Classic Rock Revisited presents an exclusive interview with...
David Palmer came to prominence as the man who wrote the string charts for Jethro Tull. His contributions includes every classic Tull album ever made. He worked for years, hand in hand, with Ian Anderson and toured the world. Life after Tull included conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and releasing a series of albums with the orchestra performing works from popular bands including Jethro Tull, Genesis and Pink Floyd. Life after Tull also brought the announcement that shocked Tull fans from around the world: David Palmer had become Dee Palmer.
In an exclusive interview with Classic Rock Revisited, Dee speaks in-depth about coming to the conclusion that she was a woman. Dee is eloquent, honest and above all very intelligent and understanding. She comes across with grace and dignity. Her lifestyle has changed dramatically but ultimately she is now living with herself on the outside the way she lived inside her self for years. Her story is shocking, awe-inspiring and emotional.
In addition to her gender journey, we also take time to discuss moments from her life as David including Songs From The Wood and her orchestral debut, A Classic Case, as well as what Ian Anderson is like to work with.
When this interview was scheduled, I was a bit nervous, as I had never met anyone who went through ‘the change’ before. I feared I would be talking to crazy person or loon but instead I found myself having a conversation with one of the most comfortable people I had ever met. It was clear that Dee Palmer was not crazy; in fact it was clear that she was very happy and content with both who he was and who she is today. She discusses difficult topics with honesty yet does not stand on a soapbox and defend herself. She did what she did despite what others may think because it was the right thing for her to do.
In the end, I accept her as she is. So much so that the Tull fan in me took over and we went from talking about sex changes to life in Jethro Tull.
Jeb: What is new with Dee Palmer? I hear a new album is being released.
Dee: Not for a few months. I am going to go to New York to do some showcase dates and let everyone there have a look.
Jeb: Your new music is classically based.
Dee: It would be nice to think it would have an original base. My origins do lie in serious music. That is one of the great benefits from my liaison with Ian Anderson. We are two entirely different musicians. We were able to complement each other a lot.
Jeb: I don’t think you can get more serious than Jethro Tull, concerning rock music. Before we go into Tull, let’s talk about what you are doing. For instance, you are singing on the upcoming CD. I didn’t even know you were a singer.
Dee: Nor did anyone else [laughter].
Jeb: Were you gun shy about stepping up to the microphone?
Dee: There was a kind of dissidence born from the fact that I had never done it. If you don’t do things then you think you are no good at it. Like everything else, we are all learning. I expect that I am more advanced in understanding the technique of singing than I was the day before or the day before that.
Jeb: Do you approach your vocal arrangements in the same manner you approach the music?
Dee: I think I do now. It is exciting when you write things. You can write music in so many different ways. You select a way of expressing yourself -- say with singing -- and then the next day you wake up and take a different approach to things. Since I did the three songs that are on the simple demo, I think one can see the type of blueprint that my album is going to be like. My understanding of the approach to singing comes from learning other people’s songs in order that I can compare my production of a version of another person’s song along with actual song, in order that I can free myself from being entrenched by having written the words, the music and then doing the performance. I have spent the last three weeks learning a Beatles song. It is interesting and I have become very entrenched in learning their music; what it has done is help me develop the performance of my own songs.
Jeb: Everyone has always known you are interested in serious music. You played with Jethro Tull and then you have been very involved in classical music. In light of life choices that you have made, do you ever worry that people are going to remember you more for the choices you have made and not your contribution to music? Do you worry that you are going to become a novelty?
Dee: I don’t think I have ever considered that. In many ways that is like entering a race and then looking around and trying to find a way to lose. You should look for a way to win. I hesitate to use the word win; I would rather say look for a way not to lose.
Jeb: You have to admit you really threw the Tull fans for a loop! Everyone’s jaw dropped when they heard David Palmer is now Dee Palmer. You have some tremendous courage.
Dee: I suppose it is a kind of courage. It isn’t reckless and it isn’t cultivated. It is a necessary strength. It is a residual part of the life that is in you. When you are in pursuit of something, in many ways it is the same kind of courage you need to really, really learn a musical instrument. It really is the same kind of courage. There are enormous prospects of transitions that are almost like the difference in the back and the front of one’s hand. It is a great big jump. Had it been some whimsical pursuit then I think I would perhaps not have been as successful as I consider myself to be.
It is something that I have known about myself since I was three years of age. You control it and you think you are the only person in the world going through it. The only two people I ever talked to about my gender dysphoria are my mother and Maggie, the girl that I married. She was the very first girl I ever met in my life that I felt that way about --she was 18 at the time. She died 10 years ago and my mother died at the same time.
My psychiatrist eventually concluded that the reason for me to once again face the impossible task of coping with this dissatisfaction of myself as a male was caused directly by the loss of the two people who meant more to me than anyone else in this world. They went in such quick succession that the shock dragged this out of the uttermost place where it had been repressed and brought it back to the surface and made me have to deal with it again. They died 10 years ago and within a short time I was having to cope with the same problems that I had as a child. It is an amazing issue. It is comparatively rare. It is not as rare as singing in absolute pitch, though.
A lot of people may think, “My God, what is going on here?” These are my words: I would not consider myself to be an icon though my name is on 50 or 60 million albums people have bought. People have seen me play in Jethro Tull and they are certainly entitled to think, “what is happening in this world?” No one knows the state of another person’s mind until that person decides to tell them.
Jeb: You are talking about very personal things in a very public way. Are you comfortable doing this?
Dee: Oh very much so. I am truly happy and truly comfortable. One of the indicators of that is that I don’t have to pick up my identify from the hall table when I leave my home. I don’t have to stand in the hall and say, “You are going out into society. Who are you?” That is a natural process. In the journey that you make, any sensible thinking soul who makes the change that I made, must have it come from inside. You can’t suddenly gather it from outside of you. It has to be something that you bring out and not something that you bring in.
Jeb: Why did you wait so long in your life to do this?
Dee: My mother told me something and it became very evident to me once I was able to make comparisons. I was born into what was called the intersex space; there was clear and obvious genital ambiguity. I had to have surgery when I was only a few hours old. I had my last surgery when I was 28 years of age. The only people I was able to make my observations from growing up were my brothers. Once I became aware of the female shape and constitution I knew something was seriously wrong.
I was born into a mining community in the West Midlands in England -- it was a steel bashing and coal digging area. You actually don’t go around saying you were born a girl because people would just have not have understood. I was able to talk to my mother about it. She was conciliatory but said that I would just have to get on with life the way it is. When I met Maggie, I explained to her that I had great difficulty getting to age 18 and not turning into a female and she told me that I was probably not the only one. When both Mom and Maggie had both died -- my two closest friends -- I had to deal with it once again. It had been repressed; that is why I waited all this time.
I suspect that if Maggie had lived that we wouldn’t be having this conversation because David Palmer would still be going about his life in the manner he was going about it until I had to cope and deal with something that beset me as a child. I was never a cross dresser. I didn’t have a suitcase in the garage of ladies clothes [laughing]. I didn’t go about masquerading as a woman.
Jeb: If it was me, I don’t know if I could have even talked to my wife about that sort of issue.
Dee: You’d be surprised what can be predicated between two people who love each other. We are not islands. Your wife is a person to is fundamental to your very existence. You will share with her those thing that are truly important to you. What you are saying in parenthesis is that you have never had to discuss this with your wife. Why? Because it isn’t inside you. You don’t have to discuss gender dysphoria with your wife because it doesn’t exist inside your relationship.
Jeb: It really isn’t different that any other relationship. What is different is the topic.
Dee: In a nutshell, once I was on my own and I had to deal with it, I was in the hands of two of the leading psychiatrists in the country. They pointed out to me, modestly, that I had a brain and not a pea running around in my head. They knew I would reconcile what I was doing. There are an awful lot of people who dress like a female on Friday and call themselves Patricia until Monday morning when they have to go back and do man’s job and be called Peter. There are all sorts of people who have suitcases full of female clothing in the garage; they have to learn to cope with that. We can play games with being the drivers of locomotives or commanders in the army. It is like being in ‘pretend world’. They can go and pretend to be whoever they want to be and then very quickly change back to who they are.
Jeb: The difference is that they are pretending whereas you were becoming real.
