As a teen, I lived in a household largely comprised of terribly witty, tremendously fey British goths. One late night, while languishing over a glass of absinthe, one of them surveyed my preference for ferocity in both music and mien. "Some people choose rage to mask their sorrow," he said. "Anger is dynamic, authoritative, and potent; sadness is sleepy at best and empty at least. You made the right choice." That particular housemate didn't make it in the end, and it would be another full decade before I discovered the part-truth in his words. The gentle thaw began, as he thought it would, with music, embodied by the voices of Billie Holiday, Lotte Lenya, Bryan Ferry, Little Jimmy Scott, Nina Simone, Edith Piaf, Nick Cave, Marianne Faithfull, Scott Walker, Leonard Cohen, and Chet Baker. It may take all those artists and more to make an ear ready for Antony & the Johnsons. Antony Johnson, a pale boy born in England, raised in Silicon Valley, and edified in New York City, has a natural tenor that could break a less tempered heart within the space of two small syllables. His is a voice for which torches are lit (and dutifully extinguished with tears); it is a secular instrument that touches on the sublime, reaching through the firmament while plumbing the depths of anyone within earshot.
Drawing on his experimental theater training from New York University, transformation artistry culled from years on the Manhattan drag queen circuit, and an internal compass for the perversely primogenital, Johnson frequently appears onstage looking like an albino saint who has fallen back to Earth. Wispy gowns and angelic white face-paint accentuate an effete form and unsophisticated awkwardness that belie the power of his voice. "I am very happy/ So please hit me/ I am so very, very happy/ So please hurt me/ I'll grow back like a starfish," he sings softly on "Cripple and the Starfish," clinging to his lyrics as a child might embrace his tormentor. "God visits all lost souls/ To survey the damage/ And holding his bleeding heart/ A tear comes to his eye," Johnson howls on "The Atrocities," amid the delicate, dark twinkle of his small backing orchestra of violins, cello, bass, piano, and drums. Despite the naked tragedy of his lyrics, it is Johnson's voice, not his vocabulary, that makes one's chest heave. During live shows, he alleviates such deliberate vulnerability with the help of longtime creative partner Johanna Constantine, a performance artist with a deep appreciation for the defensive principles of sex and violence, and Dr. Julia Yasuda, a hermaphrodite mathematician from Manchuria who appears as the perfect "synthesis of dualities." Still, in spite of dissociative theatrical contrivances, world-weary hipsters should beware: Diamanda Galás, Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, and the MC5's Wayne Kramer all agree that Johnson will break your heart. Antony & the Johnsons perform on Friday, Nov. 1, at Cafe Du Nord with Faun Fables opening at 9 p.m. Tickets are $14; call 861-5016.
Collaborating with a host of international vocalists, the London-based electronic duo known as Swayzak has trumped the adventurous exploration of techno dub poetry and ethereal trance music on 2000's Himawari with the brilliant new collection of highly techy futurist pop Dirty Dancing. From the drone and shimmer of "Make Up Your Mind" to the despondent synth fatalism of "Buffalo Seven," every song on Dirty Dancing should and could be released as a single, and any two songs would be worth the price of admission. Swayzak performs on Saturday, Nov. 2, at the Justice League with Chessie, Nein Volt, Singer, Broker/ Dealer, and DJ (and SF Weekly writer) Philip Sherburne at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10-12; call 440-0409.