Before the Internet, there was public-access television — and East Village counterculture celebrity Coca Crystal was one of the format’s pioneers, having hosted her variety show If I Can’t Dance You Can Keep Your Revolution for nearly 20 years. David Letterman was amongst her fans. The New York Times reported that Crystal, born Jacqueline Diamond, died on March 1 at 68 years old. From her obituary:
Adopting the pen name Coca Crystal, she wrote about politics, women’s issues and random personal events: a burglary at her apartment that she foiled by serenading her intruder on the guitar; the myriad obscene phone calls that she fielded at the office. The newspaper honored her, in one issue, with her photograph over the title “slumgoddess.” “She was the epitome of the flower child,” said Lynda Crawford, a colleague at The East Village Other. “She was sexy, she was young, she was very smart — she was cool.”
Largely an unsung cultural icon, we felt inspired by Coca’s fascinating career to give praise and spread the word about other “forgotten” female saints of the counterculture — those women whose contributions and legacies have either slipped under the radar or have yet to receive their due.
“We were a group of revolutionary hippies — of all sexual persuasions — who loved to dress up and play out our fantasies.”
Sweet Pam, aka Pam Tent, was a founding member of the gender-bending, psychedelic performance art troupe The Cockettes. The radical group infused their stage shows with drag, glitter, and subversive zeal. The far-out queen of Haight-Ashbury wrote about her experiences in the must-read memoir Midnight at the Palace: My Life as a Fabulous Cockette.
“You have to work harder as a woman. And it’s also true for African-Americans in the art world, where you constantly have to prove yourself. It’s just a fact in our society that being male and white is gonna open more doors for you than not. It’s changing, overall, but there’s some backtracking, too. When society starts to get more conservative again there’s a backlash against women and minorities.”
San Francisco punk band The Avengers only released one album, but they made history thanks to the searing political injection of art student and lead singer Penelope Houston. The group opened for the Sex Pistols’ final show at San Francisco’s Winterland in January 1978. Tracks like “The American In Me” feel more relevant than ever, and Houston’s relentless critique was affirming for a new wave of kids (and young women) trying to go their own way.
“There are women drummers, on computers, guitarists. Experimental music has never relied on women being sexy in the same way that pop or rock music has.”
Read a fantastic interview with Ikue Mori, drummer for the influential No Wave band DNA and improvisational musician, about her life and career as one of the only Asian women in the scene:
In the beginning, because I came here with this rock guitar player, we were hanging in [clubs like] Max’s Kansas City and CBGB to see all those bands that I was always interested to see in Japan, like Patti Smith and Television, and all those successful bands in New York. The main reason I came was to see these bands because my friend was really interested in the music. I was too, but as a fan, and he as a musician. Then we met Lydia Lunch and James Chance—in CBGB maybe. Back then both me and my friend had short hair and were really punk-looking, and Asian punks were very rare. So they came up to us and said, “What do you do? What are you doing here? You play instruments?” So my friend was scouted to be the bass player of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Lydia’s band; then they are always in the rehearsal room with a bunch of young artists there looking for the next band. The people from Mars, Connie Burg or Mark Cunningham, were there. They were always jamming. And then one day Arto asks me, “What are you doing? Why don’t you just play drums?” And then I pick up the drums and that’s it. And Arto goes, “OK, you are the drummer of my band.” And I became a drummer. And then we put together a cheap set of drums and then three months later, we had a gig in Max’s Kansas City. That was the beginning.
“You know that moment when a record player plays the same bit at the end of the record over and over, that annoying moment? I do it on purpose.”
Jackie Stewart, aka Oblivia, is known for her work with avant noise pioneers Smegma. Her solo sound improv pieces and visual collages have inspired cassette warriors and women in the scene for decades. Stewart has a rep for embracing all the cast-outs in Portland where her backyard was a show-up-and-play place for weirdos with big ideas.
Lizzy Mercier Descloux
Autre Magazine wrote a nice primer about the “incendiary and prodigious poet, painter, and musician Lizzy Mercier Descloux,” who the Village Voice called “a French-speaking New Romantic amid the sea of black tees and jeans at CBGB.” Descloux co-founded iconic French punk boutique Harry Cover, became a unique voice in the downtown NYC scene, and found a kindred spirit in Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Actress, author, poetess, and rock star, Cherry Vanilla arguably ranks high among the most influential figures on the Anglo-American rock scene. As a cast member of Andy Warhol’s taboo-shattering Pork stageshow, she figured in the formulation of David Bowie’s flamboyant breakthrough during 1971-1972. As a lasciviously uninhibited rocker at Max’s Kansas City, her performances had an unquestionable impact upon waitress Debbie Harry. And as author of the libidinous artbook Pop Tarts, she published the blueprint for Madonna’s later Sex. Add to that her time spent fronting a then little-known band called the Police and two albums at the end of the 1970s which are still regarded in hushed tones of reverence and Vanilla’s role in recent rock history isn’t simply secured, it is sacred.
Listen to an interview Cherry conducted with David Bowie in 1973.
“My strategy’s always been to outlive everyone else. It may not work but no one else will be around to know. But as I’ve already said, I trust my luck and I’m usually at something at its best point. But I’m the first rat off the boat when it’s going down. You stay at something too long and the joy is dead. I think that artistically it’s all the same voice whether you’re doing film, print, or spectacle.”
