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Beth Ditto’s memoir is PUNK, which, after learning about her through the pages of this book, I think is probably what she would see as the best possible compliment about her work. For those not familiar with Beth Ditto, she’s the lead singer of The Gossip, a Riot Grrrl band that first came into existence in Olympia and has since taken on the world, literally. Although still somewhat underground in the States (though that’s changing), the band has been at the top of the charts in Europe. I first became familiar with Ditto when I was a crusty punk kid in Portland back when the band was truly underground. I had my first threesome after a Gossip show, and when she appeared in “On Our Backs” everyone I know bought up all the issues – used them as our punk house versions of coffee table books, and we hung them on our bedroom walls.Ditto was a femme rock star at a time when most everyone I knew (myself included) were still shaving our heads and trying to out butch each other. Her fabulously inappropriate femininity was as captivating as her brilliant voice. Her memoir Coal to Diamonds (Spiegel & Grau), written with Michelle Tea, didn’t disappoint. Before reading I’ll admit to being somewhat skeptical/concerned about what the collaboration of these two powerhouse femmes would look like. Specifically, I think of Tea as having nothing short of an iconic voice. I really wasn’t confident how she would manage to craft this memoir in such a way that it would sound like Ditto. Even from the first chapter I was pleasantly surprised. Ditto and Tea did an exquisite job of working together to create a captivating memoir that was artfully crafted, but presented Ditto’s unapologetic and vibrant voice on every page.
Coal to Diamonds begins by following Ditto’s childhood growing up in poverty stricken small-town Arkansas. We watch as she grapples with familial dysfunction, abuse (both witnessed and experienced), and the development of her sense of self. Although Ditto grapples with difficult themes she does so with artful compassion. For example, as readers we are left sympathizing with her absentee mother who was doing everything she could amidst difficult circumstances.
We read as Ditto develops into a closeted queer teenager desperate to fit in with the small number of punk kids in her community, and her move to Olympia following graduating from high school. I particularly appreciated the gritty honesty that was used to capture that place/time. It would have been easy to glamorize the music industry and punk community in the Northwest, but Ditto unapologetically called it like it was. She wrote about hunger, how her sister still living in Arkansas once spent the last of her money to order a delivery pizza for Ditto when she learned the struggling musician hadn’t eaten in days. We follow the ups and downs of life on the road; punk house living and a string of shitty fast food jobs that kept the band housed and fed when not on the road.
Having been in Portland as the band was rising to underground queer fame, I especially appreciated the realness and grittiness of Ditto’s story. It was a unique experience to learn what the life of someone we all saw as a rockstar had truly been like, and how it so closely mirrored the precariousness of all of us who scraped together $5 in crumpled ones to get into the punk venue where The Gossip played. It was equally interesting to follow as Ditto described the rise to fame in Europe, how it had taken her by surprise and the impact that has had on her personally and on the career of the band.
My only real complaint came with the final chapters. The books ending felt rushed. Time began moving very quickly as though there was a need to catch the reader up to the present and give readers a picture of who Ditto is today and what her life looks like. Juxtaposed with the great pacing in the rest of the memoir this feels out of place and seems to lack the lyrical storytelling that permeates the rest of the book. Ultimately, This book is a and a must-read for anyone with a soft spot for Riot Grrrl, queer punks, and of course, all The Gossip’s fans.
Coal To Diamonds
by Beth Ditto and Michelle Tea
Spiegel & Grau
Hardcover, 9780385525916, 176 pp.