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The Riot Grrrl Controversy

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“SPITBOY are the best girl band around. They piss all over every Riot Girl band I can think of. They’ve got more power in their dirty little fingernails than Courtney Love, Kathleen Hanna and Kat Bjelland put together… Tonight, these four women, sweaty and angry, but also (between songs) witty and endearing–have stolen my heart… Spitboy are uniquely inspiring, not only for their awesome bile, but also for their straightforwardness. They hate sexism, not men. They know exactly what they’re talking about and how to articulate their righteous aggression.”

—From Melody Maker April 10, 1993

   London, England

   “Live!” review by Lucy Sweet                           

We weren’t trying to piss on riot grrrl bands. But we did understand that the comparison, or being labeled a riot girl band, wasn’t going away and neither was what had now become rivalry between female punk bands who ultimately had the same mission: to speak out against sexism. It would have been easier to say we were a riot girrl band, but we had formed Spitboy in the Bay Area during the early days of their movement. And we stood for just about everything they did, only we didn’t want to be called girls.

It happened in Washington DC, an already strange city, which added to the days angst.  After getting lost on one way streets and roundabouts, we found our way to the venue we were scheduled to play that day, a sort of loft space storefront on a swanky tree lined street with Victorian architecture, a strange place to play after playing church basements and Elks Lodges in the mid-west.

I followed Adrienne out of the van, staying at the heels of her clunky boots, as I often did during times like these.  Adrienne was outgoing and became even more so when in doubt; whereas, I tended toward standoffishness. We weren’t playing with any riot girl bands that day, but members of Bikini Kill and the guys from Nation of Ulysses who they were all hanging around with were there for the show. Punk bands from the bay area, where every other band wanted to play, or played as often as they could, were a draw, and women came out when Spitboy played. Bikini Kill and their friends had come out to see us play, to see what we were all about.

Adrienne marched up to the door of the venue looking for the guy who had set up the show to find out where we should load in. I figured I could get past the intimidating moments of meeting new people, new scenesters, faster if I hung with Adrienne while she went around, smiling wide, her straight-toothed smile, her blue eyes sparkling, introducing herself to people, laughing easily, shaking people’s hands, and hugging those who wanted a hug. I stopped at shaking hands. I didn’t want people I didn’t know hugging me or touching me, men in particular, no matter how much they liked Spitboy, and not when I was already feeling tense about being on riot grrrl territory.

Like riot grrrl, hugs had become a sore subject too. Earlier in the tour, on our way out of some city, this guy, a friend of our tour contact had offered to give us all hugs. Apparently, I was the only one in the band who found this creepy.

“Everyone tells me that I give the best hugs. Do you want a hug?” the young man said, holding his arms out, waiting for one of us to step in. He was a pale-faced, chubby dude, not fat, just a little husky, the kind of punk guy who was probably vegetarian who rarely ate vegetables and who subsisted on mainly cheese and bread and beer or soda.

“Sure, I’ll have a hug.” Adrienne smiled wide and stepped forward.

I took a step back and looked toward our dented blue van.

“You do give the best hugs.’ Adrienne turned to Karin who was standing at her side. “Karin, you have to get one of his hugs.”

Karin stepped forward and let this guy hug her, hugging him back.

I could see the guy’s face as he hugged Karin, his head over her shoulder, his eyes scrunching with the squeeze of his arms, his goofy smile.

“Okay, I’ll have one too,” Paula said.

 I stepped to the side to avoid his line of vision once he opened his eyes.

“Thank you,” Paula said, once he released her. She smiled a real smile, her freckles dancing about.

I looked down at the ground, to where the asphalt met the dirt on the side of the road. I could feel all eyes on me.

“Do you want a hug too?” Huggy Bear Boy smiled and stepped in my direction.

“No, I don’t,” I said before he got too close. “Thank you,” I added.

Huggy Bear Boy stopped his forward lumber, and there was an awkward silence as he lowered his arms, like two long animal balloons out of air.

In the van, I felt like I had to explain myself, as if our ‘body is mine’ motto didn’t extend to fans.

“But he was nice,” Adrienne said.

Karin and Paula were in the front seat waving at Huggy Bear Boy and his friend as we drove away. I waved and forced a smile because I didn’t want to look like a total asshole.

“That was probably the most action that guy’s gotten in days, maybe ever,” I said once we had driven a block or so.

“Todd,” Karin said, shocked but she laughed anyway because she knew it was probably true.

