Antony And The Johnsons: Let It Come Down


The broken-hearted people living in the world agree: Antony And The Johnsons have become a profound voice of hope and sorrow. A story of divine tragedy, avant-garde androgyny and plenty of soul. By Matthew Fritch

It’s the grayest New York day I can remember. The weather doesn’t even deliver a heavy downpour or a single rumble of thunder; there’s just a light, no-umbrella mist and a low-lying fog that covers everything above the fifth floor of the buildings along Sixth Avenue. It’s Sunday. Somewhere, the Giants and Jets are losing football games. In Penn Station, soldiers stand around in camouflage fatigues with their M-16 rifles at chest level, their muzzles pointed straight at the ground. Bored-sounding announcements are issued to passengers over the station’s PA system: Do not leave your luggage unattended. Promptly report suspicious activity. In terror-alert parlance, perhaps it’s the most yellowish-orange New York day I can remember.

Antony Hegarty and I can’t even think of anything to do. After a quiet brunch, we shake off some of the lethargy and finally decide on a real plan of action: We’re going shopping for socks. Or maybe we’ll go to the pet store and stare at the caged puppies. But Antony needs black crew socks for an upcoming tour, so we begin trudging toward the fluorescent lights of Old Navy when we happen upon an outdoor flea market.

The tables are cluttered with musty, worn clothing and overpriced antiques: rusted metal toys from the 1940s, a taxidermy squirrel, a box of old license plates, a framed gold record for Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” that had once belonged to a radio-station employee. We spy a tin button depicting the astronauts from Apollo 11 (the 1969 mission that took men to the moon) that reads, “Welcome Back To Earth.” Antony thinks this would make a nice gift for his friend, neo-folk guru Devendra Banhart. Then he picks up a dented Boy Scouts bugle, blurts out a few flat notes and considers buying it for Bianca and Sierra Casady, the avant-garde sister act that performs under the name CocoRosie.

Antony lingers over a cafeteria table piled high with wool scarves, pieces of fabric and sheepskin throw rugs. He tries on some of the scratchy scarves and shawls. Then, from beneath the pile, he pulls out an American flag, folds it twice lengthwise and wraps it around his neck. It’s a ridiculously symbolic moment—looking up at Antony, a big, lovable queenie who stands about 6’4”, with the slate-colored sky behind him. He’s got these huge, deep-set eyes like a Modigliani painting, except if you don’t know Modigliani, you might just say he has puppy-dog eyes. It’s already been written that Antony has the face of a medieval saint (and that’s true), but with his pale skin and curly black ringlets, he also looks like the Cure’s Robert Smith after getting caught in the rain. Now he’s modeling the Stars and Stripes—really wearing it, you know—and he asks, “Is this sacrilegious?”

Across the Atlantic, some would rather have seen Antony wrapped in the Union Jack. In September, Antony won the Mercury Music Prize, an annual award given to a British or Irish artist whose album is deemed the best of the year. This caused a minor shitstorm for several reasons, foremost among them that 34-year-old Antony Hegarty, though born in Chichester, Sussex, hasn’t actually lived in England since he was 10. He has dual citizenship in Britain and the United States, but his undisputed home and creative base is New York City.

The issue of Antony’s nationality was compounded by his beneath-the-underdog status. You have to understand that the Mercury is the sort of thing that British pop fans lay wagers on, and the field of nominees for the £20,000 (roughly $35,000) prize included more popular—and more acclaimed—acts such as Coldplay, M.I.A., the Kaiser Chiefs and Bloc Party. London newspaper The Guardian can almost be forgiven, then, for running the salacious headline, “Former choirboy turned cross-dresser scoops Mercury prize from favourites.”

At a press conference after the awards show, Antony expressed appropriate feelings of surprise and bewilderment with, it should be noted, a very English wit: “It’s kind of like a crazy contest between an orange and a spaceship and a potted plant and a spoon—which one do you like better?”

When reminded of his comment, Antony says, “It’s the truth about that award. The award itself is an afterthought, really. Except that it’s a lucrative afterthought.” But the British press couldn’t pass up the opportunity to incite the natives, quoting Kaiser Chiefs drummer Nick Hodgson as saying, “He’s an American, really. It’s a good album, but it’s daft he got in on a technicality.”

