NYC’s Hottest Party Dances into H-Town
by Steven Foster
With his prismatic output, it’s understandable that people often see John Cameron Mitchell only in the light of the sole color they are most familiar with. His landmark achievement, of course, is the vividly realized transsexual rock star he created, penning as well as playing the title character in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, onstage and in film. Others know him as the sybaritic libertine driving the sexually frank (and, frankly, joyous) Shortbus, a movie made famous for the fact that, yes, the cast members were having real sex that Mitchell himself even joined in on. As a producer, he brought Houstonian Jonathan Caouette’s documentary Tarnation to the masses. After a five-minute meeting with Rabbit Hole actress and producer Nicole Kidman, he was back behind the camera and directing Kidman toward another Oscar nomination. Here was one of Mitchell’s most radical hues, tackling the dark, Pulitzer-winning drama of a marriage disintegrating in the aftermath of their child’s tragic death. Virtually moments later, Mitchell left low-budget sepia-toned sadness behind for the high-dollar glam of Lady Grey London, a sexy, dazzling fable for Dior starring another Oscar winner, Marion Cotillard, as a cabaret performer who—spoiler alert—is so gorgeous she not only has the power to heal the lame but to turn gay men Sir Ian McKellan and Russell Tovey straight. (All jokes aside, the short film is a heartbreaking marvel masquerading as a subtle handbag ad.) Mitchell and Cotillard reunited for the 180-degree encore with LAdy Dior, a sunshine-colored comedy that gleefully skewers high-fashion Hollywood myopia.
But if all the colors of John Cameron Mitchell ever do come close to exploding together, it would be underneath the mirror ball in the dance fever dream of Mattachine.
Mattachine, named in honor of Harry Hay’s groundbreaking gay-rights organization, began four years ago in what is perhaps the country’s oldest gay bar, the New York landmark Julius. It quickly became the hottest dance party in town, no matter your sexual preference. But since Mitchell is one of ours, Mattachine is usually populated with famous and fabulous familiars like REM’s Michael Stipe, Scissor Sister Jake Shears, writers Michael Cunningham and Dustin Lance Black, and B-52’s frontman Fred Schneider. Soured on the current gay clubbing clone experiments, Mitchell and his record-spinning cohorts PJ DeBoy and Amber Martin created an almost defiantly anti-gay danceteria that refused to serve up the homo nightclub standards. Madonna went missing. There was a gag order on Gaga. This counter-culture, pre-1984 rave-up of funk, soul, rock ’n’ roll, disco, and even country music demanded a revision in current dance floor protocol. Eventually, Mitchell and his record-spinning cohorts took the show on the road to remind gay people outside of the 212 just how fun clubbing could be. Mattachine partied in Portland, brought some soul to the soulless L.A. Now, Mitchell’s friendship with Houston party empresario Johnny Hooks brings Mattachine to Houston.
The hot-ticket happening, taking place March 15 at The Flat, will give the monochromatic Houston club scene some much-needed color—as the still-boyish but near-50-year-old Mitchell boldly explains in this stinging OutSmart interview.
Steven Foster: Is this your first tour down south?
John Cameron Mitchell: Yes. We’re doing a mini tour, a kind of southern swath from Jacksonville to Austin. We’ve done a couple of tours in the west last year. Two of our partners live in Florida and two are from Texas. I was born in Texas. [Coming to] New Orleans was the first idea, and then we just thought, Let’s keep going! And we’re going to end up at [the Austin music festival] South By and there’s an event there called Gay by GayGay. Have you ever heard of that?
No, I haven’t.
It’s really fun, I hear. It’s kind of a spin-off from SXSW called GayXGayGay. Kind of a joke, of course. And it’s like 2,000 people out on a farm just outside of Austin with bands and DJs. It’s a very mixed, queer, dykey, rock and roll thing that some friends have gone to and said it was just amazing. We’re gonna DJ there as well as do a Mattachine in Austin.
That’s so money.
There’s no money.
[Laughing] That’s right. So this must be a labor of love for you?
