On a rainy day, or an interminably long sunny day — a windy one — you might try huddling up to a new record called Safe Inside the Day, by the well-traveled and charismatic harp player, pianist, vaudevillian songwriter and utterly beguiling singer named Baby Dee.
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An angel, Madonna and leopard skin: quite a combo
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 — 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 — a better one — 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 Must Die. That was around the time that she decided to quit recording and become a tree climber.
“I totally left myself behind there. It was a good thing. It worked.”
Baby Dee's voice may make you cry, a voice that's a very special instrument — one of those gender transcenders that artists such as, say, Antony, or Nina Simone way before him, used to such strangely deep-cutting effect. Dee's enunciation and phrasing are different, so precise and fine-edged — 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 — 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 makes one wonder 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)” 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 ROAD.”
Baby 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, she is enjoying immensely her new life as a recording artist and touring musician. Her live band — 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 aspirations?
“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.”
If you could do it all over again …?
“I would have drunk more.”
Baby Dee performs at the Echo on Sun., Feb. 17.