a rainy day, or an interminably long sunny day 行 a windy one 行 you might
try huddling up to a record called Safe Inside the Day, released on the Drag City
label and performed by the well-traveled and charismatic harp player,
pianist, vaudevillian songwriter and utterly captivating singer named Baby
This record, produced by Matt
Sweeney and Bonnie "Prince" Billy, who also play on it, is an
extraordinary, powerful thing, a lushly life-affirming, even, and very
alternative cabaret-type work, both hilarious and poignant, and tragic, in
its ornately drawn pictures of memories of the seedy side of life, from
which we learn our greatest lessons and glean our most treasured gifts.
Several people helped out to make its magic: Andrew W.K., Robbie Lee, Max
Moston of Antony and the Johnsons, Bill Breeze of Psychic TV, John
Contreras of Current 93, James Lo of Chavez, and Lia Kessel all play and/or
sing on it. But in the midst of all these stars, there is one who shines
the brightest: Baby Dee.
Baby Dee 行 in a past life, the
circus performer and tree cutter from Cleveland - is a star who now struts
the stage with both great campy humor and superbly tuned playing chops. Her
music will always sound like something from another time and place 行 a
better one 行 and if her reference points are a bit arcane
("Palestrina, Victoria and Morales. The Glogauer Liederbuch. And the Bach organ preludes.
Harry Ruby"), they're also seemingly familiar.
The wonderful chords and
progressions of "A Compass of the Light," and the glorious
spareness of arrangement, make it hugely "compelling," as the
book critics would say. And then there's this black-humored devil's dance
called "The Earlie King," a great song if only for the vividly
picturesque feel of it. This Earlie King somehow looms large in Dee's
legend, and she takes me back to school on it.
"'The Earlie King' is based on the
poem by Goethe. It's usually dismissed as spooky kid stuff, but I think
it's much more scary than that. The real consequences that ensue from
unreal and unidentifiable causes. The imaginary having a disastrous effect
on the real. I find that terrifying."
A song like "Compass," for
Dee, can come out of thin air, but not very often. It's all about the self,
and our recollections of our selves, and how these revelations can sting.
"I had been reading about
bees," she says, "and I had come to the end of the road with the
person I had become. I wanted out of me. I took my bee book and went for a
walk, all crazed and determined to disembark from the good ship me. My plan
was to find a way to interact with my natural enemy, to befriend somebody
who might possibly wish to harm me. I was afraid of young men at that time.
"There had been a few
incidents, some close calls, some violence...And my resentment toward the
male gender had become so much a part of me that I didn't even know I had
it. So I assumed - correctly, it turned out - that if I could disengage
from that resentment, I could kiss my old self goodbye.
"So I see this young guy with a
Cleveland Indians baseball cap and a dog, and I walked up to him, not
having a clue what I'd say or do. I felt like a nut - like a Jehovah's
Witness from hell...'Hello, I wanted to offer you this wonderful book. It's
about bees.' And I went on to tell him about what wonderful creatures they
were and the dances they do and how hard they work and how Socrates wished to
be reincarnated as a bee. And he said, 'I don't read much myself, but my
daughter might like it.'"
And that was it. It wasn't until she
got home again that Dee realized the title of the book was The Queen
That was around the time that she decided to quit recording and become a
"I totally left myself behind
there. It was a good thing. It worked."
Dee's voice may make you cry. It's a voice that's a very special instrument
- one of those gender transcenders that artists such as Antony, or Nina
Simone way before him, have used to such strange, deep-cutting effect.
Dee's enunciation and phrasing are different, so precise and fine-edged 行 a
comforting sound, somehow, in its benign metasexuality.
Dee left Cleveland for New York in
'72 and eventually became a musician, playing in the church and in the
streets. Then she stopped altogether, and became a tree cutter, only to
return to it 30 years later, when she found herself back in Cleveland,
where she began to write songs. There, Dee captured them on tape and sent
them to the aforementioned Antony, who one can easily imagine was someone
Dee viewed as a kindred spirit.
