Performer and impersonator Tammy Lang is best known as Tammy Faye Starlite, the long-running character she describes as a “photonegative of a country singer.” She’ll be embodying a very different kind of musician at the inaugural GLOW Festival at Oberon for her one-woman show Nico: Evening of Light, for which she’ll portray the late Velvet Underground singer and Warhol muse. We got Lang on the line to talk about taking on such an iconic personality ahead of the July 29 performance.
What does performing as Nico entail? Essentially it will be me improvising as Nico using her, for lack of a better term, more famous songs. There’s her Velvet Underground era, her first solo record, Chelsea Girl—she was the first person to record Jackson Browne songs—a Dylan song and then some of her own compositions, which are fairly, I guess you’d say, macabre. I think [Velvet Underground’s] John Cale described it as “music to commit suicide by.” Then there are also her covers of the Doors’ “The End” and David Bowie’s “Heroes,” which she mistakenly thought he’d written about her. I mean, who knows really if he did, but she thought he did, so it’s her perspective that I’ll be coming from. So essentially I’ll be talking in a deep, pseudo-Germanic accent and being, hopefully, as offensive as possible. She had a subversive way of expressing herself—maybe consciously, maybe unconsciously and maybe both.
Do you see her as a tragic figure? I don’t know, because she accomplished a lot in her almost 50 years on this planet. … Then she got into heroin, which is unfortunate. … But I don’t know if I like to see her as tragic as much as just human. She had artistic triumphs, which were unfortunately recognized mostly after she died. … She went kind of from muse to chanteuse, in her way. She had songs written about her, and then she started writing songs that were like nobody else. I mean, she wasn’t like Joni Mitchell; she didn’t write confessional songs. She wasn’t like any other singer/songwriter of the ’70s. … And the lyrics may seem kind of abstract or random, but I think she picked them for the sound rather than the meaning. And I think the sound really gave them the meaning. There are some beautiful, existential, nihilistic songs—she said she was a fatalist. But tragic? I don’t know. To me, she was kind of a heroine. It was certainly a young age to die, and maybe there was more she could have given, but maybe she just knew when to exit.
How do you get into character? I just kind of do what she does, having listened to all her music, watched her in concert, read books and articles and interviews about her, and listened to the timbre of her voice and the cadence of her speech. There’s nothing esoteric about it. Let’s say I’m in a frightened mood or a bad mood, or kind of sad—she fits with every mood, and there’s no onus to be happy in show biz, because she certainly wasn’t. .. Its fun because when there’s something in the air and you’re improvising, you can address it. So it’s kind of this collective experience for the audience and the performer, when you can talk about what’s provably on people’s minds. If it were right now, we’d probably talk about Donald Jr. and the emails, and David Brooks and the sandwich and that kind of stuff. [Laughs.] But who knows? Every hour something changes.
The pace of the news cycle now is just crazy. It’s insane! In the Christian theology they say that the Rapture will come in a blink of an eye, but I think the news flashes are quicker than the Rapture. It’s too much. The 24-hour news is not always helpful, because they’re just regurgitating the same thing over and over with just more speculation rather than any coherent facts.
What do you like about performing in character? You can say anything with impunity and then just say, “Well, it’s a character! It’s not me.” I’m not a confrontational person on the outside, but if I feel like saying something a little off or off-color, or that could be perceived as nasty, just because I feel like saying it, then I can just say, “Well, they said it. I didn’t.” But being a Jewish woman who went to yeshiva my whole life, I feel like, well, I like Holocaust jokes. [Laughs.] I’m all for the idea that anything can be funny as long as it’s funny.
If you could perform any other iconic woman, who would it be? She’s close to Nico as far as place of origin, but Marlene Dietrich. Having seen Blazing Saddles, and Madeline Kahn doing her character Lili von Shtupp, there’s really nowhere else to go with Marlene. I think you’re always going to be doing Lili von Shtupp. But every day it’s different. Some days I want to be Tiffany Trump—an old Tiffany, after she’s been through whatever she’s going through. She might be an old soul already; I feel for Tiffany. There are so many women who I’d love to sing their songs, and I don’t necessarily sound like then. Like Stevie Nicks. And to a certain degree there’s a part of me who’d like to do Patti Smith, even though I have different feelings about her. There’s a part of me that wants to explore that aspect, without saying anything negative about Patti Smith, because, we can’t. [Laughs] She has her style. … But I don’t know if that will ever happen—or it ever should happen—but that would probably be the most fun.