Tag Archives: Feminism

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. 

Fucking Carrie Brownstein

 

2013+Winter+TCA+Tour+Day+1+CZ8T46QOcHnl

Source: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images North America)

Fucking Carrie Brownstein! She’s smart, cute, a riot grrl, in a super awesome band that everyone loves, even critics; she has a super funny, edgy TV show, and now she’s publishing a memoir. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (Riverhead Books) is due out October 27th, just two days before my forty-sixth birthday. My memoir, The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band (PM Press) isn’t due out until Spring 2016. Just what, I ask, will Brownstein’s memoir be about? What has she done?

There should be some kind of law that you can’t write a memoir until you’re forty-five, until you’ve lived at least half your life like I have. I was already forty-five when I got word my memoir would be published.

When I got the news from PM Press, I didn’t run straight to my family to tell them the good news, hug them, or cry. No, I thought this instead: Okay, now, I just have to not die before it’s in print.

So imagine my shock last night, squinting at a Riverhead Books Instagram post on my phone announcing Brownstein’s book, my dismay at always having to be in the shadow of those sexpot riot grrls.

I should have known this would happen when I read her blurb on the back of Kim Gordon’s book A Girl in a Band, which credits her as —Carrie Brownstein, writer, actor, musician. I know she writes. However, to declare her a writer in that way, on that book is a bit like product placement.

Alice Bag, the most famous and legendary Chicana punk, Viv Albertine, of the Slits, and Kim Gordon, Sonic Youth, all did the decent thing and waited until they were in their fifties to publish their memoirs. The four of us will have to think very carefully about whether we’ll let the youthful, fancy pants Brownstein into our edgy female writer/musician’s club.

There is consolation in the fact that while Brownstein’s book will be published before mine, people will read my book too, because Alice Bag, Viv Albertine, Kim Gordon, and now, Carrie Brownstein have laid the groundwork, and because everyone wants to be a rock star, even if it’s only as long as it takes to read three hundred pages. It just isn’t fair always having to live in the shadow of those damn riot grrrls, who are and always have been younger and more pop-culture than I am.

In conclusion, I must ask the obvious question. Who are they going to let write a memoir next? It seems that there should be some sort of cap, some sort of quota. We can’t just let any literate woman who can play an instrument write a memoir. What would people think? What kind of message would that send? Americans might actually start to really believe at younger and younger ages that women can and should be heard, that women should have a voice, be musicians, writers, artists, great thinkers and creators worthy of solid place in history.

Race, Class, and Spitboy

My grandma Delia hadn’t been expecting us, so her short hair was a troll doll mess, Imageshe didn’t have her eyebrows drawn on, and she wasn’t wearing any lipstick, but I figured she’d be home, being as it was a Sunday evening and she was seventy-five.

“Mi’ja!” She looked confused and surprised when she opened the door and saw me there with the other Spitwomen all in mostly black, dirty jean shorts over leggings, boots or heavy Doc Martin shoes, tattoos, and faded tank tops.

Spitboy had been playing a series of shows in the LA area, including a big festival in Long Beach, and we were on our way back to the Bay Area. I couldn’t drive past my grandma’s East LA freeway exit without stopping, and I wanted the Spitwomen to meet her. A tough old broad, my grandma Delia speaks with an accent, speaks and cusses in both English and Spanish, and was born and raised in the United States after her parents came from Mexico during the revolution in 1918. In her own, proud to be American, culturally Mexican, don’t-tell-me-what-to-do-I-can-make-up-my-own-mind way, she was and is a feminist too.

I gave her a big hug in the doorway and explained that we had been playing music in the area and that we were on our way home. Her house was just off the freeway in Lincoln Heights. As we turned onto Workman Street, I had pointed out General Hospital where I was born and explained that this was East LA, the place my family is from.  Both Paula and Adrienne grew up in the Bay Area, San Jose and Pleasanton, a sort of conservative bay area suburb. Karin went to high school and college in the mid-west, but had lived all over, even Europe where her parents lived when she was born because her dad worked for Boeing.

“Do you want me to make you something to eat?”

“No grandma, we can’t stay long. I just wanted you to meet everyone.”

“Come in, come in.” She opened the door wider so we could all pass by. “Where are my manners.”

The Spitwomen  lingered on the porch behind me, uncharacteristically quiet, even Adrienne who always smiled and introduced herself to everyone anywhere we went. Once we made our way inside the house and once someone shut the heavy metal screen door behind her, Karin scanned the room.  The way her eyes fell over every item made me aware of just how many nick nacks, photographs, and wall hangings lined my grandma’s small combined living room-dining room, including the one that said, “Home is where you can scratch where it itches.” Adrienne stood in faux leather pants with her hands clasped in front of her, and Paula smiled shyly.

“Grandma, this is Karin.” I pointed at Karin. “She plays guitar in the band. This is Adrienne; she sings, and Paula plays bass.”

“Hello, please sit down,” grandma said, for all three of them had filed around behind the coffee table in front of the couch. I could tell that Grandma Delia didn’t know what else to say.

They sat down on grandma’s couch; Karin on one edge, her head near the macrame plant hanger with the peace lily spilling out of it. She looked like she felt out of place, and I thought about a discussion that we had a couple of different times driving to shows. It was a discussion about my family, or really just a series of questions.

“You and your brother and your sister all have different fathers?” Karin would asked when the subject of siblings came up.

“Yes, we each have a different father.” I’d say, not sure why the question made me uncomfortable. Karin, Paula, and Adrienne’s parents were all still married, maybe not all happily, but Karin’s parents were actually very nice and not dysfunctional at all, the kind of family that owned an Audie and a commuter car, had straight teeth, and didn’t lose their tempers.

When she’d push me on this topic, I’d explain,” “My mom married my dad when she got pregnant with me in high school, but left him when I was eight months old because he abused her.”

This was something I figured that she’d understand since we had written a song about domestic violence.  

“She got together with my brother’s dad who helped her leave my dad, but they never married and were only together for a couple of years. Later, my mom married my sister’s dad and had my sister.”

Since we didn’t think marriage was cool, I added that my mom was no longer married to my sister’s dad, or anyone else, that she had sworn off marriage forever.

I followed grandma who wore what she called a pair of joggers and a faded cat sweatshirt to the kitchen, so we could chat a minute and because no one else seemed to have anything to say. When it was warm she always wore a house dress.

“How are you, grandma?” I asked once were in the kitchen.

“I’m fine; you know, getting older everyday.” She ran her finger through her hair and smiled. Her nails looked freshly manicured, oval shaped and bright red.

She handed me two glasses filled with water so I could help her carry them, one of narrow ribbed glass and the other of tin, the kind from the seventies, each in the set painted a different color and designed to keep your kool-aid really cold.

The Spitwomen were still sitting quietly when my grandma and I got back into the front room and handed each of the Spitwomen a glass of water. Karin was still looking around the room her nose in the air; Paula, who always wore her short hair in a ponytail, looked as if she were trying to think of something to say, and Adrienne was sitting with her hands folded in her faux leather lap.

“Sit down, mi’ja,” grandma motioned to her chair, beside which sat her basket of embroidery projects. I could see that she was working on a design of a Mexican woman carrying a jug of water on her shoulder.

I sat down, and each of the Spitwomen took a sip of her water and set her glass down on the coffee table without saying a word. They were never this quiet, ever. I didn’t know what to do. Grandma read my anxiety and tried to fill the awkward silence herself.

“You girls must be tired, driving all that way.”

They all nodded.

“You see that picture there,” she said, pointing to a black metal shelf by the door, “That’s Michelle’s mom and dad when they were in high school.”

I winced when she called me Michelle because they never called me that; they only ever called me Todd.

“They were at a dance. Your mom looks so pretty, don’t you think so, mi’ja.”

I always thought she looked much older than sixteen or seventeen with her hair in a sort of a ratted, late-sixties, beehive bun. And my dad, short, dark skin with thick black hair; I looked like him with my hair cropped close to my head the way I was wearing it then, a sort of Mia Farrow, Rosemary’s baby haircut.  

