I Don’t Feel Like Myself Today
Sin, Television, and Tammy Faye Starlite
As Texted To Jimmy McDonough
Reading time 127 Minutes
What you are about to read
What you are about to read was created via a series of texts, emails and Google documents. Tamar “Tammy” Debra Lang Hartel, aka Tammy Faye Starlite, is 5’3”, very blonde, and pretends to be other people for a living. I never actually spoke to her for this story.
Tammy’s carved out a strange career. First came faux country singer Tammy Faye Starlite, then one-woman shows ‘channeling’ Nico and Marianne Faithfull. Her eerie portrayals have earned rave reviews in the New York Times and Rolling Stone. A queen of the perverse, Tammy’s 2018 project was performing Their Satanic Majesties Request—generally regarded as a lesser Rolling Stones album – in its entirety. The result was sold-out crowds and an enthusiastic endorsement in The New Yorker.
Regard her as simply some sort of hipster mimic, though, and miss the boat. Tammy’s a provocateur, a cabaret punk, and she’s on a kamikaze mission. Experiencing her live is to take a trip through a head buzzing with passions sacred and profane. Starlite dons the outsized personalities of her beloved icons only to lay herself bare, exposing some very idiosyncratic obsessions. In the course of one recent show, Tammy referenced Margaret Hamilton, Fonzie, Aldous Huxley, Richard Dawson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Mitchum, William Blake, Keats, Hitler and Simchat Torah (“a Jew holiday,” as she put it).
Tammy frequently crosses the line. Some walk out. Certain Americana stars won’t appear on the same bill with Starlite, afraid of her wicked tongue and what it might unleash about them.
I asked Tammy to describe what she does.
“On a basic level, I perform. I stand (or sit) in front of people and pretend to be someone else, in order to release the unconscious without consequence. Because it’s not me – but the truth is, it is. To be me by not being me, and to communicate with the audience to alleviate the (collective? I shouldn’t presume, but I do anyway) loneliness. That’s the idea and the ideal. I hope to create a little world free from the restrictions of good and bad, to transport all in the room to a realm of complete acceptance, where there is no such thing as wrong.
“I can’t imagine not being someone else or somewhere else. Life would be meaningless to me without pretense. And each show is a cryptic crossword with the answers on the periphery, and I love to discover the solutions, only to move on to the next clue. It’s a circuitous route to the genuine self. That sounds so freaking pompous. I hate myself for writing it.
“Essentially, I show off. Because I need the approval. And the company.”
Tammy. I find her oddly compelling, and perhaps you will, too.
Unless you want to kill her.
– Jimmy M
Note: Tammy is not only a fierce interpreter of material written by others, she’s a compelling songwriter in her own right, and we’ve included a plethora of tracks here, many of them previously unreleased until now.
“So you love diet soda”
– So you love diet soda.
It’s the most perfect invention. Something so sweet and you can have as much as you want without consequence. If there is some chemical consequence down the road, well, it’s just a quicker ride. Cold, flat Diet Cherry Pepsi. I open up cans and leave them in the refrigerator for a day or two to make sure the bubbles have been smoothed out.
I drink it with instant coffee—to which I then add NatraTaste. Today I stole a fistful of Sweet ‘N Low from Starbucks, which I do fairly regularly. I need it to add a bit of a bitter kick to the NatraTaste.
I don’t trust fountain soda.
– Oh really?
I don’t think the diet is really diet.
– Should I hire you a food taster?
Please! I think they don’t care if some sugar slips in.
– No fountain soda, ever?
None. It’s a scam!
– So you think Abe is back behind the counter thinking, "I'll slip a little sugar into that diminutive blonde yet!"
Yes!!!! Because Abe is trying to save money.
– You have proof of this fountain drink sugar-drop cover-up?
It’s just a sense. And a fear. I have no proof. It’s the only conspiracy I subscribe to. I don’t think Bobby killed Marilyn.
– I bet you have a thousand and one such peccadillos.
I think that’s an accurate number.
I’m not that interesting. Because I didn’t have to overcome any significant obstacles. My childhood wasn’t traumatic. I didn’t have to struggle. I succumbed to fear of anything that would open my eyes to another world beyond my insularity.
And I never want to fetishize my life, or my periodic pain, to say, “My life is so unique and special and I’ve been through so much.” It’s not. I haven’t. I’m a Jew from the Upper West Side. I’m fortunate. So it’s hard to think of anything I do as noteworthy. Or particularly interesting.
MEET THE PARENTS
My father was Irving Lang – Judge Irving Lang. Born in Borough Park, Brooklyn, 1929. His parents were Moshe and Anna, both Jews from Poland.
I think my father favored me over my brother. They were close but had a fractious relationship. I knew he loved me. We watched Family Feud together.
He was an Assistant District Attorney under New York political bigshot Frank Hogan. My father refused to prosecute Lenny Bruce. But when he was Commissioner of Narcotics under Rockefeller, he wrote those notorious drug laws. He didn’t really like them, though.
Then he was made Acting Supreme Court Judge by Mayor John Lindsay. He presided over the Jack Henry Abbott case, the career criminal Norman Mailer not only got published, but helped get out of prison. Abbot stabbed a man to death when he got out. I remember my father saying, “It was manslaughter, I couldn’t give him any more years!” As I recall, Dad liked being on TV. He was a Democrat. Very soft at heart, my father, kind and funny. A bit of a yeller, but without much bite. He’d do anything for my mother, Judy.
She was born Judith Regina Theodora Talarico in Rochester, NY, to Sam Talarico of Calabria and to Regina I-can’t-spell-her-last-name because it was so freaking Polish. Mom was political – she campaigned for Stevenson (just like Richie Cunningham), she marched against nuclear power, she worshipped John Kennedy. She was the first one in her family to go to college – she fought for it, despite her mother’s reluctance. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from the SUNY Buffalo and got a fellowship (not the verb) to Columbia School of Social Work. She loved college life and would say to me, “Tammy, the boys all said I was built like a brick shithouse!”
Dad wanted to marry this Catholic Rochesterienne, and he knew his parents would be upset by a non-tribal daughter-in-law. So he went to Turkey and Israel to figure out his heart while my mother got to know her future in-laws—and decided to convert to Judaism. After the tearful conversion ceremony my father said, “The wedding’s off.” His parents and my mom stared at him. “I never liked Jewish girls.” Oh, the laughter.
I loved my parents. I was overly attached to my mom – I couldn’t be without her. When I first went to nursery school I held tightly onto her leg. She was home to me. The only time I hated her and my father was when I was 3½ and they brought home this little bundle of shit, my brother David. I was livid.
They bought me some generic doll as compensation, and I truly remember thinking, “They can’t buy me off like this!” When that stupid baby was crying and my mother asked me, “Oh Tammy, what should I do with your brother?” I replied, “Why don’t we throw him down the incinerator?” I still don’t like anyone else pulling focus. I grew to like the little fucker, though.
My parents were supportive and generous, but often, on weekends, they’d leave me and David with the grandparents while they went off and, I don’t know, had sex or went to cocktail parties or whatever ‘70’s parents did. All I know is that I felt guilty because I didn’t want to stay with my grandparents, and Sunday I’d spend all day on the porch, waiting for my father’s car to pick us up. I’m still waiting.
My grade-school years were halcyon. We lived in an apartment on West End Avenue between 87th and 88th, and I went to a tiny Jewish day school on the Upper West Side – B’nai Jeshurun.
And all through my preteen years I was always doing plays, writing plays, and pretending to be someone else – from Laura Ingalls Wilder to Jo March to Farrah Fawcett to Loni Anderson. Never myself. I had to leave my own Bat Mitzvah because I was sick – sick of myself becoming “a woman.” I think I’m stuck in that crack betwixt tween and adult.
Farrah Fawcett. Oh my God, she was so beautiful. Her mane, the perfect shade of California-by-way-of Corpus Christi-blonde, shimmering like summer. Her smile, which welcomed all inside, a bienvenue blonde gleam of pristine white. In my deepest heart all I wanted to be was beautiful, and I looked at her and she mirrored my Platonic ideal back to me, and I became her, despite my brown hair, brown eyes, skinniness, braces, and glasses I wouldn’t wear to see myself more clearly. I was such a spazz. And then I got blonded.
TAMMY ON THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING BLONDE
A French colorist named Francis once said to me, “You are blonde inside.” It’s the Aryan ideal, I guess, and those folks had high standards. Marilyn. It’s never not Marilyn.
Beauty is the only thing that counts. I get blown and painted in Secaucus on a regular basis by my hairstylist/makeup artist Dina, who is brilliant. She understands the need for lush lips and glittering eyes.
My mother used to tell me that she felt that if she found the perfect lipstick, her life would be complete. I feel the same way. It’s simple. But to quote Lou Reed, “Some simple things are hard to understand.”
I only become blonde women with odd voices and odder personalities.
I don’t think I had one. It’s all a blur of velour, cutting my hair into Farrah wings, hating my braces because I couldn’t chew the new oral sensation of Freshen Up gum squirting in my mouth. And Grease, the movie.
Grease made my adolescence make sense! I lived in Manhattan, but didn’t see the Broadway show prior to the movie – and it was a Delphic Oracle, an epiphany! It blew my mind to shrapnel and reassembled it into destiny. “Rock” music combined with a cornucopia of exploding stars!
I didn’t want to be Sandy. I wanted to be Rizzo, the bad girl. And I didn’t find Travolta sexy, but I fell hard for Jeff Conaway, who played Kenickie Murdoch. He looked lustful, like a bad boy rocker who would fuck you sideways. (It was only a few years later that I realized Kenickie looked a lot like Keith Richards.)
I went to summer day camp in White Meadow Lake, New Jersey (where all Jews have their summer home) and while I wasn’t popular, I could get a circle of kids around me by spontaneously bursting into “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee.” And Andrea, the queen bee at camp, decided that in our little production of Grease, I would play Rizzo. Andrea was my champion.
This was huge, like I jumped the entire caste system into the stratosphere of some form of celestial renown! To say I was obsessed with Grease is a massive understatement. I saw it ten times in the movie theater. I bought the photo-novel and memorized every line. I wore out the soundtrack and learned every word. I lived in the Rydell High of my mind, with a Shake Shack in my Gloria Vanderbilt coated hips.
And there’s Charlie’s Angels. Happy Days. Laverne and Shirley…
– How much TV do you watch a day, do you figure?
– Why, let's talk about that, Tammy.
Ever since the emergence of my visual consciousness, I’ve been obsessed with TV. It’s been my best friend. From Underdog to the Flintstones to Josie and the Pussycats. It’s company. It lets me breathe. It’s less emotional than music.
