Women Who Rock Over America

Adele Bertei. Photo by Lucretia Tye Jasmine. Tori Amos artwork by Lindsey Bailey

When I started editing Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyonce. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, I knew we would be honoring a matrilineal history, but I didn’t know we would birth a sisterhood. During the two-year process of producing this book, my 30something contributors and I went through death, birth, divorce, band breakups, and band formations – not to mention the election and tyranny of a misogynist, racist pig. Some of these women I have known as dear friends for decades (love you Jana, Vivien, Ann!). Some I am still meeting. Getting to present with many of these writers during the WWR book tour has been powerful and empowering. We are making alliances and forging friendships.

Evelyn McDonnell. Photo by Solvej Schou

 

The last night of the tour on December 6 brought this all home, literally, to LA. I was honored to be joined by three gifted women at Beyond Baroque in Venice before a full house. I started the evening by reading the words of one of our New York-based sisters, Caryn Rose, who wrote about Beyond Baroque as the place where Exene Cervenka met John Doe, and “the world shifted on its axis.” Solvej Schou followed by talking about PJ Harvey, then belting Harvey’s 1993 song “Man-Size” – and when Solvej belts, you can hear her down the block. She also played her own recent composition, “America.”

Solvej Schou. Photo by Lucretia Tye Jasmine. PJ Harvey artwork by Anne Muntges

 

Thoughtful, funny, personal, philosophical, DJ Lynnee Denise described her odyssey of discovering Bjork: from Crenshaw to Iceland and back. The night closed with a true musical legend. Adele Bertei is one of the original girls who invented punk rock. She began her career working with the doomed, gifted Peter Laughner (Pere Ubu), moved to New York and introduced Brian Eno to the No Wave scene, in which she played as a member of the Contortions. She was in the all-girl, out-dyke band the Bloods before you were born, and her film career includes a starring role in the cult film Born in Flames. Adele read from her WWR essay about Tori Amos, then performed two original songs, including one also called – wait for it – “America.”

DJ Lynnee Denise. Photo by Lucretia Tye Jasmine. Bjork artwork by Winnie T. Frick.

 

Women Who Rock. Making America great again, for real.

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Just Genius

Photo by Lera Pentelute

To make a braid, you need three strands of hair. A stool needs three legs to stand. And when individually acclaimed singer-songwriters Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus join their formidable vocal, compositional and instrumental talents, the sum is even greater than its parts. The three artists ended their tour together at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles Friday night, each performing separate sets, then taking the stage together for the power trio they ironically call Boygenius — because girls don’t get called geniuses. But when they blended their voices in perfect three-part harmony on “Ketchum, ID” before a soldout crowd, it was genius, ungendered and true.

Looking and sounding like a young Melissa Etheridge, Baker is the powerhouse of the three, on both throat and ax — a supremacy her bandmates honored by taking to their knees and hailing her with deep bows when she partook in some serious shredding. But Dacus has a wonderful deep timbre, and Bridgers has an Emmylou Harris-meets-Hope Sandoval husk. It’s empowering to see the way they bring their voices together, never upstaging or hotdogging.

They talk in interviews about the strength they have found in numbers, how their support of each other has allowed them to express and articulate thoughts and feelings — and jokes — in ways they had never felt free to do before. All three, individually and collectively, make music drenched in melancholy. So when they find relief in each other, it’s all the more liberating. I mean it was cool when the National’s Matt Berninger and film composer Stephan Altman came out and performed with Baker during her solo set. But Boygenius felt like a statement, a pinnacle.

At the end of the evening, the end of the tour, Baker, Bridgers, and Dacus hugged and cried, and so did a lot of the audience. Rule of thirds: three is not a crowd, it’s a movement.

