“I don’t think I’ve ever been more nervous for a gig in my life,” says country star Shooter Jennings. He's sitting on a stool with an acoustic guitar as rain taps on the stained glass window behind him. “Tia was the first bass player my band had,” he continues. “There was this one song that she loved. She said, ‘You have to put that song out there.’ And it turned out to be the first song of ours that anyone cared about, in a lot of ways.” With that, he launches into an impassioned rendition of “Fourth of July,” part of a moving, 45-minute acoustic tribute to his friend, Tia Sprocket, who died in Los Angeles on Friday, Jan. 27.
News of Sprocket's death hit a denim-and-leather-clad swath of the American music scene hard. There was disbelief, depression and heartbreak that this supercharged artist, with her arresting voice, raw charisma and boldly principled artistry, was gone.
“If you ever got to be in her presence hearing her sing one of her songs, you were lucky, one of the blessed,” Hank Williams III tells me. A champion of Tia’s for many years, Hank III had, like so many, been searching for Tia since she withdrew from society sometime around 2012. “Tia could tune a snare drum like no other and could make a kick drum boom as loud as the John Bonham of legends past,” he remembers. “When she picked up a guitar, the songs were powerful, deep and raw. She could paint and create any mood. Then, once she unleashed her voice on you …”
As word of her death spread, a Facebook page called “The Tia Sprocket Project” was started, and a memorial show, “Tia’s Cosmic Memorial Jam,” was rapidly pulled together Tuesday night at HM157, the Victorian home turned arts space in Lincoln Heights, with many of Tia’s friends and collaborators — including Jennings — gathering to sing the Tia Sprocket blues.
That both Jennings and Hank III, former rivals and de facto heirs to American outlaw country, should be grieving Sprocket says much about her standing among the musical community, not to mention the many musicians who performed at and attended her memorial — among them Becky Wreck of Lunachicks, country singer Beth Bladen and Corey Parks of Nashville Pussy and Die Hunns.
Tia Palmisano was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, on April 5, 1968. Her first love was the drums, and her mom paid for lessons for four months before Tia decided she had learned everything she needed to know. In her teens, she joined the band Gut Bank, which later morphed into Sexpod, a grungy all-female trio with vocalist/guitarist Karyn Kuhl and bassist Alice Genese. They were days away from a tour when Sprocket decided to quit the band — onstage. “She got up in the middle of the show, said 'I’m out' and walked offstage,” says Stone Sour drummer Roy Mayorga, giving a firsthand account of the legendary incident at the HM157 memorial.
Between 1997 and 2000, Sprocket toured the world with Luscious Jackson, playing percussion, bass, guitar and singing background vocals for their studio album, Electric Honey. Kate Schellenbach, drummer for Luscious Jackson, recalls when the band played Lilith Fair alongside The Pretenders, Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris and Sarah McLaughlin.
“Every musician wanted her to jam with them,” she says. “She was strikingly beautiful, cool as hell, but also completely warm and open. She was so fucking talented and a natural musician who could play anything, in any style, with soulful authenticity. We were all rooting for her — she was a true free bird, as she had tattooed on her middle fingers.” Theo Kogan of Lunachicks, with whom Tia played, describes her as “a rock & roll machine. Rock & roll to the core. She sweat and bled rock & roll.”
She moved to Los Angeles in the early 2000s, and lived with Tamra Spivey and Ronnie Pontiac of Lucid Nation, a riot grrrl band on the rise. “When we got into riot grrrl we thought rock was stupid, white guys ripping off black music, and you were a fool to believe anything idealistic about it,” Pontiac says. “Tia absolutely cured me and Tamra of all that. She was an incarnate high priestess of what rock is supposed to be. Tia wasn't a white guy; she wasn’t a reactionary asshole, or a sellout. She lived and breathed this way of being. It absolutely revolutionized how I felt about the music, and I know she did that for many people.”
In 2003, Sprocket became the only woman to ever play drums for Ministry. Max Brody, who played alongside her on that tour, says: “Tia was one tough lady. She could hold her own with the rest of the Ministry guys on tour. ... That oughta tell you something.”
