QMH Sept 2005 Script
Phranc - Surfer Girl (1991, "Positively Phranc")
You're listening to Queer Voices on KPFT and this segment is called Queer Music Heritage. I'm JD Doyle and I started the show with a recording I just love, Phranc's version of "Surfer Girl." Phranc is spelled P-h-r-a-n-c, and this year marks the 20th anniversary of her debut album, called "Folksinger." She's recorded four other albums over the years, each filled with her own brand of humor and political commentary. I was delighted to get to see her perform in Houston last month and to interview her. You'll hear that interview and a lot more of her music, including two unreleased songs, in the second half of the show.
[Margie Adam - Woodland (1980, "Naked Keys") in background]
But I'm starting off with another interview, with someone I've admired for many years, and this segment is unusual because her interview is among the very few that I've featured that is with someone who is not primarily known as a performer. But I think she's made many contributions to our GLBT society in general, and in particular she has been an important force on the women's music scene for decades. Her name is Toni Armstrong Jr.
Her activism has covered many areas and in 1997 she was inducted into the Chicago Gay & Lesbian Hall of Fame. I could go on for several minutes describing her talents and contributions over the years, but I want to focus on why I first became aware of her.
My listeners no doubt know by now that I'm an avid collector of GLBT music, and I love exploring its history, and most of the time researching that history is very difficult. Because ours is not a mainstream culture the usual books and reference guides are not available. I've found that I have to rely heavily on newspapers and magazines that were issued during the early years of our music, and those are not readily available sources. So I was delighted when I discovered a publication called "HOT WIRE." Its full name is "HOT WIRE: The Journal of Women's Music and Culture," and was published from 1984 until 1994.
To a researcher this is a marvelous magazine. It expertly documented women's music during those years, with its well-written, scholarly, and entertaining, articles, and numerous photographs. Information about the music of independent artists is hard to capture, so I was delighted to have such a resource. Toni Armstrong Jr was the publisher of "HOT WIRE," so I felt she was in an ideal position to comment on the culture, so I interviewed her last June in Chicago when I was there for the Outmusic Awards. And for background music I've been using a song by one of the founding mothers of women's music, Margie Adam, from her "Naked Keys" album.
Toni, you've been observing it, writing about it, and taking photos of it from its beginning, so you're in an ideal position to tell us what is Women's Music.
If you line up 2000 people and ask them what is women's music, you're going to get about 1500 different answers, but the working definition that I've always used in my work is that it's woman-identified music, possibly lesbian, possible feminist, possibly something about your mother or your sister or your female coworker, or the politics of women farmers, never anti-feminist, never anti-gay, or never racist or oppressive in some way, music by women, about women, and mostly for women
Has that definition changed?
The definition of women's music I don't has changed, but I think it has with every passing six month period since the seventies grown to encompass something different. It started out very, very small with a handful of artists that people could name, and with only a couple of different festivals-the National Women's Festival, in 1974, the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival started in '75. There was actually another little one in '74 called Women's Sphere in D.C. that was started by the National Parks Service, all over the place, but they were very small. With every explosive jump something else was being "me, too," "me, too," "me, too," "include me," include jazz, include classical, include hip hop, include different races, include different class things, include women from other countries, on and on and on. And so every time there was something different going on the definition perhaps altered itself a little bit.
So in the beginning it was white women with guitars.
The false impression, and I think it's been perpetrated for some good reasons and for some bad reasons is that women's music from it's beginning was essentially a few white women with guitars, maybe a piano, probably from California, singing folk music. And my experience has been from the mid-70's forward is certainly there were those entertainers, but it was always so much more. I think there has always been bands involved, rock bands, ethnic, ethnic bands, choruses, certainly women of color, and woman of color have been integral in women's music from the very beginning. Linda Tillery, Deidre McCalla, Jane Sapp was there, Sweet Honey and the Rock, Judith Casselberry, on and on and on, Carolyn Brandy I mean, I could probably literally reel off 30 names, easily. Rock bands like Fanny and Deadly Nightshade, bands like Nguyen Yi, just have always been a part.
Now, why then does everyone think it's white women with guitars? Well, partially because the only people who could afford to go on tour were women who had, who were extremely portable in their act. So if you had an instrument that you could carry, you didn't need a huge sound system, you didn't need to buy airline tickets for six other people in your band, then you probably were going to get out on the road. Certainly class had a lot to do with it, who had the money, who had visibility, you can't begin to tease out the racism from the whole thing. Of course we live in a racist culture, so I think that feminists everywhere, and certainly women's music culture, has had its share of racism. There's no getting around that, but it also deserves a lot of credit for women, white women, thinking about priveledge, thinking about anti-racism work, taking a lead in anti-racism work, and women of color being willing to step forward and take leadership and teach, teach, teach, and be patient and make things happen collaboratively in a way that I don't see so much going on in most other parts of the world. And I think that women's music lyrics have at times really addressed racism issues from a very feminist perspective. A good example of that would be the song "I Black Woman" by Faith Nolan.
Faith Nolan - I Black Woman (1989, "Freedom to Love")
Faith Nolan's song "I Black Woman" came from her "Freedom to Love" album from 1989.
I wonder if folk music got more attention in the beginning because as a genre folk lends itself more to political comments and being more lyrically lesbian.
There certainly was the element that folk music tended to include more political lyrics, but by the time women's music came along, in the mid 70's, and really got going with the festivals and publications and things like that, I think that the political folk music was really fading from the scene, and pop music was more coming in. So a lot of the music that came out in the early days of women's music wasn't even all that political. If we were to go through the festival sets, and look at the music that was performed. If we were to go thorough all of the albums, look through all of the lyrics, we see certainly an explosion of political, explicitly feminist, explicitly lesbian lyrics in certain places, but certainly not throughout. And as we moved into the 80's there was less and less and less and less of it.
Why do you think it became less?
[in background: Cris Williamson - Waterfall (1973, "Changer and the Changed")]
That's been a constant question over the decades for those of us working in the industry. Some of it was that women were trying to make it more in the mainstream, so they were doing things that sounded much more professional. Their lyrics were getting much more general. I think too that the wider women's music became as an actual thing, as an industry, there were more and more women who wanted to be part of it who may or may not be driven by those early visions of, you know, women's space and feminism as really a driving kind of urge. They wanted to make music and there was an audience for them, and they were good, so the festival producers invited them to come, and the audiences enjoyed them and it just got bigger and bigger, and hundreds and hundreds of performers and recordings became involved with it. And as such it got diluted in terms of the politics but it also became much more of a force to be reckoned with sheer numbers, became much more diverse across the board.
Barbara Gittings, who's one of the most amazing pioneers of the gay rights movement, and I once had a conversation about whether it's better to focus all your attention in one place politically, and have everybody pull on the same rope, basically, or, everybody kind of out there doing their own thing, without all pulling together. And her opinion was it's much better for everybody to be doing their own thing because then the opposition can then smash a few of you, but not everybody.
And I think that women's music being like that. It was a million different things to a million different people, and where did the politics go? It's very interesting. We parallel what happened in the culture at large as we moved into the 80's
So really it's almost two questions, did the artists become more closeted, or did the politics change?
I think the politics changed and I think some artists always were kind of closeted, and I think that other ones who were pretty out there in the beginning maybe found other things to do with their lives and didn't continue all the way through to the year 2005, being entertainers. Meg Christian, for example, who was one of the major voices in the beginning, and in the early 80's became more spiritual and withdrew completely from the whole public entertainment sphere. Who knows what kind of political commentary she would have made had her life taken a different turn?
Also, something performers have talked to me about privately, is that the coming out process is a complex and scary one, particularly in the 70's and 80's. I think it's a little easier now in the new millennium, but still scary for many. And that there's a high cost to be paid for explicitly identifying yourself as lesbian or gay or even feminist, if you really want to make your living doing music. And I think that's a very legitimate point. There's a private aspect to that and a public aspect. And the private aspect is that maybe they're still in their own coming out process, so how are they supposed to get on stage and, you know, be waving a rainbow flag when they're not even really sure themselves what's happening privately for them. So there's that aspect. There are others who really did feel that their private life was more private. They just wanted their music to be liked for what it was. And then there were the ones, and I love them, and they are the backbone of the women's music industry, not just the entertainers, but the writers and the producers and everyone who when it was risky, they were willing to step up to the plate and say "way better that you hate me for what I am than love me for what I'm not, and I'm going to keep it real." And part of this whole thing is that women need to be on the stage singing about women, not always lesbian, but women for sure, and, you know, bless them.
What women's music artist was the first that you became aware of?
The first women's artist that I ever heard was Meg Christian, and I think that it's a Meg-Cris-Holly-Kay Gardener-Alix Dobkin toss up, for many when you think of classic women's music. Although by 1980 we're looking at other women like certainly Mary Watkins and Linda Tillery and Vicki Randle and a lot of other people in the mix. So for me personally when I was still in college somebody brought a Meg Christian album and said, "oh, you have to listen to this song about the gym teacher," and that was that.
Meg Christian - Ode to a Gym Teacher (1974, "I Know You Know")
Of course that was Meg Christian's "Ode to a Gym Teacher," one of the first classic lesbian songs. That came from Meg's debut album in 1974 called "I Know You Know."
What was your first involvement with publications about Women's Music?
My first involvement with a publication that had to do with women's music was reading a magazine called "Paid My Dues," which was started in 1974 in Milwaukee by a woman named Dorothy Dean, who interestingly enough went on to become the Milwaukee County Treasurer,
and it was a journal of women and music, not really women's music because it didn't really exist yet, and it really focused on the role of women in music, different things like band leaders, whatever. So there were a group of women in Chicago in about '77 who wanted to take over publication. I happened to be in on that conversation and said, "oh, yeah, that sounds great." So between '77 and '80 I was involved with "Paid My Dues." Now, also in 1977 it was clear to me, from my first festival on, that this was a really, really amazing kind of life-changing thing that was going on, and that if only it could be more organized everybody could move ahead a lot faster. So I started a trade directory called "We Shall Go Forth," which I published on and off from '77 through '95, which listed performers and coffee houses and bookstores and publications and things like that.
"Paid My Dues" wasn't the first women's music publication
"Paid My Dues" wasn't the first of the publications, but it certainly was the first to come out in a sort of magazine-journal format, covering what was soon to become called "women's music," if we could say it that way. There were some other smaller newsletters around before, like "Musica," by Indy Allen, which came out of Oregon. There was a directory of women's media, that was small, and in the mid-70's there were different publications that were coming out around the country. For example, "My Sister's Song Discography," from Milwaukee; something called "Calliope," which was the newsletter of the feminist radio network, came from Washington, DC. There was "Clara," a newsletter that was a research of the history of women in music; "Heresies," a feminist publication on art and politics from New York. So things were happening all over the place, and a really seminal organization was the Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press, which was started by Donna Allen, Indy Allen's mom. Her position really was that women had no access to the media. They were systematically blocked from any any of their issues being reported, and that if women had more access to the media, things would change, and boy, she was sure right.
After "Paid My Dues" ended there was a gap between when "HOT WIRE" started, could you lead us up to the beginning of "HOT WIRE"?
It's interesting because "HOT WIRE" was really a separatist magazine, but it's rarely identified as such because it didn't have any of the angry rhetoric that is often ascribed to the separatist movement. We never printed anything, even pictures if we could avoid it, by men. We never covered anything that had men in it. It was all put together by women, every single thing, including the mailing, putting on the stamps, all the writing, everything
I never did get a separatist feeling from it
[in background: Linda Shear - Woman Let Go Now (1977, "A Lesbian Portrait")]
It absolutely was a separatist publication, and much of women's music at the time really was aimed at separatism. One of the things that is kind of entertaining when I look back at how history, you know, remembers what happened, the folk lore as it's being generated, is that separatism is all about angry, man-hating kind of energy. And my experience of it was that during those decades was that it really was sort of the kinder, gentler separatism of just putting energy into promoting women and empowering women, and it wasn't anything about wanting to take away men's power or say bad things about them. It was about, you know, if we have room for five articles, let's make them all be by, for, and about women. I remember Jewel Gomez, writer Jewel Gomez being on a talk show, Sally Jesse Raphael, if memory serves. And she was asked "why do you hate men?" And she said, "I don't hate men, I hate the patriarchy." And I think that's pretty much what separatism in all its forms is what separatism was all about.
There was real sense in the 70's, too, of "we're young, we're all in it together, we're all against the patriarchy. Oh my God, there's other lesbians, how great is that! Oh, we're going to be able to sing songs about lesbians and women, how great is that!" One of the songs that I've always liked was Teresa Trull's "You're My Home," which she wrote about Olivia Records, from her "Let It Be Known" album.
Teresa Trull - You're My Home (1980, "Let It Be Known")
Can you think of artists who were more vocal in their separatism?
Of course Alix Dobkin, and Sirani Avedis / Sally Piano come to mind in terms of separatist things. Whenever media has covered women's music, which has not been much over the years, I might point out, it's like that old story about the blind men touching the elephant, and one saying "oh, an elephant is like a leaf," "oh, an elephant is like a snake," "oh, an elephant is like a tree trunk." Only really experiencing one little part of it, and then claiming to be talking about all of women's music. Very difficult. So, you have for example on the one side the very radical, feminist artists, like Linda Shear, Alix Dobkin, Lynn Daniels, the festival producer, who did the East Coast Lesbians Festival, and everyone who not only it wasn't just for women and it wasn't just for lesbians. If you were not a lesbian you couldn't be a craftswoman, you couldn't be a worker, you couldn't be an entertainer there, I mean, really very hardline. All the way up to things like "HOT WIRE Magazine," which was just really just about women, still separatist, but minus that. There's always an internal debate about whether separatism is helping or hurting, helping or hurting, and that has been like a 30-year conversation.
Now of course we have all of the mess up in Michigan (at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival) with Camp Trans, attacking Michigan all the time. And it's interesting to me because since Michigan has started it has always been under attack by somebody who didn't like what it was like, what it was doing, who it appealed to, always. So this is just really the latest in a long string of people being upset whenever an oppressed group says "you know what? It's my right to start whatever event that I want for myself and my people. I don't want your money, I don't want your help, and I don't want your input, I just want to do this for myself." And the reality is women-born-women are still an oppressed group in this world. Transgendered people, extremely oppressed group, but how are these things incompatible? Why does it have to be an argument between these two groups? It's really quite maddening.
Okay, we've talked about "HOT WIRE," but we haven't talked about what it was.
"HOT WIRE" was a publication from we started it in 1984, we stopped it in 1994. We put out 30 issues. It came out three times a year and it was devoted to covering women's music and culture. It had several major objectives. We wanted to print a lot of photos. We wanted to cover festivals. We wanted to have writers like the feminist writers' input as well, not just in writing articles that are journalistic, but also talking about feminist writing, feminist theatre, all of these things, trying to pull together artists who would appreciate each other's work. For example, one of my favorite songs from all time from women's music is called "Where Will You Be?" It's a song by Nedra Johnson, who was very inspired by the work of Audre Lourd, Pat Parker, and other African-American feminist writers, and she wrote that song based on that.
