Ladies With an Attitude (and Guitars)

I wrote this post recently as guest blogger on Jumbled Writer – Charlie Dims – thought I would share it here too.

In preparation of this blog post, my last weeks have been filled with thoughts about women in music, tough ladies so to speak. For as long as I can remember, girls and women with a badass attitude fascinated me. Now I feel troubled: I don’t want to write about feminism, sexism, women’s rights or similar (political) topics. But can you write about tough ladies in music ignoring this discourse?

Put a woman on stage with a microphone. Sweet, strong, cool, rocking or whatever style or expression she has: this is what we’ve been used to since day one in popular music history. It can definitely be a cool thing but there’s nothing special about it, it’s conventional.

Give that lady an electric guitar and let her play some dark riffs or a solo: now we’re getting there! Are women tough when they do something we’re used to see men doing or does the instrument emphasize a certain attitude? I can’t answer that. I know it’s plain and I admit to derive straight from the cave: guitars are the most beautifully known penis extension (m/f) and can upgrade anyone with a certain attitude to damn f***ing hot & sexy.

When I was a teenager there weren’t many female instrumentalists in music. The cool boys played, looked and felt sexy with their guitars and basses. The Joan Jett and Suzi Quatro days were over by then, and the first Riot Grrls hadn’t shaken up the music world yet. In my home country there was an all female band in the end of the 80s called Miss B Haven playing great pop/rock music with amazing lyrics and a slight country music influence. I know how crazy I was about the bass player of Miss B Haven. She looked feminine and tough at the same time. One summer I went to a one-day music festival with some friends. A local guy who was dressing like Axl Rose came along. He was a huge fan of Miss B Haven and had met the ladies on several occasions. He managed to get us back stage and just sat down with them like he was at home, chatted and had the ladies sign his t-shirt and arms. It was pretty cool to be so close to one of my favorite bands at the time, but I was completely intimidated. Just stood around trying to look cool, not really daring to look anyone in the eye, particularly not the cool bass player Lene. I remember sneaking my cheap plastic camera out of the bag and taking a picture secretly, hoping no one would notice.

Miss B Haven Backstage
(Miss B Haven backstage at a music festival. Bass player Lene Eriksen 2nd from the right)

When Kathleen Hanna called all girls to the front of the stage and asked the men in the audience to go to the back in Olympia, WA in 1990, the attitude of her band Bikini Kill was pretty clear. The Riot Grrls “reclaimed the stage” with harsh words and loud DIY music. A feminist tornado whirling about lots of angry young women with angry words, uninhibited, badass, in a way too much, but free of convention. Refreshing, no doubt, some of these girls were dynamite on stage, and fun. But musically not my thing – and not really sexy either. The movement crushed itself shortly after it started, too many strong opinions I guess. It’s ironic that a lot of people think Courtney Love was one of the pioneers of the movement. Her attitude was similar but she wasn’t politically involved, and she had an ongoing feud with Kathleen Hanna. In the Hole song “Olympia”, she even makes fun of Riot Grrls.

Bikini Kill
(Bikini Kill in action)

What Courtney Love has become is another story; in the mid-90s I thought she was pretty cool: badass, sexy, strong, fucked up and not afraid to admit it. The album “Live Through This”, recorded in 1993 and released in 1994 a few days after Kurt Cobain killed himself, became one of my favorites at the time. To me it was a relief that the music was about life and not about political issues.

I was never really connected to a political scene, but back then I started hanging out with some radical feminists known for beating up men that had hurt women. Kind of cool, I thought, watching their action from the sideline. At a point I started writing for a feminist fanzine called “Mohawk Beaver”. I was never much of a feminist myself though. I did a series for the zine called “Taboo of the Issue”. Today I am ashamed to tell which topics I wrote about; let’s just say that I tried to be as shocking as possible…

Mohawk Beaver
(Feminist fanzine Mohawk Beaver)

When I first heard PJ Harvey’s debut album “Dry” in 1992, it was love at first sight. What still blows me away about Polly Jean is her fragile expression. Soft and tough, warm and cold at the same time, somewhat angry but in despair. She truly is the master of that contrast and you believe every word she sings. Her guitar playing is mostly simple but what a sound and energy. Epic. I moved to Budapest in the beginning of 1993 and brought a few music cassettes along. I often hung out at a next-door bar/live venue, drinking vörös fröccs (red wine with sparling water). The barman was happy to play my PJ Harvey cassette all day. When I came to pick it up the next day, someone had stolen it. That was ok. Budapest was slowly turning western back then, and the young were poor. I of course saw it as recognition of my music taste.

In Budapest I heard Sonic Youth for the first time. The album “Dirty” started an everlasting love affair with Kim Gordon, who for me has always been the reason to like Sonic Youth more than other bands. It’s the band I’ve seen live most times and at every show I would watch Kim, trying to find out what it is that makes her so cool. Of course she is beautiful, but it’s not that. In a way she seems restrained, concentrated, inside the music, her face not showing much emotion. But yet, you feel her presence in the room strongly, intimidating even. The way she plays the bass or the guitar doesn’t look that feminine, but she does. The way she sings is more a snarling or a whispering, tough, she’s out of reach in a way, on a whole other level. What fascinates me the most is that she’s been playing in the “boys’ league” for all these years without making a statement of it. She’s just a “Girl in a Band”. And no matter how noisy the music goes, she never abandons her femininity. She truly makes me proud to be a woman.

Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore; image courtesy of wikimedia.org
(Kim Gordon on stage with ex-husband Thurston Moore. Image courtesy of wikimedia.org)

I find it hard to believe that men have more talent than women when it comes to playing an instrument. In the 80s and 90s female instrumentalists were often added to a band as an eye-cather (Prince, Michael Jackson, Lenny Kravitz etc.) Today these women are the bands. My favorite example is the coolest lady in music at the moment: Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes. Her talent is unbelievable, her presence on stage breathtaking. She makes no point of pushing the boys in her band to the back, but next to her even Slash would look like a schoolboy.

To all the tough ladies out there: keep on rocking – we love you and we need you!

I’ve put together a playlist with some of the cool ladies from now and then called ELECTRIC LADYLAND – Girls with Guitars (and Attitude):
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Everybody Knows Somebody Who Died

I often think about Jörg – a German stage director I met in 1997. A friend of mine worked closely with him for some years and we met here and there around Europe – in Copenhagen, London and Germany. In 2000 he committed suicide in a hotel room in Portugal, a big schock for all of his friends. Why kill himself? He seemed well established in life and his theatre was finally having success. I didn’t get it. I guess I really didn’t know him that well.

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(Jörg trying on a whig I bought for a party in 1988)

The reason I often think about Jörg is that I keep thinking about all the things he has missed out on since 2000, good or bad. And how happy I am that I’m not the one who’s dead.

He never got to know WordPress, Facebook, HDTV, Blu-ray, Netflix, The XX, Lana del Rey, True Detective, Orange Is The New Black, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Cathi Unsworth’s fabulous books, David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Amy Winehouse, Ryan Gosling’s introverted acting in Drive and The Place Beyond The Pines, iPhones, WiFi, Spotify, the delicious mince and cheese pie at my favorite café. He didn’t share the past 15 years with friends and family, followed nephews/nieces/friends’ children grow up. He never got to drive a Mini Cooper in the new design and he wouldn’t know what The Hunger Games is. I could go on forever.

Life is so full of … life.

My last 15 years have been filled with ups and downs, with good and bad experiences, fun, tears, friendships developing, with growing older, kisses, feelings, compassion, with music, books and films that went under my skin. Not always easy times but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything in the world. Gosh, I am so happy to be on this planet, I can’t express how grateful I am for having this (my) life…

When I was a depressed teenager, I thought a lot about dying (or disappearing). I wrote narcissistic existential poems and wallowed in sadness and pain, walked around with my head down for days and weeks and months. In a way I can understand why someone would want to take his own life, that it can feel like it’s the only option, but at the same time I cannot.

Everybody knows somebody who died. Mums and Dads, grandparents, friends and colleagues, musicians and filmstars, pets. I know that Death is part of Life, that our time is limited, but I don’t think I will ever understand Death completely, that when you’re dead you’re gone forever. When I sensed the weight of my dead mother in the coffin last year, for a short moment it became “real” and I realized that I would never hear her voice again. But still, Death is beyond my comprehension.

I was never angry with Jörg for what he did, I was not close enough to him to be. I have always thought that everyone is free to decide for himself. Selfish or not. But you can crush other people by making such choices. I didn’t see it like that earlier.

I think Jörg made a huge mistake by killing himself. He missed out on so much in life.

If this was a jukebox from beyond, my mother would have picked Andrea Bocelli/Sarah Brightman: Time To Say Goodbye. Sorry mum, I can’t go down that line, so Jörg, this one goes out to you, wherever you are…
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Soul Searching Friday #2 Jamey Johnson

Soul Searching Friday presents cover songs that are better than the original version…

Most great songs have been covered by other artists, some even thousands of times. Some artists did amazing jobs creating a new version of a well-known song, others injured a masterpiece or made a fool of themselves. The bigger the song, the more difficult the job, obviously.

