I saw Justin Vivian Bond in concert on 11/11/17. I'd seen them in performance three times before, love their work, can't get enough of them. A few words about JVB’s personal history and my use of the words “they” and “them.” Justin was assigned the male gender at birth, but never felt comfortable as a boy. He grew up in suburban Maryland (you’ll hear a funny story about a bully later), moved to New York, and became a performer, achieving international fame as Kiki of Kiki and Herb (with Kenny Mellman as Herb). I heard Kiki and Herb in the fall of 2003, and wowie wow, they were incredible. Bond as Kiki was diva writ large, a boozy old broad with more attitude than talent or taste.
Kiki and Herb called it quits in 2008 and Bond became a solo artist. Sometime around this time, JVB took on the middle name of Vivian and the personal pronoun of “they,” rather than “he” or “she.” It takes a while to get used to, but they should have the right to choose their own mode of address, don’t you think?
They performed with a six-piece band: piano, bass, drums, guitar, trumpet, and violin. They opened with “Judy Blue Eyes,” that eight-minute epic from Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. I heard them sing this song at Joe’s Pub this summer, on a show that honored the ladies of Laurel Canyon, and was tickled to hear that JVB still doesn’t know the song any better. With all of those three-part harmonies, the lead singer has to choose which part they’re singing, and JVB seemed to be confused, or just change their mind. This was charming, it wasn’t annoying. It was delightfully amateurish.
The show was at NYU’s Skirball Center, which Bond referred to as “the Screwball Center,” quite fitting for this gig. They were wearing a new dress, a slim little number that required the purchase of a new panty girdle. Their use of this term was really and truly one of the highlights of the show. They said, “I didn’t want to look like your 9th grade art teacher, with a visible panty line. You deserve better than that.”
They did a couple of songs I didn’t know, one by Jeff Buckley and one by his father, Tim Buckley. The Tim Buckley song showed that Bond has a strong and juicy belt. I could see them playing one of the great Merman roles! Or at least doing a few of those songs.
Here’s the story about the bully. I’ll paraphrase: “There was this nasty little boy who lived down the street from me. My family, ironically, lived at the end of a dead end street. [much laughter from the audience] This boy and I would wait for the bus together, and he would throw lit matches at me, trying to light me on fire. Obviously this didn’t work too well. He knew that I came from a good Christian family, so one day he asked me if I loved him. And I said, ‘Yes, I do love you. In God’s way.’ [more laughter, that is some frosty Christian shade] Years later I heard that he became a junkie and blew his brains out. And I thought, ‘Hm, the spell worked.’ “
They did a funny, sardonic song by Lou Reed, “Goodnight Ladies.” And they told a hilarious story about their mother. “I’ve got this thing I put in my ear so I can talk with my mother and walk around. We can be on the phone for an hour, and I’m cleaning the apartment, it’s really great. Last week I was on the phone with her, and I said, ‘You know I should get going,’ and she said, ‘Yeah, I should get up.’ I asked her what she meant by that, and she said, ‘You wouldn’t believe where I’ve been sitting for the last hour.’ ‘You’re on the TOILET? You’re sitting there for an hour, looking at the linen closet?’ And she said, ‘Yes, it’s comfortable just sitting here. Wait a minute - - you’re going to tell your friends about this, aren’t you? You’re going to use this story in one of your SHOWS!’ So I can’t wait to call her tomorrow and tell her.”
A few weeks ago I read that JVB was doing a show on the American Songbook Series at Lincoln Center, a tribute to Karen Carpenter! Oh my Lord, I am totally the target audience for that show. I'll have to do some fancy footwork to make myself available, but I hope I'm able to go. They plugged that show and did a little preview, they sang “Goodbye To Love.” They said that they were trying to conjure the right mood, "sad and exploited, exhausted and hungry. MY usual state of being, actually." I'm sorry to say that their performance wasn’t very satisfying. I wonder if Bond is too ironic and snarky to really deliver the sincere truth of a Carpenters song. The highlight of the song, honestly, was me quietly singing along with the coda, the many repeats of "Ah..."
I felt like the arrangements could have been a little more radiant. The trumpet and violin, in particular, were underused. I might stick my nose where it doesn’t belong and put together an arrangement and send it to them. Why the hell not? As Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young would say, what have I got to lose? The trumpet solo in “Goodbye To Love” (taking the place of the original fuzz guitar solo) was a particular dud. I could write a great improvement on that. Stay tuned.
They closed with “Sweet Sucker Dance,” from Joni Mitchell’s *Mingus* album. Cool song. And then two encores: the last encore was a groovy airing of “Strange Love” by Depeche Mode, the perfect song to send us all home. But the first encore was a highlight of the show - - they did Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” really one of the greatest songs ever. JVB messed up the lyrics here and there, but they totally nailed the balance of weariness, tenderness, and sophistication of the song. Here’s what happened at the end of the verse of the song:
Then you came along with your siren song
To tempt me to madness
I thought for a while that your poignant smile
Was tinged with the sadness
Of a great love for me
[a few seconds of silence]
Oh yes, I was wrong
I was wrong…
Those moments of silence were precious and intense! You really could have heard a pin drop, that’s always thrilling.