Antony insists that he was the victim of a slow news day, an unwitting accomplice in the case of an American stealing the crown jewels. “It was mostly fabricated by the media,” he says. “As far as the other artists—all the bullshit about M.I.A., the Kaiser Chiefs—that was fake. They all sent me e-mails: ‘Just for the record, Antony … ’ The Kaiser Chiefs came up to me and were like, ‘Can we be the spaceship?’ Those boys are so nice. It was an angle. But there was a picture of me on the cover of the Evening Standard the next day looking like Frankenstein. It was terrible. It was the worst picture of me you could imagine.”

It should be noted that winning the Mercury Prize is not exactly akin to being handed the keys to the kingdom. While PJ Harvey (who won in 2001) and Franz Ferdinand (2004) have taken home the award to bankable effect, have we heard lately from M People (1994) or Ms. Dynamite (2002)? There’s some notoriety involved with the statuette, which Antony describes as “a fossilized foot of a pterodactyl sticking out of a pile of lava, clutching a crystal ball.” After the ceremony, he pondered whether he should toss the vaunted prize into the River Thames and make a wish. Currently, 2005’s Mercury resides under a pile of laundry in Antony’s Chelsea—that’s Chelsea in downtown Manhattan, not Chelsea in southwest London—apartment.

Earlier this year, BBC’s Radio One alerted Antony to a song request the station had received via e-mail from the South Pole. A researcher in an isolated arctic laboratory had heard “Hope There’s Someone,” the opening track from Antony And The Johnsons’ second album, I Am A Bird Now, and was so touched by the song he felt the need to write. A few months later, Antony discovered that Johnsons bassist Jeff Langston has a sister who’s been using “Hope There’s Someone” as part of a workshop she conducts for soul-seeking Christian women.

“We’re talking about a group of 2,000 Christian-fundamentalist women,” says Antony. “Who would have ever fathomed that song could have an application like that?”

It isn’t such a stretch; the song opens with a lyric that cuts to the heart of everybody’s deepest, most human, most lying-awake-at-night-trembling fear. And not a single word is wasted: “Hope there’s someone who’ll take care of me when I die,” sings Antony.

His soulful vibrato almost sounds motherly. He sounds like a woman: a full-grown woman, not necessarily like anyone you might hear on the radio today. Critics have noted that Antony’s voice resembles that of Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell and Boy George. Lou Reed has said that hearing Antony had the same effect on him as hearing Elvis Presley for the first time. Devendra Banhart tells MAGNET that Antony “is the greatest living voice of this era.” (Banhart, not the sort of person who’s content paying an unoriginal compliment, goes on to declare Antony “was immaculately conceived, he’s the Virgin Mary, he is made of the ocean and is friends with velvet dolphins.”)

Though some of Antony’s famous admirers—Reed, Banhart, Boy George and Rufus Wainwright—appear as guest vocalists on I Am A Bird Now, the album is the sole domain of its author. The persona behind songs such as “For Today I Am A Bouy” and “Bird Gerhl” is, appropriately or not, an issue: Antony is a man who sings like a woman about wanting to be a girl. Or that’s the simplified version; and even then, it’s kind of confusing. Antony says he prefers to be called transgender, which roughly means he identifies as a woman. However, he doesn’t necessarily present himself as a female in daily life or alter his body through surgery or hormone treatments.

“I prefer [the transgender] label to ‘gay,’” says Antony. “Listen, I believe that we all contain a family within us: a mother, a father, a son, a daughter. As far as how it affects my music, I think it’s the same as in the case of being an immigrant. When you are outside the norm, it tends to make you more introspective.”

Sometimes Antony’s identity works in funny ways. I Am A Bird Now track “You Are My Sister,” a duet with Boy George, has been adopted as an anthem for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. Think of it as a queer version of “You’ve Got A Friend.”

“I wrote that song about my (biological) sister,” says Antony. “Bringing George in, it became layered with all this other meaning related more to my community experience. But then it’s just sort of opened and opened and opened.”

But what does it mean when so many people—gay and straight, good Christian women, Mercury Prize judges, South Pole scientists—connect with an album that plumbs the depths of a transnational, transgendered soul?

“I can’t really take that on,” says Antony. “My goal in writing songs is to try to create things that are open enough that people can find a relationship to them. That’s been the exciting part: realizing that people from all these different countries and walks of life can find some part of my creative experience to relate to. Even now, when things seem so dire, it’s our nature to go toward something that’s hopeful.”

When Antony talks about his childhood in the ’70s and ’80s, his English accent wakes up. He pronounces the decades daintily, with an extra-hard T: “seven-ties,” “aay-ties.” It was while watching television in Chichester that he was introduced to the more colorful fringes of pop music.

“In the late ’70s, when I was eight years old, you could turn on the television at 8 p.m. and watch Top Of The Pops and see Ian Dury And The Blockheads or Lene Lovich. Or Nina Hagen. Or worse. Some really hardcore stuff was on TV as normal programming because subculture was just a hop and a skip away from mainstream culture, especially in a country as small as England. And it was all broadcast, so every kid in every chicken village in England had access.”

The Hegarty family—Antony’s father is an engineer, his mother a photographer—left the U.K. for Amsterdam in 1981 and came to California a couple years later, moving around different parts of the Bay Area. Accustomed to singing in school and Catholic church, Antony found his American classmates oddly timid and unenthusiastic.

“In England, the value placed on pop music was such that every kid wanted to be a pop singer, boy or girl,” he says. “All the boys were starting bands in school. When we got to America, all the kids were ashamed of the idea of singing. All the girls sang in these pathetic, breathy little voices in church and the boys didn’t sing at all.”

The Hegartys disapproved of American television and did not own a set; Antony kept abreast of pop idols such as Boy George and Soft Cell’s Marc Almond by subscribing to English teen magazines Smash Hits and Number One. Though the decade isn’t known for its frank, open dialogues on sexuality, the femininity and gender ambiguity of many of these ’80s musicians were apparent to young Antony. When the topic turns to his own sexual awakening, Antony is rather terse: “My childhood was … a colorful period. Yeah, I would say difficult. But difficult is a bit boring. I would say vibrant. It was hardcore.”

Antony offers that “junior high is the most terrifying place in the world,” but then again, most of America probably shares that opinion. Attending a high school for the performing arts in San Jose, Antony was surrounded by friends who he says were stranger and more adventurous than the people he’d later meet in the avant-garde nightclubs, galleries and bars in New York City. When he does speak of certain difficulties and growing pains, it’s usually expressed as concern for others.

“When parents have a daughter who is masculine or a son who is feminine, they should look at that as a gift,” he says. “It’s something that should be cherished. Why is it that, in society, these people—who are often times the most sensitive—are cast away?”

As a student at UC Santa Cruz, Antony began writing, directing, producing and starring in musical plays. One of his first efforts was a John Waters-influenced melodrama called Sylvie And Meg. A more original production, staged a few years later in New York City, was titled Cripple And The Starfish. It’s set on a styrofoam island at the end of the world, after the land has been washed away by the greenhouse floods. At this point in the far future, humans have evolved into robotic beings, and the plot concerns the only two people left alive who still have hearts. “And they’re dysfunctional and co-dependent,” says Antony.

Antony was a fully formed artist when he arrived at New York University’s school of experimental theater in 1990. He promptly set about using the city as his talent pool, enlisting his classmates for far-out stage productions. “The professors were often very mad at me,” he says. “I’d steal their students from class to come and be tapeworms.”

After graduation, Antony took his act to downtown performance-art havens such as the Pyramid Club (an unassuming dive bar on Avenue A; “a two-floor death trap,” Rufus Wainwright calls it) and P.S. 122 (a school building that was converted to an arts space in 1980), becoming a regular fixture as a singer with a cabaret troupe called Blacklips. It was all good fun (one of Antony’s recurring characters was named Jennifer Honkytits), but after a while, you might say he was an island in a sea of fankicks.

