When I think about rock & roll as a whole, the artists who first come to mind are Robert Plant, Jim Morrison, Jimmy Page, John Lennon, Keith Moon, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Iggy Pop, Slash, etc., etc. The list goes on forever. But only after naming all these musical dudes, plus a handful more, does a lady rocker get mentioned.
Why is that? Why are Patti Smith, Joan Jett, Janis Joplin, Mama Cass and Grace Slick either afterthoughts or left out completely? Why are blues singers Mamie Smith, Lucille Hegamin or Billie Holiday excluded from the conversation as the foremothers of rock, especially when B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Buddy Guy are recognized as the bluesy guys who influenced the aforementioned male legends of rock?
Thankfully, a kickass woman is tackling this issue. On Jan. 11 at Zebulon Café in Los Angeles, a panel of female punk-rock pioneers gathered for the Women of Rock Oral History Project. Tanya Pearson came up with the idea during her senior year at Smith College in Massachusetts in 2014 while researching female rock musicians for a symposium on the history of censorship. Focusing on the representations of women in ’90s rock media, she discovered a lack of information on the pioneering all-female punk bands she’d followed as a teenager. Pearson set out to close the musical gender gap by interviewing influential female rockers and making their stories available via www.womenofrock.org.
People queued up at the café’s entrance an hour prior to the recent event. While hanging in line, it seemed there was an unspoken dress code that pretty much all rock-lovers abide by, as synonymous with the genre as tutus are to ballet or habits are to nuns: lots of black and/or dark colors, leather anything, eyeliner (yes, even on men), hair that is dark or has colors strewn through it or is partly shaved and/or disheveled; black skinny jeans with boots; sunglasses (yes, even at night); and sometimes hats.
The room was packed with just as many men as women, all of them adoring fans of the night’s featured punkers: singer/songwriter/musician Azalia Snail; drummer and lyricist Michelle Gonzales from the bands Kamala, Spitboy and Karnivores; drummer Patty Schemel from Hole and Upset; Allison Wolfe, the lead singer of Bratmobile and Ex Stains; Alice Bag, the front woman of The Bags; ‘B’ Girls bassist Cynthia Ross; drummer Alice de Buhr and drummer/vocalist Brie Howard-Darling of Fanny; Sherry Barnett of The Mustangs; and Julie Cafritz, the guitarist from Pussy Galore and Free Kitten.
“I worked in a record store, and I wouldn’t even sell records to people that I didn’t like,” Cafritz recalled. The crowd and the women onstage with her laughed. “The customer would bring up the record, and I’d be like, ‘Oh, we don’t sell that record, and they’d be like, ‘I just handed it to you,’ and I’d hurl it under the counter like, ‘No, we don’t fucking sell that record,’ so I was a jerk.”
Snail chimed in, “She was a jerk, 0x000Aeveryone.”
But that’s because there was an extra hurdle female rockers had to jump: There was an innate pressure to keep up with the boys. They had to play as hard, rock as hard and work even harder to earn respect. Wolfe explained that she and Bratmobile, an all-girl three-piece, would often show up to venues hours before the show to set up and do sound check, and the bouncers or owners would tell them to come back because the show didn’t start until way later. “We’d always be like, ‘Um, okay, if you don’t want the headlining band to set up . . .’ and they’d always be like, ‘Oh, that’s YOU?!'”
Pearson, who moderated the panel, explained that prior to the event she researched to see if any of them had beef with each other because she didn’t want to make it awkward.
Snail looked at Schemel and said, “No, but Courtney Love once burned me with a cigarette in London. Did you ever hear about that?”
Schemel slightly rolled her eyes and shook her head no—but she didn’t look shocked.
“We were recording this show in London, and [Courtney] wanted to jam with us,” Snail said. “So she just hopped on the stage, and she took Danny Oxenberg‘s 1920s Gibson slide guitar, and she’s about to slam it on the ground, and all of us were like, ‘NO! We’re not trust-funders; you can’t break that’ . . . then the French sound woman was like, ‘No, no, no—the show is over,’ and Courtney was like, ‘You French cunt!’ So then all these guys were surrounding Courtney and causing this big scene because Kurt [Cobain] had just died and everyone blamed her for it. I was putting away my stuff, and Courtney’s got this cigarette, and she’s waving it around while talking to people, and all of a sudden, I feel this burning on my cheek, and her cigarette was pretty much stuck to me. . . . I should’ve sued her, right?”
The women told stories about how women they knew outplayed Keith Richards on guitar, what it was like playing in bands with guys, and how the Spice Girls were anti everything these women believed in—despite operating under the guise of “girl power.” As the saying goes, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.” These badass women personify that.