Tag Archives: DIY spirit

Making Up with Punk Rock

This summer, as I spend most of my time working furiously on my novel, I will be reposting some of my favorite pieces.

About this piece, when I told her a version of this story, Alice Bag, said, “You really broke up with punk rock didn’t you.” I realized then that I ought to write it down. This piece was originally published  July 16, 2016 on my PM Press blog

In 1998, I broke up with punk rock. It was not a good boyfriend. It liked fucking me, but it wouldn’t introduce me to its mom, worried she’d notice that I wasn’t just punk rock, but that I was something else too, something/someone it didn’t quite understand. I feared I had aged out too. Standing around at 924 Gilman hurt my feet, the cold, hard cement floor. All the young people, seeming to get younger, as I got older didn’t bother me. I quite like young people. I gave birth to one, and I teach at a community college.

I broke up with punk rock, but it appears I’m back, having never really left at all. Still, I feel I have some explaining to do.

For me, punk rock was always about participation. I starting listening to punk at thirteen, was in a band, Bitch Fight, by the age of fifteen, and in 1987, by the age of seventeen, I had moved to San Francisco with Bitch Fight, and we began playing shows with bands like MDC, Operation Ivy, Frightwig, and Crimpshrine. When Bitch Fight broke up a year and a half later, I did a stint in Kamala and the Karnivores, and started Spitboy. After Spitboy broke up in 1997, Karin (guitar), Dominique (bass guitar), and I stayed together, and formed Instant Girl, a band we knew that would be short lived because Dominique was headed to Yale to study architecture. No longer hungry to continue participating in this way, I figured I should finish school too, and I got myself accepted, and a large scholarship, to Mills College. I wanted to study creative writing and English. My feet hurt from standing around on cement in my job of fifteen years as a preschool, and Gilman, and my back from hauling around drums all those years. My band days were over, and I was fine with that. I had said a lot through the band, made a contribution, traveled the world. I wanted to study. I wanted to write. I got married too – I felt like traitor, but I was happy.

Punk rock has a way of making you feel like a traitor when you decide to grow up a little, go to college, get married. At least it did back then, but after years of dating men in the scene who liked to pretend they didn’t have families, didn’t come from somewhere, let alone introduce me to their parents, I married a Mexican. I had finally been true to myself.

Photo by Ilona Sturm

For about ten years, when I was in my thirties, nursing my son, going to graduate school, I hardly ever mentioned to anyone that I had been in a band that traveled the US, Europe, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan.  A band that put out records, did radio interviews, and for fanzines, a band that got fan mail. I didn’t want to be another boring adult talking about her glory days. Everyone wants to be rock star. Everyone wants to write a book too, but as a wise professor once said, you can’t, especially the later, standing around at parties talking about it. The cool thing about punk rock is that you actually start a band by standing around talking about it. That’s how bands start. Someone says let’s start a band, you think of some cool names, you decide who’s going to play what, you learn to play your instrument if you don’t know how already, and you write your first song. It’s what attracts people to punk rock in the first place – you don’t need to go to Mills College or Yale to do it.

While some people get into punk rock because they just want to fuck shit up, many of us call punk home because of its access to radical politics and people who hold them, people who question authority, people who question their own thoughts, people who read books, and attend demonstrations, and now discuss white privilege, people who don’t believe we should give up our basic privacy rights to protect ourselves from actual, or  so-called terrorism, people who aren’t afraid to call themselves feminists. And it’s         for all these things that I’m back, lending my voice, participating, now, in the best way I know how. 

Pete The Roadie

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Pete and Italian guy who asked me in perfect but heavily accented English, “Are you a lesbian?”

It didn’t seem very punk rock to me to have roadies, to be waited on by people hired to help, so when we had to find people to help us on tour, I felt a little reluctant about it. My reluctance about hired help was magnified because I’m a woman, the oldest daughter of a single mother, expected to anticipate the needs of others, and not the other way around.

To be clear, no one that I knew in a punk band considered roadies just the hired help. Roadies were usually friends who knew a thing or two about guitars, amps, and drums and who didn’t mind helping the band lug shit around, and often for no more than the opportunity to travel. However, when Paula started dating Pete the Roadie, Spitboy had instant access to an actual professional roadie, a man who had dedicated his life to touring with bands and practically crafting the punk rock roadie code for punk rock roadies who admired and looked up to him, even trained with him. Pete, and roadies like him, were not unlike those in other service jobs who took serving others seriously. In fact, I thought of Pete the Roadie many years later when I read Barbara Eherenriech’s opinions about what it means to serve in her book Nickle and Dimed, though, unlike Ehrenreiech who worked as a waitress and hotel maid then goes back to her real life to write about it, being a roadie and serving others is Pete the Roadie’s real life.