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Uncle John

Uncle John and Mom

Thursday we buried my Uncle John. He was the last of his generation, of Mom’s five siblings, to die. It’s the passing of an era but also, the passing of a great man. One of six, father of seven, John Duncan Harrod loved family. He opened his home and his heart to anyone who became part of his tribe. And his family became truly blended over the years, as was evident at his funeral. There were six of his kids and their spouses, and many grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. There were the relatives of his son-in-law Vito Zambetti, the two families indelibly bonded by Vito’s tragic death decades ago. There were the children of his second wife, Colleen, as red-eyed as their step-siblings. I know how open-armed John could be because he always treated my brother and myself, and my husband and my son, as if we were as welcome in his home as his own offspring. Our families vacationed together, camping in Yosemite and Kentucky, celebrating the country’s bicentennial in Wisconsin. Whenever we visited LA, we stayed with John and his family, even if we slept in our trailer parked outside.

The Harrods are pioneer stock, descendants of the frontiersman James Harrod. John, my mom, brothers Royce, Leon and Bill, and sister Louise moved to LA from their native Kentucky when they were still kids, and with my grandfather Arthur, they built houses for California’s booming expansion. John never stopped working. As his son-in-law Steve Ruda eulogized, he always had a hammer and a nail pouch hanging from his belt. At 87, he was strong as an ox — even after a massive brain bleed felled him and left him attached to machines. When I visited him in the hospital, he held my hand in a grip so tight I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to break free. His eyes were open, and they seemed to look around the room in response to sounds, but I don’t know that he could see or hear. Yet when I squeezed his hand he squeezed mine back. That was the last time I saw him alive.

Before the hemorrhage, his mind was strong too. At my mother’s memorial, he recounted vivid details and the exact addresses of all the places their itinerant father had taken him to live: Florida, Kentucky, near Macarthur Park. Like my parents, he loved to travel America, camping in our great national park system, making use of our highways. It’s a lost art, trailering across America. Maybe, if we toured our own country like our parents did, we would feel less divided.

The night before we buried John, a former marine killed 12 people in a bar not far from San Fernando Mission, the historic 19th century church where my uncle was honored with a last communion. On the day we said goodbye to my mother, a man killed 49 people in a gay bar in Orlando. Natural deaths are sad enough; why this haste to increase our country’s mortality rate? On our drive to the Valley for the funeral, my husband had a vision of Uncle John standing at the pearly gates, greeting those poor shooting victims with those great strong arms of his spread wide.

As we left the reception, a fierce wind whipped through Porter Ranch, a gale so strong I understood why multiple highway signs warned of dangerous gusts. At that moment in fact, flames were lighting north of Malibu, and an hour later in Woolsey Canyon. Soon the families we had been having lunch with would be evacuating their homes, and John would be hugging more of his California neighbors at the gates of heaven.

Uncle John on the left, my grandmother Guyla, Uncle Leon and Uncle Bill.

I don’t really believe that, of course. I don’t believe in heaven, or life after death. But I appreciate them as good stories that give us comfort in trying times. And we could all use some comfort these days.

Goodbye Uncle John. I probably never told you how much I loved you, but you probably didn’t need me to. That’s what family is for.

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Women Who Rockening

Theo Kogan and Murray Hill

Theo Kogan and Murray Hill at Persisticon’s The Rockening

Women get shit done, they are funny AF, they are fed up with patriarchs, and, of course, they rock. Those were four of my takeaways from the Rockening Sunday night, the comedy, music, and activism event presented by Persisticon at the Bell House in Brooklyn. Timed to take place just a couple weeks before the midterm elections, The Rockening both served as a galvanizing gathering for girl power and a fundraiser to turn the evening’s energy into concrete action. A group of musicians, artists, and comedians formed Persisticon after the 2016 election to help get women elected to office, and this, their second event, raised buckets of money for Emily’s List.

It also was a launch party for the book I edited, Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyonce. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, so I can’t pretend to be unbiased. Subjectively, it was one of the single best days of my life, as I felt my own work, and those of my collaborators in this volume, celebrated and connected to a cause. And I wasn’t alone; “I want to live at Persisticon forever,” wailed one friend, a reporter for a prominent newspaper. The feeling in the room was electric, positive, uproarious. People laughed at my jokes! Objectively, the not-small venue was full of people, sold out in fact, of tickets that started at $50 — yes, the Women Who Rock launch party sold out! The final take isn’t in, but the estimate is we raised $15,000 for Emily’s List.

Catalina Cruz could become the first dreamer elected in New York state.