Nedra Johnson - Where Will You Be? (1998, "Testify")
It was always amazing to me that the filmmakers didn't know the musicians, and occasionally films would get made and filmmakers would ask me, "well, do you know of any music that would be appropriate. And it's like, wow, there are about 20 songs that would be great for that, and they hadn't heard of even one of these artists. So "HOT WIRE" tried to be a forum for people to find each other and really read about each other's work.
One of the editorial decisions we made in the beginning and I'm so glad about now, is not to print anything that was ever critical, so we didn't do album reviews, we didn't critique events. What our mission was to let everybody say what they're doing, and why, and then let the reader make the decision if they liked that or if they didn't like that. I really feel that we stayed on very neutral ground about almost everything at all times, and that was very helpful because there was so much in-fighting in the industry, as there of course would be. It would have been better for sales had we gone the more tabloid route, but we really took the high road every step of the way, I think, all the way to the end with that.
How did you get the name "HOT WIRE"?
It comes from a poem written by Yvonne Zipter, that's actually an erotic poem, called "Finding the HOT WIRE." So when younger fantasize that the old crunchy granola dykes, which we're all dismissed as, are not sex positive, and I just laugh. It's like "oh, girls, you have no idea."
Your first cover story was on Kate Clinton.
Yes, our first cover was on Kate Clinton, and our very last cover was on Suzanne Westenhoefer and that felt very good bookends to do the comedians
Roughly what percent of the artists covered over the years were lesbian?
Well over half the artists in the magazine were lesbian, the vast majority in fact, way more than half, as I'm thinking about it, they were either lesbian or very specifically lesbian friendly, like Judith Sloan, for example, very gay positive. Certainly when you're going to include every woman who's played in a band, you know, we're exponentially increasing the number, and who knows about all of them? But none of them were anti-gay in any way, or anti-feminist
Tell us about the soundsheets. They were in a way revolutionary. It wasn't the first use of soundsheets in a magazine, of course, but to be used by a minority culture to get their culture out there was revolutionary.
I agree. I think that was one of the best ideas, ever, was to put in these little flexi-discs, that we would literally by hand staple into the back of every magazine. And it was an opportunity what we did was work with the artists and basically give it to them at cost. They could write it off as an advertising expense. Each magazine had a copy of anywhere between four and six songs by different artists. So they [the readers] could not only read about these artists but also hear about the music. If they were in towns where they didn't have any kind of a feminist or a gay radio show, and most of our readers did not have that luxury. Most of our readers were not anywhere near where a festival was held. Most of them did not have a bookstore in their town that carried, you know, feminist or lesbian music. This in many ways was their only way of hearing it. And of course it is all about the music. The writing was great, but the reality is that it's a live performing, living thing, and if you can't hear it, it doesn't mean anything. So those were great and over the ten years that we published, and beyond actually, that was one of the things that we got the best feedback on.
You know, I think back to doing "HOT WIRE," and I go "Eye yi yi, how did we even do it?" First of all when we started we didn't have desktop publishing, we didn't even have a computer, we typed the issue by hand. Then we moved on to having access, in the middle of the night if we wanted to go to a typesetting machine at a local gay newspaper. So, volunteers would go and do that. We had a couple women who worked for a local newspaper, mainstream newspaper, who would in the middle of the night go and do halftones for us. Then there was the revolutionary thing of desktop publishing that came in, but still no email. And when I look today at how easy it is today to transfer material, the whole files, everything digital, it's like wow, man, we could really do the magazine now. And it amazes me that that was a publication that was put together by basically by 40 women at any given time working in somebody's basement for free at night
How did "HOT WIRE" change or evolve over the years?
[background music: Margie Adam - Beautiful Soul/Tender Lady, Two Years Later (1995, "Soon and Again")]
It evolved in several ways, big ways. Certainly it got better looking with every single issue. When we stopped typing it, when we sent to typesetting, that looked way better. Then of course the desktop publishing gives you much more control over it looking more professional yet. We got better at the halftones. By the time we got to the 30th issue it was something that I feel that anyone would be proud of, it's a very professional looking thing.
It terms of content, it evolved along with women's music. By 1994 we not only had an extremely well developed 20 years of women's music recordings, performances, festivals, publications, etc, radio shows. But we also had made a lot of major inroads into the mainstream entertainment industry. And that in fact is part of the reason "HOT WIRE" needed to stop. It wasn't possible to have it go on and be a quality publication and cover as much as we were having to cover. In the ten years that we had been going, everybody else kept wanting to come to the party, so you had all the same old entertainers that you ever had, for the most part, but every single six months brought new entertainers, and in different genres.
And it got to the point where we simply could not cover everything from Ronnie Gilbert all the way down to the latest punk band, all the way to the type of writing in zines that was happening, and all the stuff that was going on, you know, on mainstream TV and women like Melissa Etheridge and kd lang coming out, and all the great gay stuff that Rosanne had on her show, and on and on and on, it became impossible, without actually having a paid staff who could do nothing but focus on that. And rather than sacrifice the quality of what we had always done we decided, really, it's time to stop, that the women's music era that that magazine represented was coming to an end. That was a bitter pill to swallow, but I think we were realistic.
I was looking recently just out of curiosity I was looking at my old Women's Music Plus directories, and thinking, you know, about publications, how did that actually evolve? Cause I knew you and I'd be talking about it for you show, and I was kind of curious, so I got them all out and I was looking, so now not counting songbooks but including things like directories, okay, in 1977 there were 21 publications in my directory, which was called "We Shall Go Forth," at that time. The whole directory was only 28 pages, but there was 21 publications listed. By 1979 there were already 31 that were specifically having to do with feminist arts type things, feminist music. By 1982 it had grown to 122 that I listed, and these were just ones that I knew about on my own little Rolodex list. There 65 newspapers and newsletters, 24 directories and music resources like the Ladyslipper catalogue, 33 magazines and journals about art and culture. And by 1984 there were 213 already. It was unbelievable to me how it just grew and grew and grew.
And they were really an interesting bunch, too. Again there's the stereotype of the granola dyke kind of thing and it's the facts don't back up that stereotype really. Although the stereotype is a tribute to women like Kay Gardener with her flute and Ginni Clemmens with her guitar and Margie Adam with her piano and those women were very effective, certainly, and they deserve their place in history. But some of the magazines that I found that were really interesting were "Off Our Backs," a very political publication from Washington DC, "Onyx Black Women's Newsletter," from San Francisco, "Better Homes and Dykes," from Iowa City, "Big Mama Rag," from Colorado, the International League of Women Composers newsletter, from Virginia. They were all over the country and they were all about all sorts of different things. It was very expansive and yet all focused on women, which always brings us back to well, what is women's music? All of this is women's music. It's all by, for and about women. It's women-identified.
I also was kind of curious about festivals, you know, having lived it for 30 years at this point, it all blurs together in a way. There's certain big ones that I think everyone has heard of, like Michigan, maybe Sisterfire. So, what was there, what did I have listed there in 1977? There were 10 of them. Two of them that are still with of course, the National Women's Music Festival and Michigan, and you can never say those names enough, because they're great festivals. But also there were festivals in Portland, Oregon, Kansas City, the Jazz Festival, Long Island, New York, Montana, Boston, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Toronto. So even back then, by '77 things were really all over the place and not just California and New York, by any means.
Okay, here's something, I really feel like common folklore misses a big piece of the historical picture, and that is the role that the midwest has played in all of this. It's true, Chicago, the Midwest in general, did not produce a lot of big name entertainment stars. Certainly Ginni Clemmens came from Chicago, the Washington Sisters came from Ohio, Seriah Carol's from here. But that's not really what the Midwest is famous for. What we did was provide the infrastructure. When we look back over the last 30 years, much of the spine of the whole industry came out of the Midwest. Again, our favorite festivals, Michigan and National, both of them Midwest. National started down in Illinois, moved to Indiana, is now in Ohio. The Michigan festival stayed in Michigan. One of the two distributors that's left out of the 50, is Goldenrod, and they're in Michigan. "Lesbian Connection," the hugely distributed newsletter for lesbians; it's something like 30 years old already, you know, it's in Michigan, too. Mountain Moving Coffeehouse is the oldest ongoing women's performance space that still is collectively run. It's still on a sliding scale. It's still for women-born-women. It's still a drug-free sober space. That's been here, and countless women have performed. In it's heyday it had 40 shows a year. And countless touring women have come through here. "HOT WIRE" was published from here. "Paid My Dues" was published from here. "Paid My Dues" was published in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We also have provided so many of the workers for all these different things that have gone on. We've had radio shows here that were gay. We have one of the larger gay publications, "Windy City Times," formerly called "Outlines," that has always been extremely inclusive of lesbian-feminist arts stuff, which most gay newspapers really aren't. There may be some token coverage, but this has always been truly not the focus of the paper but included. So I feel like the Midwest has been really fantastic
I know you could answer this questions with hundreds of names, but can you tell me about a women's music artist who is vastly under-appreciated?
I agree with you that I could give you a lot of names. I don't think I could give you hundreds, because I think women's music was an extremely open venue. If you wanted to try to play or sing, then you could do it, and you could be terrible, but you'd find an audience and the audience would give you support and encouragement, because it was the feminist thing to do, it was the loving thing to do. As opposed to the mainstream where it's all just claw your way to the top, and everybody's going to control how you look and what you say, and package you. You know, women's music has never been that. It's never been about the packaging, it's been about the substance. So I think that many of the women who are underrated never really made it for a reason, either musically they're not that good, or vocally, or the lyrics just aren't that deep, whatever.
I do think, there's an entertainer that I've been watching for several years that I highly recommend to anyone who's interested, and that's Nedra Johnson. Her stuff is very cutting edge. It's got a great sound. It's sort of an R&B-Blues-Gospel kind of a thing. She's real political, funny. She has two albums out, the first one's called "Testify." The second one, which is new, is called "Nedra," and in fact this new one I just love this song she has called "Anyway You Need Her." Nedra's one of the few in women's music that's every head-on approached and included religious imagery in her lyrics, not in the sense that she's going to sing old gospel tunes. But her whole position is "You know, God made me gay, how dare you try to take God away from me, how dare you." And I think that in many ways she represents the new millennium where women's music is going
Nedra Johnson - Anyway You Need Her (2005, "Nedra")
In the old days, the old, old days of women's music, you couldn't get your flyers printed if you had the word "lesbian" on it. You couldn't get a venue to rent to you. You couldn't come out at work. You were afraid your parents and your friends were going to find out you were gay if you went to a Michigan Festival, so you had to lie about where you were going. I mean, it's just so unbelievable, you couldn't get recorded if you had lesbian lyrics or if you weren't feminine enough. Blah, blah, blah. Okay, so women's music really pulled into an entire universe of its own. And created its own festivals and its own publications and its own recording labels and its own everything. You know what, fine, you don't want us, we want us. And we're going to have our own thing and we're not going to let you stop us. Now I think in the new millennium where all of this is going is groups like Bitch & Animal, together and separately, Nedra, Alix Olson, different acts that are out there now. The gay movement and the feminist movements have moved everything along far enough that we're at the door now with a foot in the door of getting mainstream recognition, not just in entertainment but also domestic partnership benefits in corporations, gay marriage of course, the formation of all these gay-straight alliances in the high schools, whoever saw that coming? On and on. No more do people want to sit back and form their own little private world. They really want to out and say "look, I want everything my taxes are paying for, and I want the respect that comes with it. I don't want to be straight like you. I don't want to pretend to be straight like you in any way, but you know what? I want all our rights and I want to be here." And I think that Nedra's work really addresses that in a way that the women's music of the 70's addressed where feminism and the gay movement were at back then.
Would you talk about the current state of publications about women's music?
[background music: Kay Gardener - Castle in the Mist (1984, "A Rainbow Path")]
Well, I do actually, as we're moving on into the new millennium, I actually have a few favorites of today that aren't musical. There's three in particular that I guess I could recommend pretty whole-heartedly. Number one is Rockrgrl, rockrgrl.com, if you want to check them out. They've been going since 1995. Their publisher Carla DeSantis, has done with rockrgrl for women in rock a lot of what "HOT WIRE" did for women in women's music, which is to put women first, to really focus on being an alternative independent voice. They do include men, much more, because they are not a separatist publication, but the articles are never about men. It might be men in the band of a woman who is being featured, that kind of thing. They come out six times a year and I think they're great. They're really political, in addition to musical, and I just love that.
Another one that's not so focused on music, but that I just adore, is called Bitch, Feminist Response to Pop Culture. And they're basically, they've been around since '96, they come out of Oakland. They do commentary on basically critiques of TV, magazines, advertising. They do music interviews and basically cool, smart women in all areas of pop culture. I think that they're a great you know, nothing really took the place of "HOT WIRE," but those two magazines together satisfy me, in terms of covering a lot of the same territory, although my favorite things which are the lesbian and feminist music festivals are rarely covered by anyone now, which is sad.
The third thing I would recommend is on a much smaller scale, but is real fun. It's called Wigmag, women-in-general, wig, wigmag.com, the new world forum for fierce women in general. It's just got a lot of fun pop cultural stuff from a feminist point of view.
Tell me about your own musical contributions to the movement.
My primary contributions to women's music have never been personal. They've been my ability to organize the bigger picture, and provide for example a magazine, or produce a concert. However I did have my share of performing times. It's been pretty fun. I was in a band in the early 70's, mid-70's, called Starkist, which was a lesbian punk band, and that was pretty different for those times. In looking back there just weren't any bands like that. We just played in Chicago. I was in another band called Surrender Dorothy, which went for three or four years here in Chicago as well, and it was really pretty popular in its day. We performed mostly music that was written by Paula Walowitz. Several of her songs have gone on to more prominence elsewhere. And I was in a little group called the Dental Damsels for a while. Most of the stuff that I was involved with never got recorded. I think that there's a pretty lo-fi version of a song on the "Hi-Risk" CD, done with Paula Walowitz, "Goddesses' Rage," or "Neopagonomics," we called it, that has become kind of popular in the wiccan circles.
And there was also a song, one of my favorites called "Surprise," that was recorded on "Gay & Straight Together," on Ginni Clemmen's Open Door label. That song in fact was written by Paula at a time when I had already started working at this high school, where I still work, and it was just so painful to not be able to come out at work. And part of her song is "I'm looking forward to the day when I can say 'surprise, I'm gay' and the people at work will smile and say 'that's great, where are we going to lunch today." And it was such a dream back then that it could ever be like that. And just recently I went to Canada and got married, so that I could be legally married, and 50, 5-0, 50, of my colleagues at the high school where I work got together and gave me a wedding shower, at school, in the principal's conference room. And it's mind-boggling to play that song now and remember that exact same job back then, and how wow, everything has just changed so much, more than the mind can even embrace.