I nodded at my grandma and smiled, but I felt sad. I didn’t know what to say now either and that just made it worse.

Stopping had not been a good idea at all. We should have stayed on the I-5. I should not have suggested that we veer off into the second largest Mexican city in the world. I had made everyone uncomfortable, and now I was outside of my body, seeing my adored grandma and her shabby East LA home, (which I had always found tidy and comforting) her nick nacks, which they probably called tchotchkes, and all her family photos of Mexicans, and now myself through different eyes, and I didn’t like it one bit.

The Riot Grrrl Controversy

Image

“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.

The Spitboy Rule: Part II

Use link below to read The Spitboy Rule: Part I

https://prettyboldblog.wordpress.com/2013/03/25/the-spitboy-rule-part-i/

Image

Spitboy: European Tour 1993
Top: MCG Paula Hibb Rines, Pete The Roadie
Middle: Jon Hiltz, Nolde, Erich (merch and drivers)
Bottom: Karin Gembus and Adrienne Droogas                                                                                      

Boyfriends on tour in Europe did change the dynamic, but it never changed what we had on stage every night. People often commented on our live performances and the way we connected with one another and the audience. It probably helped that we all wrote lyrics. Adrienne always sang lead and if she were singing lead on a song that I wrote, I would sing with her. This sort of collaboration worked the same way with songs written by Karin, Paula, and later Dominique. Jon Hiltz said that we were the most positive, supportive band he ever met. His experience in his own band had apparently been somewhat fraught, but I could see how difficult it could be to get along on tour with some people, away from the comforts of home, the stress of the long drives, the fatigue, and the close quarters.  Though it came somewhat naturally for Spitboy to make an effort and not  take one another for granted and to accept certain quirks we hadn’t noticed at home — Paula was moody at times; Karin was very good at getting her own needs met, I was probably, at times, too stand offish and needy, and Adrienne loved to socialize so much that she had trouble getting to certain band duties like helping tear down equipment and selling merchandise. Accepting these quirks was the right the thing to do and never affected our live performances. On the other hand, if being in a band is like a marriage, and trust me it is, then playing live is the sex, which would make playing live easy, the pay off, the place where we might even be able to fake it. Plenty of dysfunctional people in dysfunctional relationships have sex are able to connect this this way in order to satisfy this one need, only this wasn’t the case with Spitboy. Spitboy never faked it. We genuinely liked one another, admired one another in many ways too.

Karin, our guitar player, was the subject of such admiration during and after our first show in France. It happened about mid-way through a sluggish, we’re-tired-after-touring-all-week-with-Citizen Fish-and-we-just-got-off-the-ferry set of songs, a guy started shouted something from the crowd, something like, “Enlevez vos blouses! Enlevez vos blouses,” meaning take off your shirts!  As soon as he said it, a woman standing at the front of the low stage began waving her hands wildly and yelling to us in English, wanting to tell us what he had said, but Karin being fluent in French since college had understood it herself. And instead of launching into the next song, she stepped up to her microphone and calmly, almost politely, cussed the guy out in his own language. For a second, the room went almost totally silent. Then it erupted into a loud volley of cheering and laughter, especially by the women in the crowd. No one had been expecting anything like that at all.

In part, it was this sort of admiration of one another and all that each was capable of that caused us to make the no-boyfriends-on-tour rule in the first place. I know I never wanted divided loyalties to interfere with or change any of it. But after the first US tour, we were never able to fully abide by the boyfriend rule, though it was there in the back our minds, reminding us to not pick at the quirks, to remain united, to make the most of each quick stop in a different city, and in the case of Europe, sometimes, a different country each day. Together we played to five hundred people in Rome, walked over the spooky, beautiful Charles Bridge in Prague, gazed up at the Gaudi Museum in Barcelona after dark, and ate pizza fresh out of a backyard brick oven overlooking an olive farm in Toscano, Italy. I never felt alone or divided on days like that, and I wasn’t.