Dee: Once I talked it over in the first few sessions with my psychiatrists, I knew that at a point to be determined only by the passing of time, that my life would change. I have the confidence within myself and the belief of my own understanding -- after all we are the closest people to ourselves.
Jeb: You have no fear with Americans? We tend to be rude.
Dee: I think you have probably gathered by now that I have the tools to defend myself as well as express myself. One of the psychiatrists pointed out to me that when I was born I was given a handful of cards to play. A lot of them were enviable cards. I also had the transsexual card to play. I had to learn how to keep that card in my hand while I was playing the others. It does not lie within the gift of everyone who has gender dysphoria to be able to equip themselves on the manner and style and experience that I have. I use it not to defend but to inform people, perhaps disarmingly. Most people that are regressive or don’t understand need leading on. I am fearless on those grounds. It would be awful if I had put myself through what I did and come out on the other end as some kind of quivering heap, jellified pile of negatively. What would have been the use?
Jeb: You are a big part of the Jethro Tull legacy. Did you tell Ian about this before you did it?
Dee: Ian was told a long time before anyone else what was going on in my life. He was told on a need-to-know basis. Those close and dear to you must be apprised to anything important going on within your life. It may be impending bankruptcy or whatever. You must tell your wife and family that there is not enough money to buy the groceries. In my situation, it became evident due to the physical changes that take place with the hormonal changes. At a certain stage, you have to cover up and hide away those physical changes to a degree but there comes a time that you can’t. It becomes very apparent, even to yourself. If you haven’t apprised people on a need-to-know basis what is going on already, then you have to do it then. With Ian it was four years ago they were told. I told my closest friends and my children at the same time.
If you can imagine the spectral representation of something that is white going to black, then when the gray period starts you are at the most venerable change that people will ask if you are black or white. They notice the change. As the gray becomes much lighter then it becomes much easier to stand on the other side of the stream. But before that it is like having one leg on one bank and another leg on the other bank. Eventually, you can actually get to the other side and not identify totally with the color and the contour of the other side but be very close to it, all the while being mindful that you have changed completely from what you were when you were on the other side. As you move along you must tell those you are close to. They need to know because of their faith and closeness to you. When I leave my home to go to the grocery store, go to the bank or go swimming then I expect to be greeted as a middle-aged, elegant female. I don’t expect anything other than that because that is what I am.
Jeb: Everyone fixates on the physical changes you go through but the greater changes must be emotional and mental.
Dee: People can only realize what you are by your demeanor. Hormonal changes are colossal changes. Can you imagine you having injections of estrogen?
Dee: You would go mental. It was something that I wanted so I welcomed those changes. Anytime I could recognize the mood swings I would end up not believing what I had just said or done. You learn what it is like to be like that. You don’t learn to cope with it because it is actually you. During the transition period some mighty big changes are going to occur. You have to be very respectful of other people who are close to you that they don’t suddenly come into a tirade of abuse from you. It is not like a doctor who is injecting himself with horrible disease and then kept a diary of what was happening to try to get a cure for it after he dies. It isn’t like that at all. It always comes back to the fact that it must be coming from something inside you that is working its way out. You are not making a metamorphosis of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is a total change. It is welcome and it is you. You are aware of what the changes are. If one approaches it that way then I am sure one will be as happy with it as I am. There are an awful lot of tortured souls -- I don’t know them because I don’t make it my business to get to know them. I am sure there are a lot of tortured souls out there who are not just dealing with gender dysphoria but with many other problems as well.
Jeb: You said you were not an icon but in a way you could be perceived as one.
Dee: On a purely philosophical reconciliation with that I can say that if I had been given a different status because of what I have done musically, regardless of anything else I have succeeded at or failed at in my life, that I have been credited as an icon, I suspect that I might not be the person you are talking to right now. If I would have accepted the elevation to iconic status then I would be different. I cannot contemplate that for this reason: I have had enough of people saying, “If only I could do what you can do.” I know I have gifts but people have got to realize they have gifts. If you think I am good and you would like to be me then you should now bury your head in the sand. Good for me is over there. When I get there then good for me will be over there (I am physically pointing away from myself). I am much more concerned with the fact that at sometime or other someone is going to expose me as a complete imposter as a musician! I am trying to write the better song. I don’t just mean an actual song. I am using that as a metaphor. There is no way that I can consider myself and my humble achievements as being an icon.
Jeb: You bring to mind the Jethro Tull song, “Life’s A Long Song.”
Dee: That was a good one. The way that song worked, when the strings come in is nice. I can remember writing that chart like it was yesterday. Tull started in 1968 and it is now 2004. In a lifetime it is a lot of time but in eternity it is a flash.
I can remember writing This Was, 36 years ago, like it was yesterday. I have a pile of manuscript paper in my music room that is all of the transcriptions and writings of the music I wrote for Jethro Tull. It is a tremendous pile and it is just my scores, it does not include the individual band member’s parts. It is largely all there. If it were burned then I could write it back out all again. Do you know “Christmas Song”?
Jeb: Oh yes.
Dee: Ian has mentioned that he wrote the song and then heard my string arrangement and actually re-wrote his part around my arrangement. I knew what I did but whether I knew what I was doing is questionable!
Jeb: Would you say that your role in Tull grew over time?
Dee: Yes. I think it was all directed towards one album. From July of 1968 to September of 1976, in that period of time my involvement in the group led me to the album Songs From The Wood. My input on that album is colossal. Ian wrote the songs and the words but the way that album sticks together is down to me, and I am very proud of that. All that I had done in the past led me up to that. I am mighty proud of my contribution to Jethro Tull. The end of “Ring Out Solstice Bells” I wrote. I told Ian that I knew what the ending had to be. It is based about the notes that a bell makes. I wrote it and recorded it and played all the parts. It goes backwards against itself and it goes upside down against itself.
Jeb: Most pop music is brainless and not too difficult. Jethro Tull was not like that. How did Tull make it in the public consciences?
Dee: It was very much the same as Bach during his period from 1685 to 1750. In those 60 odd years, he was at the edge of, the middle of and then at the front of the development of the Baroque style of music. Bach picked up all of the loose ends like a puppet master and consolidated a style. I use Bach as a reference frame. With Jethro Tull, Ian was taking all of the loose ends of the English rock movement, going back to the Kinks and the Beatles, and embraced the freedom of the blues people. What we did was pick up all the loose strings of the English canon of music writing and put them together. What came out were the jagged rhythms and the harmonies. All of it came from English music heritage. Some of it came emphatically because I don’t think Ian knew the difference between Bach and Beethoven. I am sure he knows it now but then he would not have known how one evolved from the other.
From the blues of This Was, which was kind of raunchy, to Songs From The Wood, was only an eight-year period of time. That is like nothing but the meteoric changes in that time was a result of Ian, and myself to some degree, gathering all the strings and pulling them in one hand and producing what became the Jethro Tull sound and style. There is nothing like it in the world at all.
Jeb: On the back cover there is a picture of a tree stump that has been made into a record player. Who came up with that idea?
Dee: Ian. It was done in the woods that surrounded his house. A tree surgeon came in and cut down a tree. We had a lot of pictures done. At one time we were all sitting around it like one would around a campfire. We looked like old people who lived in the woods. The one that was used was the one with the stylus. Those quirky ideas -- we are all capable of coming up with those type of ideas but not many of us take the time. Not many people sit down and think for themselves; they wait to be told. Would it not be awful if everyone was running around trying to be original? It would destroy the whole framework of society.
Ian chose that picture. Ian is, and always was, the leader of Jethro Tull. He was always able to say, “This is the way it shall be.” He always had the last word. If you go into battle and you don’t have a general then you lose the war. If you have a general with a good plan, and he is fearless and capable, then you win the battle. You may not win the entire war but you win the battle. Ian is one of those people who have the innate ability to take control. He is a leader. What he has achieved is history.
I spoke to him at length on Sunday. We were talking about the complexion of America post 9/11. The Brits are allies but when we go through immigration we are just like everyone else. We have to stand there and be scrutinized by the women and men of America to make sure that we are safe. Ian and I both agreed it was very different than when we used to come over before. We would jump on a plane and do 50 gigs and go home again. Now you have to do what Uncle Sam says! Ian has that kind of brain. He has a brain the size of Everest. Ian is a very, very gifted man. We are bound together by certain gifts that we have. If you laid them out on the table then there would be no color or shapes that looked alike but we are joined together by very similar issues, gifts and skills. We were able to work happily together all the time we did. We are 36 years down the road and Ian and I have only ever entered into fierce debate on matters of style, and not on matters of principal.
