Photo by Larry Hirshowitz
WHEN SHE WAS A KID, TAIRRIE B USED TO TAUNT THE NEIGHBOR'S Doberman. Everyone told her this was a bad idea. One day, she leaned across the fence with a piece of bologna in her mouth. Today, you can see a slight ridge on the bridge of her nose where the dog chomped her face, breaking her schnoz.
She was not cured. Throughout her life, again and again, Tairrie has stuck her nose in risky places.
Like the music business. After a decade and a half of improbable navigations through that glamorous sewer, Tairrie has established herself in a band called My Ruin, originally a solo project so named because she figured that rather than let somebody else ruin her career, she was going to do it herself. Or succeed. But the responsibility would be hers.
Some performers, experienced in band interaction, would say that hell is other people; others, thinking of Tairrie's history (more on that later), would suggest that she brings her own inferno wherever she goes.
“Am I that bad?” she pleads hoarsely. “I'm not. I'm a pussycat, right?”
The question/declaration/rifle is aimed at Mick Murphy, the soft-spoken Tennesseean sitting next to her. In his two years as Tairrie's boyfriend and My Ruin's guitarist, Murphy has grown accustomed to handling such loaded inquiries.
“Tairrie is the sweetest, most loving person I've ever known,” he says without a twitch. “And she can be the biggest nightmare on the planet. She's like her arms.”
The tattoo on Tairrie's right bicep depicts the Virgin as heavenly queen; her left features a girl nailed to a cross. She has more: On her back, hands are shown folded in supplication for the success of My Ruin's last album, A Prayer Under Pressure of Violent Anguish. Below this, in ornate script along her panty line, is the legend “Pray for Rock.”
You have guessed by now that My Ruin is a radical band. Tairrie's lyric expressions, whether agonized (“I burn like a saint”), obsessed (“If I confess too many sins, will you still save me?”) or menacing (“Don't you fuckin' touch me . . . pig!”), are life-and-death stuff to her, and she pro-jects them in a scalding scream that comes from places far deeper and darker than her scarlet lips.
The express delivery of Tairrie's passion is a task to which the band is more than equal. My Ruin is headlining the Troubadour on a recent Thursday night, treading its first hometown boards after a tour in support of Kittie. There's a good crowd despite a competing gig by Downset, a group Tairrie feels shares her audience — not Hollywood prettypuffs; real humans with real gripes, who need this music.
Meghan Mattox holds down the left side of the stage. Her bass hangs six inches from the floor; her pancaked face is cast down, brows knit as if she's plotting to blow up the world. Meanwhile she drives the music straight ahead (“Meghan rocks!” somebody yells), smiling a little only when she turns to lock in with the drummer, Yael. In contrast to the stocky, chain-dangling Mattox, Yael moves like a whip, whomping with heavy-metal authority on her substantial kit while grinning and making glittery eye contact with whoever can stand the electricity. Despite phenomenal exertions, she never seems to get tired; must be possessed. This striking witch has star quality, really — she's been compared to Tommy Lee by Murphy, who's flailing his sweat-drenched hair on the other side of the stage, getting serious on guitar. He completes the picture of a rock band, with roots in Black Sabbath and Danzig, not a baggy-shorts nu-metal outfit. Though only 30, Murphy's been playing heavy shit since he was old enough to bang his head, and the way he articulates his riffs (damn good riffs) and works the wah-wah on his solos unmistakably stamps him as a dude with chops. Everybody's in black, the only sartorial contrast coming from Tairrie's red elbow guards — she doesn't want to get bruised if she has to give some stage intruder a pointy one to the mandible.
Tairrie B commands the middle. She's strong, solid, so when she thrusts an arm or kicks a leg, you can't miss it. The PA tonight isn't as powerful as she is, which is a problem. It's not that you miss the nuances of the words — Tairrie's a blunt lyricist, and she conveys more through her attitude, anyway. The shortfall is in what she contributes to My Ruin's sound: With roots in rap, she knows what it means for a voice to be an instrument of rhythm and texture: “You don't have to be a singer, contrary to popular belief!” she crows. If you're not hearing her loud, you're not hearing the band right. Tairrie compensates with drama. She shakes her hair, wails at the ceiling, pumps her fist, coming off not so much like Courtney Love as Blackie Lawless. She kneels down at stage edge and puts her message right into people's faces. She's always had conflicts about beauty, and in response to an Internet criticism that she's all about makeup, she takes a short interlude with cotton swabs and cold cream to wipe it off. She looks better without it.
The overall impression: a hard-working, professional, talented, charismatic, distinctive, modern arena-rock band. In a small club. With no record contract.
