Madrid was a surprise. It’s a beautiful, well-cared-for, vintage city, full of fountains and buildings topped in domes and clocks, and with monumental stairs guarded by stone lions and sphinxes and eagles. It’s a capital city, in the British sense of “capital”: a really quite excellent city. But we got off to a rocky start.
All I knew about Madrid was what everyone knows: the Prado. I found my way there and sat on a bench to study a map that I had acquired at the train station. I was trying to locate the venue so that I could find a cheap hotel nearby. Rosario had given me the name and location, as well as those of the hotel the entourage was staying at. (They had not had room for me—sob. I’d had a crisis of confidence the day before when I realized I was going to have to show up in a foreign city all by my lonesome and find a place to stay. I did it all the time when I was young—or, rather, younger—but I got spoiled by having Rosario look out for me in Barcelona.) So I was sitting there trying to orient myself, which isn’t hard alongside the Prado, with its huge banner advertising “TINTORETTO,” and a girl approached to ask where the museum was. It was obvious: the museum was right behind me—there was a sign pointing to it. She seemed really dense. “Museo? Museo?” she kept saying. I wanted to say, You can see the sign as well as I can, bitch. I turned to indicate the massive museum-like building, and there was a kid on the bench next to me, facing in the opposite direction, with his hand inside my tote bag, just touching the small black zippered bag from Bahia that I kept all my valuables in. I screamed and started slapping him in the face with the map of Madrid. “I am just on my cell phone,” he said, not even backing off. The girl, his accomplice, stood there innocently. It is part of their scam not to run scared but to look at you as if you’re a crazy foreigner flipping out in their midst, which, of course, I was.
It started to rain lightly, and I was sweating, because I wore a lot of my clothes rather than carry them. While looking for the venue, I saw this place called the Hostal Sardinero, which sort of called to me (my Italian teacher is Sardinian by way of Tuscany), but I kept going and asked first at a hotel farther on. The hotels in my price range are like the ones near the train station in Rome, on upper floors of five- or six-story buildings. The man at the first place had a double but didn’t want me to pay for a double when I needed only a single. Upstairs from him, a lady had a single but only for one night. I’m sweating, lugging my stuff in and out of those tiny birdcage elevators, opening the outer door and the inner doors, closing the inner doors and the outer door, riding up, riding down ... Back at the Hostal Sardinero, the lady behind the desk was a little scary: long face and long, pulled-back graying-black hair. She looked like an El Greco. But she had a room with a bath for 45 euros. It even had a little balcony with a view of the moon, and it turned out to be right across the street from the venue.
I found the others’ hotel on the map, or at least the square, and was just approaching it when Kevin, the British male nurse, showed up. They had all just arrived, and seemed sort of shaken. Dee and Annie had had a gig the night before in Castelló, down the coast toward Valencia, and Maude, who is a convert (they say “revert”) to Islam, had argued with Paul, Little Annie’s accompanist, about sex, politics, and religion all the way to Madrid. Everyone seemed to have dispersed to recover. Dee and I had a drink in the nearest bar, and Maude and Kev joined us; then Fabrizio sent Maude a text message saying, “I am in a gay bar.” We found him and Annie in a place called XXX. A waiter recommended a place nearby for dinner, and afterward we all walked back toward my place to check out the venue for the next night’s show. At one point, we ran into Paul, but when he found out where everyone was going, he went someplace else.
The venue, Casa Pueblo, was great: if I lived in Madrid, it would be my favorite bar. It was all dark wood and mirrors and fairy lights, decorated with old Victrolas and vintage photos of vintage bathing beauties, etc. The proprietor was a swarthy barrel-chested guy with a fondness for Edith Piaf. The stage was in an alcove at the back, with an upright piano and a mirror reflecting more fairy lights: it was like a music box, or a carrousel. There was room for only about fifty people. Dee had a solo gig there, though Little Annie would do a few numbers as a guest.
That night, from my hotel room, I heard a familiar British voice call out, “We found a short cut!” It was Kev, leaving the venue with Fabrizio, leading the way back to their hotel. Before I fell asleep, I heard another racket in the street and rolled out of bed and onto the floor, in my eagerness to get to the balcony. Men in yellow-and-green superhero outfits, with boots like the ones hotels in Venice lend to tourists during the acqua alta, were pressure-washing the street with a firehose hooked up to a pumper. “LIMPIEZA,” it said on the back of their jackets: “Cleanup.” A man came behind with a cart and a broom and green plastic bags. I wonder how often they do this: once a year or twice a week? To me, getting out of the way of the street sweeper twice a week in my car, it looked like the equivalent of getting down on your hands and knees with a toothbrush to clean between the tiles on the kitchen floor. When they had finished, the garbagemen came and left a pile of refuse in the middle of the clean street.
* * *
Dee had warned me, “Never go to the sound check,” but I did anyway. Dee had brought the harp over to the venue early, so it could acclimatize, and it looked magical on the tiny stage, like something out of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Dee was at the piano, pumping away, and Fabrizio, who was acting as the soundman, was setting up microphones and snaking cords to amplifiers and turning knobs, knocking on mikes, taming feedback. Rosario gave me a little wave. The proprietor, who was wearing a garish black-and-white floral shirt and bluejeans, told me, “Está cerrado,” but it took me so long to figure out what he meant (“We’re closed. Go away”) that there was ultimately not much point in my leaving. I tried to tell him that I was with the musicians, and then I tried to stay out of the way. I didn’t dare ask for a drink.
