At a time when the accoutrements of ersatz rebellion and fake nonconformity
are sold at shopping-mall chains, Beth Ditto is an inspiration to anyone who
believes that punk is still rock's best forum for becoming a star through
sheer force of personality.
By no means is that intended to slight the musical accomplishments of
Portland buzz band the Gossip: The trio creates a rousing update of vintage
New Wave dance-rock drawing on the minimal ingredients of drummer Hannah
Blilie's jagged rhythms, the spare but melodic guitar lines of Nathan
Howdeshell (a.k.a. Brace Paine) and Ditto's furious yet soulful singing. But
the 23-year-old frontwoman is just as entrancing for the fact that she
refuses to fit anyone's stereotypes.
An outspoken advocate of gay rights, Ditto is frank about her sexuality,
just as she's prone to stripping down to her underwear onstage, the better
to throw her 225 pounds into the band's music. She doesn't mince words --
she's queer and she's fat -- and if you have a problem with that, you'd
better get out of her way.
"People have been asking me the same questions for eight years: 'You talk
about being out a lot. Are you worried you're going to get pigeonholed?'"
Ditto says. "I'm like, 'So far, so good! If this pigeonhole has gotten me
this far, then I think this is the very best pigeonhole to be stuck in!'
Yes, people ask me about being gay. But I feel that talking about that is a
stepping stone in the process of radical change in the mainstream, until we
get to the point where it really doesn't matter anymore.
"As for the issue of size acceptance and being fat, I don't get
pigeonholed with that, because you know what? That pigeonhole doesn't even
exist! I understand people who object when writers mention it, like 'Why
should it matter?' But the world of pop culture is still not ready to accept
these things; they're still an issue. So go ahead and pigeonhole me. When
I'm onstage, it's like, 'You will respect me!' And if the Gossip
falls to the ground for whatever reason, I'm going to be a hairdresser, and
I'm just fine with that."
Far from winding down, the Gossip is reaching its biggest audience since
Ditto formed the group in 1999 with Howdeshell/Paine during high school in
their native Arkansas. "He did not like me at all when we first met, when I
was 14 and he was 16," Ditto recalls. "He'll argue with me about this until
he dies, but really he was just an elitist little jerk; basically, I wasn't
cool enough for him! He knew everything about punk, and I knew everything
about Mama Cass. And it's still that way for both of us!"
The combination has worked. To date, the Gossip has recorded three
critically hailed, cult-favorite albums for Kill Rock Stars: "That's Not
What I Heard" (2001), "Movement" (2003) and "Standing in the Way of
Control." Originally released in 2005, the latter became a breakthrough
success late last year, when the title track -- a melodic diatribe about
those who'd deny gay people the right to marry -- became a hit in the U.K.
Ditto soon found herself on the cover of the New Musical Express, competing
with Kate Moss for the title of "Sexiest Female Musician" (never mind that
the anorexic Moss is a model, not a musician).
The increased attention has led the Gossip to sign to a major label,
Music with a Twist, a new subsidiary of Columbia Records devoted to gay,
lesbian and transgender artists. "It's the first time that a major has ever
done anything like this," Ditto says.
The group plans to start recording its fourth album this month, though
Ditto isn't in a rush. "For us, it's all about the live show. We've always
tried to make up for what we lack in instruments with the energy of the live
performance. It's punk in the essence of you have to be there. I'm always
honest, and I don't fake anything: If I don't feel good, or if I feel like
the audience is boring, I have no problem telling them I have a cold or
saying, 'You're boring me.' And people respond to that. I think they want to
feel like someone is talking to them, and I enjoy connecting with them, even
if I'm exhausted.
"I just think about how lucky I am that I got to make it out of Arkansas,
that I get to do what my mother wanted to do, and that I get to live this
crazy life. And then I feel like I can play a show every night."
REASONS FOR LIVING
In a conversation of any length with Gossip singer Beth Ditto, she's
likely to mention two of her biggest inspirations as a performer: Nirvana
leader Kurt Cobain and Ellen Naomi Cohen, better known as Cass Elliot. The
singer yearned to be, in her own words, "the most famous fat girl who ever
lived," and she became a star by adding her gorgeous harmony vocals to the
late-'60s hits of the Mamas and the Papas, though Ditto and I both maintain
that the under-appreciated solo albums Elliot made between leaving the group
and her untimely death from heart failure in 1974 are really where it's at.
"Those are just the greatest recordings of all time!" Ditto says.
"'California Earthquake is one of the best songs I've ever heard in my life
-- just one of the best-written songs of all time. I'm so into Mama Cass
it's ridiculous. She's someone I grew up idolizing."
Originally published in 2005 but coming out in a new paperback edition
from Chicago Review Press this month, Eddi Fiegel's biography, Dream A
Little Dream of Me: The Life of Cass Elliot, stands as the best account
of the artist's life, rising far above the usual Summer of Love
hagiographies. Meanwhile, Ditto's enthusiasm for Mama Cass' musical legacy
is more than justified by the brilliant 18-track CD compilation, "Dream A
Little Dream: The Cass Elliot Collection" (MCA).
• 9 p.m. Wednesday
• Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace
• Tickets, $12
• (773) 478-4408