Call Answered: Raquel Cion: "Me & Mr. Jones: My Intimate Relationship with David Bowie" at Pangea
David Bowie + Breast Cancer = One of the most in-depth, fascinating stories of fandom, heartbreak, and survival I have heard!
Raquel Cion’s life has revolved around David Bowie, so much so, that’s she written a show about it, Me & Mr. Jones: My Intimate Relationship with David Bowie. This 90-minute cabaret explores the lifelong “soul love” that Raquel has for David Bowie’s artistry and David Jones's humanity. Her personal stories and the deep cuts of Bowie's diverse catalog rocket us through growing up as an outsider, navigating the celestial realms of love, mid-life crisis, loss, and creatively moving through cancer.
Me & Mr. Jones: My Intimate Relationship with David Bowie returns to Pangea (178 2nd Avenue) on November 16 & 17 at 9:30pm. Click here for tickets!
1. This September/October/November you are bringing your show Me & Mr. Jones: My Intimate Relationship With David Bowie back to Pangea after a sold-out run earlier this year. How did you come up with the idea/concept for this show? We’re so thrilled to be back at Pangea. The band and I feel the intimacy of the room serves the show so beautifully and has put us in such a profound zone with the material. We’ve now been playing together since our spring 2016 shows at The Slipper Room. It is pure joy to play with such incredible musicians (Karl St. Lucy/musical director/piano, Jeremy Bass/guitar, Michael Ryan Morales/drums and Dan Shuman/bass.) They’re amazing people and together there’s a playfulness and listening that brings the show to new heights/depths every time we perform it.
I’ve been singing in shows since 1998 and doing my own cabaret shows, or as I like to call them, “plays disguised as cabarets” since 2009/2010. People kept asking when I was going to do a Bowie show. Anyone who knows me, even a little, knows that I’m all Bowie all the time. In 2013 I wanted to write another show using a similar process as my show Gilding the Lonely (Joe’s Pub, Dixon Place). Gilding the Lonely was structured almost as an investigation of/meditation on loneliness. Looking at it from different angles.
Thinking of a new show I wanted to explore, and hell, maybe manifest some other kinds of emotions or states of being. I thought of love. All six Greek definitions of it. I wanted to explore the “why” of love. To try to tease it apart and examine why we love what and/or who we love. When I think of what or who I love, Bowie is immediately accessible. I am continually amazed at how he, his life, and his work always capture my attention. Though I’d perform(ed) in David Bowie tribute shows and put Bowie songs in my shows, I was actually quite shy about doing my own Bowie show. I guess it’s in the title of the show in terms of “intimate relationship.” He and his work have been “at the center of it all” for me for so many years, seeing me through every life event, joy, pain, sorrow and always sparking my intellectual and artistic curiosity. I never tire of him. I’m not sure if I can answer the “why” of my love for Bowie, but delving into continues to grow and, well, fascinate me.
2. What is it about David Bowie/his music that you identify most with to create a whole show centered around him? How much time do you have? As I say in the show, “His [Bowie’s] voice is the voice I’ve heard the most in my lifetime. Daily for decades.” It may indeed just be the sound of his voice that captures me. There’s something in his music that connects me to myself, and, like his music, it’s not obvious. Even when his music doesn’t speak to me, I stay with it, study it, learn it, until I find a way in. This can be a lyric, a tone, a reference, the rhythm, a guitar line, a sigh.
Lyrically, I think he’s incredible — and again, not obvious. His music isn’t about hooks; though he’s written many ferocious hooks, his work unfolds. Takes turns that are unexpected. Creates worlds within songs. Oftentimes there are narrative lines working beyond the words: The album as artifact. As he’s said, he often approached singing more from the perspective of an actor or visual artist. He inhabits his songs in a way that cuts me to the quick. Yet, he never dictates how you should think or feel. There’s a constant play of, well, if we were in a theatre, of the fourth wall, building it up, showing and then bridging the gap between artist and listener in an incredibly visceral and personal way.
