By the middle of the Gossip's show last month at Seattle's Sit & Spin, Beth Ditto hasn't taken her shirt off yet. Maybe she will or maybe she won't. The threesome sprung from Searcy, Ark., and transplanted to Olympia has put the smallish club--which feels a lot like Portland's long-deceased EJ's--on the boil with songs from its second record, Arkansas Heat.
And then the trio starts to churn "Got Body If You Want It," from its first record, and there's an explosion.
Sometimes a few fans at a punk show will trickle on stage to dance, but this looks more like someone has uncorked a fire hydrant. In seconds, the stage is taken over by barely legal butchettes and their fanciers flailing about. The band itself is totally obscured. When the song ends and the special guests disembark, Ditto fans herself with her hand, wipes the smudged black makeup under her eyes and says, "What the fuck was that?"
Maybe the tight-assed Brit who judges Fox TV's dumb-but-addictive talent search American Idol thinks he knows the checklist for superstardom. But I bet he's never seen anything like Beth Ditto. She's a big, fleshy girl in tight clothes with a warm Southern accent who sings bluesy punk songs about seducing girls and starting revolutions. She's got the voice of Big Maybelle, the sleepy come-hither eyelids of Elvis, the Southern storytelling prowess of Dorothy Allison. She's what Ann Powers, the former New York Times music critic and current Experience Music Project curator, calls "a rock and roll heroine." And you don't become that by racking up call-in votes in primetime.
Still, as far as American idols go, Ditto gets my vote. While the fast and furious music the Gossip makes is simple--chugging punk-blues guitar riffs, straight-ahead drumbeats, choruses that demand tambourines--the songs are anything but. The Gossip's lyrics on Arkansas Heat (when they're not about picking up chicks) have the searing intensity of America's best wake-up calls, the kind that steer searchlights on this country's futile majority; think Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" and Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car."
Allison says her writing offers "the hidden stories of my life that lay in disguise behind the mocking stories I did tell--all the stories of my family, my childhood, and the relentless deadening poverty and shame." Ditto may be too young to find this naked edge of self-disclosure, but she's on her way. In "Arkansas Heat," she sings, "Got my whole town sweatin' me/ Got the heat and the humidity/ And it's a wonder that we're alive...Tell the preacher in case he asks: We ain't never coming back."
Where are these Southern runaways bound? The band's overthrow anthem "(Take Back) the Revolution" may seem a little naive to older listeners, who've been battered over the head for years with forecasts of revolution that never comes. But the way Ditto lays down the frame--"My mother works every day of her life for a man who don't care/ Who can only criticize my hair, my body or the clothes that I wear/ ...you're gonna get what's coming to you"--seems more like a promise than a threat. And while it may play flat on record, during a frenzied Gossip show the song is a true call to arms.
Portland songstress Sarah Dougher recently told me a story about Ditto, revolutionary general in the making. Both musicians were in London last year playing a festival, when Ditto came across a review of a Missy Elliott show in the influential rag New Music Express. The review didn't comment on Missy Misdemeanor's music; instead, it suggested that the hip-hop diva should shed some pounds.
"When Beth was on stage, she got the crowd revved up as usual," Dougher recalls. "Then she asked, 'Hey, is anyone from NME here?' There were some hoots and hollers. Then she says ''Cause I read what you wrote about Missy Elliot, and I wanted to say fuck all y'all.' She then proceeded to strip down to bra, fishnets and heels. Needless to say, the crowd went crazy for it. It was beautiful to see Beth reject it all and still emerge triumphant."
Sounds like the beginning of a revolution to me.
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