This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Signal to Noise magazine’s Spring 2008 issue.
Baby Dee talks about the old German folk tale of the Erlkönig as if it really happened to her—back when she was still a boy, growing up in Cleveland.
The Erlkönig, a king with a beard and a flowing cloak, appears to people who are about to die. In one of his most famous poems, Goethe described a father carrying his son on a nighttime journey. The boy sees the Erlkönig chasing after them, but the father sees nothing but a wisp of fog. The boy hears the Erlkönig seductively whispering, “You dear child, come along with me! Such lovely games I’ll play with you.” The father reassures his son that the voice is just leaves rustling in the wind. And then, when the man reaches a farmhouse, the child in his arms is dead.
As a boy taking piano lessons, Baby Dee played the Schubert song based on Goethe’s poem. His father liked the tune. And now, the story has surfaced again, in a song called “The Earlie King” on Baby Dee’s album Safe Inside the Day. In Baby Dee’s version, the Earlie King lures his victim by promising “all the bacon that a boy can eat.”
What does that medieval North European myth have to do with this 53-year-old singer, pianist, harpist and former circus performer, who went through a gender change when she was in her thirties? Baby Dee is reluctant to reveal the whole story. In an interview, she is frank and open about her life at one moment, guarded the next.
“Some of these stories get a little bit personal,” she says, “but in my family, there was an encounter with the Earlie King, before I was born. And my father was acquainted with this whole scenario. And so the song for me is about that whole idea of this imaginary thing that has very real, very terrible consequences.”
Whatever happened—and whether it was real, imaginary or metaphorical—Baby Dee felt a personal connection to that folk tale about a father who’s oblivious to a deadly apparition stalking his child. And now those childhood memories are the foundation of Baby Dee’s vivid lyrics.
Bring me a whisky, get me a beer. / What’s that song I like to hear? /‘The dreamy child, the father proud and strong.’ / I kind of like that song, the one about the Earlie King. /Daddy, I can see him, his coat so shiny bright, /Behind us in the night, I can see the Earlie King.
Last November, Baby Dee previewed songs from Safe Inside the Day at the Hideout in Chicago, an old drinking hole for factory workers that has become a hip, but still scruffy, music venue. Baby Dee sat down at the Hideout’s weathered upright; the piano’s front face had been removed for the occasion, revealing an array of strings not unlike those on the harp sitting nearby. A tall, imposing figure with a shock of curly orange hair, Baby Dee wore a turquoise blouse, plaid slacks and work boots, with a leopard-pattern scarf draped around her neck. A Virgin Mary T-shirt occasionally peeked out from beneath the partially buttoned blouse.
As Baby Dee sang in a tremulous falsetto, her head shook a little and her hair flopped around. Moving from the piano to the harp and back, she also switched abruptly between intimate songs such as “The Earlie King” and more ribald cabaret tunes.
“I know what to do next,” Baby Dee said at one point. “The song about the bee. Are there any albinos in the house? No? Good. It’s probably just as well.”
And then she proceeded to sing “Big Titty Bee Girl (From Dino Town).” The title probably refers to the fact that Baby Dee used to wear a bee costume (as well as cat and bear outfits) during her career as a street musician and sideshow performer. But the song, which sounds like a rousing drinking-hall tune, is mostly about albinos. According to the lyrics, “You just can’t keep a good albino down”—even if you torment, beat, molest the albino, make fun of his eyes, or “tie a sausage to his dick and sic your dog on him.”
The audience sputtered with disbelieving laughter. “I don’t like to brag,” Baby Dee remarked, “but wasn’t that the stupidest song you ever heard?”
The room fell into stunned silence as Baby Dee performed some of her most heart-wrenching and wounded songs. And then there were more gasps as she played a series of ditties designed to offend people of various religions. One song was about a bear that likes to eat Mormon underwear. Presbyterians, Hindus and Methodists were also at the receiving end of some crude jokes. “God’s got a plan for you,” Baby Dee proclaimed at one point. “He’s going to fry your fat ass in hell.”
It’s not unusual for Baby Dee to shock audiences. “I always remember Dee telling a very explicit sexual story once at a show in London,” her longtime friend and collaborator, David Tibet of Current 93, says via e-mail. “I was with Marc Almond, himself no stranger to the demimonde, and he slunk back in his chair, blushing whilst saying, ‘How can she say that? It is so outrageous.’ Then she slipped straight into the most angelic song, whilst a businessman and his lady escort slipped out of the room with jaws hanging open in shock. I laughed a lot, but not as much as Dee did.”