But why cover a song in the first place? Is it a tribute, an homage, the love for a song that makes an artist want to approach a Great work? Or is it an urge to do better, to show another understanding of what the song’s about? A lack of own inspiration? Or maybe an attempt to find the true soul of a song? The artists in this series have come damn close to the latter.

Jamey Johnson, Twiggy Ramirez & Shooter Jennings: You Are My Sunshine (2013) – cover version of Pine Ridge Boys: You Are My Sunshine (1939)

Jamey Johnson is the country man of darkness and melancholy. Along with Twiggy Ramirez (Marilyn Manson) and Shooter Jennings, he recorded this apocalyptical version of You Are My Sunshine for Sons of Anarchy (TV series created by Kurt Sutter). Jamey Johnson isn’t afraid of dark tunes in music. His albums That Lonesome Song and The Guitar Song are full of hard knock life experience, sadness and soul. Happy tune You Are My Sunshine is here transformed into a dark, sinister contemplation of loneliness, fear and dread. It is hauntingly beautiful and leaves a mark on you. Never before has the line “You make me happy when skies are gray” sounded so full of pain. One of the saddest songs I have ever heard.

Here’s the original:

If you would like to suggest songs for Soul Searching Friday, please write a comment.

Soul Searching Friday #1 Johnny Cash

Soul Searching Friday presents cover songs that are better than the original version – songs where the new interpreter has managed to find a new depth in the material and perhaps come closer to finding the soul of the song…

Most great songs have been covered by other artists, some even thousands of times. Some artists did amazing jobs creating a new version of a well-known song, others injured a masterpiece or made a fool of themselves. The bigger the song, the more difficult the job, obviously.

But why cover a song in the first place? Is it a tribute, an homage, the love for a song that makes an artist want to approach a Great work? Or is it an urge to do better, to show another understanding of what the song’s about? A lack of own inspiration? Or maybe an attempt to find the true soul of a song? The artists in this series have come damn close to the latter.

Johnny Cash: Hurt (2002) – cover version of Nine Inch Nails: Hurt (1994)

A powerful song written by Trent Reznor with strong and devastating lyrics. The music video is strikingly beautiful, showing Cash as an old fragile man, at the end of his road. The flashbacks from his life make it hauntingly sad: it’s the end, and we all know it. Although it was filmed before June and Johnny died, the video is like an obituary.

Johnny Cash called the song “The best anti-drug song I ever heard.” Here’s the original:

If you would like to suggest songs for Soul Searching Friday, please write a comment.

I Miss You, Gemma Teller

Gemma

Warning: contains Sons of Anarchy spoilers!

I’ve just finished watching the very last episode of Sons of Anarchy – the television series created by Kurt Sutter about a fictional outlaw biker club in California. There can be something very fascinating about men operating on the wrong side of the law. In 1998 I was at a party at some friends’ house in Copenhagen. Entering the living room, I was surprised to see real life biker gang president and founder of the Copenhagen charter of Hells Angels, Jønke, sitting on the couch. He had more or less just been released from prison after 9 years inside for the murder of the president of another MC gang, so he had some partying to catch up with. The buddy he had brought along from his club kept rolling badass joints and everybody around the table were getting stoned.

Jønke didn’t talk much and there was something mysterious about him. But he seemed really kind, he would look you in the eye in a very friendly way. I guess we were all fascinated by him; and intimidated too. This man was a killer, how could he be so calm? I went to the kitchen to fetch more booze and one of my friends whispered in my ear: “I want to have sex with him”. I don’t know why it shocked me but it did. Could you trust a criminal? Was he going to hurt her? As things went she took off with him, later she told me it had been fun. Back then I couldn’t really understand why she would want to sleep with an outlaw with a body mass index a bit above average. But after watching Sons of Anarchy, I totally get it: it’s the criminal tingly thrill, it’s spicy. My friend is a tough lady, very funny and with a big mouth. If she would have stayed on Jønke’s bike for longer, I am sure she could have become the perfect Danish (kind) Gemma.

Standout character in Sons of Anarchy and always pulling the strings of the club is Gemma Teller, matriarch to the club’s founding family and badass lady with a vision. Everything Gemma does – good or bad – is for her family. These are the moral rules she lives by, a 100% committed. When she is “protecting her family“ she means protecting what she believes in, no matter at what consequence.

The moment Gemma dies, Sons of Anarchy – the plot, the series, the tension – is instantly over and makes no sense anymore. That she is one of the leading characters is clear from the beginning, but it is surprising to see that Sons of Anarchy dissolves the moment evil mum is gone. The final episode is necessary to tie ends but boring to watch with Gemma in a body bag.

