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Out of the Mouth of Babes: An Interview with Baby Dee

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Dusted's Nate Knaebel speaks with Drag City tranny Baby Dee about old New York, even older mystics and the charmed life of a street performer.

Out of the Mouth of Babes: An Interview with Baby Dee

Baby Dee is a transsexual harpist/singer-songwriter/street performer/ chanteuse that has, for decades, been performing and making music that is at once lovely and strange; a little creepy and a little confusing; ugly and beautiful; devilish and angelic; sacred and profane. The interview I conducted over email with Baby Dee ended up being as thoughtfully associative and moving as her music. I can say without hyperbole that Dee is one of the most fascinating individuals with whom I’ve ever had the opportunity to correspond. Her music must be heard to be even remotely understood; yet so many ideas and emotions are conjured by it that when it finally is heard, a conversation that begins ostensibly about music can very quickly become one about more ineffable notions. At any rate, they don’t make ‘em like Baby Dee any more, so I’ll let her do the talking.

Dusted: Can you talk a little bit about what, if any, influence growing up in Cleveland had on the specific type of music you make? What did you listen to in your youth?

Baby Dee: I remember staring down at a little 45 with a yellow label going round and round, I think it was some sort of a polka, but what I really loved was that yellow label. I just love to watch it spin and hear the music. I never stopped doing that. Somebody would have to pry me away from it or pull the plug on the record player.

Dusted: Cleveland has its own stake in the rock avant-garde via bands like the Styrenes, Peter Laughner, the Electric Eels, and of course Pere Ubu. Were you involved in that scene at all?

Baby Dee: No, I missed out on all that. I was living in New York where I was busy missing out on a lot of other cool stuff.

Dusted: How do you think being a mid-westerner as opposed to a bona fide New Yorker informs your work, if at all?

Baby Dee: I am a bona fide New Yorker! If only the born and bred get to be bona fide in New York, that would be a very, very exclusive club. Ask any New Yorker how many people they know who were born in Manhattan and lived there their entire life.

In all my 30 years there, I knew three of those and they're all dead. The whole point of New York is that it's a city full of Midwesterners – only now I'm afraid it's become a city of Midwestern millionaires.

Dusted: Is it easier to be an unconventional artist/performer/songwriter in a city like New York rather than Cleveland?

Baby Dee: Yes, that's true. When I first went to New York, I was a painter and the cool thing about being a painter there was that it was the only place in the world where you were allowed to not give a fuck about the New York City art scene.

Dusted: How so? By being in the midst of the scene you were ultimately able to disregard it?

Baby Dee: Well, yes.

Dusted: Can you explain that a little?

Baby Dee: At that time New York was pretty much still the center of the universe. People I met who weren't living in New York always seemed a lot more interested in the New York scene than the people in New York. Most of my friends there were happily oblivious to all that.

Dusted: Did your sexuality play a role in your decision to move to New York? And, similar to the question above, do you think it's easier to exist maintaining a complex sexual identity in a city like New York rather than Cleveland? Or is that a misconception about the level of tolerance in the Midwest?

Baby Dee: I didn't come to New York because I was a tranny, but once I figured that out about myself I was glad I was there. I don't like to buy into those views of geographical conservatism, but yes, I guess I have to admit that Ohio is kind of unfriendly in a corporate way – like it's one of a handful of states where someone like me can't get their birth certificate changed, that sort of thing. But as far as the actual people are concerned, I don't buy it. People here in Cleveland are a lot nicer than I thought and I think I did them a great injustice in assuming they were all out to get me when I first came back.

That said, Minetta Street in Greenwich Village was a lovely place to call home. I miss it a lot sometimes.

There is a certain lack of fabulousness in Ohio but I'm about to change all that. When this new record goes gold, I'll buy an airship and paint it pink. And fly it far away from sporting events. I might fly over Manhattan for old time sake. Come to think of it, Manhattan has become a lot less fabulous in the last decade.

Dusted: Can you give an example of something fabulous the loss of which you truly lament, or is it more of a general feeling in the air?

Baby Dee: All the great night clubs. As far as I'm concerned Jackie 60 was the last word in fabulousness. They were on Washington and 14th in the meat market. I used to love that neighborhood. It breaks my heart to go back there when I come to New York – it's so uglified. You might as well be in Orlando! I only go there because I love Florent's wonderful restaurant – the very last bastion of the fabulous – and I've heard rumors that they might close soon. If that happens I'll never set foot on Gansevoort Street for as long as I live.

