Inside Was Us: Women and Punk
Watergate is still months off when rock's Next Big Thing begins to gather word-of-mouth in lower Manhattan--an androgynous garage band called the New York Dolls. The year is 1972. Soon the war will end, Nixon will be impeached, but already the political movement that takes responsibility for both is in shambles. A sick morning-after mood pervades the dregs of the counterculture, with last night's strange bedfellows--drugs and freedom, politics and culture, gender consciousness and class consciousness--staggering off in opposite directions, muttering, "Never again." The music of rebellion has become a music of impossibly wealthy drug addicts played to impossibly huge crowds. Dylan's still in seclusion. The Stones are slouching toward professionalism. And the Beatles are long since kaput, John Lennon having chosen an interesting marriage to an avant-garde artist over a band that had already changed the world.
The seventies are well into their important business of disintegration and compromise and the Dolls already well past Last Big Thing when an unlikely impresario named Hilly Kristal, with a dream of bringing bluegrass and country music to a Bowery dive he calls C.B.G.B. & O.M.F.U.G, discovers an infant in the trash and unwittingly stumbles into what will prove one of the bitterest custody fights of the decade: PUNK. Who owned it? New York? London? Glam? Garage? Surrealist pop?
1974. The dream is over.
I Wake Up Dreaming
Twenty years later, I still have trouble figuring out how women ever won their place in this abrasive, noise-loving, boy-loving, love-fearing, body-hating music, which at first glance looked like one more case where rock's little problem, women, would be neutralized by male androgyny. Punk was the music of the obnoxious, permanently adolescent white boy--skinny, zitty, ugly, loud, stupid, fucked up. It cultivated neanderthal shtick and, like its secret sharer, disco, was Beyond Politics. Affirmative action? Au contraire. "Would I ever have a WOMAN in our band?" exclaimed sensitive type Tom Verlaine, whose catatonic-style amateurs, Television, went on to make some of the most gorgeous guitar rock of all time. "What kind of crazy, real nuts question is that? Why didn't the Rolling Stones have one?"
Women! What did we want? After all, we'd been sprinkled through rock & roll all along. And what about the Supremes? Aretha Franklin? Janis Joplin? Did these powerhouses count for nothing just because they were male-identified? Well, beyond what might prove matters of historical--and racial--taste, there was the problem of agency. It was the old "Men do women are" trick. Changing the world, exercising conceptual control, playing electric guitar--these were male prerogatives. When women tried to seize them, new paradoxes emerged. As Roberta Cruger, an early contributor to Detroit's Creem, put it, "For me women rock musicians have never been able to make music that you'd want to dance to. . . . Remember Fanny? . . . It didn't matter that they were playing amplified instruments. They were still playing them like acoustic ones. That's the interesting thing, to be afraid of all that. Of power."
Some essential part of the music, especially the white part, remained strictly from Guyville. There was so much flexing of a kind of muscle we'd never have--or anyhow, didn't have yet. Part of this was a mysterious combination of chops and will to power--hard as they tried, Fanny just couldn't knock anybody's socks off. But most of it was about allotted roles. We could do goddess, we could do spitfire, we could do nice, but we couldn't do hero or even weirdo or pal. We could do Joy of Cooking and Joni Mitchell and, okay, Bette Midler, but we couldn't do Rolling Stones or Dylan or Elvis or Lou. And if we did Janis, we would die.
As it happens, Tom Verlaine's sometime paramour cuts the Gordian knot. She swaggers up to the mike at the Bowery dive which has been persuaded by scruffy local amateurs to take a place in history. She sings like a woman, dresses like a boy, fronts a band of all-male pals and covers not only Lou and Mick but Pete, and when she does Van she doesn't even switch the gender, chanting, "I'm gonna make her mine make her mine make her mine make her mine!" as if that were the most natural thing in the world.
Now, it wasn't like women had never worn unisex hair or little black vests before. What this skinny weirdo offered wasn't androgyny per se but a new use for it: to cut a niche in the music that was neither sexual invitation nor sexual confrontation, like, "Hi! I'm Patti Smith. I'm going to be charismatic. But not sexually charismatic! That way we can be friends."
We're Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together
If Janis Joplin was an impossible act to follow, Patti Smith was almost as impossible not to follow. Her example was irresistible. It spoke so eloquently to something women had wanted to do or be or look like that it clicked instantly--the boy's jacket, the boy's poses, the macho swagger, the joke. She either inspired or improved the climate for a generation of women in rock whether they actually got somewhere or remained so minor you've never heard of them. And this isn't even to mention the women whose offstage lives bore her mark--behind the scenes, in the audience, on the street.
But Patti was only part of the story from the start. Of the half dozen bands that defined the early CB's years, three featured women, and the place of each in her band was something new. Tina Weymouth, learning to play bass in an obviously uncommercial group called Talking Heads, was the right age to be influenced by Smith, but she went in her own direction. And Blondie's Debbie Harry entered the scene another way. She had already sung with a trash band called the Stillettoes at Max's Kansas City and the old Mercer Arts Center--an earlier contender for the birthplace of the movement that was finally about to get a name.
"Punk" once meant prostitute, then moved on through prison slang for nancy-boy to associations with undersized toughness and empty boasts. The term had some rock & roll history, as did the form, with antecedents in garage energy like the Stooges' and lean glam like David Bowie's and understated avant rock like the Velvet Underground's. Punk sensibility also drew heavily from Andy Warhol and associates (particularly filmmaker Paul Morrisey), whose mix of surrealism and camp provided the durability, cheapness and discomfort of a great synthetic blend. But the movement that took form in New York, took power in London, and took off in L.A., San Francisco and countless cities in between had a generational logic. It filled a vacuum created by the end of the counterculture and the corruption of arena rock. Punk rallied a youth culture that had a problem with drum solos, showmanship, professionalism, chops and pretending to be black, not to mention hippie vagueness, circular reasoning, free-love homilies and mystical, wishy-washy ideas about nature so gaga that only major intellect could steer them away from an absolutely poisonous sexism, though naturally this last was not punk's primary concern. Punk just didn't like bullshit.
The classic formula for punk was, throw acid at rock & roll and construct a genre out of what was left. What was left was abrasive three-chord four-four stuff so in terror of conventional rock posturing that many of its finest exponents barely moved their hips at all, and so suspicious of technique that it opened the field to amateurs who would never have made it into this world before--geeks, nerds, published poets, unregenerate bohos, mutants of various sorts, us. We slipped in with the crowd. But remember, it was a small crowd. "You should be able to touch yer heroes," Patti Smith argued, back in the day. And in that day, well, you could.
Punk bent over backwards to reduce distinctions between audience and star. Its DIY ethos reflected this, and so did its weird puritanism, in some ways a cry for help amid the terrors of feminism and the sexual revolution, but basically the bullshit detector kicking in again. Punk knew that almost nobody in the audience and quite possibly the world felt the sexual confidence rock stars made such a show of. So although there were plenty of rock & roll guy types on the fringes of early punk, and even more boy-bonding as it established critical mass, the basic code declared conventional sexual poses uncool, with conventional female sex objects particularly suspect. Amazingly, instead of forcing women out altogether, this had the opposite effect: while boys could be nerds or retards or female impersonators or just deeply uptight, girls could be boys.
Are We Not Men?
Patti Smith wasn't butch, but she was definitely macho, albeit in a kind of goofy way--consciously overstated tough guy. It was. a redolent punk pose that came naturally to her, as well it should have: she helped invent it.
Smith was already a kind of celebrity when she came to CBGB, where her early engagements were the making of the club. After a complicated childhood and adolescence in working-class New Jersey, she'd come to New York to be a sculptor, launched into a notorious friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, published two books of verse and co-authored a play with Sam Shepard before transforming a tour of poetry and music--most of it furnished by rock critic and record-store clerk Lenny Kaye on guitar and back-up concept--into a bona fide rock & roll band.
Like Paul Weller in England, Patti Smith was vital to the spread of punk while making music that was in many respects not punk at all. Her band was too all-over-the-place for what would soon emerge as punk aesthetic, where technique was discredited, but not form. Form generally made up for technique and was liable to be stark. It's true her voice was a menacing howl--she had to project, after all--but at its center was a throaty tenderness. She sang with her heart, and that was just one way she wasn't all that cool--even forgetting her thing for Haile Selassie, there was her humanism, her idealism. She wasn't too cool to convey the importance of what was going on, the collective experience, the whole g-generation thing. A transitional figure between the sixties dream of collective ecstasy and the reality of seventies limits, she had an elusive quality that drew fans and defined a group experience: the gift of welcome.