Having Janeane Garafalo headline is a good way to pack your launch party. Persisticon put together a smart, fast-paced variety show, smoothly segueing from the politician Catalina Cruz (who could become the first Dreamer elected to New York State assembly) joined by the quick-witted Full Frontal with Samantha Bee correspondent Ashley Nicole Black, to the parodic punk burlesque act Tiger Bay and Fancy Feast, ending with the star of Mystery Men and Reality Bites, who has long persisted as an icon of a cerebral dark, dry humor that women don’t get to show often and who poked fun at Mumford and Sons. Murray Hill, who has been king of the drag kings since I lived in New York almost two decades ago, threaded it all together with his borough-politician parody. When it came time for my Women Who Rock crew to take the stage, Hill joked about how the six of us looked like a band; it was true, without consulting or even knowing each other, we were all dressed in our best black and leather/pleather. Then DJ Tikka Masala played “I Love Rock’n’Roll,” of course a perfect entrance song for me, the Runaways biographer, and we took the stage like bad-ass scribes, clutching pieces of paper.

It was a bit of a daunting task to provide the literary portion of this raucous event. I wasn’t even sure if we were going to do any readings at various points during the months-long planning for the Rockening. But Persisticon producer Lynn Harris selected portions of one essay from each writer and seamlessly weaved them together. So when Katherine Turman started talking about the transformation of Anna Mae Bullock and Anne Muntges’s drawing of Tina Turner was projected on the wall behind her, you could hear a pin drop in the Bell House. Each reader was greeted with enthusiastic applause followed by the most attentive appreciation a wordsmith could ever hope for, as Jeanne Fury praised Cyndi Lauper, Jana Martin told the story of Mahalia Jackson, Holly George-Warren commemorated Patsy Cline, and Caryn Rose eulogized Aretha Franklin, offering the final word of our set: “Amen.” Afterwards, people told us we provided just the dose of serious purpose the evening needed.

The Persisticon crew

And then, the fun girls want to have. Contributor Theo Kogan, a Persisticon founder, the initial conceptualizer of the Rockening and of course, the singer for the legendary Lunachicks, took the stage with guitarist Sean Pierce. She talked about her love of Deborah Harry, whom she wrote about for WWR, then sang “Heart of Glass,” her voice moving from the soprano verse lines to the Lunachicksesque roar of the chorus like a full-throttle code shifter. Thus, Blondie and the Lunachicks were evoked and entwined. Theo Kogan is the very definition of a woman who rocks.

Kogan and Pierce were a tough act to follow, and probably only a visitor from the dead could pull it off. “Ladies and gentlemen, Nico!” Theo announced. Looking pale and moving stiffly like a zombie, a skinny woman with a blond shag and eyes like coal took the stage, to the immense confusion of the audience. “How?!” a male voice shouted. Apparently, many Rockeners had never seen Tammy Faye Starlite’s genius Nico impersonation before. I’m such a fan, I had asked Tammy to write about Nico for Women Who Rock. Her experimental first-person narrative ultimately didn’t make sense in the context of the book, but she got to make fun of me at the Rockening for cutting it. Faye is like a drag performance artist who mostly portrays women but is currently doing a Rolling Stones show. Her Nico is at once blotto and brilliant. Sunday, she sang “Heroes,” and when Faye moves from banter to song, her act shifts from pathos to empathy. Keeping with the theme of the night, Faye/Nico paused the music for a little political interlude. She called out for a man of the people to run against the “saffron” man in the White House, someone who could speak to the elites about their tax cuts but had also worked the fields of New Jersey, someone “not only meant to run, but born to run.” And then Faye went from Nico to Bowie to Springsteen, and somehow it was a joke that made sense, at least to me, who had just Friday seen Bruce’s Broadway show, which in its own way is a eulogy for patriarchy.

I had pushed for this moment — my contributors, Theo, Tammy Faye — and thanks to the incredible Persisticon organizers, including executive producer Diana Kane, with their clever script and, as Hill put it so well, “gentle micromanagement,” it came off brilliantly. This was girl power in action, microcosmic proof of how much better the world would be if women ran it. After all, Tammy played my last book party too, four years ago for Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways, when she was the Cherie Currie of the Runaways tribute band the Stay-At-Homes. But that venue was run by males and they treated us like shit — just like the Runaways used to get treated. It was so fundamentally different to be at an event run by the ladies. This is what we speak of when we speak of safe spaces, and empowering spaces. I want to live at Persisticon forever too.

Catalina Cruz

The capper: The book’s publicist, goddess Kara Thornton, blew some of the artwork up into giant posters that hung behind the merch booth (where, needless to say, copies of Women Who Rock sold like hot cakes). Catalina Cruz asked to take home the Selena poster drawn by Winnie T. Frick. I hope she hangs it in her office in Albany, after women rock the vote Nov. 6.

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Music Matters Launches!

Music MattersMusic Matters, a new series of short books on single acts, publishes its first two titles today, October 3: Why the Ramones Matter by Donna Gaines and Why the Beach Boys Matter by Tom Smucker. As series editor, I am so honored to have helped bring these books into fruition, and look forward to many more volumes in the future. Music Matters is published by the University of Texas press, which means I’m labelmates with some of the smartest people thinking about music right now, including Oliver Wang, Vivien Goldman, and Jessica Hopper. The series would not exist without Stephen Hull, who originally conceived it for University Press of New England; when UNPE announced they were shuttering, we moved to UT. Thanks also to Robert Christgau for bringing me to Stephen; I have to admit, he truly is the dean of rock critics.

For more information, check out the press release.

If you are interested in submitting to the series, send a one-page query explaining why the subject matters, why you are qualified to write about that subject, and what would your writing approach be to myself at Evelyn.McDonnell@LMU.edu and ckittrell@utpress.utexas.edu. Please write MUSIC MATTERS in the subject line, and give us at least a month to respond.

Release_Music Matters

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A Festival Where the Future Is Fem

Festivals have a bad reputation for not showing a lot of r-e-s-p-e-c-t to women. (See what I did there?) Numerous articles over the last several years have pointed out how few female artists are booked at some of the major music gatherings, and how low they are often kicked down the billing. Drunken bacchanals can be mine fields for audience goers as well, who at best have to push aside guys who insist on dancing close, and at worst, are gang raped; see, Woodstock 1999.

Hopefully the triumph of Beychella proves once and for all that women can very successfully headline music festivals that aren’t named after biblical heroines or take place in the woods of Michigyn. It’s an idea that the Music Tastes Good festival has been testing for a few years, and last weekend, the two-day gathering in Long Beach demonstrated loudly and joyously, as Ann Magnuson would say, the power of pussy.

Both days of the sun-blessed soiree featured a variety of female-led acts. Saturday’s lineup included the psych-punk ¾-female Silver Lake band Feels, one of my favorite local groups, although I missed their MTG set. I did get there just in time to catch Quintron and Miss Pussycat, the adorably kitschy New Orleans duo who blend punk, polka and puppets. They played the classic alcoholic anthem “In Heaven There Is No Beer” as the lazy-susan stage rotated them out and away from the crowd, the perfect fadeout.

I was there for the ladies so when the four lads from shame (they lowercase their name; bell hooks appropriation?) came on, I went to check out the food-tasting tent. As its name indicates, MTG pairs food from all over the left coast with sounds from, well, all over. So you can enjoy some super-foodie treats instead of the turkey legs or butter-soaked corn cobs of your usual outdoor concert. The tastiest tasting I tried was the pork-belly rice bowl by Wesley Young of Pidgin restaurant in Vancouver.

I finished noshing just in time for Cherry Glazerr, another fave LA band, led by the young Clementine Creevy. Creevy has a great, brittle throb of a voice and suicide-blonde looks, but what impressed me most was the way she pulled off sneering guitar licks while singing completely contrapuntal melodies – all with the support of just two bandmates. Lead singers who are also the lead, and only, guitarist are few and far between; Creevy’s the shit.

