Tuesday, January 17, 2012

David Lester Interview


(photo: Jack DeGuiseppi)
DAVID LESTER interview
of MECCA NORMAL, 2012
conducted via e-mail
by Dan Cohoon


Dan Cohoon: How did Mecca Normal come about? Talk about what was going on in music/art at the time that inspired you to start a band.
David Lester: I met Jean Smith while we were both doing graphic design in the production department of a weekly newspaper. So in a way, our collaboration started then, nearly 30 years ago. We were both visual artists (Jean is an excellent painter) and we shared an interest in hearing live music, which at the time included a lot of hardcore punk bands. I was also designing album covers and posters for some of these bands, most notably D.O.A. There was a very active, radical political scene in Vancouver at the time, which was reflected in the lyric content of many of the cities punk bands. Jean and I took inspiration from this convergence of music and politics by deciding to start our own band. But it would be a band without drums or bass. We wanted to challenge the very notion of what makes a band, and demonstrate that a single guitar, a voice and ideas could unleash a powerful fury against social injustice.

(Cover Art)
DC: I love the minimal set up of electric guitar and voice. David, what is your rig set up like? What did you start off playing? I was watching some videos, I love the way you play your guitar as percussion instrument.
DL: For the first several years of Mecca Normal I used only a Boss Distortion pedal. It was either on or off. I played through a Music Man amp to record our first album and have since used a variety of amps, depending on where we are recording. I also love Fender Twin Reverbs. My guitar has always been a Guild electric, series S300-D, which is a model that was built in 1977.

By limiting the palette to guitar and voice, a musician is challenged to be creative in the extreme. Each time I set out to make a new song it feels like it will be the first song I’ll ever write. What can I discover with the guitar, where will it go? I feel the terror and the thrill. This has led me to play the guitar as percussion, or with a knife, a paintbrush, or a flashlight. It is important for me to not become musically complacent. Though, I have expanded my sound with a few pedals, including Boss Digital Delay, Emerald Echo, Boss Acoustic Simulator and Digitech Distortion Factory.


Art Work: David Lester
DC: If you were told you would still be doing this for nearly a quarter century when you started what would you have thought?
DL: We didn’t have a long-term plan. Mecca Normal has become an exciting adventure built on the virtue of action. The action of making songs, recording and releasing records, and touring. Before we knew it, our history had taken shape. We came to realize, that there is no reason to stop doing what you love. But it does require mental and physical stamina to work in an art form that is always demanding “the latest thing.” This is where the idea of longevity kicks in and gives an artist the necessary perspective on viewing their work and life. Life ultimately, is not about the “latest thing”, it is so much more interesting than that.

Jean and I work together and separately in and outside music, but all of it ends up intersecting eventually. With my graphic novel, Jean created an adaptation that included a performance by Mecca Normal. Involving Mecca Normal made perfect sense because Louise, the political artist in the book is a strong female character. Not unlike Jean herself in terms of dynamism. In the last year Mecca Normal released a single on K Records called Malachi, which is an anti-war song about a man who committed a political act that ended in his death, which is not unlike the fictional death of a protestor that occurs in my book.

My poster series “Inspired Agitators” about historical figures who tried to positively effect progressive change became an inspiration itself for Jean and I to create our “How Art & Music Can Change the World” presentation. This led us to perform in classrooms, libraries and bookstores and to discover that this is not such a weird thing for a punk duo to do.

DC: Your music is very Personal and Political. You sometimes get lumped in with the Riot Girls, which I don't think is fair. How do you feel about your connection to that movement?
DL: In our presentation “How Art & Music Can Change the World”, we point to the importance that music played in Riot Grrrl’s development as a social movement. Live bands became an instant metaphor that showed the power of girls and women. Though we were never a riot grrrl band, it seemed amazing that they were inspired by what we were doing, particularly with our songs “I Walk Alone”, “Man Thinks Woman” and “Strong White Male” and things actually did change. That's how we became convinced that art and music can change the world, because it happened to us.

DC: Tell me about your new Graphic Novel the “Listener” How long have you worked on it and how has it evolved?
The Listener has two main story threads. One is the true story of the last democratic election to take place in Germany before Hitler seized power. And the other is a fictional story of a female artist who makes a piece of art that inspires political action that ends in tragedy. The connection between the two stories is art and politics. Aesthetics were an important part of Nazi ideology, while in my fictional story, the artist believes the blending of art with politics is a valuable part of progressive social change.

Art Work: David Lester
I got the idea for The Listener after stumbling on a brief account of the election in a history book about Hitler. After more research, I realized the story of the election had never been fully explored in English. I thought it would make an incredibly exciting project to bring to life as a graphic novel. This led to my first draft.

Art Work: David Lester
I researched, wrote and illustrated the novel over a period of seven years. Of course during that time, Mecca Normal wrote, recorded and toured an album called The Observer and we gave lectures and had art exhibits.

Art Work: David Lester

DC: Is there something about the graphic novel form that lends it self to this story?
DL: The graphic novel form lends itself particularly well to the story in The Listener because my main character, Louise, is an artist and so it becomes significant to depict her story visually. To show Louise seemed more appropriate then describing her. Throughout the book, I saw the scenes I was writing in visual terms. The text was written as a film script might be written. The scenes were built graphically around the text and sometimes the text was built around a visual idea.


DC: What can you do visually that you can't do musically and visa versa?
DL: I approach both music and visual art with a similar aesthetic sense. As a guitarist you don’t have words to use, but you can express emotions through the physical movement of the body as you play and at the same time, sound texture can be found with six strings pressed against a piece of wood, not unlike the sense of texture achieved with the build up of paint on a canvas. I often think visually when I play live and I often think of the sweeping gestures of music when I draw.


