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Tag Archives: ’70s Punk Rock

I interviewed Nina Antonia for Venus Zine back in 2007. Her writing has been a huge influence on me. She has been a music journalist in Britain since the ’80s and wrote an amazing book called The Prettiest Star in the mid-’00s. It is about her experience growing up in Britain during the ’70s as a fan of Glam and Punk music, which I could really relate to, and she weaves her tale with the story of Brett Smiley, who is an underrated Glam Rocker, that was destined to be the next David Bowie, but whose career did not turn out as expected. It is quite a gripping story! I interviewed her not too long after that book came out, and got to talk to her about the book, as well as other people that she has written about such as the New York Dolls, Johnny Thunders (she wrote two books that have to do with Thunders, one about the New York Dolls and one about about his career) and Peter Perrett from the Only Ones.

Nina Antonia

Glitter in the Gutter: a legendary music journalist talks about the impact of Glam Rock on her life and the not-so-glamorous aspects of her writing career

By Bess Korey

Nina Antonia with Brett Smiley

Nina Antonia with Brett Smiley

In her recent book, The Prettiest Star: Whatever Happened To Brett Smiley?, legendary British music journalist, Nina Antonia, parallels her personal memoir with the biography of musician Brett Smiley. Smiley’s all too brief shot at fame as a Glam Rocker in the mid-’70s and subsequent fall into despair and addiction when things did not work out as planned, is brilliantly interwoven with Antonia’s tale of being a young music fan growing up in Liverpool, England.

Antonia’s life was changed forever by the burgeoning Glam Rock movement and the musicians with whom she was able to identify with from that scene, including the New York Dolls, their guitarist Johnny Thunders, and, of course, Smiley. The book spans a 30-year-period, chronicling the ups-and-downs of life faced by Smiley and Antonia, and ending on a high note when their lives intersected in the early 2000′s. During that time, they finally met in person, and Antonia played an important part in getting Smiley’s lost 1974 Glam Rock album, Breathlessly Brett, released on RPM Records.

Her early interest in the Dolls and Thunders led to her being the first person to ever write biographies about both subjects: The New York Dolls: Too Much Too Soon and Johnny Thunders: In Cold Blood. She is known as an authority on the Dolls because of that and appears in a recent documentary, New York Doll, about the Dolls’ late bass player, Arthur “Killer” Kane. She has also written, The One and Only: Peter Perrett, Homme Fatale, on a founding member of the pioneering British Punk group, the Only Ones, and she has had articles published in renowned British music magazines, such as Mojo and Uncut. Antonia has certainly come a long way from being an unhappy little girl who used her daydreams of the Dolls, Thunders, and Smiley as an escape. In the following interview, which was conducted via e-mail during March of 2007, she candidly discusses her journey.

Bess Korey: In The Prettiest Star you mentioned that when you were trying to find a publisher for your first book, Johnny Thunders: In Cold Blood, one of the publishers you showed the book to had the gall to tell you that women shouldn’t and can’t write about music. The lengthy resume that you have created as a music writer since then has certainly proved him wrong. Was that the only time that you have had to deal with sexist behavior in the publishing world or have there been other instances over the years as well? Also, do you think that people have become more accepting of female music journalists since the ’80s, or does it seem to you like women who write about music are still made to feel like they have something to prove? 

Nina Antonia: Throughout my time as a Rock n’ Roll writer, I’ve often had to deal with sexism, so the first incident which you mention, from The Prettiest Star, was kind of a precursor. It’s not quite as bad [now] as it was in the ’70s. But I’ve watched as male contemporaries in the same field have been offered the opportunity to make a decent career, while I’ve had to scratch [out] a living.

In the music press there is still the sense that the male voice, in print, at least, is the most authoritative. In the UK, there are usually one to two women writing for each Rock magazine, if they’re lucky. This is the quota filled. I have to admit, however, that I’m also not “one of the boys.” I don’t hang out at the pub with the guys from whatever Rock mag, and this also goes against the grain, as do the bands I’m usually associated with.

The most infuriating incident I encountered was from an American writer, a woman; which made it all the more galling; who was writing a book about women in Rock n’ Roll and contacted me about two years ago with a query about ’70s groupie glamour queen, Sabel Starr. I was as helpful as possible and let her know that I did the last interview with Sabel in my New York Dolls book. Ironically when the book came out, the journalist sourced a male author, who hadn’t actually spoken to Sabel, and totally ignored the Dolls book. I got a teensy thanks, which was lost in the footnotes.

