Her Life Was Save By Rock and Roll

About a month and a half ago I attended “The Tri-State Conspiracy Show” at the Bowery Poetry Club. Hillbilly bluegrass band Uncle Monk opened the night with its classic bluegrass-style guitar strumming and banjo picking. Tommy Ramone (yes, that Tommy Ramone) stole the show as no one else could—laying classic punk lyrics over the unplugged sounds of his mandolin, guitar, banjo, and dobro, alongside Claudia Tienan on vocals and guitar. Their set ended with a rearranged bluegrass version of Sheena Is A Punk Rocker. Surreal to the most insipid fan, extraordinarily breathtaking to a rabid bluegrass and Ramones fan like me.

As if part of some preordained twist by Bowery Poetry Club managing director Gary Glazner, Uncle Monk was followed by all-female three-piece Japanese punk rockers High Teen Boogie. After the obligatory equipment change and extended sound check, lead singer/guitarist Yuka stepped into the microphone, and in a very thick Japanese accent with spilled-over English, she sweetly addressed the sixty or seventy standing fans: “We are High Teen Boogie, ok? We come from Japan, ok? We thank you for us being here.” Yuka then looked back at her bandmates, smiled, and nodded; drummer Hitomi raised her arms and counted up-tempo, slapping the sticks crucifixion style; “One, two, three, four…”

“Fuck you you fuckin’ motherfucker.

Fuck you you fuckin’ motherfucker.

Fuck you you fuckin’ motherfucker.

Fuck you you fuckin’ motherfucker.”

Loud. Real loud. In your face loud. Words like samurai swords slicing at your cochlea. Screaming. Bottles breaking to the repeated feedback of barred E’s and B flats. The base drum doesn’t roll or punch—it canons. The whole thing lasts about ninety seconds. End song one.

To me, the juxtaposition is an obvious one: a West Virginia mountaineer-looking Tommy Ramone, in Lee jeans, a tee shirt, and suspenders with a pony-tail dangling out of his leather Tilley playing mandolin songs about small-town life, urban gentrification, and melancholic spiritual relationships in an early 8:00pm time slot. Step in three NYC émigrés from Japan in knee-high boots, cowboy hats, pigtails and schoolgirl skirts screaming into the microphone like shrapnel colliding with static, over three-chord chainsaws and bitch-slapped cymbals.

How did we get here?

Enter Patti Smith. Enter Deborah Harry. Enter Joan Jett.

Joan Jett

The film The Runaways is worth seeing, whether you are only a sideline female punk fan or a full-blown tobacca’-chewin’ diesel dyke who likes the taste of Jackie D on your girlfriends tongue and gets down to the tunage of Team Dresch and The Butchies. The acting is incredible, and I would say that Kristen Stewart (who plays Runaways founder and guitarist Joan Jett) out-acts legendary childhood talent Dakota Fanning (who plays Runaways lead singer Cherie Currie), thus stealing the show. The cinematography is as grainy as the Hollywood trailer-trash subjects whom it portrays, the hazy picture capturing the raw heat of 1975 California, and the ticking time bomb of glamour rock and disco. Director Floria Sigismondi goes beyond telling just the story of the first all-girl rock band; she offres a personalized account of exactly how fucked-up LBJ’s “Great Society” suburban family was. Arguably there hasn’t been anything so close to the truth about America’s familial demise since Alan and Susan Raymond’s TV Miniseries An American Family (1973). Finally, of course, there is the soundtrack. The music is a bare-knuckled punch to the inflexed belly. Who in their right musical mind can’t get off to the sound of four pre-adolescent girls kicking some serious ass in locked-down pose fronting the Marshall Stax? … Just daring you to take them on as horny, as masturbatory, as dirty, and so fucking razor they make Jimmy Page and Robert Plant look like long-haired fairies from the Queen’s Theat-a?

Without doubt, Patti Smith was the first. Not that I want to take anything away from the hundreds of woman in music before Horses was released in 1975, but even if we narrow our discussion down to just the “American Rock” genre, and you throw Janis Joplin at me, or Grace Slick, or Stevie Nicks, I would still argue they did not come near to the exposed androgyny and un-gendering of rock n’ roll the way Patti Smith did.

Patti made it all different. She took the female figure in music away from the role of “performer” and owned it; the same way young male black rappers repossessed the n-word in the 1980s and empowered it to be theirs and theirs only.

