Does It On Her Knees
Tammy Faye Starlite
Jimmy Swaggart would love Tammy Faye Starlite. She preaches out loud, she talks dirty, and she loves country music. And she might just take that holy roller for a holy roll in the sack.
But then, Brother Jimmy probably doesn’t have much of a sense of humor. Tammy Faye creator, actress Tammy Lang, uses her character as a path to amuse, entertain, and infuriate – but also to make a point. With subjects like incest, rape, and abortion, her songs are likely to offend the sensitive or closed-minded. Tammy Faye jokes, blasphemes and race-baits with a charming southern grin on her face. But, like Lenny Bruce, she seeks to defuse issues by driving them into the ground, and to disarm her opponents by amplifying their point of view and screaming it so loud that it loses credibility. Of course, some folks miss the point completely, and take her songs at face value.
She seems to have friends and fans in high places; Tammy Faye believers include Robert Christgau of The Village Voice and legendary rock photographer Bob Gruen. Her band is no slouch, either; with associates or members of bands like Wilco and Mojo Nixon, they’ve got plenty of Nashville-style country cred. On her recent record, On My Knees, that musical talent shines, providing a solid backdrop for her sinfully sarcastic sermonizing.
Onstage, she singles out members of the audience for saving – “You, back there with the beer in your hand, don’t you know you’re going to hell?” “Do we have any Jews in the audience? Any Jews? Don’t you know you’re going to hell?” In Tammy Faye’s world, *everyone* would end up in hell but her, and especially that bitch Faith Hill who allegedly beat her out for a Country Music Award last year…
But take it all with a grain of salt, and don’t change your blasphemous ways just yet. Tammy Faye puts the “cunt” in country music, and the “ho” in honky-tonk – her spirit may be weak, but her flesh is willing, and she’s spreading the gospel, her way.
So, how did Tammy Fay Starlite get her start?
Well, a few years back, some friends of mine in New York – including John S. Hall from King Missile – we started this comedy troupe, and I would do these characters, and one of them was Tammy Faye Starlite. All I would do was the song “Stand By Your Man,” but inserted between the choruses was a description of remembering hearing the song while I was being gang-raped. But it was a good gang-rape, it was a positive thing.
I just figured, I love country music so much – I didn’t know if I could be a real country singer, but I could write my own songs and create my own little character, so I did. I wrote “God Has Lodged a Tenant in My Uterus,” and “God’s a Hard Habit to Break.”
Then I wondered, “How do I get to Nashville?” It used to be so magical, and now all they have is NASCAR and bull rides. Which I wish I liked, but bless their hearts… They’re so sweet, aren’t they, those bull riders? They get so beat up.
So I saw they had something down at the Opryland Hotel where you could pay a certain amount of money and have the experts review your music, and they’d tell you where to go and what to do. So I went down as Tammy Faye – I had this long, Loretta Lynn-like ball gown and white makeup, black lipstick. I sang my songs and people just loved it. Cowboys in the hall were yelling, “Play that ‘uterus’ song!”
I went down a few more times and did open mike nights, and I played at the Bluebird, and I did “Moonshiner’s Child,” which is about incest, and the lady who runs the Bluebird turned down my mike. Then I did a song called “Ride the Cotton Pony,” a song about going down on your girlfriend while she’s having her period, and I got hissed. So I thought, “OK, now I’ve made it.”
I got a band together and we started playing underground places around New York. My husband and I had a show called “Gunning for Jesus,” which is another song I haven’t done in a while. I’ve got a lot of songs I haven’t done in a while, because they’re all far too harsh. I figure that to combat evil, it’s best to embody it, so Tammy Faye became a white supremacist. I think I’m going to save that for my Chris Gaines project. I even have the name picked out – it’s gonna be “Crystal Night”. She’s for down the road.
I have some cancer songs, too, which most people are horrified by.
I get the sense that people are more upset by the cancer songs than by your abortion songs, what’s the deal with that?
Well, people tell me, “You know, Tammy, cancer is a comedy killer.” Why? Why does it have to be? I have a song called “Brain Tumor Christmas” that I love to do. It’s kind of a downer, but you try to give it as much sugar as possible.
Maybe you should play at one of those children’s hospital places, to entertain the kids?