DC: What artist musically/visually were you interested in when you started out? Who is doing interesting work today?
DL: Visually I was always a fan of the photomontages of John Heartfield and the drawings of George Grosz and of course the paintings of Picasso and Matisse. For The Listener I was influenced by the film techniques of German expressionism and film noir, and the work of Hitchcock, Tarkovsky, and Welles. I also take great inspiration from the paintings and drawings by Jean. I admire the fluidity in her visual art and I applied that sensibility to my work in The Listener. I am also a fan of the graphic novel work of Joe Sacco.

Musically I find myself discovering work that isn’t current. Particularly classical composers such as George Crumb, Mahler, Shostakovich, and the film scores of Michael Nyman and Bernard Herrmann. Of course I’ve always admired Fugazi, Poison Girls, The Slits, Nina Simone, Scrawl, MC5, Phil Ochs, and most recently Minneapolis band Brute Heart on M'lady's Records.

DC: What does the future hold for Mecca Normal and your solo artistic endeavors?
DL: Music is Mecca Normal’s focal point, and we our excited about new songs we write but we have also gone beyond our music by incorporating other art forms. Jean has published two novels, and is currently finishing a fourth manuscript, at the same time as she continues to make short films and new paintings. Of course, it is fun for me to see that all of her art reflects the storytelling skills she brings to lyric writing.

I’m set to begin writing my next graphic novel. Jean has set up The Black Dot Museum of Political Art (the first exhibit was held in Olympia, WA in 2010). Jean and I continue to collaborate on a weekly text/illustration series for Magnet Magazine. We have plans to record our 14th album and tour in the fall of 2012.

We continue to change what Mecca Normal is by simply deciding what we want to do and how we want to do it.




LINKS:

Mecca Normal on K Records
The Listener
Mecca Normal Newsletter
Jean Smith Art

"How Art & Music Can Change the World" video presentation

Buying The Listener

David Lester -- Inspired Agitators Posters
 Mecca Normal on Facebook

Magnet Magazine  weekly column by David & Jean

"How Art & Music Can Change the World" lecture
The Black Dot Museum of Political Art
Jean Smith Writer

Jean Smith Painter

Mecca Normal Malachi 7” 

VIDEOS:
Blue Sky & Branches live 2011:
http://youtu.be/MgxHtf8KYes
After The Next, recorded with Calvin Johnson for K:
http://youtu.be/U1p20bDJCco
Mecca Normal playing live on a Corin Tucker Band song 2011:
http://youtu.be/ZC5rfra38XQ
Beaten Down
http://youtu.be/on_HnH_kR48
Throw Silver
http://youtu.be/eb6sd5tOLZo
I Walk Alone: Directed by Jean Smith
http://youtu.be/rtfdEaPA16U
Strong White Male / Man Thinks Woman
http://youtu.be/eWpViMrhlN0

Malachi:
http://youtu.be/dhF9LYhbg-c

The Listener -- the process:
http://vimeo.com/20775155



Monday, August 29, 2011

15 Years of 'Tude

AMPLITUDE EQUALS ONE OVER FREQUENCY SQUARED
infrequently publishing since 1996
by Jim Ebenhoh
A=1/F Squared (the print zines)
My first exposure to Amplitude Equals One Over Frequency Squared was an indirect one, when in the fall of 1997 my wife Kelly and I were pleasantly surprised to see large artfully blurry photos of New Zealand musician Alastair Galbraith adorning the walls of the Atomic Café in Beverly, Massachusetts. We were surprised not only because Beverly was a long away from Dunedin, New Zealand, the home of Alastair Galbraith where Kelly and I had recently been living, but also because this small town in Boston’s northern suburbs where Kelly had transferred for art school had so far seemed to be a bit of a cultural desert compared with our perception of ‘art school towns.’ Kelly later found out that the photographer responsible was one of her fellow students at Montserrat College of Art, a lad by the name of Dan Cohoon, who was very much into New Zealand music and even produced a zine. She suggested I meet him some time, which I did shortly thereafter -- I think at another Alastair Galbraith concert at the Middle East in Cambridge in the spring of ’98. Having established our mutual interests, we wasted no time in comparing favorites and deciding that I should assist with Dan’s zine in some way. My first contribution was a sort of memoir of my two years in Dunedin in 1995-97, with a focus on the live music scene. I’m not sure if I ever saw a printed copy -- they must have sold out quickly! (ed note: is this a hint about me sending you a copy?)
MONTGOMERY PARK (l-r Kelly Joseph, Dan Cohoon, Jim Ebenhoh)

In mid-1999 Kelly and I switched coasts to Portland, Oregon, and a few weeks later were pleasantly surprised (again), finding a note on our door from Dan explaining that he had moved there too and was living on the other side of the river. So began another 2 years of collaboration on a variety of fronts, including my proofreading and occasional record reviews for Amplitude, as well as our musical project with Kelly and various toy instruments entitled “Montgomery Park” in honor of the warehouse-turned-office building a couple blocks away. We drank Full Sail and Mirror Pond beers and had some minor ‘punk rock accidents’ like broken glass percussion instruments.
Dan Cohoon (editor/ publisher of the 'tude) & Kelly Joesph (member of Montgomery Park)
photo: Jim Ebenhoh

Portland had a great music scene at that time, something I have realized retrospectively, and I now regret not taking Dan up more often on his seemingly daily invites on our answering machine: “Hey guys, it’s Dan, just wondering if you kids are up for seeing [cool indie band X] at [cool indie venue Y, often “the Blackbird] tonight.” I was apparently too exhausted from my cerebrally taxing urban planning job to go out on most weeknights or even weekends, but I did manage to join Dan for an excellent Tara Jane O’Neil / Sarah Dougher show and another featuring Rollerball and Jackie-O-Motherfucker. But the shows Dan saw and I missed were recounted by him in glorious detail, such as the Guided by Voices show at the Crystal Ballroom where legend has it beer was sloshing around the floor at ankle-level.

