In the wake of her much lauded string of New York performances of Chelsea Mädchen at Joe’s Pub, The HOWL! Festival and The Duplex, and three sold out performances earlier this year at LA’s Bootleg Theatre and another at Woody’s in Palm Springs, Tammy Faye Starlite brings her bravura theater piece, focused on the music and commentary of Nico, the glamorously decadent Velvet Underground chanteuse, née Christa Paffgen, to Largo at the Coronet. She’ll be performing the piece that Danny Fields, the Warhol era scenester and title character in the Ramones song “Danny Says” and who, famously, signed Nico to Elektra Records, called “Not an imitation but a rediscovery of Nico.”
Tammy, your transformation as Nico is incredible. Not only the voice and mannerisms, but you seem to be literally possessed by Nico. Which sort of sounds scary, but is really quite hilarious. You manage to make this terrifyingly beautiful woman funny, which is not easy, considering the material.
Oh Donna – you are kind! I think maybe she was funnier than she knew. Or maybe she did know, and had the two sides, dark and light. She was a Libra, with one side of the scale often outweighing the other. Watching dvd’s of her performances and her interviews are so fantastic and enlightening. She had a simultaneous knowing quality and a childlike innocence. Sometimes she just stares at the audience. I often wonder what she’s thinking. So I just copy her motions as best I can, and try to think Nico thoughts. Or what I imagine are Nico thoughts. Or I’ll fixate on the glowing red “Exit” sign.
Did you decide to stay “The Blonde Nico”? I always thought that Nico consciously destroyed her beauty, as if it were a hindrance.
I think so too! It was one of the first things I loved about Nico – the seemingly willful destruction of her own beauty. I think part of it may have been her true nihilistic bent, though probably the heroin and her increasing dependence upon it made personal grooming secondary. Which is admirable, to a degree. I love seeing real, untouched faces. Though I guess all faces are real, or they wouldn’t be visible. On the other hand, there is Mitt Romney. Oh – the blonde Nico – I figured since I’ve been bleaching my hair into its photonegative for so long (thank heaven I have the lovely Lexie Montgomery do my double-process – she’s the most brilliant blonder there is) I’d try to merge the Velvets/Chelsea Girl Nico and the latter-day, black-clothed, scarved, scarred Nico.
I was glad to see you smoking a prop cig (not that I’m a rabid anti-smoker, but you have an incredible voice!)
love that cigarette! It belongs to Jeff Ward, who is so fantastic as the Interviewer. I love the obvious falseness of the prop – it lends more of an air of unreality to the proceedings, without affecting up the actual air.
Speaking of your incredible voice, there are times when we get to hear your full range. Are you actually “toning-down” for Nico, as she wasn’t a singer with tremendous range?
Again, you are incredibly kind! I have to practice singing very low, because her voice was so preternaturally deep, much deeper than mine. I normally sing in a belty, faux-country caterwaul, and I have to tame the bleating vibrato. Nico had a lot of power when she sang – she frequently used a very fortissimo sound, but she could sing so softly and cryptically, like in the Velvets’ songs or the songs from her first solo album, “Chelsea Girls.” I wish I had her sublime combination of mystery, drama and ennui.
What are some of the strangest reactions you’ve had (to your performance)?
One time I heard an audience member mutter, “F-ing anti-Semite,” and then he left. I wanted to shout, “But I’m an Upper-West-Side Liberal New York Jew! I went to Yeshiva for 12 years!” But that would have sent shards of glass flying from the smashed fourth wall, like shrapnel. You could lose an eye, god forbid.
Can you give us some makeup tips?
Make-up artists! If I do it myself I look like a 5-year-old did my makeup (though those Toddlers In Tiaras are flawless). For the shows at the Bootleg I was lucky enough to have Joseph Peralta. I also love Daniel McFadden at Prive. And false lashes are a must – I believe any Kardashian would agree. And lots of blush, ’80’s style. Striped down the cheek. I need it, as I have no cheekbones, and Nico was perfectly angular with gorgeous bone structure.
Without giving too much away, how do you prepare for a show?
Go to the gym, neurotically sweat on the Stairclimber, vocalize (everyone loves to hear that), blow out my hair as best I can (unless I have Chris Cusano, my hairstylist, nearby – he’s phenomenal), get makeup done, watch as many Law And Orders as possible, eat, and fret for a few hours. Once at the venue, I’ll say I’m not talking before the show to save my voice, then I won’t shut up.
Had any unexpected people turn up to your shows?
At the last L.A. shows, the Pet Shop Boys came! I was floored – I love them. And the brought Sioban Fahey! And in NYC, Danny Fields, the rock legend who signed the Doors, The Stooges and the MC5, managed the Ramones and was part of the Warhol scene and the ’70’s punk scene – and signed Nico to Elektra and knew her well – came to the first show we did at Joe’s Pub and gave his full blessing and incredible approbation. I’ve come to truly love him as a friend. And Kurt Loder also came to the first show – and made a guest appearance as the Interviewer a few months later! And David Fricke of Rolling Stone, Robert Christgau – “The Dean Of American Rock Critics” – and Ian Drew, senior editor from UsWeekly (who put me on the Us website as Nico!), were all exceptionally kind, and I am eternally grateful to them all.And I got to meet you – you are amazing! And I couldn’t do any of this without the brilliance and benevolence of my publicist, Bob Merlis. He’s truly my Max Reinhardt. I adore him and am beyond thankful to him and for him. Oh lordy – do I sound ike I’m giving a Golden Globes speech? My fantasies must be grabbing hold of my unconscious mind. I know positive thinking and visualization are great and very useful, but I think it’s often good just to be where you are – live in the moment, as they say. To quote Nico at her existential best, “I can’t think further than tomorrow morning. I leave that to somebody else.”
