Reverse Cowgirl

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Reverse Cowgirl  


he farm-fresh ingenue known as Tammy-Faye Starlite prances around club stages chirping, "Why, bless your hearts," and looking like she means it. She’s mastered the art of the country-music yammer: "Well, me and the boys are just so happy to be here. You know, it sure was a hard drive, but we just love this town, and…" But she casually slips in such profanity, such by-the-by vitriol ("And you sure do have a lot of Jews here in New York; maybe we can save some of y’all tonight") that she’s cleared rooms faster than you can say, "Kiss my grits."


    Those who stick around are treated to some fantastically sacrilegious, Loretta Lynn-inspired country tunes, like the proto-feminist battle cry "Did I Shave My Vagina For This?" ("The pork chops are cold and my panties are dry / I roll me a joint and I try to get high") and the anti-abortion ballad "God Has Lodged a Tenant In My Uterus" ("I would feel such unease / if I broke this holy lease"). Meanwhile, as Starlite conveys these right-wing anthems, it seems that her clothes just will not stay on. The proper worship of God, she suggests, involves straddling mike stands and flustered audience members.
    Starlite actually fronts a couple of groups, including a Stones cover band called Mike Hunt (get it?) and The Angels of Mercy, which has featured Wilco’s drummer and comedian Eric Drysdale (who’s made onstage cameos as Starlite’s ex-gay ex-husband). She has two albums out now — On My Knees and Used Country Female — and is performing steadily, even in Nashville. Not bad for a thirtysomething Jewish girl from New York City’s Upper West Side. — Ada Calhoun
You’re a master of the sacrilegious double entendre — "on my knees," "come unto me," and so on.
Thank you! It seems like it’s right there. You can quote some stuff from the Bible verbatim: "You need to please Jesus with your mouth." Some of it is so sexual and so "I love you," and the position of being a supplicant, on your knees…
Exactly! Jesus is a very sexual figure. He walks around all hot, hanging out with prostitutes, and then he’s up on the cross like a Chippendale’s dancer with his shirt off. I think people sublimate a lot of energy into something they feel is a little more palatable, or something a little less frightening than sex. I think that’s why listening to gospel music is such a visceral experience. It just kind of opens you up … and then you’re ready to receive. (Laughs)
Some saints had erotic mystical experiences.
The Virgin Mary essentially had sex with God. All the talk about the Rapture is very orgasmic. I think sexual repression eats away at you like a maggot. If people were just allowed to feel what they want to feel, and say what they want to say… "Do what you want to do" is another story, because you might have deaths, or…
Break up your band?
Exactly. My first band imploded in a Fleetwood Mac kind of way. One of my… indiscretions… was with someone in the band and a couple of the others had a thing going, and then the whole thing just collapsed, as those things will do. Because, as we know, sex erodes so much.
But it’s worth it. (Laughs) I’m for the id.
That comes through in your shows. I had an aisle seat; you sat on my lap in your low-cut red Marilyn dress and kind of gyrated.
Yeah, I’ll do that. I like to sit on girls’ laps, give people lap dances. I do the country song "Daddy’s Hands," but I amend the last verse. I’ll sit on a guy’s lap while I sing that. And I take off my clothes a lot. I usually only go down to a bra and thong, though, because I don’t have big enough breasts that they’ll stay up really high. I’m afraid people would be disappointed.
What’s the wildest thing you’ve done on stage recently?
At South by Southwest this year, my show was at Coyote Ugly. I was comparing the bartenders to people, like "This is the new Andrea Dworkin!" "This is Gloria Steinem!" And I knew I had to do something wild, so I flashed my twat. That’s my new thing. Right after Reagan died, I did that in his honor. I was playing with my boyfriend’s band True Love at the Loser’s Lounge tribute to Prince. The song was "It." Then there’s straddling the amps and monitors, that kind of stuff.
How do people usually react?
Nudity’s the crowd pleaser. You can’t really go wrong. I’m like, "Hmm, that’s not working… better take off your clothes!"
You did a Kerry benefit recently.
Yes, I was the first up. I came out and started talking about how great Bush is and tearing down Kerry/Edwards stickers. I wore that same red dress, red for Republican. I wanted to be as much Nancy Reagan as I could — that poor, tragic woman. Some people were confused, but that’s my lot. I said, "Vote Bush! Open yourself to his message, because he’s wise!" And there are certain words he can pronounce very well. He can say "war footing." Things he repeats, he can say."We’re on a war-footing." And he can say "terror" now. He used to say "terrah," but now he gets it right.
Have you ever heard of urbane people of our generation throwing white trash parties? Are you worried that what you do comes across like that?
That phenomenon does seem pretty condescending. But, you know, when I was first doing this, everyone said, "Don’t go to Nashville! They won’t get it!" But Nashville liked me, or at least tolerated me. It’s mostly people here in New York who get mad about it.
On behalf of the South?
Yeah, because supposedly Southerners don’t have as much education, so they can’t discern parody from pejorative. Which is ridiculous.
Why do people usually walk out on your shows, when they do?
People think it’s either anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, just a novelty, or there’s too much sex. In the South, people get mad because they think it’s sacrilegious. Which it is. Here, the Jews get mad. Because here there are Jews.
Like you, for example. Where did you go to high school?
A Jewish school called Ramaz on 78th between Park and Madison. I got into trouble for wearing miniskirts.
Where did you hang out?
I used to love to go to clubs like the Palladium, Limelight. But I just went so I could try to get into the VIP room, meet celebrities and leave. I had an agenda. One time, I went to the Palladium for the MTV Video Music Awards and then I realized buying a ticket didn’t mean you got to hang out with those people. So I somehow found my way backstage and ended up hanging out with like, someone in Megadeth. Madonna said, "Excuse me" to me.
That’s great.
I thought it was pretty cool. I was in her way! See, if she had the Kabbalah bracelet back then, she wouldn’t have needed to say anything, because all obstacles would magically evaporate.
So were you a groupie?
I was mostly just all about the Stones. I hung out in front of Mick’s house, which was like six blocks from my house, and would scream when he walked by. Or I would corner Keith Richards in an elevator and tell him how much I loved him. And he would laugh at me. But for the most part, that was it. It was contained.

