Celebrate the last day of Women’s History Month with myself and other contributors to Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl tomorrow, March 31, at 4 at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro. I’ll talk/read a bit and sign books. Come early and stop by Corny’s KAUFhof and House 1002 for a little shopping. Stay late and watch the whales.
Kudos to Stevie Nicks and Janet Jackson for their inductions into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. Sadly, as I broke it down for Longreads.com, women still make up less than 8 percent of Rock Hall inductees. The Hall exemplifies the historical manhandling of women’s roles in rock, from Rolling Stone to Mystery Train to, now, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I don’t just critique: I offer plans of action, including an (almost) all-female inductee list next year, and removal of Ahmet Ertegun’s name from the museum’s exhibition hall and industry award, in the wake of charges of sexual harassment. This isn’t the first time I’ve called the Hall to task for their systemic exclusion of female artists; sadly the numbers haven’t improved a bit since that 2011 Salon article.
Shirley Manson, La Marisoul, Saint Vincent, and Madame Gandhi will be among the artists paying tribute to Yoko Ono at the Walt Disney Concert Hall tomorrow night (March 22) for BREATHEWATCHLISTEN, part of the Fluxus Festival, copresented by Girlschool LA. I wrote the following to accompany the 2017 rerelease of Ono’s album 1973 Feeling the Space.
Like many of the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators parading through downtown Los Angeles at the Women’s March on January 21, 2017, the young woman with pink streaks in her hair carried a handmade sign expressing its carrier’s personal sentiment. On the day after the presidential inauguration ignited a massive global protest, this marcher waved a distinctly original three-word message: In block letters on black paper it read, “Yoko Sent Me.”
The fact that the once-reviled Yoko Ono is inspiring a new generation of activists comes as no surprise if you’ve listened to Feeling the Space, her personal-is-political 1973 album that resonates remarkably 44 years later. On such songs as the righteous chant “Woman Power,” the empathetic ballad “Angry Young Woman,” the hilarious proto-grrrl “Potbelly Rocker” and the satirical “Men Men Men,” Ono sings in surprisingly straightforward fashion about the burdens carried by women and the mandate for feminism. Supported by such skilled studio vets as guitarist David Spinozza, sax player Michael Brecker, and drummer Jim Keltner, this is perhaps Yoko’s most accessible album, and her most intimate. Feeling the Space was recorded during the time of the infamous “lost weekend,” when the avant visionary artist became estranged from her rock-star husband John Lennon. He plays only briefly on the album (billed as Johnny O’cean); she produced and wrote all the songs.
The album’s sheer musicality should have shut up the detractors who denied her abilities. Yes, she sings; the album contains only a few examples of the atonal vocal experiments for which she became famous. Mostly, Yoko’s pain and vulnerability, and also her declaration of independence, are communicated simply and gingerly, as if she were still sorting out very strong emotions that needed clear expression, not, this time, the purging power of a wail. “Run Run Run,” a gentle tune from which the album gets its title, is almost like a directed meditation, as a woman explores the territory that opens around her, that she forces open, as she takes flight (to a splendid keyboard dance by Ken Ascher). Ono was literally feeling her space. But rather than striking a separatist vibe, this album is also notable for the quality of the singer’s collaboration with the musicians, the way the male instrumentalists answer her articulations with stirring solos, and her call and response with the female vocalists, the sisters who have her back.
The result is a definitive soundtrack/document of the era of consciousness raising and of radical critique of the family structure. Yoko and company deliver this hard message soft rock style, or as soft as Yoko could get – think of Feeling the Space as Tapestry with talons, or the second-wave godmother of Lemonade. Yoko was inspired by the women’s liberation movement – it freed her from the burden of being a celebrity wife. Dedicated “to the sisters who died in pain and sorrow and those who are now in prisons and in mental hospitals for being unable to survive in the male society,” it’s an emotional exploration of the psychological toll of oppression.
As an extra track in this reissue and also in the 1992 Ono box set, there’s a live version of the eternally prescient “Coffin Car” – as spectacularly right-on a song as her spouse ever wrote. In its prologue, she tells a humbling story about how the intense pressure on her as a Beatles wife – and an artsy, foreign, weirdo wife to boot — caused her to develop, in her 30s, a stutter. She’s humble and humorous in her famous childlike accent, seeking not pity but to explain by example the cultural damnation of women — n words of the world, as she and John sang.
At the International Women’s Conference organized by the National Organization of Women in 1973, Yoko met an attendee from the Midwest who had left her husband and children. This figure inspired one of this album’s best tracks, “Angry Young Woman,” as well as, one guesses, Yoko’s own separation from John. The banker’s daughter sings with impressive understanding about the everyday struggles of women in families: the way a demand for a shirt or dinner can become a daily insult, a reminder of patriarchal servitude, of domestic “duty.” After all, who more than Yoko suffered the sexist – and racist – derision of 20th century culture, both Western and Eastern (no refuge for Yoko!).
Yet one of the qualities that makes Yoko Yoko is her eternal optimism. “There’s no way back, so just keep walking,” she tells the “Angry Young Woman.” “When you turn the corner you’ll see the new world.” It’s a message of encouragement that, tragically, is as needed in 2017 as in 1973. The young women are still walking, sent by Yoko.
What happens when 50 female-identified musicians, DJs, journalists, scholars, publicists, sound engineers, podcasters, etc., come together in a subterranean hotel bar on a rainy Superbowl Sunday? “I feel the earth move under my feet, I feel the sky come tumbling down.” On Sunday, February 3, Turn It Up!, a collective of women working in the music industry that has been meeting since December, had our coming-out party at the Hotel Figueroa. It was an invitation-only mixer — an initial step to broaden our base as we take aim at gender inequality in the music industry. The feeling in the room was electric, the ideas that came out of small brain-storming sessions were provocative. A change is gonna come.
Turn It Up! evolved out of a special December issue of KPFK’s Feminist Magazine Radio show. Valecia Phillips interviewed myself and six contributors to Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl. Inspired by each other’s stories about the musicians they profiled for the book, we decided we didn’t want this to be the, er, final chapter of our work together. As Alice Bag said Sunday, Women Who Rock is “the big, hard, pink seed” that must be planted and grow.
The mixer was a tremendous first sprout. Opening up our “rolodexes,” our steering committee — Alice, Adele Bertei, Allison Wolfe, Lynnée Denise, Mukta Mohan, dIA hakinna, Shana L. Redmond, Solvej Schou, Valecia Phillips, Lucretia Tye Jasmine, and me — were able to draw a pretty impressive group of artists, scholars, writers, workers, engineers, publicists, and activists, including Phranc, Lysa Flores, Kate Nash, Anna Bulbrook, Carla Bozulich, Anna Joy Springer, Abby Travis, CJ Miller of Dimber, and Katie Gavin and Naomi McPherson of MUNA. There were representatives of other rad feminist warriors, including SoundGirls, 50/50 by 2020, the Kilroys,Girlschool, and Chicas Rockeras, as well as folks from KXLU, Fly PR, Girlie Action, etc. My favorite moment was when the hotel’s staff couldn’t figure out how to get the microphone working, so Kathleen Hanna got up and fiddled with the cables, and voila, sound. Turn it up!
Turn It Up! somewhat coincidentally happens to be the name of a great song about self-expression by Alice Bag: “You’ve made a playlist and it’s locked inside your head, Toss it out play something new instead.” In just two months, we’ve got a name, an anthem, and a logo: the women’s symbol with the computer icon for volume inside it. We’ve also got a mission statement:
“Turn It Up! is a collective working toward gender parity in music. We advocate for equal airplay, media coverage and industry employment of groups who are historically and structurally excluded from the business and the institutions of music-making. Women WILL be heard.”
The Hotel Figueroa generously housed us and donated a fabulous spread including warm cookies. The building has a feminist history, having been built as a YWCA and served as the first place where women traveling alone could find lodging in downtown LA. Sunday we plotted the next steps for change, breaking up into small groups that brainstormed a number of ideas to put our mission into motion. Stay tuned for further developments.
I’m way late posting this here (it was a hectic fall!) but I reviewed Tina Turner’s and Dorothy Carvello’s memoirs for The New York Times. “There has been a steady stream of accounts of assault, harassment and discrimination in recording studios, at record labels and at music magazines; pick up any autobiography of a female musician and you’ll find at least one anecdote that will turn your stomach. R. Kelly, the Runaways, Kesha — stories of abuse long preceded Harvey Weinstein, and continue to trigger news alerts. The real question should be, why haven’t these stories provoked more outrage against a form of oppression that is clearly systemic, along with a push for change?”
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.
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.”
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.”
Women Who Rock. Making America great again, for real.