The Official Justin Bond
By Mike Albo
I met Bond in the late '90s, as both of us rambled around the East Village queer scene, but the first time I ever saw V was at a panel in 1992 at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Creating Change conference in Los Angeles. The focus was on cross-dressing or transgender awareness (neither of us can remember exactly), and Bond, who was speaking there, wore light daytime makeup, fitted jeans, and a red scoop-neck sweater with a matching hair band. I thought V was one of the most androgynous, naturally beautiful creatures I had ever seen. 'That was just the beginning,' Bond laughs when I summon the memory. 'That person you saw was so insecure.'
Three years earlier, in 1989, Bond had moved to San Francisco, where the artist found a job at A Different Light bookstore, became a member of Queer Nation, and performed in plays. It was in San Francisco that Bond met Kate Bornstein, the performance artist, author, and gender theorist known for her books that challenge gender stereotypes and the assumption that all trans women are women trapped in men's bodies. Bornstein invited Bond to join the cast of her autobiographical play Hidden A: Gender, which ran at the Alice B. theater in Seattle in 1990 as a part of an international gay and lesbian theater festival.
In 1990, Bond started working with the musician Kenny Mellman. They started playing in San Francisco clubs as Kenny and Justin, doing alternative rock songs in a lounge style, but Kiki was slowly moving into view'a drunk, over-the -hill lounge singer that Bond would officially introduce in 1993. 'One night we were supposed to play Caf' Du Nord, and had been screaming all day at the gay pride parade. I said 'Tonight I can't sing, so you will be Herb, and I'll do Kiki.' We got a standing O. I thought, Jeez, I don't have to look good or sound good to do this character, so let's keep doing it.'
Their performance style was raw, alcoholic, and full of rage and comedy. Kiki would screech, break glasses, hit herself in the head with the mic, sing medleys that spanned from Meatloaf to Patti Smith—to hilarious and tragic extremes.
In the beginning, this kind of theatrical freedom was assisted by hallucinogens. 'Kenny and I would eat mushrooms in the cab on the way over to the gig.' But from the experience, Bond's improvisational skills were honed and tuned. 'It was such an education'creating such a specific character and knowing it so well. I was in Jungian analysis at the time, learning about tapping into your subconscious mind. And my mind was stimulated by mushrooms, too.' For Bond, it was a major lesson in stage presence: 'Trust yourself and own yourself and do it with conviction.'
To this day, Bond's stage timing can seem almost balletic in its precision. 'Nobody is better than Justin at taking the tragedies, failures, and obnoxious distractions of a live performance and using them to the benefit of all around,' says the performer Taylor Mac, who remembers such a moment, recently, at Joe's Pub. Bond was finishing a ballad, singing the last note, and in the audience, a plate dropped and shattered, distracting the audience. 'Our master of the moment leans over into the audience, picks up a plate from someone else's table and smashes it on the stage. The audience bursts into applause.'
'To me Justin Bond represents one of the last manifestations of the fully realized, unmediated, downtown artist,' says performance artist Penny Arcade. 'This is partly the result of Justin's position at the end of the Baby Boomer generation and the inherent values that still informed the culture then. And [it's partly] Justin's having come of age in the first decade of the AIDS plague but before the sinking of Atlantis, when one could still experience the great, raw, flamboyant and uniquely intellectual beauty of the gay world of yesterday.'
In 1994, Bond moved back to New York City, this time with Mellmann. Kiki and Herb first performed at the now-defunct cabaret bar 88's in the West Village, then on Sunday nights in the side room at Cowgirl Hall of Fame, then, soon, all over downtown. Bond hadn't really set on Kiki being such a phenomenon, but it struck a chord. 'Kiki came out of grief, a character I developed out of everyone dying in San Francisco. I think I was deeply traumatized by loss and created a character that expressed vulnerability and pain. Just when I was about to stop, September 11 happened.' The show eventually made it to Carnegie Hall in 2004, and then a five-week run on Broadway in 2006, where it was nominated for a Tony Award.
Craving an escape from the character and the attention surrounding her, Bond moved to London to attend Central Saint Martin's College for scenography—a program designed to break down the traditional hierarchies of theater. V lived in the London Bridge area and above a hepatitis clinic. 'It was where addicts would apply for a liver transplant. When I had a hangover some mornings, I would scream out the window, 'Put me on the list!' '
Bond returned to New York in 2006, and last performed as Kiki in 2008. Three years on, Bond is a solo star, performing a series of sold-out shows, developing songs that appear on the album. (The theater critic Hilton Als, in The New Yorker, called Bond the 'best cabaret singer of his generation' after a recent run at Joe's Pub.)
Bond now sings and performs with a more powerful, earthy quality, and the time away from New York, from Kiki, has given V a chance to tap into deeper archetypes and mythology. In retrospect, Bond appreciates the tutelage of Kiki. 'If I hadn't done Kiki I wouldn't have the voice I have now,' but 'Equipoise,' an original song on the album, is strikingly revealing. Over a bouncy bluegrass melody, Bond sings, 'And I sought to find forgiveness, for letting everybody down/ For not being what they'd hoped I'd be, turned myself into a clown/ And I tried to make the people smile, and tried to ease the pain of life/ And I tried to take the easy way, tried to be a perfect wife.'
Is this a reference to the Kiki years? Yes, Bond agrees, 'To deal with homophobia and transphobia, I became Kiki.' But it went deeper. 'When I grew up the only way I learned how to survive was to be funny. I was my mom's most glamorous accessory, and my mother's greatest embarrassment. I thought I was a trans woman and that I had to go get an operation. I thought you either had to be one or the other, and I didn't realize until much later that you could be neither or both.'
For Shears, witnessing Bond's the evolution has been no less gratifying. 'Every time I see Justin, especially recently, I see someone who is more comfortable, more glowing. He was always comfortable in his skin, but now he's going into a new dimension, and it's lovely and exciting to watch.'
Recently, Bond has decided to begin transitioning. V will not behaving any surgery. It's more on an enhancement process. 'I like my penis, and I am keeping it, but I am creating a transbody —a physical record on my body and a medical record that I am a transgendered person. I am turned on by people who are genuinely themselves. That's what dendrophile means. Having my own nature. I guess I have realized it's not nature versus nurture. It's nurturing your nature.'
Justin Vivian Bond will be performing every Sunday in May at Joe's Pub in New York City and then at the Soho Theatre in London the last two weeks of June.