I can’t say whether people have become more accepting of female music journalists, because I can only answer from my own experiences. On a more positive note however, I do get lovely feedback about my books from lots of guys so the “fault,” if there is one, lies within the media’s attitude, not with the Rock reader.

From what can be gathered in reading about your life in The Prettiest Star, you’ve never been reckless or self-destructive like the musicians that you choose to write about. Why do you think that you have such a strong desire to write about the dark side of Rock n’ Roll? And does writing about such things help you stay grounded?

I suppose you could say I was emotionally reckless and self-destructive in some of the relationships I embarked upon, but as a single parent I had to learn to survive as well. I probably have a strong desire to write about the dark side of Rock n’ Roll because it reflects something in me, an echo of my childhood, which fashioned my outlook on life.

Also traditional success stories are pretty boring, I’d rather write about the authentic: people who have had to struggle yet triumphed by getting their records out against the odds, people whose lives are real. I hate high gloss, air brushed perfection and MTV homogenization. Authors like Nelson Algren, John Rechy, and Jean Genet influenced me, because they understood the poetry of the gutter. I am grounded because I’ve had to be to pay the rent.

How would you describe Brett Smiley, and the effect he has had on your life, to people who have not read your book? 

The Prettiest Star, which is both Brett’s biography and my autobiography, is, amongst other things, a reflection on the ephemeral quality of pop music. As a Glam phenomenon, Brett was as fleeting as a snowflake, which gave him and the music a magical quality. He was the Greta Garbo of teeny-pop; elusiveness can be a great quality.

The “imaginary” Brett character belongs to my early teens. Brett Smiley of today is a very different person; much more earthy, as is his music. I perceive him like a figure in a fairy story, someone remembered from another lifetime, whilst wishing the real Brett all the very best with his future endeavors. Besides, he is very much concerned with the now, as well.

What inspired you to write a book about Peter Perrett of the Only Ones? 

Peter is like a modern day Baudelaire. If you don’t know Baudelaire’s work, it’s incredibly contemporary in its jaded cynicism, yet it has a timeless, morbid beauty to it. Perrett and Baudelaire also share the same predilections for dissipation as well. Perrett is one of the most anti-establishment people I’ve ever met; he refuses to live within society’s rules. Peter is a truly mythical figure, I once described him in an article as being the “Syd Barrett of the new wave”; there is a lot of mystique surrounding Perrett that continues to exert a fascination over people.

The Only Ones’ music is kind of baroque, grandiose almost. It’s the sound of opium dreams and car crashes, refinement and chaos. The Only Ones have just reformed and are going to be playing gigs this summer in England, so I may update the book.

Even though you’re a female writer, you’ve chosen to chronicle the lives of male musicians, as opposed to female ones. Does gender play a role at all when you choose the topics you want to write about?

The two female artists I would have most wanted to write about were Debbie Harry and Nico, I think they are both wonderful and, indeed, I’ve done sleeve notes for a Nico CD. However, I always write about artists who have largely been under the radar, in terms of media coverage. When I wrote about the New York Dolls, they hadn’t yet reformed and hit the comeback trail, but that’s a bit of a tangent. What I’m trying to say is that I didn’t think there was a need for me to write about Debbie Harry or Nico, as there were perfectly good books already out about both of them. It’s not an issue of gender either, it’s always been about whose work and style moves me.

Which book do you like best out of the four you’ve written, and is that the one you enjoyed writing most?

Johnny Thunders; In Cold Blood is the one that means the most to me, because it was my first book and entailed a lot of struggle. I put my soul into it and got to work closely with Johnny, who was my Rock n’ Roll hero. It’s also the book that I get the most feedback on. Johnny captured a lot of people’s hearts and In Cold Blood is an authentic document. It originally came out in 1987, first editions can cost quite a lot if you can find a copy. I only have one left. It was revised and updated a couple of years ago and it’s the new version, available through Cherry Red Books, that is still in print.

Nina Antonia with Crooked J

Nina Antonia with Crooked J

Are you working on any new books or projects right now?

I had a difficult experience with the last book I tried to get off the ground, which was going to be an alternative look at Glam. At this stage of the game, I’m too weary to fight for what should be obvious, i.e., a decent advance and a reasonable timeframe for writing a book.

Right now I’m concentrating on managing a band called the Skuzzies. Their front man, Crooked J, is my partner. If I’m going to write about any band at all, it will be the Skuzzies. They have the grimy allure of the city after midnight and incorporate everything I’ve ever found inspiring in music and literature, whilst being totally themselves.

When you were younger, could you have ever imagined that your life would turn out this way? Does the fact that you have been so involved with the lives of your heroes seem surreal to you at all, or does it just feel normal now? 

In my early teens I spent most of my life in daydreams, as this was preferable to real life. My dream was to meet Johnny Thunders. I suppose my dreams came true but of course things never turned out in the way one anticipates. Life is bittersweet, as were my experiences of getting to know Johnny and writing his biography. His life was far from perfect, as was mine, but it was still the realization of something very special and finding creative fulfillment is rewarding.

Writing Too Much Too Soon was a completely different experience, it was more of an elegy to the original New York Dolls, a fond goodbye. To answer your question, I don’t think I could have lived my life any other way. My books gave me a voice that would otherwise have gone unheard.

An edited version of this story appeared on Venus Zine’s website back in June of 2007.

Cheap Perfume

NYC’s first all-female Punk band discuss the joys and hardships they faced while paving the way for the next generation.

By Bess Korey

Cheap Perfume Band Picture

Thirty-years-ago Rock N’ Roll was still a boys’ club. Even though all-female rock bands had existed before 1977, many of these bands were driven into obscurity. Most were seen as novelty acts, had short-lived careers, and/or were not given a proper chance to record their music.

In recent years, the music of many all-female Garage and Psychedelic bands from the ’60s has resurfaced, including: She, the Ace Of Cups, the Luv’d Ones (whom I have also written about, and the article is posted in this blog), and the Daisy Chain, and has been released by retro-themed labels like Ace and Sundazed. But by the mid-late ’70s, this rich musical history of all-female bands remained mostly lost. Female musicians who wanted to play in bands had to create a new path for themselves.

The members of Cheap Perfume (Lynn Odell on vocals, Susan Palermo on bass, Brenda Martinez on drums, Nancy Street on rhythm guitar, and Bunny on lead guitar), an all-female band that began in 1977, certainly felt like that was what they had to do. Born out of the early New York Punk scene, the fact that they were breaking new ground for female musicians, made them stand out from other bands, but it also sometimes worked against them. In regards to this, Bunny says, “That there were so few female musicians at the time proved to be helpful, but we felt we had more to prove to our audience — that we could actually play as well as the next band of male musicians — so in a way there was more pressure on the band to shine musically, as well as visually.”

But despite this added pressure put on them because they were an all-female group, Bunny still feels that, “The punk scene was definitely more welcoming to female musicians. Before punk, the music scene was mainly male bands and disco, with female singers, but without all-female bands.”

Punk not only opened a door for Cheap Perfume as female musicians, but it’s DIY mantra proved to be inspiring as well. Palermo says,“I was working as a waitress at CBGB, and after watching several other bands perform, I decided to form Cheap Perfume. I thought, ‘hey we could do this just as well’. Everyone was eager to hear and watch female musicians and I was just as anxious to get the music out there.”

Through CBGB’s scene, Palermo was fortunate enough to know a few other female musicians who shared a similar goal and desire, and was able to find the rest of the members through auditions. Funny enough, both Palermo and Bunny started playing guitar at the age of 13, and Palermo also tried to form her first all-girl band at that age as well, but unfortunately not to much success. Bunny stuck to her playing, but Palermo gave it up for a number of years. It wasn’t until closer to the time that Cheap Perfume formed, that Palermo learned to play bass. She was dating the bass player of the Tuff Darts, John DeSalvo, and he played a role in her wanting to learn the instrument.

The group did not have much confidence in themselves early on. Palermo says, “When we started, Brenda, Alison [was the name of the original guitarist, Bunny was her replacement, and did not join until later] and I would play for 3 hours every Saturday afternoon at Cottage & Castle, no matter what. It took us almost a year before we were competent — and confident — enough to start looking for a singer. You have to remember, there were few female musicians, and we really had no role models at that time. Once Lynn and Nancy joined the band, we auditioned at CBGB’s about 3 months later.”

