By Jim Schutze
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Clad in a pale green sweater and faded jeans, her red hair cut short and her face barren of any makeup, Ann Magnuson cuts a drab path through the lobby of the Sheraton Park Central. It's a stark contrast to the look she wears best--the more-glamorous-than-thou wardrobe, the style of the starlet on the rise--when she's on a small TV screen or on a performance stage, and no one turns their head to gaze at her. Magnuson's no celebrity in these confines, just an overnight guest with a room key and a per diem, and it almost makes her more attractive in a very ordinary way.
Magnuson has appeared in various films (Making Mr. Right marks her best-known appearance) and television shows (she portrayed Richard Lewis' manic editor on ABC's Anything but Love). But she is perhaps best known to a cult audience as the lead singer of Bongwater, the New York avant-psychedelic-rock band she fronted from 1987 till 1992. And as befits most cult artists, Magnuson is anonymous when offstage and out of the spotlight.
"I think I have a little bit of fame, and that's about as much as I like," she says. "I would like the opportunities that come with a great deal of fame...but sometimes I even wonder if I like acting. I like performing."
"Oh, look--Journey," Magnuson says, pointing out Infinity on the CD jukebox near our table. She has chosen the hotel's drab sports bar for this interview. "Oh, Steve Perry and I have the same vocal instructor," she says. "He's really a nice guy." She sort of shouts over the sound of three big-screen televisions, all of which blare various sporting events.
She is in town to judge the USA Film Festival's short-film competition. It has been a test of endurance, she shrugs, having been cooped up in the hotel all week save for the occasional excursion to some festival party. She would rather be home in Los Angeles or out on the road performing The Luv Show, a stage production based on her faux-soundtrack album about a young woman from the sticks who moves to Hollywood and, quite literally, sells her soul to the devil in exchange for a bitter taste of stardom.
Magnuson has put on The Luv Show in L.A. and San Francisco to large audiences and acclaim, yet she does not have the money or the label support to continue touring. And so The Luv Show remains an unfortunately ignored record by the public and by Geffen Records, which gave Magnuson just enough money to shoot a 14-minute promotional video that hints at a grander, better production to come (and go).
The Luv Show is the perfect vehicle for Magnuson, herself a former small-town girl (Charleston, West Virginia) who was, throughout much of the '80s, part of the East Village art scene and, finally, a woman on the verge of success in L.A. She's caught between anonymity and stardom, between having to sell out (she's currently trying to get another television part just to pay the bills) and being above the very star-making mechanism she abhors; Magnuson represents a glamorous Hollywood that no longer exists, yet she also exists on the fringes of a modern-day Hollywood that demands its stars be round pegs easily slipped into round holes.
"I don't like the idea of celebrity at all," she shrugs. "But doesn't everybody like the idea of being celebrated for your accomplishments? Celebrity has turned into a much more vapid thing. The original definition meant you were celebrated for something you've done worth being applauded. But I've always been attracted to and repelled by celebrity. We're brought up to believe being on the cover of People magazine is the pinnacle of success, and sometimes you'll get on the cover, and the next week you're in a shallow grave in the Angeles Forest."
The Luv Show, like her best work with Bongwater, works as both pissed-off in-joke and camp self-indulgence; in another era, Magnuson likely would have been best friends with Marilyn Monroe, yet another singing actress wasted by a system that confuses sex for depth.
With Bongwater, Magnuson sang about "The Power of Pussy" like a woman who didn't just want sex, but who was sex. During one performance at CBGB's in Manhattan several years ago, Magnuson stood on the stage in a see-through blouse and sang of her sweaty rock-star fuck fantasies about Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.
She sang folk songs like a punk, punk songs like a lounge singer, and whether she was a put-on or the real thing, Magnuson managed to make Sandra Bernhard look like a stand-up comic telling jokes in front of a brick wall. Yet Bernhard is a larger star (thanks in large part to David Letterman and Roseanne), while Magnuson still orbits on the art-house fringes--too clever for Hollywood, or not clever enough.
"I am a complete wuss," she shrugs. "I think it's shocking I've gotten as far as I have, because I can't handle it most of the time because I retreat. I want to be in control of my life, my destiny. My music is all just exorcism, and sometimes I'll look back and think, 'Oh, God, isn't this too revealing?' This is all blowing off steam.