One recent evening inside the velveteen cavern of Joe’s Pub on Lafayette Street, a singer called Antony was sitting quietly at a grand piano, before an expectant, sold-out crowd.
An awkward, husky man with alabaster skin, made up in lipstick, a jet-black wig and a foppish Peter Pan cap, he peered into the darkness, listening to the bartender loudly chip away at the ice.
“I feel like we’re in a coal mine,” he whispered to the crowd. “And you’re all … diamonds.”
The audience laughed.
Pressing soft, slow chords out of the piano, his eyes squeezed shut and sweat glistened on his forehead as he began to sing rich blue notes in a warm, soaring vibrato: ” Lo-lo-lo-lonely / Lo-lo-lo-lonely.”
Nobody breathed. It was one of those spine-tingling moments in a small New York club when an audience senses that it’s witnessing something rare, possibly legendary.
Towering well over six feet tall, Antony Hegarty, known as Antony, can be an arresting sight to the uninitiated: a bit like an outer-borough beat cop dressed up as an ethereal Cat Power, and singing like Nina Simone. He may not go over in the provinces-but he is just as surely the authentic voice of the city in popular music today, so much more than the “vintage” 70′s sounds that are dominating the current scene.
Just ask Willem Dafoe, who wept when he heard him. Or Lou Reed, his mentor and supporter, who has called him an “heir to the sublime Jimmy Scott.”
The artist and producer Hal Willner introduced Antony to Mr. Reed during an audition as a backup singer on the Poe-inspired album, The Raven.
“I was told that if Lou didn’t like me, I would be escorted out of the studio,” Antony recalled. “He would walk into the back room and I would be escorted out-Hal warned me.”
But Mr. Reed liked him. A lot.
And word spread. In 2004, Antony was selected as the official musical performer for the Whitney’s 2004 Biennial. He collaborated with the filmmaker Charles Atlas, a close friend of the late theater legend Leigh Bowery, the man on whom the musical Taboo was based. A concert at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn featured a dozen women-born and made-each taking turns twirling on a rotating platform under a spotlight, projected like waxen starlets on a big screen while Antony sang his new songs.
“It felt like a secret revue of the things that are most beautiful in New York,” he said.
In the last few years, Mr. Reed hasn’t had much to say about the much-lauded New York rock revivalism fueled by indie bands like the Strokes and Interpol-the ones who took old New York acts like Television and Blondie and made them sound, well, old again. And what could he say? From the start, the fashionistas and bedheads who piled into Pianos to see them were a decidedly suburban lot, not marginalized Factory eccentrics. In another age, they would have been Huey Lewis fans. Even red-state moms who voted against gay marriage could embrace scruffy li’l Julian Casablancas, if need be. It’s hip to be square! How shocking was it that four-piece haircuts with guitars hailing from Cincinnati could so easily ape their chic? Not very. The imitators and follow-ups weren’t bad little bands, mind you-just common as coal. Not diamonds.
And then there’s Antony: too weird, too gay, too emotional, too … New York. And like the best New York, he was utterly unreproduceable.
On the evening of Saturday, Dec. 11, he emerged from his ivy-covered apartment building on West 15th Street in Chelsea, wearing a thick, pink cashmere sweater and a swooping burgundy muffler. The wig was gone; his hair was short and blond, eyes a crystalline blue, face open and cherubic. He walked through the West Village to a quiet Italian café, ordered a chai tea and removed his muffler.
Most of the neighbors in his S.R.O., he explained, were “artists and trannies.”
“I have some gay neighbors next-door who get really annoyed when I sing too loud,” he said. “In fact, when I sing at all. They used to pound a lot on the wall. Sometimes I’d find that a little ironic.”
His whole life, he said, he had thought of New York City as an “island of lepers” where he would one day end up-a haven from the rest of the country. He was angry with gays who fought for marriage during the Presidential election and ended up playing into the hands of the conservative right. For him, gay was different, and therefore powerful. As a result, he said, “The gays haven’t really embraced me as a masthead for their agenda, because I’m a little too weird and complicated.”
Is Mr. Casablancas having these problems?
