BADASS & BEAUTIFUL

Published in Diva magazine, May 2008

INTERVIEW Sandra Bernhard, the Michigan motormouth, is revving her rage for a one-off Manchester revival. Words Kim Renfrew

Sandra Bernhard has a reputation. The all-round artist and entertainer is known for being tough, intimidating and no mincer of words. In the past, targets such as Mother Theresa and the Bush children have all fallen foul of her acid tongue.

So it’s a bit of a surprise when the Bernhard I talk to over the phone in New York is charming, discreet and even a little cautious, naming no names and skilfully batting away queries about the Kabbalah (the Jewish esoteric practice to which she is rumoured to have introduced Madonna and Demi Moore). Could it be that the Michigan motormouth has mellowed in her middle years? ‘That’s the last thing I’d have done! You can’t live in this life and be mellow. Day to day, I’m mellow: I love my family, I love my life, my girlfriend [Vanity Fair exec Sara Switzer], my daughter… but when I look outside my window and I see the crap going on, you’d better believe it gets my back up.’

No, that razor edge hasn’t been blunted, and it’s clear that Bernhard still rages at the many inadequacies of the world. And boy, can she talk. She leads me through a passionate tirade against the wars in Vietnam (bloodshed, which ultimately, she says, just enabled us to buy underwear stitched together in the Far East) and Iraq, the current futility of American politics and — the hot topic on the day we speak — the presidential race. ‘We’ve had the same sort of patriarchy running this country from the beginning: white men with a narrow view of the world and all their fears and desires to serve the master, the corporate structure. In theory, I would love the idea of a woman president, but I don’t think Hillary Clinton represents the change we need right now.’

In fact, Everything Bad & Beautiful, the album of her current show, is shot through with politics of every kind. Traditional politics is there, in the imagined meeting between US Secretary of Stare Condoleeza Rice and Rosa Parks, the woman who sparked the American civil rights movement in the 50s after refusing to give up her seat to a white man on an Alabama bus. There’s a guitar-driven femi­nist rant against the bland – though dan­gerous – conformism of fashion in Undressed, And there’s also tender, yet impassioned, material like The Flame, addressed to her daughter Cicely, now nearly ten. Motherhood has changed Bernhard’s worldview: ‘Certainly I’m looking to the future,’ she says. ‘The world I want to create for my daughter, and the world I want her to live in.’ And it’s seems that some of Mom’s idealism has already rubbed off: ‘She wants to be a hippy, she wants peace, she wants love, she loves John Lennon…’

Everything Bad & Beautiful is Bernhard’s eleventh record, and her umpteenth show in a career that spans 30 years. There’s something very old-fash­ioned about the honest, hardworking route to fame that Bernhard followed, playing the clubs, plugging away at a bit of this and a bit of that, climbing through the ranks. The opposite, in fact, of the shallow promises of instant fame and for­tune promoted by the likes of Pop Idol and its multitude of copyists, a concept that, unsurprisingly, she has little time for: ‘It’s part and parcel of what I’ve been talk­ing about, this sort of immediacy. You don’t have to work for anything, we’ll just hand it to you and – guess what? – it all comes back to bite you on the ass in the end, because every five minutes there’s somebody new.’ It’s troopers like herself that she really admires. ‘Chrissie Hynde, Marianne Faithfull, Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone, Dusty Springfield, the great voices of the past who were destined to be great singers and artists.’

Destiny, though, also involves a hell of a lot of hard graft, and Bernhard is no shirker. After touring Everything Bad… around the UK last autumn, she’s back at Manchester’s Queerupnorth festival on May 9th, something she’s relishing: ‘I love place and the people. You Brits are just a whole other breed.’

And, thrillingly, she’s reprising her legendary 1988 work, Without You I’m Nothing. Why? Because she can: ‘The show really put me on the map, and we just thought it would be great to bring out a classic for a new generation. There’s really nothing to say, other than it’s a great show and it touched on a lot of things that are still relevant.’

And for this performer, lesbian and gay audiences have changed immeasurably in the time since Without You… debuted. After all, back in the day, when Bernhard played her all-nighter at The Scala in London, she bemoaned onstage the fact that lesbian promoters were perhaps a little on the stingy side, expecting her to do something for nothing. But now ‘the whole gay experience is completely different. People feel much more comfortable and I think that acceptance in general society has changed people.’

As well as looking back, Bernhard is still being carried forward by her compulsion to create. She’s just started writing a new book, she’s touring, doing some music  and TV work, and she clearly adores it all: ‘I love being a performer and an artist. It’s really the most fulfilling thing in the world.’ So, is she ever going to stop, or will she still be at it when she’s 90, held together with ostrich feathers and safety pins, like Marlene Dietrich? ‘Why not?’ she says. ‘But I hope I won’t fall off the stage.’

Advertisements

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: