Category Archives: Women Who Rock

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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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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How I Found My Voice

I first became aware of The Village Voice in high school, when my older brother, Brett, used to go the Beloit, Wisconsin, public library to peruse its political investigations and music coverage. We were both discovering punk rock, watching Patti Smith on Saturday Night Live, and we could read about the newest bands from CBGB’s in the Voice. Later, in college, I got assigned to write about it in my one and only journalism class. Within a few years, I was copy editing and writing there, ultimately becoming a senior editor in charge of music. It was a crazy, difficult, exciting place, and the work I did for them — “discovering” Paul Beatty and the rest of the ’90s NYC lit scene bubbling around the incredible Nuyorican Poets Cafe, traveling to New Zealand to write about music, covering Rent as it moved from Downtown to Broadway and beyond, interviewing John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, the creators of a new musical called Hedwig and the Angry Inch; writing about punk drag artists such as Justin Bond and Miss Guy — still defines me. And then there was my one and only cover story, the first major interview with Patti Smith after her husband Fred died and she returned to the stage — an incredible encounter with the woman who made me want to be a rock’n’roll critic, and move to New York, and dive into the sea of possibilities. RIP Voice. Say hi to Aretha.

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Respect

I can’t think of any artist who so masterfully spanned so many decades and genres as Aretha Franklin: gospel, soul, pop, rock, funk, disco, opera. Along with Bob Dylan, I would call her THE towering solo figure of the 1960s and beyond. I’m working on a large piece on her for Billboard’s tribute issue, writing through the tears. In the meantime, critic and novelist Caryn Rose wrote a great tribute to the GOAT a year ago for Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl. You can read it now at Salon.  I just wish the Queen of Soul were here to see it.

 

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Why the Go-Go’s Matter

The Go-Go’s not only deserve to be on Broadway, they should be in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. Here’s an essay I wrote explaining why they matter, from The New York Times.

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Different as It Ever Was: Kidjo’s “Light”


On their 1980 album Remain in Light, Talking Heads thought and acted global. Over the course of their previous three albums, they had made the transition from art-school weirdos to acclaimed rock band. Now, as darkness dawned in Reagan’s America, they wanted to do something truly historical. They thought big, expansive, the foundation of humanity. They thought Africa.

On Remain in Light, an album on the Library of Congress registry, the rock quartet gathered musicians and sounds. Inspired by Afrobeat artists, specifically Fela Kuti, they played with polyrhythms, long jams, horns, backup singers. Most critics and listeners loved it. But even that many years ago, some denounced the white Americans for cultural appropriation. This is what makes Angelique Kidjo’s reinterpretation, or reappropriation if you will, of this seminal album so interesting.

Kidjo is from Benin, West Africa. As a young singer recording her first album in the early 1980s, she enjoyed considerable less cultural freedom than Talking Heads. In fact, in ‘83, she fled the country’s military-controlled government for Paris, not wanting to be pressed into civic service (a story remarkably similar to Celia Cruz’s flight from Havana to the U.S.). In the decades since, she has become a global pop star, famous for her powerful voice, Afrocentric anthems, and irrepressible dance moves. A few weeks ago, she staged a concert-cum-revival at the Theater at the Ace Hotel, mostly playing all the songs from Remain in Light, but also leading the audience — and Talking Heads guitarist Jerry Harrison — in a conga line around the venue for some of her own classic hits.

I love the original Remain in Light; it lived on my turntable when I was in college. But Kidjo makes the songs her own, digging into their juju and finding new resonance in David Byrne’s famed lyrics of alienation — “this is not my beautiful house,” the colonized female sings the colonizer male’s words. Vivien Goldman says Kidjo “triumphantly re-claimed the album for her continent” in her essay on the musician for Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, the anthology I edited (hitting stores October 9). As you can see from the video above, when Kidjo sings “Born Under Punches,” it’s not a metaphor.

The show was great, phenomenal. But the one thing I missed from the original version were the backing vocals. The interplay between the awkward Byrne in his Tom Wolfe-esque white suit and the grooving singers (Edna Holt and Lynn Mabry) was one of the elements that made the live shows captured by Jonathan Demme in the film Stop Making Sense both sweet and transcendent, hilarious and delirious. Fortunately the backing vocals are more prominent on Kidjo’s album version, which drops June 8. But also, the singer brings front and center what the Heads placed 20 feet from stardom, as the saying goes: #BlackGirlMagic

I hear from reliable sources (my brother and St. Vincent) that David Byrne’s current tour is also incredible, which I don’t doubt. I watched Stop Making Sense for the first time in years last weekend; it’s an important document of a band in transition. (Though you do have to wonder what everyone was on that allowed them to perform at that speed and intensity — ah, the ’80s.) Check out the mixture of aerobics and modern dance in “Life During Wartime” from Stop Making Sense.

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Liz Phair’s Rebel Yell

You would never have known from last night’s bold-as-love performance at the Masonic Lodge in the Hollywood Forever cemetery that Liz Phair has a history of crippling stage fright. Maybe it was the army of ghosts that the artist said had her back (“don’t touch my ass!” she scolded one), or maybe it was the quarter-century of power she found in the old songs she had dusted off for the show, but the exile from Guyville played for about 80 minutes without falter or stammer. She wasn’t alone up there; a younger musician whom she never introduced but referred to once as “Connor” accompanied her on electric guitar and vocals. But sonically, his role seemed to be primarily one of moral support. About halfway through the show, Phair had had enough of his trying to lead each song with a countoff. Reminding him he was playing with “a rebel,” she plunged into the next song without the human metronome. Empowered by the small audience’s enraptured support and the refound determination of her old songs, Phair played with a confidence and ease that evaded her when her first album, Exile in Guyville, whose songs she mostly played last night, made her an overnight indie star 25 years ago.

If you’ve listened to the recently released box set of that album and the previous tapes she recorded as Girly-Sound, you know how well that material has held up over time. That was even more evident at the show. The lodge was full of, well, women (and men) like me: well into middle age (my friend sat over a vent because she was having hot flashes), nodding our heads to songs as we relived how Phair was one of the first artists to express the gendered power imbalances of both intimate relationships and professional relationships in so-called alternative music communities. As she told me when I interviewed her back in April for The Guardian: “I was tired of being the girlfriend of the guy in the band, I was tired of hearing that my music tastes suck. This was not ‘alternative’; this was just underproduced.”

This was Phair’s first show since the release of Girly-Sound to Guyville. You’ll be hard-pressed to find tickets to the first leg of shows, but she has added more dates in the Fall. For you Angelenos, she’ll be at the Theater at the Ace September 21. Sure, this was a nostalgia trip for many of us, but I think her songs would resonate with young women today; Phair called it “Fuck and Run,” today they call it “hook-up culture.” As she told Allison Wolfe, for Wolfe’s essay on her in Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, the book I edited (out October 9): . “Male rock and roll singers have forever talked about sex graphically and gotten it on the radio. As a woman, I wanted to take that back.”

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