Antony and the Johnsons, Rome Auditorium

The first time I saw Antony Hegarty, at the Meltdown curated by Patti Smith some years ago, I barely knew who he was. My sister had won tickets to any event she chose and it’s one of my small regrets that, alongside seats for Patti herself, John Cale, Yoko Ono, we didn’t book the Antony night. He was playing the small hall – I don’t remember the name – while we sat in the main one, watching a disappointing evening of people I’d loved and valued – Robin Williamson, Roy Harper – and found I no longer did. But we also had tickets for Stand Bravely Brothers, an evening devoted to Brecht songs. Among the many wonders of that night – Marc Almond appearing for the first time after the accident that nearly killed him, Tiger Lillies, the Finn brothers marching to a new translation of the Cannon Song – was Antony. He shuffled up to the centre of the stage in the sort of loose smock-like garment he’s now refined into something Juliette Greco might have worn. He was clearly mortified to be there, or seemed to be, and then he began to sing. It was Surabaya Johnny, a song that will reduce me to tears in the least capable of hands, so you can imagine.

The second time was in Rome, not long afterwards. By that time he’d become a household name, in my household at least. I’d bought the first CD at the airport on my way home and my partner had fallen in love with him, as had a close friend of ours, Paola. The two of them spent hours on the phone quoting lines from You Are My Sister, damp-eyed, to each other. I was less enamoured, but not by much. That evening, Antony played in one of the covered spaces of Renzo Piano’s new Auditorium, a place – like the Nazca lines – of intriguing beauty when seen from above, gigantic brown-backed scarabs about to mate, or fight, with reasonable acoustics (after some adjustment), and with seating, alas, designed for rubber-legged dwarves with robust backs. Cramped, at the back of the hall, far away and high above the stage, we saw Antony, we really did, but only just. He was hidden away at one side of the stage, seated at the piano, penumbral, his face concealed by his hair, his hands occasional flashes of white, like moths.

He was back at the Auditorium on Monday evening, this time in the Cavea, the central amphitheatre where the three bugs meet head-on. This time, though, he took the centre of the stage and, except for a couple of songs at the piano, stayed there, his black robes – half Merlin, half Sophie Tucker – oddly static.The playlist was almost entirely composed of covers, and it was mostly good to hear him take a song you thought you knew and turn it inside out. Any good interpreter will make a song hers, or his, but rarely as radically as Antony did, his voice resonating within, and distorting, the melody as though it were being channelled through some dark personal cave of his own making. There was a lot of channelling going on during the concert, most of it – surprisingly to me – from the world of black music. Billie Holiday, gospel, jazz, even jazz hands at times, but held low down as though admonished, torch song, blues, the music magisterially keeping up with, and framing, the ever more remarkable instrument of Antony’s voice. There were times he raised his hands to the sky like a parody of some mad preacher, or witch(-doctor), invoking who knows what force. At one point, towards the end of a traditional ballad I didn’t recognise, with the chorus of the Johnsons singing the refrain and Antony, banshee-like, wailing out the verse, a flock of seagulls appeared from nowhere to circle above our heads, their cries just audible, so integral to the song of death and unrequited love below it was hard to believe their presence hadn’t been meant. They hung around for the next song too, a reading of I Will Survive that broke me up (disco bunny that I was), before sweeping away. At one point, someone cried out from the audience, I love you, Antony, and I wondered how he’d deal with it, his new-found stage presence as much a self-protecting wall as his earlier timidity. Thank you, dear, he said, for all the world like Margaret Rutherford in Blithe Spirits.

The choice of music was, without exception, canny and deliberated, a network of ideal alliances across genre and time, from the Marvelettes (Someday, Someway) to Leonard Cohen, from As Tears Go By to Motherless Child, dedicated to gay children in Nigeria, Uganda, Saudi Arabia, Russia, the almost endless list of places in which is to be gay is to be condemned, culminating in a wry – and much appreciated – ‘and maybe some children in Italy’. Apart from this dedication, and the moment when he called us his ‘bambinos’, making up in affection what it lacked in grammatical accuracy, he spoke only once, a sermon about the female principle that centred on the phrase, God’s vagina. Not everyone understood everything, but the whole cavea understood God’s vagina, and applauded, as though the malevolent background hum of the Vatican had been magically silenced, for a moment at least.

The encore was Candy Says, from Lou Reed’s Transformer, one of my favourite albums and perhaps the first time art music and coloured girls were united into something entirely new. I’ve come to hate my body, Antony sang, and this is probably still true for him, as it was for Candy. It’s easy to become a parody of oneself, particularly when one’s self is a sort of mask or truth turned inside-out, but Antony seems to have avoided this fate so far. Long may it continue. I only wish he’d done Surabaya Johnny.

As I left the auditorium I remembered a few lines by Frank O’Hara:

Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.

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