It has long been the case that, with a handful of exceptions, women have been relegated to the sidelines of rock history — at least as it’s been written by (mostly) men. In the year of #MeToo and women refusing to be silenced, archivist Tanya Pearson’s Women of Rock Oral History Project feels increasingly necessary.
Pearson has been interviewing artists such as Alice Bag, Tracy Bonham, Spitboy’s Michelle Gonzales, Brie Howard Darling, Tanya Donelly, Black Flag bassist Kira Roessler and Donita Sparks since 2014 for the Women of Rock collection, which currently contains 30 video interviews and written transcripts. She will host a Women of Rock OHP fundraiser at Zebulon Café next Thursday, Jan. 11, that will feature panel discussions and performances by Kristin Hersh, Legal Weapon, Neon Music, Phranc, Azalia Snail, and a band Hole drummer Patty Schemel is pulling together for the event.
A 2016 Smith College graduate, Pearson had been conducting oral history interviews for the school’s Sophia Smith Collection for three-and-a-half years when she started working on a paper for a seminar on censorship’s history in the United States. An unexpected roadblock spawned the Women of Rock project.
“I wanted to focus on three female-fronted bands from the ’90s — L7, Veruca Salt, and the Breeders — and just how they were represented in media,” she explains, “and I couldn’t find enough primary source documents online or in any archives to write the paper. I was mortified, and really surprised. I was a teenager in the ’90s and I played in bands, and L7 was a huge band. So I thought to myself, ‘What happens to women in music retrospectively? Because it’s not that they weren’t huge at the time. Who gets remembered?’”
She consequently tracked down Nina Gordon and Louise Post after a Veruca Salt concert in Boston, and flew from Massachusetts to LA to conduct interviews with them as well as Kristin Hersh, Lydia Lunch, JD Samson, and Mary Timony. The burgeoning oral history project soon became part of the Sophia Smith Collection.
“It is not in any way funded by Smith or the college,” Pearson says. “They just house the collection. And I’m grateful for that — it gives it a sense of legitimacy.”
Pearson’s lengthy interviews elicit insightful descriptions of the cultures that produced individual artists, and dig into deeper issues of identity and creative expression. Self-described “confrontationalist” Lydia Lunch recalls Suicide giving her vitamins when she was an enraged 10th-grade dropout struggling to survive alongside contemporaries like Thurston Moore, and finding her artistic voice while living in a New York tenement with six-foot towers of garbage outside. David Bowie/Tears for Fears bassist and solo artist Gail Ann Dorsey thoughtfully discusses different temperaments required of bar bands and pop stars, session players and independent artists, and recalls being inspired later by Ani DiFranco. Phranc recounts trying to bring the punk and gay music scenes together and feeling empowered by Alice Bag as well as the Go-Gos (“They were just gals getting together to play music”), and says writing “Take Off Your Swastika” in response to skinhead machismo led to her becoming “the all-American Jewish lesbian folksinger.”
Throughout the interviews, a persistent theme emerges of upending gender expectations, personally and professionally, and needing to create — often in subcultures that offered freedom unavailable elsewhere.
While attempting to publicize the project, Pearson says she’s encountered prejudice from editors and cultural tastemakers — gatekeepers who sometimes excise particular women from articles and books because of personal dislike, regardless of their achievements. The situation reminds Pearson of the zine phenomenon and the recent Riot Grrl resurgence. Once disdained by historians and professional journalists as unreliable and inauthentic, zines created by young girls at the forefront of the Riot Grrl movement are now housed in a special collection at New York University — and considered a notable source.
“There are more women journalists and historians now, but the people who have constructed this inherently masculine rock ‘n’ roll context have, for the most part, been white men,” Pearson says. “What’s really important about this collection and the kind of interviews that I try to do is that they are personal and professional biographies. A lot of times, women musicians’ experiences get essentialized into the ‘women in rock experience.’ So we’ll get our monthly article in Rolling Stone or something with four figureheads on the cover. …
“I interview women, trans musicians and gender-nonconforming people, pretty much anyone who identifies as a woman; I am not the gender police. My purpose is to give these artists who have been marginalized a chance to tell their full stories. They’re historical documents — primary source documents that archivists, scholars and journalists can use. I hope that they do, to continue to write about rock ‘n’ roll musicians and rock ‘n’ roll history, and to flesh out the narrative and make it more inclusive. It’s a lofty goal.”
Despite the perpetual challenge of lining up funding (“I could spend 24 hours a day writing grants”), Pearson says it’s a gratifying labor of love. She maintains friendships with about half the women she’s interviewed.
“The project is very personal to me. I get to ask all these women these questions I wanted to ask them when I was 13 and 14.”
Women of Rock Oral History Project: Los Angeles Launch Party at Zebulon Cafe, 2478 Fletcher Drive, Silver Lake, at 7-11 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 11; $10. Venue info: (323) 662-0966.ock.org/la-fundraiser, Zebulon.la