Wainwright befriended Antony amid the East Village’s theater-arts scene in the late ’90s. “I’d actually seen him in Blacklips years earlier, but that was when I had no record deal and nobody gave me the time of day,” says Wainwright. “But once I came back to the city (from L.A.) after my debut album, Antony was one of the first people I went to hang out with. He was one of the only other musicians, in terms of a real, honest-to-god singer/songwriter, who was a gay male. There’s not an army of us. We immediately related to each other.”

The gravitational pull of Antony’s voice—its tone imparting all the requisite drama and sorrow to ground even the flightiest plot—meant he often performed the function of deus ex machina: the Greek-tragedy role of a god who appears at the finale to explain what the hell just happened amid, in Antony’s case, a circus of feather boas, long wigs and eyelash glue. The ’90s were a long, hard slough, and Antony can proudly recall all the odd jobs that paid his rent.

“I played accordion in a cage at (gay dance club) Tunnel,” he says. “I was a cleaning lady in a house of domination. I was a waitress. I was a gardener. I put screws in the tops of computers and cleaned them. I was a go-go dancer at Limelight. I served strawberries and chocolates to drug addicts at Save The Robots, an afterhours club on Avenue B. I worked at Jack In The Box.”

It’s one of the oldest showbiz chestnuts, the kind of shopworn joke that probably predates the Aristocrats and is tame enough to be retold by middle-aged suburban piano teachers: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

“I didn’t do it,” says Antony over afternoon tea a few days before his Carnegie debut. “I didn’t practice enough. I don’t know why I’m there.”

Maybe he was pushed. Antony formed the Johnsons in 1995 not as a band, but as another vehicle for staging his dramatic musicals. Success with the Johnsons earned him a fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, which helped pay for the 1998 recording of debut Antony And The Johnsons. In 2000, the album was issued by Durtro, a label owned by David Tibet of goth/industrial outfit Current 93. The record is often referred to as The Blue Angel, due to its cover art featuring Antony—in white body paint, wrapped in sheer fabric and with a shaved head that makes him look like a Close Encounters alien modeling as the Madonna—against a sky-and-ocean backdrop. The I Fell In Love With A Dead Boy EP, its cover a Raphaelite tableau of an angel and demon presiding over Antony’s corpse, followed in 2001.

One of the people who took notice of these visuals was Hal Willner, former Saturday Night Live music producer and confidant of Lou Reed. In 2003, Reed took Antony on the road with him, employing the singer in a nightly rendition of “Candy Says.” (The cover art of I Am A Bird Now is another coup: a 1974 Peter Hujar photograph of Warhol star and leukemia-stricken transvestite Candy Darling on her deathbed.) Antony’s blue-angel visage also attracted the attention of the Casady sisters, better known as CocoRosie, whom filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has aptly described as sounding “like two little Billie Holidays an octave higher if you were on acid in Tokyo in 1926.”

“We were lovestruck,” says Bianca Casady of her first meeting with Antony after a show at Tonic in 2004. “Everything about him made us want to fall to his feet: his black lady shoes, his nervously dancing hands when he sang.”

Banhart took action on the Casadys’ impulse. “I kneeled in front of him and kissed his feet,” says Banhart, who had Antony contribute a track to The Golden Apples Of The Sun, a 2004 compilation Banhart curated. “It was completely automatic. I didn’t think of shaking his hand or giving him a hug or saying hi.”

“That’s bullshit,” laughs Antony. “Actually, I can’t remember. You know, I got a lot of support from other artists, but they didn’t push me into anything I wasn’t raring to go for. When someone like Lou Reed says, ‘You gotta listen to this guy,’ a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t pay attention to someone like me now have permission to. And I think the idea of community is a theme for a lot of these young artists, like Devendra Banhart and CocoRosie. That’s always been a theme for me in my own life, that music has been a way to connect with other people. I’ve always been someone who’s drawn a lot of people together to do projects. Since I was a teenager, that’s what I’ve been doing.”

