the Winston Tong Interview By GINA HALL
is a vocalist, songwriter, poet, visual artist, costume and set designer, plus, he can cook.
and I met sometime around 1980 in our friend Jack Stahl's kitchen.
Winston put on a private performance for Jack's mother. I remember that afternoon as if it
were yesterday. Winston had three magnificently attired puppets, who by the end of the
performance were as alive as, (in some cases, more so)
anyone in the room. His illustration of
the puppet's lives was magic. About a year later it was no surprise to hear that Winston was
the winner of an OBIE and on his way to Europe where he became the Toast of the Continent.
Winston's multimedia performances and successful singing career continue until this
day. Last month I saw him perform at the BEARDED LADY CAFE and he still had those same
magical distinctions I observed in that Kitchen on Noe St. Winston has had countless
escapades. We went for dinner, had Margaritas, and discussed the 'whatsup' with Winston Tong.
FAD: Winston did you take vocal lessons ?
Winston Tong: Yes, I did, I studied classically, I studied everything from Classical and Choir to POP singing. I had Marnie Nixon as my teacher. She's the one who dubbed people like Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn in movies like My Fair Lady and West Side Story.
FAD: Where was that ?
WT: At CAL ARTS, we call it CIA, The California Institute of the Arts.
FAD: When I think of you as an artist I don't really think of you as a vocalist...
WT: No, it's much more than that, it's conceptual.
FAD: I forgot how good your voice is..
WT: Believe me, sometimes I do too. I can't believe I can do all these things.
FAD: When did you begin your singing stint ?
WT: I started singing with TUXEDOMOON. I remember one of the first nights someone said "Get that screaming china man off the stage". Some punk said, "He can't even sing, he's just screaming". They said that in France too, but I was proud of it. We developed that technique. You have to shout a certain way to get it right.
FAD: You weren't shouting when I saw you with TM.
WT: Then I was singing in this dreadful monotonous voice, really low.
FAD: I loved your puppets. You became famous with them in Europe right ?
WT: It started in NY, I won an Obie. Then I came back here and then I planned the tour to
FAD: Did you use the same puppets that I originally saw you work with.
WT: Yes, the Leopard, the Mermaid and the Man in the Evening clothes. That was a poem by RIMBAUD.
Those were his words, my voice was on tape then, it would be like a sound track. I would read
the BURROUGHS or the RIMBAUD or my own words after a while, when I got braver.
FAD: Was all your European performance self-promoted ?
WT: I did it myself, I made a contact. A friend said "if you are ever in Paris, see this agent". That was two years before during my wanderlust years. I went to Paris and my sister was there too.
FAD: I didn't realize that when I met you that you'd already been to Europe. I knew you grew up in SF...
WT; That's why I was such a snob then.
FAD: No, you were really nice to me.
WT: See, that's why I was so nice then.
FAD: You were rather rude to other people though.
WT: Well, after Europe, you know they don't call it "old" for no reason. You learn a lot there. How to be, you know ?
FAD: How to be what ?
WT: How to be well mannered. It's like finishing school.
FAD: Then why did you come back so grouchy ?
WT: Because nobody was as romantic, or knowledgeable or appreciative. In Europe they are really
appreciative of everything, especially art. That's why you get grouchy when you come back.
Here you can't sell it, it ain't art, what is art? Art's scary, if you can't sell it, it's a hobby.
FAD: And in Europe you sold it, you were the Toast of the Town right ?
WT: It's true, from country to country.
FAD: Why did you stop working with the puppets ?
WT: The band (TUXEDOMOON) came to Europe too, and then with BRUCE GEDULDIG, whom was my Co-worker who was a
great cinematographer and actor. He kind of replaced certain scenic aspects and then eventually the puppets were turned into dolls, and then they vanished all together. But in the appropriate pieces they do appear. I'll use anything. Nowadays, I'm really interested in iconography again, in arch-typical types like Madonna.
FAD: Are you referring to your visual artwork ?
WT: Yes, and my music. My mental picture of the way I would sing one of the songs, the one I wrote for MADONNA CICCIONE, actually, called the MOTHER AND THE WHORE, I would play the resurrected Christ. That is what the video would be about.
FAD: I vote to bring the dolls back.
WT: They will be there. A curious thing happened, I realized that the gods were sending me a message, I am nothing but a play thing of them, in order for these things to take on their true scale some of it will be done with animation in miniature. The dolls will be there. It's such a cheap trick, I mean it's such a beautiful, transparent thing. Even grownups fall for it. It's just playing with dolls.
FAD: Then I remember seeing you a few years later and you were wrapped in Saran wrap or something ?
WT: Oh, yeah, that was with Bruce. Sometimes we would spray paint plastic from the rear so we would block the audience out. We were trying to animate ourselves. The puppets became dolls, they were iconography, holy figures. They could sit and stand on their own, they didn't need support. I dug that a lot, I guess because I'm a closet Maoist. My mother is too, don't say that. Well, I guess it's OK now, some years back you couldn't even say his name. He died and he's a negative now.
FAD: Are you still a Maoist ?
WT: You know what someone told me, "You've walked into a cult of one".
FAD: Is it lonely in there ?
WT: I was afraid to ask, but I understood right away what it meant. I'm a church unto myself. I founded a religion, and I do believe, I pray in my own weird way but, you know. Oh, and I cry sometimes. I was singing AVE MARIA and I thought I'd cry crocodile tears to look sexy for Madonna, but I really did cry. Just like any devout Chinese Cuban would.
FAD: What, is this a new nationality of yours that is emerging ?
WT: It's the characters in the song. Jesus, he's 17 and never been kissed, and her name is Maria.
FAD: I think that I've heard of them. What other current projects are you working on ?
WT: I'm translating CHARLES BAUDELAIRE, I'm translating of course his poem TO A MADONNA because I'm totally obsessed by MADONNAS in general. I hope to adapt it to a live performance piece. In my version Madonna's a black one and I kill her at the end. It's kind of S&M. In this one the Jesus has his hair pulled back, it's all greasy. It's like in a circus side show and Madonna and Jesus are having a fight. She's saying, "where were you last night, out with someone" and he's like "I'll take care of you," and he throws 7 knives at her, one for each sin.
FAD: Is this meant for a commercial market Winston ?
WT: This is how I work my problems out. But it's for the world too.
FAD: Uh, huh.....Are you adding music ?
WT: Yeah, with DAVID OH.
FAD: I've heard of him, refresh my memory though.
WT: DAVID Oh is one of the most amazing musicians I've ever met.
FAD: That's quite a statement, you've met more than a few.
WT: Yes, (and some magicians too.) We are working on some songs for a new record called FIRST GENERATION STIGMAS and the other part of this party is ALEX PITSCHKA, on keyboards. They both play keyboards and between the two of them they also play drums, bass, violins, sax and more. DAVID is like STRAVINSKY and ALEX is like MOZART and somewhere in-between lays my matter. Or Smatterings. And I'm going to add
congas. I'm learning to sing to just drums. I go to a piano and I hit my starting note and then it's
always on. I think that's amazing. I hear orchestras in the drums, I thought I was hallucinating.
FAD: Yet another case of audio hallucinations. Leave us with a parting thought Winston.
WT: How did you miss the point before ?
It's hard to love the mother and pity the whore.
Haven't you been kissed by the truth before ?
Less to give your brother if father takes more.
Chorus of The Mother and the Whore (Lyrics by W. Tong)
Original Art by Winston Tong - no titles.
Collage Illustration - Richrd Stutting