Once they started writing songs, the band used influences from both the past and the present to carve out their own sound. The fact that they were 5 unique individuals with different musical tastes shows through the versatility of their music. Unfortunately, the group never put out an album, but there are a handful of tracks that have been recorded. “You Won’t Stop Me” is a straightforward punk song, loud and fast, with defiant lyrics, which could even be considered feminist, since the girl in the song refuses to let a boy stand in the way of what she wants to do. “Forever Damaged” verges on having a metal sound, and not only does it rock hard, but it also tells the tale of a woman who has lived too hard.  A cover of the Shirelles’ “Boys” which they make their own, completely switches gears from the latter songs by being poppier, as well as being heavily influenced by the music scene of 1966. It is a gender-bending response to the Chocolate Watchband’s “Let’s Talk About Girls”, with a little bit of Tommy James And The Shondells’ “Hanky Panky” and the Capitols’ “Cool Jerk” thrown in for good measure. Like “Boys”, “Bittersweet” also has more of a pop feel, and it’s verse is reminiscent of Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire”, but it is more like Blondie’s cover of the song than it is the original.

Their musical diversity doesn’t only point out the conflicting tastes amongst the band members, it also serves as a testament for the scene they were a part of, which had such a wide range of bands, with very different influences, all being considered Punk.

Once the group started playing gigs on a regular basis, they would go back and forth between CBGB and Max’s Kansas City every weekend. Peter Crowley, who was manager of Max’s Kansas City at the time, remembers them as being one of the most popular groups to play at the club. The fact that boys found the band attractive only helped their popularity, but Crowley feels as if there was more to it than that. He says, “I remember they had lots of boy groupies, but also -because they played with as much energy and skill as any of their “competition” – they attracted a much bigger following than they got from being pretty girls.”

Two of the “boy groupies” who went to see the band play back then were Michael Zuko and Freddie Katz. Both men look back quite fondly at the Cheap Perfume shows they witnessed in the ’70s. Zuko says, “I used to see CP at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. Yeah, yeah, all girl band, very cute – but the songs really struck me, very hooky choruses, harmonies, good musicianship, etc. I would remember them from time to time. I do shows quite a bit in NYC, would talk to people about them, and remember the titles of the tunes – “Tommy”, “Ordinary Girls”, “Overnight Angel” – so their songs did stay with me. I remember our girlfriends would get in a huff, ‘…oh, you wanna see Cheap Perfume because they’re cute, right?’ (well, yeah, sure!), but they were great live – 5 girls, full sound, always an element of ‘uh, oh, what’s gonna happen here’ – in my opinion, better than similar groups that were out there at the time.”

Their music also left a lasting impression on Katz. He says, “The fact is they were a great rock-n-roll band.  Part of the proof I can offer of this fact is that although I have no recordings I still can remember many Cheap Perfume songs all these years later. Titles like “Haunted”, “Too Bad”, “Tommy’s Such A Tease”; I could play them on the guitar and sing them for you right now!”

Katz is currently a sound engineer in NYC, and has kept in touch with the band after all these years. Despite their popularity in the city, he feels that since they did not have a chance to record an album, it made it difficult for them to gain recognition outside their hometown.

Not having an album to promote wasn’t the only slight that hurt the band. In general, they felt very misguided. Bunny says, “We were a young band. We really did not have the management. We had no knowledge of which direction to go in a field that was not really open to female musicians til later.”

The gap that had always existed due to them having differing musical tastes grew larger over time, and there were some personnel changes as well. Bunny ended up leaving the group and things were never the same after that. Susan was the next to leave, and they were unable to recover. The band broke up shortly after her departure in 1981.

Cheap Perfume Group

The reunited members of Cheap Pefume playing together in 2006.

Flash forward 25 years later to 2006. Max’s Kansas City is long gone, and CBGB is on it’s last legs.

The members of Cheap Perfume were feeling a common bond of heartbreak over the impending closure of CBGB, and it ended up bringing them back together. This led to them playing CBGB again before it closed for good, and wowing both new and old fans alike.

Shaunda is a new fan that witnessed that 2006 show, and she says, “I remember standing in the back area with my friends and Cheap Perfume went on. I could not take my eyes off of of the drummer Brenda and guitarist Bunny. The entire band performed with such confidence and flair. I mean New York Dolls unspeakable cool. Brenda and Bunny made me want to get up and play right at that moment!”

Shaunda is not the only new female fan that the band has gained since they reunited. Bunny says, “I feel we have a lot of new young female fans, so our audience is pretty well balanced now. