Anyone who thinks New Orleans has a monopoly on the delightfully odd hasn't yet met Baby Dee. The classically trained harpist, accordionist, male-to-female transsexual and tall-bike aficionado " who's worked both as a church organist and a circus freak " is the kind of character who'd be the toast of downtown Mardi Gras or Southern Decadence. And she hails from Cleveland, Ohio. The 50-something artist cuts a majestic figure " she's the kind of grande dame of gutter glitter that John Waters' dreams are made of. She's put in decades as a glorious underground celebrity. Raised in suburban Cleveland, Dee escaped to New York in 1972, where she eventually supported herself busking with her harp, in a bear costume, in Central Park. She also worked as a performer in a Coney Island sideshow, which in the late '80s and '90s became a major locus for self-styled freak culture. Alongside body-modified strong men and tattooed contortionists, she exhibited herself as a bilateral hermaphrodite (in half-male/half-female costume, split vertically down the middle) " a persona she also took on the road with the now-venerable alternative freak show the Bindlestiff Family Circus.
The path to the circus and rock 'n' roll stage was not a direct one. Classically trained as a harpist and pianist, Baby Dee studied conducting in New York and nurtured a passionate fascination with Gregorian chant and Renaissance-era religious music. On the suggestion of her conducting teacher, she learned to play the organ and got a job directing music at a church in New York's South Bronx, where she stayed for 10 years. Eventually, the stress of living in a male body proved untenable, and she made the decision to surgically transform into the woman's body that she'd felt was her true form for most of her life. In an interview with NPR, Dee said the aftermath of the transition was harder to bear than she'd expected. Hurtful comments and staring embittered her at first, she said. So she made the decision to really provide something to talk about.
'It was like, if people are going to look at me all the time, then I was going to give them something to look at, and I was going to look back at them, too," she told the radio network. 'There was an attitude there." After returning to street performing and joining the sideshow, Dee released a flurry of recordings on the Durtro label in 2001 and 2002, including a double-disc set debuting an eerie and intense cabaret style that seemed to be a step towards reconciling the classical artist who loved the music of the church with the unique personality its tenets could never accept.
'I was good at the sacred, and I was good at the profane. But I could never get the hang of anything in between and I went from the street to the church to the street again. And then I stopped," she says. Happily, she didn't stop for too long. Last month, Drag City Records released Safe Inside the Day, her first studio album since 2002. During the making of the record, Dee moved back to Cleveland after more than 30 years in New York.
Safe Inside the Day is a glorious example of what cabaret music can be: intimate, exuberant and tragic, enveloping deep and sometimes biting emotion inside witty melodies and clever rhymes. Baby Dee herself has a voice and a style somewhere at the intersection of Ethel Merman, Joel Grey and Bobby Lounge. She's a formidable belter, an engaging storyteller and a little bit scary in her intensity, though she'll always seduce a listener back with a wink and a joke. The standout song on the album " which features guest spots from Andrew W.K., Will Oldham and members of Antony and the Johnsons " has the Brechtian title of 'The Dance of Diminishing Possibilities," which tells the story of a 4-year-old Dee and two accomplices finding an old piano and smashing it to bits. Inside the wreckage they discover the component that fascinated Dee the most: the metal harp that was the source of the music, the one part they couldn't break. The song, without being maudlin or obvious, gently reveals the very appropriate metaphor: once you obliterate the outer shell, the inside might be the toughest and most beautiful part of all.
- Jim Newberry
- Transsexual cabaret-singer Baby Dee shines some freak-show limelight on her passion for classical and church music.