Let's start with Baby Dee's fun facts. She's a batty middle-aged lady from Cleveland who left a life as a avant-garde musician in New York for a career as a professional roofer, then went on to pal around with Will Oldham and Andrew WK. She made an astounding, raucous record for Drag City, and she habitually rides a tricycle while dressed as a bee during performances. She's the kind of bawdy woman who used to be called a "broad," except this broad's songs can be plaintive and fragile as a newborn left in a basket on the church stairs. Also this broad was once (outwardly, at least) a dude.
Dee is a woman who spent some of her life stuck in a man's body, a classically trained pianist and harpist trapped in a Cleveland roofer's career, and an important artist busking in a bear suit, for that matter.
Dee's fourth album, Safe Inside the Day, is befittingly a heartbreaking and brutal dispatch soundtracked with rowdy vaudeville showstoppers. Sounding like an unhinged Randy Newman, she serves up "The Dance of Diminishing Possibilities." It's a boozy show tune about the day four-year-old Dee, along with neighbor boys Bobby Slot and Freddy Weiss, destroyed a piano they'd found on the curb. The shell of the piano was cracked open, keys and hammers lying in pieces, but the metal strings and soundboard proved indestructible. "Teeth Are the Only Bones That Show" is Safe's emotional centerpiece. It features a bluesy sax-and-strings barroom stomp that disguises the essential violence and loneliness of the lyrics: "Wondering what's it like to be a man? Bent nails in a rusty can/And the sound those nails make when you give the can a shake/will make you wish that it wasn't so."
This record is the sound of an artist giving that existential rusty can a shake. It doesn't ring too pretty in here, and neither does Baby Dee. With a crowing, singsong delivery, she often shakes off a line with a strange, gruff little cackle. It's an acquired taste on par with Tom Waits' bronchial infection of a singing voice.
The similarity doesn't end there. Waits and Dee are barkers conducting the same fucked-up carnival orchestra, while the out-of-tune merry-go-round spins too fast and too loud in the background, and the midgets and clowns are either leering or weeping. But Baby Dee actually has the three-ring credentials to back up her dystopian circus aesthetic — during her stint in New York, in addition to studying classical harp and Gregorian music, she was a "bilateral hermaphrodite" in the midway at Coney Island.
Dee, now in her mid-50s, writes in an e-mail that when she forsook Cleveland for New York City at age 18, "I was happy as a clam and invincibly dumb" — a mindset that might lead a girl to busk in Central Park in a bear suit, as she did upon arrival. She got her name, she says, when a promoter at the East Village's Pyramid Club "named me after her next-door neighbor's retarded child."
Safe Inside the Day is haunted by the ambiguously menacing figure of the Earlie King, an imaginary figure who ruled Dee's childhood Cleveland street. "The Earlie King" is "based on the poem by Goethe," Dee says. "It's about a fairy king that lures small children to their death. Personally I've always thought it was about how unreal things — insubstantial imaginary things — can have very real effects. That has always struck me as a particularly chilling true thing."
The chilling true thing caught up in the catchy Vegas tune, the classically trained artist caught up in the campy persona, the broad caught up in the wrong anatomy — in Dee's rattling rusty can, the real and unreal are interchangeable entities.