I know most of you do not subscribe to Billboard. I didn’t want you to miss a new Fran Lebowitz interview.
6/3/2021 by Rob LeDonne
Celebrated humorist, author and public speaker Fran Lebowitz is currently in the midst of a career resurgence. Known for writing two beloved books (1978’s Metropolitan Life and 1981’s Social Studies), Lebowitz has famously struggled with what she dubs a “writer’s blockade” since. Refocusing her attention on a career in public speaking, Lebowitz has provided ongoing fodder for director Martin Scorsese, starting with the 2010 documentary Public Speaking and continuing this year when Lebowitz and Scorsese reunited for the popular Netflix docuseries Pretend It’s a City.
A love letter to New York, the six episodes focus on everything from music to reading, introducing Lebowitz’s refreshingly curmudgeon point of view to a whole new audience.
With the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel in sight, Billboard caught up with Lebowitz as restrictions around the nation continue to lift and she prepares to go back on the road. Whether it’s the return of touring, Beyoncé, cell phones at concerts, Pride Month or Taylor Swift, you can bet Lebowitz has an opinion about it.
Q-It looks like normalcy is returning and live events are right around the corner. What are your thoughts when it comes to getting back on the road and in front of audiences? Are you hesitant, or ready to dive in?
A-Well, almost all of my speaking dates so far are in 2022 and that’s because they’re made like six months or a year in advance. When my agent started making them, nobody knew anything. These speaking engagements, I love doing them. It’s my favorite recreational activity. What I’ve always hated about touring is traveling; it’s awful. I always say to my agent: they pay me to get there. I’m not worried about getting the virus if that’s what you’re asking because I believe in these vaccines. I’m double-vaccinated, so I’m not really worried about getting the virus. I know you read that some people get the virus after they’re vaccinated, but I’m just too old to be worrying about these improbable things. About a month ago, I had to go to L.A. to do Bill Maher and that was the first time I flew in over a year. Flying to me is 100 percent about smoking. How long until I can smoke?The hundreds of times I’ve gone to L.A., I don’t care what they say, but it’s eight hours from the time you put your foot into the airport and you put your foot out. It’s doable, but it’s unpleasant. Eight hours with a mask on, I found it incredibly unpleasant.
Q-I’ll ask you the question of the moment: did you get Pfizer or Moderna?
A-I got Pfizer. I got it really early compared to most people, not because I skipped the line, I got it the second they dropped the age… and they didn’t have to drop it much, believe me. But my assistant — who knows how to work the computer, which I don’t — went on the Internet for what seemed to be 24 hours straight. I was on the phone with her and she’d say, “Oh here’s one!” But by the time I said yes, it was gone. And then all of the sudden she was like, “Wait, one opened up tomorr-” and I said “Yes!” And she said, “But it’s all the way uptow-” and I said, “Yes!” I think I had my second shot at the beginning of February and when I got it none of my friends had. They’d ask me, “Which did you take?” I said, “Well, it’s not like a menu (is handed to you).” You don’t say, “Yeah, I don’t know, maybe I’ll have the veal instead.” As they were about to give it to me I said, “Which one is this?” and they said “Pfizer.” I had zero side effects from it other than hopefully making me impervious to this virus. After the second one, I went downtown and had fried chicken at Blue Ribbon.
Q-After my second one I got biscuit sandwiches. I felt like pigging out on a celebratory meal.
A-You know, a lot of people said they were ravenous. I thought, well, maybe there’s marijuana in it.
Q-What’s it been like not being able to tour for the past year and not being in front of audiences. Are you fielding questions from your doorman now?
A-[Laughs] Well, ever since the Netflix series came out I’ve been answering questions, just not in a theater. But there have been plenty of questions. I also did Bill Maher and Jimmy Fallon’s shows and they had a small percentage of people there and I really noticed the lack of an audience. It’s not as good as having a full audience, but it’s better than no audience. Having no audience takes the vitality out of it. I’ve done numerous virtual events and you have zero sense of how it went. You don’t get any of that energy. The audience is a collaborator. That is something I’ve always known, whether I’m a member of an audience or on a stage. People who are in show business play to the audience. I don’t do that — I’m not that nice, I’m not that friendly — but I certainly feel the response of the audience and everyone misses that.
Q-On the other hand, do you think performing for no audience is less pressure?