I remember Portland 1999-2001 as the golden age of the printed zine, generally and for Amplitude itself. There was a very supportive independent publishing community and associated resources such as the Independent Publishing Resource Center where Dan hung out a lot. Advertising dollars were hard to come by, though, and when they did it was frequently a battle to save them for the zine instead of luxuries like food and rent. Despite this challenge, I do recall at least two, maybe 3 issues of Amplitude coming out during that relatively fruitful era. Dan and I were very excited when Amplitude earned a place on the magazine rack at Powell’s City of Books, and even more excited when every few months one of the four copies on the shelf would disappear into the hands of a paying customer.

In 2001 Kelly and I switched coasts again, and the following year so did Amplitude. Some time between then and 2004, Amplitude pulled the plug on the printed copy in favor of a web-based presence. This allowed the zine to free itself from the constant chasing of advertising revenue and to publish as and when it had new material. It blossomed into several branches such as Phonography (reviews), Photography, live reviews, and the archives (transcribed versions of print editions), as well as Amplitude proper which focused on interviews with some of the great lesser-known musical geniuses of the modern world.

My contribution since 2003, when Kelly and I moved back to New Zealand, has mostly been as a proofreader, though as “Antipodean Correspondent” I have also provided some live show reviews, photos, and interviews with the likes of Robbie Muir and Graeme Jefferies. My primary role at this stage really is as a rabid fan of Amplitude. Dan’s writing has steadily improved over the years -- simultaneously honed to razor-sharp insights and stretched into hilarious rambling meditations and wild metaphors. The photography, always amazing, just keeps getting better and better.

I’m proud to have been associated with The ‘Tude for 13 of its 15 years, and I suspect there are many more years of mind-expanding material yet to come. Bookmark all the various Amplitude web pages, or better yet, print them out and lovingly bind them in leather rope and slate covers. Don’t let the coming of peak oil and potential collapse of the electricity-based internet separate you from The ‘Tude. Long live the Rawk!

Links:
Amplitude Equals One Over Frequency Squared
Amplitude Photography
Amplitude Phonography
Amplitude Print Archives

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Baby Dee Interview

To Run Where Love Abounds
How I found out about Baby Dee, her life of adventure, and her impossibly beautiful music
by
Noah Mickens, copyright 2010


Baby Dee (Photo: Stephen Freiheit)Posted by Picasa
I'm sitting in the casually morbid setting of a converted funeral home nightclub called The Woods in Portland. It's nice in here. I think I heard that somebody from Loch Lomond owns this place (as in the band, not as in the bonnie-bonnie banks); and it shares that band's cool and unpretentious old-world ambiance. The only time I've been to this club before was in the throes of my annual Halloween tradition - a post-world invocation of the loa Baron Samedi via the consumption of an entire bottle of jabanero-infused rum and numerous cigars from below the equator. Suffice to say that my memory of that first visit is less than perfectly clear. Vagabond Opera, my girlfriend spinning fire, unsuccessfully trying to get everyone around me to sing the Bawon's song. Ah, Halloween.

There's a modest little upright piano onstage, which will soon be attended by my most urgent musical obsession of the moment, the trans-gender chamber-pop troubadour known on both sides of the Atlantic as Baby Dee. Since discovering her music just a few weeks prior, I have devoted myself to a more complete understanding of Baby Dee as a musician and a personality. Late nights browsing YouTube and the social networks, seeking out new songs and mutual associations. Live video of Dee navigating her intricate compositions on the harp and piano while she sings in a textured and powerful falsetto, a cousin to the arch tenor of Antony Hegarty, with whom Dee has been close for many years. This voice carries a more excitable childlike quality. The unabashed whimsy I have failed to appreciate in the ethereal songs of Dee's friend David Tibet, is here rendered moving by her emotional conviction and the profound insights built into her lyrics and arrangements; not to mention her musical virtuosity, and that voice that picks the locks from my high city gates. Even after repeated listenings, many of Dee's songs will draw unanticipated tears from my eyes and instill in me a naked wonder that I have rarely known.

Dee has very little to say about any modern music. The influences cited by her generally date from the European Rennaissance; particularly the Spanish and German iterations of that movement. Though she shows no interest in old world folk music, her attention to structure - to rhyme, meter, and pattern - is meticulous. Songs with more kinship to Greensleeves than to the music of Dee's peers. Note the patterns built into the first Baby Dee song I ever heard,

"My Love Has Made A Fool Of Me":

My love has made a fool of me
Unwise enough to know
That roses on a thistle grow
And I shall climb for kisses everyday
In such a shameless rush
That every other rose will blush and say
Ah love, what foolery
Ah love, what foolery
My love has made a fool of me
My love has made a moon of me
A rising smile of light
So sickle-sharp and starry bright
That I shall climb for kisses everyday
In such a shameless rush
That every cloud above will blush and say
Ah love, what lunacy
Ah love, what lunacy
My love has made a moon of me
My love has made a stone of me
That wants to be a star
What faith could take a stone so far
And pierce the clouds that mock my day
With nature's one straight line
That shaft of light that loves to shine
Your love How comforting
That love That foolish little moon
That starry little stone
The comfort of my heart Come home

- "My Love Has Made A Fool Of Me", Baby Dee,
Love's Small Song, 2001 Durtro

It is my educated guess that my personal discovery of Baby Dee owes itself to a very well-executed marketing campaign on the part of her new record label, Drag City. This is something I know a good deal about - before I shook off my day job habit, I spent a few years in the lower echelons of online entertainment marketing, cutting deals with Google and Overture that delivered 12-year-old boys to Spider-Man 2 and 40-year-old women to Sex and the City. These days things are more subtle - the tendrils of marketing are increasingly able to key off your browsing history and your online profiles to determine what sort of things you will want to see or hear or buy. This is why those of you who like football see an ad on Yahoo for ESPN, while those of you like science fiction see an ad for a comic book convention.