Pete the Roadie seemed to believe that his primary job was to serve artists, to make it easier for them to make the music that he loved and to spread the ideas that he believed in. He did what he did without the glory of actually being in the band. Being a woman whose life had, in large part, been about serving others, helping my mom take care of my brother and sister, and in my job as a pre-school teacher where all I did was take care of small children who couldn’t take care of themselves (and their parents who needed reassurance that their children were happy while they were away at work), I admired this code, but when applied to me, it felt decadent. I didn’t feel comfortable being served. Still, none of that mattered to Pete. All that mattered to him was that my drums were set up properly or that nothing moved out of place when I played them.

When we played live, Pete would kneel at the side of the stage half way between the drum kit and the amps on the stage in his grungy jeans and work boots, a roadie tool attached to his belt for easy access. Ready to jump into action, he’d watch for me to nod in the direction of my high-hat if it was sliding out of place or the bass drum pedal, which often came loose by my furious pounding. When I nodded, Pete would come running to fix whatever was out place, his fingers always in danger of getting munched by some moving part on the drum hardware, a consequence that he’d gladly accept if it allowed me to finish out whatever song we had been playing uninterrupted.

During one show in Prague, our only show in the Czech Republic (a country that had split from Slovakia just earlier that year), my bass drum pedal went clean through the head of the bass drum of the set I was borrowing from one of the opening acts. In England, while touring with Citizen Fish, I had played Trotsky’s set, and Karin and Paula had used the Citizen Fish amps, as were unable to bring our large pieces of equipment over on the plane, just guitars, cymbals and my snare drum. Not having my own kit scared me at first. Would I be able to play someone else’s drum set, a different set each night? Touring definitely required a new kind of flexibility. Still, I hadn’t actually worried so much about breaking someone else’s kit. The head of the Prague drum set must have been worn already because I could feel it give way early in the set. I looked down at it a couple times, wondering if I could see a crack, and when I looked back up, Pete had stood from his keeling position, his eyes trained on me, waiting for a cue. By the end of the song, the pedal had gone straight through the head and there wasn’t another. Pete had watched the mallet slice through the head, and was at my side with a solution when I thought that we might not be able to even go on. As I signaled to the band what was going on, Pete moved my drum stool out of the way, disconnected the foot pedal from the bass drum, and set about unscrewing the head from the drum using the drum key normally attached to his other tools on his belt loop.

“Don’t worry, Drums,” he said, looking over his shoulder on his hands and knees in front of the kit, “I’ll have this sorted right quick.”

In addition to his dedication to the service, Pete also really loved the communal feel of being on the road, the friendships that developed, the habits, the fast-pace, and the inside jokes. Pete rarely called me by name. He’d usually call me drummer or drums, especially when I was on stage. He called Adrienne “singer,” and he called Paula “Mrs. Roadie,” as he still does today. Pete also took it upon himself to make sure we had drinks if we wanted them, and he memorized what we liked to drink and when. He knew I was homesick too, missing Jason, my Little Rock boyfriend, and so he’d sit with me while I drank my glass of Tetley once we finished playing, and he had the drums torn down, and the equipment sorted and put away.

The movie Wayne’s World had just come out, and we had all seen it, given that, like Spinal Tap, it parodied rock musicians who we both represented and were rebelling against at the same time. Somewhere early in the tour, Pete and I began making Wayne’s World jokes, trying to make the other laugh harder with each new joke. But nothing made me laugh harder than when Pete the Roadie, who’s not known for being the sexiest guy in town, his punk band t-shirts tucked into his road-dingy jeans, for quicker access to his roadie tools, arched his pelvis toward my high-hat and said, “Sha-wing, high hat.”

I felt like I should do something to help Pete fix the bass drum head, but there wasn’t much I could do but watch in awe as Pete, pit-crew-fast, pulled the rim off the drum, turned the head 180 degrees, put the rim back on, tightened all eight tension rods, and duct taped the hole that was now at the top of the drum instead of near the bottom where it would be hit by the mallet.

“Party on, bass drum,” he said, with a big smile once he finished.

This cracked me up extra hard given that I had just broken someone else’s bass drum head, and Pete’s duct tape job had given it more life, though much altered

I wanted to hug him but there was not time.

My mirth over the repaired drum head only lasted so long because after the show we learned that most people who attended the show had paid a week’s wages to get in. We were sitting in the tour organizer’s grey, utilitarian-looking, high-rise apartment. It was hard to hear. All I could think of was that I should have paid for the drumhead and Spitboy should have played for free. If we had known this in advance, we would have done the right thing, even though Prague had been a super long drive from East Berlin. Though the prostitutes all along the highway on our way there should have been some kind of clue that the recent reunification of East and West Germany, and the breaking apart of the former Czechoslovakia had not resulted in any kind of instant economic prosperity.

