I promised I would post the remarks I made for the Punk Feminism and The F Word shows in Stanford and Oakland last week. The first half of my presentation, with images from the slide show and notes of music cues, follows. I’ll post the Patti Smith critical karaoke another day. The lecture began with music: X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage Up Yours.”
Punk is a female energy.
Look it up, in the Oxford English Dictionary. The first use of the word punk dates back to the 17th century and meant strumpet or whore. Later, the word referred to catamites, aka homosexuals, and then petty thieves. Etymologically, punks are gender outlaws – the OG victims of slut shaming and fagbashing. Musically, punk is the sound of dissonance, of dissent against even the hegemony of dissent. Making noise and ugliness virtues in a culture obsessed with harmony and beauty, punk’s means are destructive, but its impulse is creative. Sometimes, in its frisson of friction, lies escape.
Like a good – and female – drag queen, Tammy Faye Starlite doesn’t impersonate great women; she invokes them. She’s most famous for her Nico act, Chelsea Madchen, which is smart, funny, tragic, and lovely. While aptly pointing out the anti-Semitic Velvet Underground singer’s numerous faults, she also made me appreciate her talent. I haven’t seen Tammy’s Blondie tribute band the Pretty Babies or her Runaways manqué the Stay-At-Homes. But from the way she talks about learning to portray Debbie Harry and Cherie Currie, I know she gets it.
“I really love Cherie’s voice – it’s husky and she imbues each song with both attitude and subtlety, similar to the way Debbie Harry does, although their sounds are so different,” Faye said in a recent email. “Cherie is so much fun to play onstage – she has certain signature moves – the single knee-bend, the arm flap, the squat/crouch, the Bowie-esque mime. She was definitely in command as frontwoman, which I love. I also love the L.A. inflections in her voice and her slightly Liza Minnelli-style ‘s.’ She’s a very physical performer – she bodily punctuates the beat and is full of kinetic energy. Debbie Harry is also physical, but to me she seems much cooler, much more ‘come to me’ as opposed to beseeching the audience to come to her. Nico barely moved at all – I love doing her almost catatonic stance, but it’s hard for me, in a way, because I’m inherently a spazzy freak and cliched ‘entertainer.’ (Must be my Jewish upbringing.) As Cherie, I get to be my teenage self, who jumped in front of the mirror with a hairbrush and did interpretive dances to ‘Honky Tonk Women.’ (Also, shamefully, to Billy Joel’s ‘My Life,’ but we’ll keep that to ourselves.)
“Speaking of Judaism (were we?), I think my favorite song to do is either ‘American Nights’ – it’s so gloriously anthemic – or Lou Reed’s ‘Rock and Roll’ (even though my husband pointed out that the Runaways do the Mitch Ryder version). It must be the New Yorker in me – I have to stop myself from saying, ‘She stawted dee-ancin…’ I don’t always succeed in that endeavor.” Continue reading
My first, and only, internship was with Tony Lioce at The Providence Journal. I was going to college (yeah, Brown) in Providence, but really, I was going to clubs. Tony was a semi-legend around town. He had been the music critic at the ProJo. Before that, he was a sort of Tom White High Society gossip spy. When I “apprenticed” with him, for all of a week, he had graduated to editor. He was a total character and a great guy. Musicians around town kind of resented him because he bigged-up Throwing Muses after Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donnelly had been his babysitters. That was jealousy, sour grapes; the Muses were geniuses, and that’s just how cool Lioce was — they babysat his kid! And yeah, he used to hang out with the Velvet Underground. These days he’s bartending in San Francisco. And he wrote this great piece for the Sunday Times about Lou Reed.
When Backstage Was No Big Deal – NYTimes.com.
Friday night at the MEOW Conference in Austin, Grace London found the dark innocence in the Velvet Underground song “After Hours” like only a 13-year-old could. A tall, lanky girl with eyeliner curls, the Austin artist sang with the raw emotional warble of Conor Oberst or Chan Marshall as she strummed an acoustic guitar hard, then stepped on the pedal smashing the kick drum behind her for good measure. It was an impressive performance, doubly impressive that a young teen was playing a Velvets cover, triply impressive that she was playing that cover. Here was a new generation, discovering Lou Reed’s songwriting genius. “If you close the door, the night could last forever/ Leave the sunshine out/ And say hello to never.”
Genius is one of those words that gets tossed around so much, but Lou Reed was definitely a genius. I’ve been thinking about the Velvets a lot lately, ever since I saw Tammy Faye Starlite’s amazing Nico tribute. I played “All Tomorrow’s Parties” for my Revolution Girl Style students, explaining how this was the dawn of punk (and how women were there at the beginning). My love of Lou runs long and deep. In college I was obsessed with him. So important were albums like Street Hassle and Transformer, I can’t really imagine myself without the influence of his music. That didn’t stop me from once writing a negative review of a Broadway show he did, which I felt pandered to fans. I guess Lou read his press; a few years later, he refused to talk to me for Interview magazine. “Isn’t she that writer who writes terrible things about me?” he apparently said. Ouch.
While I stand by my judgment, I would take it all back, because I love Lou Reed’s music and what he stood for: an unapologetic, tough, loving, cantankerous, idealistic, ugly, beautiful, rapturous aesthetic, that is now silenced forever.