October 14th, 2009…..
Earlier this year I had moment that amplified my emotional nerves, rubbed me the right and wrong way simultaneously and it went a little something like this: (this may ramble but work with me)
It all began with listening to the new album by Spinnerette and engaging in a reasoned online discussion regarding said album and its frontperson, Brody Dalle (or Mrs. Josh Homme, to you) who fronts Spinnerette, her second solid band. It felt good to have something of this nature to talk about because, well, it doesn’t happen often to me. The next thing I knew, I was sitting backstage at the Del Mar Fair in Del Mar, CA staring (gawking) at, what was to me in my musically formative years, the purest face of rock and roll in the female form: Joan Jett. Jesus H. Christ and she looked just as hot and hardcore and black leather-clad as she did on the cover of “Glorious Results of a Misspent Youth”.
I reminisced about beautiful things of old; singers of the female type who were the exception and not the rule, managing to insert a well-heeled (or sneakered) foot onto the rock and roll platform without tripping over their stilettos and embarrassing themselves or their chromosomes. Tina Turner taught a skinny English guy named Mick Jagger how to strut his stuff and crossed a racial divide with guts and legs that would not be denied. Janis Joplin bansheed her way to and through blues-infused rock and scarred us for life even as she lost hers. Patti Smith can’t sing worth a damn but she more than made up for it with grit, spit, punk, and poetry. Debbie Harry marked her punk-new wave territory in Candies mules and lip gloss with Blondie in tow. Pat Benatar? Well, what’s there to say about her pint-sized, tough sexuality and rock operatic pipes?
The musical landscape is a constantly changing/evolving entity that shifts in tune with the cultural climate and these days (rarely for better, overwhelmingly for worse) the umbrella that covers the descriptive but generic genre of “rock” has expanded to be inclusive of just about any piece of fluff that floats to the top of the Hot 100. Avril Lavigne “rocks”…according to rebellious poseurs who shoplift studded bracelets from Hot Topic. Sheryl Crow “rocks”…meh. To my ears she’s degenerated to harmless twangy adult contemporary. Awesome body, though. Recently I watched Heart blow through The Who’s “Reign O’er Me” on VH-1 Classic where Ann Wilson hit three successive notes with a devastating vibrato that nearly made me cry. Nancy? Still slinging her axe with blond ambition and when she hit her knees at the front of the stage I think I turned gay. I also wondered why the hell not one female performer was tapped for The Who’s VH-1 Rock Honors show. I guess only male musicians saw the light in “Tommy”. Yeah. Anyway, when that that moment was over, I was left with the task of reconciling my past with the present in order to find some happy medium that satisfied my very precise jones: the intrinsic need for women who rock. Not women who “pop”, but women who rock although, yes, I admit that occasionally the twain shall meet (paging Pink).
But to “rock” (the verb) is as subjective a term as any, as is to “suck”, but I easily apply either and do so as I see fit. To my ears Tori Amos is as formidable a figure of rock as is a non-drugged out, unskanked version of Courtney Love as is Nona Hendryx even though they’re of three different musical species which may make it difficult, especially today, to find sharp and definitive words when answering the question, “What is rock?” (the descriptive noun). There are too many subgenres of the genre, fusions with other genres, and scenes within scenes depending upon your locale; something I’m joyfully reminded of every time I listen to the first track of Pearl Jam’s latest album (must love some well place surf guitar rock). Whereas “rock & roll” was a subversive term to describe black folks getting busy, it also became a mindset of making the noise that moved the room, made girls scream, made the boys dance, and gave parents fits thinking the generation was doomed to hell. It’s agitation and jubilation. It’s rebellion and contrast. It’s expression and release. It’s uncomfortable and familiar. And very importantly, it’s independent. And it can have, has had, and always should have fierce and competent women speaking for it, representing it, and, no, Lady GaGa doesn’t count, to my ears (yes, I have to qualify that). Personally I find it lock, stock, and barefoot barrel in the incomparable Beth Hart and the combustible Aja Volkman, but those are names that aren’t on the tips of many of your learned tongues, yet they are two women who absolutely burn me with their talent and raw passion. Hart’s lack of wide recognition tends to burn me, as well.