Safe Inside the Day, Baby Dee’s first recording for Drag City, will undoubtedly bring her more attention than any of her previous projects. As a harpist, she’s bound to draw comparisons to Joanna Newsom, though her music is a different animal altogether. At times, her falsetto is reminiscent of Dee’s friend, Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons. But Baby Dee also sounds at times like a transgender Tom Waits or Groucho Marx.
“It’s not just aesthetic for her. It’s her way of being in the world,” Hegarty says. “She lives a very mythical life.”
Her life does indeed sound mythical. A self-taught expert on Gregorian chants, Baby Dee has also been the musical director of a Catholic church, a professional tree climber, and a harp-playing bear in Central Park.
Baby Dee recoils at being called a singer-songwriter, not liking the connotations that label carries in today’s music scene. “You can call me a crabby, phony hermaphrodite,” she says. “You can call me anything you want, but don’t call me a singer-songwriter.”
She picked up her name when she was working as a topless dancer at the Pyramid
in New York, which she calls a “tranny titty bar.” The nightclub’s promoter started calling her Dee. “Some neighbor of hers had had a demented child named Baby Dee, and I reminded her of the demented child,” Dee says, laughing. “How could that be?”
Asked about her actual name, Dee says, “My legal name is Dee Norris, but everybody knows me as Baby Dee. My birth name is nobody’s fucking business. There are places that I’m entitled not to go.” (Like everything else Dee says, even profanity-laced remarks that look harsh in print sound good-natured coming out of her mouth.)
Baby Dee’s earliest memory is painting her toenails with her mother’s nail polish. She remembers other children pointing at her red toenails when she went to a swimming pool. Baby Dee appeared to be a boy to the outside world, but she knew that, inside of herself, she was female. “All trannies know it when they’re very little,” she says. “I knew it. Absolutely for a certain fact.”
But for thirty years, Dee would hide this fact. “If I came out as a tranny, when I was in high school, that would have been real bad. I’ve known people who went that route, and very few of them survived. And the ones that did, they went through some rough times.”
Dee’s mother was one of her biggest musical influences. “She just sang constantly,” Dee says. “She knew thousands of songs. It seems as if any song she ever heard, she knew it—wonderful, obscure songs nobody had ever heard of.”
Baby Dee says neighbors weren’t all that friendly in the mixed-ethnic Cleveland area where she grew up, on West 39th Street near Gunnison. “All the kids were afraid of everybody’s father,” Dee recalls. “Fathers were like the crabby little dictators of our world.” The neighborhood did come together for one peculiar moment of impromptu destruction and celebration, however. Dee recalls the incident in her song “Dance of Diminishing Possibilities”:
Bobby Slot and Freddy Weiss were not so nice, / But I liked their names a lot, / So I’ll say ’em twice. / Bobby Slot and Freddy Weiss achieved a modest renown / When they took an ax and went to town / On an old upright. / And it was love, it was love, it was love at first sight. / 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.
“They were a couple of bums who lived across the street from us,” Dee says. “They had a piano, right? And they wanted to not have a piano. They dragged the piano out of their house, and dragged it out to the curb. The garbage man came up, and they said, ‘We’ll help you put it in the truck.’
“The guy said, ‘No, no, no, no, no. I’m not taking anything that doesn’t fit in a garbage can.’ And so they just started demolishing the piano on the spot. They just started bashing it in. Everybody came … It was like a block party. They were using sledgehammers, axes.
“My father really did have a crowbar collection,” she continues. “At one point, he worked for the railroad. I think he must have ripped them off from the railroad yard or something. They were like huge, about five or six feet long. He would just admire them. He had them in the corner…
“So they started demolishing the piano and my father brought his, like, Nine Iron. He had to pick just the right one.”
In the 1960s, Baby Dee listened to the same rock music as the teens around her, but it didn’t have the same impact. “I like Hendrix. I like the Doors. I like the Who,” she says. “I liked all these things, but it didn’t stick. By the time I got out of high school, I never listened to that stuff. I liked playing the piano … but I didn’t listen to music a lot. I was never into that. I feel a little two-faced about being in the business of selling records, because I don’t buy them. I don’t have a CD player in my house.”