The room had an eccentric shape, with tables running in a narrow passage from the door along the bar to the stage at the back, where the space opened up and there was room for a few rows of chairs. A line formed outside on the sidewalk. Kevin was pressed into service as bouncer and ticket-taker, as well as being put in charge of the “merch” (merchandise: Dee had two CDs for sale and Little Annie had one). When it was time for the show to start, the owner blasted Edith Piaf. Dee, on the accordion, tried to segue into her own act, but Piaf launched into another number at full volume. Fabrizio leapt up and went to the bar to get the owner to turn her down.
That afternoon at lunch, at a restaurant in the gay district of Madrid (who knew that Madrid had a gay district? It reminded me of Amsterdam’s Red-Light District, or of Christopher Street: porn shops, a sculpture of an archangel with genitals, a door handle in the shape of an erect penis), I found a description of Dee, in Spanish, in an events publication called Shanguide. The item, which had been placed by Rosario, was headed “Marc Almond + Baby Dee,” and featured a photograph of a swooning and bespangled Marc Almond, with a red rose, looking as if he were playing Carmen. And then: “Baby Dee, a curiosity within a panorama of real music, an androgynous sideshow act* and street musician and an original member of Antony and the Johnsons,** possesses a fascinating voice. But it’s not only her voice that makes Baby Dee so special;*** she delivers each one of her songs with intensity, intimacy, emotion, and silences.”****
[I don’t know how to do footnotes, but (*) Dee did a hermaphrodite act at Coney Island; (**) I don’t think this is true about Dee playing with Antony and the Johnsons, but Antony “discovered” Dee in that he got David Tibet to listen to Dee’s songs, which led to Dee’s first CD; (***) the Spanish was "peculiar"; (****) Rosario objected to my translation of "silencios," but it was the best I could do. It turned out they had printed the item verbatim from her text message.]
Here’s truth (a line from one of Dee’s songs): Dee’s songs are obviously autobiographical and some of them are about being literally misconceived, yet, having been created, feeling compelled to sing about it. A trained singer controls her voice; emotion wells up in the throat, and if you’re moved by your own song you just can’t sing it, period: the point is to move the listener. When Dee sings, all her emotions are in her voice. The lyrics may be beautiful and sad and the melody sweet, but the voice sometimes has a heartbreaking cackle in it, a signal that the singer, so deadly serious, does not expect to be taken seriously. There is humility in it. Yet some aspects of her singing Dee is in complete control of. She can prolong the last word of a song into, yes, seraphic silence.
The first half was all what she calls “dirges,” including some of my favorites: “Lilacs” (it contains the bit from the Song of Solomon “Arise my love and come away, For the winter’s ruinous work is done”) and “Set Me As a Seal on Your Arm.” Then Dee introduced Little Annie and Paul Wallfisch (she called him Whitefish). I imagine they felt a little the way Dee felt in Barcelona when she had to follow Marc Almond. Annie did two of her own songs, and she was great. (Little Annie just had a stroke of luck when one of her songs, “Strange Love,” was picked up to run as the soundtrack for a Levi’s commercial in Europe and now also in South America. While in Europe, she got the news that they’d like to put her song on musical hold. That is, when you call Levi’s and they put you on hold, you’ll hear Little Annie. Also, they gave her a lot of clothes, including a T-shirt with flies on it.) The owner let out another blast of Edith Piaf, and Dee took the stage again.
Fortunately, Dee has a range that may keep her off of NPR for eternity. She started at the piano, in the honky-tonk fashion that our grandmother used to play old World War II songs in, and did a new song, called “Fresh Out of Candles,” about the saints being deposed. Nobody knew whether to laugh or not. Then she did “Pisspot,” a song written largely by our mother, a sing-along and crowd-pleaser. Then she introduced “a sleazy one from way back when,” and launched into “Tranny Girl” (“I’m a tranny girl, Ain’t got no dick no more; Got me a store-bought pussy …”). It’s odd: when Dee does serious songs, it’s sometimes hard to make out the lyrics, but when she does these raunchy ones every word is crystal clear. I could see from the expression on the face of the music critic in the front row that he was contemplating a revise of his review.
Then Dee moved to the harp again: “Now where am I gonna go?” Fabrizio signalled to her that time was almost up. “Ten minutes? I wasn’t planning on taking that long.” She finished with “Black But Comely.” Dee may not have a beautiful voice, she may be singing in a smoky tenor songs written for boy soprano, but she can deliver. The song ends “Like a night shot with stars,” and Dee’s face—eyes closed, lips sealed—was like that of someone in fervent prayer.
And then that stupid git blasted us with Edith Piaf for the fourth time, and it was over.
* * *
The next day, the tour went on to Porto and then to Vigo, but it was time for me to get off the metaphorical bus and onto a real one, to Granada. I did make it to the Prado, and everyone who said I shouldn’t miss it was right, of course. The place is huge, and so packed with treasures that I found myself, on the way to the Velazquez rooms, almost blowing off a whole wall of Titians! (I thought, They can’t really be Titians. Nobody has this many Titians. But the Prado has a lot of Titians.) I know now that Madrid has many beautiful bars all plastered with majolica tiles. And when the light is green for pedestrians, there is the sound of a bird chirping (for the blind, I suppose). And the bed pillows in the hotels are shaped like long sausages.
Speaking of hotels, the lady who looked like El Greco turned out to be twins, or at least sisters. I saw her on my way out of the room, and she walked me to the desk, where she was already sitting. And the first one, who was talking to some tourists as I was leaving, interrupted herself to come out from behind the desk and offer me her hand and give me a warm handshake and wish me a good trip.