Finally, the fall's parade of music memoirs features a title from someone who is not an old white rocker. Beth Ditto's Coal to Diamonds (Spiegel & Grau), out October 9, finds the provocative Gossip frontwoman sharing the details of her journey from poverty and a broken home in small town Arkansas to dance-punk stardom. At only 153 pages, the book is a brief read, but it's got its fill of drama. These are the most revealing parts:
Yr Mangled Heart
From an early age, Ditto's family provided some, let's say, lax supervision. As she explains, "an old babysitter had taught me to inhale [cigarettes] at the tender age of six . . . I fed my habit by slipping Winstons from Aunt Jannie's pack during our talk-and-television marathons."
Ditto was under a mistaken impression growing up about whom her actual father was. "My mother told me Homer Ditto was not my father. Nope. Mom had had a fling with some other guy who was my dad. Some dude who didn't stick around too long who Mom was happy to get rid of. She chose Homer, and Homer chose me, so he lent me his name even though I didn't have his blood."
Recreational vices and mistaken identity paled in comparison to some of the darker aspects of Ditto's childhood. "I would say Uncle Lee Roy was a creep. He oozed an inappropriate sexuality . . . Every time we were alone, his hands were everywhere. Down my pants, down my shirt. It was a normal experience — Uncle Lee Roy had been coming at me that way ever since I could remember, beginning when I was about four years old."
Desperate to get out of Arkansas and enamored with the burgeoning Riot Grrrl movement, Ditto and some friends decide to move to Olympia, Washington and change their lives forever, even in simple ways. "Olympia was a town crawling with music. I was new to the whole punk scene," she excitedly recalls. "The culture shock continued; Olympia had bagels! We didn't have bagels in Arkansas. You could order vegetarian food all over town! It was so crazy to me — a place with so many vegetarians, the restaurants made special dishes for them? Being in Olympia was like going off to college. It's where I got my education."
Though her weight gives her no small amount of youthful angst, Ditto credits her physicality with birthing her brash performing style. "My size has helped make me an amazing performer too. The cliché of the Funny Fat Friend: I absolutely was that character — I am that character . . . It's a complicated bag of tools I acquired, and I've put them all to work onstage. "
Ain't It the Truth
Ditto and her band are far more popular in the U.K. than they are in her homeland. She has some very specific ideas about why that is. "Let's get totally real about it and say that it's not just taste that keeps Gossip ignored by the U.S. media. It's sexism, the way women who are outspoken about all the real bullshit females deal with in this world either get ignored or made into jokes."
Ditto makes plain that she's no ideological dilettante when it comes to feminism. "Girls are taught to sing high and pretty, like Antony, not low and from the guts like Nina Simone. But we're slowly trying to change that. There are so many things we're not told growing up, and it's our true feminist responsibility to take the truth to the people who need to hear it."