Oh yeah. We just try to break even and keep the ticket prices low so everybody can go. And it’s four of us that tour together and we actually DJ simultaneously, tag-team style. We’ve been doing it for years so we’ve got it down to an art. For this party, the one in Houston, we’re going to actually do a few [original] songs, guitar and stuff. I’ll probably do a Hedwig song, and Amber Martin, one of our DJs who’s this incredible rock singer, will perform.
Oh, you know her?
I know her work, yeah.
She’s from . . .
Port Arthur. And PJ DeBoy’s gonna sing and hopefully Johnny Hooks, our promoter, is gonna sing too. And it’s gonna be mostly dancing and a little performing at this place called The Flat. We’re probably gonna have a tent for outside. And it’s just gonna be a blast.
How did you meet Johnny?
Through Jonathan Caouette, who directed Tarnation. He’s from there.
When the Mattachine party started, did you anticipate it becoming the hot ticket it has since become? That Stipe, and Shears, and Michael Cunningham, and Alan Cumming would just show up?
Well, not to honk my horn or anything, but these are all my friends.
Yeah, that’s true.
There was nowhere to go that was everything we wanted in a queer venue. Julius, where we do it in New York, is a great bar—ancient, probably the oldest gay bar in the country—that we love and we would hang out there, but it was sort of falling by the wayside. So we kinda wanted to revitalize it, but also create a “perfect” queer environment. A lot of people don’t go to gay bars anymore, partially because they’ve become formulaic. The music’s become very predictable, you know? It’s a kind of genre of gay bar. You can go to a gay bar anywhere in the world and they kind of have a similarity like a Starbucks or . . . a McDonald’s.
I was about to say McDonald’s.
I should say McDonald’s more than Starbucks because I like the music at Starbucks. And I can’t stand the thump-thump-thump lack of imagination and where everyone is panicked about the way they look or how old they are. So we have a real non-ageist kind of relaxed, mixed feeling. Gay, straight—it’s predominately queer. We want women to feel awesome, and mixed parties are often better. And we play a lot of dance music from all eras. We avoid the clichés.
Don’t you guys pretty much banish everything after 1984?
We emphasize pre-1984 but we do play stuff that’s in the same classic vein like LCD Soundsystem or something. We’ll throw in a little Brit-pop and some hip hop, but we really emphasize the ’70s, early ’80s, funk, classic rock, new wave. PJ plays a lot of country. I play a lot of slow jams for slow dancing.
Yeah, I heard you like to slow dance.
Well, when’s the last time you slow danced?
You know, that’s a really good question and it’s sad to say I can’t recall when.
It needs to be reclaimed for a queer environment.
I couldn’t agree more.
It’s a fast world. We need to slow down.
Do you find there is some kind of correlation between an increased gay visibility and the kind of crappy homogenization of gay culture?
I do. I don’t find it’s the visibility so much as the acceptance, oddly enough—you know?
The price of acceptance is mediocrity. The advantage of acceptance is less suicides. And more normalization [creates the opportunity to do] what you want. But the mediocrity, of course, comes from not having to be challenged as much. It’s still challenging to be queer in most of the world, to be sure, but there’s a kind of normalization of it that’s happening very quickly in the developed world that is leading to a kind of blandness. And amnesia. It’s just weird to see these young people becoming HIV-positive and getting these meds and knowing nothing about AIDS. There’s this kid I know and he’d never heard of ACT-UP.
It’s just a weird kind of blandness of queerness—I wouldn’t call it “queerness,” I’d call it more “gayness”—that I don’t relate to anymore. Maybe it was partially growing up in the battlefield of AIDS and being out was a responsibility because it was a matter of life and death for a lot of people, but even despite that, there was a lack of awareness, a lack of wanting to be a nonconformist in the gay world. You sort of had to be a nonconformist years ago. You picked your own look. You picked your own type. It wasn’t like fitting into a cookie-cutter version that people like to do in the straight world. And now gay people do it. Unfortunately, the other price of gay acceptance is there’ll be just as many gay Republicans eventually as there are gay Democrats—sadly.
It’s more than a little unnerving.
It’s sad to say that is the price of our assimilation and our normalization. But, as my friend Michael Warner said, “There’s a trouble with ‘normal.’” It’s not a great term. That’s why there’s kind of a new term I’ve just heard called “cisgender,” which is people who identify as the gender they were born with but who hate the terms heteronormative or straight. It’s like, “I’m just comfortable with who I am.” We all know that the hottest people are just comfortable with who they are. The hot feminine guy, or the hot butch girl. Everyone who’s trying too hard to be macho, to be femme, or to be whatever, are uncomfortable to be around—and have sex with.
It seems they excel in their un-originality, which is a shame.
Right! That’s right. And Mattachine is all about old school—it’s about pick who you are, don’t just follow the sheep. Do whatever you’re supposed to be, in terms of your queerness. And you know you don’t have to be gay to be queer. We all have our straight friends who are much more queer and interesting than our gay friends.
I totally get what you’re saying. I’d hang around more gay people if I could find some that didn’t get on my nerves.
I’m so homophobic lately. I’m just annoyed.
They’re just so monochromatic. They’re boring.
Dull. Dull, dull, dull. So we’re trying to spice things up, get people off their iPhones, get them onto the dance floor, ask strangers to slow dance, sing along, and just get together.
A noble goal. I’m just glad you’re bringing it down south. Hey, can I ask you a couple more questions, if you don’t mind?
In your career, you were a non-conformist. Still, were there ever moments when you thought you should have conformed more to accelerate your success? Or were you like, Screw it, I am who I am.
I was kind of a conformist at the beginning. I was in the closet, like anybody at that time. And there was a period where I was, Oh, I have to get in the closet for my career. But it was so uncomfortable to do so—I didn’t want any acting in my personal life as well as my work life. And then when AIDS hit, it just felt so selfish and stupid. So I was always open in my work life and my career. And when you are, you just sort of challenge people to do the right thing and be less scared to hire you—for straight people to hire gay people.
I did the normal actor thing for a long time and enjoyed it. Then I got bored with that and I wrote Hedwig, which was, to other friends, career suicide. “Why are you doing drag? You’re doing Broadway and TV and stuff already—why would you put yourself in the gutter?” And I’m like, Drag is not the gutter. Drag is a form. People can do it well, people can do it interestingly, they can do it boringly. There’s a lot to learn from it. There’s a lot to learn from standup, from punk rock, from Greek theater—and I tried to put all those things together and create something new so I wouldn’t be bored, so I would be excited, so I could learn something about myself. And from that, the whole world opened up. I didn’t do it for money, I didn’t do it for my career. But it allowed me to do everything I’ve done since, and meet so many wonderful people—even doing this party. Whatever you put out, it comes back to you. If you put out something boring, boring people will want to hang out with you.
You sound so . . . wise.
And that is the ace in the hole in regards to growing old. I forget who it was, Jane Fonda or Julie Christie or someone like that, and they were saying that as you watch your body decline and this falls or that goes, you take comfort in the fact that you’re smarter.
And that’s a tradeoff that makes everything worth it.
It’s a weird tradeoff and I’m actually . . . now this is not for publication, but . . . [the recorder is turned off momentarily]
Thanks for telling me that. That’s awesome. Can’t wait to be able to spill that.
But back to our point. It’s like you were saying, there’s this irony. The first half of your life is finding out who you are and the second part is preparing to lose it all.
Oh my God, that’s awesome.
And what do you do? You can do it really well. You can do it without great fear and depression. You can rage to the end. You can find, you know, some grace. Youth is a strange thing to be wasted on the young. But old age can be wasted on the old, too.
That’s so true. I’ve never heard anyone flip that adage like that before. Listen, man, lemme let you go. It’s been really great to talk to you.
Thank you. Hopefully I’ll meet you at the party.
Looking forward to it, John. Thanks so much.
You’re welcome, and thank you for telling people about it.
Steven Foster is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.