Tanya Pearson was a student at Smith College in Massachusetts when she conceived of and developed an inspired idea: Conduct and collect a comprehensive series of interviews with female rock and rollers, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that the same recognition and place in rock history available to men is also up for grabs for women. The Women of Rock Oral History Project was born.
For the three years that she attended Smith, Pearson was essentially an archivist, finding the support for the project in academia that she couldn’t get anywhere else. Now, the collection is housed at Smith, and Pearson continues to add interviews.
“I’m not famous, so I had trouble finding funding for it outside of academia,” Pearson says. “So I applied to a graduate program, a public history program. Then I can at least get funding for flights, for an event like this.”
Yes, on Thursday there will be a Women of Rock Oral History Project panel discussion at Zebulon, followed by a number of live performances from a handful of the musicians in attendance. Pearson says that these events serve to introduce a wider audience to the collection — the last thing she wanted was to curate something that would sit static in a university library, achieving nothing but grades.
“The events, and this is the first on the West Coast, are to introduce a wider audience to the lives and work of the people that we’ve interviewed,” Pearson says. “But also maybe to introduce the project to a kindly benefactress. People with the potential to donate so we can grow and expand the collection.”
There will be 13 panelists, all people that Pearson has interviewed, or is going to. The evening will consist of three mini-panel discussions with artists as respected as punk mainstays Alice Bag and Phranc, overlooked local heroines such as Legal Weapon's fiery Kat Arthur and LoveyDove's Azalia Snail, author-drummer Michelle Cruz Gonzales, riot-grrl icon Allison Wolfe (Bratmobile, Ex-Stains), and the rarely seen Julia Cafritz (Pussy Galore). Live performances will come courtesy of trans punk star Neon Music, Phranc, Azalia Snail, Kristin Hersh, Legal Weapon (performing as a full band for the first time in a long time), and Patty Schemel.
“I like networking, and it will give people an opportunity to meet these women,” says Pearson. “I hope it’s fun. I always like things to be educational and also fun. I hate only doing panels, because I feel like it’s a rock project.”
The project is clearly important. The sad thing is that, in 2018, it’s still necessary. Perhaps some progress has been made since the stripper-and-groupie culture of the 1980s, but there is still a lot of work to be done before parity is achieved.
“I think that it’s cyclical,” Pearson says. “You have these eras. The 1980s was followed by the ‘90s — grunge and riot grrrl. That was a great time for women as performers and musicians, and also women in the media. But it cycles around again, and in the 2000s you have bands like Korn, Limp Bizkit — the hyper-masculine rock bands, and women in rock were out of fashion. I’m hesitant to say that it’s gotten better. I think it’s easer for girls and women to pick up an instrument and play in a band. The problem isn’t that women don’t play or record or participate very actively in a lot of different music scenes — there is a problem with who is remembered retrospectively. The solution is documentation, and publicizing it. Talking about women in music.”
In a weird quirk of fate and scheduling, former Vixen singer Janet Gardner performs at the Whisky on the same night as the panel, a fact that bums Pearson out when we reveal it to her. Gardner feels that the industry is slightly easier to navigate for women now than it was when Vixen was riding high in the charts.
“I don’t know what they’re going through,” Gardner says. “But it seems like there are a lot of great female-fronted, popular bands. All-female even. I think it’s a little more accepted. I think there’s still a metal boy’s club that’s not quite as friendly or open to it. But I do think it’s gotten better.”
Gardner’s perspective is important; having been in one of the biggest all-female rock bands, she took time out to focus on her family, and is now back with a new, self-titled solo album.
“This is my first venture outside of Vixen,” she says. “It was great because we totally felt like we could be ourselves, and we had no restrictions, no expectations from anyone, because nobody was expecting it. It gave us the ultimate freedom to do what we felt like doing. It was really great.”
Gardner's return is welcome, as is the fact that Vixen plays together fairly regularly again. Also welcome is Neon Music’s inclusion on the Women of Rock bill.
“I was asked to be a part of the event and I was honored,” Music says. “I think it’s really important to continue the dialog and have awareness about the contributions from the women and also more fringe gender-non-conforming and trans people involved in the rock world. A lot of male artists are put on a pedestal for their outlandish behavior, but women are vilified for that exact same behavior. It’s good to have everyone be on the same platform.”
With punk bands such as Against Me and Life of Agony achieving great things with trans singers, the days of Jayne County standing alone are thankfully long gone. Still, artists such as Music face many obstacles.
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“I’ve transitioned to female this past year, but I’ve always been a gender-non-conforming individual, and playing in rock bands, I’ve definitely had to prove myself more,” she says. “A lot of people would have assumptions that I can’t play guitar. I’ve had to play in the boy’s club, and that’s fine. But in this day and age, things are a lot more accepting than they were years ago. I definitely felt like I was a lone soldier for a long time. I’m happy to be part of the evolution of it all.”
As for Pearson, she’s just going to keep collecting these stories and shining a light on these amazing people. Things are far from perfect. There is much to be hopeful about, but we can do so much better.
“Its better in a lot of ways,” Pearson says. “Girls can start bands without being verbally ridiculed by people. When I was in high school, all I did was got made fun of. I don’t see a big difference in who’s getting remembered. It’s the same guys, and then we’re supposed to be ok with having Stevie Nicks, Joan Jett and Courtney Love in there. There are so many others.”
The Women of Rock Oral History Project takes place at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 11, at Zebulon; 2478 Fletcher Drive, Los Angeles. Janet Gardner plays the same day with Mycah, Intensity, Blind Innocence, and Fallen Fury at 8 p.m. at the Whisky A Go-Go; 8901 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles.