I drove from Madison down to Milwaukee last night to catch something called "A John Waters Christmas," John Waters of course being the cult film director best known for Pink Flamingos and the original Hairspray. Every year Waters gives a touring monologue which is, essentially, just his extremely esoteric and/or blasphemous and/or pornographic Christmas list, with plenty of digressions to stories of Christmases past, such as breaking into homes with obese cross-dresser Divine and opening all the presents they find. (This year the highlight of the monologue was his story of recently visiting the Vatican gift shop; when told that he couldn't have a receipt for a postcard, he had to be restrained as he lunged at the clerk: "What, are you channeling your aggression against gays?!") I arrived at the venue a bit dizzy and confused; I couldn't locate the Turner Hall Ballroom from the street, so I paid $20 for parking at the nearest garage I could find to the address, competing for spaces with people attending some Bradley Center event and "High School Musical: The Musical," or whatever that was. Luckily we were wrangled by some people in thick winter coats asking "John Waters? John Waters?" and pushing us into a line to an elevator, which took us to the third floor of an old brick building, with a small, undecorated dome in the ceiling, high windows with purple velvet curtains, and walls that had been scorched black by multiple fires. (Waters later commented that it looked like a Church of Satan.) I wasn't too surprised that it was a music venue, with a bar in the back and a merch stand (and folding chairs arranged in rows), but I was surprised to see a band selling its shirts and CDs. "Is there an opening band?" I asked the girl sitting next to me. She shrugged: "Maybe he just has a backing band." No one seemed aware that accompanying Waters on this mini-tour was Lavender Diamond
, the irony-leaning hippies from L.A., just recently signed to Matador Records.
When lead chanteuse Becky Stark crept onto the stage in a white dress with a golden-colored belt that looked like it might belong to Wonder Woman, the audience seemed skeptical, aloof. Mind you, the audience was a bizarre mixture of urbanites and suburbanites, college kids and dropout punks, straight and gay, cross-dressers and the transgendered, drunks, a spiky-haired man who wondered aloud if he was almost to the age when he shouldn't be playing in a heavy metal band, and one Santa Claus. It was a tough audience. Stark said, "We're Lavender Diamond--we haven't met," while grinning nervously. She made anxious small talk about the mic stand that was too short, and on a whim sat on the stage to meet its height. A good portion of the crowd was wondering just what this was. Ironic comedy? Camp? Then she swung into the lilting "Garden Rose":
I'll never stop a bullet, but a bullet might stop me/
Some laughter issued from segments of the menagerie that thought they had her figured out, and Becky smiled back at them uncertainly, because at least they were listening:
I'll never drink the ocean, but the ocean might drink me/
And I'll never raise a portrait to a gentleman in blue/
And I'll never sing a love song for a love that isn't true.
And then it dawns on portions of the audience that this is more Patsy Cline than an obscure wonder from the John Waters Christmas album. It's a gorgeous, sincere song; Becky Stark is funny, but she is always sincere. The rest of the band's set proceeded like this: giddy dialogue with the audience delivered like an indie rock Gracie Allen, and then a song like a sucker punch, with a voice escaping her body that seems to belong to a different being entirely. When she reached "Open Your Heart," her eminently likable pop single, she proceeded to dance about the stage, oblivious to an audience that remained seated or, criminally, lurked by the bar talking loudly. It was an unexpected complement to John Waters' ethos: an outsider dancing to her own tune as much for her sake as those few who were on the same wavelength--those that whistled appreciatively when she was done.
Lavender Diamond's debut album, Imagine Our Love
, was released this year by Matador
to positive notices, and they've already toured with bands such as the Decemberists. Their keyboardist is a comic book artist whom Stark has also enlisted to draw comic strips for their website
, where she also blogs about peace and love in a meandering, endearing way, letting you know she's aware you think it's a joke, and also letting you know that it isn't.