Tales of Debauchery from L.A. Scene Queen Pleasant Gehman
Long before Riot Grrls, the Los Angeles punk scene was a breeding ground for rebellious, rockin' females. Audacious and un-apologetic on stage, in their private lives and in print, this breed of brazen babes were never just part of the scene, they made the scene.
Pleasant Gehman was arguably the queen of the L.A. "scenester" lifestyle throughout the late '70s and '80s, working at virtually all the legendary clubs in the city (Cathay de Grande, Raji's, Club Lingerie), playing on their stages with bands such as The Screamin' Sirens, Honk If You're Horny, and The Ringling Sisters, and maybe most importantly, chronicling her misadventures in various zines, the L.A. Weekly's "La Dee Da" nightlife column, and eventually her books Senorita Sin, Escape From Houdini Mountain and The Underground Guide to L.A.
Gehman's life took an exotic turn when she discovered the power and allure of belly dancing in the '90s. She was soon traveling all around the world as Princess Farhana, a top performer and teacher of Middle Eastern movement. Looking more beguiling than ever, Gehman remains an L.A. icon in literary, music and burlesque circles. Her books serve as provocative documentations of the city's debauched past by someone who lived it, and in many cases, helped create it.
In her new book, Showgirl Confidential, out this week on Punk Hostage Press (the publishing company is owned her friend and collaborator Iris Berry), Gehman shares stories from the road like only she can. With over thirty years touring and traveling with bands and more recently, dance troupes, she's had plenty of shenanigans and escapades to write about, and her writing style always puts you right there as she recalls and re-lives every seedy, salacious and spectacular detail. We spoke with Gehman about the book, her career and the L.A. music scene then and now.
Describe your evolution as a performer and how your personna has changed.
I went from writing about bands to booking them, then being in bands and touring. I actually started belly dancing in 1990, after a chance meeting when a friend came up to me on the dance floor at Club Lingerie and asked if I was a belly dancer! I started taking classes, then I went from rock clubs in Hollywood to hanging out at Arabic Clubs in the Valley. I gave up my ripped fishnets and leather jackets and started wearing "ladylike" clothes so I could fit in. I felt like an under-cover agent, nobody knew I was Pleasant Gehman- they only knew I was a belly dancer.
Then I went on my first of several trips to Egypt to study and my my entire life changed, I came back and worked non-stop as a belly dancer, and just switched gears entirely, dancing became my whole life. Michelle Carr drafted me into The Velvet Hammer [L.A.'s seminal punk chick burlesque troupe] in the mid-1990's, and I began doing burlesque. I kind of shaped my dance career on a punk rock model, and figured if I put out a video, it would be the same as a band putting out a single, and then touring and getting better gigs...and that's what happened!
Sometimes it's still hard for me to believe that I went from the Hollywood underground to the glittery global adventure my life has become. Sometimes, as I'm stepping onto the stage to dance somewhere like Cairo or Istanbul, I'll think, "How the hell did this happen?"
How does 'Showgirl Confidential' fit in with your other books content-wise? Do you look at your books as a series of sorts?
This is my first book in thirteen years... and it's actually been that long in the making, because my primary focus has been performing and teaching dance and traveling all over the world to do it, but also because these are almost all touring stories. I've been on the road a lot since I started touring in 1983 with The Screaming Sirens, and for the past ten years it has been constant. I was on the road non-stop the first six months of this year, in Turkey, Australia, the UK, Hawaii and all over North America. So I focused on that, and most of the book was written at airports or in hotel rooms at 3am when I was wide awake with jet lag. This book's content was whittled down considerably, so my publisher Iris Berry and I decided to do a series of two books with road stories- the follow-up to "Showgirl" will be published next year on Punk Hostage Press.
Tell me about your time at the L.A. Weekly.
The L.A. Weekly was a pretty wild place when I started working there as a teenager in 1978! It was everything you'd imagine of an alternative paper in the late '70's and early '80's...and more: punk chicks with blue hair and 1940's dresses writing alongside editors who were old newspapermen who kept fifths of Scotch in their desk drawers.
Jay Levin was the publisher then; he was the one who hired me to do "LA De Dah." In the early '80's, when Jay found out I was getting married, he called me into his office and said, "What would you like for a wedding present: money or drugs? " I wasn't sure if he was joking or not, so I said, "Both, of course!" ...and that's what I got from him!
My other favorite anecdote also came from the 1980's. This was so outrageous, I can't even believe it happened- or how it managed to slip through the cracks, but it did. Lots of the people who worked at the Weekly were in punk and alternative bands, hanging out in the clubs and bars every night, and would come in to work hung over or still drunk and/or stoned. The Art Department as a whole was particularly notorious.
In 1989, a paperback called Deviant came out. It was about the infamous mass murderer and cannibal Ed Gein, whose crimes inspired Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence Of The Lambs. Apparently, Gein, who was also an avid hunter, would kill women, cut them up and wear their skins over his body while dressing up in in his mother's clothes. He'd also eat parts of his victims, and as a way of disposing of the bodies, give the extra flesh to his neighbors, passing it off as "venison," so they all were eating his victims, too. Everyone at the Weekly was reading "Deviant" obsessively, and all at the same time.
Flash forward a few weeks to when a very trendy and expensive French restaurant opened on Hillhurst in East Hollywood. Their specialty was Provencal wild game-venison in particular. When the restaurant got reviewed in the Weekly, someone in the art department had taken the cover photo of Ed Gein and inserted it into the review, with the caption reading something like "This is NOT the chef of [this restaurant]"!
The Screamin' Sirens
So what kinds of anecdotes are you sharing in Showgirl Confidential? I know it's a lot of tour stories. Do we get L.A. stories too?
In the story "Them," I mention a gig at Club Lingerie that featured the iconic Screamin' Jay Hawkins, with Tex and The Horseheads and my band The Screaming Sirens opening. It wasn't unusual for true rock and blues legends to play at or just hang out at local clubs that were featuring punk and alternative bands. Screamin' Jay Hawkins was always getting stoned in the kitchen at Raji's, while Iggy Pop, Sky Saxon from The Seeds and The Legendary Stardust Cowboy were around all the time, and so was Don "Sugarcane" Harris (of legendary R&B duo Don & Dewey) was playing regularly with Tupelo Chainsex. The Hollywood rock scene was like a marvelous musical melting pot in those days.
The local music scene is totally different these days. What has changed the most and why?
While I'm no longer an authority on the local scene at all, I get out when I'm here. I think the main thing that's changed the most is that the whole club scene isn't as freewheeling and fun as it used to be. From the '70's to the mid-'90's, there was an entire underground subculture of creative people who went out every night, either playing in bands or documenting the scene. There was a lot of camraderie, and also a lot of mayhem, but it was fun and close-knit.
The people who owned and worked at the clubs knew all the bands and all the people who came to watch them, it was a lot more "innocent" than it became later when alternative music started to explode and there was money to be made. I think that started around the mid-'90's; suddenly there were a lot of really derivative copy cat bands around, and a lot of idiots coming to watch them and a lot of A&R people sniffing around. I probably sound like a snob, but I don't care. It became all about money, not rock and roll and creativity. There was a marked change when that occurred and I don't think there will ever be such a pure, cohesive scene again, in L.A. or anywhere.
Punk Hostage Press Presents: Pleasant Gehman's Showgirl Confidential Book Signing And Release Party, Sunday, September 29, 2013 at Skinny's Lounge'4923 Lankershim Blvd. North Hollywood, CA 91601 6:30 pm-9: 30pm; over 21; free
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