Baby Dee- Safe Inside the Day

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Anyone still thinking of the early ’90s dance act who hit big with ‘Let Me Be Your Fantasy,’ get wise. That was Baby D. God knows, she may still be out there somewhere. This is Baby Dee; a 54-year-old, transexual harp player and former performance artist from Cleveland, via New York. Including her shock of frizzy ginger hair, she’s not much under six feet tall, with an exaggerated stage accent somewhere between a Brooklyn cabbie and a Batman supervillain, and a frequent, irresistible laugh that has to be heard to be believed. She’s performed as a grotesque Shirley Temple tribute, a fake hermaphrodite, a touring circus freak and as the musical director of one of New York’s most respected Catholic churches. She’s worked with Antony and the Johnsons and Current 93, too.

None of which is really relevant, but on the other hand it is, because while Safe Inside the Day, her third album, is a remarkable record on any terms, it’s also a highly personal and autobiographical work that draws heavily on Dee’s intriguing, unconventional life history. Something else that doesn’t matter, but also totally does, is that Safe Inside the Day is produced by Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and Matt Sweeney, who also play on the record, leading a band that includes, amongst others, a surprisingly subdued Andrew WK. The reason this doesn’t matter is that you should love this record regardless of whatever well-known, hip, cult names are attached to it, but the reason it does is that Billy, Matt and friends have done an incredible job.

You see, the full band arrangements on Safe Inside the Day sound very different from what you’ll have heard if you’ve seen Dee live over the last couple of years. Then, she’d have been singing and performing solo at the harp, occasionally taking a turn at the piano only if there happened to be one in the venue. But here, there’s actually hardly any harp at all. Any worries that a conventional band setting would dilute and tame Dee’s unique appeal prove unfounded, however; Matt and Billy more than do her songs justice, putting a whole different spin on them and evoking at various points Brecht and Weill, Celtic ballads, German lieder, French chanson, and contemporary artists like Tom Waits, Lou Reed, The Tiger Lillies and David Bowie, who have drawn on similar pre-rock, European chamber music in their own work. Safe Inside the Day is at times dark, tender, uplifting, frightening, funny, serious, raw, stylised, innocent and knowing; a high-wire act teetering between soul-baring vulnerability and contrived, vaudevillian performance, and all the more effective for it.

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Dee was born in 1953 in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of a firefighting chief who was himself a somewhat eccentric, larger than life character; a man who was used to giving orders and having them followed, and who collected crowbars, a hobby alluded to in the song ‘The Dance of Diminishing Possibilities’ (“my father’s affection for his crowbar collection was Freudian to say the least”).  He also insisted on his children having piano lessons, and was particularly keen on hearing them play Schubert’s Der Erlkonig. This was a musical setting of the Goethe poem of the same name, a dark and haunting piece about a dying child being spirited away by the faerie king of the title, who uses first seduction and then force to drag the child into the realm of eternal sleep.

The family resonance was hardly surprising. Dee had an older brother who died in childhood before she was born, an event which dominated and overshadowed her existence until she left home, at eighteen, to finally begin her own life as a portrait painter in New York. This was in 1971, and in the Big Apple it was the era of Andy Warhol, Max’s Kansas City and The New York Dolls, but Dee remained almost entirely divorced from contemporary popular culture. Despite being a self-confessed high school hippy with a love for Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Cash, the rock scene of the late sixties had touched her only in passing and, renting a loft on 23rd Street, she completely ignored the goings-on at the Chelsea Hotel next door, concentrating instead on painting huge canvasses that filled her entire room. She also bought herself a piano, and later a harp, something she’d wanted ever since as a child she’d seen her Cleveland neighbours drag an old upright piano onto their lawn and smash it to pieces; the iron harp inside was the one thing that they couldn’t destroy, and for Dee it became an enduring symbol of the eternal, that essence that survives all assaults and transmogrification, even death.

Gradually, Dee found she was painting less and making music more. She began busking on the New York streets with her harp, and made a good income from it too. She decided to study classical music seriously, something she later put down to youthful insecurity and a need to fit in, but she soon found that she really didn’t belong in the uptight, conservative conservatory scene. She learnt her chops though, and was also introduced to perhaps the great passion of her life: Gregorian music.

Dee became obsessed with Gregorian chants and songs. With discovering them and owning them, in the sense that once you learn and understand them they become part of you, they’re inside you forever. They were so simple, but so vast and important and profound, that they seemed to contain the whole universe. Oh yeah, Dee was hooked alright. And she knew her stuff. Well enough to become the musical director of one of New York’s major Catholic churches, despite her lack of formal qualifications, or any formal religious faith, for that matter. For ten years she led the choir and headed up all the concerts, taking it very seriously, proud that they never played any schmaltzy crap during her tenure, not even a Schubert Ave Maria. It was strictly quality, and eventually Dee even made enough money for her sex change, so that she could really become a she. Unfortunately, this was a step too far for the church, and despite her ability and success, Dee rapidly found her position somewhat untenable.