Of course, there are albums that I gravitate to more than others. But, like I said, finding my way into his work is almost a requirement. Even when things don’t work for me, I can find the attempt inspiring. His delivery and structure within his songs, albums and, how I miss them, his live shows are/were nothing short of masterful. As Simon Critchley said when describing Bowie’s music and voice, “There is a truth to Bowie’s art, a moodful truth, a heard truth, a felt truth, an embodied truth.”
He was that pebble dropped into my stream of consciousness and I continue to “watch the ripples change their size.” His work leads me to other artists, styles, outsiders, queers, loves, contexts. All this and I haven’t even mentioned his different manifestations of self, his insatiable artistic and intellectual curiosity, his acting, painting, art collection, support of other artists, sense of humor, style, love and dedication to his friends and family. He inspires me on every level.
3. What did you learn about David Bowie or his music in creating this show? I’ve learned that my adoration of him continues to grow. I was a bit worried when I started out writing the show that I’d purge myself of him. Odd to say, I guess. That is most definitely not the case. There’s a newfound admiration for him and his work.
I also learned how to communicate to my collaborators things that I never thought of or questioned before in his music. Most of the band are not Bowie people which I think served them well since they came at the material fresh. The majority of songs we do in the show don’t have sheet music so, they really had to find their way through the material. Putting something on its feet is very different than Bowie listening and singing along. I had to start fresh too which was very freeing.
In terms of the text, which changes some for each show, my director, Cynthia Cahill, has forced me to own and justify my writing. There’s a lot that’s hit the cutting room floor. Though I can sometimes balk at that, I actually love wielding a red pen.
At the Experimental Theatre Wing at NYU, where I studied, we often spoke of containers for a character. These could be costume, vocal choices, physical embodiments, psychological states, on and on. Doing this show I continue to discover what an incredible container Bowie’s work is. Since he writes often from a place of observation or non-linear narrative, one can imbue so much into the work without losing its intrinsic meaning and/or structure. The music itself is a narrative line in the show.
Bowie even though he’s left this physical plane continues to be so relevant.
4. You've been performing this show for a few years (since 2015). How do you feel you & the show has grown over these past three years? Bowie was still with us when we began doing the show in 2015. In the past three years, we had Lazarus (which I have very conflicted feelings about), (pronounced Blackstar), his death, the election--2016 on feel like, communally, such traumatic years.
The show itself has seen many incarnations with the script, songs, personnel, venues. What feels so solid about the show is that it is mutable. We’ve done it with projections and video, with just guitar, just piano, full band with backing singers, and now this stripped down version at Pangea, though there are still many gowns, thanks to the brilliant David Quinn. There’s something within the material itself that allows for it to transform, yet stay true to its intention.
5. What should audiences know about this show before coming to see it? You don’t have to be a Bowie fan at all! Ultimately, the show is about my life through the lens of Bowie. It’s about inspiration and love. About how we get through. For me that getting through is via Bowie. I think we create a space where the audience can reflect on their own ways of how they navigate this world and what inspires them. How we’re all ridiculous when we love something or someone.
6. What was the first song you knew right from the start that had to be in this show? My favorite song is “Life On Mars?” Its place in the show has shifted a few times, but I feel it needs to be there. The other two that I knew needed in are “Teenage Wildlife” and “Strangers When We Meet.” Both those songs are near operatic in their scope. It’s as if each encompasses a decade of my life teens and twenties, respectively.
7. What song didn't make it into the show that you really wanted? Ah, so much has been red-penned. So, so many darlings dead. “Sons of the Silent Age” was cut as a full song but is in there underscoring part of the show. The real heartbreaker for me was losing, as it were, “Win.” Who knows — maybe it’ll come back. That song, too, shifted a lot within the show then eventually got left in the wings. God, I love that song.
8. After David Bowie's own death from cancer, you had your own cancer diagnosis a week before you were supposed to perform the show in Provincetown's Afterglow Festival. What went through your head when you received your diagnosis, in regards to David Bowie? My first question to the oncologist assigned to me was, “Can I do my show?” A cancer diagnosis imposes a frightening reality onto your reality. Your own mortality bubbles to the surface. It’s hard to imagine even while going through it. Thinking of how Bowie faced his illness. Continued to work and push himself into risky artistic waters was beyond inspirational. As always, I felt he approached this chapter of his life with grace, openness, and artistry. He went through this. He walked here. His son’s wife had breast cancer and is now on the other side of it. He witnessed that. Lived through that.