As a child I became oddly obsessed with game shows. Particularly ones that had to do with words. I love the suspense between the guess and the answer. And I gravitated toward Match Game. The vibrant personalities of the three stalwarts: Brett Somers, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Richard Dawson.
Richard Dawson was…different. There was an aloofness inherent in his external joviality. He had the deepest empathy with the contestants. He matched with most frequency. He could get into their minds and guide them to $5000.
I had/have such a crush on Richard. His covert Englishness, barely perceptible by the erasure of his accent, but still present in his comportment and wit. (I love all things British, starting with the accent. There’s the repression and its release. The quiet lust that screams through the damask. Noel Coward’s elegance.)
Richard often wore turtlenecks with a jacket and medallion. He seemed very grown up. His hair was generally in a Caesar cut – not my preference – but it worked for him. His eyes glimmered with arcane knowledge and barely hidden lust. Even back then I knew he was a pod person. A certain type of person – who I know, I just know, has a similar unfettered sexual nature. I keep mine under wraps and cloaks, but I know it when someone is simpatico.
Wait – I forgot a crucial element of his charm! I just call it The Feint. During the super-match, after the contestant has chosen a correct answer to one of the three choices, they would then have to pick on a celebrity to match exactly to an oral blank. And everyone inevitably chose Richard, because he could get inside their heads.
So Gene Rayburn would say, “[BLANK] tobacco.” And Richard would write down his answer and when he was finished, Gene would ask the contestant for a word to fill in the blank that would hopefully match Richard’s word.
So she’d say “Chewing tobacco?” Always tentatively…it was a tense moment.
And Richard would give her a rueful frown and say, “Oh, darlin’, I was thinking of Charles’ pipe...” And the audience would moan in sympathy with the impending loss of $5000 – but then he’d give a sly smile, turn his card around and say, “So I said ‘chewing.’” The feint! And the contestant would scream and run to kiss him and bells would ring and the audience would cheer wildly.
– Please imagine sex with Richard Dawson, Match Game style.
Richard would open his _____ graciously, like a _______. We’d sit on his velour couch and he’d _______ and gently _____ me. And then it would begin. The delicate but ______ caresses. He’d _______ me into the bedroom and ______ his ______. And I would succumb to his ________. Richard would then lose all pretense of _______, and let his animal nature ______ him, and me. I would ________ into his eyes and see myself. And I would _____ him ________.
[Note: Tammy invites you to fill in the blanks above with any of Richard’s Match Game answers below.]
– Name some of your TV heroes, if you would be so kind.
Brenda Leigh Johnson from The Closer. Lennie Briscoe from Law and Order.
– Back further into your childhood.
Melody from Josie and the Pussycats.
Betty Rubble. Fonzie.
Mackenzie Phillips on One Day at a Time.
– This is great. Exhaust yourself.
Nancy Bradford from Eight is Enough.
Cassiopeia from Battlestar Galactica.
Luke Spencer, raper/husband of Laura Spencer.
– Were you allowed to watch as much TV as you wanted as a child? Was it preferable to have you parked there?
I believe so. And I saw all these characters and actors as templates. I wanted to be them all.
– What would happen if The Man took away your TV?
I’d sneak in another TV. Or watch Match Game on my phone.
– If you were to die in front of the television, what show would you want to be on?
I guess any episode from Season 5 of Law and Order.
– Why Season 5?
Because Jerry Orbach was there, and Chris Noth, S.Epatha Merkerson, and it was Sam Waterston’s first season. The innocence combined with the power cast!
– And that's what you'd like to die in front of?
Maybe season 3, episode 9. Jerry Orbach’s first episode.
He emerged from a cloud of fog.
– What is the Orbach obsession?
He’s the essence of New York justice, and the embodiment of “to live outside the law you must be honest.” His demeanor reminds me of the New York I remember. And of my Dad’s world.
I even miss Son of Sam.
TAMMY’S FIRST PERIOD
TAMMY'S FIRST PERIOD
I got my period pretty late, at 14. My mother always said to me, “You’re a late bloomer!” I remember feeling a little sick that morning, and when I went to the bathroom in school with my cousin Elisa (I don’t think teenage girls ever go to the bathroom alone). I noticed all this blood in my cotton, and I called Elisa into the stall and asked, “Is this it?” She looked and said, “Yeah, that’s it.” She was taller than I was and had matured already, so I trusted her assessment.
Whenever Elisa or I had subsequent periods and we slapped on the pads, we’d say, “ I’m walking ahead of you. Look and tell me if you can see it. Just say yes or no.” Our high school was a Yeshiva so we had to wear skirts. Modesty was key. We spent those four years saying yes or no. Thank God for Judy Blume or I wouldn’t have known what was going on. She prepared me for so much to come (or not to come).
I read every one of Judy’s books. I think all ’70’s kids did. Blume was a Jew. That was a comfort to me, I don’t know why. My favorite was Deenie. Because Deenie was beautiful. The pain of her back brace and how she cut off her hair—that was almost too much pain. Nothing was worse to me than short hair. I still have dreams about my hair being cut. I knew Deenie would regain her complete beauty. But her obstacles were the highest level of torture.
And, of course, there was Forever. That was the dirty one. I remember in fifth grade I wrote my book report on Forever. I couldn’t stop laughing as I read it to the class. I thought I was so subversive. My teacher, Debbie, was an ally. She understood me. She introduced me to the lead singer of the Village People, Victor Willis – the Policeman! – when we were walking together on 86th and Broadway after school.
I read William Goldman’s Tinsel when I was 13. My mother took a three-hour bubble bath every night. She’d hold up whatever hardback she was reading above the bubbles. I used to visit her while she was in the tub and we’d have our little time together. Sacred to me. She worked constantly, and this was my only time with her alone. But I had to compete with the ever-present book.
She ingested books like food, which she rarely ate unless it was sticky and sugared. She would read to me from her books. Usually they were boring. Anthony Trollope or Robert Ludlum. But the one that she read while we were on vacation in Los Angeles (significantly enough!) was different. And it was in paperback! So glamorous.
The author mentioned Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. The characters were three beautiful women and one suave Jewish movie producer. Hollywood to me is like Carolina to James Taylor. The glamour, palm trees, lights – all the celebrities, whose names carry the hallowed weight of saints and prophets.
I coveted those steam-bloated pages. I waited and waited for her to finish it. And I finally got it in my hands.
We were back east, and for some reason my brother and I had to stay with our Rochester grandparents (my grandma Gina and her third husband, the stoic Joe, who’d get ticketed for driving too slowly). I couldn’t believe my parents left me again (my brother too, but he didn’t count). I stared out the window as their car pulled away.
And then I turned to Tinsel. By William Goldman. He wrote funny and canny and with a deep, knowing sensuality. I was lost in the beauty and the swimming pools and tennis courts and Bel Air (I can’t swim or play tennis and I don’t even remember if Bel Air was mentioned) – and in the pain of Dixie’s age and Pig’s synthetic breasts (which exploded) and Ginger’s Jewish anorexia and sexy sex with a woman. And the eventual realization that they’d never get to Moscow, because it ended with Barbra Streisand triumphing!
Which galled me to no end, because my mother often told me Barbra was the greatest singer in the world, and she was my mother so I knew she was right – but I didn’t hear it. I didn’t like that voice—too Jewish, and that tone! – and I knew it was my own fault for not allowing Barbra inside! But that book pulled me through that week of being away from home and parents because I wasn’t in Rochester. I was in Carolina. I mean Hollywood.
JUDY, SCARLETT AND MICK
When did I discover my love for an audience? When I was born. My mother told me the story: I was two weeks late, so they had to a Caesarian. I was breech, too. I didn’t want to leave the womb.
Once I was forcibly extricated, my mother awoke to find the nurse holding me up in front of all the other mothers, and my mom said, “That’s my baby!” And the nurse said, “This is the Demonstration Baby!” (Because I wasn’t all wrinkly from the vaginal viaduct. I was smooth.) And that’s when I intrinsically knew that I belonged to the world.
My parents’ musical taste was rather dull. My mother loved Ella Fitzgerald, the aforementioned Barbra…and my Mom had Judy At Carnegie Hall in her record collection. As a kid I was a freak for all things MGM. I was very deeply affected by seeing Gone With the Wind around age 10. I wanted to be Scarlett O’Hara – someone who grabbed without remorse. I knew I was really a Melanie. Sappy. Compliant...but I did love to cause trouble.
Back to Judy. She sent my soul reeling with her vibrato and her pain through the Showbiz Smile. She was complete. I could see her through the record. I’d belt out her songs ad nauseum in the living room. “Zing, Went the Strings of my Heart.”
The first song I did in public was “William’s Doll,” from the Marlo Thomas album Free To Be You and Me. I was six. And I forgot the words. So the school principal said, “Can anybody in the audience help Tammy with the words?” That’s why I memorize every lyric to the letter of the law. And I’ll still fuck up.
As a kid I was acting and writing plays, which I performed for my parents and their trapped friends. I think one was called “Stella, the Slave Girl.” I directed and played the auctioneer. I was around 11, maybe 12. It was about a black slave girl who falls in love with another slave during the civil war. She’s an idealist. He’s a realist. I wrote a song for it called, “If Only.” My little cousin played the slave girl. No, she wasn’t black. She was a Jew. The power of theater.
I also rewrote West Side Story. The ending. I was very upset that Tony died at the end. I understand the point Arthur Laurents was trying to make: prejudice is dangerous and can lead to tragedy if not checked. And, of course, the Shakespearean template, which is probably more salient. But still, it really wasn’t optimal. So I decided that in my version, Tony gets shot, Maria leans over him, consumed with grief, she goes into the “How many bullets?” screed, but then Tony lifts up his leg and pees. And then we know he’s alive. Problem solved.
So my love of music was combined with acting, theater. I knew I wanted to act, and I just associated music with theater in terms of musicals. When I started freaking out to rock and roll, I never thought I would really do it. Being a “rock singer” was the fantasy, theater was my reality.
I discovered the Stones at 14. I saw them when they were on Saturday Night Live touting Some Girls. They did “Shattered.” They scared me. The tongue. I was still fearful of the darkness. But then, a few years later, I was watching the Solid Gold TV show and the video for “Emotional Rescue” came on. And I felt it – that pull. The first album I bought was Tattoo You. God, I loved it. I still do. The overt sex. The sound enveloped me and I felt those songs bodily. Favorite Stone? Mick. We’re both preening July Leos. He’s my ideal self.
