“The look is Jane Russell crossed with Morticia Addams, the sound is pure Billie Holiday ...” Time Out
In the 1950s Sarah Vaughan's admirers nicknamed her “The Divine One”. But she’s been dead for years – it’s surely overdue that the sublime Joey Arias inherit that title. A group of friends and I saw him perform at London’s Soho Theatre on 5 October. Arias is old school bohemian Mondo New York royalty, an ageless enigma, an alien, an apparition (he’s rumoured to be 64 in human years, not that you’d guess). He’s been performing and honing his night club act for over three decades, whipping together jazz and cabaret torch songs, performance art, drag and comedy (of the blue variety - Arias has the toilet mouth of a truck stop whore) into a purring consistency. Mainly he evokes the essence of doomed jazz chanteuse Billie Holiday in a manner that’s simultaneously eerie, haunting, filthy and hilarious ... while chewing gum and doing deep stripper squats, frequently stripped-down to nothing but fetish-y Bettie Page black lingerie.
I hadn't seen La Arias perform since 1996 – the memory of that was spine-tingling. It was at the tiny Freedom Theatre space in the basement of the Freedom bar on Wardour Street. In those days they regularly hosted outré avant garde performance stuff by the likes of Leigh Bowery (I also saw The Lady Bunny there). I was there with a female friend called Wendy. We were awe-struck by Arias. He opened with a wrenching version of Holiday’s “You've Changed.” His face was like a Kabuki mask; his sleek black patent leather hair was twisted into a Joan Crawford-in-Mildred Pierce 1940s pompadour. His stark monochromatic make-up made Arias look like an escapee from some 1940s black and white film noir B-movie. Later, Arias was prowling through the crowd singing, spotted Wendy, dramatically stopped and stared as if transfixed by her - and leaned down and kissed her on the lips (you know that scene in Morocco where Marlene Dietrich in full butch top-hat-and-tuxedo-male drag kisses a woman in the audience on the mouth? It was an exact re-enactment of that!). Post-kiss Wendy was blushing, flushed and dazzled – with a perfect jet black lip imprint smack on the side of her mouth!
Flash forward to present-day Soho Theatre: taking the stage in a sensational nude-look, tightly-corseted Thierry Mugler gown and backed by piano virtuoso Jeremy Brennan, Arias mixed jazz standards (“I Hear Music”, “All of Me”, “Them There Eyes”, “Why Don’t You Do Right?”) with a wild mix of rock and pop songs (imagine Billie Holiday tackling The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night”, Led Zepplin, Cream and “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes). Cavorting in lingerie and stockings, a down-and-dirty Arias reveled in rancid behavior. Beckoning a boy from the front row onstage, Arias unbuttoned his jeans, shoved his microphone down the front of his boxers and proceeded to serenade his crotch. Then, for his encore Arias transformed into a tragedienne, singing two of Holiday’s most exquisite heartbreak ballads (“Don’t Explain” and “You've Changed”) back-to-back in a heart-tugging smoky-voiced rasp so beautifully awash with sadness and anguish it made my friend Alison cry – which then made me cry.
/ Two shots of Arias channeling Billie Holiday and casting a spell onstage, snatched by my friend Alison /
Onstage Arias suggests not just Lady Day, but a whole lost tradition of fierce, commanding divas of a certain vintage: think boozy Tallulah Bankhead or scary late-period, taut-faced Marlene Dietrich. I've seen the likes of Eartha Kitt and Juliette Greco perform – maybe it sounds perverse, but Arias is their post-punk equal in artistry and charisma. When I got home I immediately put on Billie Holiday's 1958 masterpiece Lady in Satin and swooned.
/ My favourite shot of the night. I call it "Two Fierce Bitches": after the concert, I glanced up to see my friend Alison and Joey deep in conversation, hugging. I rummaged through Alison's handbag, found her digital camera and caught this historic encounter for posterity. I treasure this photo! /
/ Stunning portrait of Joey Arias backstage at The Soho Theatre on the final night of his residency by the ultra-talented photographer Adrian Lourie /
/ From the same session: another intimate backstage shot of Arias in his dressing room at The Soho Theatre, this time by the very talented Fannar Gudmundsson. The form-fitting black gown he’s slithering into was astonishing: you catch a glimpse of the architectural corsetry going on inside it here /