I’d love to. We try to bring joy and horror to those that we try to convert.
You mentioned Nashville, and your record sounds very authentic. If you weren’t listening to the words, it sounds like a real country record. Are you a fan?
I was lucky with the musicians, because they were so good, but I love country music. When I was a teenager, I discovered the Rolling Stones, and I was obsessed by them. I read every book that I knew that they read, and I listened to everything that they listened to, and so I found Gram Parsons through his friendship with Keith Richards. Then I found Emmylou Harris, and all of a sudden I was listening to the Judds and having epiphanies. Then I started just diving in, into the real cheesy stuff as well… I love Loretta Lynn, and I love Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette – all those ladies, but I also love Pam Tillis and Carlene Carter.
Before I’d heard the record, I was expecting something a little kitschier and jokier, then I heard the record and it seems like it might rub some people the wrong way. You seem to have a pretty strong women’s agenda, and your songs about rape and abortion… Don’t people get a little edgy with that stuff?
People do tend to get up in arms. Sometimes women get very offended, and it’s like, “Sisters, honey, I’m on your side!”
They don’t understand?
They don’t. When we played in Los Angeles, we got so much good press, but the L.A. Times said I was the most subversive, bigoted performer they’d ever seen, and that I was celebrating incest. I didn’t really want to go for the kitsch and the wink and the “Oh, it’s just a joke,” something like the Jerky Boys, or Cletus T. Judd or Ray Stevens. It was like, “I’m Jewish, so I can attack the Jews!”
You want to blur that line between reality and not reality. You want to get people’s attention and have them kind of like you, but also kind of have their disgust and antipathy as well. Just to keep things balanced.
I expect you get a strong reaction at your shows, do you get a lot of hecklers?
There have been some instances. We get a lot of love, but there’s always that one person. Especially when I try and convert the Jews – they’re very resistant to conversion.
I know, what a stubborn people! Sometimes we do this traditional bluegrass song called, “Don’t You Hear Jerusalem Moan,” and I’ll try and convert a Jew from the audience. I’ll ask if they believe, and they’ll generally say “No,” and I say, “What if I can speak in your tongue of which I have no prior knowledge?” Then I go into this Hebrew song, cause I know Hebrew…
And even that doesn’t sway them, huh?
Sometimes. Another time, there was a place I was playing, a bar called Ye Olde Trickle Inn, and I was doing, “Coming Down, Sweet Jesus,” and a cop came at me with a dart and said, “Don’t you make fun of Jesus!” And I said, “OK, can I make fun of the Jews?” and he said, “Okay.” So I did a song called “We Don’t Smoke Crack but We Sure Like Fucking Pigs.” Then my husband pointed out that when we said “pigs,” that’s like saying “cops.” Then the cop apologized and started crying and said his buddy had just died that week. Now he’s a fan.
So you are touching people…
Oh, yes, and in so many places! It’s my favorite sense; some people like sight or sound, and I just like touch. Like Stevie Wonder.
You were an actress on Guiding Light, now you’re a musician; is “Tammy Faye” performance art, comedy, or something else? How do you see yourself?
I don’t really know. I hated theater because it was so staid and stodgy, and you had the ever-present “fourth wall” which bars the audience from entry, so to speak. I always loved the reality of the room, and of dealing with people right then and there. “We’re all really here – I’m here and I’m not pretending you’re not here.” It’s a more organic thing when you’re performing live in a concert situation.
You mentioned the theater as being “staid and stodgy.” I’ve heard you stirred things up on Guiding Light by not sticking to the script.
I was a troublemaker. It started out as just a small part, and I was filling in for Allison Janney (who now is on The West Wing and she’s in a ton of films, too). I was filling in as this kind of wacky maid, and started developing my own character, and then just started writing my own lines. Then they put us together and we clicked immediately. I said, “Allison, let’s just write our own stuff!”
So we were on there for about two years… you know, sometimes things would fly and sometimes they wouldn’t. I remember this one day, and I was thinking, “I wonder if this can get past the censors?” One character said to me, “So, are you two happy?” and I said, “As clams!” I got to say it at the taping, but then I noticed it was cut from broadcast. It was like, “Cool, I got the clams in!”
So was it fun, or were the directors just sort of grinding their teeth?