I actually stood in front of Mick Jagger’s townhouse (only six blocks from our apartment) when I was 15. In a mini-dress, chatting up the bodyguard, waiting for Mick to emerge into the waiting town car. Then my friend Anne hit me, then pointed and shouted, “Tammy! Look!” Mick was walking into the townhouse – and as he walked past me, I screamed, “Turn around!!!! Turn around!!!!” And he turned around. And smiled. I melted into my high heels. And the bodyguard blocked me and told me to get away or he’d call the cops. But I got what I wanted. Or, perhaps, what I needed.
My friend Sherry and I had an imaginary band, Jasmine Candy. We wrote a song together called “My Bubblegum is Pink” (which I remembered always and recorded with noted indie-producer Kramer in 1997 for the Reasons in the Sun album). Another song we wrote was based on a teacher’s speech impediment. Jasmine Candy never really played, we just thought of the name and then evaporated.
TIME OUT FOR TAMMY ICONS
Nico. Debbie Harry. Farrah Fawcett. Loretta Lynn. Marianne Faithfull. Judy Garland. Mick Jagger. Tammy Wynette. Linda Ronstadt. Mavis Staples. Marilyn Monroe. Lou Reed. Carlene Carter. Otis Blackwell. Steve Marriott. Tammi Terrell. Tennessee Williams. Goldie Hawn. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Dylan Baker as the rapey dad in Happiness. John Keats. Frank O’Hara. Diamanda Galas. Danny Fields. Penny Arcade.
It really began with Blondie. I saw them do “One Way or Another” on TV and I needed a new blonde fixation, since Farrah had her wings clipped…they were too onerous for her delicate bones. Debbie Harry – she’s been rhapsodized endlessly, and I’ll just add that it was the sugar-salt sweet silk of her voice and her punkette mien that drew me in. It’s always the voice. The singer, not the song – but no, the song too. Debbie was a railing I could grab onto during hidden hormonal shifts. She was Grease personified. I lived in her beauty, which is like Versailles.
And she propelled me from the cocoon of my UWS womb into the talons of the Upper East Side silver edifice called Ramaz on Manhattan’s east side. This was my new high school, shaped like a tinsel Torah. I don’t know why my parents sent me to these Jewish schools with dual curriculums – Hebrew and English subjects, separated just like the boys and girls during the twice-daily prayer sessions, Shacharit and Minchah, morning and afternoon worship.
But I do know why. It wasn’t really the religion. They sent my brother and I Jewish schools because we’d be safe. From sex. From drugs. And fuck it, their plan worked.
But going to the East Side was to enter into a completely new realm, new mode of existence. Not necessarily innocence to experience, but innocence to Long Island accents and Junior Chanel suits. From pie to cake. By 10th grade my friend Dana and I figured out how to hide in the 5th floor bathroom during prayers and talk about INXS (her band) and the Stones (my band).
Freshman year I didn’t wear my glasses. I’d walk around dizzy and squinting and the cool kids (meaning the JAPs from Great Neck and the dark-haired wiseass boys named Marc because that’s fancy in New Rochelle) thought I was a stoner, which I wasn’t. But I would have been one if someone had asked me to smoke with them – although I would have been scared, because I was scared of everything. I mean, am scared of everything.
TAMMY GETS A CHEST
When I was 15 I got contacts, bleached my hair, put on tight jeans and Candies on my feet and there I was. And now I had breasts, which a boy named Adam pointed out: “Lang! You got breasts!” I wanted to be objectified.
I wanted trouble so much. But I couldn’t do it. Fear. Of what, I don’t know. I loved to preen and liked to be looked at but that was it. It was all very innocent. If there was actual verbal contact I withdrew. One boy I made out with begged for a blow job – “You don’t know how it feels!” I just told him I didn’t want to take it any further.
One day I decided after watching an episode of One Day at a Time that I wanted to be Valerie Bertinelli, so I had my hair dyed back to brown by my mother’s colorist, Christopher. (My mother had taken full advantage of her new status as fundraiser for United Jewish Appeal – she didn’t cook, we had a housekeeper named Marie raise us, and she wielded her Fendi bag like an Israeli with an Uzi.)
Big mistake. I was unhappy with my brown hair – it was instantly apparent I wasn’t Valerie. And I was Farrah no more. Not special, not better than the other Jews! I came home from the salon, got into my pink bathrobe, and started screaming and throwing everything I could all around the apartment like a hurricane.
My brother was so frightened that he went down to the lobby and stayed there for two hours until my parents came home from work. They tentatively entered our home to find a spent, sobbing lunatic lying on the living room floor. The only thing that made me feel better was when my dad called his good friend, Judge Eve Preminger (Ingo’s daughter, Otto’s niece), in desperation and she told him to tell me that with brown hair I looked just like Gene Tierney. Even then I was a movie-star worshipper who thrives on comparison, so I was appeased.
TAMMY ON BEING JEWISH
It’s always a convenient excuse for not lifting things. Like most Jews, I cover my sadness with a broad smear of humor and walk the streets in the cloud of a minor key. It’s fun to commiserate with other Jews. Jews in rock often have curly dark hair and are skillful lyricists.
I wrote an Anne Frank song once. It was for a fake Broadway musical called “The Plucky Little Tulip of Auschwitz.” It started out with a prelude of sorts: “Dear Kitty/ It’s getting/ Really cold/ In this attic/ Anne Frankly/ It’s boring/ I’m tired/ I’ve had it/But the one thing that keeps me from going totally manic/ Is this voice in my head that says, ‘Hey, Anne/ Don’t panic…” There’s one other line I remember: “Attacks on the Jews are the usual practice/ Oh, those Germans can be a big pain in the Axis.”
I was going on at this one performance space, and the whiny (I mean lovely) proprietress said to me, “No Holocaust humor!”
I did the song anyway. She whined (I mean said) to me afterwards, “Tammy, I told you no Holocaust humor!”
It took everything in me to refrain from saying, “DON’T YOU TRY TO OUTJEW ME, MOTHERFUCKER - DID YOU HAVE 12 YEARS OF YESHIVA? DO YOU SPEAK HEBREW? NO? THEN FUCK OFF!” But I just smiled and said, “Sorry.”
– Is there a special thrill for Tammy playing non-Jews?
Definitely. Because it’s a wish, of sorts. And a skewed sense of pride, because I can pass. Maybe they wouldn’t have put me on the train.
– Any tips for Jews playing non-Jews?
Don’t complain about the lack of air-conditioning.
And if someone compliments your coat, don’t tell them about the discount.
Let the pennies stay on the floor.
And for those who require it, foreskin replacement.
MY LITTLE RUNAWAY
MY LITTLE RUNAWAY
The summers of 10th grade and 12th grade I went to a two-week theater camp at French Woods. (My previous attempts at sleep-away camp were pretty disastrous. I was 11. I cried every day – and wrote letters begging my parents to take me home on Visiting Day, which they did. I ran into my mother’s arms.)
Rutgers had big fancy theater camp. I didn’t get into any plays, even though during the auditions the director said, “Hey, listen to her, she’s got a good voice.” I certainly wasn’t Andrea McArdle, but I was OK. And when I saw that I wasn’t chosen, I decided that it was time to go home. So like Jesus, on the third day, I left. I packed my little bag and started to walk the 2 and ½ hours by car distance back to White Meadow. I remember that Alicia Bridges’ “I Love the Nightlife” was playing on the camp sound system.
There I was walking, dragging my little bag behind me, when a guy in a car pulled up and said, “Hey, I saw you walking before, do you need a ride somewhere to call your parents?” I said, “Yes! Thank you!” And he drove me to some diner and I called my parents collect and said, “Hi, Dad!” He said, “Hi, Tammy, how’s camp?” I said, “I ran away.” And his tone changed and he yelled for my mother. “Oh my God! Judy!”
And then the camp called with an emergency break-through to tell my parents I was missing. The camp head came and got me, sequestered me in the office, and told me that my parents were coming to pick me up and I couldn’t talk to anyone else because I was a bad influence. I didn’t care. I was going home! I thought my parents would be so thrilled to see me. They were not. They barely spoke to me on the long ride back to White Meadow. So what? I got what I wanted.
I performed in more plays and my identity was inextricable from the Rolling Stones, since (unbeknownst to them) we’d now moved in together, living in my mental attic. So I was a play-doing Stones freak. I began going to clubs around the city. I started to dance. Alone. And made out with strangers, but came home alone. To pirouette into a private whirl of defilement. Flouting my non-halachic twirling pink diaphanous miniskirt with unmanifested Je Ne Regrette Rien.
STICK INSECTS AND DEAD FLOWERS
In the summer of 1983 I read Edie, the oral history of Edie Sedgwick by Jean Stein and George Plimpton. I hadn’t known about the Warhol scene. But I gravitate towards the superficial, and Edie was a uniquely beautiful woman-child – or to quote a quote attributed to Nico, “A stick insect.” She was virtually translucent with her cropped silver hair, it accentuated her huge brown eyes and her sylph-thin frame. Marilyn halved into filigree.
My body had never given me problems – I ate what I wanted, I was thin with a belle poitrine, but I wasn’t Edie. And later that year I suddenly realized that I couldn’t eat out of a jar of chocolate frosting with impunity. A friend said to me, “You’ve gained a little weight.” You’ve gained a little weight. I hid under the covers then resolved to lessen my intake and up my activity. I started eating less and less, and it got easier to manage the hunger because the reward of Edieness was plenty satisfying.
I’d gotten into New York University’s Tisch School as a theater major, and I moved into a dorm – granted, the dorm was just downtown, but I can’t abide living under someone else’s auspices. It was hell.
Jesus God, I hated Tisch. I was put into the “Experimental Theater Wing” and the pretension was overwhelming. Oh God, those theater exercises! “Now we say a line and run to another chair.” I hated them all. “Be an animal.” I hate being an animal. I hated “contact improvisation.” I hated my four roommates. I hated groups. I wanted out.
I’d roam around the Plaza hotel because it was a palace of safety. I’d go into the dress shop and say – with full Gabor accent – that my name was Eva. And that I was Hungarian. I hid beneath he false patina of royalty-manque. I kept a diary for a while and I remember writing that I wanted to be a ghost. Which, in effect, I was.
I decided to become a creative writing major, which was much less emotionally and psychically taxing on my fragile little self. I continued to take acting classes outside of school. And right before Thanksgiving, I told my parents I had trouble with food. And could I please leave the dorm. And come home. It wasn’t like the damn university wasn’t a subway ride away.
But they said no. I asked my father if he thought it meant I was a failure and he said, “Well, yes.”
Over the holidays I started eating again. So much that I gained about 15 pounds – and went to a doctor and learned that it was because my metabolism had slowed. So that’s when my gym obsession began – as well as strange eating patterns that kept me stable physically but unstable in every other way.
My mother wasn’t too great in dealing with the eating thing at first. And she was a social worker! The first time I told her, she seemed to go cold. And a few years later when I called her and told her I was in a bad state, she said, “Well, get help.” Later, though, she became extremely supportive. Came to every show.
Maybe my lowest was 90 pounds. But that was the worst point. Not hospital-worthy. Just enough to secure my elitist white Jewish girl status. Later on a mean boyfriend actually called my mom and told her I needed real help. So I went to this center called Renfrew, and fellowshipped for three months with other food-disordered women. It was great. We told our fears and when I spoke about my fear of fountain soda another girl said, “I have that too!”
In my second year of college my parents relented and I got to live at home. I don’t know if they were thrilled – but again, so what. The eating trajectory over the years is jagged and trapezoidal and too boring to detail, but certain periods of my life spurred me to go for the low end, beginning with my father’s sudden death in 1987.
I didn’t have a tragic childhood, I wasn’t molested (unless I’m super-repressing some dark memory, but I doubt it). My father’s death was the first time a square became a triangle. And I really don’t like to fetishize these “tragedies.” I can describe the death if you like. As I often say about the Holocaust, it’s funny now.
In September of 1987, my mother and I went on a mother-daughter trip to Bermuda. We didn’t have fun. We were a bit snappy to each other, and the night before we left, my mom had an awful migraine. My dad called us – he was home with my brother, they were going to visit Grandma, and we said goodbye.
The next day my mother and I flew home, still mad at each other, and when we got to the airport, my dad’s first cousin and her husband Alan were waiting to pick us up. Our families were so close, I didn’t think anything of it – I just figured it was nice of them to come get us. But there in the parking lot they stopped us from walking to the car.
Libby said, “There’s been an accident. Irving had a heart attack. He died.” My mother fell over and I started screaming. I felt this steam rising up between me and reality. They got us to the car, and we found out that my father was driving back from his mother’s in Borough Park with my brother, and when he was in the Battery tunnel he suddenly sped up and once out of the tunnel, he said, “Oh, David” and slumped over the steering wheel and the car rolled to a halt outside the tunnel.
My brother burst out of car, ran onto the West Side Highway screaming, “Somebody help my father!” A Good Samaritan got them to a hospital, but my father didn’t make it. No one wanted to tell my mother and I while we were still away. We got back home and my mother once again fell over, this time onto the bed, sobbing, “ I can’t believe he’s dead!”
My brother was inconsolable. My grandmother was in shock. My friends somehow knew and came over. I asked my cousin Jennifer to stay over because I didn’t know how I’d feel when I woke up. Eve Preminger was there and gave me a key to her Central Park West apartment and she said, “Anytime you need to be alone, or want to talk, just come.” My mother didn’t get out of bed for about six months. I’d stay with her.
– What do you miss most about him?
His humor. His willingness to do anything for me, for my mom. He and David watching the Giants together.
– Watching Family Feud?
Yes!!! And playing backgammon with him. I always need to be the white. More feminine.
– So if it were up to you, would you still be living at Mom and Dad’s?
Yes. 565 West End Ave. Apt. 18D.We had two terraces.
– Do you ever go stare at the apartment? have you been back?
My best friend of early childhood, who lived in the penthouse, took me back in late 2014 to visit her mom, who still lives there.
Very strange. I think I blocked out any heavy emotions, as I tend to do.
– Right. I noticed. There's a running theme in your early years of trying to get back there.
It’s funny, I said about my brother, at his funeral, that hopefully he was back with my parents, at home.
I would love to live in my old apartment. With or without my family. But that’s a John Conlee view of the past. I knew they weren’t on my side.
– And they were always leaving you!
Yes. Always waiting.
– That's got to fuck with a kid's head.
I guess. I never thought I had a hard childhood.
– Did you always feel like the rug might get pulled out at any moment? Poof, they're gone?
I feel that way about everything. Everything is fragile. I can break it if I’m not careful.
BLONDES TAMMY WILL NEVER BECOME
Joni Mitchell. Dusty Springfield, because I can’t. Untouchable. Taylor Swift. Joan Blondell. Paul Williams. Kim Novak – too sleek, too elegant. Mary Travers. Rick Wakeman. Kristin Chenoweth. Peter Cetera.
TAMMY LOSES HER VIRGINITY
TAMMY LOSES HER VIRGINITY
I so wish I could be cool and say “Oh, I started fucking at 14” but no, whatever inner fears and reservations I had overrode my secret wish to be a groupie or at least a girl who had sex with someone like Mick Jagger. Or sex with anyone. Or go on dates. I’d occasionally make out with a guy at some random club but then I would pull away, like my parents in the car going off somewhere without me.
By age 19 I was thankfully blonde again, living at home, and taking acting classes while going to NYU every day to write my asinine poems and hold forth on Hemingway’s phallic trees.
All my high school friends had lost their virginity. Not me. I wanted to, desperately. I didn’t really try to meet anyone.
But luckily, I was doing a play at our synagogue, which actually put out casting notices and hired real aspiring actors as opposed to Uncle Morris camping it up as Cap’n Andy in Showboat. (OK, Cap’n Andy was played by a member of the shul but the rest of the cast were thankfully non-Jews.)
I don’t think I had much to do in the show, I just wanted to be in it and dress up. There was a very cute boy/man named Eric in the chorus and he’d walk me home every night and we’d have long talks about who knows what – Mandy Patinkin, maybe.
Fast forward to the cast party, which I held at my apartment because my parents went Aruba. After everyone else left, Eric stayed. And danced with me (he was the dance captain of the show, and I’m totally Liza). And then he took me to my room, which was wall-to-green wall to yellow shag carpet with walls covered in Mick and Keith.
Eric put me on the bed, got the condom from his wallet, and there it was, his blue eyes on my shoulder. It wasn’t at all fun but it was done. While he was sleeping early in the morning, I snuck into my bathroom, quietly called my friend Anne and said in a whisper, “I did it!”
Then when he got up, we had maybe coffee or cereal and he told me he was a Lutheran and he left. No great story. Nothing like Forever. I waited for his call. I finally got a message on my machine a week later: “Hi, Tammy, it’s Eric. Call me...when you get a chance.”
I memorized that message, scanning his tone and inflection and cadence for a hint of love or at least, ‘let’s do it again.’ I called him back and left a message. No return call. C’est tout.
TAMMY ON THE BLAKES
William brings relief from the onus of Heaven.
Robert is the sound we hear when we cross on red.
TAMMY, TWO FACES HAVE I
In 1988 I graduated from New York University. I didn’t go to the ceremony. Fuck it. My mother helped me rent a studio apartment on East 15th in the brand new Zeckendorf Towers. Right near Irving Plaza. Not far from the acting studio I was attending. I loved acting. It was my first love and I never went without. Once I graduated college I continued to study and started getting jobs.
When I graduated from NYU my mother told me I had to get a job while I pursued my acting career. I became a telemarketer for a theater ticket service. My one and only job.
You had to get clients to sign up, then sell them discounted theater tickets to various shows. I sucked for three weeks, and then something turned and I became great at it. Everyone who worked there was an actor or director or dancer. I met my first husband there. He was the only person I didn’t mind being in my apartment so I figured he was The One.
The telemarketing boss gave the staff a huge gift – he’d seen a show at an improv theater in Chicago, and he got the rights to do it in New York, produced it and cast many of us telemarketers in this opus: Co-Ed Prison Sluts: The Musical. We ran for over a year and a half
One of the people I cold-called selling tickets was Gary Dell’Abate from the Howard Stern show. I was a huge Stern fan. So I called Gary and asked him if I could come on the show to promote Co-Ed Prison Sluts. He said only if I took my top off. I said fine. Before I went on, our boss/producer told me that the most important thing was to get out the box-office phone number. So when I was in the studio, waiting to go on, I could hear the show in progress. They were talking about me and I heard Howard say that if I just took my top off, he’d mention the play, but if I took off all my clothes they’d give out the phone number and plug the play at the end. I did what I had to do. Howard thought that I needed be skinnier. I weighed more then than I do now, but not exponentially.
I yelled at him on air—“I DO NOT!! “ After we went off, he shook my hand and told me how pretty I was. I was just thrilled the ticket line was ringing off the hook.
I got roles on soaps – mostly under-five and day-player work, and then I did a two-year stint on Guiding Light as one of two wacky maids. The other maid was Allison Janney, who went on to star in a million things. I loved her. We had small parts, but we were popular because we wrote our own lines and did as much bizarre behavior as we could. Allison sang at my bridal shower. Right after I got married I got my first Equity show – The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-the-Moon Marigolds. I was 28, playing a 13-year-old girl. It was at Pennsylvania Stage in Allentown. I stayed there six weeks. It was nice. There were some Nazis in the town, apparently, but they seemed benign.
After that the acting thing started crumble a bit. I began to hate auditions. Hated doing any kind of formal theater. I hated hearing the phrase, “Let’s get it on its feet!” I do love voiceover work, though. You can look like shit and it doesn’t matter. You can color the words. I’d do it all the time if I could. But I don’t want to go to auditions. And most of all, I don’t want to have a “reel.” Or a “bio.”
I started doing “performance comedy” on the Lower East Side. I played the Luna Lounge on Ludlow street, where on Monday nights the elite did “alt-comedy”—Marc Maron, Jim Gaffigan, Sarah Silverman, Janeane Garofalo, and Louis C.K. (I still love Louis. He’s really very kind. I don’t care what he did. I’m a bad feminist.) I hated the idea of doing stand-up, and I didn’t want to go the “I do a million characters! Here’s my grandmother at the Thanksgiving table!” route, so I just focused on one character, one person I could delve into and become – Tammy Faye Starlite.
Tammy Faye started with me doing a stand-alone performance of “Stand By Your Man” at CBGB’s 313 Gallery. That song – it’s so beautiful, so giving, so much in pain. (And the original singer of that song had my name!) I wanted to bring out those qualities with even more vibrancy. So I did it to a taped piano track, and inserted a monologue between the two choruses about being happily gang raped. It wasn’t going to go beyond that monologue. But it was too fun to stop. I liked giving her a last name. It sounded like a cheap motel lounge.
I really loved country music (still do) and I wanted so badly to be a country singer – or at least a fake one. But a real fake.
TAMMY'S A LITTLE BIT COUNTRY
I came to country through the Stones. I ached know the sources of their Mephistophelean power. I followed the blues trail, but there was another aspect to their sound that gave it not only a moan but a kick. And there was Gram Parsons. I loved his duets with Emmylou. And Gram was obviously so cool.
But I needed more than someone so completely accepted by the alt-cognoscenti. While reading an article in Rolling Stone about U2 (I’m not even a fan of the band) they mentioned that they listened to the Judds and I just figured I should do whatever U2 did (what?).
So I bought the Judds’ most current album, Heartland, and when I heard their “Don’t Be Cruel” all my earthly woes evaporated and I felt a peace previously unknown to me. Wynonna’s assured lead with Naomi’s underneath harmony – there was a friction inherent in the ease. “Without contraries there can be no progression.” The tension brought them nearer. They were Whitman made manifest in blood harmony.
And the deeper in I went into country music, the more I felt the harness pulling me backwards – to Loretta, to Tammy, to Patsy (I couldn’t get into Kitty Wells. Too simpering). My mom had taken me to see Coal Miner’s Daughter and what fascinated me most was her breakdown. The crack in the carapace. The tear in the tulle. The discrete personalities within one woman—Loretta Lynn.
And her lyrics - to me, “Fist City,” “Rated X,” and “Deep As Your Pocket” can stand alongside any Cole Porter composition. She’s Cole’s hillbilly daughter.
I saw Loretta perform at Hurricane Mills. I’m glad my friend Lauren Agnelli was with me because I have a witness. Loretta is by far the best performer I’ve ever seen – she’s completely with the crowd, nothing sounds canned, and her spirit and the warmth of her huge voice envelop everyone in the audience like the scent from a Cinnabon.
Lauren and I were in the second row. When Loretta started singing “You Ain’t Woman Enough” I was standing and singing it right back to her, gesticulating with my arms, with my hips. She stopped mid-song, pointed at me and said, “This little girl knows how to sing this song. Why’nt you come up here and sing this song?”
I couldn’t believe it. I walked to the stage and it felt like I was walking through the ether. She handed me the mic and the band started up and there I was, singing that song. As I neared the finish she leaned over to me and whispered, “Say ‘yeah’ at the end.” So I closed it with a big “YEAH!!!” and went back to my seat.
I was somewhere else the whole night. And as we were driving back down a long empty road with almost no visibility through the darkness, we heard on the radio that Princess Diana had just died. A night of ascension.
Later my manager almost convinced the head of Audium Records to sign me. Loretta was on that label. We went to some radio conference event for the label and Loretta was there. The head of Audium introduced me to her as her potential new label mate. He said, “This is Tammy Faye.” Loretta said, “We need to change your name. I’m gonna find you a new name. I named Crystal, you know.” But then the Audium guy finally heard the record and realized that there was no way he could sign me. Apparently, though, as he drove Loretta home she was thinking of names for me. I would have changed my name in a heartbeat if Loretta gave me one.
I also listened to that other Tammy – Wynette. The fragility. The voice that sounds like pink powder exploding into a magenta mushroom cloud. “Sometimes It’s hard to be a woman.” It can be exhausting. I used to wonder why all men didn’t want to be women. I guess there are prisms of reasons. I do love the way Tammy has just a slight pause when she sings, “Even though he’s hard...to understand.” She understands.
I also love the discrepancy between the extreme external glamour and the torn viscera sprinkled with leftover silver glitter. The pining, the yearning, the singed soul of the lamb. These women fascinate me. They’re Blanche DuBois sending a wire to Shep Huntley, Amanda Wingfield clinging to her jonquils.
I read every female country singer’s autobiography I could find. I love autobiographies for what they don’t say. All the elisions and obfuscations…books by Naomi Judd. Tanya Tucker. Loretta. Tammy’s Stand By Your Man. And Barbara Mandrell’s autobiography was fantastic.
She has a quote I used to use a lot: “Christians aren’t better, only forgiven.” To any question she’s asked, she prefaces her answer with, “Thank you!” Then there’s fact that she named her mansion “Fontanelle.” Her car crash and subsequent recovery. Now, I don’t want to offend (!), but I love the post-accident Barbara. Her mind seems closer to some vast truth to which we are not privy. She knows something.
I think she’s a great singer. “The Midnight Oil” – she’s bathing in it, slick and soiled. There’s danger in that slight rasp, a ratchet inside her throat.
TAMMY IS TAMMY FAYE
TAMMY IS TAMMY FAYE
No matter that Tammy Faye Starlite was a right-wing evangelical country singer who was happily incestuous and sweetly racist and anti-Semitic. And inadvertently filthy. She was me.
I love the proscribed. I can’t stand arch. I like to create animus. I love cruelty. Because those are overtones to an even deeper self – the self we constrict. (I sound like a moron!)
But I love contradictions working in tandem. I really don’t have any opinions that are intractable. Because there’s always a 50-50 chance of the opposite.
Doing plays was so restrictive. No following tangents. No genuine communion with the audience. So eventually, Tammy Faye was all I did. She let me sing in my strange voice that isn’t Streisand, but might be...a cat. I don’t know what my voice is. When at it’s best, I’d call my style simple.
I wanted to go to Nashville. I’d written a few songs and I knew that Nashville would understand. Everyone around me said, “You can’t go to Nashville, they’ll think you’re making fun of them, which you are!” But I just knew. I watched The Nashville Network every fucking day and I felt that town. I’d watch that Christian music superstar Gary Chapman on Prime Time Country and he was very charming, kind of savvy…funny, self-effacing, just this side of sly. He represented the modern Nashville. Gary called to me. Amy Grant beckoned. And finally I found my in.
I saw a commercial for “get your songs evaluated by industry professionals for $345 at Opryland Hotel on August whatever!” So I signed up. I enlisted my friend Lauren to play guitar for me. I paid for our plane tickets and a room at Opryland. I was to go a day before her.
But when I got to the airport I realized I didn’t have any ID. They refunded me for the ticket, and my Plan B mind said, “Take the bus! It’ll be romantic!” So I threw the guitar I was bringing for Lauren into a taxi and went to Port Authority. I found the bus to Nashville. I had a little time, so I went to Virgin Records in Times Square and bought four country cassettes for the trip. I love shopping at night more than almost anything. I should have bought forty tapes, because it was 27 long fucking hours on that motherfucking bus.
Finally we pulled into the Nashville bus station. My bag was missing. I sat on the curb and cried. They found the bag. I got in a cab and told the driver “Opryland, please!” I didn’t know that Opryland was in another country. It was so far.
And the cab driver was scaring me. He’d yell back to me, “YOU LIKE GEORGE JONES?” I did. “YOU LIKE TRAVIS TRITT?” Sure. “WELL, THIS IS MY SONG. IT’S ABOUT THE WAR OF NORTHERN AGGRESSION.” He began to sing along with his song. “IT WAS NOT ABOUT SLAVERY/THAT WAS NOT WHAT IT WAS.”
I asked him to stop at an ATM because I didn’t have any cash. He pulled over to a stand-alone machine on a dark and empty road. I was terrified. But I got the money and returned to the cab. The driver put on some Travis Tritt. We arrived at Opryland. It’s under a dome. It’s the size of Israel. And completely disorienting.
Lauren arrived and in the morning we saw the full antebellum glory of Opryland. The waterfalls. The riverboat. The Delta. The Magnolia. I wanted Tara, I got Tara. I just love Nashville. For so many reasons. It’s country music. It’s got secrets. And because it has no pretense of “cool.” As I’m uncool that puts me at ease. So much less pressure.
Lauren took me to Bug Music in Nashville to meet Garry Velletri, the top Nashville Bug. I liked Garry immediately. He was a New Yorker. He listened to the songs I was going to sing that night for the industry professionals. He laughed hard and said, “They’re going to lynch you!” I said they won’t, they’re my people! Then we went back to Southfork Ranch – I mean Opryland – to get ready for our slot.
I put on a long, full, white chiffon Loretta Lynn-style gown. I put white kabuki makeup on my face with very black eyeliner and black lipstick. I looked insane. As I was walking the ten miles through the halls to reach the convention center and the room with the industry professionals were, a woman passed by me and said, “You look pretty.” I was home.
I went into the room with Lauren and sang my two numbers, “God’s A Hard Habit to Break” and “God Has Lodged A Tenant In My Uterus.” The other songwriters stared and kind of laughed and then applauded. The industry professional wrote on my report card, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but keep doing it!”
We walked out into the hall and were suddenly surrounded by a bunch of guys in cowboy hats and Garth Brooks two-tone shirts. They shouted, “Play that Uterus song a-gin!” So we did. All night. It was a dream made manifest. I’d never felt so happy. So fulfilled.
Every subsequent time I went to Nashville it was wonderful. Even when I got kicked out of the Bluebird for singing songs about incest and going down on a woman with her period – “Ride the Cotton Pony.” They actually hissed at me. I was severely chastised in the back room at Tootsie’s. The waitress pulled me aside and said, “We don’t do that kind of music here. This is a family place!”
I kept going. And offending. Garry Velletri told me to go to Billy Block’s jamboree and do my version of “Stand By Your Man.” Which I did, complete with gang rape. Several women came up to me that night at Billy Block’s and thanked me. (#themtoo)
I brought the band I’d assembled back in New York City down a lot. We played The End, the Exit/Inn, 12th and Porter. And then in 2002, with the help of my then-manager, John Lomax III, I was on the front page of the Saturday Arts section of the Tennessean on the day I was to play the Sutler. I saw people reading about me while my band and I were on line for the Pancake Pantry. My mom was there. She was glowing. The show was packed. My mother asked Lomax, “How will we know if it’s really a success?” He said, “If they call the fire marshal.” The fire marshal was soon called.
A writer friend from New York was there. He said to me before the show, “Gary Chapman is here.” I freaked out. Afterwards, I asked Jim, “Is Garry Chapman still here?” Jim said, “Um...he left.” During the show as Tammy Faye I started going off about Amy Grant and how I suspected she had a foul-smelling cunt. Chapman had been married to Amy, and I guess he took it personally.
Kostas walked out of my show as well. He was this Greek Nashville hitmaker of the ‘90’s. Bob Packwood, my keyboardist, was friends with him and invited Kostas and his wife to the show. I was thrilled because I loved his songs, there’s magic in his melodies. (I even recorded one, “Full Deck of Cards.”)
So they drove to the show, and Bob said he felt trouble was brewing, because the wife was reading the Bible on the way and there were religious pamphlets in the car. Apparently Kostas walked out in the middle of the show and left a voice message for Bob saying that he couldn’t just stay. “It was too much. Jesus… orgasms…call me.”
Gary Velletri introduced me to guitarist/producer Eric “Roscoe” Ambel. And Gary suggested I do a residency at the Lakeside Lounge in New York City. When I first started doing Tammy Faye Starlite, Roscoe gave me a residency at the Lakeside, and helped me record. His producing those records gave them credibility, and he understood what I was going for. Roscoe has a great ear and great ideas.
In 1999 came my first EP On My Knees, which was a fake radio “play” I wrote interspersed with my big hits, like “God Has Put a Tenant In my Uterus” and “Did I Shave My Vagina for This?” I wasn’t thrilled with myself on that EP. I don’t love some of my vocals. I was still trying to sing in a “Broadway” style, which I can’t do.
In 2003 came the Tammy Faye album Used Country Female. It was more truthful than the EP, and included some “non-funny” numbers. And the funny ones were subtler. I covered “Surrender” by Cheap Trick, a song I love. But it wasn’t Christian enough. So I fixed it. (I performed the Beatles’ “Get Back” live that way, too. Because I had a dream where Stevie Nicks told me to do “Get Back..”) “Taken” was written after a night recording with a certain producer. He was driving me home while...touching me and I didn’t stop him. Then he kissed me and I stopped him. When I got home, I felt so guilty, I felt so closed the bathroom door and wrote the song. An imaginary scenario.
“Misguided Magdalene” I wrote because I was obsessed with Mary Magdalene for a while. How Jesus told her “Noli me tangere” – don’t touch me. That must have been so painful for her.
I’ve always had a fantasy of being a prostitute. (My biblical namesake was a whore.) The first extra work I ever did on All My Children was as a hooker. I told the casting director, “I have the perfect outfit!” Sequined tube top and little shorts and heels. That was beauty to me. Glamour. Desirability.
When I started doing bad acts in my first marriage I turned to the most famous of all. She also dovetailed with the religious Tammy Faye Starlite thing, even if she skewed a bit Catholic. The song came from my sense of wrongness and the need for redemption and forgiveness. Absolution.
– Does Tammy Faye bring out a particular evil in you?
Oh, yes. She sent me to my first fall from grace. And opened up that door, among other things. And being her gave my evil thoughts a voice. Listen to that first EP - man, I was evil.
– OK, so I have a question.
– When you talk about being "bad" you get revved up like a ’57 Chevy going about 90.
I do. You’re right.
– I think everything you've created since your first marriage started falling apart all hinges upon that event. It's like Tammy Before, Tammy After.
I think you’re right.
– You're much less crazy now?
– So now you try only to be "bad" onstage to stave the collateral damage to those you care about, correct?
– But it looms large and you are afraid of it overtaking you like some werewolf in the night.
I am. It’s always there. I’m still a fan of allowing the evil thoughts to run freely, though. That’s my justification for being so horrible onstage. To allow the freedom from restrictive civility. Just for a little while.
TAMMY FAYE STARLITE LIVE
TAMMY IS THE DEVIL
TAMMY IS THE DEVIL
According to Blake, heaven is reason and hell is energy. And when reason overtakes desire, it’s because the desire was too weak. There have been times when my desire has overtaken my reason. Satan created hell as a place of unmoored pleasure. I have been there and I have often rued Satan’s sway. But he’s fucking fun to play with.
This is an evasion. Essentially, I fucked around on my first husband, and it was thrilling, until I realized the pain I caused him. I’m an asshole.
It’s all because of Tammy Wynette. She gave me Tammy Faye Starlite. And Tammy Faye Starlite unlocked the Satan in me. Giving free reign to the unfettered thoughts that led to action.
The bass player in my band had a listening party for some of the tracks on my first EP at his apartment. Where he suddenly kissed me. And I felt it. My husband wasn’t there.
I had never considered cheating on him. I thought he was just my fate. But he had neglected me physically. We had pretty much stopped having sex. I was crazy. And needy.
And this bass player was my rock-and-roll country ideal. From Georgia – the accent! Oh my God, the diphthongs.
I went to his apartment the next night and dry-humped him until he came in his pants. Still not cheating. But then we made a date for an afternoon at his apartment. I think it was the next day.
I wore pink thigh-high fishnets, a miniskirt with nothing underneath. And then we went to it. And it was just fantastic. Not for the sex, but for the badness. We continued to see each other. I loved it. Growing up, I had never been “bad.” Having that affair was so exciting. The thrill, the fear of being caught. Which I was.
After we recorded the tracks for the EP we recorded a fake old-time country radio show to wrap around the songs and did some of them live. And on the introduction to “If You’re Comin’ Down, Sweet Jesus (Come All Over Me)” I wrote my husband (who was playing my husband) lines about the bass player fucking me. Which, of course, he was. Literally.
So, apropos of nothing during this radio “play,” I had my husband call our bass player out by name, yelling, “ARE YOU FUCKING MY WIFE??? I KNOW ABOUT THE PINK FISHNETS!” Not only that, but I thanked this bassist “for giving that real hard, hard bass line.” This was all intentional. You can hear it. It’s right there on the track.
My husband didn’t know I was fucking this guy, so it was all a big joke. Until a week later. Genius here had written tons of sophomoric poems and songs about said bass player and left them by the bed. And my husband found them. That was a fun night. So I spilled. I have no poker face when confronted. (I said it only happened twice, though.)
I can only assume that subconsciously I wanted him to know. But consciously, I loved the element of truth. (I love it too much.)
The husband and I went to couples therapy and cried and screamed etc. The affair stopped. I didn’t want to be bad anymore. And then I did. So I did it again. And then again. The third affair was also found out.
I was in love with this guy David. And he said we couldn’t see each other until I left my husband and got help for my anorexic self.So I was pining for that boy, but living with my soon-to-be ex, who would periodically scream unprintable things at me. I deserved it.
And I decided it was time for a cessation of the marriage. I cried, and was full of guilt and remorse – and I knew how awful I was. But I also knew I wanted a divorce. I just had to get up the courage to say it. And he didn’t want one. I said, “I’m a terrible wife!” Then I just left. In 2003. I never came back. He was served papers. I had my friends go inside the apartment and take my CDs – Nico, Marianne, Blondie, The Stones. That was all I wanted.
David was Jewish. Very handsome. And a total asshole. At first he gave me gifts. And seemed to accept me. I got pregnant and I would have had that stupid baby. But he was so skittish as soon as my divorce was final – he started pulling away and became cruel. Just mean. He didn’t want me to perform. He didn’t want me to do anything. He barely wanted a blow job for his birthday!
There was an abortion. Like Kay Corleone. It wasn’t a big thing. I thought I was pregnant, it was confirmed by my doctor, and we did the thing a few days later. David took me to my gyno but being El Cheapo he didn’t offer to pay for any of it. I didn’t feel anything, emotionally. Just that I would have liked more than an Advil and half a Valium. It wasn’t that much fun.
TAMMY FAYE STARLITE - BEHIND THE MUSIC
TAMMY AND THE DEVIL’S MUSIC
I can’t listen to music that moves me emotionally. It puts the bad angel on my left shoulder. Music I love makes me think of all the things I’ll never do. It’s too much to take. When I listen to music that’s profound, I realize how superficially I’m living my life. And I yearn and mourn and my desire is awakened with nowhere to go. I can’t get no...So I put on Salt ‘n’ Pepa and I can walk on the ice without breaking it.
GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES
Keith and I met in 2004. He was a sub musician for me while I was married to my first husband. Nothing untoward happened. I was untoward with others.
Then my marriage broke up and he and his girlfriend broke up, and there we were. Keith was cute and spoke passionately about rock and roll. He’s really a fantastic musician and great singing partner. And he’s funny and smart and doesn’t mind my offbeat habits. Non-Jew helps. He looks not remotely Jewish.
One of our funniest exchanges was early on in the relationship. We were in bed and I heard him throwing up. I said, “Baby?” “Yeah?” “Are you throwing up?” “Yeah.” “On the bed?” “I’VE NEVER HAD SO MANY QUESTIONS!”
Keith told me up front he would always be with me, but he didn’t want to get married. I said that’s fine. Then in 2007 he was on tour with Richard Lloyd and he called me one night and said, “I have a question. When I get back, will you marry me?”
I was floored. I said I would! I couldn’t tell anyone though. Except my mom. He didn’t want any guests or family. We were married at a townhouse in Hoboken. The ceremony was performed by his boss, who’s also a friend. I made said officiant read from “The Ballad of John and Yoko.”
Keith and I can’t do anything normal couples do:
Have people over.
Prepare a home-cooked sit-down meal.
Go on day trips.
Own a printer.
We are good at:
Watching TV together, particularly Match Game.
Laughing at inappropriate things.
Kitties – we love them and he’s devoted. To them. And to me.
I’m actually grateful to be in a band with Keith. He’s brilliant. It can be frustrating, though, because we often have different opinions, but I hate to argue. I can’t bear it when someone is angry at me. So I often lose battles. And that’s not on him – that’s the fault of my fear.
Destiny Whores was a project with Keith – I wrote the lyrics, he wrote the music and played all the instruments (except drums, which were played by Ken Coomer, who also produced). “Notify a Crow” is a testament to tenacity and the benefits of fucking Eric Clapton. “David the Faker” is a song about Ryan Adams. I tried to mention everyone Ryan copied - plus there’s very hidden references to his Whiskeytown bandmates. We were going to call the Destiny Whores album Blonde on Blonde as Keith and I are both blonde.
AND THEN THERE WAS ONE
AND THEN THERE WAS ONE
My brother David was a pain in the ass. He was born jaundiced (literally). As I said, I hated him when he was first brought home. I was a solo artist and suddenly he’s part of band, forcing me to share lead vocals. Fuck him.
But he was cute. Bright red hair. A sweet little face. Amber eyes. Even though one day before school I decided to stick my foot behind me as he was running past me in the kitchen and he cracked his head on the floor (it wasn’t that bad).
I did like him. I’d read him Ozma of Oz before he went to sleep. I made funny voices for him, his favorite being Clyde the Clam. He loved dinosaurs and Star Wars and he was like Tom Sawyer, getting friends who’d sleep over to make his bed and clean his room.
We went to the same day school, and every time he saw me in the halls he’d shout, “That’s my sister!” He always had so many friends. He didn’t want to go to high school where I was forced to go—Ramaz – so he made a deal with my parents: if he took the test and got into Stuyvesant, he could go there. My parents laughed and said, “Sure!” But he got in. So they had to let him go. I envied him his laic status while I was submerged in the parochial.
After he saw my father die, my brother went out every night. With his girlfriend, with his friends, he just didn’t want to be home. He went to Washington University and was a political science major but he never knew what he wanted to do. One day he’d decide to be a French chef, the next day a tap dancer, or a guitarist (he taught himself to play).
He moved in with his girlfriend, Randi. They wrote songs together. David and I would talk on the phone and tell each other our secret fears. He was terrified of getting cancer. For no tangible reason I was convinced that I had AIDS because I’d had unprotected sex twice. With two different guys. My fear soon dissipated. As did David’s.
Then on Yom Kippur night, 1995, my mom called me up sobbing. She couldn’t talk, so her asshole second husband, Norman, got on the phone. “Your brother has cancer. He’s in a hospital in St. Louis. Your mother can’t talk. She’s going there tomorrow.”
I found out what hospital he was in and called his room. He said, with a slight smile in his voice, “Tam, I got the Big C.” I flew to St Louis a day later. He had leukemia. He’d had a constant headache for three weeks and when he started sweating and could barely walk, Randi drove him to the nearest hospital, where it was discovered that he a million white blood cells and would probably have died if he hadn’t been brought in.
He went through chemo and a bone marrow transplant (they found a perfect match). My mother stayed with him for 8 months. Norman hated David for taking my mother from him. Story of David’s life. But he was cured. The cancer was gone.
About six months later he was diagnosed with toxoplasmosis. From touching cat litter during the chemo. It calcified certain parts of his brain. He recovered, with just a bit of brain damage. Not horrible.
He moved back to New York and his doctors in the city took him off the anti-toxo meds. Then his housekeeper found him bruised, unconscious, on the floor of his apartment. He’d been there for two days like that. He was unconscious for a week. My mother was terrified.
Finally he woke up. He’d had a grand mal seizure because the toxo had returned. He had to re-learn how to walk and talk and eat. He went to a facility in Long Island and got better. But the damage was more severe. He needed 24-hour help. My mother sued the NY doctors on his behalf and won. He had so much money at his disposal. But fewer and fewer friends.
Because he was a pain. He’d only talk about his illness and wouldn’t leave his apartment. He’d call my mother about six times a day. Norman was always furious with him. Mom was exhausted and torn in two.
And then in 2009 my mother died suddenly, at her home, after she’d just had a successful minor surgery. I had visited her every day in her private room (in her high-pitched voice: “Oh, fuck it, Tammy, I want room service!”). Then she was released on 10/31 - I had a Blondie band show that night but spoke with her in the late afternoon and she sounded hale and chipper, “Normie’s being an angel! I feel so much better!” (Normie being her second husband.)
The next morning I got a call and said, “Hi, Mom!” It wasn’t Mom. It was their housekeeper, Olga, who said, “Your mother...she died.” The hardest part was telling my brother. He started screaming and crying hysterically. My mom was his world.
We arrived in front of her apartment in a cab. I saw the coroner’s car. As soon as we got upstairs Norman started yelling at David about something. Norman’s daughter, who was already there, said, “Dad, he just lost his mother. Lay off.” I went into the bedroom and saw my mother’s body, lifeless on the bed. Her lips were parted. I wondered if she’d tried to cry out but stupid Norman didn’t hear her. But what’s the use of speculating.
I loved her so much. I was devastated. Couldn’t eat or sleep for about a week. But I went on and did the play that I’d been rehearsing prior, and had more emotional stuff to draw on. Always an upside. Chamber Music, by Arthur Kopit. Directed by Austin Pendleton. I played Pearl White. I sometimes sing to my mother onstage – Marianne’s “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” or Nico’s cover of “My Funny Valentine,” which is quite the version. I don’t know if Mom hears me or not.
David never recovered from our mother’s death. His body weakened. He needed a wheelchair. I kept pushing him to do physical therapy, to try to walk. He tried, but would give up easily. He spent his money lavishly on food and gifts for his home health aids. He wanted to marry one of them. She wanted to marry him too until she realized she wouldn’t be allowed to spend any of the lawsuit money.
He got weaker. I went to see him on my birthday, July 30th, in 2014. He gave me $500. I told him I couldn’t take it. He said I had to. We put on a record (maybe Janelle Monae?) and he stood up and danced with me. It was a really good visit. I spoke to him the next morning and around 6 PM the day of the 31st.
He told me he was lonely. I told him we’ll fix that somehow, we’ll figure out a plan. Together. I got a call from a policeman at around 11:30 PM, that same night. David had died. He was 44.
I felt a strange sense of freedom. Eerie freedom. No one to answer to. No obligations. That night my husband Keith and I went to his apartment to wait for the coroner. I hugged his still body. His dog wouldn’t leave him and just sat on his chest.
I don’t know if I miss him. But I know I can’t think about him without crying.
TAMMY DOES NASHVILLE
TAMMY DOES NASHVILLE
Tammy Does Nashville was recorded in 2006 or so, and it just an idea Roscoe and I had about making a record of “new” country songs using primarily acoustic instruments with less Big Production. The songs were all 90s – 00s songs I liked by Lorrie Morgan, Ronnie Dunn, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Kostas and others – kind of non-cool songs, because I’m totally not cool. The album never got finished because it was...because I was – too lazy? too confused? – to master the rest of the songs once I got the recordings back.
TAMMY’S FAVORITE TRUMP
Ivanka! She’s so pretty (now that she’s had all the help with her chin and nose and breasts). And she speaks so softly, like a kindly phone-sex operator. I call it her yellow-wallpaper voice. She can make strong points, but she’s never strident. And she’s a convert, just like mom.
I love her self-assurance, which deftly cloaks her vapidity, like a Michael Kors black patent raincoat. And yet I don’t see her in black. Her aura screams cream. Or, rather, whispers cream. Ivanka doesn’t walk, she swans. Her sang-froid is enviable.
And her relationship with dad is so touching. I love how he looks at her. The way every woman wants to be looked at. Feminists too. Don’t let those signs fool you.
Plan a day with Ivanka? Well, we’d meet at Forty Carrots in Bloomingdale’s where neither of us would eat anything other than mint tea with Stevia. The packet, not the syrup. I don’t trust the syrup. (Neither does Ivanka, now.)
Then we’d head towards the new fifth floor shoe department but we’d be whisked into a private room with a pink velvet loveseat where a model would catwalk in to show us the latest Louboutins, a la Marilyn in How To Marry a Millionaire. Ivanka would have her amanuensis (who appears and vanishes via Ivanka’s vaginal telepathy) copy the designs and telex them to Ivanka Inc. in Beijing.
After which we’d go to KJ (Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun) so Ivanka could pose for the new stained glass window, which will eventually be a prismatic Ivanka in red and green and blue and yellow holding a menorah shaped like her father’s hands clutching a glass of water the way a baby holds a bottle.
Then a quick trip via Via to Dr. Jonathan Levine on 73rd and 5th to replace her veneers. After which she hugs me (hips forward) and says something I can’t hear but her neck smells like Tom Ford’s Fucking Fabulous. And my memory of the entire day is erased by the force of her labial imperative.
I just realized that as much as I want to be Ivanka, I’m actually Tiffany. A trashy blonde who’s desperate for acknowledgement.
C’MON, C’MON AND TOUCH ME, BABE
I had the most horrible reaction to the #MeToo thing. I said it onstage, but I meant it – Me, too? I wish. I was envious of the molested ones.
TAMMY IS NICO
I started doing Nico officially in 2010, first at Joe’s Pub in New York City (then the Bowery Ballroom, Lincoln Center, the Warhol Museum and a bunch of other venues I can’t remember). Tammy Faye Starlite was fading out – I’d had enough of her and she of me. I was trying to think of something to do, and I think Keith may have suggested Nico.
I started to contemplate, and had an idea of what songs I wanted to do, so I was listening to a track of Nico being interviewed by an Australian DJ in 1986 for a show she was doing in Melbourne. He asked her about all the songs I’d thought of for a potential show, and her responses were so non-sequiturial that I knew I had my template for a play. But I’d actually imitated her all through my senior year in high school.
The Edie book had influenced me beyond anorexia. It was through those pages that I found the Velvet Underground. I read Edie in our summer house in White Meadow Lake, and then made a trip to the Rockaway Mall in New Jersey (before we had that house I’d never seen a mall. The first time I entered that Rockaway Mall I felt such piece. Stores! All stores! No nature! I called it a “moral universe.”) I went straight to the Sam Goody to the V’s in the cassette section, and there it was. The Velvet Underground and Nico. The young clerk told me he went to Syracuse University and there were so many stories about Lou Reed, and they would generally end with, “And Lou fell asleep in the garbage can.”
As much as I loved Lou Reed’s songs and especially his lyrics, it was Nico’s voice that fascinated me. So deep. So low. A sigh of ennui without betraying the sadness I knew lay just beneath the ice.
I immediately began to imitate her.
Then, the following year, when I bought an ROIR tape of Nico live and I heard her version of “Heroes” and her pronunciation of the word dolphins (“dawlfins”), she had me. I read James Young’s magnificent book about touring in Nico’s band, Songs They Don’t Play on the Radio (aka The End). I saw the documentary Nico Icon at the Film Forum. I became obsessed (as I tend to do). By the willful destruction of her own beauty. Her lack of affect. She seemed remote, but I sensed her presence.
Her songs were not solipsistic paeans to herself like Joni Mitchell’s. They weren’t about men, at least not overly. They weren’t about anything but her love of the sound of the word and the macabre melodies she played on her harmonium. She was never false, except perhaps to herself, but I can’t just presume that. The heroin must have coated some form of inner conflict, but I don’t know. She said the unsayable and she (allegedly) slashed the eye of a black woman in El Coyote because the woman was apparently talking about black suffering and Nico felt that she suffered, too.
Initially it was the depth of her singing voice, the disaffection cloaking an inner maelstrom of a nothingness that negates itself. The external ennui as a carapace for an infernal boredom which to me implies a cavernous yearning. When I’m playing Nico, I don’t feel the need to adjust my own unmerited exhaustion, the sense that it’s all for nothing. And though she eased herself with her chosen elixir, there was nothing false about her.
Nico didn’t try to please anyone – unless she it was for something she particularly wanted. She’s still a cypher to me, but I love the unknown more than any certainty. She provides the cushion of unanswered questions, which is a relief.
And she’s unfiltered. There’s nothing “right” about Nico. Her speaking voice is musical as well. The grace notes color and confuse every word. Even when she’s loud never oversings. Nico doesn’t try to impute unnecessary meaning to the lyrics. She allows room for the listener. And in this way she creates such mystery.
Nico feels insatiable to me. Always hungry. Tamping down her desire and expectations. She had no remorse, or so she said. “Regrets? I’ve no regrets...except that I was born a woman instead of a man, that’s my only regret.” Nico stayed true to her beat ethic. “I would be ashamed to have an audience like…what’s his name? Neil Young...Neil...Diamond!” She didn’t like women. Competition, I believe.
