwriters. I lean toward the Regina Spektor world. I could always listen to Radiohead.