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Transforming Spaces

Lorna Irvine speaks with 'the legendary Jonny Woo' about the upcoming performance of Transformer at this year's Fringe.

For admirers of subversive cabaret, the legendary Jonny Woo needs no introduction. He is divine, eloquent and decadent. A performer, actor, poet and singer, London-based Woo (real name Jonathan Wooster) spearheaded the new alternative drag scene at the millennium, has hosted many circus/burlesque variety nights, recently opened his own venue The Glory in East London and has delighted and provoked in equal measure with shows such as Faggot, Night Of 1000 Jay Astons, Drag Of Choice, his own outrageous creation Spam Ayres, as well as his unique spin on imperious fashion queen Mary Portas, among others. Now, though, he is emulating the ultimate New York icon, the late great Lou Reed in his show Transformer, with full rock 'n' roll band to the Edinburgh Festival. I found out about the challenges involved in bringing a piece of seedy glamorous 70s NYC to Scotland.

Tell us a little bit about Transformer, please? I understand you've got Andy Warhol, Candy Darling etc making guest appearances?

Transformer is our live cover of Lou Reed's most famous solo album of the same name, with a full rock band, interspersed with anecdotes from the scene at New York's legendary restaurant and club 'Max's Kansas City', which was the centre of New York underground culture. Warhol and his superstars held court, and even movie stars fought to get a table in the legendary back room. Our show is a full-on rock gig, which really shows off how amazing the music on the album is. I channel Lou Reed throughout and, yes, one of the cast does a brilliant Candy Darling, probably a racier version. Max's was where Warhol met his would-be assassin Valerie Solanas, so we have a re-enactment of the shooting as one of the songs on the album (Andy's Chest)was a poem from Lou to Andy following the attack.

Are you a fan across the board of Lou Reed/Velvet Underground, or mainly his Bowie period?

I came across Transformer when I was 19 at college, and I always found it really theatrical and loved the references to the drag queens and the world it evoked, not knowing then that a lot of it was really all inspired by this crazy time and place in NYC. Whilst in Edinburgh, we'll be playing other gigs and slipping in some other Velvets tracks too, like Rock & Roll (from classic VU album Loaded). The band's album with Nico is their most famous but Lou penned lots of great tracks for them. Satellite Of Love was a Velvets track, and in the show we do the original version which then morphs into the Bowie-esque arrangement. It's funny you say 'Bowie period' as it is only this album on which he collaborated and they never worked together again, except for some much later live gigs.

Lou had a reputation for being difficult...but was so dry and witty. Do you think people often miss the humour in his lyrics?

I think a lot of his music is overlooked, and people only know his biggest hits Walk On The Wild Side and Perfect Day, which are both on Transformer. He was a poet and his lyrics are loaded with irony but ultimately quite simple. It's partly what makes his music so joyous in that you can tune into the words quickly and get an instant snapshot of the world he lived in. ''Vicious, you hit me with a flower'', it's so simple and says so much and really describes a certain kind of person. Warhol was a big influence on his early music too, and he was really funny.

What has been the biggest challenge for you in bringing a show about the New York scene to the Edinburgh Festival? Obviously, you've been involved first-hand in working in NYC.

My biggest challenge is going to be maintaining his New York accent. I am listening to lots of clips online. The main thing I want to be clear is that the album is really 'playful' and as a band we are really playing at being characters from the era, so elements of our own characters may shine through. Lou was very dry and quite deadpan, but to front a show I need to inject a bit more life to help get the crowd going. I say much more than Lou may have done. It's tricky co-ordinating a band but it's so much more fun than doing a show on my own and they are so talented!

Yes, I lived in New York and met a lot of people who were part of the scene from the late 60s, early 70s, and I have been described as 'underground' myself, so the music really resonates. Penny Arcade is up doing a show too, so you can double up on the NYC experience. We've worked together and I can't wait to see what she thinks of my interpretation as well as catching her show.

Have you tweaked some of the songs in your own inimitable style?

We thought about doing our own versions but we are pretty faithful to a rock style. We want people to get a taste of this amazing music and hearing the songs played by a full band is incredible. Walk On The Wild Side is sung by myself, Fi our rock goddess and Cairo (Ms. Darling) and the blend of our voices is really refreshing and Marc, our lead guitar, takes I'm So Free and gives it a full rock make-over. We are probably more in tune with how Lou may have performed the songs at the time on his Rock 'N' Roll Animal tour than trying to give our own contemporary twist. The show had elements of cabaret, but it's very much a gig and we approached the songs with this in mind.

Who most embodies that subversive spirit these days, do you think?

The subversive spirit is not far away. In music, things are really commercial and I think the stars of today are mostly a pretty boring bunch. I've never really looked to celebrity for inspiration either. I find my friends and contemporaries far more interesting. This free-spirited creative force is all around you and within your own possession. That's one of the messages I want people to get from the show is this incredible energy is right there and we can all take A Walk On the Wild Side. Our show is a love letter to the legends of yesteryear and a promise to keep the spirit alive.

What do you think of current drag acts like Sharon Needles? (John Waters name-checked her recently when he gave a talk in Glasgow).

Sharon Needles isn't really on my radar. I watch Drag Race occasionally, but I like London's alternative drag queens who are much more anarchic. I am much more excited about getting to know Edinburgh's drag community than following the star of a reality show.

Finally, on an unrelated was making the BBC4 programme on Bohemians? (Woo popped up on How To Be Bohemian talking about the Bohemian spirit as a form of inspiration, as a guest interviewee, along with Will Self, Grayson Perry and others.)

It was a hoot. Victoria [Coren-Mitchell—the programme's presenter] is really a darling and super-fun, and I was chuffed to bits that she gave me and my new venue in London such a Glorious (sic) shout-out.

Transformer is at The Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh from Aug 7th-16th. Book early!

Tickets: and http//

For more on The Glory, head to

Twitter: @JonnyWooUK

Johnny Woo 'Trans(former)' | Latitude Festival 2014 can be seen here.

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