It was time for the next phase of Dee’s mythical career. By this time it was the early nineties, and throughout the next decade Baby Dee became a legendary figure on the New York streets, performing on her customised tricycle with the harp fitted on the back, singing and playing the accordion, smoking a cigar and dressed as Shirley Temple, or a cat, or a bee, or… well, you know. It was Baby Dee. It was make ’em laugh, make a buck, move on. And she was good at it. Some nights she would perform in clubs, but she had to take a cut in her income to do so, because there was no way they could afford to pay her what she was making on the streets. She even brought her act over to Europe, and the Edinburgh Festival, billing it as ‘The Invasion of the money-grabbing hermaphrodites.’ The former classical scholar had developed a real taste for the sleazy, carny imagery of places like Coney Island, where she worked for a summer as a bilateral hermaphrodite act, dressing one side of her body male and the other female, and falling in love with an angry young dwarf whose act included being crucified, crushed beneath slabs of concrete and broken glass, and dragging huge weights around with his penis. Other circus and freakshow gigs included stints with the Voluptuous Oddballs Circus Sideshow and the Brindlestiff Family Circus. They were crazy, heady times.

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Then, in 1999, she gave it all up. She went back to Cleveland and nursed her father through his final illness. She took a job as a tree surgeon, satisfying her love of heights, and for the first time, began writing songs. Alright, not quite for the first time; she had written songs before, but comic songs, parody songs, bawdy, vaudeville numbers that would work out on the street or in a crowded drunken bar. But the new songs were different. They were personal, sensitive, introspective; they reflected Dee’s love of early classical music, her bittersweet experience of life and her feelings about people, the universe, and the sheer wonder of existence even amid the encroaching darkness. She sat at her piano in her room in Cleveland, writing and recording these songs, and when they were finished she would send them back to her friend in New York, Antony Hegarty.

Dee and Antony had met years ago on the city’s gay, transvestite, performance art scene, and had worked and played together many times. With his band The Johnsons, Antony had just released his debut album, for which Dee had arranged all of the string parts. Now she was hoping that Antony might like to cover one of her songs. Instead, he was sending them on to David Tibet, who had released Antony’s album on his Durtro label. Tibet, of course, is also the leader of the long-running experimental music collective Current 93, who have gone from being pioneers of gothic and industrial music in the early eighties to being founders of what’s now known as dark, apocalyptic or freak folk on albums like 1988’s classic Earth covers Earth. Tibet loved Dee’s demos just as they were, and released them as the first of several CDs she would put out on Durto.

This could have been the end of the story, had not fate intervened one more time. Apart from the odd gig with Current 93, Dee had no intention of playing her songs live, and wouldn’t have known how- her vaudeville background hadn’t exactly prepared her for presenting such personal, introverted material on stage. That is, until she dropped a tree on someone’s house. A little old lady named Mrs Ferrara, who Dee recalls to this day as a saint, emerged, thankfully unscathed, from the ruins of her home not to rage at Dee, who was in floods of tears, but to console her. It’s okay, Dee, she said; everything happens for a reason. Dee took the hint, and that night called every contact she had, looking for a way to get out of the tree business, and back into the music business. David Tibet put her onto Matt and Billy, who were coming through Cleveland touring their collaborative Superwolf album, and needed an opening act, and… well, that’s where we came in. Dee rearranged her songs for the harp, so that she could take them on tour, singing and playing the harp simulataneously for the first time ever. Well, a gal’s gotta do what a gal’s gotta do; there were cats to feed, after all. 

Since then, Dee’s toured Europe and America several times, opened for Marc Almond at his post-bike crash comeback show (where he covered two of her songs), and oh yeah, recorded this astonishing album for new label Drag City. The valedictory title track works as a powerful love song and even as a kind of hymn, but most effectively as a celebration of music’s power to heal even the gravest of wounds, and its ability to provide at least a temporary sanctuary from the world’s pain.

Dee’s voice is cartoon-like as it shifts from stage whisper to emphatic declaration, and the songs themselves could easily have come from some classic old Disney movie. The cartoon quality actually adds to the emotional power and depth of the songs, bringing something of the chilling resonance of nursery rhyme and fairy tale to the performance, and Dee herself seems almost like a vintage Disney character, with all of the darkness and pathos that implies.