Chris Swanson, co-owner of the Bloomington, Ind.-based Secretly Canadian label, purchased Antony And The Johnsons based on a staff recommendation on Aquarius Records’ Web site. (“Bloomington, Indiana, does not carry the Durtro catalog,” he deadpans.) Though Swanson found that the debut—a highly theatrical, diva-esque affair—polarized friends he played it for, he began writing to Antony and offered to reissue the album. It wasn’t an entirely uncharacteristic move for Secretly Canadian, a label that has the tenacity (or commercial indifference) to initiate a campaign to put the double-digit catalog of glam/garage obscurity Nikki Sudden back in print. The 2004 reissue of Antony And The Johnsons sold a few thousand copies, about the same number as its original pressing. But if Secretly Canadian stuck its neck out a little bit for an avant-garde oddity, Antony (who, to this day, doesn’t employ a manager) reciprocated by remaining with the label for I Am A Bird Now despite offers from larger record companies.

“He’s very accustomed to doing what people might say is the wrong move,” says Swanson. “Part of that was releasing a folk record when everyone expected him to release a caterwauling performance-art record. He was as much scared by working with a tiny label from Indiana as he was excited about it.”

Speaking about his recent fortune—five days after his Carnegie Hall date, he’ll perform on Late Night With David Letterman—Antony seems slightly embarrassed at all the attention. He crosses his eyes and wags his tongue to one side when confronted with a compliment. He’s a serene being; decidedly unflamboyant in his slightly baggy, always dark-colored clothes. He’s prone to thoughtful monologues about the collective subconscious and our responsibility to animals. When he says goodbye, he’ll give you a hug. Even if the world thinks he’s ready for prime time (or, at least, late-night TV), Antony isn’t so sure.

“I tend to take a long time,” he says. “My story is all about a long time. It’s a lot of information. A more sprightly person might go, ‘Woo-hoo!’ and grab it by the goose nipples and run. But it takes a long time for me to feel comfortable, so these last few months have been spin-dizzy. Of course I’m excited and overwhelmed to be doing a show at Carnegie Hall, but it almost feels like it’s too soon. I’m afraid. This year I’ve had so many dreams come true, it’s almost like eating a thousand chocolate cakes at once. How many more pieces of chocolate cake can I eat?”

“Do you feel jubilated!?”

Elder Edward Babb appears to be in his 60s or 70s, but he’s attempting a young man’s miracle: raising Carnegie Hall patrons from their assigned seats. Actually, it’s kind of working. The McCollough Sons Of Thunder, a Harlem-based 12-piece Pentecostal brass band, is blasting Carnegie’s crown molding with eight trombones and Babb’s gospel-preaching exhortations. Most people are clapping along, a few energetic souls jig in the aisles, and hardly anyone shouts an “Amen.” Yet everybody is feeling something, even if it’s the polar opposite of the suspended-in-time melancholy evoked by Antony’s music.

It takes 2,804 souls to fill the main auditorium at Carnegie Hall, and the place is packed with more gay-culture icons than an Elton John celebrity roast. Reed and Wainwright are in attendance, of course, as are David Bowie and Bette Midler. After the Sons Of Thunder file offstage, the fans begin to call for Antony in their usual way—not by shouting or whooping or stomping their feet, but by trilling bird whistles.

When Antony shuffles onstage to join the five-piece Johnsons, you have to wonder if his non-demographic—the uncategorizable assemblage of art-school students, middle-aged professionals, parents, lesbians, famous people and whistlers—is a little disappointed. Perhaps the sold-out audience expected Antony in a long wig, maybe wearing angel wings or at least in a decently exotic damask robe. That he’s dressed more like Elliott Smith (jeans, T-shirt and hooded sweatshirt) is a completely different kind of fashion statement. Antony begins with “My Lady Story,” a song that’s either about gender-reassignment surgery or breast cancer: “My lady story is one of annihilation,” he sings. “My lady story is one of breast amputation.”

Later in the set, perhaps aware of how songs such as “All Is Loneliness” have stilled the ecstatic energy created by the Sons Of Thunder, Antony apologizes. “My grandmother told me, ‘You have to start writing some happy songs. These songs are too miserable.’”

But Antony is playing the room a little bit when some between-song banter leads to an impromptu version of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me).” The lyrics are twisted until the song has Antony exposing his crush on Shania Twain (“I feel so much heat for you, Shania”), and it’s funny in an absurd, snickering-about-celebrities way. But after inviting the audience to sing along, Antony shifts the object of his (and everybody’s) affection, singing, “I want to dance with my neighbor.”