Dee began writing music at a young age, but stopped when she found it hard to notate on paper. She didn’t think a career in classical music was possible because performance standards were so high. “A person who does music because they really love music—that’s someone you should look down your nose at,” she says. “Where does this attitude come from? It’s really, really fucked up.”
After high school, Dee moved to New York in 1972, hoping to become a portrait painter. “I wanted to be like John Singer Sargent, make everybody look like Queen Victoria, you know?” she says. But she soon found herself playing the piano more than she was painting. A costume shop in Queens was going out of business, so she picked up a bear costume. She also bought a harp, an instrument she had never played before, and began performing every day in Central Park.
“I wanted to change species,” she says. “People are very nice to bears, especially if the bear can play the harp.”
Later, while earning a living as a cab driver, Dee became obsessed with Gregorian chants, singing the sacred tunes to herself inside her home. The simplicity of the music appealed to her, and she discovered that the pieces seemed to come alive if she concentrated hard enough on singing them. “To me, that was completely miraculous,” she says.
She was singing the chants phonetically, not understanding the Latin lyrics. But at the same time, she had become interested in the writings of Ovid and began studying Latin. One day, it all clicked. Dee remembers the specific place where she was walking—turning left onto 96th Street from Broadway—when she suddenly realized the meanings of all of those words in the Gregorian chant.
Baby Dee led an informal choir to perform music by the Italian Renaissance composer Giovanni da Palestrina, whom she calls “the greatest, greatest composer who ever lived.” Dee also studied conducting at a city college, but her teacher became frustrated with her lack of interest in any music written after 1600.
“He couldn’t deal with it anymore,” Dee remembers. “So he said, ‘Look, if all you want to do is that shit, why don’t you just learn how to play the organ and get a job at a church?’” She decided that was good advice, and Dee soon had a job as the music director at a Catholic church in the South Bronx. Church music was a good fit for her philosophy that music should be participatory. “It’s a fucking revolutionary idea,” she says. “Music is something you do. You don’t listen to it. You do it … It’s the difference between the thing being outside of you and the thing being inside of you.”
Dee isn’t a practicing Christian, but she made many friends at the church and looks back fondly on her years there. Dee’s lyrics in songs such as “Fresh Out of Candles” make it clear that religion and spirituality are important subjects for her.
Now, Saint Christopher got big and strong / From luggin’ babies all day long, / Keeping Jesus from gettin’ wet. / And I guess that’s just the thanks you get, / Now he’s off the wagon and out of luck, / Gotten drunk and wrecked the truck, / And all the little cherubim are singing, “Why’d you have to pick on him?”
She left her job at the church when she became Baby Dee. “I finally faced reason,” she says. “I changed gender. And it was obvious. I could see the writing on the wall. … There was just no way I could show up one day and say, ‘Well, I’m a girl now.’”
And so Baby Dee went back to working as a street performer, riding around New York and Europe on a high-rise tricycle, playing music for any couples she spotted who appeared to be in love. She also had stints with the Coney Island Circus Sideshow and the Kamikaze Freak Show. Sometimes she was “The Bilateral Hermaphrodite”—half-woman, half-man, split right down the middle, with a black suit on one side and a red dress on the other.
In the mid-1990s, Antony Hegarty met Dee for the first time. “She was go-go dancing on the bar at the Pyramid, topless and playing the accordion,” Hegarty says. “Later I would see her around town on her tricycle in a cat outfit, singing for people in cafes and on the street.”
But Baby Dee left New York and returned to the house where she had grown up in Cleveland. She spent the coming years caring for her ailing parents, both of whom have since died. Dee also began writing songs, at first just for herself. She finally came to the decision that her music should be more than a private act.
“All of a sudden,” she says, “it wasn’t enough for it to just exist within myself. I thought, ‘Well, come on. People ought to hear it. This is stupid.’”
Dee mailed cassettes of her songs to Hegarty. “I was so moved by the depth of the poetry, and the intimacy of it all,” Hegarty says. “The music was obviously very personal, and at the same time iconic and universal.”
Hegarty passed along the tapes to David Tibet, and in 2000, Tibet released the first Baby Dee album, Little Window, on his Durtro label. Baby Dee also played that year on the Durtro debut by Antony and the Johnsons, and she began playing with Tibet’s band, Current 93.
In 2002, Durtro released Baby Dee’s second album, Love’s Small Song. (Last year, Durtro/Jnana reissued Baby Dee’s first two albums and an EP as the two-CD collection The Robin’s Tiny Throat.)
