Many of the early Hollywood punk-rock vocalists had charisma and stage presence, but none of them could sing with the same awe-inspiring combination of unrestrained raw power and soulful technique as Legal Weapon’s Kat Arthur, who died at her home in Leimert Park early Sunday evening, Oct. 14. She was 62.
The cause of death is unknown but Arthur had been in declining health for a long time. Nonetheless, Legal Weapon were booked to play on Friday, Oct. 19, on a bill with their longtime allies The Gears at Café NELA in Cypress Park.
“It was unexpected,” says Legal Weapon bassist Steve Reed, Arthur’s partner. “She kept secrets. The pressure of the show coming up might have been too much.”
“I know she wanted to play real bad. She always wanted to play,” says guitarist Brian Hansen, who formed Legal Weapon with Arthur in Los Angeles in 1981. Hansen says that Arthur knew she didn’t have a lot of time left and had recently confided in him, “I may pass before then.”
“She had an idea [of her impending death],” Hansen says in a phone interview from his home in Sage, Arizona. “She had been to so many doctors; she was having some kind of health issues.” But Arthur had endured problems with her health over the past decade and still managed to find the energy to perform. “She’s in the hospital, and next thing you know, she’s wailing tunes [onstage hours later],” Hansen recalls with admiration about Arthur’s infamous ferocity.
“She always rose to the occasion,” Reed agrees by phone from Leimert Park. “She loved music. She wasn’t really punk rock. She loved music, period. She loved Etta James. That’s why we named our dog Etta James. She loved the down-home blues stuff. … She was easily one of the best [local punk and underground singers], next to Julie Christensen, Bobbi Brat and Maria McKee. She was in a league by herself. She was a brilliant woman … and she had a very, very colorful life.”
Legal Weapon are best known for their early classic punk records — the No Sorrow EP (1981), Death of Innocence (1982) and Your Weapon (1982), all self-released on their own label, Arsenal Records — but the group continued to put out a wide variety of underrated music over the past four decades. They were signed to MCA, which issued Legal Weapon’s 1988 album, Life Sentence to Love, a bid for mainstream success that encompassed straight-ahead hard rock and even pop. “We went through every major-label horror story,” Hansen says about their time with MCA. “I missed the days when we put our own records instead.”
Arthur and Hansen returned to their punk roots on subsequent releases, including Take Out the Trash (1991), Squeeze Me Like an Anaconda (1994), and their pulverizing 2002 self-titled comeback album on Sewer Line Records, which stands as the group’s last recording together.
Arthur’s final live appearance came earlier this year at Zebulon on Jan. 11, when Legal Weapon played a five-song mini-set as part of Tanya Pearson’s the Women of Rock Oral History Project. Arthur's last recording was a bluesy-jazzy rendition of “Laisy Daisy,” a guest-starring turn on Kurt Stifle & the Swing Shift’s 2018 LP, The Pilgrims’ Guide to the River of Salvation.
“I wish we could have done this one last show, get one more in,” Hansen laments about the gig this week in Cypress Park. “It would have been fun. … We were going to blast through all the early records. I think Kat wanted to do [a cover of the Black Flag song] ‘Wasted.’ … She would have sung as many as she could have belted out. She was excited and kept calling me, ‘We gotta play, we gotta play!’”
Arthur was born in Princeton, New Jersey, on Dec. 7, 1955. She eventually moved to the West Coast, attending La Jolla High School, where she became friends with Hansen. “Kat was pretty cool. She wasn’t like anybody else in San Diego,” he recalls. “We had a lot in common. We were like high school sweethearts. We were always together.
“I kept trying to get her in bands, but people would fight it,” Hansen says. “She always said she could sing. There was no doubt in her mind that she could be a singer. … Nobody wanted to give her a chance [because she was female] until punk rock came around. ... She was always into the blues. I’ve seen her tear apart a club when she broke into a blues song. We should have done a blues album. She had the power and the sound. You could throw almost anything at her, and she would try to turn it into a song. She was great. There was always a crazy streak in Kat. We had a lot of fun back in those early days.”
In the late 1970s, after the duo relocated to Universal City, they joined The Silencers, who were led by Steve Reiner, formerly of the early Hollywood punk band Shock. When The Silencers broke up a year and a half later, “Me and Kat stuck together, of course,” Hansen says. “We were going in a harder direction [with Legal Weapon].” The new band quickly found success in the local early-’80s punk scene, releasing such quintessential tracks as “Daddy’s Gone Mad” on the 1981 compilation Hell Comes to Your House, as well as the incendiary anthem “Equalizer” on Your Weapon.
“We were always in the middle of things,” Hansen says, remembering when he and Kat were caught up in the notorious police riot at Elks Lodge Hall by MacArthur Park on St. Patrick’s Day 1979. “We were there. Kat’s fighting the cops, they’re throwing her down the stairs. It was crazy trying to get to the car,” he says, describing the scores of helmeted LAPD officers who were waiting outside the lodge to ambush punks leaving the venue. A few years later, Legal Weapon performed at the equally chaotic L.A. Street Scene festival in downtown Los Angeles, where police on horseback rushed through the tightly packed crowd, trampling people randomly. “When they attacked, we were forced all the way down the street” to a nearby kids’ carnival, Hansen says. “Cops piled in and started knocking families down.”
Legal Weapon performed several times at the seedy San Fernando Valley punk club Godzilla’s in the early 1980s. “I remember playing with The Damned there,” Hansen says. “Some of those shows got pretty rowdy. We’d play like three songs, and fights would break out everywhere.”
Over the past four decades, Arthur and Hansen played alongside other SoCal punk luminaries in Legal Weapon, including bassist Patricia Morrison (The Gun Club, The Bags, The Damned), drummer Charlie Vartanian, guitarist Frank Agnew (Adolescents), bassist Steve Soto (Adolescents), drummer Derek O’Brien (Social Distortion, Extra Fancy), drummer Adam Maples (Sea Hags, Earthlings?), drummer Karla “The Maddog” Duplantier (The Controllers), guitarist Sharon Needles (Betty Blowtorch), bassist Pat Hoed (Claw Hammer, Brujeria), and drummer Bob Lee (Backbiter, The Freeks). Bass player Steve Reed joined Legal Weapon in 1993 and two years later became involved in an on-and-off relationship with Arthur.
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“She was just a glambo,” Reed says, remembering how he was initially intimidated by the charismatic Arthur. “But she was down to earth. … I feel happy that I got to play with this band. In 1993 and 1994, that was a very special period to me. She was writing about a lot of downer stuff but I thought the songs were great.”
In addition to performing with Legal Weapon, Arthur also fronted the groups Kat Arthur & the Hellcats and Las Pistolas Coyotes de Kat Arthur in recent years and was working on recording a still-unreleased solo album with local punk all-stars. “She had plans,” Hansen says. “I know she was trying to get her solo stuff going. She had good ideas.” Legal Weapon also had numerous unreleased tracks from the 1980s. “There’s a whole bunch of songs that never came out,” Hansen adds.
According to Reed, Arthur’s vocal prowess drew the attention of Rick Derringer and she jammed with such folks as Bonnie Bramlett, John Entwistle and Craig Ross, a guitarist for Lenny Kravitz. “It’s going to be tough,” Reed admits about dealing with his longtime partner’s death. “I’ve got to soldier on and keep going on.”
“She was definitely one of a kind. I’ve never seen anyone like Kat,” marvels Hansen, who says he and Reed are trying to organize a tribute concert in memory of Arthur. “She was always out there, either being cool to people or getting in the faces of people who deserved it. There was always something going on.”