New York Times: Tammy Faye Starlite, Inverted Country-Star Cliché, Strides Back

Publication date: 
May 18, 2017
Author: 
Stephen Holden
“People say, ‘Why don’t you perform as you?’ But I have no interest in performing as me, because I don’t feel I’m particularly interesting on my own,” mused Tammy Lang, the alt-cabaret singer, scabrous satirist and celebrity impersonator better known as Tammy Faye Starlite. Others may beg to differ. At 50, this blond, cherry-lipped singer has the bounce and vivacity of a high school cheerleader and the political sensibility of a radical left-wing journalist.
 
In her mesmerizing theatrical shows, Ms. Lang has won critical acclaim for stepping into the skins of complicated veteran rock divas, like Nico of the Velvet Underground and the British rocker turned art singer Marianne Faithfull. Her newest show brings back Tammy Faye Starlite, a fictional character that made her a downtown New York club star more than a decade ago. The updated Tammy show, “Tammy Faye Starlite Presents Holy War 2016 — the New Regime,” on Friday night, is the first of six planned over six weeks at the downtown club Pangea.
 
Her character is not, as her name might suggest, a drag-queen caricature of Tammy Faye Bakker, the evangelist, Christian singer and talk show personality who died in 2007. She is what Ms. Lang calls “a photonegative of a country singer,” which humorously inverts the cliché of the female country star as wholesome all-American gal.
 
“So many country singers have a Saturday night/Sunday morning dual personality,” she said in a recent interview. “They do a lot of drugs and drink a lot, then go to church and pray. Tammy Wynette was married five times.”
 
“I started with her signature song, ‘Stand By Your Man,’” she continued. “Between the verses, I inserted a monologue about being happily gang-raped. Because that went over well, I thought I’d write an anti-abortion song of my own, ‘God Has Lodged a Tenant in My Uterus,’ and a song about a drug user called ‘God Is a Hard Habit to Break,’ which I based on a George Jones song called ‘Relief Is Just a Swallow Away.’” Inspired by the 1996 Deana Carter country hit, “Did I Shave My Legs for This?,” she wrote “Did I Shave My Vagina for This?”
 
To prepare for the show, Ms. Lang said, she listened to a nine-hour Sarah Palin audiobook to capture Ms. Palin’s garbled syntax, as well as audiobooks by Joel Osteen and Amy Grant.
 
Ms. Lang grew up far from the Nashville she skewers in her show, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. One of two children of a judge, Irving Lang, who died in 1987, she attended Yeshiva High School, earned a B.A. in creative writing from New York University, and has been a member of several bands that covered the songs of Blondie, the Rolling Stones and the New York Dolls. She now lives in Hoboken, N.J., with her second husband, the guitarist Keith Hartel.
 
Tammy Faye Starlite originated in 1996. Before that, Ms. Lang was studying theater and attending auditions and helped start a comedy troupe called Squeal Like a Pig. Inspired by performance artists like Eric Bogosian, Kathy and Mo, and John Leguizamo, she began developing characters. Her specialty is breaking the boundaries of polite speech and speaking her mind through the voices of her creations.
 
“I was inspired a lot by Howard Stern,” she said. “When I used to listen to him in the early ’90s, he would say things that made you feel you were on a roller coaster going right over the top. It’s my favorite feeling.”
 
This fearless bohemian adventurer grew up idolizing the Rolling Stones. Through Mick Jagger and company, she discovered the country-rock star Gram Parsons, who influenced the band’s early-70s albums, and through Parsons, began exploring the world of Nashville. An interview with U2 that she read revealed that the group had been listening to an album by the Judds, which led her to listen to that mother-daughter duo and have what she called “a kind of epiphany — it felt like all my problems went away.”
 
Her show is not a goofy, snide hillbilly parody but a serious comic creation intended to be so authentic that it might be mistaken for the real thing. As a student and admirer of country music, Ms. Lang has acquired a near-encyclopedic knowledge of its canon and of who’s who in Nashville. While visiting the city, making friends and performing her songs, she has gotten a mixed reception. The “Uterus” song drew appreciative laughs, while the more political anti-right material was hissed.
 
“Holy War” mixes familiar country music hits sung straight with originals for which she wrote the lyrics. But it is Ms. Lang’s extemporaneous patter, which changes from night to night, that can provoke gasps.
 
“There are very few performers who can recreate another human being without missing anything,” said the music manager Danny Fields, a close friend of both Nico’s and Ms. Faithfull’s. “Tammy didn’t miss anything. The same is true for her Southern country character, which is perfect. I know these people.”
 
Michael Schiralli, who directed two earlier incarnations of the Nico show, marveled at Ms. Lang’s “X-ray vision.” “Even when she’s putting her spin on something,” he said, “it’s undetectable. She’s a subtle vaudevillian who knows how to play before a crowd, without letting her hand show.”
 
Ms. Lang half-jokingly said she wanted to perform at Café Carlyle. “I want to be Buster Poindexter,” she declared, referring to the alter ego of the former New York Doll David Johansen, who has played several engagements there.
 
That thought is not inconceivable.

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