‘The Earlie king’ is a case in point, a re-working of Der Erlkonig that uses the original song-poem to reflect on Dee’s relationship with her own father, and the piece’s resonance within their own lives. It also deals with the idea that real-life tragedy, and actions that determine our entire destiny, often have no grounding in reason and no rational cause. When we try to trace back the chain of thought and deed to where it all began, it leads nowhere, the trail disappearing in a haze of smoke and mirrors, phantoms and illusions, “fairy tales and falderal.” But by the time we realise this, it’s too late. And the song itself sounds like Disney’s Fantasia as re-imagined by Tom Waits, provoking first uncertain laughter, then chills, then finally alone in the dead of night tears of mingled joy and terror. For me, this is the album’s finest moment, and a key track in the overall narrative.

There are many gems, however. ‘A Compass of the Light’ feels like an ancient Irish ballad, a song that WB Yeats might have written new words for, Dee’s tender piano playing augmented by beautifully subtle curlicues of Lou Reed-like guitar from Matt Sweeney, and strings from Max Moston, Bill Breeze and John Contreras. Andrew WK brushes the traps softly in the background. ‘The Only Bones that Show’ has Dee playing some understated, funky stride piano, locking in perfectly with Andrew WK on bass- his playing really is a joy throughout- as gradually they’re joined by James Lo on drums and Matt Sweeney on clipped wah-wah guitar, and then the strings and woodwind doing a fine impression of a Stax brass section, via a tipsy 1920s tea dance, as Dee celebrates that existential moment when you know you’re really alive, inspired by her tree climbing experience.

 ‘Fresh Out of Candles’ opens with the poignant lines, “Back in the fifties, Clark Kent died… it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s suicide”, and concludes by asking, “when did it start feelin’ like a sin to hope, a sin to pray?” In between are images of religious dissillusionment, loss of faith and innocence, over a tense, low-key groove straight from Transformer, choppy guitars and bass underpinning Dee’s wistful vocal, the high, elegaic strings and a twist of woodwind. 

Dee is alone at the piano for the rambunctious vaudeville stomp of ‘Big Titty B-Girl from Dino Town,’ some ribald light relief declaring how “you just can’t keep a good albino down.” Two instrumentals follow: ‘A Christmas Jig for a Three-legged Cat,’ which sounds just like its title and could easily pass for an authentic seasonal tune from Medieval times, with Robbie Lee taking the lead melody on the recorder, and ‘Flowers on the Tracks,’ a gorgeously understated chamber piece featuring Dee on both piano and harp, accompanied by Max Moston on violin and John Contreras on cello.

‘The Dance of Diminishing Possibilities’ is the other key narrative track, telling the story of how Bobby Slot and Freddy Weiss went to town on that old upright all those years ago in Cleveland, and how when they did it was love at first sight for Dee. “There’s a harp in that piano, and there’s a girl inside that boy, and my daddy’s crowbars are his pride and joy,” she sings, belting it out like some drunken hillbilly showtune. Another instrumental follows, the queasy, seasick ‘Bad Kidneys,’ a Weill-esque interlude showcasing Dee’s accordion skills, before we conclude with ‘You’ll Find Your Footing,’ another celtic-sounding ballad, with Dee singing back through the mists of time (excuse the cliche, but you can feel the mist) to her younger self, reassuring her that, eventually, it will all be relatively alright. Just like in a Disney movie, you will find the place that you belong.

   Baby Dee UK tour dates:

March 19 Newcastle The Cluny

March 24 Coventry Taylor John’s House

March 25 Norwich Arts Centre

March 26 London Bush Hall

March 27 Reading South Street Arts Centre

March 28 Bristol Cube Cinema

Safe Inside the Day is out now.         

www.babydee.org

www.myspace.com/theonlybabydee

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4 Responses to “Baby Dee- Safe Inside the Day”

  1. Henry Triggs Says:

    Excellent! If I could write like this I would be well chuffed. The more I see articles of such quality as this (which is rare), the more I think there might be a future for the Net. Keep it up, as it were.

  2. Baby Dee « ligeramentedesafinado Says:

    […] La biografía de Baby está llena de cosas extraordinarias. Llegó a Nueva York en la época de Warhol, pero en lugar de mezclarse con la cultura pop, se compró un piano y un arpa, estudió música gregoriana y se metió en el coro de una iglesia del Bronx, donde pasó diez años como directora musical y organista. Su carrera eclesiástica terminó cuando, con el dinero ahorrado, consiguió pagarse la operación de cambio de sexo. A la iglesia no le gustó el asunto y Baby se fue con la música a otra parte. […]

  3. Ali Jan Says:

    Love it….he is a Genius!!!

  4. Bruce Says:

    That’s a really nice piece.

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