Around that time, she was hired to be “rock coach" for the 2003 movie Prey for Rock & Roll, instructing the film’s stars Gina Gershon and Drea de Matteo (the latter of whom would go on to marry Shooter Jennings and was good friends with Sprocket) on how to carry themselves in the correct, most authentically rockin’ way possible. By the time Hank III invited Sprocket to go on the road with him in the mid-2000s, she was already a seasoned musician with a stunning body of solo songs, the culmination of a life in rock music that she hoped, finally, to share. With Hank III and his fans on her side, Sprocket was on the cusp of success, a bona fide female rock star with the material, style and vision to take her to the top.
I met Tia in late 2004 when she was living in a studio apartment on Wilton Avenue in Hollywood. Sometimes she assisted her close friend, leather maker Agatha Blois, making leather pants for Slash and other rock luminaries. She was writing and recording ferociously. Her only goal, her life’s mission, was to share those songs with the world. “Hip-swaggering, backwoods grooves of thunder and words from lightning,” is how she described her sound.
“After five years of writing, I finally feel like a channel that hopefully offers up the same momentum of sound, story and craftsmanship as the greats before me,” she said. Like everyone who knew her, I marveled at these future classics she had written, and her live performances, which seemed powered by something otherworldly. “I think people are starving for the feeling you get from honesty,” she told me. “I’d like to believe that I can deliver that.”
Very little video of her solo performances exist, except for this, her live performance of her song “Lady Jane” with Kim "Chi" Fuellman from The Distillers.
She did solo acoustic shows at the Viper Room, with her guitar and a tiny amp, stomping rhythm with her feet. She had a monthly night at the M Bar, The Backwoods of Holly, where she invited her friends Beth Bladen (who flew in from Indiana to perform at the memorial) and Shooter Jennings to play. She worked the door at a now-defunct reggae speakeasy in Hollywood, which served notoriously strong punch. She frequented the Little Joy, when it was still covered in graffiti, and Hank’s Bar, a down-home dive in the old, grimy downtown L.A.
She self-released one CD, Pale Moonshine, and a self-titled, five-song EP. Only a handful of Sprocket’s songs are online, on MySpace. By the time social media came of age, with its Facebook sharing, SoundCloud and Spotify, Tia had already gone underground, batting that rock & roll sickness otherwise known as addiction. When she died last month, she was living in a room in a converted Craftsman house near MacArthur Park. Her room was plastered with messages of faith and self-motivation, and she was surrounded by what remained of her recordings; thousands of pages of writing, lyrics, artwork and photos; and mementos of her friends in New York, Florida and L.A. Even a small stuffed monkey that she had had since the age of 2, carefully preserved in a Tupperware box.
Her mother, Stanlee, a graceful and deeply spiritual woman, was the only person with whom Tia remained in constant contact at the end of her life. Stanlee says that in her last years, Tia had adopted the poor and dispossessed street people of Los Angeles as her own. “Mom, they’re the kindest people you’ll ever meet,” Tia told her. She had started to read the Bible. Psalm 51, traditionally referred to as the "Miserere," was her favorite. "Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions."
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At the memorial, Tia’s mother hugged the tearful kids. She, more than anyone, knows that her daughter was battling a disease that comes with the territory, as the ghosts of Johnny Cash, Kurt Cobain, Gram Parsons and Tia’s hero, John Bonham, can attest. And while the exact cause of her death is yet to be established, the quick answer is that Tia Sprocket probably died as a result, direct or indirect, of an active drug addiction that had wreaked its damage on her body, slowly rearing its head around 12 years ago, after several years of sobriety in AA.
To some, Sprocket’s death holds meaning within a broader narrative; they see her as a martyr of the new era, in which rock has been eclipsed by saccharine corporate pop, in which disc jockeys are chained to playlists, in which record labels have such limited resources to develop talent. Says Ronnie Pontiac: “Kurt Cobain was someone whose art wrestled with the conscience of culture, and he annihilated himself. It’s almost like Tia is the next progression of the story. This is what happens when they can’t even be heard, even though we know there are kids out there who are craving it. Tia represents this era, in that sense.”
“It always hurts when the time is up,” Hank III says in his tribute to Tia. Whether he’s talking about rock & roll, too, I’m not sure. A great flaw of humanity is our tendency to only appreciate things once they are gone. As Tia's mother gathers her daughter's surviving recordings, with the goal of someday releasing them, perhaps we’ll get a second chance to appreciate Tia Sprocket, a star hidden in plain sight.