She rotated off, and on came a four-piece guitar band with three dudes and one player whose sex I wasn’t sure of, until Adrianne Lenker opened her mouth and this alto vibrato flew out. I didn’t know anything about Big Thief, but I was converted. Their take on Flying Burrito Bros. country-rock is so studious it’s almost pretentious, but Lenker’s words are poetic and felt.

Princess Nokia’s political rap-rock made for a bit of a jarring transition – it’s great that the rotating stage makes the segue between acts timeless and seamless, but sometimes you need a few minutes to, er, digest. Still, she and her DJ won me over immediately with her rap about brujas, Arawaks, and Black-a-Ricans. She pulled a classic riot grrrl move, asking for not just girls to the front, but people of color, queers, nonbinaries, etc. Then she sang about her little titties and big stomach, a tomboy retort to the typical festie cry of “show us your titties!”(I also saw a girl with a bag that said, “Show us your kitties!”)

Then, it was Santigold. Oh my goddess. Her show was so smart, so creative, so thoughtfully put together and so unlike any other concert I have seen (and you know, I’ve seen thousands, and I’ve seen Santi before), that it is hard to describe. She wore a scarlet cape with plastic water bottles, dollar bills, and green pompoms sewn on it, and was flanked by two dancers: black women clad in white tennis outfits whose bodies moved impeccably throughout the show and who never betrayed any emotion. They pulled off a James Brown routine: pretend fainting, then getting revived. Rock rubs against reggae, funk, new wave and hip-hop in Santibrown’s songs, shooting off sparks, getting hot. As DJ Lynnee Denise writes in Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, “Santigold is one of those artists who is vulnerable to the belief that hers is not black music, but from my gatekeeping position, my work here is to place her where she belongs,  squarely  between the tradition and the future of black music.”

Some bands named “Broken Social Scene” and “New Order” played afterwards. I saw the latter about 35 years ago, when they actually sort of mattered (and I personally played “Temptation” live every day), and they were the worst live band ever – they were so bad, they made fans in Boston riot. Why would I go see them now, with Santigold’s “Disparate Youth” ringing in my ears?

Hollie Cook started my Sunday off on a beatific reggae groove. She’s punk-rock legacy, daughter of a Sex Pistol, member of the Slits version 2, friend/collaborator of my friend/collaborator Vivien Goldman. In her vivid pant suit basking in the Southland sun, she was a bit of a flower child, bless her.

Next, I made my way over to the Gold Stage for Lizzo, a dance diva with a big, beautiful voice and body, both of which she flaunts unashamedly. She and her dancers, the Big Grrrls, and DJ dressed in black pleather dominatrix corsets and sang about body positivity. Lizzo was the poster child for Music Tastes good: After asking the audience if they had eaten as well as she had, she stated, “I’m sexy when I’m bloaty.” She urged people to dance to burn off all the calories they had just consumed. She had a practical message for this week’s stupidity/evil in Washington: “I deleted every fuck boy in my social media.”

It was time for the main event. Janelle Monae has for years been weaving a sci-fi song cycle as intricate as the Earthsea trilogy or the Matrix movies, as funky as a Prince groove, and as crazy sexy cool as a TLC hit. She stepped outside the narrative on Dirty Computer to get personal. Rewind: She stepped outside the narrative on Dirty Computer to get political. Because these days, as ever, the personal is political.

“Woman must write her self,” Helene Cixous wrote more than 40 years ago in Laugh of the Medusa. I think of Dirty Computer, particularly the track “Pynk,” with its accompanying bootylicious video, as embodying Cixous’s call for ecriture feminine, women’s writing. It’s a glorious celebration of pussy power, with a spelling that harks directly to 1970s womyn’s culture. Monae kicked off the album’s release by coming out as “pansexual,” which may seem a bit ambiguous, but “Pynk” leaves little to the imagination. With her Fem the Future organization and her speeches at the Women’s March and the Grammys, Monae has been at the forefront of the current liberation movement, black and pynk and proud. Plus, she kicks out the jams. Dirty Computer is my album of the year.

As the crowd made its way back to the Franklin stage, Lizzo’s admonishments to be their own inspirations echoing in their heads, I had that special feeling that I was part of a movement, that in the female, nonbinary, multihued bodies around me, I had found my tribe. We waited with bated breath for our screen siren to appear in flesh before us. And then, there she was, dressed like an Afrofuturistic queen with an elaborate stage setup.

Monae certainly tapped into the mood of this moment; on the double-entendre track “Screwed,” she put special emphasis on the lyric “wanna get screwed at a festival.” And yet, the show was tightly scripted, the moves highly choreographed, her body, from head to toe, firmly encased in costumes. On album and in interviews, she may be revealing her self, but on stage, she doesn’t seem to have fully made the transition from android to human. Tellingly, the song that seemed most real was the sweet confessional “I Like That,” from Computer, in which she celebrates her idiosyncrasy, claiming not badassness but being “the minor note you hear in major songs.” Monae is my major note, but that’s a lot to ask anyone to live up to, android or not.

Some Blake bloke followed Monae, but again, he was an afterthought that I didn’t think. I wish Music Tastes Good had put a woman in one of the weekend’s two top slots, but Janelle was billed as a headliner. Overall, the festival almost alternated male and female-led acts of an impressive range, from punk to funk to reggae to rap to rock. Plus, they worked with the #HereForTheMusic anti-harassment campaign of Calling All Crows, who trained staff and security in how to make Marina Green Park a safe space for everyone. An anti-assault statement was printed prominently on the back cover of the program. Last time I felt like I had a tribe like this at shows, in the mid-‘90s, we had to carve out our own territory in mosh pits. Here’s to a future of getting screwed at festivals, in a good way.

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Why Journalism Now?

Yesterday I had one of the great honors of my professional life: I got to introduce the launch of a Journalism major at Loyola Marymount University. It was a momentous day to be talking about the newsgathering profession, as I acknowledged in my opening remarks before Los Angeles Times columnist Steven Lopez took the stage and inspired the approximately 200 audience members — most of them students — with his stories and advice. Afterward, he and HLN anchor/CNN writer Carol Costello discussed the state of the news industry, sometimes heatedly. A day later, when CNN’s reporting of a confrontation between two women and Senator Jeff Flake apparently marked another turn in this dramatic story, my comments about the convergence of journalism and feminism seem more appropriate than ever.

This is an extraordinary day. I have to acknowledge the pedagogical irony that we journalism professors constantly tell our students they must stay on top of the news, and then we have asked you to be here in this room instead of glued to your screens or radios. We didn’t know, obviously, when we picked this day what would happen. I promise we will only keep you for an hour, and then we can all get back to events in Washington. I also want us all to keep in mind how emotionally difficult today’s hearings can be for many of us. We talk a lot about trigger warnings in academia. Today was explosive for many of us, not because we are snowflakes, but because we are human beings. So please treat each other with especial kindness and empathy this difficult week.

I was going to start my introduction with the question, Why journalism now? But today’s hearing answers that question for me. Two of the most important forces in my life — journalism and feminism — have come together to challenge the citadels of power. From Gretchen Carlson to The New York Times, Times Up to the Washington Post, and MeToo to The New Yorker, citizens and journalists have exposed abuses of power. The fruits of that labor — and it is labor, hard, harrowing, exhausting work — are playing out in the senate as we speak. And the attacks on the media — attacks that have become deadly in our own country — are also being renewed right now, in DC. Let me assure you: LMU Journalism is not training the enemies of the people. We are teaching the reporters, editors, videographers, photographers, reviewers, anchors, columnists and podcasters of tomorrow how to inform the people.

LMU decided to launch a journalism major because young people asked for it. Students enrolled here asked for it and students applying here asked for it. Indeed, though we officially became a major only this fall, we have almost 50 students enrolled already. They asked not because they are looking for a sure way to make a living. I’m here to tell you right now that you don’t get rich being a reporter. They asked because they care about the world that they are inheriting, and they know that journalism is a way to make that world a better place. They understand that a free and open press is fundamental to the functioning of our democratic republic, and they want to make sure that press presents and represents them. We are a Journalism program, housed in a department with a tradition of rhetorical analysis, in a college dedicated to understanding humanity, at a university committed to personal and cultural transformation: Telling people’s stories is our mission.

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