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Cover Story/Music Preview: Phat and happy

Chinese rap artist? No, Phat Man Dee is just your average bald-headed, pig-tailed jazz singer and circus freak

Friday, February 15, 2002

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

In the lobby, a little girl giggles and looks at her parents, who smile, as the jazz singer places a fist inside her mouth and begins to interpret a standard.

Phat Man Dee, the Queen of the South Side

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The lyrics are muffled a bit -- a fist inside your mouth will do that -- but the melody is clear and unmistakable.

"Oh, say can you see," she begins, "by the dawn's early light."

As she sings, she pumps and moves the fist inside her mouth.

It's kind of like a trumpet mute.

But kinkier.

"What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming."

In its own way, what she's doing here is every bit as revolutionary as what Hendrix did at Woodstock.

But it's funnier.

And on a certain level, more impressive.

Her name is Mandy Kivowitz.

She often goes by Margalit, her Hebrew name.

But most folks know her as Phat Man Dee, the Queen of the South Side, a woman of size whose head, for years now, has been shaved but for a pig tail on each side, a woman who's equally comfortable singing a Maurice Chevalier song in French or chomping on a light bulb.

When she first played Club Cafe, she ate a champagne glass to end her set.

The club was not amused.

Nor was the old man at the bar another night who told the barkeep Man Dee's set was "an abomination."

But the weirdest thing about her may be that it isn't an abomination.

Once you get beyond the freak-show trappings, the first thing you're likely to notice about her act is that the girl can really sing -- and not just hit the notes but put the story of the song across. With personality. And charm. And emotion. And substance. And humor.

And sometimes a fist in the mouth.

She's a stylist, a diva, a circus performer, a punk-rock cellist, a cook at the annual Burning Man festival (a desert gathering of artists and/or freaks in the sweltering heat of Nevada that ends every year in a fire) and a belly dancer who handles a snake named Cat A. Tonic.

She's a stripper, too, it should be noted.

Phat Man Dee

WHERE: Rex Theater, South Side.

WHEN: Tomorrow at 8 p.m.

ADMISSION: $10; 412-481-6681.

BAND WEB SITE: www.phatmandee.com


Recent gigs include a tap-dancing clown-stripper act at the Exotic Erotic Ball in San Francisco and perhaps her favorite gig -- "some poor kid's 21st birthday party out in Swissvale."

She was hired for the party by the "poor kid's" mom and sister. As Man Dee recalls the occasion, "Oh, my God, he was terrified! His mother and sister kept holding him down so I could lap dance on him. He was screaming and his friends were laughing. And then, I got mad at his friends for laughing at him, so I started chasing them and sniffing them. I chased this one poor guy who had a broken leg who was, like, hobbling on his crutches. It was like a football player-type party, like the high school jock crowd. It was fun."

Her earliest performance was a bit more family-oriented.

At the age of 5, she landed a part in the Altoona Library Play Series' "Little Miss Muffet."

Cast not as the title character but closer than you'd want to be, she played the tuffet.

Man Dee's father worked for Conrail and the family moved around a lot. A Youngstown baby, she moved to Altoona at 1 1/2, then to Meadville, then back to Altoona for seven years before settling here at 14 with her mother, who by that point had divorced her father.

Having taken dance and cello from an early age, she played her cello in the orchestra at Allderdice High School and took part in such musicals as "Gypsy" and "The Sound of Music."

While she hadn't shaved her head or eaten any glass at that point, Man Dee knew she wasn't like the other kids at Allderdice.

"I've always been bizarre," she says. "I've always just been different than the other children, for whatever reason. I liked to shock them and make them be freaked out. I enjoy it. I get the best seat in the house, you know, because the plethora of responses you can evoke from people is way more interesting than anything I could make up. ... It's a lot of fun. And I can make good money doing it. I did the haunted house at Station Square for years. But I've always been weird and I decided to put all the different weirdness together with Damon, the Big Daddy Bull Seal!"

She met him while at Allderdice and eventually dropped out of college -- where she'd gone to study French and art and music -- to work with the Bull Seal! Collective, a performance troupe of sorts.

"We did a lot of fun stuff," she says. "He'd do poetry and I would play my cello to back him up. And we would sing together. I think he's a brilliant performer and a fabulous poet. I learned how to write with him. And I learned how to be myself with him, because you know, when you're acting, you're always pretending to be somebody else and when you're dancing, you're always channeling somebody else's music, but the Bull Seal! Collective helped me realize that I could have a lot more fun being myself, and wouldn't it be great if you could just get other people to actively enjoy being bizarre?"

Beyond that, Man Dee says, she can't explain what Bull Seal is.

"It's like explaining a whole new philosophy," she says. "I could give you some Bull Seal poetry or I could sing you some Bull Seal songs. I could do Bull Sealian things to you, but I couldn't tell you what Bull Seal is. I'd have to give you Damon's number. It was kind of like being in a cult. But so was Burning Man. And so was the circus. It's all like being in a cult."

She laughs.

"And that's fine," she continues. "Religions are fine."

She joined the circus here in Pittsburgh, performing with Circus Apocalypse.

It's where she got the name, from ringleader David Apocalypse, who dubbed her Mistah Sistah Phat Man Dee.

"And it just stuck," she says. "I didn't really like it, actually."

She giggles.

"It's too cheesy. Phat Man Dee?! But it has such a ring to it. It makes you repeat it. So people remember it when they hear it, even if it makes me sound like a Chinese rap artist. I am fat, and my name is Mandy. So it's cheesy and kind of cliche and weird, but it still stuck. I did three circus tours as Mistah Sistah Phat Man Dee, so there are people all over the country who know me as that. ... So it's just like, what are you gonna do? If people are going to remember it, you should stick with the name. At least they'll understand who you are later when you run into them. I mean, that is the goal."

Another circus, the Bindlestiff Family Roadshow, took her on the road in '96 on a tour whose last stop was her first experience at Burning Man. It was at Burning Man that Man Dee reconnected with the leader of Chicken John's Circus Ridiculous, a San Francisco troupe she joined for eight months, eating glass and playing punk-rock cello for a band called the Organ Grinders From Hell and singing country love-songs as a duet with herself as the half-woman/half-man Mistah Sistah Phat Man Dee.

"Chicken John kept us alive," she says. "And for that, I thank him. He took me to a lot of places I had never been before. And for that, I thank him. But it was probably one of the most painful experiences of my life. We didn't get paid or anything. We didn't really have enough sleeping spaces in the bus, so we were all tired all the time. And food was really

scarce. I learned how to eat out of dumpsters on that tour."

And so, it came to pass that local jazz guitarist John Purse was a little skeptical when Man Dee said she wanted him to back her on some standards.

She had gone to see him play a Sunday jazz brunch in '99.

"And I was fully bald at the time and going off to join the circus every five months -- or it seemed like it anyway -- and I said, 'I could sing these songs, man. I want to do a song with you.' And he was like, 'No, I don't think so, Man Dee.' I was like, 'Come on, man, it'll be cool.' And he was like, 'No, I don't think so. You're too weird. You're, like, a circus freak. No way.' "

She laughs now at the memory.

"And I was like, 'Oh come on, man, gimme a shot.' "

He tossed some albums Man Dee's way, from Coltrane to Ella Fitzgerald, and told her to learn some songs and then they'd talk.

She learned the songs, and soon, he was putting her off.

"He had me up to sing a couple times with the Crawlin' Low Band," she says, "but it wasn't enough for me. He didn't want me horning in on his gig on Sunday mornings or anywhere else. So I thought, well, I'll just have to get him a gig then. So I called him, and I was like, 'I want to do a show of standards. I know these 13 songs. And I've got us booked at the Beehive in the lobby Fridays 5 to 7.' And he said, 'OK.' "

They did a month of that, but it was pretty bad.

As the singer recalls, "They were building the bar in the theater, so there was always construction. And the songs I had chosen were ballads and you just couldn't hear them. It made them sound stupid. We were in the lobby and there's buses going by and nobody was really coming in for cocktails."

Things got better after Man Dee talked her way into a steady gig at Club Cafe.

"I knew that that would be a good venue for what I was trying to do," she says. "But they were scared of the whole Phat Man Dee thing. They were scared of what I might do. I mean, they'd seen Damon and I do very bizarre things. I would spit on the window at Cafe Allegro and he would eat it up. Just because it was fun to see them get scared. And it still is, to some degree. And always will be."

A representative from Club Cafe came out to see her at the Lava Lounge, where things much scarier than spitting have occurred, but nothing scary happened that night, so she got the gig.

For a year and a half, she sang her standards at the swanky club as Margalit and the Liquitones.

"Jazz is a beautiful thing," she says. "You can have a musical conversation with a lot of different kinds of people from different backgrounds, different bands, different musical genres. And that's what I did with my album. I worked with all these people from all these different backgrounds, all of whom were jazz, but they were all so different."

When she thought about recording, though, she knew she didn't want to do just standards.

That would be boring, she says.

She was explaining her theories on boredom and making "new" standards to her friend, Christiane Leach of Sun Crumbs and Soma Mestizo, when it came to light that Leach had more than 20 songs that Man Dee could record. Rounding up a number of her favorite players from the local jazz scene -- Reggie Watkins, members of the Boilermaker Jazz Band and, of course, the Liquitones (including bassist Nathan Peck, who charted out the songs' arrangements) -- she recorded five of Leach's songs, including "Life Just Goes On," which became the title track in the wake of Sept. 11. Man Dee also wrote two songs with members of the Liquitones -- including the Dylanesque protest waltz, "Sweet Freedom" -- and rounded out the track list with some standards ("In the Pines," "Mon Vieux Paris" in French) and a waltz about falling in love on a Kennywood ride called "Ride the Rotor," written by the man she plans to marry, Tom Delfaver, a k a Tommy Amoeba.

"Jazz is all about love songs," she says with a laugh. "And that is just a charming song. I love that song. He wanted me to sing it, but he didn't think it would be appropriate with my jazz band. And I was like, 'Honey, it doesn't matter what you play in a jazz band. It's just how you play it. I can do whatever I want. That's the point of jazz, right?' It's just such a beautiful song. I couldn't wait."

It's a beautiful album, guaranteed to baffle those who'd like to write her off as an abomination.

And to hear her talk, it's just the first of many.

On the eve of the album's release, Man Dee talks about performing seven days a weeks until she's 90.

That's right, 90.

To that end, she's enlisted a vocal coach who's helped her add an octave to her voice despite the vocal nodes she damaged while screaming in Bull Seal! Collective.

And the glass? She doesn't eat it anymore.

"I don't have dental and it really [messed] up my back teeth," she says. "I mean, I could. If the gig paid enough, yeah, sure. If somebody wants me to come and play this event and it pays. ... I'd probably want, like, $750 for that show. If somebody said, 'Here's $200 cash. Eat some glass,' I mean, I'd do it."

But she doesn't feel as though she needs to anymore.

"I kind of needed to at first," she says, "because I needed more stuff in my act, but I decided I don't really need to anymore. I mean, I bellydance with a snake and I look pretty good and I sing pretty good and I dance pretty well, so ... you don't have to give them everything all the time."

But glass or no glass, nude or clothed, what Man Dee gives them is a show.

"I want to make people happy," she says. "And I want to help other people realize that it's beautiful to be yourself. You can still be beautiful and sexy and be a big, fat bald mama with two pigtails and tattoos and piercings and brandings."

And doing the national anthem with a mouthful of your fist?

Of course.

"It's called engaging in the sacred art of fat-chick fist mastication. That's a form of prayer for me, actually," she says. "It's a meditative state for me where my fist is actually filling my face and I'm praying for the future of our country. I'm not happy with the way things are. I want them to be more strange."

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