Proust Questionnaire 5.0: Richard Burnett, but you can call him BugsMay 11, 2011
I first met Richard Burnett on the pages of the Montreal weekly Hour, where he wrote the self-syndicated column Three Dollar Bill. But “met” is such a tame word. Bugs, as he is known (“My life is a veritable cartoon!”), is not just “met”. As Richard Burnett the columnist and activist, he provokes, engages and enrages, amuses, shocks, delights and seduces. Impressive and also a little intimidating. When I met the man face to face, to fete outgoing Gazette film critic John Griffin last winter, I was nervous as a triple-espresso chihuahua. But (of course) this was not Richard Burnett the columnist. This was Richard Burnett the “sweetheart”, as I’ve often heard him described, who unsettled only with how hard he watches and listens. He has moved his TDB column to his own website, and long may it prosper in the wake of the crumbling of Hour. For this month’s edition of the Proust Questionnaire 5.0, here’s Richard Burnett.
Since we are conducting this interview via email, the world is ours for the inventing. If, as I some day hope, money is no object, in what city and establishment would you like this interview to be taking place? Any dive will do, in one of my favourite cities – New York, London, Sydney, Istanbul, New Orleans, Montreal or Grand Baie (in Mauritius). There are a couple of blues nightclubs that I love too, Buddy Guy’s in Chicago, or the Blue Café on Beale Street, home to the hardest-working man in Memphis, Preston Shannon and his big band. I remember one night there the joint was packed with US. Air Force pilots and the bar was serving us two-ounce tequila shots. Wow!
Who and what would you be wearing? Leather pants between October and April, or Levis and a T-shirt, usually with a single-breasted suit jacket. People now think I’m dressing better for my age (I’m 45). I’ve phased out the halter-tops and hot-pink hot pants!!! Seriously, I still love accessories — you know, like 24-year-old twinkies!
And, most importantly, what would we be drinking? Double-vodka on the rocks. With an ice-cold beer chaser. Or an ice-cold glass of white wine, a Pinot Grigio.
Okay then. What are the qualities you most admire in others? Honesty, integrity, generosity and a sense of humour.
What do you like most about yourself? I’m honest, I’m funny, I’m generous. I’ve got a big heart and I’ve also got a really big mouth.
Least? Unless I have a deadline I tend to procrastinate. I call it creative procrastination. Like Scarlett O’Hara used to say, “I’ll think about it tomorrow – after all, tomorrow is another day!”
What is your greatest achievement? Personally, I’d have to say helping raise my adopted brother Skye. He’s 17 now and for a decade – when he was a kid – he spent almost every weekend at my place. Every Saturday we’d either go swimming at the indoor Schubert pool on The Main or tobogganing on Mount Royal. I call Skye Fathead, he calls me Fat Ass. We call each other bitch. I’m Yogi to his Boo Boo. When I nag him to pick up his clothes or clean his room, he whines, “Yes, mother.” And when I embarrass him – like all parents embarrass teens that age – he mockingly imitates Sylvester the cat’s son Sylvester Jr., lisping, “Oh, father.” He’s a good kid. He’s honest and sensitive and I’m awful proud of him.
I’m also very proud I was part of the crucible years of gay activism in Montreal – from 1989 to 1994 – an era when the police raid on Sex Garage in July 1990 became Montreal’s Stonewall. Sex Garage led directly to the founding of Montreal’s famed Black & Blue circuit party and Montreal’s Divers/Cité Festival. I was one of Divers/Cité’s original organizers, sat on their board until July 1996, and it’s great to see how the little festival that couldn’t has become one of Montreal’s most world-renowned award-winning festivals. Clearly a lot of other events of great import to the gay community happened in Montreal before Black & Blue and Divers/Cité came along, but none did more for this city’s sterling gay reputation than those two. I know because, back in 1995, one of my best friends, Divers/Cité co-founder Puelo Deir and I wore our best suits and met with Tourisme Montréal looking for any kind of support to help the fledgling Divers/Cité. These were the days when, believe it or not, even gay community “leaders” were taking bets on how few people Divers/Cité would draw. In 1994 I remember Divers/Cité was so broke I even put $1,000 worth of soft drinks and hotdog buns on my credit card because we had to feed 15,000 people after the parade at Parc Lafontaine. Sponsors slowly came on board and years later Tourisme Montréal finally came to their senses and not only jumped on the gay bandwagon, but eventually developed a gay-marketing blueprint since copied by every city from London to Philadelphia to Tel Aviv. Today Montreal is one of the world’s choice gay-tourism destinations.