Most of the people I did the festival with didn’t know what was happening with me. My director and I talked about putting it in the show, but it was too soon. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the diagnosis, no less talk about it in a show that’s pretty vulnerable to begin with. Going back to that idea of a container, the show held me in ways I never thought it would. Within that structure, within the joy and catharsis of singing those songs that run so deep in me the unbelievable anxiety I was feeling about what awaited me back in NY — hell, in my own body — was both acknowledged within me and eased.
9. How do you feel your show has changed since being diagnosed? I had to go through the trifecta of treatment. Five and a half months of chemo, mastectomy and lymph node dissection, radiation. There were complications with my initial reconstruction, which left me with a busted expander; thus, no bust on the right. Since the show deals with my life in relation to Bowie and his music, there was really no way to not address the C-word. The spring shows at Pangea were just before my reconstructive surgery. I ended up doing the shows one-titted. Again, the structure of the show allowed me to feel safe showing that. There’s also something to be said for not hiding it. Facing it and letting my under-construction body be where it was. Leaning into the discomfort makes it somehow, strangely, less uncomfortable. Well, on stage it does. Life, can be a bit more daunting.
Writing about it was challenging because I didn’t want it to take over everything in the show. Cancer treatment does take over everything in order for the cancer not to take over everything. How to give it its due without “cancer survivor” becoming my defining identity. The way Bowie lived with cancer without it defining him, again, is/was inspirational.
It does, however, change you in every way imaginable. I felt such an alienation from myself. If there’s one thing Bowie knows how to address, it’s alienation. For the cancer part of the show, I went toward one of David Bowie’s favorite processes — using cut-up technique with certain lyrics of his, quotes from The Hunger and The Man Who Fell to Earth, with my own experiences in treatment. I can say that during my treatment his experience with cancer and his music, especially Blackstar and his recordings from Lazarus, helped me beyond belief.
On a performative level, I think there’s more joy for me doing the show again. There’s also a newfound freedom within it.
10. What are you looking forward to performing this show post-cancer? Ah, post-cancer. As I say in the show, “I’m no evidence of disease. But free?” I’m on daily hormone-blocking therapy for the next decade (cancer thinks my estrogen is delicious). That, along with post-chemo and radiation, have caused a bunch of side effects that I’m still wading through. Fatigue, joint issues, especially in my big toes. Yeah, breast cancer treatment has fucked up my feet. It’s so weird. It’s a long and detoured road. Oh, and there’s a good dose of free-floating anxiety with the fear of it coming back. There’s a great quote from Bowie about creating work, "To bring in from the outside the low-level nagging fear that crouches in corners and invest our chosen fields with that starved anxiety." I’ve been thinking about that quote a lot post-treatment. I’m looking forward to getting back to myself, whoever that self is now, physically, mentally, to showing up. That’s what I’m looking forward to: Investing further into the work and sharing it.
More on Raquel:
Recent projects include Me & Mr. Jones: My Intimate Relationship with David Bowie, nominated for a 2015 Broadway World Cabaret Award “Best Alt Cabaret.” Productions: Pangea, NYC; Provincetown's Afterglow Festival; in NYC, The Slipper Room; The PIT Loft; Judson Memorial Church. Alas, The Nymphs BAM Next Wave; Gilding the Lonely, Joe’s Pub; Cou-Cou Bijoux Pour Vous Galapagos Art Space, Dixon Place; Rationality: A Virtual Performance and Memoir LMCC Swing Space; Directorial credits include STRAYS winner of the 2016 New York Innovative Theatre Award for “Outstanding Original Short Script" and published in THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT PLAYS, 2015-2016 by Applause Books in 2017, The Brick Theater, Ars Nova’s ANT Fest and Showgasm; SONS Ars Nova’s Showgasm; Darkling IRT Theater, CATCH SERIES; HIP IRT Theater; On a Lonely Road...Travelin’ with Joni, The Duplex. She is a founding member of NYC’s Eat a Radish Productions and performs with the Obie Award winning The Secret City.