Even though I didn’t want to be hugged by fans, unless I felt some kind of real connection, like after a conversation, I was oddly confident in other ways, and I didn’t usually get nervous before playing live, but I was nervous the night we played in front of members of Bikini Kill and Nation of Ulysses. In short, I was intimidated. Then a tall guy came up to me before we took to the stage ( which wasn’t a stage at all, just a piece of the floor in the back of the venue, opposite the glare from the front windows) to ask if we required the men in the crowd to stand in the back of the room, like they were told to do during a Bikini Kill set. I couldn’t believe my ears, but I now had someplace to direct my angst.

At my drumset, sitting on the stool, I pulled my backup vocal mic up to my mouth, “Before we play, we’d just like to say that we don’t expect men to stand in the back of the room. We’re not a riot girl band.”

All the air sucked right out of the room as soon as I said it. Mouths dropped open and silent. It was as if someone turned off the sound.

Being the hot headed one, I had nominated myself to say something first about what we realized had become an elephant in the room, but I had chosen my words poorly, spoke too soon, shat where I ate. But there it was out in the open, we were a female punk band in 1992, but we were not a riot grrl band. And it was probably best for the rest of the band that I had been the one to say it, the one who would became the most hated Spitwoman of just about every riot girl thereafter because I was the scrappy one, the only one who didn’t grow up middle-class, the non-white one; I had thicker skin.  But they backed me up; Spitboy was great this way. We did sometimes discuss possible approaches and reactions to familiar crowd responses, but we never shut anyone in the band down who felt passionate about about a something, and when one of us spoke first on a topic, there was always room for another of us to chime in and add her two cents. In this case, Adrienne stepped into recover some sense of decorum.

“Please don’t block a woman’s view; don’t stand in front of someone who is shorter than you are. Just use common sense.”

I appreciated Adrienne’s attempt to soften the blow of my comment, but my hands and knees, which started to shake the second the words, “We’re not a riot girl band,” came out of my mouth and I saw the stunned looks on people’ faces, wouldn’t stop. We knew that this one comment, saying this one thing that we had discussed with one another privately, in public, would forever alter our relationship with one of the most influential women’s movements in the punk rock scene nationwide. Still we had discussed it, and we, Spitboy (even before boys in the DC crowd came up to us and thanked us after the show) had made the deliberate decision not take a separatist stance. It was true, we hated sexism; we didn’t hate men, and neither did Bikini Kill, really.  Though if we could go back and do it over again we would have gone about it, I would have gone about it a bit differently, but not much, not much differently.

Listen To Your Mother, Damnit!

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Listen To Your Mother 2013 — San Francisco Cast
Photo by Kari Paulsey

“I don’t think you’re going to get picked,” my eleven-year old said. I was about to audition for a seat on the cast of the national Listen To Your Mother event. I almost scolded him for being rude, but I realized from his tone that he was trying to help me not get my hopes up too high, trying not to get his hopes up too high. After all, the piece that I submitted was about him.  I measured my response carefully, not something I always do, admittedly, but I was well rested after good night’s sleep in preparation for my audition. “Well, I did get this far, and you know I’m a good writer and reader – so watch me get it.” I thought about giving him the when-you-know-how-to-write-well-you-can-get-things-that-you-want-that-you-might-not-be-able-to-get-otherwise speech, but I figured I should wait until I actually got it.

And I did want it, wanted it so bad that I wrote a piece specially tailored for the event, something funny, something touching, a little bit Louie CK, a little bit Erma Bombeck, with a dash of Patti Smith. And I didn’t just write one draft, I wrote six. The first three changed a lot; in the last three I honed the language, keeping in mind it was to be read aloud and that it couldn’t exceed five minutes. In addition to the six drafts, I had three readers, people I trusted to be honest. This process turned my cruddy first draft into a tightly crafted, well-written narrative containing conflict, rising action, a climax, and falling action. It was funny, self-deprecating, sassy, and sweet. Still I had to wait over a week to find out if I had earned a seat on the cast out of fifty-four people who auditioned.

My son waited until after we got in the car to ask how it went. He was in the back seat, Ines, mi marido, was driving, and I was in the passenger seat

“So, how do you think you did?” my son asked.

“I think I did pretty good.” I turned in my seat so I could see him.

“How do you know?” he asked

“We’ll, the producers, Kirsten and Kari said I did a good job.”

“They probably said that to everyone.”

“You’re right,” I looked back over the seat again to make eye contact with him.

“But Kari, the one who didn’t read any of the pieces before hand,” I paused for effect.

“Yeah?”

“At the end of my piece, she cried.”

“She cried?”

“Yeah, she cried.”

I turned forward in my seat and smiled, figuring that in just a matter of days I’d get to give the when-you-know-how-to-write-well-you-can-get-things-that-you-want-that-you-might-not-be-able-to-get-otherwise speech, and I couldn’t wait.

Buy tickets for the 2013 Listen To Your Mother event while they last!

http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/347292

Listen To Your Mother!

