“The story of Mia [Zapata] and the Gits: it’s not a story about a Seattle band, it’s not a story about a punk rock band, it’s not a story about a band with a woman singer. This is the story about a great American rock & roll band.”

Amen to that. It’s also not just a story about a woman singer who got murdered, but that fact renders the story of the Gits more tragic. Zapata’s death in 1993 crushed me — she was just riveting to see live. You can watch her too and learn more about the band and its music in this film, now available on YouTube in chapters, thanks to documentarian Kerri O’Kane:

I’m pretty certain it was Feminist Music Geek who turned me on to Thao & Mirah‘s album from last spring — and hallelujah for that. Since the end of May I’ve been rubbing new kinds of moisture into the cracked skin/soul I developed in Texas and one of the most important of these is a bunch of new music.

For the first time in years I’ve given myself real time to listen to new stuff, and my skin/soul is slowly losing that angry redness. It’s less prone to bruising, less painful when touched. Hallelujah for the music wallahs. (And strained metaphors.)

“Turn the Beat Around” — it suits my mood today and was the first thing I thought of as I heard some good news. Come to learn that 35 years ago on March 20, 1976, this song from the mixed-race singer Vicki Sue Robinson went gold in the US and Australia. Love to hear it.

Plus, of course, this weird scene from the 1970s TV show Midnight Special.

“I’m perfect, but nobody in this shithole gets me, cuz I don’t put out!” yells the lead singer of The Stains, Corinne (a very young Diane Lane) to an unhappy audience.  A local news anchor later objects to that anthem, telling Corinne, “It doesn’t make sense to wear a see-through blouse and no bra and say ‘I don’t put out.'”  But Corinne’s got an answer to that:  she snaps back in her characteristically surly tone, “That’s not what it means.  It means don’t get screwed.  Don’t be a jerk; don’t get had.”  It doesn’t matter, really, whether the 30-something anchor buys it (actually, she does):  Corinne’s female fans go berserk with this profound statement and mimic everything she does.  Even more important than wearing see-through tops is to mimic Corinne’s hair:  they dye it two-tone, and call themselves Skunks.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains makes a great cult punk movie, and that goes for more than the fashion and the hair.  Most of all, it’s got a crazily appealing feminist screed at the center that makes it look far more radical than last year’s The Runaways.  It’s also stacked with good actors at the beginning of their careers.  Lane was 15 when the film was shot, still only a year or so out from her little-girl début in A Little Romance (1979) and long before her descent into middle-aged chick-flick pablum; she was backed up by a 13-year-old Laura Dern, Ray Winstone, and Christine Lahti, all still basically unknown.  And those are only the actors.  Paul Simonon from the Clash, ex-Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook, and The Tubes’ Fee Waybill and Vince Welnick all populate the film and alternately mock themselves and put on a good show.  The music is great, and those skunk hairdos — damn, I would’ve dyed my hair too in 1981 if I’d known.  The thing is, no one knew about this movie — it received no theatrical release at all until 1985, and only in the late 80s and 90s did it gain its true/cult audience by means of late-night screenings on cable TV.  Is this a great example of film art?  No.  Does it offer an interesting take on women, feminism, music, and the media nevertheless?  Damn straight.

If there’s one thing Corinne has learned in her short, unhappy life in that miserable Pennsylvania factory town, it’s that the older generation doesn’t have much to offer her.  But she’s also learned that no matter how old people view her, people of her own generation respond to what she says.  The opening scene consists of Corinne being interviewed on a local TV station about her disaffection with the world:  as the interviewer tries to discredit her, she simply snarls at him, refuses to succumb to his girl-gone-bad narrative, and slowly paints herself with vivid red eyeshadow (is that where Lady Vengeance got it from?).  Perhaps due to that experience, Corinne treats the media as yet another adversary.  But no matter how much middle-aged TV anchors might disapprove, her words speak to a world of young girls:  “She said things I’ve always wanted to say, but wasn’t able to,” gushes one be-skunked acolyte.  And when a woman TV reporter begins to champion her in the news, she reports that Corinne has articulated something new:  “the power of young girls to resist life as we know it.”