Paula Walowitz - Surprise (1981, "Gay & Straight Together")
You've also made major contributions to women's music as a photographer
[Ginni Clemmens - Best Friend (the Unicorn Song) / Lady O (1976, "Long Time Friends")]
Yeah, I have been a photographer all along. It was sort of a hobby and during the "HOT WIRE" years, to be perfectly honest with you, it was really possible to afford photos that we had to pay for. So there were a couple of us on staff who went ahead and took them all because we wouldn't have to be paid for our work. And I'm really glad because now I have thousands and thousands and thousands of these images. Many of them were used in a book called "Eden Built by Eves," by Bonnie Morris,
and I have thought over time; many people have said "why don't you publish a book or a calendar with all these photos?" I just think that it wouldn't be that much of a seller, to be honest. But, lately within the last few months, some women in town have been talking about starting a "HOT WIRE" website, now that the technology is what it is on the internet, that would give downloadable versions of every article and every photo that ever was in the magazine, along with the soundsheet clips in mp3 format. We're working out the technical details of how if you use pdf files then you can't really scan for individual words, right? For a search function, so we want people to be able to come to the site, search for Ginni Clemmens or the East Coast Lesbians Festival or Goldenrod Distribution, and have every reference that ever was come up and then direct them to downloadable pdf files that would have all the pictures and everything with it. So, that's sort of my next project, and I really look forward to that.
Wow, that would really be terrific. What other projects have you been involved in?
One of the most recent things that I produced, that I'm very proud of is a large-scale day devoted to the historic contributions of lesbian-feminist women's music that was sponsored by the Chicago Historical Society. This was in September of 2004 and they are the first mainstream historical society in the country to ever step forward and say "gosh, we really think that lesbian-feminist music changed the course of American history. Let's take a look at that, in a mainstream way of appreciating that." So we had a day of panel discussions and performances. We had the reunion of my band Surrender Dorothy. We had Ubaka Hill, Kristen Lems, who was the founder of the first National Women's Music Festival and an entertainer to this day. She's still making recordings. It was a great day.
Just as these things work out. It was so interesting, September of 1984 a bunch of young women thought, "Wow, let's get a barn and put on a show. And we said we'll just do our own little magazine. It will be great. It will be great." Oh my God, if only we knew. And it was great. And then in September of 1994 it was time for that to stop and we put "HOT WIRE" to bed. And then in September of 2004 the Chicago Historical Society and asks us to, you know, tell everybody how lesbian-feminist music has changed the course of American history. So I can't wait until September of 2014 and to see just what amazing things have happened by then
Do you have any last words for my listeners?
Something that really interests me, both as a historian and somebody who lived through the history being talked about or written about, is what gets emphasized and what doesn't. And sometimes people really do miss the forest for the trees. Sue Fink, an artist that I have always appreciated once was talking about women's music isn't the music. It isn't a form of music. Women's music is an audience. And I think that is exactly right. No, we didn't exactly produce Melissa Etheridge, although she did play at early women's music festivals. No, we didn't produce Tracy Chapman, though I have photos of her at Michigan and National. You know, we didn't produce the stars. However we produced the audience that was there for the stars when they were ready to step up and come out. We produced way more than a taste for out gay music or out feminist music. Every time women went to a women's music festival they were changed by the politics. They went home and they were less likely to accept racism or sexism on the job. They were more likely to say "how come we don't have a sign-language interpreter here?" They were more likely to think about what's going on in their community and how they could be better and different, and it just has permeated hundreds and hundreds of thousands of lives and made changes all across the board. And so you're beginning to see interesting things now as this sort of young generation turns into older women.
One of the fun things that I've been involved in lately is everybody's looking around at the Red Hat Society, and my basically 80 year-old lesbian mom in California belongs to a Red Hat Society chapter and she was having so much fun. And I thought, "oh, that's something that I can do here in Chicago. You have to be over 50. It's to celebrate women that are over 50, the accomplishments and wonderfulness of women over 50, and I thought, "oh, that fits right in with my whole lesbian-feminist life." So I started here in Chicago the first openly-lesbian Red Hat chapter called The Amazon Lesbian Red Hat Sisterhood. I wanted to make sure it was as clear as possible what we were. And our theme song is Lynn Lavner's "I Like Older Women."
Lynn Lavner - I Like Older Women (1988, "You Are What You Wear")
That was Lynn Lavner and her song "Older Women." You can hear a whole interview with her on my show from March of 2003.
And this is a good time to invite you to check out my website, at www.queermusicheritage.com. If you visit it while you're listening you can see the playlist and follow along, while looking at photos of the artists and recordings. I've always considered our music history as a visual as well as an audio experience. And both of the artists featured on tonight's show gave me wonderful interviews, so good that I could not possibly fit it all into an hour show. So, you can hear an expanded version of the show at my website, with a lot more songs and comments. Also, for more very queer programming, please listen to After Hours with Jimmy Carper, now in its new time every Friday night/Saturday morning from 1 to 4 am, on KPFT, it's Queer Radio, with attitude.
****Part Two ****
Phranc - Mrs Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter (1995, "Goofyfoot")
That was a bit of the Herman Hermits' song "Mrs Brown You've Got a Lovely Daughter," as covered by Phranc, in 1995, another of my favorites by her. And you'll want to stick around, because this segment will include two songs by her that have not been released yet, one of which she sang for me during our interview. Phranc was in Houston last month because she's been on tour with a group called the Knitters. So, let's get to the interview.
How did you get started in music?
Well, I listened to music from the time I was really small. Both of my grandfathers played the violin and the guitar, and I grew up with great records in the house, Broadway showtunes, Allen Sherman, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul & Mary, Judy Garland. So I listened to lots of records growing up. My favorite records that I had were called Red Raven Records, and they were colorful plastic records and the paper label on the inside had cartoons on them and you put a magic mirror on it that looked like a little carousel. And it sat on that little stump on the middle of the record player. And when it turned around it made a little movie in the faceted mirrors. And so those were my very, very favorite records, "Toot Toot Tootles, the Tugboat," and "Happy Birthday To You."
And how did you get the name Phranc?
How'd I get the name Phranc. Well I changed my name at the Lesbian History Exploration in May of 1975. And I named myself Franc, F-R-A-N-C, when I was up there at that lesbian retreat. At that retreat I met Alix Dobkin and, oh, a number of Elsa Gidlow incredible, incredible lesbians. And Liza Callen who showed this had a fashion show, and she showed a slide show of what the well-dressed dyke will wear. And there I saw these dykes were splendid in three-piece suits and buzzed hair. And I was so moved, I changed my name already, and when I came home from that expedition I got on the bus and I went straight to the barber shop and I had all of my hair buzzed off, and I went to show my friend Punkin my new haircut and tell her my new name, and I showed up at her door and she opened the door and she said, "Wow," and I said "My name is Franc." And she went "Phranc," and she said "just stay right there," and she went in the other room and she came back with a blue baseball hat with a "P" on it, and she put it on my head and she said, "Phranc, P, PH, P-H-R-A-N-C." So that's how I got my "PH."
And the title that seems to be all yours is "All-American Jewish lesbian folksinger"
Yes, that is the moniker that I have given myself the All-American the Basic Average All-American Jewish Lesbian Folksinger.
And your first band was Nervous Gender?
That's the first band I was in. I'd been playing since I was 14, doing shows, but probably from when I was like 17 I played mainly lesbian coffeehouses, there were just a few of those. And then when I was 19 I was in Nervous Gender, which was a synthesizer band in Los Angeles, part of the kind of very avante-guarde screamer-ish kind of scene that was attached to the local Los Angeles punk rock scene.
Did you record anything with them?
No, I didn't, they recorded but I never recorded anything with them, so there's a number of Nervous Gender things out, but I don't I don't think there's anything with my singing on it, I don't think.
And then to Catholic Discipline.
Catholic Discipline, Nervous Gender, and Castration Squad everything kind of overlapped all around the same time. I was in Nervous Gender and then I got asked to be in Catholic Discipline, and that was there's a new Catholic Discipline recording out on Artifix Records, which is pretty good. I mean, it's pretty true to the what it was really like, a lot of really kind of crummy live recordings, yes, but they really capture that drum set kind of getting away from Craig, so so, that's kind of cool, yeah.
The CD is called "Underground Babylon" and I want to mention a couple of songs from it, "Barbie Doll Lust"
"Barbie Doll Lust," yes, it's not normal.
Catholic Discipline - European Sons (1980, just released on "Underground Babylon," 2004)
"European Sons" is the "European Sons" is the Velvet Underground song, yeah, so it's pretty great
And you played guitar with them
I played guitar, yes.
You didn't sing.
Ah, I sang on every once in a while we did "Pablo Picasso," and I san on that
What prompted your switch from punk to folk?
Ah, well, I mean, I mean technically it was a switch but inside me I've always been a folksinger, so but to go back to playing acoustically the motivation behind it is directly related to the song "Take Off Your Swastika." And I wrote that as a reaction to basically the fashion that was going on in the punk scene at the time, which was people were wearing swastikas, I'm Jewish, it made me angry, I wrote the song "Take Off Your Swastika." And since I wrote that song I wanted people to be able to hear the words, and so that was why I started playing acoustic again. And the great thing was that the audience didn't change. I still played to all the same people I played to in the bands, all the punk audiences. It was all the same clubs. I was still playing with all of the same bands, but I was playing acoustic so you could hear the words. And that was kind of the start of my solo career.
Let's hear a little of "Take Off Your Swastika"
Phranc - Take Off Your Swastika (1989, "I Enjoy Being a Girl")
That was "Take Off Your Swastika," an early song, though it did not appear on record until her 1989 release called "I Enjoy Being a Girl"
Do you see a connection between the genres punk and folk?
You know, a lot of people have made comparisons between punk rock and folk music and basically what it is for me, the difference between punk rock and folk music is that folk music I believe tells a more linear story, a lot of the time, but basically the only true difference is speed and sound. Cause folk music is a little bit slower and you can hear the words a little bit better, but a lot of the passion, the idea, the energy, the politic, is very much the same as punk rock.
Your style is unique, looking over the years, you write about people and you write about issues.
Yes, I do, I feel that great folk songs take current events and they make them historical documents, and they save them and record them in a way that anyone could listen to it, any time, and be able to get the information that the need, in a way that's very special. It's kind of better than reading the paper or going to the library. It's a very special way of sharing information. And folk songs through the ages have told silly stories and then a lot of them have told very political stories. And I think I do a little bit of both.
How did you land the record deal with Rhino Records?
I made my first record, "Folksinger," and it's the 20th anniversary of that record, and so I just made I pressed some records just for this tour, some CDs I should say, but it came out as a record, on vinyl, and I'd saved my money from teaching swimming. I saved $1,200 from teaching swimming and lifeguarding in Santa Monica. And, I didn't know anything about making records. I knew the kind of record I wanted to make. I wanted to make a solo, acoustic record. I knew I wanted it to be, like, very true, and very simple and plain, and my friend Craig Lee, from The Bags, said, "We're going to make your record. I know right where you to go." And he took me to see Ethan James at a little studio in Venice, California, called Radio Tokyo Studios, and I went in there with my handful of songs, and "Folksinger" is what came out of that. And I recorded that for $1,200 and when I was finished with it Gary Stewart from Rhino Records said, "We'll put it out." And so I was very fortunate, that someone was interested and put that record out right away. People often say, "You know, what should I do to make a record? I can I get my record out?" My attitude has always been, don't wait around for somebody else to do it for you. If I had waited for someone to want to make my record, I don't know if I would have ever made a record. So I just saved my money up and made my own record, and you know, we're very much back to that old do it yourself way of doing things right now. And I really encourage that, especially in this very indy, independent world we're in now.
I want to go through your albums. "Folksinger" was the first and came out in 1985. From it please tell me about the song "Amazons"
"Amazons" is my tribute to all of the great women in sports, at that time. It really is a historical document now, because a lot of the athletes that I'm, that I'm singing about well, the song is 20 years old, if not 25, and so they were, they were at their peak then. Cheryl Miller, the wonderful basketball player, Annie Meyers, Tammy Kinard, the great badminton player. Diana Nyad is now a sportscaster on NPR, you hear her all the time, but she was best known then for her great prowess at long-distance swimming. And she is one of my great heroines. So many of the women that I acknowledge in that song were great inspirations to me.
Phranc - Amazons (1985, "Folksinger")
Tell me about "LifeLover"
"Lifelover" is a song that I wrote a very long time ago. It was one of the very first songs that I wrote, around the time of "Take Off Your Swastika." I wrote the song in a suicidal state. I wrote the song because I was so depressed that I wanted to die and I thought, if I write this song and I kill myself, I'll look really stupid. It was self-preservation that I wrote that song out of. And I tell you it has completely turned around and become my anthem. And well that's where that song came from. It came from a very dark place, and my life has become very bright, because of it.
Phranc - Lifelover (1985, "Folksinger")
On the reissue of the album is the extra track "Everywhere I Go I Hear the Go Gos"
Yes, I did include that extra track, "Everywhere I Go I Hear the Go Go's," which is exactly what it's about. It was at the time I kind of grew up with the Go Go's in the punk rock scene, and was very friendly with them, and watched them, watched their meteoric rise to success, and that's really what that song was about, just watching them become, like the biggest deal.
Phranc - Everywhere I Go (I Hear the Go Go's) (1990, "Folksinger," on reissue CD only)
I have a English 45 of yours with "Amazons" on one side and "El Salvador" on the other, and that song was never released on an album
It was released only in England as a 45, so it's on Stiff Records. "Folksinger" came out on Stiff Records. There's also a 12" was it a 12" or a 10"? EP released in England with "El Salvador," "Charlotte" and "Amazons" on it.
From that hard to find English 45, here's just a bit of "El Salvador"
Phranc - El Salvador (1985, on UK and GR 7" 45 rpm's only)
If you were listening closely you heard Phranc mention that the song "El Salvador" only came out in the UK on a 45, coupled with "Amazons" and another song, "Charlotte." Well, "Charlotte" also was never released on an album, so I want to share that with you as well.
Phranc - Charlotte (1985, on UK 7" 45 rpm only)
We're up to 1989 and your second album. Tell us about the title track "I Enjoy Being a Girl"
"I Enjoy Being a Girl" is Rogers and Hammerstein. It's a totally delightful song. It comes from the soundtrack of "The Flower Drum Song." Pat Suzuki sang it on her record, and I love doing the song live. When I used to perform it, when the record came out, "I Enjoy Being a Girl," I would toss out tampons to the crowd. There are still a few of those signature tampons around. They were stamped "I Enjoy Being a Girl."
Phranc - I Enjoy Being a Girl (1989, "I Enjoy Being a Girl")
Tell us about the song "Martina"
Oh, "Martina" of course is my great tribute to Martina Navratilova, perhaps the greatest woman athlete of all time
Phranc - Martina (1989, "I Enjoy Being a Girl")
Looking over your catalog, which song of yours gets the most audience reaction?
Reaction I would say probably the most current and the most topical song. Like, I'll play tonight, you watch, you'll see "Condaleeza" will probably get the biggest reaction. Political songs get a great reaction. "Take Off Your Swastika" still gets a very powerful reaction. "Lifelover" always gets a great reaction, and I end all my shows with "Lifelover." But you watch, the Condaleeza song will probably get the most attention. Whatever's the most, the most topical song usually gets the biggest reaction at the time, and then it's always nice when people have favorites. We'll see, we'll see what's the big hit tonight.
