Poly Styrene was not afraid to be an outsider among outsiders. She sang the anthem of the weekend warrior: “I am a poseur and I don’t care.” Long before litcrits and rockcrits got obsessed with the subject, the woman born Marianne Elliot Said — who died of breast cancer April 25 — interrogated notions of realness and authenticity. Never has there been a more riveting riposte against consumer culture and beauty myths than when she wailed the opening mantra of X-Ray Spex’s “Art-I-Ficial,” then danced and duetted with sax all the way through Germ Free Adolescents, the classic 1978 album. The punk-feminist anthem “Oh Bondage Up Yours” was X-Ray Spex’s calling card. But they were so much more than a one-issue band.
I was thrilled when I heard Poly was back with a new album, even more so when I got the advance of Generation Indigo. She sang about vegan sneakers and social media with the same wry, joyous energy and wit as she once sang about Woolworth warriors. Elliot dropped her punk name and went Krishna many years ago, but she was clearly back with Indigo. I was hoping to land an assignment and an interview.
Then I heard she had cancer. I didn’t realize how advanced it was.
Coming so shortly after the death of Ari Up, Poly’s passing has me worried that we are losing a generation of pioneering women. I hope more than ever I can document some of those voices in Queens of Noise. We’ve already lost Sandy West.
Full-figured and braces-clad, Poly Styrene fiercely rejected objectification — no corsets for her, thank you. Oh bondage, up yours. She was definitely a queen of noise. RIP Poly Styrene.
My Prince review is drawing lots of fire over at the Times. I stand by my review: I’ve seen Prince multiple times over three decades, and this show felt flat for all kinds of reasons. For reasons of space and decorum, I left out the part early in the show when he discovered his fly was coming unzipped — rather ironic, considering the peekaboo teasing quality of the show. The Artist covered the wardrobe malfunction adroitly: “Someone’s trying to make a guest appearance,” he quipped. “I didn’t have an opening act; now I do.” So perfect were those lines, I wonder if it was all planned.
Stick Joan Jett on a cheesy daytime talk show cum soap opera, performing with an erstwhile Disney cartoonish character, and she still looks totally bad-ass. With her hair black and long again these days, Jett exuded deadsexycool vibe beside Miley Cyrus’s puppy-dog earnest excitement and Oprah Winfrey’s fumbling for something to say, on today’s show featuring ’70s and ’80s women musicians and their progeny. Jett didn’t need Ms. Montana to shore up her vocals, the way Stevie Nicks relied on Sheryl Crow earlier in the show. As they duetted on “Bad Reputation,” “Cherry Bomb,” and “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” the rock legend’s voice shone in all its hoarse come-on. Cyrus tried to channel some of that old Runaways energy; she stared dotingly at Jett (as she should) and shook her long mane. At least Joan didn’t have to sing with Avril Lavigne, who didn’t once look at Pat Benatar during their Oprah moment “together”. (Benatar sounded great, btw.)
It was ironic to hear today’s teen idol singing the jailbait-virgin Runaways anthem. Chuck E. Starr told me that when the Runaways released “Cherry Bomb” as their first single, most DJs wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole. That was before it was okay for starlets to cavort on strip poles on family television.
I was damn disappointed Joan and Cyrus didn’t get the stage time Nicks and Crow did. Joan is a goddess! Give her her props. They did get in a few bon mots.
“Rock ‘n’ roll when I grew up really had a context and a meaning. I felt like it was a religion for me,” Jett said. She talked about the sexism that still exists in the music industry. “I think there are many glass ceilings. I had a hard time in the Runaways being taken seriously.” Her advice: “Push back the pushback.” Oprah loved that one.
Miley offered the appropriate words of respect for her elder and hero. “It always meant something for me seeing Joan stand up for chicks playing guitar.”
Most of the show’s performers (who also included Salt N Pepa) came out for a feel-good singalong of “We Are Family” with Sister Sledge at the end. Except Joan. She’s too cool for shtick, as manager Kenny Laguna says. Not too cool for Oprah and Miley, but lines do have to be drawn. I hope she sells 10,000 more CDs for the prime exposure. And that Miley really doesn’t give a damn about her reputation.
“The big, beautiful voice of k.d. lang swoops, purrs and soars through the 10 songs on “Sing It Loud” like an overgrown Labrador that has slipped its leash to run loose through the park on a gorgeous spring weekend. Playing with a band of her own (an alt-country collective dubbed the Siss Boom Bang) for the first time in a couple decades, Canada’s sometimes strings-besotted crooner has found her guitar groove again.” Read my Los Angeles Times review.
In Rat Girl, her memoir about the early days of her band Throwing Muses, Kristin Hersh recalls how reporters would hound her with questions about the fact that the band was fronted by teenage girls. Of course Kristin’s and Tanya’s cute, blond looks was a terrific angle — in part because they sounded nothing like cheerleaders. (“They’re nobody’s blondes,” I wrote earnestly — hey, it was my first byline!) There was no bubblegum sound and jailbait look to the Muses. They really were from another planet, it seemed.
Watching Kristin perform from Rat Girl Saturday, I thought about how different their trajectory was from the Runaways a decade earlier. And yet, there were also similarities. Hersh never talks about it now, but the Muses had a controlling, creepy manager figure whom they fired soon after signing to 4AD. Ken Goes also began peddling demos by another band that I thought sounded too Velvets-ish — the Pixies wound up dumping the Fowleyesque figure too.
The Muses would never have performed in corsets, but they battled for legitimacy just as the Runaways did — to be understood as musicians, not girl musicians. Kristin writes about having had a stalker. The drugs she had to battle with were the ones prescribed by doctors to control her manic depression. Not to mention, New England in 1985 was a very different place from Hollywood in 1975. The Muses were witches in Puritan turf. The Runaways were Babylon’s house band.
Both bands (including great Muses drummer Dave Narcizo) were brave and fierce even as they made themselves open and vulnerable. “Fuck you, stand up!” Hersh and Donelly used to scream. Decades later, I don’t think either band has ever gotten the credit they deserve.
(I know I said I would write about my interviews with Kim Fowley and Toby Mamis this week but I have Kristin on the brain. Those posts soon.)
During the 18th year of her life, Kristin Hersh went crazy, got signed, and made a baby. I first met her back then, in 1985, when she was the mesmerizing front person of the band Throwing Muses, and I was a college senior writing my first-ever newspaper article for pay. I had no idea everything she was going through or about to go through; I just knew I really liked the band, Throwing Muses, that she led with her half-sister Tanya Donelly.
Kristin reveals the depths of her despair that year in Rat Girl, the memoir released by Penguin last year, from which she performed excerpts at the Getty Center last night. It was an intense evening of profound psychological revelations, leavened by Hersh’s self-deprecating humor. Kristin imagines what people must have thought about her vocalizations: “It’s o nice they let that deaf girl sing.” Actually, those of us in the Rhode Island music scene knew she was gifted, the real deal. I wish I’d realized what hell she was going through — that I’d been a sympathetic shoulder, not a vulturistic journalist.
I wrote back in the fall, when I caught up with Kristin again for an article for the paper in which I first wrote about her, about how well written Rat Girl is. Her literary genius was clear to me again last night: She’s got a Sylvia Plath/Anais Nin vibe. She’s so the real deal.
I was blessed to have someone as talented as Kristin as my first assignment — maybe that’s why I’ve stayed with the game so long. If you care about music and writing, buy Rat Girl. It’s a dark book, a hard book. But as Kristin says, comparing Throwing Muses’s music to spinach, I swear it’s good for you.
“1776: Bicentennial. 1976: Bisexual.” So said a T-shirt that rock-star groupie turned rock-star DJ Chuck E. Starr liked to wear during what he calls the summer of the Runaways.
“That’s when all the magic happened,” he told me recently as we met for coffee in the desert, where the one-time LA nightlife legend now tends to others’ health needs, as well as his own.
One of the great pleasures of researching Queens of Noise, my book on the Runaways, is getting to meet the colorful survivors of an era of great freedom and indulgent excess. In the last month, I’ve joined Rodney Bingenheimer, the other DJ who spun “Cherry Bomb” as if it were a number-one hit, for his daily supper at a Hollywood IHOP. He remembered how great the band’s music was — and the hostility the all-girl group could provoke: “The only time I got offered payola was NOT to play the Runaways.”
Germs drummer Don Bolles praised Joan Jett’s production of the band’s album GI: “She did help us make a better record.” Journalist and one-time garage rocker Don Waller showed me the early coverage of the Runaways in Back Door Man, the seminal fanzine he helped put together. “I feel like I ran away and joined the circus,” Waller says of those days.
That sense of having lived through something special — and maybe still living through it — permeates the interviews. What that something special was — the era, the place, the people, the politics, the music, the drugs, the fashion, the freedom — is what I’m trying to document and analyze. I’m going to try to start posting updates regularly to this blog. Coming up: The managers take credit — what Kim Fowley and Toby Mamis did for the Runaways.