Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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MSN Music News

Tammy Faye Starlite: Channeling Nico

The Velvet Underground's resident femme fatale, reincarnated onstage

In the 44 years since it crawled to 171 on Billboard, the The Velvet Underground and Nico has become a fetish object--the dark, spare, low-affect, banana-bedizened precursor of punk and all that followed. Yet the Velvets were forced by Andy Warhol to share billing on their historic debut with--who? Fetishists know: a deep-voiced German blonde who was detached on "Femme Fatale," doleful on "All Tomorrow's Parties," and either kind or manipulative on "I'll Be Your Mirror."

Ms. Tammy Faye Starlite was a nice Jewish girl named Heller until a decade ago, when she donned a wig to honor the Tammys Wynette and Baker with new-country classics like "Did I Shave My Vagina for This?" In "Chelsea Mädchen," which I caught in the first of its four June Saturdays at the Duplex Cabaret Theater in Greenwich Village, Ms. Starlite turns her blond ambition to Nico, the model turned actress turned singer who was born Christa Päffgen in 1938 and died in a bicycle accident, supposedly while finally kicking heroin, in 1988. Nico was charismatic if you'll make allowances for the occasional racist egomaniac, but nobody's idea of a good person. Starlite has said she's in awe of her, but she's said similar stuff about Tammy Faye Baker--a performance artist has to feel a certain fascination to slip into someone else's skin. Anyone who knows The Velvet Underground and Nico knows enough about Nico to drop in at the Duplex and learn some more.

Having seen Starlite in Tammy Faye Baker guise say "The Jews are a sad people who mask their sadness in humor but they sing in minor chords," I was half-hoping she'd eviscerate the German chanteuse. But she's subtler, respecting Nico's outspokenness even if she's appalled by what Nico says. Backed by a six-piece band, Starlite performed 11 songs over 90 minutes, including only one of the self-composed harmonium-rock threnodies on the John Cale-produced The Marble Index, Desertshore, and The End (whose Jim Morrison title epic was as stupid as ever). With shtick limited to an admonitory widening of the eyes and selected Germanic pronunciations, Starlite nailed Nico's imperious mien despite her much smaller voice and stature. She improved "I'll Be Your Mirror" by putting some care into its reassurances and did fine by Bob Dylan's "I'll Keep It With Mine" ("He was in love with me," she reported) and Jackson Browne's "These Days" ("He was only 16," she purred with a fondly lascivious smile).

Starlite does her research, and many of the lines she tossed to her straight man, a historically verifiable Australian radio interviewer, may well be on record: "Like a little black boy who sings and then he is no longer black," "I am really an ope-ra [pronounced Oprah] singer," "He was a usurper of souls, like a cat." That would be Lou Reed, who "never really liked me because of what my people did to his people. I can't make love to Jews anymore." But Joan Baez's "morose, equine face"? I know that was Starlite's interpolation because I asked her. "Dylan is too prolific. Goebbels was the same way"? That one I chose to leave a tantalizing mystery.

MSN Music, June 9, 2011