Nero-Gemma

In the last two seasons Gemma hooks up with tremendously nice and good-looking part-time gangster, Nero Padilla. In a way she doesn’t deserve his love and commitment, and sometimes it’s hard to understand why Nero loves her so much. He sees something different in her than the viewer does; he’s not seen what we have seen throughout season 1-5. It is a dramaturgic clever move having a new character to introduce a new angle on Gemma, who we have a unified opinion about. Nero’s love is pure, he accepts her for what she is, calls her “Mama” in the sweetest way and stands up for her. Watching these two middle-aged love birds, both marked by hard-knock life and “destiny”, hooking up together is soothing, and it makes you believe that Gemma can pull through and perhaps even become a better person.

The only problem with that is: Gemma… At the end of season 6 she brutally kills her son’s wife Tara in rage by stabbing her in the head with a huge meat fork. Tara’s death, and the lie Gemma tells to cover it up starts a gang war and leads to over 80 dead bodies in the final season. It is hard to have anything left for Gemma after this, she has done such a horrible thing and there is no coming back from it. You can tell that she knows that too, but she keeps up the lie to spend time with her grandsons and with Nero, perhaps hoping that the problem will dissolve at some point. The way she is conducting an ongoing conversation with dead Tara, you can tell she is in remorse. Killing a close family member is tough to cope with even for a badass lady like Gemma Teller. Of course the viewer cannot accept what she’s done, she’s taken it too far this time, but at the same time you suffer with her. With every breath she takes you sense that the truth is closing up on her and that she is about to lose everything she lives for. Very soon.

As she says to Jackson before he shoots her in the head: “You have to do this. It’s who we are sweetheart” it again becomes clear how realistic she is about the life she’s been leading. There is no running away, she has to stand up and pay the price for her actions. True to her character even at the point of death she manages to manipulate the surroundings for her death.

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Gemma Teller, you are the best and the worst film mother ever:
You are sometimes more evil than “adoptive” mother Holly Jones (Melissa Leo) in Prisoners +++ You are sometimes even funnier than lesbian mothers Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) in The Kids Are All Right +++ You are sometimes more annoying than Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) in The Sopranos +++ You are sometimes creepier than Mrs. Bates (xx) in Psycho +++ You are sometimes more hard-boiled than horror mum Mary (Mo’Nique) in Precious +++ You are sometimes even more exhausting than controlling mother Ruth Fischer (Frances Conroy) in Six Feet Under.

Dear Gemma, I miss your evil-mooded, manipulative ways and your spontaneous short-circuits mostly leading to bruises, assault or murder. You certainly are a toxic, scary lady and in real life I would be just as afraid of you as I was of Jønke back in 1998. But still I have loved you through 7 seasons and losing you has been tough. I want you to know that you are the character from SoA that I have given most thought, maybe because I am a woman too, and still – even after you deceased – I can’t let you go. I keep thinking about you, wanting you to return and start all over. If you hadn’t been killed I would at this point suggest a SoA spin-off with you – living undercover – as a music manager for a middle-aged male rock band, your new “club” so to speak. You would continue showing the men who’s the boss and manipulate your way through life, tying just enough people to you to make you feel loved and needed.

Last night I dreamt that I was having sex with Filip Chibs and that he took me on ride with his bike. I guess it is not only Gemma I miss…

Nevermind, Use Your Illusion! On Music Education and Wild Nights.

I love to think back on how I got to know all the music that has been my ‘passenger’ through life. If I would have become a musician myself, I would have talked about these artists as my inspiration and perhaps role models. In my case they didn’t inspire a creative process but surely did inspire my life as such.

When you’re a kid you really have no idea about the size of the world, generally speaking. I will never forget the moment I understood that the small town I grew up in was not where my life was supposed to take place, that there was a big world waiting for me out there. It was in 1987 when I heard The Cure’s Why Can’t I Be You on the radio for the first time. I was 14 and in an instant understood that all I had to do was to grow up very fast and get the hell out of there. What a relief! It was the first song that changed my life.

It was friends that inspired my musical education and taste the most, particularly two male friends I spent the most of a year with when I was around 19. I shared a flat with one of them and the other friend was mostly around. My flatmate was an audiophile and lived for music and high-end HiFi. His record collection was massive. From this moment on music was mainly consumed sitting on the couch standing exactly 232 cm (my guess!) from the huge speakers worth more than ten grand. It sounds kind of high society but it wasn’t at all. It was simply a matter of priorities.