I thought about Prague and all its haunting beauty and gray scale block housing on the long drive back to East Berlin, back by the sex workers, probably the same women standing by the side of the road on the way there. I thought about the people who spent a week’s wages just to see us play and wondered if it had been worth it, and how naïve we had been going there. I hoped that the drumhead that Pete had doctored with duct tape would last.

The Spitboy Rule: Part I

Spitboy: US Tour 1992  Right before playing in a barn somewhere in Michigan, I think.

Spitboy: US Tour 1992
Right before playing in a barn somewhere in Michigan, I think.

Spitboy had a rule. No boyfriends on tour. It was a good rule, but it turns out there were ways around it.

We didn’t take anyone with us on our first tour, boyfriends or otherwise. That may have been a mistake, but we wanted to prove that we could do it all: write our own songs, play our own instruments, and drive the van, navigate the interstates with a map, unload our own equipment, and change our own tires (and in only a matter of minutes). Paula, our bass player, even fixed the van when it broke down. She spent hours and hours with her head in the engine in Missoula, Montana, oil on her face and up to the tattoo on her freckled shoulder. I sat in the van (the engines could only be accessed from inside the van) with her handing her tools for as long as I could stand it, not quite sure what she was so grumpy about, not realizing at first that she felt the way I did whenever we finished a set and young women would come to tell us how much we meant to them, and I was stuck tearing down my drums and getting them out of the way of the next band, while the others basked in the praise.

I think it was Paula’s dad who taught her to work on cars when she expressed an interest, and her know-how made it possible for us to get across the US and back without spending what money we made on shows and merchandise on van repairs more than twice. We did have to get the blue van repaired in Wyoming. For some reason, we always broke down in Wyoming; Wyoming was Spitboy’s Bermuda Triangle.

Touring all on our own with no roadies, without anyone who wasn’t in the band to help drive that first time around was hard, but it was important for us to know that we could. We were one of the only all female punk bands playing straight forward hardcore, no jangly chords, reverb, or feminine harmonies for us, just the driving sounds of chunky bar chords, thumping bass lines, rapid fire drum beats, and Adrienne’s warbly growl. And being women who spent a lot of time together even when we weren’t touring, our menstrual cycles had synced up. It got to where we’d each start our period within a day a day or so of the other. We got to a show in Minot North Dakota just before the first band was about to take the stage, which made the show’s promoter really nervous, but with three of us on our periods at the same time, we had to stop every twenty or thirty minutes at a different dirty roadside gas station bathroom on our already long drive from Chicago or wherever we were coming from. We apologized to the nervous promoter and told him the truth — three out of the four of us were on our period and we had to stop a lot. He didn’t need to hear anymore, “That’s okay,” he said, waving his hand in the air boyishly. He’d probably never heard that excuse from a band before. Having someone who else to worry about driving on these days might have made things easier. I know I wasn’t a steady or efficient driver while suffering from a bad case of cramps.

The long late night drives to a city too far to make it to without leaving right after the show the night before — those were the worse without a roadie. Having one more person to share driving shifts would have just been a smart and safe thing to do. Instead, one of us would drive, another would try to stay awake and navigate, while two of us slept in our sleeping bags on the futon on the loft built behind the middle row of seats for that purpose. I had the ability to wake up after four or so terrible hours of sleep, stumble into whatever gas station we had stopped  at,  buy a cup of the worst coffee in America and some water, take a no-doze, and get back in the van and drive. Once back on the interstate, I’d listen to whatever CD’s I wanted to, sing along quietly, and keep my eyes peeled for weird construction cones, potholes, wild animals, and cops. The driving part never bothered me much; it was the fatigue the next morning. Trying to get back to sleep after driving four or so hours straight and trying to get back to sleep once the sun was up and the rest of the band one-by-one with it.

The no-boyfriends-on-tour rule went out the van window on our European tour in 1993. We had no choice but to bring a lot of people, a whole entourage. First off, we had to hire drivers because none of us had driver’s licenses to drive over seas, and since Paula was now dating the best, most well-renown roadies in the punk scene, Pete the Roadie, we had to bring him too. And we brought Jon Hiltz,Born Against drummer, who Karin had always had a shine for, to help sell merchandise.  While logical to break no-boyfriends-on-tour rule for the European tour, the rule itself made even more sense. With Paula off with Pete, and Karin snogging with Jon in the dark on long drive, things felt a little less unified — men did change things — some had a person that was just her own and others didn’t. I didn’t. And Adrienne didn’t either.