Tag Archives: Dead Kennedys

Dear Bean: On Being A Second Wave Woman in Punk

Dear Bean,    mg-bean-claudia2

You recently asked me which women in punk that I looked up to when I was first starting out playing drums in punk bands, and I have a confession to make. Aside from the women who were my friends, the women who I was playing music with, the answer is none. In some ways, because there were so few women playing punk rock music, we felt like we were the only ones. We named our band Bitch Fight because we were women and because we were young and we fought a lot over petty things, but we didn’t always want to be referred to as a girl band, and while we were excited to be feature in MRR in 1989, we were a bit disappointed to be in the Women’s Issue. We had a range of mixed feelings about what we were doing because of the messages being sent to us from the scene, messages that made it clear that women in music were just a novelty, and we wanted to be more than that. At the same time, we like many other women in the scene, bought into the idea that punk and punk ethos was defined by men. We didn’t exactly want to be one of the boys, but we also didn’t want a label that we knew was used to downplay our importance in the scene, or to only play girl band night at Gilman.

I developed a love for music and a desire to become a musician at a very early age, learning to play the flute in third grade. I loved Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, and later the Go Go’s. In my early teens, I, for obvious reasons, became fascinated by Poly Styrene of the X-Ray Spex and Annabella Lewin of Bow Wow Wow. It was a downer, though, to discover a band like X-Ray Spex after they were already broken up. In fact, it seemed like all the first wave punk bands with women in them were all broken up. For this reason, my punk idols became men: Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Jello Biafra, DH Peligro, Dave Dictor, save one woman, Lynn Perko of the Dicks, a voluptuous blonde, who beat her drums and sweated so ferociously, I was hardly ever able to tear my eyes away from her each time I saw The Dicks play. I also looked up to bands like The Clash, Dead Kennedys, MDC, and the Dicks because of their overt political lyrics.

I never, however, in those early years, looked up to Alice Bag. It pains me to say this. I loved the idea of the Zeros, the Xicano punk band from Chula Vista. When I  learned of them, I wished I had never left LA and had been old enough to see them play, but Alice scared me. I first learned of her, like so many of us did, when I first saw Decline of Western Civilization, a movie in which so many others in bands featured in the filmed were interviewed when Alice was not. All those interviewed came off as dangerously self-destructive, and there was Alice, dominating the stage with her ages-old, indigenous power, her short hair a fuck you to Mexican and Mexican-American parents everywhere. Combined with the deranged depiction of punk and Alice’s intensity, I became afraid of punk, and women in punk, because I wasn’t sure I could match such power, was up for it, or could handle the responsibility, the responsibility that came with defying dominant culture, female gender roles, Mexican-American culture, American standards of beauty, and a multitude of social mores all at the same time.

If I just tried to blend in, I thought, it all might be less exhausting, of course, as you may know from reading my book, I was wrong.

There were several bands with women in them, or all female bands, that Bitch Fight and Spitboy played with that I’d like to mention, bands that were not riot grrl bands: Gag Order featured Wendy-O-Matik on vocals; Paxton Quiggly had Bronwyn on vocals too. Blatz featured Anna Joy, and the Gr’ups featured, Danielle Sea, Deb Dupas, and Kamala Parks. The all-female bands include Fright Wig, Tiger Trap, a jangly melodic band, whose drummer I also had a big crush on, Tribe 8, 7 Year Bitch, a metal-tinged outfit from Seattle, and the Trash Women, who featured Bitch Fight’s guitarist, Elka Zolot, and Kamala and the Karnivores, a band that I was actually in for a short amount of time, even getting lucky enough to play on the 7”. I mention the Karnivores because they are a band that was truly ahead of their time (even Mr. Ask Kent thinks so), and because in the spirit of supporting women, they asked me to join them on guitar after Bitch Fight broke up, which had left me depressed and broken. They picked me up, and helped me learn to own my place as a woman in punk, playing mixed gender bills and playing women’s nights, and via their camaraderie and the tongue-in-cheek title of our Lookout Records 7” “Girl Band.”

I am happy to say, being so subsumed in punk, playing in bands, starting at an early age, and meeting and making friends with so many women in the scene, I stopped having idols, and began having allies. And now you, you’re my ally too.

All my love, respect, and admiration,

Michelle

Punk Rock Panelist Do’s and Don’ts

 

PhotoGrid_1447963911836

Don’t tell another panelist that you don’t know who they are.

Don’t say something like, “I don’t think I even know who you are or anything about your band,” somewhat annoyed and faux apologetic, especially if you’re on a panel of musicians that spans eras.

While it’s nice when people recognize you, you shouldn’t expect anyone to, especially a white man now playing prog rock.

Do take advice from Jello Biafra. He might be a little intimidating and intense, but he knows a thing or to about speaking in public.

Don’t be afraid to speak your mind and call him curmudgeonly when he says that being on the panel was actually fun and not terrible like he thought it was going to be.

Do say yes to paneling at colleges, especially if the talk is somewhere cool like New Orleans, and colleges can sometimes pay!

Don’t get upset if you’re speaking at a college and people get up and leave during your talk. Students are often scheduled by the hour while on campus, and they may need to go class.

This is a no-duh, but to do prepare your talk in advance. Jot down or type up some talking points and keep them in front of you, even if no one else does. You might go off script, here and there, and that’s fine, but don’t ramble, get back to those talking points – embrace your inner academic.

Don’t ramble. Nobody wants to listen to you ramble.

Don’t hijack the talk, especially by rambling over your allotted time.

Do stick to your allotted time period. Even punks have to obey some rules.

Don’t look bored when you’re waiting to speak or once your done. If you’re waiting to speak, listen, and take notes on related points that you’d like to make. If you’ve already spoken don’t sit looking angry, bitter, and bored as if someone made you listen to “Hotel California” or the Spin Doctors.

Do panel with Alice Bag. She’s always prepared, and she’s kind to everyone.

Don’t be afraid to be interesting. Unless there’s a Q & A session, which usually doesn’t happen until all the panelists have spoken, a panel discussion is a one-way discussion. This can get very boring for more interactive audience members. If you speak in a monotone voice, look super uncomfortable, angry, or bored, your audience will get uncomfortable, angry, or bored. These nice people came out to see you speak, give them something to chew on, something to reflect on, be prepared, crack a joke or two, smile every now and again. Smiling won’t cost you punk points, and it might even get you invited back.

On Why Dystopian Literature Is Totally Punk Rock

MG.NL.Suzy.SeanIf there were ever a literary genre designed just for punk rockers, it would be dystopian literature. Dystopian literature is notoriously dark; for sure, it wears all black. In the 1990’s when I was playing drums in punk bands, I was naturally attracted to and read books like 1984 and the Handmaid’s Tale for the first time, two books that would provide me with important frames of reference and ideologies about dark realities of government and human nature, things like mind control, pervasive surveillance, systematic oppression of women, and propagandistic uses of war – books that I now teach to college students.  

Like punk rock, dystopian literature is urban, and gritty, and gray scale, and like many punk rock bands, dystopian literature makes important critiques of society. Dystopian literature sneers satirically at social ills, inequality, hierarchical divisions, abusive power, and glib politicians – punk rock often does the same. In fact, many punk bands have referenced dystopian novels in their songs. The Dead Kennedy’s reference 1984 in their song “California Uber Alles,” an anti-Governor Jerry Brown song, a song that rails against yuppies taking over the state and making kids meditate in school:

                        Close your eyes, can’t happen hear

                        Big Bro on a white horse is near

                        The hippies won’t come back you say

                         Mellow out or you will pay

                        California uber alles    4x

                        Now it’s 1984

                        Knock-knock on your front door

                        It’s the suede-denim secret police

                        They have come for your uncool niece.

The majority of the Dead Kennedy’s lyrics were satirical, and satire is a device/genre that makes extra close examination of meaning especially important, for unlike what many of my students often think, author Jonathan Swift isn’t being literal when he says we should turn to cannibalism and eat babies to help the poor. Satire aside, a friend of mine once articulated something that I wondered about the “California Uber Alles” even at the age of fifteen when I was blasting this song in my room and pumping a fist in the air, or when I saw the DK’s at the Mabuhay Gardens on Broadway in San Francisco: why pick on a liberal democrat? Why pick on Jerry Brown? Looking again at these lyrics now, I realize why. First off, George Orwell, author of 1984 would say all people in power, all politicians should be questioned and scrutinized, and secondly, if you look closely at what Jello Biafra, singer and lyricist of the Dead Kennedys was railing against, may seem like yuppies, but it’s also gentrification in its references to jogging, organic food, and “zen fascists.” In essence, Biafra’s fears of a “cool, hip,” read expensive, California have come true, especially in the hyper-gentrified San Francisco where the Dead Kennedy’s were based.