It was 1991 and Pearl Jam – Ten had just came out. Metallica’s Black Album as well. Followed by Nirvana – Nevermind and Guns’n’Roses – Use Your Illusion I and II. What a musical year – one of the best I ever had! In the daytime I went to school and my two buddies to work, in the nighttime our place came alive. Every night we sat in the living room with the music turned up loud. Our place attracted the local lost youth, most nights people dropped by. Party every night. Neverending booze and (soft) drugs. Paradise City for the young. We were fooled by the thrill of independence and felt so alive, but honestly I don’t remember many details from this time in my life.

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(1991. One of many mornings after a wild night. To the right one of the badass speakers)

I haven’t touched any drugs for more than a decade now but have to admit that the music came alive inside me when I was high, I could physically feel it in my blood, in my organs, in my gut. It was sometimes painful and sometimes indescribably beautiful. Slash’s guitar solo on Estranged, Eddie Vedders vocals on Oceans or Alive. Kurt singing about Polly. Ray Manzarek’s Hammond on Riders on the Storm and so on.

The last year I lived in my hometown, I pretty much only hung out with my two buddies. We had a threesome without sex, and I felt such love for them. At some point they started dealing drugs in the flat and that drew even more odd people to our place. There was a guy around 45 or 50 who showed up quite often. He talked with a slow drugged voice and always brought a guitar along and some glas hash pipes. He had long straight hair and looked like he was right out of 1968. His stories about his youth as a hippie doing LSD trips and living in a Commune was fascinating for us three youngsters, all longing for the times of Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, convinced that we had missed out on the most important moment in (music) history.

When I got fed up with all the mess and all the young men hanging around at our place, I made them clean up and do the dishes. Some kids we sent to the supermarket to shoplift food for the empty fridge. The neighbors were furious about all the running up and down the stairs and soon the police showed up. That ended the dealing business.

I have never met anyone again in my life that inspired my music taste as much as these two friends, to a certain extent we shared the same interests. Probably it was also just being young: we were all hungry and dying to get to know more about life. I remember how surprised I was when I realized that not living with my parents meant total freedom – for real. If I had an idea I would just check out how it went and not wait for anyone’s approval or declination. Once I didn’t wash my long, curly hair for 3 months because I was convinced that nature would supply me with what my hair needed. I guess I’d had a joint too much around that time…

When I moved away from my hometown in 1992 it was a goodbye forever and a crazy period of my life ended. I knew I was never going to come back and live there again. I don’t go there very often but have occasionally met my old friends again. Although we’re all grownup now and live serious lives, there is a feel to it like in the old days. At the same time the 20+ years between now and then make me feel estranged.

What I would never have thought earlier is how strongly the experiences you make when you are young influence you throughout life. I often go back through the music, listen to The Cure, The Smiths, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Afghan Whigs, Guns N’ Roses, PJ Harvey, Mark Lanegan…

This one goes out to T. and G. – I am thankful as ever for the music I got to experience together with and through you!

I Saved You (and Then You Died)

Dear little Friend,
when I saved your life the other day, I thought you were going to pull through. I had planned to feed and spoil you until you felt better and then set you free again, hoping you would always remember how well I treated you and that you’d be welcome in my garden as long as you didn’t ruin my plants (as your species does – I am actually quite tired of your wild family digging channels underground).

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When I picked you up from the ground, you were so weak that you didn’t even try to run away. I wrapped you under my t-shirt and gave you a piece of apple to eat. You ate slowly and sucked the moist out of the apple. It was a hot day and a root vole like you would normally only come out at night. You weighed almost nothing, less than a letter, and your heart pounded very fast, I could tell. It was nice to feel your tiny feet on my skin, your claws rather soft and not scratchy at all. You were only a child and I wondered what had happened to you: did you get lost, did your mother abandon you, were you sick?

After eating the tiny apple piece you looked better and more lively. I let you sit on my table and continue your lunch. I felt such compassion for you, little friend.

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I put you in a big box without a lid, and filled it with plants and food for the night. Now your condition had declined again, you laid down on your side, all sluggish and absent. Now and then you had a cramp. On google I read about similar cases, some stories ended well, others bad. When I left, I tucked you in and put some food right in front of you, hoping you would make it to the next day. I was so worried.

When I got up the next morning, I hesitated to drive to the garden house, I was afraid to see what was waiting for me there. A part of me was convinced that you had died in the night.

You sat in the corner of the box, your tiny body extracted to a ball. I could tell you were dead. Sweetheart, I hope you were not hungry or cold when you died. We only knew each other for a few hours but I want you to know that you died being loved.

Song for Dolly, the little mouse, who travelled alone to mice heaven: