Interview magazine, August 1994

The wisdom of the Wild: Sandra Bernhard interviewed by Tori Amos

Friday 30 September 2011, by Cécile Desbrun

Sandra Bernhard is an actress, comedienne, performance artist and singer whose unconventional views continue to break social boundaries. Her latest album, ‘Excuses for Bad Behavior, Part One,’ features her wry but heartfelt musical interpretation of old hits and contemporary culture.

It’s happening again. A time when boundaries are being broken right and left. About time that happened again. About time breaking down the patterns became more cheered than acts of conforming to them. About time success for the sake of it became less important than content. About time those who really have something to say get the hearing they deserve. There will always be those who are unafraid to take the stage and show that talent is something that can never be tamed. And there will always be those who pigeonhole them as wild. Well, the way we see it, what some call wild we call the wisdom of the wild—wisdom because to let out what’s inside is the way to individual freedom. It’s also a way to break down the boundaries between us all by getting what’s inside us all out in the open. That’s why, in this special feature on the wisdom of the wild, we decided to really let loose with a story that runs twelve pages and includes up-to-the-minute interviews with, and photographs of, three entertainers who are incontrovertibly about breaking boundaries. Starting with Sandra Bernhard, an actress, comedienne, performance artist, and singer who has freed herself from traditional show-biz confines and who also has a new album, aptly titled Excuses for Bad Behavior, Part One, coming out this month. The subject of our second story, Little Richard, helped to pioneer the rock ‘n’ roll revolution of the 1950s. Still on the loose at sixty-one, the rocker who was once considered off his rocker continues to cross the lines of sexual, racial, and even musical stereotypes—and to break boundaries as a performer who is so far out, it seems he’s still years ahead of everyone else. And finally, we’ve added a little finale about another singer who, like Little Richard, also has Little in his name, and whose one-of-a-kind talent is so big we’re predicting that the whole world will soon be getting wise to him. All we can say is, it’s about time.

Sandra Bernhard wants to talk about music. Her new album, Excuses for Bad Behavior, Part One (Epic/550 Music), is being released this month, and it is full of her wry but heartfelt musical take on past hits and contemporary culture. Upon Bernhard’s request, we asked fellow woman in song and passion, Tori Amos , to interview the outspoken actress-singer-all-around-pop-icon. Amos, whose second album, Under the Pink (Atlantic), has just gone platinum, once sang backup on Bernhard’s Without You I’m Nothing album and was eager to hook up with her old pal again. The two met over mint tea and iced coffee recently at Tea & Sympathy in Manhattan. P.G.

Tori Amos: Thank you for having me do this. I’ve never done this before but I’m gonna try and do a good job.

Sandra Bernhard: It’ll just be like a really easy talk.

Tori: I love your new record.

Sandra: Do you? I’m really glad.

Tori: I think you should sell crystal suppositories with it.

Sandra: (laughs) That’s a brilliant idea. I love that.

Tori: When I listen to this thing, what keeps coming back to me is that you’re one of the few people who talks about the stuff that’s really going on inside. You uncover feelings that we hide from ourselves. None of that “just love everybody no matter what you’re feeling” stuff has worked for me. I mean, I think there are moments when some of those New Age tapes can help. But what kind of tape am I going to listen to when I want to fuck some guy, but I’m not supposed to fuck him because I’m supposed to be fucking another guy? But you’re one person who talks about real feelings. I love your “Sympathy for the Devil,” by the way.

Sandra: Well, you know, the Stones have always evoked that kind of ‘60s and ‘70s sexual awakening, and it just seemed more interesting to me to interpret it as a kind of sexual ballad.

Tori: You’re Jewish, right?

Sandra: Right.

Tori: I don’t know many Jewish people who really talk about Jesus a lot the way you do.

Sandra: Well, I’m sure that Jesus was an incredible person, you know? He must have been really something.

Tori: Who knows, maybe you were there. Who knows - you might have blown him! (laughs) I don’t really doubt it.

Sandra: (laughs) I’m sure we crossed paths on the rocky roads to crucifixions. But you know, it’s always stuck out in my mind that you’re never really part of America unless you landed at Plymouth Rock. You’re almost always a visitor here. As much as I love America, as much as I feel American, there’s still that constant fear that you don’t really belong.

Tori: Well, I think if you have big lips, you certainly don’t belong in this country.

Sandra: Well, I certainly didn’t belong when I was in high school. Now people are trying to buy lips.

Tori: Yeah, but I hate that. I don’t think it’s fair that these girls can go buy lips. I mean, I had my lips when I was nine, and boys called me “bubble lips,” and they didn’t know what lips could do. The thing that kills me is that these girls who can buy lips never had to go through being nine years old and…

Sandra: Exactly. That’s what I’m saying. They never had to pay the price of alienation.

Tori: That’s right. They have no right to have those lips.

Sandra: But they’ll lose them; eventually their lips are absorbed back into their system.

Tori: People don’t know that they’re not real - that’s what really gets me. You know, you can’t fake a voice. You can’t fake humor. As we know, some people try to fake humor.

Sandra: That’s for sure. And you have some people trying to fake a voice, too, so it’s all kind of interconnected. (Tori laughs) So here we are....

Tori: Six years later. (laughs) I remember being in the recording studio that day. You were jumping up and down, doing your record Without You I’m Nothing, and I came in to do “oohs” for you on “Little Red Corvette.”

Sandra: That’s right. And they’re great “oohs.”

Tori: (pauses) Such a long time. And then I waited on you - remember? - at a Steven Spielberg tribute dinner. I was an usher-waitress.

Sandra: Jesus Christ.

Tori: And you said to me, “What are you doing here?” And I said, “I’m an usher-waitress.” And you said, “When are you gonna do something?”

Sandra: I knew you were already doing something, but I meant, When is someone gonna do something for you? I was up in Boston recently, and they played your video late at night on one of the local Boston music shows and they interviewed you. You were talking about your song “Cornflake Girl” and how it was all about girlfriends dissing each other. That really stuck out in my mind. There are so few women in general, let alone in the business, who aren’t completely threatened and confused by other women’s success. It’s a very disappointing thing. I’ve always gotten myself overly involved in supporting other women who’ve not always been as supportive in return. I think it’s a woman’s responsibility to her friends and to other women who are real artists and real sufferers to say, “I believe in you, and I know it’s hard, but it’s gotta come together.” That’s why when I saw your success, I thought, It’s just so great and weird and perfect.

Tori: That’s what “Cornflake Girl” evokes. It’s based on the Alice Walker book. The women that I wrote it about were people who I thought I knew. Then, all of a sudden, my jaw is on the floor going, “No, she didn’t do this; she didn’t say this; she doesn’t mean this.” It reminds me of when you talk about reality over and over on your record. Instead of, “Well, let me see their higher self,” it’s, “No, honey, I don’t want to see their higher self; I want to see…”

Sandra: Who the fuck they really are!

Tori: Yeah! Not potential behavior, but where they are choosing to stand right now. Your work is interesting because there’s so much humor, of course, but there’s also that place in the heart that comes through, especially in this record, that I love so much.

Sandra: I wanted to go in a much more musical direction this time because music is my first love.

Tori: Is it really?

Sandra: Oh, yeah. When I came to L.A., that was what I wanted to be: an entertainer, a singer, in the mode of a Bette Midler.

Tori: But you’re doing that.

Sandra: Yeah. I am doing that, but in an edgier way. I think that I’m trying to appeal to the disenfranchised “everybody,” not just specifically gay. The song on my album called “Phone Sex” is really about alienation and loneliness, and about being a voyeur, because in this day and age it’s much safer, physically and emotionally, to be a voyeur. I’m so obsessed with the commerciality of sexuality these days. It’s available at your fingertips—twenty-four hours a day you can have sexual encounters with people you’ll never meet. And just what does that do to the psyche? I mean, people who really get into that, who depend on that—where are they at?

Tori: It keeps coming back to, Where’s the romance?

Sandra: Where’s the emotion, and where’s the commitment, and where’s the vulnerability?

Tori: Where is kissing? Where is walking in the rain and having peanut butter and jelly together and going, I don’t need any more than this. I mean, in my mind, I usually don’t think about fucking a guy. Or a woman, for that matter. For me, it’s always about having peanut butter and jelly, and then kissing them. If you asked me what I’d like to do right now out of anything else in the whole world, there’s just this one person that makes me feel really good. And I don’t want to have a relationship with this person, but I would just love to kiss them. It’s not about cheating on anybody. That kills me that if you’re with someone, you can’t have a moment with someone else.

