I first met Beth Ditto in Chicago right before the Gossip’s album Standing in the Way of Control came out. It was a big turning point for the band, as they had lost their original drummer, Kathy Mendonca, but found an energizing replacement in Hannah Blilie. They had signed to a major label after years of indie distros and was produced by Guy Picciotto, a famous figure in the post-punk genre. It was 2006 and Beth had just had a major health scare, but when I came to interview her in the basement of the small venue before their show, she offered me a piece of the German Chocolate Cake she was eating, saying she had been advised not to eat sweets after having her gall bladder removed but, basically, she could care less.
That’s Beth Ditto for you. She is fiercely her own woman, but not at all intimidating. In fact, she’s welcoming, with her Southern drawl and adorably infectious laughter. I left the interview feeling a kinship with her, though I probably already felt that from listening to the music she made. A fan of the band since their first album, they were my first real foray into riot grrrl discovery. I had been a little too young and far removed when it all started in the Pacific Northwest and D.C. scenes, but by the time the Gossip had started making their music, I finally got a grasp on it, and I loved it.
Beth was (and is) an inspiration to me. She was one of the major reasons I decided to intern at Punk Planet magazine (RIP!), as they’d put her on the cover and ran an incredible interview with her about the punk scene and queer politics. I never ended up more sweaty and happy after shows than I did at those of the Gossip. Even house cleaning is fun when you’ve got a Gossip record on and you’re singing at the top of your lungs.
Twelve years after the band first formed, Beth Ditto is famous. If you go to the UK, she’s even more famous. But among most fans of pop music and culture, she’s someone that piques curiosity. Her stunning voice, her unapologetic stage presence, her frank discussion of sexuality, fashion and the music industry makes her great fodder for print and the internet alike. The band just released its fifth full-length album, A Joyful Noise, and Beth has published a memoir, Coal to Diamonds, co-written with Michelle Tea.
Growing up in Arkansas, Beth didn’t have a stable home environment but found her family in friends like her eventual bandmate Nathan Howdeshell. She detailed the sexual abuse, neglect and near poverty conditions that were normal to her, but doesn’t make it a sob story, nor does she apologize for her eventual forgiveness of the people who didn’t look out for her as they should have. She humbly pokes fun at her naivete on all the things she thought cool when she did find some like-minded friends, people who were into music and zines and being queer. She eventually made the move to Olympia to be with them, where she bounced from job to job and came to form a band called the Gossip by accident.
The latter chapters cover Beth’s first real relationship with a woman, their eventual split and her romance with Freddie, who identifies as trans or genderqueer. She writes lovingly of him and the support he gave her during a time when she went through both mental and physical ailments, the former of which led her to commit herself to a psychiatric facility in Portland for a few weeks. Although they eventually split up and Beth is now involved with a woman she’s engaged to be married to, there isn’t much about that, as Beth told The Advocate, “It’s something I’ve never discussed. It’s still complicated. I think we’re both very much better off.”
Coal to Diamonds is relatively short, coming in at only 176 pages. There’s a lot more that you want to know about Beth that she doesn’t reveal, but it’s likely she wanted it that way. Although she’s outspoken on a lot of things, she still has a personal life and secrets that might only escape through lyrical context. Even if she had detailed much more about her life and, say, her time spent with Kate Moss or Karl Lagerfeld or divulge more anecdotes about time spent amongst the riot grrl queers or on the road, Beth would still hold some mystery. That’s just her persona — someone who lets it all hang out, but has an inner dialogue you will never be privy to.
After I moved to Portland last year, I wondered if I’d ever run into Beth at a concert or a queer gathering of some kind. It wasn’t until a few months ago that I was with some friends at a barbecue restaurant that Beth came in with her fiancee and her fiancee’s family. I went over to say hello, and she didn’t remember me but was as sweet as I remembered her. She introduced me to the group she was with and obliged me in a photo. Now having more insight into her than I had before, I’m somehow more of a fan than I was when I was a 20-something shy writer who couldn’t even think of taking a bite of her cake.
I went and saw the Gossip play their hometown show here last month, my first time ever having seen them play Portland. They were happy to be home, and the crowd was ecstatic to have them back, even for just one night. New songs were celebrated just as much as the old, and everyone in the room felt a connection to Beth like I do and have, long before I knew as much about her as I know now.