THE CONDITION IS TEMPORARY. MY Ruin will get signed again and make more CDs; they have a slew of unrecorded material, and Tairrie B simply won't allow it to go unheard. The only question is how long the next label alliance will last — there are wrecks in Tairrie's wake. Still, My Ruin is her best shot yet at a durable run. Part of the reason is maturity and experience. Another part is the stabilizing influence of Murphy, the wayward yet dependable son of a Southern Republican atheist.
“He is my partner, and I know that My Ruin wouldn't be this band without him,” says Tairrie. “I'd be doing spoken word in a café had I not met this man. He changed my life.”
The life of Tairrie B has been like a guerrilla war. Raised by her grandparents in Sylmar. Running wild and in trouble from an early age. Identity clash as a white girl bouncing among cultural allegiances — Anglo, Latino and black. Breakdancing on the street. Digging rap and figuring she might try it herself.
The rap idea sounded good enough to N.W.A's Eazy-E that he signed Tairrie B to his Ruthless Records and in 1990 released a star-studded album, The Power of a Woman, that turned out to be the first by a white female rapper. There were conflicts, but she held her own.
“I had to deal with some pretty scary people, and some pretty misogynistic and racist men,” says Tairrie, describing her attitude as, “No, I'm not gonna fuck you for a record deal. I'm not gonna suck your dick for you to produce my record. I'm not gonna sit here and shut my mouth so you can make all the publishing money, and I'm just some token white bitch who stands around and gets called the devil all day.”
According to Tairrie, Dr. Dre even laid hostile hands on her at the 1990 Grammy Awards. But the most damaging fracas occurred after she read a bad freelance review of her album in BAM by Cashbox staffer Ernest Hardy (now a frequent Weekly contributor). Hardy had opined that a certain song made one long for James Cagney to show up with a grapefruit, and she barged into his office, daring him to apply the citrus himself. Her name-calling and the bad vibes that were generated cost her the support of her label's publicity staff, which refused to promote her. So her first album was stillborn. Her second, already in the can, was never released. In late 1992, still under contract to Ruthless, she exited with the tapes to No. 2, and walked on down the road.
It didn't matter. Tairrie was into rock now, anyway. She saw the light when she caught Ice-T's “Cop Killer” act with the rap-rock fusion group Body Count, and became one of the first to follow, in 1993 forming Manhole — a name that had already been claimed, so it was changed in 1997 to Tura Satana.
“I wanted to write lyrics about stuff that meant something to me,” she says. “Abortion. Rape. Domestic abuse. The media. I started working for Rock for Choice, and the Feminist Majority, and for battered-women's foundations. And I just grew up really quick in the early '90s.”
For inspiration, Tairrie was looking to Glenn Danzig, Phil Anselmo, Henry Rollins, Nick Cave. And she was thinking, as she's recalled many times, “I don't want to fuck 'em, like all those other girls around here. I'm gonna be them.”
Though Manhole copped a buzz in England thanks to Tairrie's tough stance and hot look, the group, undersupported and underdistributed in the USA, didn't make waves at home. Tairrie felt her bandmates lacked the drive to make it, and besides, she was ready to drop the mosh pit and the politics and get more personal. So that story ended in 1998, just as Tura Satana won a Kerrang award for best independent band.
The ever-busy Ms. B launched her solo-project stage of My Ruin with the aid of bassist Melanie Makaiwie, members of Downset and a number of other friends, releasing the poetry & punishment Speak & Destroy in 1999. She had seen Murphy, who'd fronted a couple of bands already, and wanted to hijack his ax; soon they were sharing more than studio time. Mattox, who'd been in the punk band Naked Aggression and Taime Downe's the Newlydeads, came onboard for A Prayer Under Pressure, and . . . hmm, this was starting to look like a band. Once they found out how much New York rock vet Yael added to their live show, it was a done deal. Tairrie's Ruin was everybody's.
A Prayer Under Pressure is a high-impact record. Good playing, good co-production with boardsman Nick Raskulinecz (Danzig, Foo Fighters), whose knack for translating rock to disc gets A-pluses from Tairrie and Mick. But My Ruin's next one is going to kill. These four have toured a lot, and they're now a unit with dimensions; ä they can bring all their shit to the table. Murphy will step out on guitar. Mattox and Yael breathe together; they're having fun. And Tairrie — let's think for a second about what she contributes, besides that jaguar roar.
MS. B IS WHAT GUY PINHAS, A BASSIST and a retail promoter who worked with her at Noise Records during her Manhole days, calls “a promotion machine.” She's on the phone, to journalists, labels and whoever she thinks can help the band, seven days a week. Pinhas fondly recalls one wake-up call from her at 8 on a Sunday morning. Largely through her efforts, My Ruin has secured endorsements from yin to yang. On the road with Kittie, they were down with Red Bull. Or up with it.
“We had 40 cases, and we were like this . . .” Tairrie pants and bugs her eyes. “We were Red Bulled out of our mind.”
Tairrie endorses Sennheiser microphones; Murphy does Gibson guitars; Mattox got a bass from Fernandez; Yael had DW drums make her a signature kit, and also does ads for Paiste cymbals and Regal Tip sticks. A friend's clothing company, Beauty Fiend (also a song title, not coincidentally), sponsored the Kittie tour; a new supporter is Hot Topic, a chain of nearly 400 Goth/rock mall stores that normally takes on only big names like Marilyn Manson and Korn. But My Ruin records are right there on its shelves.
My Ruin also take their own store on the road. Many bands do, but there's a twist here: My Ruin's “merch church,” in addition to dispensing the group's own CDs, T-shirts, candles, bracelets and pins, serves as a kind of trading post, where fans can bring in Ruination they've made at home, and maybe compare it to Tairrie B's own clothing line.
Called Blasphemous Girl after a song from Speak & Destroy (“Honesty looks good on you”), the line is basically thrift-store jackets, dresses and what-all that Tairrie has artfully amended with paint, song lyrics (“Please forgive me for not being pretty”), religious images, rosaries, non-functional zippers and many, many safety pins. You can find them at a few places in L.A., including Blest on Cahuenga in Hollywood, a boutique featuring similar-minded clubwear. Going through the racks, one notices that Tairrie has also adorned most of the items with a patch or a button featuring the My Ruin logo — fashion and advertising. “Smart girl,” says the saleswoman.
All this marketing, as well as the groundwork laid with Tura Satana, paid off on the Kittie tour, My Ruin's first U.S. circuit appeal.
“We turned a lot of heads,” says Murphy.
“We had a big tip jar,” Tairrie amplifies, “and parents were handing us, like, hundred-dollar bills, going, 'We want to help you! We understand!'”
Likewise, footage from My Ruin's 2001 tour of England documents shrieking crowd receptions and a front row of young women made up to look like Tairrie, who says she's often approached by fans who credit her songs with boosting them through a rape or a self-image crisis. Though not overweight herself, she's been shafted for not being an emaciated rock ä waif: “I'm not anorexic, 'cause I fuckin' eat,” goes a lyric to “Weightless.”
As word of mouth grows, the wonderful world of product releasing gets ever crazier. While My Ruin's CDs haven't been universally available due to premature burial by Spitfire, the American label that licensed the English releases for distribution, Tura Satana's have just been augmented and repackaged — without Tairrie's consultation or approval — to capitalize on renewed interest generated by her recent work. She's telling everyone not to buy them.
IN THE MIDST OF SUCH UNCERTAINTY, the four seem quite relaxed at a rehearsal a couple of days before the Troubadour gig, despite a couple of semicasualties. The first: Tairrie's calling Mattox “Meghan Mad-Pox” tonight — the bassist is dragging, having soldiered in despite a fever and numerous scary-looking chickenpox all over her face, which she'll pancake over for the show.
“I'm thirsty,” complains Yael.
“You want some calamine lotion?” Mattox offers.
The other wounded party is Tairrie B — she's spent nine hours getting hair extensions, which are piled on her skull like rag bundles. “My head feels like it weighs 300 pounds,” she whines. “I can hardly rock.”
Murphy, who's just gotten his baby, a rare Gibson R/D, back from the shop, gently prods them into action. And they play. Very, very loud. Tairrie's doing full-on stage moves. “Turn the guitar up!” demands Yael. “Turn it down!” yells Tairrie, and they giggle. Tairrie wants to switch a couple of songs. The rest veto her.
It sounds good. There's the slower, Sabbathy stuff, and the gut-punching, punky stuff. Freaky effects from Murphy; a tight unison ending. A new song, “Get Pretty,” has a particularly irresistible, musicianly, off-accented groove that will go down well in concert. A direction for the future?
Well, nobody knows the future. All we know is the past, and My Ruin have positioned themselves in a long line of L.A. rock that goes from the Doors to the Runaways to L7 to Rage Against the Machine and System of a Down. And let's not forget X.
“Exene's one lady who hasn't gotten true credit for a lot of things that she's done,” says Tairrie, who shares the X-woman's love for religious art and offbeat clothes. “She's an underground hero.”
You won't likely see much My Ruin on MTV: There are risks in not aiming for the overground. But Tairrie's not about fitting a mold.
Murphy: “You've got 10 pop-singer girls that all look exactly the same.”
Tairrie: “Every video is the hoochie mama and her ass.”
Murphy: “Fifty hoochie mamas! All the looks are the same, all the photos are the same, everything they say is the same. Something's got to shake this shit up. I think we're the band to do it, but everybody's so fucking afraid of us.”
Tairrie: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
My Ruin play at the L.A. Weekly Music Awards, Wednesday, June 26.