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Rebel Girl: Women's Voices from the Southern California Punk Scene

X at Masque Publicity | Frank Gargani
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“Punk rock saved my life.” That phrase pops up repeatedly in Stacy Russo’s new book, “We Were Going to Change the World: Interviews with Women from the 1970s and 1980s Southern California Punk Rock Scene,” echoed by everyone from performers to fans.

“Without punk rock, I’d be dead,” explains Burbank resident Tammy Talbot, who sang with the band Nature Core and attended shows throughout Los Angeles County and Orange County in the 1980s. “That’s a fact. It saved my life. I take it very seriously.”

Published by Santa Monica Press in August 2017, “We Were Going to Change the World” examines the power and promise of punk through the eyes of the women who experienced it — showcasing the SoCal scene as a source of community and a force for empowerment, self-discovery and social change.

“People are really hungry for women’s stories,” said Russo, whose previous books include “Life as Activism: June Jordan’s Writings From the Progressive.” (She plans to publish “Love Activism,” a guide to the “radical activism of kindness,” in the spring.)

Exene Cervenka of X in concert in Los Angeles | Gary Leonard
Exene Cervenka of X in concert in Los Angeles | Gary Leonard

 “We Were Going to Change the World” comes at a rich time for punk rock scholarship. The UCLA Center for Musical Humanities hosted a two-day conference, “Curating Resistance: Punk as Archival Method,” in early February.

Russo’s book is part of a recent wave of punk memoirs that includes Steve Jones’ “Lonely Boy: Tales of a Sex Pistol,” Roger Miret’s “My Riot: Agnostic Front, Grit, Guts & Glory” and “Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk,” featuring essays by key members of Los Angeles’s early punk scene compiled by X co-founder John Doe and music industry veteran Tom DeSavia. But where “We Were Going to Change the World” differs from those other offerings is its emphasis on inclusiveness.

In addition to a pantheon of punk goddesses including Kira (Black Flag), Alice Bag (The Bags), Exene Cervenka (X) and Jennifer Precious Finch (L7), the author provides a platform for DJs, journalists, photographers, fanzine publishers and, most importantly, the everyday devotees who congregated at clubs such as Madame Wong’s, The Masque and Whiskey A Go Go.

“A lot of women just went to shows. It was a big part of their personal history. It impacted their lives,” said Russo, a librarian and professor at Santa Ana College.

Alice Bag and Pleasant Gehman
The Bags singer Alice Bag and Screamin' Sirens singer Pleasant Gehman are two of the punk rock icons interviewed in Stacy Russo's book “We Were Going to Change the World: Interviews with Women from the 1970s and 1980s Southern California Punk Rock Scene.” | Ed Colver

According to Cervenka, those concert-goers helped shape Southern California’s punk persona — from its stance against corporate, consumerism-obsessed mainstream culture to its emphasis on civil rights, self-identity and do-it-yourself artistic expression — as much as the musicians did.

Like many of her interview subjects, Russo, who grew up in Fullerton, discovered punk rock as a teenager in the 1980s. “It’s hard to say what that first encounter was,” Russo, 48, said, although it might have been hearing Dead Kennedys’ 1981 EP “In God We Trust, Inc.” “Even today, it sounds so crazy. It’s so intense. … I felt, ‘This is exactly how I feel.’”

“How I treat people, what I eat, what I buy, it all really stems from growing up as a young girl in the punk scene,” she said. “I vote a certain way because of punk rock.”

Russo said she was inspired to collect the stories that became “We Were Going to Change the World” after attending an oral history workshop organized by San Francisco nonprofit Voice of Witness in 2012. “I thought, ‘I want to interview other women like me,’” she recalled.

Bassist Kira Roessler with Black Flag
Punk rock bassist Kira poses for a picture with her Black Flag bandmates, Henry Rollins, Greg Ginn and Bill Stevenson. | Ed Colver

Russo took a distinctly old-school approach to the project — seeking interview subjects via Facebook and flyers posted around Los Angeles and Orange County. Then she drafted a list of questions, bought two digital recorders and went to work.

“She’s such a great example of do-it-yourself punk rock,” said Phranc, one of the punk icons Russo interviewed for the book. “It’s the same way we decided, ‘I want to make a band. I want to make a magazine. I can make it happen. No one can stand in my way.’”

In the world of punk, Russo said, “You don’t have to wait for permission to create. You don’t need a record company or a publisher to tell you (what to do). Just go out and do it.”

Rather than a more traditional Q&A format, Russo opted to present interviews uninterrupted as personal narratives. “There’s not a lot of listening” in the academic oral-history tradition, she explained. “There’s a lot of editing that goes on, and a lot of talking over.”

“It was … important that my voice as the interviewer was as absent as possible,” Russo writes in the book’s introduction. “I wanted the readers to be able to clearly hear each woman’s voice and to keep her story as raw as possible.”