A-No. I don’t feel pressure from the audience. I’ve never felt that. I have zero stage fright. I reserve all of my fear for writing. So I don’t feel that at all. I just miss the audience. Plus the audience is coming to see me, except when I’m on a panel or something, which is rare because I hate them. But they generally already like you. The only exception was during the 2016 election and I was doing a lot of dates and I experienced, for the first time, routinely being booed by my own audience because they would ask about Bernie Sanders. “Don’t you love Bernie Sanders?” No, I don’t. I finally realized that for some reason unbeknownst to me I have the same audience as Bernie Sanders. So they would get really angry at me and boo and chastise me. Even a few weeks ago, I was walking down the street and some guy came up to me and said, “You’re wrong about Bernie!” Even though I have not mentioned or thought of him in like five years.
Q-Let’s talk about your appearance in front of a full audience before the world changed. Do you remember what it was or what it was like?
A-The day before New York shut down, I did an event at The Strand with Ben Katchor. It was a favor to him as his book was coming out. That was March 12 and people were starting to feel a little worried. In fact, we sat on stools next to each other and I asked one of the kids to move them a little further apart.
Q-Did you have apprehensions going into it?
A-I didn’t, because I didn’t understand it. No one did, really. I thought, maybe don’t let people get on top of you.
Q-What was the last music show you went to?
A-I could be wrong, but the last big show I went to could have been Adele at The Garden. Ordinarily I don’t like going to these giant things, I have to tell you. And it was probably the first time I’ve been to The Garden seeing every single person, except for me, hold their phone up the whole time. I know it exists and it’s the way these kids live, but truthfully it is stupid. Because here she is, Adele, the person you adore, not that many feet from you. Look at her! Listen to her! But truthfully, even before cell phones I would always notice when I would do a talk show like Letterman and audience members would request tickets, come to New York, stand in line, wait, and go through all of this trouble and expense… and then they would just watch the show on the monitor. I’d think to myself, he’s twelve feet from you! Watching the monitor is like watching it on television. So I think there is some magnetic quality to a screen, I don’t think it matters if it’s a television screen or phone, people are more attracted to screens than they are to other humans.
Q-I’m wondering if you have a rider.
A-In my contract it says that I have to have black iced coffee backstage and this is so I’m awake so I can talk to the audience. And it also asks for some food, because typically I’m going to the airport. I could be traveling day after day and not one person asks, “Have you eaten recently?” So the food is to keep me from starving.
Q-What food? The world needs to know. Any specific requests?
A-Yeah, I ask for a turkey sandwich, some fruit, and some nuts. And black iced coffee.
Q-Any particular brand of coffee?
A-No. No. It’s not for dining pleasure. It’s a drug.
Q-Let’s talk about some of the artists you’ve come across over the years. I’ve heard you say David Johansen of the New York Dolls was the best frontman you’ve ever seen live. I’m sure you’ve seen everyone. Why David?
A-It’s true and it’s because he was. Why was he? I don’t know. He was great, and I have seen everyone. Well not everyone, I haven’t seen these young acts at all so I’m not counting them. There have certainly been better musicians than David was. I saw Prince a number of times and there aren’t too many people greater than Prince. But as a frontman, David was just fantastic. I think it’s more of a personality thing, a physical thing, a swagger. Of course, I’ve seen the Stones a million times and I’m not saying that Mick Jagger is not a good frontman. I’m just saying that when he was young, David was better. Of course, these things are matters of taste. This isn’t something you can really measure.
Q-I also heard you drove the Dolls to their very first show.
A-I did, and they didn’t get paid.
Q-So it was a free gig?
A-It wasn’t meant to be. The guy just stiffed them. I drove them there because I was the only person who had a valid driver’s license. Everyone else, it had either expired or they never had one, or they stopped for drunk driving. We had to rent a van and that’s why I drove them, because I was the only one who could. Not that I was the best driver.
Q-I’m a big Sinatra fan as I know you are. And even though you’ve said in the past you walked out of one of his shows (at Forest Hills Stadium in 1977), your fandom remained intact. What was it like to see him in person and why did you like him so much?
A-I loved Sinatra and I don’t think I have to explain why, because who didn’t love Sinatra? I actually left that show because he was so drunk, he couldn’t remember the lyrics. My objection to his show wasn’t that he was drunk — I didn’t care. I’m not his mother. I cared that he couldn’t remember the lyrics! Everyone in the audience knows the lyrics, but he doesn’t know them. It really annoyed me and that’s why l left. But I saw him numerous times and I think my initial love of Frank Sinatra was my mother’s love of Frank Sinatra. Everyone in my mother’s generation was in love with Frank Sinatra, and my father loved him, too. When I was a child, there was a radio show in New York called the Make Believe Ballroom that played all of the songs of my parents’ youth, big band and everything like that. And my parents listened to it all the time in the car, so I came to know all that music. I really can’t remember how many times I saw Frank Sinatra.
Q-When you go to shows, how do you enjoy the performance? Do you sing along to the lyrics, dance, stand?
A-Well, luckily for people around me I don’t sing since I have the worst voice in the entire universe. I would never sing in public; I know how horrible my voice is. But I’m always shocked how the audience knows all the lyrics for everything. At rap concerts they know all the lyrics which are not always easy to distinguish. I’m not that kind of fan, I don’t know the lyrics to every song. But it’s one of the things that makes me understand the love that people have for these performers. It’s only in music that people love — and I mean love, I don’t mean like — the performers. It’s something so specific to music and people are grateful for this. They adore them, and I guess that’s why they know every single lyric. But I would prefer if everyone around me wasn’t singing since I’d like to hear the person with the actual talent sing. The only time I stand up is if I can’t see. If someone in front of me stands up, I’ll stand up. But I’m 5 foot 4, I don’t have a lot of leeway here. And no, I’m not the person who dances in the aisles. I’m not that fun.
Q-I’ll put on music if I’m cooking or I’m in the shower. Do you listen to music in your apartment?
A-I’ve never been a person that sits and listens to music. I might have some on if I’m doing some major chore, but I would say that, and I know this is unusual, but the vast majority of music I’ve heard in my life has been live. That’s one of the great things about living in New York. I’ve seen an enormous number live and that’s my preferred way. When I drove a lot, I always listened to music in the car.
Q-Would you listen to the radio or cassette tapes?
A-I do not have a cassette player in my car. I have a car that I bought new in 1979 and it has a radio. Whatever was current in 1979 I have, but I have nothing past that.
Q-Do you have a go-to radio station when you’re driving around New York?
Q-That’s a great station. Okay, I want to get your take on some modern names.
A-I don’t know much about them!
Q-That’s okay! So, Beyoncé is one of the most respected and beloved performers and personalities in the country. I’m wondering if you share this love with the masses.
A-The first time I saw Beyoncé she was pretty much a little girl. She was with Destiny’s Child at the time and I saw them because there used to be this big benefit every year for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation in New York. It was outside in the West Village with huge tents and the people attending it were rich children, literally. The tickets were hundreds and hundreds of dollars for kids. They’d raise a fortune every year and they’d have Knicks players play basketball with them, the big artists in New York painting with them and I’d always run like a carnival game. At the end of the day they’d have musicians and the last thing one year was this little girl group, Destiny’s Child, by which point most of my friends left. But I heard them and I kept telling people, these kids are really good! You should listen to them! That was the first time I heard Beyoncé.
Q-I also wanted to get your take on Taylor Swift. She’s re-recording her songs after a dispute with her record company. What do you think of that whole kerfuffle?
A-Well, first of all, with a gun to my head I couldn’t tell you one Taylor Swift song. So I know nothing about this. This kind of pop music doesn’t interest me at all. But I read about this dispute and let me put it to you this way: I’m always on the side of the artist. It doesn’t matter who they are. I don’t know all of the details with this fight she had, but as I’ve pointed out to many of my friends who sold their books to the movies, that’s what sell means. I’m not sure her details, but if she sold something, that’s what sell means. So maybe don’t sell. If you wanted to still own something, you’d have to not sell it.
Q-I think a bad contract was also at play here.
A-All contracts are bad! And that is why you hire a very bad person called a lawyer to read it.
Q-Finally, Fran: It’s Pride Month which coalesces into Pride weekend here in New York City. How have you seen Pride month change, from its early days to the big to-do it is today?
A-No one avoids crowds more than I do. It doesn’t actually matter to me whether it’s Pride Month or St. Patrick’s Day or any other gigantic mob of people, you can be sure I will not be there. I never participate in these things. And this long predates COVID. But I do remember the first gay Pride Parade, which started in the Village. It was obviously minute compared to now. I’d watch the parade when it was small enough to watch without being overwhelmed by eight million people. I do remember that it went up Fifth Avenue at a certain point in the early ’70s and we were afraid to even watch it to some extent, by which I mean people didn’t want to be on camera because the news would be there. The difference between being gay in 1971 and being gay now is so gigantic that it would take an encyclopedia to describe the difference. But I was in Australia a couple of years ago and it happened to their gay Pride weekend. I was astonished because I heard a surprise guest was Cher. The whole continent seemed to be excited about this and I was very surprised. At a signing, this kid brought me one of my books to sign and he said, “And Cher’s here!!” I said, “How old are you?” He said, “I’m 22.” I said, “And it’s still Cher?’ And he said, “It will always be Cher.”
Q-Speaking of, have you ever been the grand marshal for a pride parade? Would you do it?
A-No one’s ever asked me. I’m not the homecoming queen type.