There was a very hot ticket in town on Thursday night, Zebulon café was hosting a very special night with many famous women of rock. The event was in fact a fundraising for a fabulous project, ‘The Women of Rock Oral History Project’, ‘a collection of digital interviews and written transcripts housed at the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, documenting the lives and careers of women in rock music, focusing primarily on artists who have been erased from the popular rock narrative.’
Tanya Pearson, the founder and director of the project, undertook this grand-scale task when she was an undergrad at Smith College, and decided to write a paper about representations of women in 1990s rock media. She got frustrated when she realized how poorly documented bands featuring women were, and decided to change this, by conducting interviews that were never done in an attempt to fill the gaps.
Taking back the narrative in a man-dominated world, is the ultimate goal of the project, and by organizing events featuring panels of discussion and live performances, the project comes alive and can continue to exist. If the event at Zebulon was a fundraiser, it was also a chance for the public to become involve in the project.
Last night, three different panels of discussion featuring women of different generations spoke about what it means to be a woman of rock. The first panel, which was composed of Patty Schemel (Hole, Upset), Julie Cafritz (Pussy Galore, Free Kitten), Allison Wolfe (Bratmobile, Ex Stains), Azalia Snail (LoveyDove), Michelle Gonzales (Spitboy, Kamala and the Karnivores) was focusing on women who were active during the late 80s and early 90s. Some of them were drummers, which was not considered a feminine instrument at the time, as Patty Schemel drummed for Courtney Love’s band Hole and Michelle Gonzales drummed for the groundbreaking all-female hardcore punk band Spitboy. ‘I never been intimated by a man’ said Patty Schemel talking about her time with Hole, ‘because I felt safe with the people in my band.
The women all admitted their love for punk, and while questioning the appreciation of women for their musicianship, Allison Wolfe joked about not being taking seriously, ‘Yes I am in the band’ she had to say to enter the club where she was performing, while also mentioning the condescending attitude of men who talk to women about gears. ‘I was never interested in musicianship, she said ‘I just wanted to be on stage and have something to say’.
Alice de Buhr and Brie (Howard) Darling, the two successive drummers of Fanny, a pioneer rock band of the early 70s, as well as The Mustangs’ Sherry Rayn Barnett were featured in the second panel, and they were here to remind us how some bands can be forgotten by history despite the fact that Fanny was the first notable rock all-female group. ‘My role models were men, there were no women’, said Alice de Buhr,’ we didn’t think ourselves as women, we were four musicians on stage, who happened to be women’. Fanny, which was the first all-female rock band to be signed to a major label, broke down the barriers for women of rock, and if very few know about the band today, it demonstrates that you have to work much harder to be remembered when you are an all-women band. However, after being a major influence for bands like The Runaways, The Bangles and the Go-Go’s, the women of Fanny have recently returned to the studio to record new songs, ‘We are not done yet’ declared Brie who has turned 68!
Punk rock, because of its access to people who question authority and are not afraid to call themselves feminists, was certainly the theme of the night with more female speakers of all generations, including Alice Bag (who was presented by Tanya Pearson as ‘one of the most punk people I know’), Cynthia Ross (The ‘B’ Girls), Mish Barber-Way (White Lung), Eva Gardner (Veruca Salt, Tegan & Sara, The Mars Volta, Pink). If punk rock has always had the tradition to include every body without discrimination, this last panel was also featuring two women who came to punk rock because they didn’t fit anywhere else: Neon Music, who said she was extremely proud to be included in this all-women panel as she had just transitioned to a woman this year, and Phranc, who declared herself your ‘average Jewish lesbian folksinger’. Phranc, who has opened for Morrissey back in the days, came back on stage a bit later to play her political songs with a guitar carrying an update on Woody Guthrie’s own, ‘This machine kills sexism’.
At the end, what does it mean to be a female rocker? Are we ‘looking for the day when it doesn’t make a difference to be a man or a woman in music?’ as Alice de Buhr said. A gender-blind society would certainly be nice, but for Alice Bag, it’s still important to play with our female heart and female soul. ‘Sure, we want to be regarded as equal musicians,’ she said, ‘But we still need to say we are women, it is still relevant’
The night continued with short performances by a very sexy synth dance floor by Neon Music, a dynamic acoustic guitar set by Phranc, singing ‘Take Off Your Swastika,’ followed by Azalia Snail and a noise number on guitar, ‘because all the men were doing it’ plus a dreamy-cinematic organ song from her LoveyDove project. Alice Bag gave us one of her fierce and punk-to-the-core performance with Patty Schemel on drums, and finally Legal Weapon, fronted by the ferocious Kat Arthur (she was often called ‘the Janis Joplin of punk’) closed the very long night of punk rock history
The Women of Rock Oral History Project aims to build a more comprehensive history of rock music, including the parts left out by mainstream media and rock journalists. The project may take years to be done as Alice de Buhr said, but it is a major accomplishment, Tanya Pearson has already gathered 30 oral histories and the videos are available to all via the Women of Rock website.
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