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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Music 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Please write MUSIC MATTERS in the subject line, and give us at least a month to respond.