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Musing about Punk, Women’s Music and Me

Copyright 1977 Joan Biren (JEB)

As I got ready for the 70’s Lesbian Conference that the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies hosted the weekend of October 8-10, 2010 in New York City, I started to think about how important music was to me in the 1970’s and 1980’s — X-Ray Spex to Alix Dobkin, Richard Hell and the Voidoids to Holly Near, Joni and Grand Funk Railroad to Parliament and Marley, and lots of somewhat obscure girl bands (Ova, UT, Au Pairs, White Women, Slits, to name a few. Music got me through – and there was little predictable in my likes.

Here is a vintage video of one my heroes, inspirations and thrilling performers from the 1970’s. This first video is of Patti in 1976 in Stockholm doing an early version of Horses, that also has a number of her other songs blended into it.

We used to drive down to CBGB’s (and anywhere we could for that matter) to see Patti in the 70’s. Women did not look, sound or behave like she did. Her poetry made me want to write. And her politics were so non-ideological (at a time when I think I was steeped in learning and ultimately rejecting ideologies)– a pro-ordinary person, anti-establishment, anti-war politics centered on the idea of the creation of art as an act of refusal, and an act of ecstatic transcendence; a celebration of creation and connection. I identified with that idea of art and it found its way into all my notion of politics. Politics was not just about power over, but a shared experience of creating an alternative sound, politics as desire and refusal of the status quo.

While I went out to see Patti, or Talking Heads, Lou Reed, Richard Hell, John Cale, the Ramones and so many other punks, my friends and I were producing women’s music and discovering lesbian and queer culture — Holly Near, the Varied Voices of Black Women Tour (with Linda Tillery, Pat Parker, Mary Watkins and Gwen Avery), Chris Williamson, Theresa Trull, Alix, Maxine Feldman, BlackBerri, Split Britches, people who performed at Medusa’s Revenge or the WOW Cafe, Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival — so many other artists in the feminist underground. I worked with Roadwork to create SisterFire in 1982 — wrote the first draft of that mission statement with Ivy Young.

It’s not easy to find videos from the performances I saw in the 1970’s or early 1980’s (or at least few have yet to appear on You Tube). Here is a song written by Sue Fink and sung by Meg Christian that embodied the politics and fun that went along with the music — Leaping Lesbians.

I wish I had a video of The Varied Voices of Black Women Tour done by Roadwork and Olivia in 1978 — it was amazing — Mary Watkins, Linda Tillery, Pat Parker and Gwen Avery backed by a group of fantastic musicians (Colleen Stewart, Barbara Cobb, Vickie Randle and I am not sure who else), and accompanied by women engineers and techies, and producers (Amy Horowitz and Judy Dlugascz).

The cultures could not have been more different. Rock and roll was all in these smoky dive bars, with greasy and stringy haired, safety-pinned punks, of whom I was one. Women’s music and culture happened in spaces we stole from the mainstream — UU churches, halls or lofts no one was using, land in the middle of nowhere, cafes in small towns across America. I belonged in both. And I learned from both about communities and independence.

Today, rock and roll continues and Patti is still performing. And there are many new waves of amazing feminist and queer and lesbian musicians (Le Tigre, Ani DiFranco, the Butchies, Toshi Reagon, Doria Roberts, Thalia Zedek to name just a few).

Toshi Reagon performs at MI

But few of the women’s music icons I listened to are out there able to tour, record or generate the support for their newer work. They are either not performing as much becauuse no one produces them, have passed away (e.g. Maxine Feldman), or are still struggling to make a career and a life as they were back in the day – the mainstream never gave them a nickel. Still on the road are folks like Holly Near, Cris Williamson, Ferron. They were never discovered as “fashionable” — even though some of those songs they wrote are just brilliant (come on, Ode To A Gym Teacher or Angry At This or Ain’t Life a Brook are classics, and the Berkeley Women’s Music Collective had the best political/feminist lyrics around).

Alix Dobkin’s memoir of her time as a folksinger in the Village is a great read, and I can’t wait for her to write about her lesbian separatist time. Patti continues to generate new and ever more interesting art, music, poetry and writing (her memoir of being a young artist in New York and meeting and then living with Robert Mapplethorpe is also a must read).

I came across some more videos folks posted of Patti from a performance at the Hardly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco just a few days ago (October 3, 2010). It’s still thrilling to see how fresh, clear and strong she sounds.

Here she is doing the Stones, Play With Fire.


  1. Sheila says:

    What a walk down memory lane and a joy to hear Leaping Lesbians again! When I came out, lesbian feminism and women’s music were there for me, (although it took awhile to find them)to guide me, provide me with a community and hold me dear when I lost almost every single person that had been in my life. It has and continues to help me recreate myself into the person I want to be, rather than who I had been taught/frightened/abused into being. It helped me become the vocal advocate I am today.
    I do, however, find myself longing for those days. Wondering where my lesbian community with it’s passion and creativity has gone.

    Note: It took me 1 second to decide to pick up the phone and book the Olivia cruise that Meg and Holly played together on a couple of years ago. I saw all 4 shows! A chance in an older lesbian’s lifetime and a dream come true!

  2. ipondermynavel says:

    You introduced me to Patti Smith many years ago at Vassar. Horses is imprinted on my brain. I remember a trip to CBGBs to see Richard Hell and the Voidoids too, though the horrifying bathrooms at CBGBs probably left the strongest impression. Either the plumbing was as old as the building, or plugging the toilets was a form of protest – or maybe both?
    Thanks for the memories!

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