Baby Dee (photo: Jeff Elstone)Posted by Picasa
It was the online radio site Last.fm that pushed Baby Dee to me. I had entered the name of The Tiger Lillies, a London trio best known for their dark fairytale opera Shockheaded Peter. Many essential traits are shared between Dee and the Tiger Lillies: conservatory training, falsetto singing, a strong Weimar influence, transgressive subject matter, haunting melodrama. And by whatever combination of key words, browser history, and geographic data; Last.fm saw fit to recommend Dee to me. As soon as I heard the opening notes of "My Love Has Made A Fool Of Me", I was hooked. There was a flag in the artist information reading "On Tour!" I clicked through, and saw that she would be in Portland that same month. I had been posting many Baby Dee songs on my Facebook, prompting an old friend from the noise world - Dan Cohoon - to ask whether I would like to review her new CD for his magazine - this very magazine. Drag City was the first serious indie label to pick up any of Dee's music, so of course promotional copies were being sent to the underground press - A Book of Songs For Anne Marie. I accepted the job, bought my ticket for the show, and got some new batteries for my trusty portable cassette rig. And that completes a chain of managed events that led from Dee to me, and then on to you. Well done, Drag City.

A Book of Songs For Anne Marie is a devastatingly beautiful album. Notably absent are the bawdier songs that have capered alongside Dee’s more earnest material. These are songs of fearless devotion, about the way your dark and hardened nature can lead you to a love that's more true and complex than the love of the unspoiled heart. Lent gravity by a full chamber ensemble, fronted by Dee's harp and piano, the songs here are a sublime unity of lyric and instrumentation. The story relates a reawakening to beauty and hope after a life resigned to sorrow, brought about by the arrival of a new love. I would follow the author anywhere, were such words written of me.

As sunlight comes to sorry stone
So come, my love
And take this sorriest stone of all
To find a grateful place
That warm and sunlit wall
My arms to close upon a world of good
My arms to close upon a world of good

- "A Book Of Songs For Anne Marie", Baby Dee

Since the hour I first heard her music, I've been posting every new Baby Dee song I can find on Facebook. She has a fully-produced music video for "The Dance Of Diminishing Possibilities", and many recordings of live shows all over the world. Yet for all my efforts to share this music with my honored friends and collaborators, very few of them are getting in the car. The aerialist Steph Lopez and trick roper Leapin Louie Lichtenstein seem to be feeling it online, but neither of them is here tonight. Scene fixture Kenric Ashe comes out to see the show, one of perhaps 20 people in the room when Dee takes the stage. My girlfriend, the dancer and ritualist NagaSita, shows up a little late and spends as much time watching my reactions as she does watching the stage. Experimental music mavens Jennifer Robin and L. Jim McAdams are there as well. But where is everyone else? The show was previewed in all the papers, even got a big photo in the gay mag JustOut. In a town ruled by March Fourth, Sissyboy, and Pink Martini; what is keeping my queer, Bohemian, schmaltzy townsfolk away?

I wonder whether it might be the fact that Baby Dee, visually, is sort of a six-foot middle aged man in a Shirley Temple wig.

When one travels in such genderfucked company as I, constant reader, one hears often how persons of unconventional identity were once held sacred. In the time before cities, shamans and curanderos and all such holy castes were known for living between sexes as well as between worlds.

Trans people I've known are sometimes that way - bold and perceptive individualists whose removal from the dominant modes of identity grants them a multi-dimensional visionary quality. I've always been drawn to such people, and thought of their everyday lives as groundbreaking Works of expression. The Art of the Self, as practiced by vivid personalities from Dali to Bowie to RZA, can communicate as much as any novel or dance. And to find one's place outside the accepted binary definition of male-vs-female compels the viewer to a less proscribed reaction - this singer, this musician, is not a man or a woman in the way you've been taught to look for since you were born. One less preconception - the biggest one of all - to color the audience experience.

But Dee's female aspect is only one detail of the persona that fronts her music. A vulgar, lonesome little girl who loves to sing while riding around big cities on her giant tricycle with the harp mounted on the back. Able to shift in a flicker from a ribald novelty song like "Big Titty Bee Girl From Dino Town" to the bracingly sweet poetry of "The Robin's Tiny Throat" without stepping out of character. Or is it a character at all? I watch video of Dee speaking on somebody's cable access television show, and she's all giggles and pottymouth anecdotes, the worst-behaved kid in your kindergarten class. She sings a song about flowers, and I'm in tears again. I need to know the person who has chosen to touch me in this way, to adopt this challenging persona and guide me to truths forgotten or never fully realized in the tragicomic years of my own youth. The opportunity arose almost at once, and surely there is meaning in this also.


l-r: Baby Dee, Matt Sweeney, John Contreras
(Photo: Olivier Naudin)Posted by Picasa
I notice her cello player first, wan and out-of-place, loitering silently around the room and taking in the scenery. John Contreras plays cello on the album, but this isn't him. Dee herself is a more furtive presence - I see her appear near the bar, pick up a cocktail, then fold herself back into the green room. She takes the long way round the audience to join her bandmates near the stage. In photos, I've seen her for the most part in oversized children's party dresses, or in a fuzzy Leigh Bowery sort of hooded bodysuit. Tonight she's more low-key, with a wild geyser of kinky orange hair erupting from her scalp and partly restrained by a simple purple scarf. Her outfit evokes a woman of my Mother's approximate temperament - dressed for a day working the garden, comfortable blue jeans and a loose-fitting blouse. It occurs to me later that she reminds me of my mother during her good periods, a sweet and sad woman who once worked as an actor and a dancer, singing to herself as she puttered around the house.

The music is extraordinary. Dee addresses us from the stage in world-weary and matronly tones, her mischievous little girl self only evident around the corners when something strikes her funny. She laughs the same way backstage; reinforcing my impression that she is, as I often say about myself, actually like this. As far as I can tell, there's not much in the way of a set list - her two accompanists (violin and cello) seem to have most of her repertoire available, following her cues to discover what song she'll choose next. She's in fine voice tonight, safeguarding each note with delicate care, like a child with an injured mouse in her hands. My first curiosity is to discover where it all comes from.

Backstage, Dee tells me that she's always been interested in music, that her grandmother played the piano as far back as she can remember. She refers to a childhood story recounted in "The Dance Of Diminishing Possibilities", when she watched her father and his neighbors destroy a piano with crowbars and sledgehammers and was delighted to find a harp inside. In her hands, this story describes the birth of her interest in music, as well as the first flicker of the person she would grow to be:

My father's affection
For his crowbar collection
Was Freudian to say the least
But there's a beauty in that beast
And there's a girl inside that boy
And my daddy's crowbars are his pride and joy
There's no need to rehearse
It's just like jesus in reverse
Making many from the one
No need for tv
When the whole family
Gathers round the old upright for a little old time fun
Oh daddy, you sure can tickle those ivories
In the dance of diminishing possibilities

- "The Dance of Diminishing Possibilities, Baby Dee,
Safe Inside The Day 2008 Drag City


Baby Dee (photo: Steve Gullick)Posted by Picasa

Dee's true rebirth into Show happened when, 18 years old and still male for most intents and purposes, she followed a well-trodden path from the shitty industrial town of her birth (Cleveland in her case) to the endless potential of New York City.

"I moved to New York to study painting, not music. At that time I would play the piano, i used to play like a kind of honky tonk piano. That's true. I had forgotten about that. In high school I got into Bach, but there was a time right after high school when I was doing that. But at the same time I was kind of getting serious, and I bought a harp in New York and I just started drifting from painting to music. So after about three years in New York I was doing nothing but music."

This is the way Baby Dee talks to me throughout the interview. Adrift from any guiding chronology, sentences coalesce from her crowded mind in full view of the listener and demand much rearrangement in post-production. One can hear a touch of her honky tonk origins in the music she plays now, and much borrowed from old tearjerkers like Stardust or Parlez-Mois D'Amour; but for the most part her melodic approach is like nothing I've heard before. I read somewhere about a particular book of traditional German music that figures heavily into Dee's work, and I ask her about that.

"Oh, they're talking about the Glogauer Liederbuch (ca. 1480). Not so much traditional, because traditional usually means folk, and this wasn't at all folksy. It was very... learned. It was before Bach, and probably during the Rennaissance. But that's the thing about the Rennaissance - it was this whole exchange of ideas between different places."

"This was this little town called Glogauer. it was like the early music equivalent of Deliverance. You know that retarded kid who plays the banjo? It was like the early music equivalent of that. It's kinda weird, it's kinda not quite right. Everything in the book is for three voices, which you never hear - nobody ever does that, text for three voices, almost never. And all the voices, like, they're all in the same register and they're all hopscotching over and under each other in these totally weird ways. But they did this so much that there became, like, mannerisms in the music that would repeat. They would do it like, the note that was the bass would jump up and become the soprano at the last second. Weird shit like that. And I just became obsessed with that book. It was a HUGE influence on me. You know, people can - like Chopin, his whole career was based on Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, everything he wrote sort of came through that portal. So it's not even really a kind of music or a period of music, it's like particular things that people become obsessed with that form the... limbs of their art."

A picture begins to emerge of a young man from a family of working class musicians who cultivated an interest in Bach and his musical precedents, then ran off to New York to recreate himself. This is time consuming work, however, recreating oneself. And it is rarely if ever a simple path.

"I started out on the street. I had a bear costume and played the harp. I would just play and people would throw money. Not very much money, but i was able to get by that way. And I went to France and throughout Europe. And then I came back and I got real serious for a time about music, and I wasn't making money at all. I was just sort of following my nose to whatever, none of which was lucrative or even possible to make a living."

So how did the Baby Dee character emerge from this, I ask.

"There was just a long interval where I got so involved in all of this old music that I ended up working in a church. The music that I was obsessed with was actually church music. If you go back far enough in history then there's nothing there but church music, cause that's the only thing that got written down and remembered. And also, it was fucking great. All the best composers in the world, at that time, the Rennaisance or whatever, that was what they were doing."

Dee's got me thinking about the need to earn a living, so I mention that the church was where all the money could be found in the old days.

"Sure, that's right. I mean, if you hear the music, it's so beautiful that you know their hearts were in the right place too, but they were probably doing really well. There was a generation like before the Italians. I love this guy Palestrina (Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, 1525-1594), but there was a generation before him where the Spanish composers totally ruled the world."

Who for instance?

"Like this guy Morales, who is one of my two favorites (Cristobal de Morales, 1500-1553). The two big ones, at least my big ones, are Morales and Victoria (Tomás Luis de Victoria, 1548-1611). They're just un-be-lievable. I was obsessed with that stuff. So I got sort of literate about it, like i knew it. And so i became... employed by a church. So i did that for over 10 years. And then i changed gender, so it was like, end of job."

I mention to Dee that some of my friends seem to be put off by the identity - gender and otherwise - she exhibits onstage.

"Oh well," she says, with gentle regret. "There's nothing you can do about that. Over time people get used to it."

I listen to these composers a bit while I'm writing this article. These are deeply resonant religious works for a large chorus - Ave Maria, for example, was written by Sr. Victoria. I was raised without religion, but the beauty of this sort of music isn't lost on me. The beauty stems in part from the fact that, worldly concerns of fame and fortune aside, the authors were motivated by their devotion to God; which is an old-fashioned way of talking about the graceful and ineffable will behind all the complex beauty of the universe. Seeking after a connection to God through their music, a chance to approach the divinity of His grand creations by offering their own in His name.

Surely Baby Dee's faith was never a simple one, and losing the support of the Church after lending her considerable talents to their cause for 10 years can only have complicated matters. I can hear now the places where Dee's music overlaps with the choral Works of the Spanish composers and the more medievally-inflected Glogauer Liederbuch, not only in specific modes and mannerisms, but in the motive of utter devotion to the music's subject. In place of the Renaissance composers' contemplation and exaltation of their God, Dee elevates the object of romantic love.

"Avenging angels dressed me up in pants too big
And sent me beltless out to dance a clownish jig
That men might look at me and pray for blindness
For gentle hope has made me call those furies kindness
That send a gelded lover out to sing
Though not a man
I'd be a king for Anne
And though for endless night
I am a monstrous metaphor
What lover of the light could love you more?
As stars that shine unseen
To call the day their home
And make no thieving visit there
But live where songs come from
With open-throated arms
To hold you singing God's own song"

- "Endless Night", Baby Dee,
A Book of Songs For Anne Marie, 2010 Drag City

"So [after losing the church job] I figure well, I'll go back to the street but this time I'll do it in style. I got this huge big tricycle rig, and that was sort of like the bridge from the street to the circus."

"And also the sex thing, because you know, sex and the whole burlesque thing and sideshow, they're all very intertwined."

Do I know? As you may or may not be aware, constant reader, I am the ringmaster of a small circus troupe. In fact, I've run five distinct circuses over the past decade or so. I remind Dee of this fact, and we spend the next fifteen minutes sharing circus stories.

"Did you ever meet Otter? She's kinda legendary." This topic of conversation is beginning to awaken Dee's bad side. She grows animate and gleeful as she commences the story of Otter.

"She was a New York... like, talk about that crack between the sex industry and circus, right, and performance art, it all kind of balls up into one thing. And there are so many titty bar dancers that go around calling themselves performance artists, always everywhere, and they're all full of shit. Except for this one woman Otter was absolutely amazing. She was the real deal. One of her most famous - and it was a different one every night - was one where she had this enormous hoop skirt and she's just sitting there at a fancy table, sort of Elizabethan or Edwardian, and this huge costume skirt. It's kind of like, nothing happening, you know? It goes on like that for the longest time. Then she pulls up the dress and theres a dwarf fist-fucking her. She was an amazing performer."

I tell Dee about my friend Nati the Patchwork Girl, an extraordinary artist operating mostly out of Chicago and New York. Nati was born with her face in terrible disarray, and so had to undergo many reconstructive surgeries as a child just to achieve the rough approximation of a standard human face that she wears today. She was also unfortunate enough to have been born very allergic to opiates, which means she went through these repeated childhood surgeries on her face without the benefit of anesthesia. So now she does a pain threshold act. For instance, we did an act together a few times in which she strips down to a thong and the two of us do an erotically charged dance to PJ Harvey's "For My Lover" while I staple strands of fabric to various parts of her body. Dee loves it.

"HAHAHAHAHA!" - her laugh splits the stale green room air.

We start talking about the Bindlestiff Family, one of the original dirty sideshows from New York who have indeed achieved the status of legends and professionals, a distressingly rare combination in the underground. I've heard that Dee worked for them as a half man/half woman character for a time before settling upon her current stage persona - even saw a picture of her playing accordion in a big outdoor crowd, with a moustache on one side of her face and a dress on one side of her body. Like most folkloric information, this tuns out to be not quite right.

"No, for them I just did music. But I also worked at Coney Island [perhaps the world's most famous freakshow]. And for the Kamikazes, I actually had to do some sideshow stuff. The broken glass thing. Oh, i'll do what i gotta do. Have you seen the Kamikazes?"

I have not seen The Kamikaze Freak Show but I've heard of them. “Extreme black physical comedy.” Hook suspensions and the like.

"One of the coolest acts that they did, they had a dwarf that could lift things with his dick? And that was like a real crowd pleaser. It worked so well because they were a Scottish circus so they all wore kilts. He could have it hanging out, swinging around and everything, and then lift up his kilt to show you."

I note that you would have had to pick him up to get the full stretch - these performers who hang things from their cocks, the whole works winds up hanging all the way to the floor while the weights are on.

"Well what they did was it was all part of the act. Like we had these wooden blocks set up."

Noteworthy that Dee is very interested in performances that involve a person in a dress, after a period of uncertainty, revealing their concealed perversity to the audience.

"I'm black but comely
As the night shot with stars
Black but comely
As the night shot with stars
And I'm not a tree of sticks
No I'm not a tree of sticks
But a forest of hemlocks and beeches
Of water dark as wine from boundless reaches
Black but comely
As the night shot with stars
As the night shot with stars."

- "Black But Comely" - Baby Dee,
A Book of Songs For Anne Marie, 2010 Drag City

I hope to myself that I'm getting all of this chronology right. There's a childhood and adolescence in Cleveland, moving to New York to be a painter at 18, playing the honky tonk piano, drifting away from painting toward music, performing on the street in a bear suit with a harp, working as the musical director of a church for 10 years, changing gender and losing that job, then embarking on a career in the burgeoning dirty circus movement of the 1990s. And all of this before the advent of the Baby Dee persona.

So how, I ask her again, does all of this lead to being Baby Dee?

"I guess it doesn't, in a sense. What happened was, I did The Change and all. Then I had that tricycle thing, and I discovered that I could make money on the street, and make a lot of money. So I had some very sort of serendipitous years doing that in New York.

"And then I just had some, like - I was doing the act in Holland, Amsterdam, and I just started thinking weird things, like. Things were getting kind of hard in a way that they hadn't been hard in a long time, and it kind of reminded me. I'd had a lot of hard times, but i had just gotten used to things being kind of easy. And I thought, oh yeah, maybe life could be kind of hard. But then I thought, you know, maybe it's not so bad. And I started to think that I would like my act to be something totally different. Not just make people laugh, but also make people cry or something... profound or something. And I wanted to change what I did.

"And I had one - like it happens every seven years or so that I'll have an actual thought. And my thought was that since I wanted to make this big change in myself, and in my art, but I didn't know how; then what I should do is to do something I had never done before. Just to do what I had never done, or to do what I didn't want to do. And not to do any of the things that I did do. I felt like that was the only thing that might help. Because I didn't know. If I knew then it would be, you know, easy.


Baby Dee (photo: Stephen Freiheit)Posted by Picasa
"And then that led me to do all kinds of weird shit, and I ended up like giving up the whole act. And I got real sad, and I went to the Anne Frank Museum and I was like devastated. But I decided I wanted to do this for an act. I was still doing the act, and I would ride around on the tricycle crying my eyes out, and play this sad accordion music. And the coolest thing was that the people in Amsterdam would come and they'd laugh their tits off"

She laughs again - an explosive, braying laugh that shatters the moment of still reflection. I perceive a demon in her belly, that she mostly keeps in check with a cautiously-maintained courtesy. I am the same way. I envision blacked-out rampages, demolished relationships, cast-off opportunities. And from that cathartic maelstrom rises and spreads the loveliest music I have ever heard.

"So that was like a little bit of the beginning of whatever it is I'm up to."

What year was that?

"99? Something like that."

The general air of hilarity subsides. It keeps on happening that I believe we're talking about something relatively recent, but then realize that we're still 11 years behind the story of the present day. I am curious to know how the lifelong, seemingly-willfull obscurity of professional nomadic street performance gave way to a recording career. So I ask about her famous friends.

Your work since then, I begin, has attracted the attention of David Tibet and Marc Almond and people like this. How did that come down?

"The way I met all those is through Antony. Antony's been a friend - we knew each other in the 90s and sort of lived in the same world and did the same stuff, and I played on his first album (Antony and the Jonstons, Durtro 2000). And then once I started traveling around a lot and doing this thing, we kept in contact. And then when I started writing songs I would send them to Antony because I was hoping that he might want to sing them. And that never happened - I'm still hoping - and then he sent them to David Tibet, and then David Tibet wanted to put out albums and did. And also David is my connection to Marc Almond."

According to the highly useful but insufficiently maintained website Discogs.com, the first Baby Dee solo release came in 2001. Little Window is the name of that CD, on the Durtro label run by David Tibet. Already evident on this album are the figure of Anne, whoever that may be (I don't like to ask artists about such things); and songs that remain a part of Dee's active repertoire. The EP Look What The Wind Blew In, and double CD Love's Small Song followed that same year on Durtro; the latter including an entire CD of birdcalls recorded in Dee's backyard. All these were released in limited runs of 500 or so, which is of course how most small labels make it work. So you and I will be lucky to find a copy anywhere, though I will be trying very hard. Together, they represent the only record of the music Dee played for the first 30 years of her career.

As I mentioned earlier, I've never particularly cared for Current 93. I enjoy the more experimental side of it, actually; but when Tibet starts singing his whimsical little pop songs about "the cahstle!... in the moonlight!... in the morning!" I can't really stay on board. Still, there is an undeniable similarity in their vocal inflection, so I ask if Baby Dee is influenced by all of that - Current 93 and Death in June and such.

"Not particularly, no," she answers without pause. "I like David. A lot. He's a very good friend. That's generally how I work - if a very good friend wants to do something, then I say yeah, I want to do whatever my friend wants to do. I want to help them. I don't know anything about that early Current 93 shit at all, and maybe it's wonderful and maybe it's not, I don't think I've ever even heard it. Death In June, from what I've heard of them they sound a little spooky, they sound a little scary. But you know - I guess I'm not really entitled to an opinion because I've never really listened to their music."

After a 3-year hiatus from releasing music, Durtro released Baby Dee's latest Work in an even-more-limited run of 150 copies, in 2004. Packaged along with an autographed book of lyrics, this was the first version of A Book of Songs for Anne Marie. Once again using Discogs.com as a guide, this version comprises different recordings of seven of the tracks found on her latest release; in some cases quite different. One of these, a track called "Love's Small Song", is seven minutes long in its original form; trimmed down to three minutes in the latest release. And, incidentally, completely absent from the album that is itself titled Love's Small Song. The innavigable complexities of the Underground.

Durtro released the EP Made For Love the following year, including another song found on the 2010 version of A Book of Songs..., the life-affirming "Morning Fire". 2006 saw a live album from PREcordings, the releasing arm of charming Italian collective Post-Romantic Empire; and a lauded guest appearance on Current 93's Black Ships Ate The Sky. In 2007, Durtro released an omnibus of Little Window, Love's Small Song, and Made For Love under the title The Robin's Tiny Throat; bidding their Baby a fond farewell as she left for brighter shores.

Perhaps, in the deepest troll-mines of apocalyptic folk, the big news of 2008 was that Baby Dee released Love Is Stronger Than Death, a live CD of her duets with cellist John Contreras beneath the bloodstained banner of Bragagild; an admirable Danish collective steeped in frightful style and mystery. But in a wider context, 2008 is the year that Dee released her debut album on Drag City.

So how did you make the jump to Drag City?

"Again, you meet people, and people know people. The biggest catalyst was David Tibet. And you know, David is also a good friend of Will Oldham, and Matt Sweeney, and Matt Sweeney was pretty much the person who talked Drag City into taking me on."

She called it Safe Inside The Day, the first full-length of new material she'd put out since appearing on the scene in 2001. It is a definitive masterpiece, running the gamut from Dee's comical cabaret ditties (the aforementioned "Big Titty Bee Girl From Dino Town" and "The Dance Of Diminishing Possibilities") to confessions both solemn and passionate (the title track comes to mind, or "You'll Find Your Footing"). While previous releases were uniformly solo works, with Dee playing all the instruments and singing alone in a studio; Safe Inside the Day included musical turns from Sweeney, Oldham, Contreras, Andrew WK; and a revolving ensemble of strings, winds, and percussion. Oldham and Sweeney produced the album as well, using their industry savvy and Drag City's top-shelf studio connections to craft the first pro-quality recordings of Dee's songs. She performed with Marc Almond on two tours of Europe, playing versions of both their songs in collaboration; and embarked on a short U.S. tour with The Dresden Dolls. And just like that, decades of inspired anonymity in the substrata of busking and the circus gave way to a life in the Indieverse.

