‘Dendrophile’ by Justin Vivian Bond
Author: Jay Michaelson
July 4, 2011
When I saw John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus for the first time, I realized two things: first, that this was the first film to represent how I related to sexuality, friendship, and intimacy; and second, that I hadn’t even realized how unrepresented I’d been until then. Queer invisibility in history and society is, by now, a well-worn concept. But when suddenly someone gives shape to the formless, there is still the shock of the familiar, the revelation of what ought to have been seen all along.
I felt the same way the first time I played Justin Vivian Bond’s new collection, Dendrophile. Many of these songs were known to me; I’d seen Mx. Bond perform some of them live, and several are covers. But from the first line of the album – “In America, I place my ring on your cock where it belongs,” from Essex Hemphill’s queer apocalyptic poem, “American Wedding” – I felt like I’d come home, that someone was speaking a language that, paraphrasing Joyce, was not someone else’s before it was mine.
Part of this is just family: both Mitchell and Bond are radical faeries, and so am I. (Bond also had a central role in Shortbus, of course.) We have friends and ideas in common: among them, that sexuality and gender are fluid, powerful, and possessed of a revolutionary energy. That the expression of those powerful, changing forces does matter, should matter, and ought to matter more. That, as Hemphill writes of the Mr. Joneses both of the Reactionary Right and the Mushy Rainbow Middle, “[t]hey don’t know we’re becoming powerful. Every time we kiss, we confirm the new world coming.”
But I don’t think it’s ideas, exactly. Someone once wrote of Bob Dylan that “you don’t have to know what he’s singing, just how he sings it.” Bond’s singing is more articulate than the last thirty years of Dylan’s, but the principle holds here as well. To be a cabaret singer, as Bond is, is to invest everything in the right turn of phrase, or the right notes held, quivered, and bent. The connection I feel, I think, is in how V sings it, sneers it, and occasionally outright shouts it.
That ‘V’, by the way, is a pronoun, like he, she, and ze. Mx. Bond has transitioned V’s gender to… somewhere in the spectrum. I’ve noticed a lot of reviews of Dendrophile obsess primarily over this fact. Fortunately, here in Lambda Literary I don’t have to spend much time on explaining transgender, gender-nonconformity, and genderqueer. Anyway, to focus on gender is to miss everything else that’s going on in Bond’s writing and performance – and that’s a shame. So I’m not going to do it.
My favorite of the originals on Dendrophile is the schadenfreude-laced “The New Economy,” which begins “They say it’s the new depression/so why am I filled with glee? /Everybody’s coming down quickly/Now they can all join me.” This is Bond, a twenty-year veteran of a self-chosen Bohemian lifestyle, the person who walked away from the most lucrative act of V’s career (Kiki and Herb) after playing Carnegie Hall, the artist who transitioned V’s gender just when V was breaking into mainstream media, reveling in the fact that now some of the yuppies and bankers who’ve gentrified Bond’s beloved East Village are starting to feel a bit more like its older residents.
“The New Economy” is also, subtly, a Radical Faerie statement of creed. “Everybody’s talking about Jesus/while heaven’s in the palm of your hand,” Bond sings. So far, pleasant New Age pantheism by way of William Blake. But then V adds, “Reach it in your pocket and stroke it/it’s there at your command.” Bond’s religion is an earthy, sexual paganism, informed by ecology and the back-to-the-land ethos of the Faeries, and I’m told that much of Dendrophile was written at a faerie community in Tennessee. For Bond, these strands are all inter-knit; a “dendrophile” is someone sexually aroused by plants, and “The New Economy” calls both for “bring on ecology” and “bring on a high-heeled trannie.”
This pastoral romanticism is leavened by the high urbanism of Bond’s cabaret style. It’s a productive dissonance; there V is on the cover, surrounded by tendrils and flowers, but also perfectly made up and bejeweled. Such tensions work in the mainstream as well as underground; critics have observed that what’s joyous about Cee-Lo Green’s “Fuck You” is precisely the juxtaposition of an old-school musical style with a new-school use of profanity. I think, too, of Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven, which used 1950’s melodramatic style to tell a story that would have been untellable in that era – precisely the hinge of the film’s plot.
Here, it is Bond as gender-ambiguous cabaret performer, combining chestnuts like the Carpenters’ “Superstar” and Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” with revolutionary proclamations like “22nd Century” (probably the energetic center of the album, though not my personal favorite) and the aforementioned “The New Economy.” Bond sings about the archaic revival, street hustlers and Jean Genet in a genre that’s often defined by aging chanteuses and the Velvet Fog. The Great American Songbook doesn’t yet have a page devoted to Bond’s postmodern juxtaposition of identities and styles – but hopefully it will soon.
Not all of Dendrophile’s musical styles will appeal to everybody, but fortunately there are plenty to go around. Personally, I favor the slinkier and mellower tones of “Genet Song” and “The Golden Age of Hustlers” over the countrified “Equipoise” and the over-the-top bombast of “22nd Century.” I loved the occasionally dissonant jazz horns placed atop 1970s-era funk-Burt Bacharach fusion, but lost a little interest in some of the slower-moving tunes. But all this is to be expected; the last thing a boundary-crosser is going to do is respect narrow boundaries.
I wanted to review Dendrophile in this publication because I think it’s one of the few album-length CDs to deserve it. Along with Rufus Wainwright, Antony, kd lang, and a handful of other contemporary artists, Justin Vivian Bond is creating a queer poetic consciousness that quotes styles with the fluency of a DJ and queers them with the confidence of an academic. Yet even more than these other artists, Bond has chosen to work within marginal, radical communities rather than mainstream ones. For this, V deserves our respect. But if it has any respect of its own, your bookshelf–not to mention your iTunes – deserves Justin Vivian Bond.
by Justin Vivian Bond