Antony’s forthcoming album, i am a bird now (Secretly Canadian), due out in February, is filled with aching gospel, rhythm ‘n’ blues, rock and soul, expressing androgynous longing and transsexual soul-searching-a quest for sisterhood inside the body of a man. It’s that ambiguous Velvet Underground–Andy Warhol–David Bowie gestalt that led Mr. Reed to take a walk on the wild side back in the 1970′s-when there was a wild side in New York. With Antony, it feels like that lineage is restored, but freshly, viscerally, and in a way that resists identification with any city but the one that Warhol built.
The cover art on the new album features the first publication of a Peter Hujar photograph of legendary New York transsexual Candy Darling lying on her deathbed in 1974. Since Antony met Mr. Reed, the prickly, leather-clad hipster-who wrote “Candy Says” for Darling in 1969-has become his friend, mentor and collaborator, singing and producing on a stirring new single called “Fistful of Love.”
“And I feel your fist,” quavers Antony, his words punctuated by rising R-and-B horns, “And I know it’s out of love!”
“He’s become my greatest advocate and mentor in a way that I never could have imagined,” said Antony. “There’s isn’t anything he hasn’t been through. He’s really sage in all that stuff. And he cares about me. He’s a man of passion. And he devotes himself to the things he really cares about.”
Antony tried out as an understudy in the original London production of the flop Broadway musical Taboo. He didn’t get the role-but like so much of Antony’s career so far, it hasn’t hurt him. For one, Boy George has become another one of Antony’s gushing fans. At Joe’s Pub, Mr. George joined him onstage-wearing a giant, glittering fedora on his powdered head-and sang a new Antony number called “You Are My Sister.” Mr. George’s part went: “You are my sister / And I love you.”
Like Mr. Reed and Mr. George, Antony adores the black soul tradition: Otis Redding, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday. But with Antony, the soulful melodies are paired with a 1980′s British New Wave sensibility, which gives the songs their ghostly androgyne quality. He cites Elizabeth Fraser, the ethereal songbird of the Cocteau Twins, and Marc Almond of Soft Cell.
“He was the first person I heard say, ‘I don’t care if I hit the notes, it’s only the feeling that matters,’” he said of Mr. Almond. “I remember reading that when I was 12 years old, and I was like, ‘God, what does that mean?’ And it was something I later heard Nina Simone say: ‘Don’t put nothin’ in it ‘less you feel it.’”
Creating his songs seems to come with some amount of suffering.
“I just have scribbles in books that slowly grow,” he explained. “I find a scribble, take that scribble and make it a little more scribbling, start a song, plunk away, start crying, do this, do that, start crying, eat. Make phone calls.”
But the songs weren’t all tragedy-they’re just all likely to induce tears.
“Maybe it started there, and then you shake it and shake it and transform it into a source of light,” he said. “That’s what I’m interested in with all songs.”
When he was 11 years old, Antony said, Boy George determined his destiny-as much for his gender-dysphoric image as his singing.
“When I heard him, I thought, ‘O.K., that’s what we do when we grow up-we become singers,’” he said. “That was the first time I’d ever seen anyone like me. Before that, I’d wanted to be Kate Bush.
“It was what we do when we’re wearing makeup and getting the shit kicked out of us,” he said. “That’s what we do-we sing.”
In the late 1980′s, while attending the University of California at Santa Cruz, he wrote absurdist musicals inspired by John Waters, featuring barnstorming love songs in the finale.
“I had just gotten into Ray Charles, and I had a recording of Ray Charles singing the ballad ‘Yesterday,’” he said. “Which is just riveting. So I sort of co-opted that, but sang it as a transvestite nun singing to Jesus on the cross.”
He found himself standing onstage, crying uncontrollably.
“It was the first time I fell upon this realization that there’s all this emotion involved in singing for me,” he said. “That cathartic potential for singing occurred to me.”
His love affair with New York began when he saw the cult film Mondo New York, which explored the drag-queen universe of Manhattan, featuring legendary drag performers like the Cockettes and the New Wave Teutonic diva Klaus Nomi, and clubs like the Mineshaft and Escuelita. He was especially floored by transgender drag artist Joey Arias singing “Hard Day’s Night” as Billie Holiday.