And then Baby Dee stopped writing songs. As she explains in her self-penned press bio, “I thought I had said everything I had to say and there was nothing left to say so I simply stopped.”
To make a living, she started a tree-trimming business. “I started my own [company] because nobody’s going to hire a 50-year-old hermaphrodite and teach him how to climb trees,” she says. “That ain’t gonna happen. Believe me.”
Of all things, why go into tree climbing? “That’s a good question,” Dee says. “The only thing all my jobs have in common is that I was always up high. Even in church in the choir loft, I was way the fuck up there.”
The business was not without its mishaps. “Nobody died. We did have a couple of dismemberments, though. Not for me,” Dee says, laughing. “I had some very close calls, but I didn’t die. Those things are fun—something really dreadful happens and you’re still alive. You’re like, ‘Yee hah! This is great! I love this!’ That’s kind of crazy, but that’s what it’s like.”
Memories of her childhood eventually drew her back into songwriting. Will Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and Matt Sweeney, who were touring to support their 2005 album Superwolf, asked Baby Dee to open for them at a Cleveland gig. “This was a godsend to me,” Dee says, “because some months earlier I had dropped a tree on a house … and that put me out of business and into debt and deep shit so I needed to find a new way to make a living.”
That night was the first time Baby Dee had ever sung while playing harp. The microphones were placed poorly, and Baby Dee’s set was barely audible. “But eventually,” Sweeney says, “the crowd hushed up and listened. At the end of the night, I remember saying goodbye to Dee and feeling like something great went down that night.”
That experience led Oldham and Sweeney to produce Safe Inside the Day at Rare Book Room in Brooklyn last August. Originally, Baby Dee wanted to record new versions of some songs she had released earlier on a limited-edition CD and book called A Book of Songs for Anne Marie. She thought her new songs based on those childhood memories were too dark and personal to record. But Oldham encouraged her to be brave, writing to her: “I feel like part of the point of recording, of making records, is to put in us what we don’t have in us to do!”
Oldham says, “I think she was worried about the negativity implicit in some of this newer set, but drawing the songs out into the light—safe inside the day, as it were—in the company of friends and loved ones would show the possible positive qualities of the songs.”
In addition to Oldham and Sweeney, the record features Andrew WK on bass, Bill Breeze of Psychic TV on viola, John Contreras of Current 93 on cello, and string arrangements by Max Moston of Antony and the Johnsons.
Oldham wanted to give Baby Dee’s songs all the attention and care they deserved. “Too many times I hear records and wish that I could have been a fly on the wall at the session,” he says. “A very big fly with a loud voice and huge hands—to stop them from doing the stupid things that they do because no one cares.”
One of the songs Baby Dee was the most reluctant to record, “Fresh Out of Candles,” became her favorite. “I really hated that song,” she says. “I didn’t want to do that song. To me, it’s the darkest thing I’ve ever written. It’s so extremely dark that it becomes like a cartoon. It just takes the darkness to such an absurd level. I needed somebody to tell me it was OK to do that. Will was the only person who could do that for me.”
In the studio, the band created a groove for the song, with an echo of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch,” and that groove gave Baby Dee a way to perform the song she hadn’t seen before. “They created this place, this way to do the song,” Dee says.
In one of the photos in the CD booklet for Safe Inside the Day, an ax rests on the piano in Baby Dee’s home. Another photo shows the house at night. A harp can be viewed through a bay window, brightly illuminated for all to see. That’s how the house actually looks to passersby on almost any given night. Baby Dee said she wanted to make a statement different from her neighbors, many of whom hang American flags in front of their houses.
“I want people to know that having a beautiful interior is lot more important than having a fucking flag outside,” Baby Dee says. “Instead of being out there waving your fucking flag, it would be better to have something beautiful going on on the inside, you know?”
So Baby Dee finds herself back in the same neighborhood where Bobby Slot and Freddy Weiss once smashed a piano to bits. She’s back in the same place where she used to play a Schubert song for her father, who didn’t understand what the story of “The Earlie King” meant to that child at the piano.
Daddy, can you hear me? / It’s got so hard to speak, / I’ll kiss your bristly cheek, / And go with the Earlie King, / Up from the table, / My brother’s tiny soul / All gone, swallowed whole, / Taken by the Earlie King.