I may be having a musical mid-life crisis. My efforts at personal growth and introspection have landed me in front of a funhouse mirror and suddenly so many things that I have loved, or thought I loved, possibly still do love, are bugging the shit out of me. “Please!” I whined the other day, “I never want to hear another band that thinks they sound like the New York Dolls. Make it stop.” I have a serviceable collection of powerpop 45s. Hell, in 2004 I even snuck backstage to take a photo with the Romantics in my matching haircut and skinny tie. A few months ago, I was weeding out dead weight from my record collection and jettisoned a batch of albums featuring 30-year-old men in pink overalls crooning about their underage conquests. But then, last Sunday, I was visited by my teenage self and received a jolt of inspiration.
Before I was a teenager in the mid-90’s, heavily into garage punk and worshipping at the altar of the Makers and the Drags, I was an 11-year-old girl getting my first mixed tape, secondhand, from my friend Andrea Crooke’s impossibly cool older sister who was into all that alternative stuff that freaks listened to in the late-80’s before Nirvana came along and unwittingly launched the sale of thousands of flannels to suburban teens. I slid the tape into the stereo and lay on my raggedy canopy bed listening to Siouxsie and the Banshees, Kate Bush, and Echo and the Bunnymen for the very first time.
As a teenager, I would go to just about any punk show that I could finagle a ride to. I was completely undeterred by difficulty getting there, how late I would be out, that I had school in the morning. I was driven by the compulsion to reach for as much music as I could get my hands on, each new experience devoured without question or criticism. In the ninth grade I got a job cleaning shelves at the Haunted Bookshop in Tucson. On Sundays I would work with a pre-med student who was a fellow lover of the Young Ones and sometimes wore his hair like Vyvyan. Often he would give me a ride downtown to see a show after the shop closed and would pick me up after his night shift at the hospital. It didn’t occur to me to be shy or scared to be alone at a show; not going wasn’t an option.
These days I rarely find the motivation to trek from my home in Oakland to see live music in San Francisco on a work night (ok, any night). I had been meaning to go see Wax Idols for quite some time, but various forces conspired to keep me away from their shows in the Bay for probably two years. When Wax Idols frontperson/creative force Hether Fortune was living in Oakland our paths would occasionally cross to hang out or play a show together. She’s since moved to Los Angeles, but I have been able to keep tabs on her voice and the progression of Wax Idols through the magic of social media. Hether’s public persona is polarizing; often provocative, confrontational, over-sharing. I admire that she speaks out against injustice or just plain bullshit. In a recent article she describes her creative process:
“The way my band Wax Idols works is like this: it’s mine.…It’s been fairly commonplace throughout my career to be regarded as some kind of succubus bitch who surely must be feeding on the talent of her sexual partners, as opposed to being a technically proficient and driven artist who calls the shots and also has sex and/or relationships with other artists. You know — the way in which men who are exactly like me (in this context) are revered. This is the typically sexist framework within which women are often assessed and judged.”
Listening to their new album, American Tragic, I hear echoes of this sentiment, an assertion of artistic and romantic agency, in the undulating “I’m Not Going.”
“I am punished for my dreams…
…Kept but never seen…
…They couldn’t keep me in, I’m not afraid of the light
I’ve got diamonds in my bones, I can shine alone”
Last month I read an interview Hether did with Them Are Us Too, who are touring with Wax Idols this fall. So many elements of the conversation resonated with me and my interest was piqued enough that I was determined to get off my uninspired ass and make it to their Sunday night show at Bottom of the Hill in SF.
I got to the show early with my friend Holly in time to see the opening band, the way I did when I was young and didn’t want to miss anything. None of that “cool” bullshit where you harass your musician friends by text so that you can time your arrival with their set time. We caught the opening set by Screature from Sacramento and then huddled in the back of the club nursing our drinks and catching up. We both stopped mid-sentence, transfixed by a faint and compelling sound coming from around the corner. Them Are Us Too had just begun their set. Standing in front of them with Holly, watching, I felt wrapped in the most soothing aural cocoon, emanating a blue light that called forth our inner teenage selves, inviting us to dance and hug in the soft glow. After their set I felt calm, cleansed, and receptive.
Wax Idols launched into their set with “Lonely You,” propelled by drummer Rachel Travers’ relentless precision. For “Deborah” Hether shed her teardrop guitar to be free to dance and lean off the stage, nose to nose with the audience. At times Hether addressed the crowd directly, gazing hard at them, other times she seemed totally lost in her own creation. It takes guts to show yourself to people; sincerity isn’t cool. Recorded, the new songs feel like a pulsing heart, bound in shimmering metal. Live, they take on an additional dimension of organic power, held tense by surging guitar leads and automatic drumming. During “Goodbye Baby,” I noticed two graying men next to me craning their necks, searching for a trick behind Rachel’s insistent beat.
Sunday’s show was a potent antidote to my frustration and musical ennui. Holly and I remarked how amazing it was to experience performers realizing their vision, sharing songs that can be felt as well as heard, in a loosely-crowded club for $10. It was a feeling of experiencing something meaningful, that not everything good has already been done, a reconnection to my first taste of watching live music that held me spellbound.
“But, like, why were you so into garage rock? What did you like about it?” Holly asked me after getting into my car. On the way home we were listening to a Jesus and Mary Chain singles collection that evoked her teenage years. I admitted that I was too far down the rabbit hole of striped t-shirts and Vox organs during my own adolescence and didn’t pay any attention to bands I now love such as New Order (drum machines were anathema to me) and the Jesus and Mary Chain until much later. I explained that there was a big garage scene when I was growing up in Tucson. As an early lover of the Ramones and the Ventures, it made sense to me. Plus, there were bands like the Gories, the Inhalants, Lord High Fixers, and Supercharger, whose female drummers were influential to me as I began to navigate my way around a drum kit in high school. But sometimes retro concepts are taken too literally, innovation is discouraged, and regressive attitudes result. I know this holds true across many genres of music, but certain scenes strike me as homogenous by design. I sighed and admitted that I could live without ever hearing “Psychotic Reaction” ever again.
The Wax Idols play in Brooklyn, NY on Halloween at St. Vitus. See the rest of their tour dates here.
Layla Cooper is a musician and occasional writer living in Oakland, CA.