In fully honoring my gender, I defend the notion that XX representation should come not only in the position of frontperson, but also in the rear, to the left and to the right. If I say “girls with guitars” who do you think of? Anyone other than Nancy Wilson? Seems to be that there’s a gaping hole regarding a female counterpart to Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page. Perhaps women have traditionally just been more comfortable and confident in their singing abilities, less in the masculine arena of electric shredding as it calls for posturing and ego; things not considered particularly attractive traits in women. Let’s be honest, some of the most notable female guitar players, although quite skilled, are more known for their singing (Melissa Etheridge, Bonnie Raitt, Jewel, Susan Tedeschi, etc.) and/or for leaning more towards an acoustic guitar, certainly not for pushing musical boundaries or pioneering new playing styles or techniques. In August, UltimateGuitar.com gave a list of “12 Greatest Female Electric Guitarists”, most of who were standard alumni . Even so, my question is, other than the first three, who else have you heard of? And, in truth, the lovely Joan Jett is kind of iffy on that list because she’s more a rhythm master who injected some much needed chick swagger into the game rather than a true guitar hero. And there was one omission on this list so glaring that that it invoked my “You gotta be shitting me” face. Earlier this year I sat in on a most intimate gig by a guitar goddess at a most unlikely venue literally .7 miles from my home. I say unlikely because I know her skill to far outweigh the location but hell if I wasn’t grateful to not have to haul my ass up to LA. But there she was fleshing out her live set in tiny places like the OC Tavern in San Clemente. No vocals, strictly acoustic guitar, and I was in awe. Kaki King. You might want to know her, what she has accomplished and is capable of which is a most intricate and unique style of playing, incorporating slapping, tapping, picking, and fanning on her acoustic and electric guitars. There’s a reason why she’s landed on Rolling Stone’s “New Guitar Gods” list.
Drummers? Bassists? Bueller? (and please don’t even mention the overly girled-out position of keyboards/piano)
By the way, where are all of the women in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame? Outside of those admitted as band members (Chrissie Hynde/The Pretenders, Debbie Harry/Blondie, Stevie Nicks & Christine McVie/Fleetwood Mac, etc.) and Janis Joplin you might be hard pressed to pluck your brain for the name of inducted women. That’s because of the over 200 inductees, only 20 are women and no, Joan Jett, Heart, and Pat Benatar are not among them. Yes, I looked. I had to, it hurt my head trying to come up with names. (does Madonna really count? Another discussion for another day) You would think that that if a hallowed place such as the RRHoF were to have a theme song it would be Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll”. What? Too obvious?
Before I let this fly, I asked who your women of rock & roll were as a gauge. You gave many that I expected, a few that I didn’t, and one or two which got an eye roll.
Ann & Nancy Wilson, L7 (guttural and dense guitars), Courtney Love, Tori Amos, Liz Phair, PJ Harvey, Veruca Salt, Meshell Ndegeocello, Kim Deal, Kim Gordon, Pat Benatar, Chrissie Hynde, Debbie Harry, Nona Hendryx, The Runaways, Linda Perry, Joan Jett, Stevie Nicks, Karen O, Lita Ford, Brode Dalle, Joyce Kennedy, Beth Hart, Mary J. Blige (the soulful side of things), Wendy O. Williams, Patti Smith, Siedah Garrett, Ani DiFranco, Gail Ann Dorsey (bass player), Pretty Girls Make Graves, Jane Child, Shingai Shoniwa, Melissa Auf der Maur, Hayley Williams (Paramore), Nikka Costa, Dixie Chicks, Vixen, (fill in your blanks here)
And yes, just say “NO” to The Donnas. They suck on a level called pale shade of wannabee.
In the grand scheme of things rock & roll always been and perhaps always will be a man’s world (at least in my lifetime) but I’m always looking out for the *she* who makes me want to tap into my inner rock chick. I’m glad and grateful for those who have been and am always on the lookout for who will be. At the end of the day it’s your music, your groove. And although I’ll argue the validity and value of a band/artist/music with you on any given day, if it moves you then it’s of worth.
Now where’s my Spice Girls CD?