Patti tended to play down her gender breakthrough, and it's true that her goofy-tough-guy pose was a unisex ideal linked to punk's David-Goliath theme. Still, this was an extremely handy way to deal with gender in rock & roll, somewhere between a convenience and heaven. But it wasn't the only one.
Of all the CBGB bands, none was more influenced by Warhol than Blondie, with its cartoon name, plastic themes, pop visuals. So it's not surprising that Blondie's frontwoman found the same object in the big pop trash heap as Jackie Curtis. She was the first rock & roller to exploit blond sex object as shtick. She would not be the last.
Debbie Harry had left middle-class New Jersey to be a chick singer in a hippie band, a Playboy bunny, and a waitress at Max's, before cofounding Blondie with Chris Stein. If Patti claimed boy, Debbie claimed calendar pin-up, chorus girl, Sandra Dee, go-go airhead, slut--disrespectful, sure, but no-respect personas were the currency of American punk. Claiming them was a preemptive defense. Put quotes around them and you get the option of identifying with the person outside the quotes, the person who had elected to use them.
Debbie Harry was so beautiful that even outside the quotes it was hard to get outside the image, which helped her act but threatened her credibility. The next big blond, Madonna, would explore the coldness and calculation in the dominatrix and diva. But Debbie played her role punk, like some cheesy chorus girl who lacked the talent or brains or connections to get anywhere but had so little sense of her own dignity she didn't even know it. Confusingly to some, the person outside the quotes had enormous talent, excellent timing, comic gifts, an infectious sense of mischief, and a belt that was strictly from Borscht, in addition to being a keen cultural observer, a natural oddball and diehard boho who would remain an idol to many girls and women who just found Patti too, well, punk.
The line Debbie worked would include Lydia Lunch and, for all her chubbiness and braces, Poly Styrene, plus various minor players like Tish and Snooky as sluttish nuns doing backup for the Sic Fucks, or that governess type who did improv "signing" for the joke band Art. The concept would reach new dimensions in the B-52's, where Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson wore the beehives the band was named for, carried pocketbooks xxon stage and unearthed the found object who came as close as punk ever did to recognizing ordinary women: the waitress.
And She Was
There really isn't that much to say about Tina Weymouth, which is how she seemed to want it--which is her genius, really. Yet without Patti's magnificent nerve or Debbie's fabulous baloney, Tina may well have made the most useful contribution of all. Tina was pretty, and competent, and patient. Except for an historically premature sense of self-worth, she really could have been anybody. And that was arguably what we needed most.
An upper-middle-class army brat with an admiral for a Dad, Tina was with the band from even before its start, as friend and classmate of both lead singer David Byrne and drummer Chris Frantz, whom she eventually married. She got the job of bassist because no one else applied, though she got it over Byrne's objections. What would people think? Well, Tina did play worse than the Beatle with the cute eyebrows, Paul McCartney. But she played better than the big Doll in pantyhose, Arthur Kane. With short blond hair and ordinary student-style androgyny, she understated her prettiness, which only made it more becoming. The group's pose determined hers--disciplined, uptight. She practiced.
That was all it took. You have a band with a female bassist, you're not a laughingstock--apres elle le deluge. Don't move much. Practice. We'd been Mick Jagger. Now we could be Bill Wyman. Tomorrow, the world. Tomorrow Sara Lee in Gang of Four and Kira in Black Flag.
I mean, honestly, what was David Byrne's problem? The things boys did and didn't do in early punk was so bizarre that what we did or didn't do was dwarfed by comparison. Even in 1975, the weirdest thing about Talking Heads was not its discreet, androgynous, workmanlike bassist who happened to be a woman. The weirdest thing about Talking Heads, in those days, was David Byrne. Twenty years later, that immensely successful band's weirdness is gone, and so is Byrne's. But Tina Weymouth remains. Punk was like some sort of Trojan horse. Inside was us.
We're Desperate! Get Used to It!
Hold the presses! New evidence indicates punk's birth certificate faked! The dates were right, the name was wrong! Really an English kid!
The punk that crossed stateside from England in the late seventies was more political, more aggressive, more working-class, more fashion-conscious, and a lot more of a movement than the punk that had straggled toward England before. There was the safety pin, the dog collar, new volume, new numbers. If there was more boy-bonding, more hero, and more thug than in the yew ess, the presence of women was if anything more impressive. Poly Styrene, Lora Logic, Siouxsie Sioux, Lene Lovich, the Raincoats, Kleenex, the Slits, Delta 5, came bounding over the ocean in person or on vinyl. They were group members or group leaders. They played instruments. They were overweight, or lightweight, or boyish or just girls. Like all of this British invasion, British women were much louder and starker and more abrasive than their New York sisters, but there was also more unreconstructed girl here, more skirts, more giggles, less macho, probably because there was less isolation. In fact, whereas the early New York punk women were usually the only girl onstage, these almost never were. But Stateside counterparts were already in the works.
No wave--punk taken to its look-ma-no-tune logical extreme-- devised recombinant gender personas. These bands had a futuristic sound and look--almost sadistically dissonant and anti-body while, you know, actually rather sexy if you liked that sort of thing. In the Contortions' big lineup, severe slide guitarist Pat Place, with her bleached spikes and pitted face, and urchin minimalist keyboardist Adele Bertei, in tiny men's suits or miniature denim jackets and ties, both displayed subtly preternatural timing. Mars's distraught guitarist-vocalist China Burg and nihilist drummer Nancy Arlen purveyed pure art-scene fare, while DNA's somber Ikue Mori was a prophetic primitivist whose drumming evoked Japanese tribal traditions. Teenage Jesus's Lydia Lunch claimed Warhol-Morrisey's disgusting-boring-slut and turned her into an attack animal. Then she turned that concept into a proudly promiscuous recording and performance-art career.
Meanwhile, women were starting to appear in multiples and on new instruments, both lead and rhythm. Susan Springfield's Erasers were driven by an all-female rhythm section. The punkabilly Cramps featured Ivy Rorschach on guitar and for awhile Miriam Linna on drums. Pat Place went on to form the Bush Tetras, a funkoid mostly-girl band with an anthem, "Too Many Creeps" you could dance to. Eventually there was the percussive unit ESG formed by three young Puerto Rican women, one of the few New York punk groups of color.
English punk impacted on West Coast youth in a way New York punk never did, and a U.K.-influenced movement formed in L.A., with more violence, more homophobia and fewer women. But not counting Exene Cervenka, there was certainly Alice Bag, a Latina in retro garb who could sound like a cockney housewife on a rampage, Catholic Discipline including a stone drag Phranc. Of course there were various drummers and bass players--while boy wonder Darby Crash of the legendary Germs bled all over the stage, bassist Lorna did the Tina Weymouth--and Bill Wyman--thing and barely batted an eye. And when the L. A. movement was filmed for posterity, a woman did it: Penelope Spheeris set off on the road to Wayne's World with the seminal punkdoc The Decline . . . of Western Civilization Part One. In the smaller, more political Bay Area punk, the key figure was the Avengers' searing Penelope Houston, who briefly sounded like a star when she delivered lyrics that were the closest America ever came to an English-style anthem: "We are not commmunists! We are not fascist pigs! We are the one!"
Exene Cervenka of guitar band X was the only West Coast woman who enjoyed major success. She became an icon for a generation after Patti Smith. No slipping through androgynous cracks here. Voluptuous, even stocky, she made up a la Theda Bara, dressed like a cleaning woman in floppy dresses and comfortable shoes, and exuded a deep sweetness, but with an off flavor, like some overripe fruit on its way to an alcoholic future. The songs she cowrote with her future ex John Doe were about real, difficult relationships. Where Patti avoided the pitfalls of conventional romantic roles by abjuring love songs, and Debbie distanced herself by putting them in quotes, Exene and John sang in doomsaying, end- of-the-world voices about hard romance, and their life was part of the story. Whether because a few years had passed or because Exene had a big-sisterly aura, she attracted crowds of young women as her New York predecessors didn't. She went on not only to collaborate with Lydia Lunch on a volume of poetry called Adulterers Anonymous but became the first punk woman of any stature to take a publicly feminist position, when, with former Germs manager Nicole Panter, she cofounded the Bohemian Women's Alliance.
Local bands were popping up, with regional variations on the punk elements, and those elements regularly included women. The most successful was that tacky little dance band from Athens, Georgia, the B-52s, whose female vocalists' contributions included breathtaking thriftshop chops, carnivalesque keyboard playing, impressions of sea creatures, and a virtually unintelligible rendition of the amazing line, "Why won't you dance with me? I ain't no limburger!"
