BWW Cabaret Conversation: For BWW Award Nominee RAQUEL CION, Life is All David Bowie, All the Time
Raquel Cion's critically acclaimed cabaret show Me and Mr Jones: My Intimate Relationship with David Bowie, has it's final performance of the current run at The Slipper Room on Sunday (May 15) at 8 pm. Cion has been working throughout NYC as an actor, director, and singer for the past 20 years, and has won accolades for her evocative performances. Since being introduced to Bowie by her older sister Shira, who was a student at Wesleyan when Raquel was a teenager, Cion has had a deep, abiding, reverential love for the musician, which she incandescently brings to light in this show, as much a one-woman Off-Broadway presentation with a band as a cabaret show. This is an example of how much Raquel Cion loves David Bowie: "I am thankful that his hands weren't gnarled like Keith Richards' are. I love Bowie's hands. They're so beautiful. He was so beautiful . . . shockingly beautiful. He was evolved. He teaches us a lot." And Cion teaches her audiences a lot with her stunning, poignant, and funny show.
I recently met with the artist at the Chocolate Room in Brooklyn, and true to form, Cion ordered a vanilla milkshake, laughing at her tendency to swim against the current. We discussed her creative and emotional process for initially creating the Bowie show, and then changing the show on the fly after her beloved Bowie died this past January at 69.
Remy Block: As you mention in your show, you've been a passionate David Bowie fan for more than 30 years, but you start writing this show until 2014. So why did it take you so long to put together a show about your "intimate relationship" with your idol?
Raquel Cion: When I started singing in shows in '98, friends would ask, "When are you doing a Bowie show?" The idea of that always felt strange to me. Then I started singing Bowie songs in other people's tribute shows. But I would still hear, "When are you going to do your Bowie show? When, when, when?" Everyone who knows me at all knows I'm all Bowie, all the time, but the thing that was holding me back was--and it's in the title of the show--is that it's really intimate. It's really deep. It runs so deeply in me, and I don't even understand it. Even though doing this show has exposed those places to other people, the why of it is still elusive, which is very Bowie.
RB: At it's core, isn't this show basically a passionate love story?
RC: My show is an examination of love--why we love who we love and why we are dedicated to what speaks to us. It makes total sense and makes no sense. Why I didn't become passionate about another artist or band or painter or filmmaker--that fascinates me. I don't know if I'm ever going to get at the grain of it; why this sprouted in me so deeply. And it keeps growing.
RB: As you're performing the show or going through the run of shows, do you feel like the love is growing?
RC: I was worried about that; I was worried I was going to lose my love for him, or that I was going to be like, "Oh, I'm done." But no . . . NO . . . I mean it shifts; it's always shifting.
RB: Have you ever gotten mad at Bowie?
RC: Oh yeah. I haven't been fond of certain artistic choices or certain things that he said when he was coked out. As a Jewish woman, I've found his fascination with fascism scary and that was rough for me. He was accused of rape in the late '80s. That was really hard. It was a two-year long court case. He did sleep with this woman, and the next day she wrote him a thank you note. He blew her off, and then she took him to court for rape. But people don't usually write notes to people who have date raped them. [At this point in the interview Cion recognizes Bowie's "Starman" playing.] Yeah, I've gotten mad at him--or frustrated. But I love him. Seeing his musical Lazarus was very hard, too. [Note: Cion bought tickets to five separate performances of Bowie's show that opened in late 2015 before his death.] Looking back on it, I blamed all the other collaborators and gave him an out. Which in hindsight may have been true because he was very ill. That was hard. It's still hard. I think about that a lot. I love him.
RB: How has the show changed since you started performing it in early 2015 [at Judson Memorial Church, then again at The Slipper Room last November]?
RC: Well, the script is ever evolving. We had to rewrite because our Bowie reality is different now. Forever different. With that we've added new visual elements and, of course, another dress designed by the brilliant David Quinn. Also, we're a little Spinal Tap-esque--you know the way they were with drummers?--that's what's happened to us with bassists. They keep changing because of schedules and life events, like one with a wife who went into labor before a show. And because of scheduling issues, I've also had lots of directors.
RB: The set list for this show is really strong, but also kind of eclectic. What drove the song choices?
RC: The set list was really driven by the stories I telling. Many of the songs are the ones that get me through or are my favorites. Life On Mars is my favorite song in the universe. I also feel the songs have their own narrative line, melodically, rhythmically, lyrically that connects but transcends the monologues/dialogue. I really could do a song cycle where I sing all of his albums in their entirety. I realize though that most of the songs I do are not very well known to people who aren't Bowie people. They're the songs that move me.
RB: When you approach the music, are you pretty faithful to the recordings?
