Anyone who’s spent any time in the queer downtown New York City performance world knows Amber Martin. She’s a Texas-bred, wild-haired force of nature with a big, Janis Joplin–like voice and a love of the good old-fashioned, dirty, American rock ‘n’ roll of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Many know her from her DJ’ing and impromptu belting at Mattachine, the monthly queer arty-party at Julius’, the historic West Village gay bar, started back in the 2000s by one of her besties, the actor-director John Cameron Mitchell.
In recent years, Martin has taken on a treasure of gay entertainment history, recreating—with a few song tweaks—Bette Midler’s career-launching 1971 performances at New York City’s (now long-defunct) Continental Baths, where she’d crack dirty jokes (while a young Barry Manilow accompanied her on piano) and do her own zany, bawdy versions of 1940s Andrew Sisters songs, as well as the new songs of her time, like Joni Mitchell’s “For Free” and the Carpenters’ “Long Ago and Far Away.” (Grainy footage of one such performance is on YouTube.) All of this took place in front of crowds of mustachioed gay men, wearing nothing more than towels, who roamed freely between the live show and dalliances in dark corners and private cubicles.
Martin first did her “Bathhouse Bette” show at the East Village’s Club Cumming, then took it to Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, then—during this past COVID summer—did it inside a huge indoor-outdoor house in the Fire Island Pines called Reflections. That version was recorded with multiple cameras, and on Oct. 22, it’ll be shown on the livestream platform Stellar, as part of a “virtual cabaret series” from Club Cumming Presents (the actor Alan Cumming with Daniel Nardicio and Samuel Benedict) that’ll include RuPaul’s Drag Race’s Sharon Needles, comedian Judy Gold, and cabaret superstar Ute Lemper. More info and tickets for all shows, including Martin’s, are available from Club Cumming Presents.
While hunkered down for the moment in Portland, Oregon, with John Cameron Mitchell, Martin talked to TheBody about her evolution as a performer, getting through COVID with her mom in Texas, and why she loves bathhouse-era Bette Midler.
Tim Murphy: Amber, hi! Thank you for chatting. Tell us how you have been getting through our crazy COVID times.
Amber Martin: Hi! Well, in the beginning of COVID, I was with my mom in Texas for two and a half months, quarantining together. It was touch and go. We got on each other’s nerves. But looking back, I see it was a blessing. One day, one of us isn’t gonna be here, and that time together would’ve been something that never happened if I’d have been touring consistently through that period, which I was supposed to have been doing. Spending a lot of time with dear loved ones for the first time in maybe 18 years has actually been lifesaving for me.
And now I’m in Portland living with John while he shoots the TV show Shrill. I’m a backup singer on his touring show, and we just got good news from the producer of the tour saying that everyone wants to rebook next spring. That’s the best news I’ve had in a long time. I quit looking at my datebook, because every time I opened it, there was another show I had to cross out [because of COVID], and I’d just start crying. It sounds petty of me, because I know so many people have died and lost their loved ones, but I’m turning 50 this year, and before COVID happened, this was literally the year, after years of performing, that I finally had no side jobs. John and I were selling out 3,000-seat theaters all over the world, and even my own solo shows were selling out. I did all that work myself—no agent, no manager. And then, boom! Welcome to 2020.
TM: Yep. It’s been a year of curve balls and disappointments, and all the work lost by my performer friends is a big part of it, even if it doesn’t compare to illness and death, of course. So, on a happier note, let’s talk about those 30 years of yours, first. Tell us the Amber Martin Story!
AM: I’m proud to say that I was born in November 1970 in Janis Joplin’s hometown, Port Arthur, Texas, a little less than a month after she died. Janis used to always say that there was no shortage of bowling allies, churches, and refineries. It’s still that way. There’s lots of Cajun food and people. It’s got some gris-gris to it! I was an only child, and my parents were fun, the closest thing to hippies in that area. They tried to help me find my freedom as a child. I had several imaginary friends, and my mom would set one place at the table for them and say, “OK, they can all sit there.”
TM: When did you start to sing?
AM: My mom and her brother sang together their whole life. One of my earliest memories is her teaching me how to sing harmony. Then my cousin and I became singing buddies, singing gospel songs in church. But in high school, I got into dance, and singing fell by the wayside. There wasn’t a huge art or culture scene going on, so I would sing and dance in pageants.
TM: Great, and then what?