Professionally, I have to say my greatest achievement was self-syndicating my column Three Dollar Bill for 15 years, beginning in July 1996 when it debuted in Montreal’s alt-weekly HOUR magazine. Three Dollar Bill was Canada’s first – and still only – syndicated gay column. Back in the mid-1990s no syndicate would touch me or Three Dollar Bill with a ten-foot pole, so I approached every single alternative weekly newspaper in Canada by myself, one-by-one. And at TDB’s height the column ran in half of this country’s alt-weeklies. Along the way I’ve been banned in Winnipeg, investigated by the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary over charges TDB was “pornographic”, I’ve gotten death threats, outed politicians like former Parti Quebecois leader Andre Boisclair, been vilified in the pages of Jamaica’s national newspaper The Gleaner for criticizing anti-gay dancehall star Sizzla (who would go on to write the 2005 hit song “Nah Apologize” about me and UK gay activist Peter Tatchell), got the last-ever sit-down interview with James Brown, pissed off BB King, crossed swords with Mordecai Richler and been screamed at backstage by Cyndi Lauper. When famed porn director Flash Conway dubbed me “Canada’s bad boy syndicated gay columnist,” I wore it like a badge.
What is your present state of mind? Personally I’m very happy, but I’m also deeply concerned about the future of journalism. Newsroom staffs are being cut beyond the bone, freelancers are not even earning living wages and I’m afraid we’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If we do not have a stable and healthy fourth estate, who will keep the multi-national corporations and governments honest? What happens then to our democracies?
Where and when are/were you happiest? When I’m writing, when I’m travelling the world, when I’m drinking and dining with friends and family. I also love living downtown. I love being in a big city. It makes me feel alive.
What is your first memory? My father waking me up in 1969 when I was four years old, to watch the first manned moon-landing, on my family’s old black-and-white TV.
What, currently, do you most love doing? I love to write. And I love interviewing people, finding out what makes them tick. Had I not become a journalist, I would have become an archaeologist.
What was your worst job? I was backpacking across Australia when I was 23 years old and ended up washing clean the oily, sooty engine room of an oil tanker in Shute Harbour in Queensland. Horrible job but I was flat broke. I also remember running out of cash in Sydney and debating whether to become a hustler in Sydney’s red-light district in King’s Cross. When it came time to giving an 80-year-old man a blowjob for $20 – I remember the bar was actually called Bottom’s Up – I just couldn’t do it. Obviously I wasn’t desperate enough.
Your favourite colour? Green. My eyes are hazel, but I love it when they turn green.
What is your idea of perfect happiness? Good food, good drink, good conversation and a really big bed, preferably with high-thread-count Egyptian cotton bed sheets.
Of misery? Growing old poor. I’ve backpacked around the world, across the African continent. My father is British and my mother’s family came to Canada from a third-world country, the tiny island-nation of Mauritius in Southern Africa, when it was still a British colony (my grandfather – my mom’s father – was a Robin Hood politician beloved by the people). I have seen poverty. It is ugly.
If not yourself, who or what would you be? Had I not become a journalist, I would have become an archaeologist.
Where would you like to live? Montreal. But if not here, then I could easily live in New York, London, Sydney or New Orleans. Let me tell you about the last time I visited friends in NOLA – it was 2008 and I blew into New Orleans (they called me Hurricane Bugs!) with my buddy Bicente two days before Halloween and we scared the bejezus out of the Big Sleazy on our absinthe-soaked first night there when I accidentally tripped and fell on Bourbon Street, then slid face first into a gutter. I got scrapes on my knees and elbows for all the wrong reasons, but I always tell folks the stars look brightest from the gutter.
What is your favourite journey? All of them. Like they say, “The journey is the destination.”
What is your favourite or most memorable meal and when is the last time you indulged? Steak. I must eat one good steak per week. And if I’m in a real nice restaurant, steak and lobster tails. I love Portugese restaurants, especially Chez Doval and Brazeiro, which I think is the best Mom-and-Pop-run restaurant in Montreal. Brazeiro’s garlic shrimp entrée is to die for. But I also love my smoked meat and the best of the best is still Schwartz’s. I’ve had meals there with many famous people over the years, including Joan Rivers, author (and the Godfather of Gay Lit) Felice Picano and poet John Giorno, first superstar of the Warhol Factory.
Name the film/song/book/art that influenced you most and why? I’ve always preferred women rock stars – Tina Turner, Heart, Janis Joplin, Stevie Nicks, Joan Jett, Chaka Khan, Cher, Bette Midler, Patti Labelle – to male rock stars because their narratives speak to me whereas those of straight male rock stars do not (with the exception of Rod Stewart). I love my women movie stars too – Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Midler. They did it on their own terms, on-and-off the screen. And there’s a couple of guys I love too: Clint Eastwood, Peter O’Toole and Burt Reynolds. They fit the bill too.
Name the person who influenced you most and how. I have many heroes, many whom I’ve met – like BB King, Paul Newman and my mentor Felice Picano – and many whom I haven’t, like Marlene Dietrich, Rudolf Nureyev, Bob Marley and Tina Turner (though my friends include Dietrich’s personal assistant of 12 years as well as Tina Turner’s piano player, and my old friend, Grammy reggae chair Roger Steffens, whom Bob Marley himself dubbed “Ras Rojah” back in 1979). For me it’s all about personal integrity. One time Mr. King told me about that other Memphis king, “I liked Elvis because he called me ‘Sir.’”