RC: We start there. Most of the songs I've chosen don't have sheet music. Plus the sheet music is never quite right and I think that's intentional. And I'm also the one who says: I want to take from this live version, and I want to try this . . . We come in with charts we found on the Internet, which are so wonky, so most everyone is playing by ear. My Musical Director Karl St. Lucy is a genius. He scores things out and he charts all the backing vocals. We do everything in the original keys, except two songs. "Moonage Daydream" has been lowered--because I'm a baritone and for dramaturgical purposes as well, so it's in a super strong place in my voice. And one song has been raised. Everything else is in the original key, which is kind of freaky for someone like me, but that's okay, I'm owning that. We do take some liberties to serve the emotional narrative and the emotional arc of the show. Plus, I'm not Bowie. The band is kick ass but it's not Bowie's band, and none of us are pretending that we are his musicians.
RB: Have you met Bowie fans you didn't know before, who have somehow come across the show?
RC: Yes! There are also people who couldn't come to the show, who message me with something like, "I'm in Providence, Rhode Island, and I really wanna see the show." I send them a song list and then we speak Bowie, as I say in the show. They may move beyond being Bowie friends, but the base of our friendship is Bowie.
RB: What does it mean to "Speak Bowie?"
RC: There's a lot of quoting from songs and from interviews. There's a lot of date dropping: "In '75 this happened. Do you have this bootleg? Have you seen this?" Are you real? It's a little Cat People-like. There's a competition, too. There's this odd love but this weird competition between Bowie fans.
RB: Do you think you could ever be in a relationship with someone who also loved Bowie, even if it wasn't as much as you do?
RC: I don't think I could marry another Bowie lover. Bowie fans--it runs so deep. I say this and I know a lot of Bowie fans that say he literally saved us. He saved my life, and I know a lot of people who were in a lot more difficult situations than me who feel he saved them, too. There's something deeply personal. I also think that's the nature of his work. He's not telling anyone what to do. He presents these worlds. There's not a dogmatic or didactic thing. It's open to interpretation, because his lyrics, even sonically the way he operates throughout all the incarnations. It's very post-modern--you imbue it with your own stuff. His work is oftentimes dark. There's this longing and there's this LOVE--heart, heart, heart--which is why that Lady Gaga tribute performance on the last Grammy Awards show didn't work. There was no heart! It was all smoke and mirrors, playing the hits and the hooks. Bowie's got great hooks, but that was really not the greater percentage of his work. His work unfolds. It's not easily accessible. And that's been a challenge with my show. Even when I don't really dig a Bowie album when it comes out--I had issues with Tin Machine and Never Let Me Down--but I will sit with it and I will study. It's an imperative having to learn it--
RB: He's your teacher. I'm getting it.
RC: He is my teacher--and there's always a way in--it could be a sound or a tone or a little thing he does . . . He was an amazing lyricist . . . I still have a hard time saying "was." It's hard; it's still hard.
I'm thankful that he's not in pain anymore. I'm awed at the grace and artistry and wakefulness with which he faced his mortality. And his generosity--and the lesson--it's huge. It's epic to keep going to the end and to be awake for it and aware and respectful of yourself, your body, your loved ones, knowing the distinction between--as [his wife] Iman always says--the person and the persona. He was a highly evolved person. His Buddhist inclinations really showed through. He had his ashes scattered in a Buddhist ceremony in Bali.
RB: Isn't death one of the running themes of Bowie's music?
RC: Yes, Bowie always sang about death. I talk about this in the show. He talked about death in interviews and came from a family that had a lot of suicide and mental illness. His half-brother, who introduced him to music, killed himself. I saw Donny McCaslin's group [who played with Bowie on the record Blackstar, the rock star's last album release in 2016] at the Village Vanguard. It was so moving. They had a Bowie interview on a loop, where he talks about immortality. It was soon after his death. Watching them play was so inspiring, and so comforting--that he chose this group, these people that were out of his comfort zone. Bowie always said he'd buy jazz records as a teen and couldn't access the music, but he would listen until he loved it. He never thought he had the skill to be a jazz musician. These monster musicians who were so skilled and generous with each other and joyous and had that listening--that special kind of listening that only jazz musicians have--360 degrees and vertical and connects heaven and earth--knowing that he was in that environment with the awareness of what was going on with him is so beautiful and so courageous and so affirming of his life force. Some people say he had 10 heart attacks before he passed because of the chemotherapy.
RB: Where does all your energy get directed now?
RC: I don't know. I cry a lot. I'm not alone in this. I really don't know. A Bowie friend of mine posted a message a few days ago, "Am I ever going to get over this?" No, I don't think you are . . . you'll get through, you'll move on--that's a Bowie song--from Lodger . It breaks your heart and you keep moving, and again--the way he left this world--so bold, awake.
RB: Do you feel you've created new Bowie fans with your show?
RC: I think I have, in fact, I know it. I love it when people come to the show knowing nothing about David Bowie, and then after the show they listen to albums and do research on him based on things I say about him. That's really exciting to me. Because I will, as you can hear, talk Bowie forever. Except I couldn't do that after he died. It was really hard for me. I got real private about it. I think it's just about time unfolding . . . I think it's still unfolding.
Raquel Cion's Me & Mr. Jones: My Intimate Relationship With David Bowie plays at The Slipper Room, May 15 at 8 pm. The Slipper Room is on 167 Orchard Street. For tickets, go here.
Shots by Carrie Lou