It may well have been at the local level that women in punk or punk-influenced bands, some of whom were even less than sidemen and many of whom never even made records, had most impact. Except for the Clash at Leeds, my own peak punk moment was watching a one- or two-shot band of women in overcoats called Les Guerrilleres. Sources name Student Nurse, Mental Mannequin, Audio Leter, Bloomington's Dancing Cigarettes, Vancouver's Modernettes, D.C.'s Urban Verbs, Atlanta's Swimming Pool Q's, Austin's Meat Joy, Buffalo Gals, Delinquents, Re*Cords, Standing Waves, Foams, Norvells, and of course there were Skafish and Half Japanese, Steel Tips and the Gynecologists and Y Pants, Pearl Harbour, Wilma, Human Sexual Response, Human Switchboard, the Waitresses, Mofungo, V- Effect, Nervus Rex, Holly and the Italians, Tina Peel, Dangerous Birds, the Cooties, the Mad Violets, the Aquanettas, the Pandoras, the Shams, Das Frauleins, the Stimulators, Pulsallama, Tetes Noirs, Clambake, Band of Susans, Babylon Dance Band, Oh OK--names subject only to my own memories and networks. There could have been hundreds.
By the mid-eighties, diaspora is diluting punk while taking odd bits of its weird values into the mainstream. Blondie and the B-52's have hits. Punk-generated groups like the Go-Gos and the Bangles make all-girl pop. Punk codes help exuberant Vanessa Briscoe and self-possessed Debora Iyall in rock-disco staples Pylon and Romeo Void turn those extra pounds into solid charisma. Laurie Anderson uses the androgynous haircut crossover to bring performance art to pop. Punk gives a shot in the arm to Joan Jett, one-time leader of the pioneering all-girl Runaways. To be brutally honest, punk also paves the way for punk-metal crossover sex object Wendy O. Williams, who did an act with electrical tape on her nipples and a buzzsaw in her hands. It sets the stage for the biggest female rock star ever, Madonna, whose music is disco, whose art is celebrity, but whose relation to image, whose pose, whose quotation marks, whose toughness, and whose shoes come straight out of punk. And by the time riot and other nineties grrrls are ready to be Next Big Thing, punk is prepared to open up the door, except they knock it down themselves.
Talking About My Generation
Sometime after her cautionary fall offstage, Patti Smith stopped performing. She married MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith and moved to Detroit, raised a family, and returned to her old work, writing, until her husband's death in 1994. She has since released an album of new material and toured modestly. I last saw her on stage at Irving Plaza, July, 1996, with graying hair, teenaged son, and rare authority when she told the crowd to change the world.
Tina Weymouth developed a parallel eighties career in Tom Tom Club, an extremely femme dance band that featured a lot of cute skirts and sweet harmonies. Later all the Talking Heads except Byrne, who controlled the name, regrouped as the Heads. Debbie Harry continues to explore two-dimensionality with the Jazz Passengers, on what is sometimes called the fake jazz circuit, and in movies, where she displays a dispassionate candor about her own aging beauty that casts new light on her entire enterprise. Exene Cervenka regularly releases solo albums and owns a punk paraphernalia store in L.A.
When I think of the nights of my life I left at CB's or Hurrah or Irving Plaza or the Palladium or the Mudd Club or Tier 3, once I'm through marveling at how much time I spent deciding what to wear, I also remember feeling that whether I was reviewing or just filling space, it was important that I was there. Not only for me, but for the whole scene. Punk was so small. Looking back, I'm struck by how much it did mean that we were there.
Punk said that women could be a rock & roll flavor, like the rebel, or the boy group, and that that flavor went back to something basic in the music. What it was was the punk that had always existed in rock & roll, someone who acted tougher than he was, who couldn't necessarily deliver on his boasts, but had to be reckoned with because you never knew. It seemed to me that this person ran very deep in the music, which was always about acting tougher than you actually were, and that this was heroic in itself. Maybe in London they were as tough as they claimed; not in New York. In New York we weren't even as smart as we claimed. So when women stood on the side playing bass or up front posing as men or women, nobody was doing us a favor. We did something for punk. Punk was the right metaphor for us, with its emphasis on meaningless threats, on weakness and chutzpah and the relativity of size. We were the right metaphor for punk, with our ungaugeable ability, our nerve, and our joy at just being there at all.
Time was on our side. We didn't need punk to make us schizophrenic. We could have found something else, and boy, many women did. But where would punk have been without us?
Trouble Girls: The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock, 1997