4th Dec 2012
Coal to Diamonds by Beth Ditto with Michelle Tea
Beth Ditto is Gossip‘s vocalist; an outspoken Arkansaw loudmouth with a voice, body, persona and politics all proudly larger than life. Michelle Tea, meanwhile is the author of Valencia and the founder of cult queer touring collective Sister Spit.
To me, a fan of Gossip’s music but not knowing much beyond the music press headlines about Beth Ditto herself, it sounded like an ideal combination. And as expected, I loved Coal to Diamonds a lot.
But if you’re after an in-depth and comprehensive chronology of how Ditto came to be internationally beloved as Gossip’s frontwoman and an icon in her own right, this isn’t it.
Instead, Coal to Diamonds is conversational and candid; Ditto’s voice is distinctive on paper as it is on record, and reading her memoir feels like having her recounting her experiences to you over coffee or cocktails, with all the diversions and omissions that’d entail.
It starts with Ditto’s complicated, dysfunctional and at times abusive childhood, in a tiny backwater where booze and dancing were banned and squirrels shot in the back garden were an acceptable meal, chronicling Ditto’s feelings of being disconnected from the wider world.
In a place where news of popular social, cultural or political movements was out of date by the time it arrived, Beth was isolated, frustrated and alienated, feeling like her future had already been decided for her. And while Ditto’s circumstances may have been extreme, most former frustrated teenagers will be able to empathise.
A compelling, beautiful and bittersweet story of survival...By turns heartbreaking, defiant and triumphant, she charts her self-discovery as she finds adventure, reassurance and redemption in music, her identity evolving from Fall Festival beauty pageant participant and choir president to vocalist for local bands like Little Miss Muffet.
Music as a tool for survival is a recurring theme, a way of defining identity and finding a subculture and scene that feels like home. Though at times these chapters err towards the sentimental, anyone who’s experienced this for themselves will understand all too well the romance and excitement that Ditto describes.
Similarly, Ditto’s discovery of riot grrrl and feminism, and then later her experiences coaching young women at Rock Camp, give the reader a fascinating insight into their impact on Ditto, an impact many will recognise.
She claims to hate the term, but parts of Coal to Diamonds could be triggering for anyone with their own history of abuse, self-harm or depression. Though these episodes are not described in detail, Ditto is upfront and honest about them, making for emotive and uncomfortable reading.
And if you’re after gossip of a more salacious kind, you won’t find it here. Though Ditto doesn’t shy from speaking her mind in interviews (having had assorted spats with other musicians and cultural icons on many an occasion in the media), Coal to Diamonds is conspicuously silent on that score, and on many others.
Coal to Diamonds is much more personal and insular than that, but all the more powerful and moving for it. In several respects, it only skims the surface, and that and the loose, non-linear format has been a bone of contention for some readers and reviewers.
But Coal to Diamonds remains a compelling, accessible, beautiful and bittersweet story of survival. And for that reason alone I can’t help but love it.
Recommended for: Riot grrrls, queers, punks, small-town survivors and anyone wanting to know more about the fierce, fat-positive woman responsible for soulful, stomping anthems like Heavy Cross and Standing in the Way of Control.
Other recommended reading: For another rock’n'roll autobiography from a deep South singer, explore Jayne County‘s amazing memoir, Man Enough to be a Woman; bold, brave and honest, with similar themes of gender, sexuality, survival and identity, and finding spiritual homes in the form of people, places and scenes.