That’s why this makes a great cult film — those glimpses beyond the film’s flaws to a message of resistance that speaks to a grassroots audience.  Even more specific:  for girls to resist.  The dialogue may not be Shakespeare, but it’s always surprising and actually weirdly riveting.  Critics have mentioned this film’s influence on the Riot Grrls of the 90s, but let’s be historically specific here:  even if this message resonated later on, the early 80s was a nightmare for both feminists and nonconformists, at least in sad-sack remote locales like the rural Pennsylvania depicted here.

I want to be careful in touting its feminism, as this film like all other similar films curtails and “complicates” the feminist message, ending up  ambivalent about both Corinne’s and her fans’ possibilities for liberation.  But the film’s 80s-era ambivalence about female resistance still looks radical by today’s standards.  When Corinne yells out a bunch of questions to her female audiences — “What’s so wonderful about getting married?” — they scream back, “Nothing!”  And we know for certain by the end of the film that even if The Stains won’t always reject mainstream values, they’ve lit a fire for at least some of their fans.

It’s exhilarating to see Lane use her narrow eyes and pouty lips to such unsmiling effect, particularly after all those recent rom-coms in which she seems too eager to please.  Most of all it’s great to see an alternate message about why girls turned to rock music as liberation from social expectations, a theme The Runaways seemed to miss entirely.  Written by top-shelf, Oscar-winning screenwriter Nancy Dowd (of Slapshot, among others) with help from consulting journalist Caroline Coon, who’d documented the London punk movement of the late 70s, the story of the film’s creation and disappearance is almost as interesting as the film itself — and has been told in a 2000 documentary available on YouTube.  In fact, Dowd ultimately removed her name from the film due to pervasive sexual harassment on the set.  It got no video release; fans taped copies off TV and passed them around amongst themselves; somehow members of Nirvana, Bikini Kill, and Hole became big fans and even considered recording covers of the film’s songs.  Eventually the film made its way to the art-house circuit and got itself onto DVD in 2008.  So watch Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains with a healthy dose of generosity; but I still think you’ll be impressed and surprised.  In the end, isn’t that one of the reasons we keep watching?

Ladies. Kick. Ass.

23 October 2010

Sometimes all I need is a few videos of women kicking the shit outta music to make me happy.

  1. The pompadour.
  2. The high-water tuxedo pants.
  3. For reviving the idea of the female android from “Metropolis” (1927, Fritz Lang)
  4. The incredibly danceable reinvigoration of R&B here with “Tightrope.”
  5. Her bent-knees, skater posture for one-upping Michael Jackson’s dance skills.
  6. But most of all, to see a woman rocker in FLAT shoes in these dark ages.

Before there was the Bitch Magazine I know and love for its rants about gender in the media, there was the Bitch: The Women’s Rock Mag With Bite, the late 1980s zine that appeared on newsprint every month, clearly produced on its creator’s Apple computer and cut-and-pasted into shape. Lori Twersky denoted the page numbers by hand, and the logo was (what else?) a hand-drawn dog, often portrayed with a bone or scratching its head with a back foot.

Considering that we listened to The Bangles in the 80s, Bitch was kind of a revelation. Whether it was an article about Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth or Lydia Lunch, Bitch was full of snarky interviews, fiesty feminist rants, and a genuine appreciation for the music they made.  These rockers weren’t girlie-girls — they kicked ass (and, as one issue told us, Joan Jett inspired a cult/commune in San Francisco to hold her up as a near-deity).

So as I get ready to see “The Runaways” despite its mixed reviews, I’m thinking about my teenaged relationship to women rockers — the revelatory experience of watching Chrissie Hynde, Courtney Love (no one who saw Hole’s “Live Through This” concert could doubt her ability to kick rock’s ass), Blondie, Lydia Lunch, the Breeders, and oh, Liz Phair’s “Exile in Guyville,” women who seemed to be making big feminist statements just by being so fierce in their lyrics and onstage.  Is it simply my age that makes the thought of Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning in the roles of Joan Jett and Cherie Currie a bit distasteful?  Trying to suppress my doubts in an age of Lady Gaga, Twilight, and “post-feminism.”