"Ant and I have been good
friends for years," she says. "It's hard to imagine a more
sympathetic character than him. And, yes, I've always loved his voice 行
almost as much as I hated my own. That's why I sent the songs to him. I
thought I could dodge having to sing them myself. But no such luck."
Safe Inside the Day offers wonderfully piquant
little instrumental interludes, such as "Bad Kidneys," a
perfectly formed and superbly orchestrated structure that urges marvel
about the process involved in its creation. Was it torture, or do these
things just flow?
"I'm not disciplined at
all," she says. "'Bad Kidneys' was written for the accordion. I
was in Holland, staying with some friends of the Kamikaze Freak Show, who'd
been traveling with us and helping out. But they had reached the utmost
limit of their hospitality, and rather than come right out and say Scram!,
they opted to move out of their own house and into their photography
studio, leaving me behind with the parakeets and an accordion and a bottle
of whiskey. That's when I wrote 'Bad Kidneys.'"
Amusingly titled pieces like
"Big Titty Bee Girl (From Dino Town)" also beg for some sort of
interesting story about their genesis. Dee obliges. "Me and Erin Orr,
the puppeteer, and her sister were driving north of Vancouver," she
says. "We had just spent two weeks workshopping a puppet show about
bees for children, and we wanted to do an X-rated version. 'We shall call
ourselves the Big Titty Bee Girls.' And just then, we passed a sign for a
cheesy roadside attraction called Dino Town. Later on came the miraculous
rhyme, like a thunderbolt from heaven: 'You just can't keep a good albino
down.' And the song just wrote itself."
It could be related to her lifelong
obsession with the life and art of Shirley Temple, but whatever the case,
Baby Dee and her music bring a tiny tear to the eye. That's because she's genuinely
funny much of the time, though of course you know it's something else. You
know by the time "Fresh Out of Candles" rolls around that in Dee
there is a wonderfully gentle, kind and compassionate nature. She doesn't
seem to have a mean bone in her body. Perhaps that says something about the
long, hard road she has traveled alone, or something like that.
"I've had more than my share of
revelations," she says. "Actually, even one would have been more than
my share. I always think of the old joke about the person selling pencils
for a million dollars apiece: 'I only need to sell one.' I felt as if I'd
made the sale, except that the pencil I sold for a million dollars was
actually a couple inches long and covered with teeth marks, and the lead is
broken and the eraser worn down to black nothing.
"That being the case, I thought I'd reached the end
of the road, and 'Fresh Out of Candles' was the dark epiphany - the voice
from heaven that said, YES, THAT'S CORRECT. THIS IS THE END OF THE
Dee has something important to say, and this is what it is:
"The inside is bigger than the
outside, more important, and less destructible."
Well put, Dee, beautifully stated.
Do you have anything to add to that?
"I've always loved that thing,
'In my father's house there are many mansions,' and I can't count the times
I've heard that misquoted and stupefied into 'many rooms.' God's got a plan
for people who misquote him. They're going to spend eternity going door to
door selling subscriptions to the Universe Bulletin."
Meanwhile, Dee is enjoying immensely
her new life as a recording artist and touring musician. Her live band 行
John Contreras on cello, Paul Oldham on bass, Emmett Kelly on guitar and Alex
Neilson on drums - is giving her a sympathetically beefy sound, and she's
feeling quite happy with the enthusiastic response she's gotten, mostly in
Europe, and particularly in Berlin.
"The gigs have been wonderfully
open-ended and free," she says. "The best shows are the ones that
are made great by a great audience. That sounds very Miss Universe, doesn't
it? But it's true."
What are your dreams and
"I want an airship."
Where do we go from here?
Any advice for the lonely young
people of Middle America out there?
"Find a sweetie and make mad
love. Smoke lots of cigarettes and stop wearing underpants."