And everything Nico said also implied its opposite. The dialectic. She had no “show-biz” in her. She was tall and imposing. I’m so unlike her. But I love her. I love to pretend to be her. Nico’s my favorite. Because she’s a relief. Nico lets me rest.
TAMMY IS NICO LIVE
TAMMY IS MARIANNE
What makes me cry? Marianne Faithfull singing “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan.” Marianne. Her ravaged voice, pure beauty. Her blondeness. She’s Ophelia, chipping before the mad scene. Marianne can sing Weill with such authority. There’s her intellect, and her aristocratic bearing, even when living on a wall in London completely overtaken by heroin, gaunt and toothless. (I know heroin isn’t really glamorous – but to me it is. It implies surrender to oblivion, to be overtaken by a slow euphoria.)
All these women – I want to be them. That’s all it is. Because they’ve lived what I have not.
– Have you ever regretted anything you’ve said onstage?
Only when I’ve forgotten to introduce a band member.
– If Nico came back from the dead to see your act, how would you want her to react?
I just wouldn’t want her to cut my eye with a broken beer bottle. I don’t think she’d be flattered. Marianne isn’t. Somebody told her I was doing Broken English and she said, “Why can’t they leave me alone!” – Did you smile?
I did! I had heard she was upset that her longtime guitarist and co-writer, Barry Reynolds, was playing with me.
– Man, you are brutal.
I just wanted verisimilitude.
– Next thing you'll implant her uterus.
If I could…
[Update: Tammy texted Faithfull to ask if she could honor the 40th anniversary of Broken English with a show. She (quite enthusiastically) told Tammy to do it.]
TAMMY MIXES SHOW BIZ WITH ROCK
TAMMY MIXES SHOW BIZ WITH ROCK
It’s a double thrill! They’re the same to me, really. Epiphanic.
“Sympathy for the Devil” – I love doing that song. The lyrics. The emotional build. It's a very showbiz song.
I do whatever needs to be done to prepare for these shows. If it’s a person I’m studying, like Nico or Marianne, I listen to them constantly, watching any performance and reading every interview I can find – and I keep watching and reading and listening. It’s not very interesting, really.
To prepare for performing an album like Their Satanic Majesties Request – well, I’ve been in a Stones “tribute” band since 1999. My friend Jill had played guitar in bands for many years and asked me, “Do you want to be in band called The Mike Hunt Band?” I said, “Oh my God, of course!” She said, “You’ll be singer, I’ll be guitar player.”
And we got together at her place and I said, “Let’s just do Rolling Stones songs. No one cares what we have to say.” She loved the idea. She reveres Keith Richards. Then I said, “Let’s do whole albums. Nobody does that!” And they didn’t, back then! I know we fucking started that stupid trend. I don’t care if I’m wrong.
“Some Girls’ by the Mike Hunt Band, 2002. I love the stereotypes in this song and I wish they’d included Jewish girls. But perhaps that’s implicit. Richard Lloyd produced this. He did a good job!”
So we started doing Rolling Stones albums and we did that for oh, seventeen years. A Stones fan group found us and we started playing their annual festival in Wildwood, New Jersey, where a cop wanted to arrest me because I stripped down to bra and bikini bottoms during “Midnight Rambler.” (The head of the fan club gave me his coat and anyway, it was on a beach.)
So I know what to do with a regular Stones album, more or less. I just talk in a faux-Brit accent and act really bitchy, insult the band and jump around like an idiot – and presto, there’s Mick.
But doing Satanic with a slightly different band without Jill (no friction there, she’s one of my best friends and I love her) I can’t be Mick/me commenting snidely between songs. I have to be in it, so I decided to be more of a ‘60’s English hippie, like an older young Marianne Faithfull, quoting Blake and taking the audience on a trip.
Now, I’ve never done acid and I’d never read Huxley, so I read Heaven and Hell and The Doors of Perception (I know, LSD 101). And I read Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell – I keep it in my bag like a talisman.
I listened to the record over and over, thinking about how I was going to fill the spaces between the songs, how to link the songs and keep them relevant to whatever’s going on culturally now. Plus I watched videos of various people on acid (the best of which is a ‘50’s housewife who eats a spider web), and write down a few salient phrases that I may or may not remember.
And then I let the room guide me while I throw thoughts around – and realize that as long as there’s some kind of anchor, some pop-culture reference, not much has to make sense if there’s an inner thread pulling the show. I don’t know if any of this makes any sense – and eventually some parts of the performance become codified – but I can’t be complacent, and I have to remember that when in doubt, talk to the people in the audience, embrace them, stare at them, until there is no them, it’s us…and man, that sounds like a whole bunch of precious idiocy.
TAMMY’S NOT HERSELF
TAMMY'S NOT HERSELF
It’s so much fun to delve into someone else and to try to embody them, or, as Marilyn said, “make contact.” Because no matter who I’m pretending to be, it’s always me. With plausible deniability.
Last year I was doing a show as Nico and I said something like, “The Holocaust would have gone much faster if Hitler had a microwave.” And then came the angry email. Which I responded to, saying I understood, thanked her for her candor, and went into my “I deal with pain through humor” explanation. Which may be true.
But I love the thrill of the wrong. And I don’t think certain aspects of personalities are bad or good. Everyone has an ongoing duality, or at least, everything is based on something deeper than the thing, and the layers are infinite, and they lead nowhere.
– When and where has Tammy had the most peace of mind?
Nashville. It was always full of a past I never experienced, but fantasized about. I felt like a square peg in a square hole.
Or maybe in our 8th grade production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Probably it all goes back to that apartment on West End Avenue.
– Is there a number of yours closest to your heart?
I guess it’s “Did I Shave My Vagina For This”? Because it’s essentially true.“He whips out his dick/And takes a three-minute piss.” Yes, that happened to me. I couldn’t believe how long it went on!
– So humor me. Who is the real Tammy? Is there one?
Maybe there are two. The “stage hog,” as my friend Courtney called me – the show-off, the freak who loves to caterwaul and provoke with a bit of anti-Semitic rhetoric to a confused but warm-hearted audience.
And there’s one who loves to lie the on the after couch after a show with one cat by my head and one leaning against my feet, with my cryptic crossword and a can of flat, cold Diet Cherry Pepsi on the coffee table, a rerun of The Closer playing on the smart TV and three Valium to for maximum calm to call it a night. I can’t have one without the other.
But then there’s Lady Godiva, lurking in the left atrium, waiting to saddle up the horse.
– Where do you think the black night within Tammy comes from?
The Holocaust? I don’t know. I wanted so badly to be decadent. Because I’ve never done drugs.
– Except for the million Valiums. You strike me as somewhere beyond decadent.
I’ve never felt it.
– Does Tammy have a message?
Oh God, I don’t know – everything I think of has been said before. Try another shampoo every so often?
– What’s the verdict on aging?
I think I’m scared of not being cute. I can only milk this sad coquette thing for a few more years. Then I become Bette Davis. Maybe I am already.
– How do you envision your death?
I used to fantasize that I’d be found dead of an overdose of Nembutal in a giant apartment, naked under white silk sheets. I just need the giant apartment and I’m ready.
– The song that should be played at your funeral?
“All Tomorrow’s Parties.” It’s why I think Lou Reed is almost untouchable. Those lyrics. The last verse in particular.
– Why do they speak to you?
It reminds me of...the futility of…
– Go ahead, Tammy. Say it.
How we don’t matter.
It’s full of compassion, that song.
For our frayed and unsung souls.
And that makes me love us even more.
Jimmy McDonough is the author of The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Andy Milligan, as well as biographies of Tammy Wynette, Al Green, Russ Meyer and Neil Young. Currently he is working on his years-in-the-making biography The Exotic Ones: Heaven, Hell and the Ormonds. He is Editor-In-Chief of byNWR.com. www.jimmymcdonough.com
TAMMY FAYE STARLITE MUSIC CREDITS
Did I Shave My Vagina For This
God Has Lodged A Tenant In My Uterus
Electric guitar: Mark McCarron; Acoustic guitar and bass: Keith Christopher; Pedal steel: Jon Graboff; Drums: Nancy Polstein (Harmony vocals on “Uterus”: Mary Lee Kortes, Keith Christopher, Eric Ambel)
Produced by Eric “Roscoe” Ambel
Guitars: Mark Spencer, Richard Feridun; bass: Jared Michael Nickerson; drums: Ken Coomer; piano: Bob Packwood; harmony Vocals: Mark Spencer; organ on “Taken,” Mark Spencer; additional guitar on “Highway 69” and additional harmonies on “Taken:” Eric Ambel
The Jim Rob Song
Same as above, but keyboards: Mark Spencer; vocals: Eric Drydale, Tammy
Percussion, organ, acoustic guitar, backing vocals: Mark Spencer; electric guitar: Richard Lloyd
Produced by Eric “Roscoe” Ambel
Don’t You Hear Jerusalem Moan
Guitar: Mark Spencer; mandolin: Jimmy Ryan; bass: Jared Michael Nickerson; banjo: Gordon Stone
Produced by Mark Spencer
If You're Comin' Down, Sweet Jesus
Tammy Faye Makes the DJ Cry (radio appearance)
Electric guitar: Mark McCarron; bass: Keith Christopher; pedal steel: Jon Graboff; drums: Nancy Polstein
David the Faker
Oh My Jesus
Notify a Crow
Guitars, bass, vocals: Keith Hartel; drums: Ken Coomer
Produced by Ken Coomer
If I Was Jesus
Devil and Your Deep Blue Eyes
Full Deck of Cards
Guitars: Mark Spencer, Boo Reiners; mandolin: Jimmy Ryan; bass: Keith Hartel; drums: Phil Cimino; harmony vocals: Mark Spencer, Jimmy Ryan
Produced by Eric “Roscoe” Ambel
White as Snow
Guitar: Keith Hartel
Produced by Tom Lucas
Guitars: Jill Richmond, Richard Feridun; bass: Jared Michael Nickerson; keyboards and harmony vocals: Mark Spencer; drums: Christopher Butler
Produced by Richard Lloyd
The Tammy Faye Starlite byNWR sessions on Expressway
Guitars: Keith Hartel, Richard Feridun
Cinematography, editing, 3D: Brian Rosenquist, sound recording/mix: Peter Conheim
Produced by JM/TFS
BONUS TRACKS: TAMMY IS DEBBIE (WITH THE PRETTY BABIES)
One Way Or Another
Guitars: Heidi Lieb, Jill Richmond; bass: Monica Falcone; keyboards::Bibi Farber; Drums: Linda Pitmon
Produced by Tom Beaujour