And here's the song she was talking about, and it is very topical, called "Condoleeza"
Phranc - Condoleeza (2005, unreleased)
And that was a Queer Music Heritage Exclusive, as she's not recorded that song yet, and sang it for me during our interview
The album "Positively Phranc" came out in 1991, and I love that on it you did the song "Tipton"
Ah yes, my song for Billy Tipton. Yeah, that was a tragedy.
Can you talk a moment about that song?
I wrote the song about Billy Tipton after reading the article about his death, and the loneliness of his death really moved me, and his life as a musician and his identity. And I identified with the with the other life that he had to live to do what he loved to do. And I have not had to have an "other life," and yet my life has been very "other" in many ways. And the gender issue is always challenging for society and the world, moreso than it is for me. I feel very self-identified and I feel very strong, but the world is very, very brutal, and I wrote the song for Billy Tipton because I loved his power, and I loved what he did and I loved that he was so dedicated
Phranc - Tipton (1991, "Positively Phranc")
I've started my show before with "Surfer Girl." I love that arrangement.
It's beautiful, and part of the reason it's so beautiful is that Sid Straw is singing with me. She is the harmony vocal on that, and that is such a great song, and doing it with Sid was such a treat, and I feel really lucky that we have it recorded.
Tell us who she is.
Sid Straw was in the Golden Palaminos, and then she went on to make solo records. She had a record out on, I think it was on Virgin, and this was in the 80s. She's still around. She still sings. She's a great, great vocalist.
We're talking about the "Positively Phranc" album and on Two Nice Girls helped you out
Yeah, Two Nice Girls. That was a lot of fun. We recorded that at Willie Nelson's old studio. We has a blast. Warren Bruleigh came out and produced it, and I came to Austin and we recorded I don't know how many songs we did together three or four songs on that record. Yeah, we had a great time. We had a great time.
A song from that album, "I'm Not Romantic" came out in England on a 45 with a wonderful photo of you draped in satin and combat boots
Yeah, that was a great in fact Island records released it in England and the photograph on the cover was taken in New York, wasn't taken in England. But it was really fun and when we shot the jacket and I am wearing nothing except for a sheet and my combat boots. And the big deal about having that photo done, was, I mean it was a dream come true, and we shot a TV commercial to go with it. And it was kind of a take-off on I think it was the Calvin Klein commercial at the time that slowly panned up the body to the underwear, and so it was in the commercial the camera starts on my boots, and it slowly pans up my body, until you get to my head and then I say, "I'm just being Phranc," you know.
And you can see a scan of that very seductive photo on my site.
[in background: Phranc - Carolyn (1985, "Folksinger")]
Around this time you did a Neil Diamond impersonation act called Hot August Phranc.
Hot August Phranc. Well, what happened in 1991 was "Positively Phranc" came out. It started to gain some momentum. Everybody was really excited about it. As far as the label was concerned it was the most radio-accessable record I'd ever made. And I was on this huge tour. Morrissey called me to come and open his tour, which was a world tour. We started in England. We did the states.
We were going to go on and do Japan and Australia. It was a very exciting time, and what happened was, we got to the point of we got to Boston, and I was doing a live radio show in Boston, and on the air in Boston and the technician at the studio came in and said I'd gotten a phone call, and so I went in the other room to take the phone call, and it was my father telling me that my brother had been murdered. And that was kind of it for me. I went home and I disappeared for a long time. It was the end of the tour for me, and that was July 2, 1991.
And the tour had started in April, and so I was away for a couple of months, and then as of July 2nd I went home. And in September, October the label dropped me, and that was kind of the end of my career for a little while there. And I didn't really want to sing. Morrissey asked me to come back and I tried. I went and did a date in England, and it really wasn't any good for me, I couldn't be in front of people. So I went home and I made art, and it was one of the things that I could do. And if you go to my website you can see, you can click on "Cardboard Cobbler," and I started making my visual art again, because it was something I could do and be creative without people watching me. And it made me happy. And so that was the start of me doing illustration and returning because I'd always done visual art, but really kind of focusing on that again.
And then I needed a way to get back onstage. So the question you asked me was about Neil Diamond, and what happened was years before I had done a workshop, at a festival, the Mariposa Folk Festival, in Canada, and Jane Siberry was part of that panel, and the title of that workshop was "The Worst Song That I Ever Learned." And when I was a kid the worst song that I every learned was "Solitary Man," and I hated that song. And so I did that song in that workshop and I talked about it. And I had been talking to somebody about it during the time when I was making my art, and they said, "Oh! You should do Neil Diamond. I mean, like, you should sing Neil Diamond." And I was like, "yeah, right."
And then I thought, that would be a really fun way to get back on stage, to not be me, to be somebody else. So that's where Hot August Phranc. And I think I was, I was with Holly Hughes at the time, and she's the one that said "Hot August Phranc." And I went "Yeah." And so the rest is kind of history, because it got me it got things rolling for me again. You know, I put my chest hair on, and I got back on stage. And it was a tremendous success. It was a lot of fun. I put a band together, the band was terrific. And so that was a real turning point for me, it really got me on stage, it really helped me. And after that it was I was kind of back on my feet again, and I wanted, had songs that I wanted to make and that I wanted to do. And I always wanted to do "Ode to Billy Joe," and started writing songs again. I'd been surfing every day since my brother died. I wrote "Surferdyke Pal." And I wrote "Bulldagger Swagger," you know, a lot of stuff happened.
And I had Phranc opening for Hot August Phranc. So Phranc was the opening act. And then she'd talk about how great Hot August Phranc was, and then she would leave the stage and then Hot August Phranc would come back with the band. So it was really great on a lot of levels.
Another non-album song is "Hillary's Eyebrows"
"Hillary's Eyebrows" came out as a 45 on Kill Rock Stars, on red vinyl, and I haven't done it in a while, but I think I'm going to work it up again, maybe edit it a little, change it around, and make it as the companion piece to "Condaleeza," in preparation for 2008.
Phranc - Hillary's Eyebrows (1995, on 7" 45 rpm only)
On the "Goofyfoot" album from 1995 there's another neat song called "Surferdyke Pal"
"Surferdyke Pal" is written about my best friend, my best surfing buddy, Laurie Valesco. And I met her at Malibu surfing. We became best friends, and she is my surferdyke pal.
Phranc - Surferdyke Pal (1995, "Goofyfoot")
Team Dresch, or at least Donna Dresch, helped you out on the "Goofyfoot" album
Ah, Team Dresch changed my life. Team Dresch I was invited to play a show in San Francisco at the San Francisco Women's Building, and it was put together by QTIP, Queers Together In Punkness. And it was a very kind of cool do it yourself show put on by this little queer punk community. It was me, Team Dresch, Bucktooth Varmints, and Cheesecake. And I had never seen Team Dresch before. I had only heard of them. And when I saw them play I was I hadn't been that moved for many, many years. I stood in that audience just completely inspired, crying, because I was so excited. And I had such a strong identification with them, and loved them so much. And we made friends that night, and we're still friends to this day. I talk to Jody from the road, she just had a kid, and I talk to Donna. I stay in touch with everybody from the band
They did a song for you, "Uncle Phranc"
They did "Uncle Phranc," which, wow, I'm still very touched by that.
Is that your voice at the beginning of the recording?