Oh, it was a lot of fun. There were some directors who were more fun than others, and they encouraged it, then there was one who, early on, was like, “You don’t make up your own lines. You’re just a maid – just do what you’re told to do.” And I was crying in my dressing room, then the entire cast, one by one, came down to say, “You don’t listen to him, you just do what you do,” and they stuck up for me, and the producer was like, “Don’t listen to them!”
It was fun, though – it
was a nice soap to be on. Then their ratings went lower, and then they changed time slots and producers and writers and actors, so we were just kind of gone.
That’s gotta be like bizarro-land working on something like that.
It is, because you see all the women who look so beautiful onscreen, and you see them in sweatpants and glasses and they’re all sweaty and un-madeup, and all of a sudden they’re so gorgeous. The guys are especially funny when they get the orange makeup on. It’s very bizarre.
What’s the funnest experience you’ve had so far doing Tammy Faye?
Well, let’s see, there have been so many glorious experiences. I think maybe the sole sweetest moment was when we were in Nashville in October, and I went into the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, around Music Row. I had been going in there for years and buying things, and it was the same guy always there, and I heard him talking with some guy. He was talking about gospel music, and all these things, and I went to buy my little records and he said, “You’re Tammy Faye Starlite.”
I was like, “How did you know?” And he said, “I have your record.” And he kind of looks at me sideways and he goes, “I like your anger.” (laughing) And I’m like, “Well, thank you so much!” And it was just the same old guy, but he’s like, “Send your picture down!” The Ernest Tubb Record Shop, now
I’ve made it! That was beautiful. That and those cowboys in Opryland screaming, “Play that uterus song again!”
I remember when I was at that hotel, and I was dressed so strangely, and my makeup was completely white. This woman came up to me and she was like, “Oh, you look pretty!” Ooooh, okay.
So I guess I’ve touched certain people. It’s like when you can pick up a little cancer kid and say, “You know, maybe Jesus does
hate you, and maybe you’d better think about why you have that lump on your head.” You know? And then you make them realize how faulty they were in their lives and maybe in death they can saved.
So you try to give them a little hope.
Exactly. A little message from Jesus, saying, “You’ve been a very bad boy – change.” Those are fine moments indeed.
What’s the connection between sex and religion? People always seem to feel pretty strongly about their preferences in either of those areas, and you seem to be hitting pretty hard in both of those areas.
Well, religion is so sexy, because the position is on your knees, and you have to “let him in,” and then you feel the rapture, and that always seems to be like an eternal climax. It’s like what Dolly Parton said, “If God had wanted us to fly, he’d have given us wings.” Well, look at what he did give us? They’re both transcendent experiences, where you kind of leave your body for a little bit…
If you’re lucky.
That’s right, and sometimes the services are just plain boring. But I think you have sex, and you have religion, and you have going to a Rolling Stones concert, and those are the things that can really transport you to another realm of consciousness.
And then some people like chocolate pudding.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell the people?
The people of Atlanta?
The people of the Southeast region, from Florida to Georgia.
Well, the South? That is the hottest region. We know there are a lot of Jesus lovers there, and we just want to make more. We just want to eradicate all forms of Satan. Even though it’s hot, it’s not Hell. We just want everybody to, in the heat of the summer, come by and take your clothes off.
And don’t be afraid to swallow, because it might taste a little funny, but Jesus’ love is good. And it’s nutritious. If you can’t swallow, the next best thing is to smear it all over your body and let your partner lick it off, and you’ll be saved with Jesus’ purest nectar.
So, if you can’t spread the holy word, go ahead and spread something else?
Exactly – legs, anuses, anything you want. We don’t discriminate – wherever you want that holy rod to go, it will go.
I want to say also to the young girls of the South, don’t be afraid of penetration early – it’s not a bad thing. Some people say that penetration without your consent is wrong, but I say no – you don’t have to say “yes,” just open your heart and let Him come in. Girls shouldn’t be afraid of these things. Whatever you’re afraid of doing, He just wants you to do, because then you’ll be His completely.
We love the Delta, we love that shape. The holy triangle. The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost – the woman has it all inside her if she’ll just look. A man has the staff and a woman has the Trinity, and I hope that someday the twain shall meet. Or at least that someday we’ll meet Shania Twain.