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After six drafts of a brand new piece about playing music with my son, and one audition, I made the cast of San Francisco’s Listen To Your Mother, “a national series of readings by local writers in celebration of Mother’s Day.” The rehearsals and the big reading on May 12, Mother’s Day is a great opportunity for me to make community with Bay Area writers I’ve not met and to read to big audience. I am super excited to rehearse and for the big day, which brings me to this — you should come!

Here’s a link to Brown Bag where you can buy tickets:

http://www.listentoyourmothershow.com/sanfrancisco/2013/03/15/tickets-are-on-sale-2/

Here’s a video of my friend Margaret Elysia Garcia who encouraged me to submit to LTYM — she was on the SF cast last year, and she’s heading up a cast of her own in Plumas County this year!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MMKpNq7tM

An Ode To Writing Communities

For almost the past year, I have been attending Saturday Night Special at Nick’s Bar in Berkeley, a featured reader and open-mic event curated and hosted by Tomas Moniz and Hollie Hardy. Every month Tomas and Hollie assign a word/theme to reader/writers of the open-mic portion to use in their pieces. In past months, I have been working hard to promote my book Pretty Bold For A Mexican Girl, so I have usually found a piece or an excerpt from the book that fits the word or theme of the night, and that’s always felt a bit like cheating. For this February’s Saturday Night Special, I wrote a piece specially written for the event, using the word assigned for the month: safeword.  

While I’ve taught creative writing myself, I learned first-hand in Ariel Gore’s online Wayward Writer’s workshop how writing exercises, or writing on an assigned word, can tease out memories or concepts you’ve never written about before, but still when the word was assigned at the January reading, I thought I wouldn’t participate because I just didn’t know what I would write about.  I’m glad I let my bestie, Karin Spirn, author The Divine Sharpness in The Heart of God, encourage me to write something, gave me the idea of what to write about in fact. Karin’s encouragement (and who am I kidding, I’m a writer, I really always want to read) gave me the chance to really experience how using the word of the month in a piece specially written for the event really does create community among the readers who cheer and clap and whistle when they hear the word or an especially creative interpretation of the assignment.

Here’s what I wrote:

I don’t know about safe words, but I do know about triggers.    Image

Triggers like Renaissance Fair and The Grateful Dead. Thinking about either or hearing the wan sounds of singer Bob Weir, who my mom and her friends listened to while smoking pot and not paying attention to us can bring on an anxiety attack.

I was pretty naive about city guys when I moved to San Francisco from that hicktown Tuolumne at seventeen, and I almost right away started dating a skinny sort of Billy Idol look alike. That is to say he had spiky, blond hair and his name was Billy too. Put that guy in Tuolumne and he looked cool; he looked edgy, but in San Francisco in the late 80’s he was just another guy who lived off Haight Street, at the end of my block in fact, which is how we met. I let him work his city slicker charm on me and mistook my discomfort for awe of how cool he was.

And when he asked if I wanted to go to the Renaissance Fair in Novato, where ever in the fuck that was, with his friend and his girlfriend I said sure I’d go, even if it sounded pretty lame. By the time we went to meet his friend so they could plan their outfits, a few days before the fair, Billy had told me that he had recently worked as an escort for super rich fat or  rich old women who couldn’t get laid without paying for sex. He had gone to their houses in neighborhoods like Pacific Heights and did what they asked him to do. He was matter of fact about it, so I didn’t judge him because it had nothing to do with me and I thought it was sort of a nice thing to do even though he did it for the money. Only there were other things about him I couldn’t figure out, things that didn’t seem quite right but I thought didn’t matter because we were just hanging out.

After we went to his friends house and after  watching them try on frilly white shirts and speak in fake English accents, Billy told me that his friend wanted to swap. “Swap what?” I asked. “Girls,” he said. “Just for one night,” Billy said when I didn’t say anything back. “He thinks you’re hot.” His friend was good looking too, dark skin and big eyes, better looking than Billy even, but I didn’t even know him. I didn’t know Billy either.

But I went to the Renaissance fair anyway, taking the long drive with them to Novato, feeling lonely and stupid for wearing my regular clothes when they were all dressed up, but knowing that I’d feel even more stupid if wore those clothes and spoke in a fake English accent. I guess I was trying to make friends, but I hadn’t moved all the way from that tiny hick town to spend the day, not even one, going back in time, pretending I was in an English village, and with a bunch of anglophiles.

Now,  I cringe at any mention of a Renaissance fair because it reminds me of how naive I was then. Or maybe it’s just that I didn’t have access to the wisdom of this yelp reviewer: “People who come and expect the entertainment to be handed to them, while not dressing the part, are in for a real disappointment.  The whole reason for going to the Faire is to dress up.  That’s when the real fun begins.”