My first mentor was Gazette columnist and Montreal boulevardier Nick Auf der Maur, who passed away from cancer 13 years ago, on April 7, 1998, just three days short of his 56th birthday. Many Sundays I joined Nick to read the Sunday New York Times at Else’s bar, punctuating our grunts with tequila shots. I was young and green. When I freaked out over work, Nick always calmed me down. Like the time in 1997 when I interviewed Danny McIlwaine – the Montreal hustler convicted of murdering the Rev. Warren Eling – at Bordeaux prison. My lede read, “Danny McIlwaine was sucking on a crack pipe and drinking rum punch the night Anglican priest Warren Eling asked him for a blowjob.” My HOUR magazine cover story not only pissed off McIlwaine’s lawyer, but also many of Montreal’s gay activists. “Don’t worry about it,” Nick (who inherited Eling’s cat) told me. “You know you’re doing your job when everybody’s pissed off at you. Besides, it was a great lede!”
But my greatest influences have been my family.
My British grandparents and my Mauritian grandparents were also heroes to me. My British grandfather, William Burnett, was a firefighter in London during The Blitz, when the German Luftwaffe bombed London every night for nine months. One day my grandfather came home from a shift and found my father (who was 10 years old at the time) playing with an unexploded German incendiary bomb in the back yard!
My Mauritian grandfather, Felix Laventure, was a brown man, a Cambridge-educated lawyer who became the mayor of the capital city of Port Louis in Mauritius. He was so popular with the poor that the British appointed him a government minister. Then my grandfather introduced a bill that would expropriate land from the rich plantation owners to create farming co-ops for the poor. The rich landowners freaked out, the Brits wanted to get rid of him, my grandfather subsequently refused an ambassadorship in Washington, DC, and a game of political brinksmanship eventually forced my grandfather into exile. He moved to Canada, but when he died in 1995 a minute of silence was held in the Mauritian parliament in his honour and today a bustling town named Laventure is located where the old family sugar-cane plantation used to be. I admire my Mauritian grandfather – whom we all used call “Mon Pere” – because of his honesty and integrity.
It is the same with my parents, who once told me, and I quote, “What are gay civil rights if they are not part of the growing mosaic that is human rights?” When a Catholic priest tried to “save” me from homosexuality, my mother – one of my best friends – told him, “If there is no room for our son in your church, then there is no room for your church in our home.”
One evening many years ago, when Skye was 10 years old, he turned to me from his computer where he was typing a short story about superheroes for a school homework assignment. He said to me, “You’re my hero.”
It still makes me think of World War II hero Gad Beck – classified as a half-Jew by the Nazis – who witnessed his Jewish boyfriend transported east from Berlin to Auschwitz in 1942. Beck was so horrified he became the leader of Chug Chaluzi – the Pioneer Group – which helped feed, shelter and transport over 100 Jews as part of the Europe-wide Zionist resistance movement Hechalutz, the Pioneers. Three years later, lying wounded in a cot in the basement of the Jewish hospital in Berlin, with the Allies bombing the city above, Beck convinced a Gestapo chief not to kill 1,000 Jews to celebrate Hitler’s birthday on April 20. “The Russians are one kilometre away – I will be the winner, not you,” Gad told the Gestapo chief, adding that Russian mercy could be negotiated if he spared the 1,000 lives. The Gestapo chief spared the 1,000 Jews.
When Beck told me this story himself 43 years later, in 1998, he had been named the Grand Marshal of NYC’s Pride parade the previous summer. “It was the first time and it was the last,” Gad told me. “It was very nice and they made me feel like a hero – ‘You are our hero!’ – but darling, it is not serious! I am not a hero.”
Gad reproached me when I insisted he is. “Look, if I am a hero, I am a little one. Everyone has to fight sometime in their life.”
So when Skye said to me “You’re my hero,” I looked up from my newspaper dumbstruck and, suddenly feeling the weight of responsibility, I replied, “Well, you’re my hero too.”
Any last words? I always tell students that journalism really isn’t the career for them if all they want to do is become famous and make a million dollars. But if they want to meet fascinating people and help change the world one story at a time, being a journalist can be one of the most rewarding jobs in the world.
Admit it. You read those celebrity Q&As and you know you’re easily as worthy of being profiled. I know I do, but my friends are way more interesting. So, with nods to the “confession albums” of the late 1800s made famous by the fabulous Marcel Proust’s answers, to French TV host Bernard Pivot who adapted the questionnaire, to Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton who gave it another spin and to Vanity Fair, which uses its own elegantly spun version to anchor the magazine’s back pages, I submit for your entertainment and enlightenment, my own version of the Proust Questionnaire, re-retooled for a blog age.