Smith de-masculinized (I can’t even say “feminized,” and that’s the point. There is a difference between the two terms) what had been up to that point a masculine art form. Janis Joplin, for example, was a blues singer. She had a great voice and emotion for the words she would spew out as tear-soaked and gin-drenched as Rimbaud’s collar, but everything about her act was agency to the male institution that was rock n’ roll. In the sixties, the female musician existed either: a) to provide a distinctive voice to an all-male band (think Jefferson Airplane or Big Brother and the Holding Company); b) to bring sex-appeal to the band (think Fleetwood Mac and Ike and Tina Turner); or c) to provide maternal insight into the world’s problems and a comforting female artistic voice (think Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell). I know these are all gross hyper-generalizations, and there is a strong argument against each one of the stereotypes and categorizing I have just done, yet what is more easily argued is the notion that before Patti Smith, before female punk and the all-girl band, there was not a female musician in mainstream American culture who articulated what thoughts were actually occupying her mind, what desires were burning from her pussy, that she too was pissed off and had the right to unapologetically discharge a loud “FUCK YOU!” as part of her expressive.

When Joan Jett founded The Runaways, Nixon had just resigned and the country didn’t trust its government, its President, or anyone falling under the mysterious colloquial “they.” Vietnam veterans were returning home to a villain’s welcome and the Civil Rights Movement had been displaced from upward mobility to ghettoization. Roe vs. Wade and the Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs “Battle of the Sexes” were both two years in the past now. Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics was five years old and Valerie Solanas’ (who had already tried and failed to assassinate Andy Warhol) SCUM Manifesto had lost its steam. Billboard was listing songs by The Captain and Tennille, Glen Campbell, and Elton John at the top 100 and Blazing Saddles and Chinatown were the top-grossing films. 1975 was the middle of the “Mainstreaming Decade”—all that was radical in the 1960s had been incorporated into everyday American life. It wasn’t enough to protest anymore, or to smoke pot peacefully in the park and have sing-alongs. Altamont had cured freedom and the love epidemic. “Progress” and “Communal Happiness” were out. “Disillusionment” and “Me” were in.

The Runaways

So what do you do if you are a sixteen your old girl in Los Angeles who loves listening to The Rolling Stones; The Sex Pistols; The Velvet Underground? What do you do if you are a sixteen your old girl whose father’s only refuge (after trying to figure out how following every scripted line of the American dream to a ‘T’ has left him empty and without his sanity) is a bottle of cheap Canadian vodka? What do you do if you are a sixteen your old girl whose mother is lost at sea under the pressure from all her sisters to break free from the oppressive male and become that roaring womyn; become that career womyn, a la brand new television sensation Mary Tyler Moore; shake yourself from that traditional June Cleaver role; become the liberated and symbolic “Ms”? What do you do if you are a sixteen your old girl whose guitar teacher tells you “girls can’t play electric guitars?” What do you do if you are a sixteen your old girl who prefers girls to boys and doesn’t know what that even means or how to come to terms with it? What do you do if you are a sixteen your old girl who is so horny your pussy drips and aches and you’re not allowed to talk about it; who is so angry your knuckles bleed on their own before the wall-punches are thrown; who is so alone a broken mirror represents the night’s only company; and who is so lost the only thing you can relate to is a Lou Reed lyric:

My parents are gonna be the death of us all

Two TV sets and two Cadillac cars—

Ain’t gonna help us at all

Then one fine mornin’ she puts on a New York station

She don’t believe what she heard at all

She started dancin’ to that fine fine music

You know her life was saved by Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

If you’re Joan Jett, you meet a drummer, pick-up a fifteen year old Bowie-looking jailbait, drink bourbon like Jim Morrison, pop pills like Neely O’Hara, snort coke like Keith Richards, plug in your amp and scream:

Can’t stay at home, can’t stay at school,

Old folks say, you poor little fool.

Down the street, I’m the girl next door,

I’m the fox you’ve been waiting for.

Hello Daddy. Hello Mom.

I’m your ch-ch-ch-ch-cherry bomb!

And start a female fuckin’ revolution!

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– Kory French


One response to “Her Life Was Save By Rock and Roll

  1. To the editor:
    This font is atrocious and way too small.
    No one is going to read a blog with posts this long.
    But the writing is good. Just cut back.

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