Dusted: When you were a street performer in New York, were you essentially on your own, or was there a larger community that you were a part of? Did you at all see yourself as part of a larger historical tradition?

Baby Dee: The great thing about New York is that it's full of little worlds. There was a wonderful community of night club people there in the ’90s, and I was a part of that and loved being a part of that – the Pyramid and Jackie 60 were so great. But the street act was independent of all that. I think maybe that's what defines a great street act – that it cuts through every barrier and touches on many worlds.

Dusted: Tell us about some of you favorite characters from those days.

Baby Dee: I loved Hattie Hathaway and the little puppet shows that Basil Twist would do. I loved seeing Armen Ra perform. Armen has become a great Theremin player and lives in LA now. That was also the heyday of the amazing and legendary Otter who did more outrageous things on stage than I can think of – blowing a 20-foot ball of flame out of her vagina, her trademark act, had become pedestrian compared to some of that stuff.

Dusted: What exactly compelled you do street performing, as opposed to engaging in a more conventional method of performance?

Baby Dee: I don't know. Maybe if my upbringing was a little different, a little less antisocial, I would have played in bands but musically I was a loner for most of my life. I think that's the main thing that pushed me towards the street.

Also, I've never been entirely comfortable with the regular ways of performing – traditions like doing encores, for example. I hate that people feel the need to know what they're going to play for an encore, that sort of thing: the clapping, the big hello, the naming of the bandmates, the thank yous – all perfectly nice things in themselves.... But it makes me uncomfortable that they're done for as much a matter of formality than out of love. I can't get comfortable with those formalities.

I'm reminded now of a friend, a wizened and weathered World War II veteran tough guy looking down at his wife's little dog and remarking on what a lovely thing it must be to be like that little dog, going right up to people demanding to be loved and getting away with it every time.

That's what my street act did. I went everywhere and got way with everything. I crossed all barriers without a care. It was magnificent. The sweetest breeziest and most serendipitous time of my life.

In the street I could make fun of those conventions. I liked doing that.

Dusted: What was the general reaction you received from passers-by?

Baby Dee: Mostly they would throw money at me.

Dusted: But did you ever get the love? The response you were seeking?

Baby Dee: Abso-fucking-lutely!

Dusted: A wise man I once knew said that throughout life we're either at our best or our worst, and that we strive for the perfect spot in between. This reminded me of your comments about existing in realms of either the sacred or the profane, but never quite finding a middle ground. Can you elaborate on that idea and how it informs the music you make?

Baby Dee: Isn't it lovely to know a few wise men? I've had a few of those.

So far only one reviewer picked up on the fact that this album is the first time I've ever found any middle ground. It was something I had in mind. I look around at other artists – artists I love and admire, and they're are not lunging from one extreme to another like me and I thought, "Why do I have to be like this? Why can't I do that?"

But I don't know how to get from an idea of what I'd like – that middle ground – to the reality of a song that's about something besides extreme sorrow or extreme bad taste. Unfortunately for me, the in-between songs were the most disturbing ones. The ones with the most disturbing lyrics – “Teeth Are the Only Bones That Show,” “Fresh Out of Candles,” and “The Dance of Diminishing Possibilities.” And in their own ways, those songs are pretty extreme. They're just emotionally more complex than my previous work.

I think I succeeded a little at least in giving the extremes a context. Or rather, Matt Sweeney and Will Oldham succeeded. They're the ones who created that context for me.

Dusted: For the sake of background, how did your relationship with Drag City and those guys came about?

Baby Dee: Matt Sweeney worked it out for me. Matt and I both play with David Tibet in his band Current 93 and we became good friends.

Dusted: What are your thoughts on the recent successes of artist such as Antony, Devendra Banhart, and Joanna Newsom, all of whom to varying degrees – musically, aesthetically, spiritually – seem to be kindred spirits.

Baby Dee: Well I'm very happy for them. I've never met Joanna Newsom, but I've seen her play live and it blew me away. So she certainly deserves the success. Antony and Devendra are good friends and no two people ever deserved it more than them. They're both just as sweet as they could possibly be. I don't honestly know how kindred we are though. I think I might be a shade too dark for that lovely little trio.