Yup, it's me talking to Jody on the phone. I was in the bathtub
Team Dresch - Uncle Phranc (1995, "Captain My Captain")
Your most recent album, "Milkman" came out in 1998. From it tell me about the song "Ozzie & Harriet"
"Ozzie & Harriet" is a song that I wrote, just being devastated by love, never thinking I was ever going to ever find anybody. And I'd really I'd really kind of given up, so much to the point that I had given up that I had just given up on women and I was just going to stick to birds. And I had Pickles. I got a parrot, because I wanted to have a relationship that would last longer than a parakeet's lifespan. So I got a bird that would last 50 years, Pickles Pie. And Pickles Pie is with me today, as well as my partner, and the kids and then we have an expanded family. Pickles is like my first wife, with wings. "Ozzie & Harriet" it just kind of shows how old-fashioned I am.
Phranc - Ozzie & Harriet (1998, "Milkman")
How do you think your music's changed over the course of your five albums?
I don't know, I think maybe my guitar playing is a little bit stronger, and I know a little bit more about what I want something to sound like maybe when I record it, but I still write exactly the same way. I'm still moved by the same things, and I'm not a very prolific writer. I write in chunks. I'll write a whole record and then I won't write for a couple of years. I mean, I'll take notes, or I'll write a line, or I'll play my guitar but I'm not somebody that writes tons of songs all the time, you know, it's just not how I work. So I think production on my records has changed a little bit. It's gotten a little bit, I don't know, maybe fuller.
Is there any message you hope your music gets across?
Message. Ah, well the goal when I play is to I want people to enjoy it, I want people to have fun, and perhaps during that time when they're laughing and having fun, it will occur to them to maybe think about a situation, a political idea, something that happens in their daily life. And I would like to be the one that sparks that.
Is there a song that you would think of is the most proud of?
Proud of I don't know, "Lifelover" is a very important song to me. I'll tell you one thing that was a really incredible experience and that I am very proud of. I've always worked alone and I've never really collaborated with anyone on anything, and in 1990 I wrote a song with Dave Alvin. And Dave's playing in the Knitters tonight and he's a great friend, but I'd never written anything with anyone. And we sat down and we wrote the song "Hitchcock" together, and I'm very proud of that song. I think we both did a great job, and he plays beautifully on it, on the "Positively Phranc" record, so yeah, I'm pretty proud of that. I think maybe I'd like to collaborate more. It's very hard for me, I'm very much a solo artist.
Would you talk about that song?
Oh, "Hitchcock" is a love song, and has lots of references to Alfred Hitchcock and all of his leading ladies. And it's a song that I sat down I had watched "Vertigo" the night before. I had broken up from a relationship, and my old girlfriend had looked-she had died her hair a bunch of times-but she looked just like Kim Novak, so that's kind of the opening line of "Hitchcock," "When you went blonde you looked just like Kim Novak." So, we kind of took it from there, so I am proud of that song.
Phranc - Hitchcock (1991, "Positively Phranc")
What do you think your contribution has been to queer music?
Oh, I don't know. I don't know what my contribution to queer music is. Hopefully I have a contribution that's bigger than just to queer music, but the point of me being on stage and coming out as a lesbian, and being so vocal about being a lesbian on stage and I still feel very strongly about that is people say to me from time to time, "Oh, come on, Phranc, do you still have to say it? Everybody knows you're a dyke. Everybody knows you're a lesbian. Hey, it's no big deal anymore." Well, you know, I personally feel that it is a very big deal. It's still a big deal, because people are still killing themselves because they're gay and lesbian and they feel that they are the only ones in the world. And it might be hard for some people to believe in the world where part of society thinks there's a lot of gay liberation. And there are a lot of gays and lesbians that are out in entertainment. Well, the truth is, there's just a handful, if that. And that doesn't really help when you're 13, 14, 16, 17, coming out and feeling that you're the only one in the world, or knowing that somebody is out there, but you can't get to them, and you can't connect.
When I was 17 I found out that there was a drop-in lesbian-feminist rap group, at this tiny women's center in Venice. And I lied, I told my mom I was going to the library and I rode my bike to that little, tiny women's center. And that changed my life, because I finally met women who were just like me. You know, they were ten years older than me. There wasn't anything for me when I came out at that age, but I found others that were like me. And I feel that if I stand on stage and I come out, I don't know who's going to see me. I don't know who I'm going to reach, but hopefully, hopefully, I can give some hope to someone out there so that they can grow up to be exactly who they are, whether they're straight, whether they're queer, whether they're trans, whether they're dykes. Everybody should have the opportunity to be who they are. If there's any message, that's the one that I'd like to spread.
Tell me about "The Tupperware Lady"
Oh, "The Tupperware Lady," well, I did sell Tupperware, in fact I still have my toe into plastic. In 1999, when we had our first daughter I did not want to go on tour. I did not want to leave the house, I didn't want to go anywhere. I didn't want to leave my family, my new family. And so I had to figure out a way where I could stay home, make my records, and make money. And it was kind of a joke, I said to Lisa, "I could sell Tupperware." And she said, "Yeah, right, you're going to sell Tupperware." And I said, "No, I love Tupperware, I'm going to sell Tupperware." And I opened the phone book and I called Tupperware. And the rest has become history, because what came out of that was not only did I find a new women's community, not only did I love Tupperware, love the women, learn a lot, and I started selling like gangbusters, so I became very, very, very successful at Tupperware, climbed the ranks in the Tupperware world. And actually, there was a documentary made about my first year selling Tupperware that's called "Lifetime Guarantee: Phranc's Adventures In Plastic," which was greatly received at festivals all around the world, and is still awaiting distribution, hopefully that's going to happen soon. But I had a lot of fun, and made a lot of money, and it was because I needed to find an alternative way to make money, and still do all the stuff that I love. So it enabled me to stay home, still make my records, still write my songs, be with my kids, do the Tupperware parties at night, and Tupperware is still fantastic. I mean, and it's very empowering for women. And it's a really, really great experience.
Phranc - Tupperware Lady (2005, not released)
I want to thank Phranc for providing me with the unreleased song "Tupperware Lady"
What is ahead for you musically?
I hope to have a new record out by hopefully the holidays, but I should be out touring again in the Spring. That's my goal, to be touring again in the Spring, mark my words. It might not be a really long tour, but I'll be out with something new. I'll record this Condaleeza song and have a whole new record full of new material. And if you go to my website, Pholksinger.com, with a "PH," you will be able to find out all my tour dates, when my new record's coming out, buy Tupperware, look at my artwork, maybe buy my artwork, and hopefully be able to download songs soon. So, I'm working on that. I have two art shows coming up when I get back to Los Angeles, and we still have, I think, 5 or 6 dates left on this tour. So, this tour's been really, really great. I want to thank, on the air I'd really like to thank Exene Cervenka of X and the Knitters for inviting me on this tour, because it's really just inspired me and reminded me that this is what I still do, you know. I'm still the All-American Jewish Lesbian Folksinger. I still sing songs that hopefully make a difference, and I still have a lot of fun.
Now, I've got one more song to share with you, but before I get to it I want to thank you all for listening, and to thank Toni Armstrong Jr and Phranc for the wonderful interviews. And, as always if you have questions or comments about any of the music I've featured, please write me. And I wish you would. My website, of course is at www.queermusicheritage.com. This is JD Doyle for Queer Voices on KPFT in Houston.
I usually save my favorite song by an artist and use it to close the show, and that's what I did with Phranc's song "Bulldagger Swagger."
In 1995 a 5-song EP came out called "Goofyfoot" and it contained my favorite song of yours, "Bulldagger Swagger"
Ah, I'm trying to think of how I wrote "Bulldagger Swagger." I know I originally wrote it on the ukulele. It's very danceable. It's very self-affirming. It's funny, it's dykey. I really like it, and I can't remember how I came to write it, but it's one of my favorites, too, I think, I really do.
Phranc - Bulldagger Swagger (1995, "Goofyfoot")