What do you think about the Beatles-Stones romance between Sean Lennon and Elizabeth Jagger?
Well, that’s like Romeo and Juliet, or the houses of Lancaster and York. Maybe they’ll create a super-genius. Or maybe they’ll create another Julian.

Are you still married?
No. I was. Let’s say I was . . . indiscreet. Then I was with another guy who I’ll just reserve comment on. Now I’m with someone else I love very much.
Is he in your Rolling Stones cover band, Mike Hunt [say it out loud to get the joke]?
He is! He’s Brian Jones, even though technically Brian Jones is dead for some of the particular albums we play. So for those shows he’s the ghost of Brian Jones.
How did you go from being a Stones fan to being obsessed with country music?
Country and rock are so close. Through Gram Parsons I got into Emmylou Harris and then the Judds. I had an epiphany when I heard the Judds the first time. I felt like, "All my troubles are melting away! Into their harmonies!" The Judds are a trip.
Who came after them?
Loretta Lynn. I really attached myself to her. Then I wound up singing with her one time inadvertently. She saw me singing along in the audience and pulled me onstage. That was my moment in the stratosphere. Then I met her again when I was almost signed to this Nashville label…
But your arch-nemesis Amy Grant blocked you.
You’ve heard this? I just always made fun of her because she seemed like such a prime target. But it’s kind of too easy now, like people making "Mick Jagger has big lips" jokes. It’s a little old by now. But from all accounts, she’s still a cunt in Nashville.
Having enemies is always a good thing.
Yes, we have some others here in New York, too. It’s fun to write nasty songs about them and have little fights. The alt-country scene here is rough!
What do you think about alt-country breakouts like Ryan Adams?
I just wrote a song about Ryan Adams. It’s called "David the Faker." His real name is David Ryan Adams, but he makes a big deal out of when people confuse him with Bryan Adams and yell out "Summer of ’69!" at concerts. Ryan’s played a lot of shows with Mike Hunt, actually, and he played a Tammy Faye show in Nashville.
Maybe we can find you more enemies. How do you feel about Alan Jackson?
He is another one of these dull baritones – not that baritones are dull, but he is. He has the blonde hair and a mustache without a beard, which is either brave or a way of telling us his true sexual proclivities. But he’s probably the biggest there is right now. "Chattahoochee" is actually one of my favorite songs. It’s so facile and has my favorite line in the world: "We learned a lot about livin’ and a little ’bout love." Isn’t that the truth? He’s got this kind of mystique, like Clint Eastwood or maybe Gary Cooper. The rumor is that he slept with Faith Hill years ago.
What do you think of Faith Hill?
Her version of "Piece of My Heart" kicks Janis’ ass. It’s jaunty, it’s bouncy, it’s pain-free! There’s no plaintive quality. It’s not about being bereft or lonely. And it has a nice, upbeat tempo. It’s a positive love song.
What about Ray Stevens and Cledus T. Judd, the jokey people?
Here’s where I get into trouble. There’s nothing I hate more than funny country songs, but then I have to remind myself that’s what I do.
But a lot of the funniest country songs are the most serious ones, like Loretta Lynn’s "The Pill."
I LOVE that song! It got banned, even though she didn’t mean it to be political. I love when she says, "This incubator is overused because you’ve kept it filled." The best part is that she’s like, "I can have a lot of sex now that I’m on the Pill, so step up to the plate." She’s a predator! We do her song "Fist City" a lot, about beating up a woman for trying to take her man. Her new stuff with Jack White is great too, but I’m afraid he’s starting to look a lot like Billy Corgan.
What do you think about Gretchen Wilson’s "Redneck Woman?"
You know, I kinda like it. She’s sassy! What I love about Nashville country, as compared to alt-country, is that there’s no self-consciousness, no irony. They’re not trying to hold the traditions sacred, they’re trying to have a radio hit. It’s done with a purity of heart. With bands like Wilco and the Old 97s, there’s so much self-consciousness.
It’s kind of funny to hear you — of all people — say that.
I know! (Laughs) I say I hate the irony, like I’m not ironic. It’s kind of hilarious. Anyone who holds something sacred is probably not going to like me.  

Tammy Faye Starlite and the Angels of Mercy perform at Joe’s Pub, NYC, on Sept. 2. For CD-ordering information, visit www.tammyfayestarlite.com.  

© 2004 Nerve.com.