Tickets now available: http://bit.ly/JlrhG
366 North La Cienega Boulevard, one block north of Beverly
Doors open for drinks at 8pm, curtain at 9pm.
Inspired by current economic catastrophes of the same sort that provoked the climate of fear that begat the Third Reich, Tammy Faye Starlite forswears her country persona for an evening of song performances — und gespräch — in a dark, Weimar-cum Warhol Kabaret Konzert directed by Michael Schiralli. Chelsea Mädchen includes the brilliant repertoire of songs associated with Nico’s brief, yet legendary, tenure with the Velvet Underground including “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” Femme Fatale” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Starlite will also perform classic Nico covers of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine,” Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Keep It With Mine” and The Doors’ “The End.” The show will culminate with a rousing finale of “Deutschland Über Alles.” She recently guest hosted in her Nico persona on US Magazine’s “Hot Stuff” video feature, posted here to provide some insight into the character: http://xrl.us/Tammy
The piece includes dreamlike reminiscences about Lou Reed (and Jews in general), Andy Warhol, John Cale, Jackson Browne, David Bowie, Alain Delon and others. Starlite noted, “Nico was, and remains, a heroin(e) and emblem for these dark days of civil unrest and our unceasing fascination with sybaritic self-destruction and the willful deconstruction and annihilation of beauty.” She continued, “I’ve got the songs, the accent and the hair down and am working tirelessly on the cheekbones. Moving the show from New York to Los Angeles reflects the tectonic cultural shift that Nico helped catalyzed during her brief time on the planet.”
Tammy Faye, as Nico, will be backed by by an all star band at Largo under the direction of Peter Andrews on guitar (Nancy Boy and JAG, NCIS, TMZ television soundtracks). Musicians include Lisa Germano on violin (John Mellencamp, Giant Sand, Eels, Neil Finn), LA punk rock bassist Ben Edge (Surprise Vacation, Bad Reaction, Broken Needle, Fields of Fire), pianist and Second City alumnus Alex Burke (Magnolia Memoir, Michael Bublé, Margaret Cho), flute and sax player Craig Hoek (Phoebe Snow, Dave Edmunds, Patti Smith, Mike Hunt Band) and drummer Sean Johnson (The Damselles & The TC4, SpongeBob and the High Seas).
Rolling Stone’s David Fricke reviewed Chelsea Mädchen and noted that he had actually met the real Nico 34 years ago. He wrote, “All of those Nicos – the lethal venus of 1966-67; the stoic sorceress of The Marble Index and 1970’s Desertshore; the commanding matron I saw that night in New York – are present, with affectionate and gently comic detail, in Chelsea Mädchen, a portrait in performance by the colorful New York alternative-country-and-cabare
David Keeps noted in the Los Angeles Times, “In her one-woman show ‘Chelsea Mädchen’ Tammy Lang — a.k.a. Tammy Faye Starlite — channels the chanteuse’s languid essence” and characterized her as “a performer who thrives on spontaneity and improvisation.”
HITS Magazine’s Roy Trakin wrote, “Starlite is Nico in perfectly coiffed frosted blonde-hair, blackened eyeliner and gravelly Germanic drawl, launching an eerily note-perfect rendition of ‘Femme Fatale.’ It’s a brilliant, nuanced performance, completely convincing, at once a sly parody, but also an admiring nod to the original.
Robert Christgau, “the dean of American rock critics,” writing for MSN Music in a piece under the headline “The Velvet Underground’s Resident Femme Fatale Reincarnated Onstage” urged that “Anyone who knows [the album] ‘The Velvet Underground and Nico’ knows enough about Nico to drop in.. and learn some more.” He went on to cite Tammy Faye as “a performance artist [with the ability to] slip into someone else’s skin.”
Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, better known as The Pet Shop Boys, caught Chelsea Mädchen and came away most impressed with Tennant lauding, “The band was brilliant, the interview interludes were hilarious, and Tammy Faye is an incredible actress.” Lowe agreed, adding: “There wasn’t a minute when we didn’t think we weren’t watching the real Nico.”
Frank DiGiacomo, writing in his New York Daily News Gatecrasher column called Chelsea Mädchen “a wonderfully wry one-woman homage.”
Veteran MTV News anchor Kurt Loder commented, “The show’s extraordinary: a Nico tribute – so unexpected! But Tammy Faye’s a fine singer, and she really nails Nico’s deadpan/narcotized delivery, and the dialogue, lifted straight from old Nico interviews, is very funny.” Larry Jaffe, like David Fricke and Kurt Loder, had actually seen Nico in performance. In Rock’s Back Pages, he wrote, “Tammy Faye unleashes physical comedy worthy of Lucille Ball-meets Tonya Harding. At the gig I witnessed, she sat like Rasputin behind her harmonium. I remember the band cooking on “I’m Waiting For My Man,” thinking to myself that was the closest I’d get to a live experience of Velvet Underground & Nico, Nico live was bewitching, and I’ll never forget it – much like Chelsea Mädchen.
Danny Fields exalts, “I love what she does. She’s wonderful.”
For her role as Nico in Chelsea Mädchen singer/performance artist/bandleader Starlite abandoned her preternaturally godly country star character whose set list has included “Misguided Magdalene,” “God Has Lodged a Tenant in My Uterus,” “Ride The Cotton Pony” and the classic “Did I Shave My Vagina For This?”