Sandra: Well, I think we all do have moments with other people. For most of my relationships, I would have liaisons, and I would feel guilty. I would be dishonorable in a relationship because I wasn’t getting what I wanted from that person. It was unfulfilling and untruthful. And now I’m in a relationship where I really love and respect the person. I mean, I can’t say that I have no desire to flirt or have that moment, but I don’t know how much you need to really have those kind of Henry Miller-esque experiences for your entire life. I think that becomes really draining, when you’re constantly looking for things from other people, but you’re not looking within yourself. You’re on tour now, aren’t you?

Tori: Yeah, I’m on tour.

Sandra: So you’re probably exhausted and really vulnerable, and wherever you stop, you’re looking for somebody for some comfort.

Tori: Yeah, but Henry Miller hasn’t shown up on the tour yet. I seem to find myself turning more to the audience for comfort these days.

Sandra: When people pay to see you live, they already connect with you on a much deeper level than people who just buy your records. It’s a very intimate, one-on-one experience with 2,000 people.

Tori: And you’re not cheating on anybody.

Sandra: No! (Tori laughs) No, you’re not cheating at all. It’s great.

Tori: Are you going to tour for this album?

Sandra: In the fall. But I’m always kind of on tour because I do a lot of college performances where I get up with my guitar players and do a couple of songs and just talk to the audience. I do questions and answers with the kids and see where they’re coming from. Unfortunately, most of the college kids these days aren’t coming from any place, at least the ones who come to see me. They seem to ask the same kind of questions over and over again. They really become stuck in where their sexuality is, so they ask a lot of questions about my sexuality. It’s hard for me to relate to that curiosity anymore because it’s been so long since I’ve been that fascinated by somebody’s sexuality. They still see me as somebody who’s out there, who has built my career on discussing my sexuality. That must be very fascinating, but for me it’s become boring. You just hope that they would ask other questions and go a little bit deeper. Maybe this is where we’re at culturally: Things are so scary and so intimidating with AIDS and the right wing that people are looking for somebody to just give them those kinds of safe harbors.

Tori: I’ll tell you what scares me. This isn’t a negative against this person I’m gonna bring up, but I just have to bring her up. You know Kennedy, the MTV VJ, who’s a staunch Republican?

Sandra: Hmmmm! Now this is a negative against her. When I heard about her, I was, like, totally blown away. Then Vanity Fair had to actually do a piece on her where she says she’s obsessed with Dan Quayle and thinks he’s really hot.

Tori: I think Kennedy’s going after a concept. She’s too smart to really believe what she’s saying. I’ve met her, and I think that if she truly had to wake up with the things that Dan Quayle talks about—not just the concept of Dan Quayle, or the concept of going against the grain and liking somebody who has no concept of responsibility, or the concept of that cute little elephant she has tattooed on her hip - then she probably wouldn’t have the views she has.

Sandra: I think she’s thinking, Cool, I’m gonna be a rebel in the opposite way. But, on the other hand, maybe she really is anti-abortion and anti-civil rights. But everything the right wing stands for is against the music and the videos she’s promoting and introducing. I mean, it’s like a total conflict. What is the point? Who is she trying to get through to? I believe that people should have the right to do whatever the fuck they want, and that’s not what the right wing thinks. So I do not support her and I think she’s full of shit. I think she’s a very irresponsible, stupid girl.

Tori: Politically, I think you’re a very strong figure. You talk about a lot of things, and you stand by what you believe in.

Sandra: Yeah, I always have. One thing that’s really been important for me since I’ve become, like, this sort of icon for the gay community - which was not self-appointed or necessarily even accepted, because I don’t like the position - is that I’ve been able to express people’s desires and their need to be free. But I don’t want to alienate the rest of the world, because it’s important to me that the straight community have a really healthy respect for the gay community. It’s always been kind of my responsibility to go to the straight world and say, We all have the same pains and the same disappointments. We can be beautiful; we can be ugly; we can be masculine; we can be feminine; we can be straight or gay. But it scares me that the gay community always expects me just to be there for them in that kind of marginalized, ghettoized, unhealthy way. I think the great thing about being the performer I am is that I’ve always spread it out to an audience who needs to hear it a lot more than gay people do. I don’t need to be redundant to the gay community about what’s wrong and what isn’t happening for them.

