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. 

Sky Room’s Angel & the Bono Joke Heard by God

Nightlife is full of characters. Peggy Millard is rolling out Sky Room, a Midtown West aerie where bottles will be popping to romantic sunsets. I have worked with Peggy and I have always adored her—loved her to death, even when I hated her and wanted that death to come immediately. Tall, ginger-haired and flamboyant, she is now in her 40’s and still owns any room she walks through. She’s a combination of Ethel Merman, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Bebe Buell. To the young, not only at heart, that means she is hot, hot, hot, and loud. When she was the wife of Psychedelic Furs co-founder and bassist Tim Butler, she was rock n’ roll hootchie-coo. As a general manager of the club Spa, she was always bringing rock stars that she had befriended over the years. I met Bono and Jimmy Page and dozens of others through this gal. She once had me tell a very bad joke about Bono to Bono. It really isn’t funny at all except that I stood in front of him, his band members, and his entourage, and had the balls (or is it rudeness?) to tell it.

Contrary to Peggy’s recollection, Bono didn’t laugh. He looked at me and said, “I heard it.” The looks on the entourage’s faces were very recognizable to me, as I see it all the time: shock and ‘why are you still here?’ starkness. I’ll tell the joke after the interview. She was my dearest friend when the powers up above threw shovel after shovel of rock and dirt on me. She stood by me and never talked about it and was always there to support. I leaned on her more often than I have ever said. It was the strength of people like her, people who have been through it all, that helped me not only survive adversity, but to thrive within it. Peggy has been there and done that and now opens Sky Room and I will sip a diet coke with her at sunset real soon.

I first met you at the Palladium on New Years Eve when I booked your ex- husbands band, the Psychedelic Furs. In a thousand words or less (joke) describe your rock n’ roll roots. Wow, that’s a lot to remember. Rock and Roll was my life. I met a lot of great people, did a lot of crazy things, and I can still remember it. Some of those people are still very much a part of my life. Yesterday I came across Steven Lupino’s book, The World, which is where I discovered nightlife. Didn’t you manage the World? Oh, what beautiful decadence it was. I fast tracked when I got married at 20 on New Year’s Eve in England’s oldest walled town, with some of the Smith’s in tow. I don’t think I will get into that party but the town of Malmesbury never knew what hit them (The fire department did).

I spent the next 10 years traveling the world with a band of brilliant characters and musicians. Festivals, concerts, film premieres, and long periods in the recording studio. All of these things allowed me to meet fascinating people. Not just musicians, but writers, painters, and performance artists. It even allowed me to pose for Chuck Close. The 80’s were such a different world than today. I listen to bands that sound like they are from the 80’s, the fashion I swore I would never again wear is from the 80’s. It’s a bit bizarre. When I came to New York in the mid 80’s, it was to model and, like so many girls you and I have known, I preferred the nightlife. I guess it wasn’t too bad since it has taken me on a long and broad road revolving around music.

We worked together at a couple joints, Spa and Plaid, where you were the GM. What’s different about clubs these days? Well Spa was different than Plaid. Spa was part of that beginning of bottle service and celebrity clientele, I think we had every sports team at least once. For the past 2 years I’ve spent the summer at Pink Elephant Southampton, which had a similar vibe with less celebrities and more Wall Street and Businessmen (yes even with the recession). I also see the cocktails slowly rising from the ashes. It seems to me that people aren’t as protective of their staff as before. I don’t know if it is all the lawsuits for tips, harassment or security having to be a separate company, but we seem to have lost the family.

You have a couple of companies with your boyfriend Thierry: P.M. Hospitality group and SPI. Tell me about what you do, and what its like working so closely with your significant other. We actually have 4 companies, 3 related to Nightlife. Service Professionals Intelligence (SPI) is a consulting company geared towards nightclubs and other hospitality ventures. We do everything, from financial forecasting to setting up new clubs for openenings. We focus mostly on operations, and people usually call us when they have some serious challenges on their hands. Then there is PM Hospitality Group, which was formed primarily as the management company to run Sky Room. The third company is Inspirevents, an event company that deals with corporate and special events, as well as large concerts and promotional parties. Oh, and P.S., he’s my husband now. This ties into your question about us working together (now there is no need to put your rubber or Wellingtons on), it’s great. I know what that man is thinking from across the room and vice versa. I’m a fire sign and Thierry is water. I get a bit hot under the collar and he’s there to put me out. Wouldn’t some of our old staff like to hear that! It’s actually exciting because, when we go into a new project, we each get to focus on our specialties and know that the other one is doing their job right. No worries, it just gets done. Beautiful!