Antony introduces the evening’s special guest as “the keeper of every singer’s heart,” and that’s a pretty good place to begin with 80-year-old jazz vocalist Jimmy Scott. Born with Kallmann’s syndrome, a genetic condition that halted his physical and vocal development before puberty, the diminutive soprano was billed as Little Jimmy Scott when he began performing in the 1940s. His career was also stunted by an exploitative recording contract with the Savoy label; a 1962 album produced by Ray Charles was shelved because of legal complications (it was finally released, albeit in a limited edition, by the Rhino Handmade label in 2002 under the title Falling In Love Is Wonderful), and Scott disappeared from music—many presumed him dead—until the mid-’80s. Sire Records president Seymour Stein helped rejuvenate Scott’s career in the ’90s, and new recordings led to a Grammy nomination, an appearance in an episode of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and the kind of reverence given to transcendent voices who’ve survived indignity and obscurity.

Antony had a brief encounter with Scott in 2004 during the Republican National Convention. “Someone had the harebrained idea of booking Jimmy Scott at a tiny club across the street from Madison Square Garden, thinking all those bejeweled Texans might want to see an androgynous legend and jazz singer after their hard day of work,” he says. “Of course, the show was completely empty except for about three people. Afterwards, I went backstage because I had a glossy that I wanted him to sign. I told him that one day I would like to produce a project where he could sing or something. And he said, ‘Oh, we all live on a wing and a prayer,’ and he gave me his phone number.”

Like Antony, Scott is a talent whose voice obliterates those who come to him as curiosity-seekers. At Carnegie, the fragile, tuxedo-clad Scott is propped up in a chair. No disrespect intended to the man, but from the balcony view, he looks like a ventriloquist’s dummy. Accompanied by piano, Scott performs three songs whose titles only convey a fraction of their heartbreak and devastation: “Why Was I Born,” “Motherless Child” and “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word.” In the hands of lesser vocalists, these would be woeful dirges; Scott, who sounds like Billie Holiday wafting from a Victrola, makes them soar with defiance.

Antony returns for his encore, responding to the applause with a tentative, “Um. Hey.” Then, “Hey, Lou?” Reed appears at stage right, straps on a guitar, and they ease into “Candy Says.” The small-framed, wiry-haired Reed is dwarfed by the foot-taller Antony, who looks like a visigoth by comparison and sings like an angel by any standard.

“An unfortunate mixture of desolate, tortured camp and parched tastefulness,” writes the New York Times of Antony’s Carnegie Hall debut. The choice of the gospel brass band as the opening act is termed “a hipster misfire.” Antony is described as “a teenager who can communicate only through music,” and his physical tics are said to be awkward.

“Does [the critic] think I’m not aware that I’m moving my body like that, that I don’t know every single thing that’s happening?” asks Antony a few days later. “He’s a turkey. He should start a turkey farm.”

Antony hasn’t yet arrived at the point in his career where he pretends to ignore his press; besides, he’s been the beneficiary of some extraordinary features, reviews and critical plaudits. MAGNET has no method of quantifying this, but we’ll assert that no musical act in 2005 garnered more column inches of press while selling as few records as Antony And The Johnsons. Not in America, at least. While I Am A Bird Now has shipped more than 350,000 copies worldwide, the album has SoundScanned a mere 25,000 copies in the U.S. at the time of this writing.

“We absolutely do sit around and wonder why we’re not selling more albums,” says Secretly Canadian’s Swanson. “We never sold enough records to transcend an indie-rock audience, and we still haven’t with Antony.”

Swanson recalls the first flare-up of interest occurred in Australia in January 2005, after Antony appeared at the Sydney Opera House for a Leonard Cohen tribute. (A documentary about the event, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September; it also features performances by U2, Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker, Beth Orton and Martha and Rufus Wainwright.) Swanson expects American audiences will catch up with the rest of the world, and Secretly Canadian owns the rights to release Antony’s next record. One fledgling idea for the follow-up to I Am A Bird Now is a covers album. Listeners—and consumers—usually groan at such a prospect, but someone like Antony (who covered Cohen, Nico and avant-electronic pioneer Moondog at Carnegie) could reverse that trend.