Mutlidisciplinary artist Judy Nylon, co-founder of ’70s punk band Snatch, has performed with John Cale and is perhaps best known for her part, alongside Brian Eno, in the genesis of ambient music. Her iconic dub album Pal Judy, co-produced by Adrian Sherwood, is essential listening for any DIYer and combines hazy shades of reggae, lounge, funk, and psychedelic grooves.
“To some extent we all manufacture ourselves. With myself, it was like I made myself into this work of art.”
Jordan, aka Pamela Rooke, became an official punk icon in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee, was a fashion trendsetter (who worked at Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm MacLaren’s shop Sex in London), a fixture at Sex Pistols’ shows, and became an early Adam and the Ants manager and sometimes performer.
Photo credit: Rick Castro
“I don’t think I can overemphasize how important it is to document your artwork and the work of your community. There have always been people of different ethnicities and different sexual orientations and gender identifications involved in meaningful art and social movements, but they are largely invisible because the people who were documenting — the historians — filtered them out.”
Feminist activist and musician Alice Bag, lead singer of the Bags, one of earliest punk bands to help shape the West Coast sound, can be seen in Penelope Spheeris’ film The Decline of Western Civilization. She wrote two acclaimed books about growing up in East L.A. and her trip to Nicaragua during the Sandinista revolution in 1986. Her blog charts the history of women in the Los Angeles punk scene in a compelling series of interviews and remembrances.
“When I put together my show, I try not think a lot. I just glue together and paint things and make things look like something that I like! Then I take all of these things to where I’m going to do a show, and the musicians come and play whatever it is they want to play, and then I sing anything that comes out of my mouth. There’s lots of blood and messy things and then I fall down and it’s all over.”
Behold the guttural howls and shrieking stylings of performance/sound artist Johanna Went, known for her raucous and transgressive costumed stage shows.
Photo credit: Lisa Genet
“No Wave was going on. Punk (too). I mean, there was just — the best — it was so cool, what was going on at that moment.”
Pat Place, a key No Wave artist and performer with bands James Chance and the Contortions and Bush Tetras, was making movies with other women in the scene like Lydia Lunch and director Vivienne Dick during the ‘70s and ‘80s. From an interview with Perfect Sound Forever about her time in NYC:
It was downtown. Everything was kind of like mashed together really, so you couldn’t really miss it with that stuff because, like I said, you’d go to the Ocean Club, and these people would be playing. But really what happened is, a year after I was in New York, my brother was sick and he was living in San Francisco and he was dying. I went to visit him, and he died, and it sort of blew my mind. He was 28. I came back, quit the job. I got on unemployment and all of a sudden I’m like, 22. I’m on unemployment and sharing the apartment of course, with three or four people, and I could go out at midnight and go down to CBGB’s. So I was doing that.
“Writing for me is about my freedom. When I was a kid, my parents were like monsters to me, and the world extended from them. They were horrible. And I was this good little girl — I didn’t have the guts to oppose them. They told me what to do and how to be. So the only time I could have any freedom or joy was when I was alone in my room. Writing is what I did when I was alone with no one watching me or telling me what to do. I could do whatever I wanted. So writing was really associated with body pleasure — it was the same thing. It was like the only thing I had.”
A moving account about the life and death of experimental punk novelist Kathy Acker on Hazlitt:
Acker was always armoured. Despising the privileged yet oppressive Upper East Side household she was raised in, she turned her back on her family as soon as she could, constructing and cultivating a seemingly impervious persona—outlaw, feral, sexually voracious, fearless, irresponsible, raging, indifferent to all propriety. Her genre-defying fiction, from the mail-art chapbook The Childlike Life of the Black Tarantula to incendiary novels like Blood and Guts in High School and Empire of the Senseless, were ways to think against every repression, to overturn the worlds—and words—of parents, gender, the academy, rationality, the traditional novel. Writing could subvert the strictures of identity. It could anatomize sexual power. “The only reaction against an unbearable society,” she wrote in an essay about Goya and Caravaggio, “is equally unbearable nonsense,” an aperçu precisely summarizing her own aesthetic and political ambitions. Like her lodestar, Jean Genet, Acker constantly dwelt in opposition.
“To tell you the truth, Hollywood could never give me a role — even the ‘good roles — that would be as interesting as the life I can construct for myself.”
Ann Magnuson, an essential figure from the downtown New York City scene and vocalist in bands like Bongwater and the Bleecker Street Incident, has appeared in the films Desperately Seeking Susan and The Hunger. She was running the show at creative spaces like Club 57 during their heyday and continues to create evocative performance pieces. Critic Don Shewey shares some great stories about Magnuson:
Most of Magnuson’s creations first came to life in brief shows at late-night East Village performance boites — an entrance in costume, a monologue, a song, and off. I caught a couple of these, fairly amusing but not worth staying up till 2:30 in the morning for. The first time I really started paying attention was when Magnuson corralled a bunch of her characters into a show called After Dante at Danceteria. She started out as Tammy Jan, TV evangelist, who opened her live broadcast by leading the three-man Moral Majority Singers in a medley of pop songs with rewritten Christian lyrics: “Man Eater” became “Faith Healer,” the chorus of “Copacabana” went “At the cruci, the crucifixion,” and “Theme from The Great American Hero” ended “Believe it or not, it’s J.C.!” Then after pitching such mail-order items as Shroud of Turin beach towels, Tammy Jan launched into the Believe-ercise portion of her program. During a bad handstand she took a dive and ended up in limbo, apparently stranded between TV channels — a bizarre and slippery thing to dramatize, but Magnuson did it brilliantly.