Dusted: Getting back to this idea of a dichotomy of the sacred-profane, and not to get too philosophical, but can the profane exist within the sacred and vice versa?

Baby Dee: I think both things can be held in kindly hands. That the sacred can be held as something that's not exclusive and judgmental and damning and dusty and unapproachable. And the profane can be held as something harmless and sweet and laughably stupid.

Dusted: I knew a girl in college who wore a button that said "God is Too Big for One Religion." It was a stupid button, but a thoughtful sentiment. You were a church organist in the Bronx, and given what I see as a clear spiritual element in your music, I was wondering to what degree actual religion – in terms of dogma, scripture, church, etc. – plays in your life and music.

Baby Dee: I'm always tempted to lie at this point and say none whatsoever. Please don't be insulted, but to ask a question like that in an interview where the interviewer is almost certainly going to be compelled to edit and alter the response is, as far as I'm concerned, a license for me to lie my happy little heart off.

I mean let's be honest. You and I are both entertainers here.

Dusted: Perhaps, but I'm trying to get at something inherently unique in your very personal form of entertainment. In any case…

Baby Dee: There was a great saint of the Eastern church, Maximo the Confessor, who got caught up in the middle of this big argument.

Jesus was God and had only one nature (which was politically expedient) – picture one of those bibles where the words of Jesus are printed in red ink vs. Jesus who had two natures in that he was really God and really a man (which was politically suicidal). Maximo thought the idea of God having a human nature was a thing worth dying for. And I love that.

An obscure "desert father" who happened to be a woman – Ama Theodora – was asked how to recognize a good spiritual teacher and said he'd have to be "full of concern and a lover of souls." And I love that.

I don't honestly know if these have anything to do with the things you mentioned – dogma, scripture, church – but I suspect they don't. I mean... anybody who doesn't get the heebie jeebies hearing words like those is not somebody I want to spend a lot of time with.

So if being comfortable with those words is a requirement for being religious then I am definitely not religious (or if I was, I'd never admit it). If loving the Ama's and Maximo's of the world makes me religious, than I'm happy to admit to being religious.

In my experience with the Catholic church, I found deeply religious people to be a lot less self-righteous than deeply anti-religious people.

Dusted: In general what are your thoughts on the relationship between spirituality and music?

Baby Dee: I think it’s a good thing. But like any relationship, the hard part is keeping it honest.

Dusted: Can you elaborate on this a bit? Are there any artists that you think have accomplished this synthesis in an honest way?

Baby Dee: That's hard mostly because … who knows what's going on inside the artist. Maybe Lawrence Welke was Jesus in disguise. Maybe Pat Boone is more blessed than the Dali Lama and he's just having a laugh on us – acting the fool. Mortifying his own ego, humbling himself to look like a moron to the rest of humanity in order to keep the demon of self-esteem at bay.

I suppose what I'm saying is that it's ultimately a matter of conscience. A private thing between the artist and object of his worship.

I do tend to think that the more over-the-top-ish show people – the Little Richards and Marc Almonds – have a better chance at staying real because they've taken on the superficial as a part of what's authentic about themselves. I love that.

Dusted: How would the process become dishonest?

Baby Dee: It just happens naturally. Like a child – this divinely real deal entity – who at the age of 4 (or maybe even younger) starts acting like someone he saw on TV – end of childhood.

There's a wonderful Chaplin film where he steals the identity of a minister heading to some frontier town and arrives and gives a sermon. After a few false starts, he somehow gets the hang of it and has the congregation eating out of his hand. Then they start clapping and cheering, and he goes from bashful gratitude to strident glory-hound in a few magnificent seconds.

Dusted: Rather what keeps things honest, so to speak?

Baby Dee: I don't know. There's no formula. Mostly I'm guessing... the shit that happens? Luck? Bad luck? Good luck? An otherworldly wish for whatever that thing is.

Maybe it's the willingness to let the thing die a death. I think maybe a lot of great stuff is ruined by trying to keep it alive too long.

Dusted: Finally…Yankees? Indians?

Baby Dee: I haven't been enthusiastic about baseball since Rocky Colavito was playing and that was a long time ago. But, I guess I'll be true to whoever that was (whoever I was when I was 5) and go with the Indians.

By Nate Knaebel

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