Jeb: Who was right?
Dee: Both of us.
Jeb: Tell me about your album Classic Case: The Music Of Jethro Tull. How hard was it to get the project off the ground? No one was mixing classical music with hard rock back then.
Dee: It got off the ground in 1983. I had recorded a major film with the London Symphony Orchestra; I wrote the score. Later the same year, I went off to Germany to take part in a rock event where Tull were playing. Ian had just brought out his first solo album. He called me and asked me to write a couple of scores and to conduct the orchestra. I went to Munich and Ian sent me the tracks. I transcribed them and worked out what I thought would be interesting accompaniment. After the gig, we were taken out to dinner by the record company in Germany who puts out Jethro Tull records. One of the record company executives said to me while we were at dinner, “What are you doing now?” I told him I was doing what I had always done and that was being a musician. He asked me what I had actually been doing. I told him about the picture that I had done. He asked me what I was going to do next and I told him that I was going to record an album of Jethro Tull songs with the London Symphony Orchestra. He said to me, “Do you have a deal?” It was the very first thing he said. I told him we had not signed to anyone. He asked me, “When are you going back to England?” I told him I was going back the next day. Ian and the rest of the band were going off somewhere else but I was no longer in Tull so I was going back home. He told me in his Germany accent, “Ve vill meet for breakfast.”
The next morning at 6:00am we met. By 6:30, we had a contract written on a napkin that said I would write an album of material of Jethro Tull songs to be performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and I would allow the record company to release it. I got on the plane, buckled myself into my seat, pulled out a piece of manuscript paper from my flight bag and started writing the first score. One of the God given skills I have is writing scores at the speed of light. I don’t need a piano and I can even write in a darkened room. I wrote that album in just over a week and a half.
Jeb: Was if difficult to choose the songs?
Dee: Nope. I chose the songs that I liked. I went for the ones that most of the fans would like. If I were doing it again then I would go back to the bands history, right back to Stand Up and Benefit and go up to Heavy Horses. I would not use bass guitar and drums at all this time. I know now how to achieve that. I know before my number comes up that I will go back into that world of orchestral music. I know, just as I know my name is Dee Palmer and was once David Palmer, I will be working with orchestras again.
The reason there was bass guitar and drums on the album was because the record company wanted it. I told them that I could make it work all on my own but they wanted Ian to play the flute and there to be the sound of the band along with the orchestra. If I can’t make the sound of the band out of the London Symphony Orchestra then I am going to give up and start laying bricks.
Jeb: Before we end this interview Dee, I have to say this, and I don’t want to sound to crass, but you really have a lot of balls to do what you are doing.
Dee: You have to have them to do what I have done. I know exactly what you are saying. It would be a sad state of affairs if entered into conversation with a person and denied that I had ever existed as a person before my transition.
A couple of years ago I was in the theater in London with a girl -- a day one girl, a real girl. We got to the theater early and we bought a glass of wine and we were standing there talking to each other. She said to me, “There is a man at the other side of the bar looking at you.” I replied, “It is okay, I am accustomed to it.” She said, “What do you mean?” I told her that people had looked at me all my life. My wife, Maggie, told me that our children used to ask her, “Why do people look at dad all the time?” Maggie would say, “Dad is tall and there is something about him that makes people think they know him.” I told my friend that very thing. She said, “I don’t think that is the case at all. He is really studying you.” I thought maybe he fancied me. At this stage, I was very close to where I am now. I don’t think you can say that I look like a bloke. My friend goes, “He is coming across. He is right behind you.” The next minute this man was in front of me. He was quite a broad man with a very thick beard. He said to me in a very deep and clearly Midwest American accent, “Can I ask you a personal question?” I said, “If it is about the wine, I can’t recommend it.” I think that helped break the ice. He said, “Oh, it is much more personal than that.” I told him, “You go for it and I will let you know if I can help.” He said, “I hope you don’t mind me asking but did you used to be David Palmer?” I looked at him in a guarded way. I looked around over my shoulder like a burglar afraid of being apprehended and I said in a whispered voice, “Yes, I did.”