"So good
Beyond all wishing
That even as we slept
Small voices, sweet to sing,
Did sing a promise kept
My friends and I will sing a sea of merciful days
For the lilacs have come
That bloom the whole year round
Friends remembered and lovers found
And lovers found"

- "Lilacs", Baby Dee,
A Book Of Songs For Anne Marie, Drag City 2010

I remark once again on how strange it is that I've only just heard of Baby Dee. After all, my entire adult life has been spent in experimental music and the underground circus scene. My dear old co-conspirator from The Radon Collective, Paul Beauchamp, is listed among the Top Friends on Dee's MySpace; alongside fellow Radonite Fabrizio Modonese Palumbo. And this is exactly the sort of Bohemian music that I am most interested in - the music of the cabaret, vaudeville, circus. How can I not have known that, since I myself was first dipping my toes into the music scene in the late '80s, Baby Dee was traveling these same paths?

I ask whether she's seeing a greater awareness of her work since the Drag City release.

"Oh, if there is, I'm not particularly aware of it. But I mean in general things have - you know I've only been out doing shows for a little while. When I started recording music I was like in seclusion. I didn't tour, I didn't do shows. Then I got even more secluded. Like when I wrote the music for the album that just came out, which has taken like 8 years to really come out. Then I got even worse. I wasn't even recording or any of that anymore, and I wasn't doing music at all, as an avocation. So really I've only been actually out doing stuff for about 5 years. Those first two albums came out, but other than that I never did any touring, so I haven't really been around for very long. I mean I was doing all kinds of shit, but I wasn't really doing the kinds of things that make people know you."

So what do you want from all this, now that you're touring and releasing albums?

Dee indicates her cellist, who has sat nearby listening raptly the entire time.

"Playing with this guy, that's what I want. Isn't he great?"

"It's so much fun playing music with you Baby Dee!" blurts the cellist.

"But yeah," Dee continues, "I just hope I can keep it real. Maybe write some more music, I don't know. Cause I never know if there's any more music."

You stopped playing music for a while before this album right?

"I stopped performing. I stopped everything, but I was still writing. I was doing a lot of writing. But I wasn't doing it as a profession. I stopped being a professional. I stopped being somebody who was doing... but of course then I became, I am a professional again. I got paid for what I just did, so that makes me a professional. I didn't stop writing, I just stopped being a part of, like, the business."

Do you really feel there might be no more music to come?

"Oh maybe there is," she says like she's never lost a moment of sleep over it. "It always feels that way."

"And Anne Marie does love to sing
And Anne Marie does love the day
And I can't stop my heart
And I can't take my eyes away
And I did lose you
I did lose you
And where will I go now
And where will I go
And where will I go now?
So write my song with a triad bright as a belt of stars
Orion-like to run before the hounds
Orion-like, compelled by love to run where love abounds
To run where love abounds
To run where love abounds"

- "Anne Marie Does Love to Sing", Baby Dee,
A Book of Songs for Anne Marie
,
Drag City 2010

Links:
Baby Dee
Drag City


Saturday, December 05, 2009

R.I.P. Jack Rose

Remembering Dr. Ragtime (1971-2009)
words: Scott Verrastro
photos: Dan Cohoon


Jack Rose @ Brickbat Books (South Philly) 1/13/08
photos: Dan CohoonPosted by Picasa
Jack was there when I first started booking shows at my house (611 Florida) in 2003. He played one of the very first shows that I ever booked (with Landing), and played my house six times total–including my 28th birthday in 2005 (with Glenn Jones, PG Six and Harris Newman). I probably booked Jack more than anybody else, as I thought him to be the best acoustic guitarist on earth, and I’m saying that without hyperbole. Watching Jack’s fingers pick and fret was like watching two of the most gracious dancers in motion. It was that stunning. The level of dexterity he possessed was truly perplexing and awe-inspiring.

Jack Rose @ Frankford Gardens (Kensington, PA) 8/09/08
photos: Dan CohoonPosted by Picasa
Whether he was mining Fahey territory with “Kensington Blues” or the Basho-esque 12-string explorations of “Calais to Dover,” or even the experimental, haunting ghostliness of “Sundogs,” Jack’s compositions were timeless and penetrating. He was one of the only musicians that could bridge the gap between numerous generations: whether you were 20 or 90, you could appreciate Jack’s music.

Jack Rose & Harmonica Dan @ Brickbat Books (South Philly) 1/13/08
photos: Dan CohoonPosted by Picasa
As a person, Jack was a cranky, cantankerous bastard. He was extremely opinionated, but he had a warm heart and was a good friend. He never beat around the bush and you always knew how he felt about something. I always knew he had my back if I needed it. He was never reluctant to tell me how much prog sucked, but we also agreed on the genius of Michael Chapman and John Martyn.

a Black Twig Picker & Jack Rose @ Brickbat Books (South Philly) 7/10/09
photos: Dan CohoonPosted by Picasa
I last saw Jack two weeks ago in Philly when he came out to see Chris Forsyth, and he was happier than I’d ever seen him, gloating about the successful UK tour he just had with the Twigs. For the past two years, he was making a living off of his music, which is something most of us will never be able to say. And he accomplished this without compromising one iota. For sheer artistry and vision, I’d have to put him up there with Richard Thompson and Neil Young (even though Jack did not attempt the breadth of those two).

Glenn Jones & Jack Rose @ Brickbat Books (South Philly) 1/13/08
photos: Dan CohoonPosted by Picasa
RIP, Jack. You certainly touched my soul and affected many others. Thanks for making me laugh and for talking about the brilliance of Chrome and Robbie Basho and why most indie-rock is totally boring bullshit. You will be missed. -Scott Verrastro

Jack Rose @ Brickbat Books (South Philly) 1/13/08
photo: Dan CohoonPosted by Picasa