Performance artist and punk rock musician Johanna Went
Performance artist and punk rock musician Johanna Went shares her experiences in Stacy Russo's book “We Were Going to Change the World: Interviews with Women from the 1970s and 1980s Southern California Punk Rock Scene.” | Ed Colver

A few common themes emerge in “We Were Going to Change the World” — most notably the concept of a community of outcasts, where freaks became family.

“We were all outside of society. We were all outside of the norm,” explained Phranc, a Santa Monica-based singer-songwriter who bills herself as the “All-American Jewish Lesbian Folksinger.”

She still remembers her introduction to the punk scene of the 1970s. “I went, ‘Oh my god, these are the people I have been looking for,” recalled Phranc, who went on to play with Nervous Gender, Catholic Discipline and Castration Squad. “‘They’re my age. They’re angry. They’re smart. They’re creative. They’re on fire. These are my people.’ ”

With its raw sound, outrageous fashion and emphasis on social and political change, punk also offered a safe, empowering place for fans to explore their identities.

“Punk was about not being part of traditional society. It was about inventing your own voice and your own personality.” Ewa Wojciak, L.A. Weekly art director, Cannon Films creative director and NO MAG contributor, says in “We Were Going to Change the World.” “When the band played, it felt important. It felt like you were at exactly the right place where you were supposed to be. It was like that was the center of the world.”

Punk folk singer Phranc in concert
Punk folk singer Phranc performs in concert. | Ed Colver

Punk helped fan Monica “Moly Cule” Carapello of Huntington Beach recover from years of verbal abuse from her father. “Before punk, I felt suppressed, insecure, and had so much anger in me. I think that’s why the scene appealed to me,” Carapello says in the book. “The punk scene happened and I realized I could say, ‘I’m not going to take any more bullshit from anybody.’ ”

Bag, lead singer of The Bags, also used punk to process personal emotions. “My therapy was punk rock. I would go until I was sweaty and exhausted or singing and screaming and letting it all out,” Bag says in Russo’s book. “I think if I hadn’t done that I might be a dangerous person. I really do.”

Although many of the stories in “We Were Going to Change the World” focus on the positive side of punk, the book doesn’t shy away from the scene’s less savory aspects. Nearly all of Russo's subjects touch on the problems that plagued the sisterhood of the pit, from rampant drug and alcohol use to sexual assault and violence.

And, despite the punk scene’s focus on community — “In my group of friends, being black wasn’t an issue, being gay wasn’t an issue and being a woman wasn’t an issue,” says Long Beach punk fan Cecily Desmond — barriers still existed, especially where gender, race and sexuality were concerned.

“Even with strong self esteem, it was still hard for me not to fall prey to that world — a male-dominated, misogynistic world,” says D.D. Wood, lead singer and rhythm guitarist for Gypsy Trash. “As a woman being it, you had to use your wit and your intelligence to navigate it, so you weren’t destroyed by it. I saw so many girls that were used and spit out …”

Teresa Covarrubias, best known as lead singer of The Brat, speaks about fighting for recognition not only from her peers, but also her male bandmates. “I always felt like were butting heads, because I was never given respect,” she says. “When I was working with women … it really felt like we were doing it together. It felt very real and nurturing. … With the guys, it was more like a battle. You were constantly fighting for your identity.”

The women of “We Were Going to Change the World” also address the broader debate about the legacy of the Southern California punk scene.

The book’s title, taken directly from a quote by Cervenka, that speaks directly to that conflict between the promise of punk and the reality of its aftermath. “(We believed that) everything we were doing was so good and so compelling that anybody who came to the shows was going to be on board. Everyone would just see the light,” she said.

“Our failing was it’s still a corporate world with corporate culture,” Cervenka added. “We didn’t prevent that. We did not wake up the culture.”

Phranc echoed Cervenka’s frustration, with a hint of hope. “We thought we had really made some progress. We thought (the world) had changed forever,” she said, “but you know it doesn’t change forever. If you stop, it stops. … If you just give up, nothing happens.”

Her spirits are buoyed by the self-made artists — from YouTube filmmakers to fanzine creators — following the same “passion-driven course” as punk pioneers. “Even in this oppressive climate, people are uncompromising, determined, optimistic in their creativity,” Phranc said. “That’s what I find so inspiring, that people are trying to continue to make the change by … continually expressing themselves.”

Book cover for “We Were Going to Change the World: Interviews with Women from the 1970s and 1980s Southern California Punk Rock Scene” by Stacy Russo
“We Were Going to Change the World: Interviews with Women from the 1970s and 1980s Southern California Punk Rock Scene” by Stacy Russo examines the power and promise of punk. | Santa Monica Press

Top Image: X at Masque Publicity | Frank Gargani

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