AM: I went to Loyola Marymount University in LA and got my dance degree there. Then I was a flight attendant for a short period of time. Then I lived in Portland, Oregon, for 11 years and started a performance group with friends, two guys and three girls, called the House of Cunt. It’s because the last four digits of our phone number spelled Cunt. So we literally were the House of Cunt. We would create these variety shows that had a political nature to them—we didn’t shy away from trying to tear down the patriarchy and corporate capitalist bullshit. But we were also a little bit Carol Burnett–inspired. We were billed in the papers as “a performance group whose name our paper cannot say.” I think that drew people’s attention!
But I’d wanted to live in New York since I saw Fame, and at some point I knew that I needed to go, or I’d never do it. So in 2006, I hightailed it to New York all by my lonesome. I had a few friends here through the Radical Faeries, like Dandylion, a DJ, and [fellow performer] Lady Rizo, who let me stay at their places. They brought me to parties where I met others through the Faerie network like Jake Shears [from the Scissor Sisters] and John [Cameron Mitchell]. A friend had a weekly thing at [gay] Nowhere bar, a 1 a.m. live show, so that was my first paid gig, for $100. Then I met other performers like Bridget Everett and Sweetie, and I just started being a downtown performer. And I still proudly wear that title, because being a downtown gal seems cutting-edge and cooler than being fancy.
TM: Terrific. So, tell us about how recreating the iconic “Bathhouse Bette” came about.
AM: A few years ago, I said to Darren Dryden [who was owner of the gay bar Eastern Bloc, now Club Cumming], “Let’s do a really nasty, raunchy bathhouse party where everyone checks their clothes, we fog the room, we only play disco, and then I jump onstage and act like Bette.” So, when Daniel [Nardicio] and Alan [Cumming] bought the space, I told them about the idea, and Daniel said, “Let’s call it Bette, Bathhouse, and Beyond.” We did it several times at Club Cumming, in the [Fire Island] Pines, and also New Orleans, then this past Jan. 2, we did a sold-out one-night-only version at Joe’s Pub.
TM: What was the original party version like?
AM: The first set was amazing, because nobody knew what was going on. There were silver-haired daddies there who’d gone to the actual Continental, and there were twinks. I noticed diversity in color, size, and age. When you get there and all you have on is a towel, everyone becomes equal in a strange way. When the lights dim and the room fogs up, you feel anonymous.
So this summer, we did the party in the Pines again. We decided there had never been a better time to shoot it properly on video, because [due to state COVID restrictions] we could have only 50 people max inside. We did it at a hotel-house called Reflections. The space is so huge. The audience was in masks and towels—really weird. We had six to eight HD cameras on me. I wanted to cry—I hadn’t been able to perform properly since February. It was all done very respectfully, with honor to the people we’ve lost to this fucking [COVID] virus. But we were still trying to have fun.
TM: What was it about Bette’s bathhouse performances that spoke to you in the first place?
AM: I’ve always had a strange fascination with the gay bathhouse culture of that era. Bette was only the second live performer that [Continental owner] Steve Ostrow booked there—he’d just built the stage. It was 1971, post-Stonewall but a decade before AIDS. What a party that must have been! No worries on earth. I thought, “Wow, to be a gay man in that time period and to be able to get your rocks off, then go in your towel and watch a show that’s just for you.” It gives me chills to think about that. Bette was so lucky to be in that time and place.
TM: But what was it about Bette herself in that footage?
AM: She’s young, hungry, fearless, and she knows she’s got a beautiful canvas. She can do anything without worrying about press. She can be as raunchy as she wants, and she’s getting to be the star in this tiny little room with her favorite audience.
TM: All the songs you are doing are hers, but a few are not from the bathhouse performances, right?
AM: I think all the songs we chose are from her bathhouse set, except “Do You Want to Dance?” and “Daytime Hustler,” songs from her first albums. I was looking for things that Drew [Brody, Martin’s pianist] and I feel have some soul. I can do anything Bette does, because our range is roughly the same.
TM: Are there any other divas’ shows you’d like to recreate?
AM: I do a Laura Nyro show, and, of course, I do a Janis [Joplin] show. And I’ve performed at “Night of a Thousand Stevies” [an annual New York City homage party to Stevie Nicks].
TM: What’s your music happy place?
AM: Definitely rock ‘n’ roll, no question: ’70s, anywhere from soft rock to psychedelic. Like 10cc, Alice Cooper. And if I’m cleaning house, yacht rock—Gerry Rafferty, Seals and Crofts, Todd Rundgren.
TM: What newer artists do you like?
AM: I’m a huge fan of Neko Case, even though she’s not that new. Who’s the young one who sings in a whisper? Billie Eilish? I like her. And Lizzo—nobody’s wielded a flute since Ann Wilson from Heart.