Tori: Let’s talk about the New Age movement, because you deal with it on this record. You obviously understand the movement and yet you’re taking the piss out of it the whole time.

Sandra: Well, I think the New Age movement is very simplistic. Life moves too fast today, and there is no way that you can just heal yourself, unless you’re completely isolated and living a very privileged lifestyle. I think that Marianne Williamson and these others who say breathily, “Look inside and just connect and love one another” - there’s a lot of stuff to go through before you can love somebody.

Tori: Right. You gotta look at your hate first.

Sandra: You gotta look at your self-hatred first. You have to look at where you come from in terms of your family and the kind of pains and fears you have from your past before you can just walk into the world and say, I’m ready to love unconditionally. You have to be an extremely evolved and smart and forgiving person. And I just don’t always buy that those New Age gurus are where they profess they want you to be. So, I’d rather take somebody like a Patti Smith or a Courtney Love and listen to their kind of raw screaming-out than a Marianne Williamson. I just think there’s more to be gained by people who admit their failure and their pain and their fuck-ups. I think Courtney Love is an incredibly articulate, smart, pointed girl who’s been through the shit. She’s a really good voice for women right now. I don’t know what went on between her and Kurt Cobain - I’m not interested in knowing. I just think she’s one of the few modern women who have followed in the footsteps of some really funky rock ‘n’ rollers who were just spewing out the shit. I also like her because she says things the way I used to ten years ago when I wasn’t afraid to just say whatever was on my mind. But I don’t do that anymore. You just reach a certain point in your thirties when you go, This just doesn’t feel safe anymore. I still say things through my work, but in a much easier, safer way.

Tori: I don’t find anything safe about you.

Sandra: Ten years ago, when I first started my career, I would fucking say whatever I wanted, twenty-four hours a day, especially since I didn’t have the media on me like I’ve had in the past five or six years. There’s something about the media crawling up your ass. It’s hard enough to really express yourself in a completely emotional, raw way, but then also to have to explain it to the press and reinterpret it to make them understand where you are really coming from—well, that’s not my job. I love that you’re putting on lip gloss right now. (To tape recorder) - Tori is putting on some lip gloss.

Tori: Want some?

Sandra: No, honey, I’m all right. My lips are moist enough. (Tori giggles) Anyway, I’m always interested in strong women in this business who are surviving, being one myself. My guru now is Courtney Love. They laugh. Let me see if there’s anything else I wanted to throw out here. Oh, I know. The one thing I wanted to address—the pictures I took for this story. They’re, like, very kind of edgy and a little bit druggie and a little bit fucked-up. I always like to explain - the pictures tell a story, and then you read the story and they have nothing to do with each other. ‘Cause I’m, like, the least fucked-up and the least druggie person in the world, right?

Tori: Right.

Sandra: So it scares me that people are gonna see these pictures and go, “Well, this is everything she hates, everything that she, like, rails against and now she’s in these pictures and…”

Tori: They’re gonna call you Kennedy. (They both laugh)

Sandra: Exactly! So I really think that I should respect the audience enough to say, Well, this is what we decided to do in these pictures and the photographer just kinda took me on a journey. Hopefully, they’ll be understanding. It’s just another side to my persona. I’m not in the mood to shoot heroin, but these pictures look like I’ve been shooting heroin. It’s great to be able to play it out in pictures, but not in real life.

Tori: You take great pictures. You know how many men find you incredibly sexy?

Sandra: I love to hear that.

Tori: You’re smiling! I’m telling you…

Sandra: No, no, it’s nice to hear, you know?

Tori: Because you’re very feminine. With all your strength, you’re very…

Sandra: Well, that’s important to me, too. I mean, I think that I’ve drawn from some of the most feminine women, people like Jackie Kennedy - like, I am totally devastated that she’s gone. She had it all. She had the ability to keep her life completely private and never show you her hand of cards, which, to me, is the most amazing thing in the world. And if I’ve learned anything in my thirties, it’s about holding back a little bit in that way, really paring down, and just going. You know enough about me. If you want to dig, if you want to pry, do it on your time, but I’m going to be a woman of dignity, and I’m going to be a woman whose work speaks for itself. To me, her death is really like the passing of a whole era. But, I mean, if I can cover the gamut from Courtney Love to Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, I think that says it all.