Baby Dee’s opening for the Swans on Saturday at the Bowery Ballroom was one of the best sets I’ve ever heard her do. She started on the accordion with an instrumental piece called “Early Spring,” and then sat down at the harp and, with Matthew Robinson on cello and Sarah Alden on violin, sang “The Robin’s Tiny Throat” (which is an excellent song to open with, because it kind of explains why she’s up there singing to begin with), “A Book of Songs for Anne Marie,” “Lilacs,” and “So Bad.” She said she had never told the story behind “So Bad” (“Jesus got my mom in there, and beat her up so bad”), but that someone in the audience had witnessed it, and she dedicated the song to me. (She didn’t tell the story, and I’m not going to either—yet. “So Bad,” oddly, is the song of Dee’s that is easiest for people to lay their own story on.)
Then she did a song that is not on any of her CDs but is on one of David Tibet’s: “Idumea.” She followed with “Set Me as a Seal on Your Heart,” which has a long, beautiful instrumental introduction. Then came a surprise: she introduced “Fresh Out of Candles” as a song about growing up in Cleveland in the fifties and early sixties. I’ve only heard this (to me) tragicomic song (it’s partly about saints who got deposed after Vatican II) with piano accompaniment, and Dee had rearranged it for the harp/cello/violin trio. She played a new song called “The Day I Died” (it will be on her next CD) and finished with one of her two slug songs, “Brother Slug and Sister Snail.” For this, Sarah created a shimmering trail of slime on violin. Matthew had a cello solo on one of the songs. And Dee is playing the harp better than ever.
This was the final concert on the Swans tour with Baby Dee. It was also my first experience in an audience for heavy-metal New York punk. I was advised to bring earplugs, and I did. The Swans are wonderful to look at: three craggy veterans and three younger musicians. One of them is a guy named Thor, who has waist-length blond hair and hammers a set of bells. After he took off his shirt, he looked like nothing so much as a sweating blacksmith. There were three guitars and a pedal steel and another percussionist, all banging away. At one point, two slide trombones joined the act, and I couldn’t even hear them (maybe it was the earplugs). I saw Michael Gira’s lips moving, but I couldn’t hear what he was singing. I am told—and I believe—that the loudness is necessary, that it is part of the point. For a while, I found a place on the balcony, right by the railing, and I could look down at the heads of the people below, standing shoulder to shoulder and vibrating. And it was kind of thrilling in a visceral way. It blows everything else out of your head.
Then I descended to the lounge level and hung out with Baby Dee and Little Annie, who are taking their act to Europe later this month, until it was time to go home. Dee’s next gig is in London, October 16th.