Congrats on the nuptials. You’re involved with the opening of Sky Room. What is your role? Our role, Thierry and myself, will be to act as managing directors and run the place for the owner. It should be an interesting challenge, considering the fact that we are sitting on top of two hotels and that there are two other hotels adjacent to them, as well. A little more corporate than what we usually do but definitely exciting. I can’t wait for you to come by, you’ll see a few familiar faces—a bit older now, but the suntan on the roof will keep them looking young!

When will it open, and what is the concept? The venue should open anytime now. We are going through the usual permit dance. You know how that goes, so we are playing with a couple of tentative dates. Don’t worry, your invitation is in the mail. The concept is more loungy, based on the location and the roof environment. We want to provide an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city, right in the middle of it, an invitation to travel. We’ve kept this theme throughout our cocktails, our food menu and our uniforms. As the Gang of Four once said: “I love a man in an uniform.”

You once introduced me to Bono, and other rock gods, on occasion. Tell me about why you would even think of introducing me to Bono? And after that, were you guys still friends? First off, you’re not as bad as you think you are. Maybe I should take that back! When we came in, I saw that you noticed him. I sat him down and you told me this politically incorrect joke about Curt Cobain and Bono and God. It’s been a few years but it made me laugh so hard I told Bono that he had to hear it. I dragged you over and, of course, you told the joke in the way only you can. I’m really glad, with him being Irish, that no one was offended. He did laugh and had a great time and, I pray, he never remembered it once the night was over. Sorry Steve, but friends are friends and all of us make mistakes and are forgiven!

You have worked with some club legends, David Marvisi, Neal Cohen and others. What are the common threads of these types, for good and bad. Both of these men were good to me. Both of these men are megalomaniacs. Until you asked, I never really compared them, although I should have. Both needed to be the top, and both of them were there. When it comes to Neil Cohen, I was very young and he sort of looked after me a bit. One time I had a certain situation arise and he took me to the old Cat Club (which became Spa) to have the Hell’s Angels meet with me to take care of that situation. Just like David Marvisi, giving me a security guard because of other certain situations that arose. I worked with Neil at the Ritz and Downtown, both live rock and roll venues. When I was getting my divorce, I wanted to go somewhere that no one would know me: Mirage. David and I worked together through 7 clubs. Both men were very generous. Neil took me back whenever I left for tour. David threw me these incredible birthday parties, flying the whole staff of Exit to Miami as a surprise party. Really Steve, I believe you have witnessed David’s generosity over the years.

Is it still fun? Of course, each club or each night is like a giant birthday cake that you cant wait to see what will pop out of the top of it. Good or bad, it’s a laugh!

Have you missed me? Missed you? Remember some of the things you used to do to me for a laugh? Do you remember tossing all the invitations on the phone lines, and my credit card system would go down every night? You would smile blankly while I ran around like a chicken with my head cut off. It took me a month to get a lock on that door. I miss the great debater, or laymen, the arguments! Oh and Arturo. Fish says he misses you also.

Do you miss rock and roll? Tell me a story? The celebration of my 21st birthday on April Fool’s day. My ex decided to teach me the experience of Champagne slammers. We bought a case of DP and a bottle of Tequila. Invited The Thompson Twins, Some of the Smith’s, and Ian McCullough. Oh, and the some of the Sisters of Mercy were there as well. Who ever came later, I wouldn’t have known as I was passed out. Woke up in the morning and the first thing I notice is a wad of cash gone. Decided I needed a cup of tea and went downstairs in our flat, where the whole band was staying. The chandelier is on the floor, a guitar is in the TV and the sliding glass door was broken. Nice birthday party I had. I’m a professional now, and a bit nervous talking about people under a roll out couch fighting for the worm!

I have no idea what that story meant. Love you, Peggy. The Bono joke, as told to Bono and a large, not so amused entourage, went like this:

Curt Cobain dies and he wakes up in heaven. The angel says, “Curt, come walk with me.” And so they walked.

Angel: Curt, you didn’t expect to wind up in heaven. Well God is all knowing, all powerful, and all forgiving and he has this special place for people just like you

Curt: “Oh wow, this is amazing, wow look over there Janis Joplin!”

Angel: Yes Curt, Janis can’t wait to meet you and sing with you.

Curt: Janis Joplin knows who I am? Oh wow, this place is amazing. Whoa—that’s Jim Morrison!

Angel: Yes Curt, Jim and you are going to be roommates. Similar lives, untimely deaths, poets both. You have so much in common.

Curt: Wow, that’s Elvis! the King! Wow, this IS heaven!

Angel: Yes Curt, Elvis, we don’t call him “King” here, but he did tell me to tell you that after you settle in he’d love to hang with you.

Curt: Wow, Elvis wants to hang! Wow, look over there, it’s Jimi Hendrix and Bono. Whoa, I didn’t think Bono was dead?

Angel: No Curt that’s just God. Sometimes he thinks he’s Bono.