As for the Times review, the paper of record misinterpreted the events that occurred the night of October 13. Antony is no hipster; while he pals around with Banhart and CocoRosie, he’s oblivious to, say, the Strokes. (“Are they gay?” he asks innocently. “They’re not? Well, they should be.”) Maybe his musical arrangements are too tasteful (what’s a rock magazine to do, feign expertise on chamber orchestras?), but elements of camp were deliberately downplayed.

“Antony did a really amazing show,” says Wainwright, weighing in on the topic. “My nature is one of extreme criticism; I’m sure if I saw Beethoven do his Ninth, I’d have some sort of angle to dangle. Antony is always going to have a battle with the press, mainly because his audience is so devoted. Whenever you go see a concert where—regardless of how good or bad it is—the audience is so enamored and under the spell of the artist, there are going to be detractors.”

When we next hear the bird whistles, Antony appears on an auditorium stage at Cooper Union, an exclusive art/architecture/engineering college in the East Village. Tokion magazine has invited him to speak about creativity in music. He’s accompanied by CocoRosie and Kembra Pfahler, a veteran performance artist, fashion designer and singer for rock band the Voluptuous Horror Of Karen Black. Pfahler also happens to be covered in pink body paint, dressed in a see-through kimono, wearing thigh-high leather boots and made up like a kabuki alien princess.

The lecture seems to be largely improvised, and like all performance art, it works only some of the time. Pfahler speaks about self-created art movements she and Antony have come up with, including availabism (inspiration via found materials), anti-naturalism (availing yourself of technology), vanilla existentialism (something about body modification), the honestisch movement (it’s German) and surreal compassionism (your guess is as good as mine). Antony, meanwhile, ticks off a list of art-helpful maxims: “Suspend judgment.” “Embarrassment is good.”

But something far more interesting happens during the audience-participation portion of the event, in which Antony channels the sound of the room, pulling in everything he can feel from the suddenly silent air. It’s meant as a simple exercise to kickstart a song, and he first leads the audience through a low drone of hums.

“Even if you can’t sing, just groan or breathe,” says Antony. “Let the ghost behind you do it.”

CocoRosie joins in with feline cries, and Antony invokes what he calls the Otis Redding principle of “shaking it,” and the sound shifts to monk-like chanting. Finally, he alters the melody (“the turning principle: as it turns, it sheds its ego”), and the shape of a song to come appears in the auditorium.

After the lecture, Antony retreats to a Cooper Union conference room. He’s visibly shaken, and he nervously disappears into a nearby bathroom. I ask Bianca Casady what all that ghost-behind-you stuff was about.

“It’s about pure surrender,” she replies.

When interviewed a few days later, Antony dismisses any talk about ghosts or channeling the psychic silence of an audience and then forming it into a song.

“I was just excited,” he says.

In any event, demonstrating your intimate creative process to a roomful of strangers is a spooky thing. Antony already reveals so much of himself, unwittingly draped in so many flags and carrying so many torches: for the lonely, the oppressed, the everyday sad, the caged birds. It’s a weight he can neither shoulder nor fathom. He prefers to wonder how the rest of us are doing.

“Maybe it’s not so personal,” says Antony. “Maybe, just for right now, something I’m thinking is something a lot of other people are thinking as well. I try not to think of myself as being alone in this process of being alive. There’s so many billions of us—maybe that’s a bit of an illusion, that alone-ness.”

One reply on “Antony And The Johnsons: Let It Come Down”

I have just recently become aware of the talented Antony. I don’t often leave comments online, but I am left with such a loving feeling toward Antony after reading this story and listening to him via Youtube and the Lenard Cohen Tribute and I wanted to put it out there into the world; Antony is a gift to all of us. We are all born into this world with preset expectations and mandates on our beings, actions, vocations and so on. It is incredibly beautiful to encounter someone who is entirely themselves while being so aware and sensitive toward others. The creativity and compassion that I feel coming from Antony give me hope for the evolution of the human race.

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