His quest wasn’t without dangers. “Not everyone wants to hang out with surrealist heroin-addicted transsexuals,” says Antony. “You kind of have to be one to get the all-access pass.” For years, he lived with his spinet and his cat in an SRO on West 15th Street.
He also started putting on his own elaborate, dark performances, with a group he called Blacklips. To make a living, he waited tables at Yaffa Café, and then worked in clubs like the Tunnel during the height of Michael Alig’s power. “You’d be paid $100 to lay with a taxidermized lion growling over you, or play an accordion in a cage with a stuffed bear,” he says. “I was never really part of that scene. Honestly, I couldn’t wait to get out of there. It was so toxic, and there wasn’t much creative about it. There wasn’t a lot of big dreams happening.”
In 1995, he started the Johnsons, which was originally a performance troupe. As the music part of their act became more prominent, the cognoscenti started to take notice, from Bette Midler to David Bowie. John Cameron Mitchell saw him play early on at Squeezebox, which is also where his Hedwig and the Angry Inch character originated. “He was his own gorgeous, androgynous, perfect alien creature of light,” Mitchell says.
Around then, Antony had a sort of artistic epiphany, allowing him to break from his postadolescent goth nihilism. It was 1996 and he was in his bedroom listening to Liz Fraser (of the ethereal musical group the Cocteau Twins) sing on an EP called Twinlights when suddenly she was making sense. “She spent her whole career singing in personal, intuitive languages. On the last record, she started singing in English, and the words were revelatory. The last line of the last song was ‘I still care about this planet. I still feel connected to nature and to my dreams. I have my friends and my family. I have myself. I still have me.’ I remember thinking, the most radical thing you can do in 1996 is to project hope. Because everyone else was apocalyptic. Everything else was pushing toward the millennium, like, ‘Well, we’re done with 3 million years anyway, so fuck it. Let’s have unsafe sex at the West Side Club.’ ”
And it was right around then, too, perhaps not coincidentally, that things started moving for Antony in his career. Suddenly, there was hope. He’d won a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, which he used to record his first album. Music producer Hal Willner sought him out after picking up his EP “I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy” and introduced him to his friend Lou Reed. In 2000, Joe’s Pub took the Johnsons into residency.
Best of all, since seeking out his underground lineage here, Antony found a new generation he identified with. “It was the first time I found a group of kids that were like ten years younger than me, that actually operated on the same tenets that I’d been operating. Which is about heavy sincere-ism, and aggro-sincerity, and non-cynicism, which is kind of more risky. Not guarded,” he says. These are the freak-folk types, like Devendra Banhart and CocoRosie. “My generation was just busted. There were a few of us trying stuff out, but as a collective, my generation was incapable of making that gesture.”
Antony toured with Reed; Reed sang on I Am a Bird Now. In 2005, the record won the prestigious Mercury Prize in England. And then, suddenly, a certain kind of everybody knew who he was. He moved into his own apartment on Mercer Street. He was playing Carnegie Hall and enthralling people like MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach, who remembers a bam performance in which Antony, wearing all white, sang in a completely unlit theater. “It was stunning—a beautiful visualization of time,” Biesenbach says breathlessly. All the attention helped his friend Andy Butler sell a dance album, Hercules and Love Affair, on which Antony sang.
For his own new album, Antony worked with, among others, the young avant-garde classical musician Nico Muhly, whom he met through Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass. “What I liked about the album process,” Muhly wrote via e-mail from Iceland, “is how careful Antony was about the notes—it wasn’t the case that he wanted a huge, decadent thing; instead, it’s like really carefully crafted, and there is no wasted gesture.” They worked on the arrangements in the south of France, and then in the home of “this genius Sicilian songwriter-composer Franco Battiato, in Milo, near Mt. Etna, in Sicily.”
Antony describes The Crying Light this way: “The focus of the album is on my relationship to the environment and the elements. The natural world.” The song “Another World” is the embodiment of this intention, and in a way it brings him back to where he started. “I wanted to write a song about the changing ecology,” he says. It reminds him of when he came to New York and saw another ecosystem in decline. “This avant-garde queer underground, I got invested in it in a militant way because it was vanishing.” He stops and thinks about this. “I have to write an essay on that one day: How the impact of AIDS on underground culture is like the impact, today, of humans on the world.”
Later, Antony reconsiders, e-mailing me with second thoughts at 12:52 a.m. “This idea that a new desire for hope has emerged in the last few years in the music scene … I think it’s silly for me to project that it is happening in the world around me. There have always been people that felt hopeful and those that did not. Really my observation of more people manifesting hopeful art and music was a reflection of my own burgeoning desire to do the same. So I just wanted to rope it back in and keep the focus on myself rather than making all sorts of unsupported generalizations about the rest of the world. Thanks. best wishes, antony”