“That was the most punk thing I’d ever seen,” he said. “And I thought, ‘Wherever that is, I have to be.’ It was so beautiful and so subversive and so hard-core and so … beautiful.”
Later, he moved to Manhattan to attend New York University, and found the world he had come for was already slipping away. He caught Arias at the Palladium “singing some pervy song to Liza Minnelli for her birthday when I was 19 years old.”
But he also discovered that AIDS had devastated everything.
“Half the people I came to New York to see,” Antony said. “I’m at the wrong place at the wrong time, and all I can do is carry the weight of this story.”
“My womb’s an ocean full of grief and rage,” he sings on “My Lady Story.”
In the late 1990′s, Antony formed the Black Lips Performance Cult, “20 of the tawdriest, punkest, most toothless degenerates” he could find, who regularly played the Pyramid Club on Avenue A. Saturday nights there tended to feature the kind of drag shows that rely heavily on lip-synching renditions of sitcom themes like Alice and The Brady Bunch. The jokes were about hustling for sex-change meds, but the performers turned up in sell-out movies like To Wong Foo before very long.
“No one was doing shows at Pyramid except for, like, the half-baked Minnesotans,” Antony said. “I was like, ‘Where’s the punk drags?’ It was like all this sort of middle-Americans-dressed-as-your-mom drag. Any old kind of cheesecake drag, and it’s like: Who cares? I wanted something that resonated.”
He eventually shed his theatrical ambitions altogether for singing.
“I’m waiting three years to get a grant from the Jerome Foundation, this mold burger?” he said. “Those sea cucumbers with wigs saying I don’t have a right to exist? My idea isn’t good enough? I just have to do music.”
Also in the late 90′s, he received a grant from NIFA, which allowed him to record his first album, Antony and the Johnsons. That was followed by an EP featuring the single “I Fell In Love with a Dead Boy,” a baroque R-and-B elegy that earned him a cult following for its slow-burning, high-drama crescendo. At the time, Antony would float onstage with a canvas sack over his head and a billowing robe over his body and sing a devastating rendition of “Child of God (It’s Hard to Believe)” by the 1970′s soul singer Millie Jackson. At a 2002 performance at P.S. 122 in the East Village, Mr. Reed performed the Velvet Underground classic “Candy Says” in public for the very first time-at Antony’s request.
The song channels an era before AIDS, when the New York waterfront was like something out of Genet: an orgy of punks, prostitutes, trannies and johns.
“The end of the Jane Street pier,” Antony specified. “I just laid on the end of that pier night after night after night, just looking at the sky and listening to the water.
“And now there’s a play area for yuppies’ children and newly developed condos,” he added.
If Antony’s world is beautiful, it may be because it’s rare-and seemingly impossible to conjure up.
“That stuff only exists in a city by default. No one’s ever going to legislate the existence of seedy, run-down areas,” Antony said, before imagining a landmarks provision for the departed ancestors he worships. “Let’s protect these urban wildflowers of tranny prostitutes and street youth and drug addicts! Let’s try and protect these crack-addicted minorities in their natural habitat!”
But Antony still harbored that world in his blackest heart, manifested it in the blues of the marginalized. He recalled how, during the Republican National Convention, 79-year-old black jazz singer Jimmy Scott-the only singer Billie Holiday claimed to have liked-was persuaded by friends to do a four-night stand across the street from Madison Square Garden, in hopes of attracting huge crowds of visiting Republicans.
“Of course I went up there to see the show, and there was like 15 people in the audience,” said Antony. “And there’s Jimmy Scott, like, ‘What’s going on?’ He’s like eightysomething and can barely stand-and the voice of the purest angel.”
But Antony saw light at the end of this tunnel.
“To try and find hope as an artist, I think, is the most radical thing you can do,” he said. “I threw in my apocalypse towel-I don’t have to do that anymore. The government is doing it for me. I don’t need to foreshadow the apocalypse. Now it’s about: Can we dream our way out of this?”