Growing up, I felt much like a dystopian protagonist: trapped in world that denied me my individuality. A spikey-haired, black eye-liner, ruffled Mexican rick-rack skirt, wearing teen, I noticed that many punk kids came from broken homes, or had parents who were addicts, or lived in boring go-no-where suburbs. We were kids who lived with a lot of stress, kids who were prone to depression. Our lives as we were living them didn’t fit. While some tried to make us feel like it was us, like we weren’t right, like we were messed up, like we were the problem, we had enough sense to know that there was a much larger looming problem. Angry punk rock songs and angsty literature were good outlets for these feelings. The Subhumans address some of these feelings in the song “Big Brother.”

            Here we are in the a new age

            Wishing we were dead

            There’s a TV in my front room

            And it’s screwing with my head

            There’s a scanner in the toilet

            Two watch you take a bath

            And there’s a picture of Hiroshima

            To make sure you never laugh

In 1984, the actual 1984, at the age of 14, I saw the band Reagan Youth at the Democratic Convention held that year in San Francisco with my freshly chopped hair, dyed blue black. My friend Nicole Lopez’s mom drove us three hours from our small town to San Francisco just so we could see the bands and take part in the protest. A protest site was designated in the empty lot at Mission and Howard across from the Moscone Center, which back then was simply a large slab of concrete that took up an entire city block. It was there that Reagan Youth, who had named themselves after President Reagan, played with the Dead Kennedys, MDC, and the Dicks. Given the year, 1984, and the draconian policies put in place by the outgoing president whose policies had further marginalized the lives of many, especially youth from low-income families, there was a lot to protest. Sort of unknown on the West Coast, Reagan Youth played early in the day, but they were loved by the crowd right away for their energy and aptness of a band with their name playing on the rock Against Reagan tour. Dave Insurgent with his hippie punk, white-boy dreads stood at the edge of the stage, leaned into the crowd and incited our ire. Frustrated about class hierarchies, Regan Youth wrote the song Brave New World whose lyrics are drawn straight from the book of the same name by Aldous Huxley. Many English punk bands wrote anti-Thatcher songs during the same time period, songs that often also referenced dystopian texts, or the dystopian nature of the Reagan/Thatcher era.

Like dystopian literature much of punk rock is a critique of societal norms or trends, but while dystopian novels are cautionary tales, political punk rock lyrics are a document of concerns and frustrations current for the band, issues that are themes common in dystopian literature, themes such as frustrations about squashed individuality under the pressure of societal norms, corporate control of our lives, and subtle and overt forms of propaganda used by democratic nations who should know better. The straight-edge band, Set It Straight, from Redding, CA, active 2004 -2007, address some of these themes in the song “Self-Deprogramming,” a song written prior to Gary Shtenyngart’s modern dystopia, Super Sad True Love Story, a novel about a nation obsessed with mobile devices, youth, hotness ratings, and group think. The novel and the song have a lot in common.

A sea of suits with empty, mindless eyes

swarming like bees amongst their platinum high rise hives, and every single one?

Yeah, they know their place.

Super latte charged electrons, androids with no face.

But only those who subconsciously want to live their lives spoon fed, subordinated, placid, incarcerated, succumb to the machine.

I’ll tear down their graphs and charts, and take back rational thought.

It’s not too late to start.

I refuse to live my life homogenized.

I refuse to just sit by with half shut eyes.

I will think… think for myself

Like Shytngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, this song rails against modern day forms of brainwashing via slick technology and the allure of power. Its references to lattes and androids are references to familiar dystopian fears regarding loss of individuality and a loss of humanity, a loss of humanity that we sadly participate in by our robotic obsession with digital technology that does our thinking for us.

I have often said that being an English teacher is a natural extension of being in a punk band without quite understanding the connection myself, but it has always felt true. And even though I don’t always only wear black and try to look tough like I did when I was in a punk band, helping students learn to think for themselves, to avoid lazy thinking and to spot fallacious arguments, to question authority is one way the two are connected, but the other way is teaching dystopian literature, a genre, that demands all those things, especially questioning authority, by its very style and content, a genre that warns us about hierarchical thinking, class privilege, and endless wars, a genre that begs us to open our eyes, to be better.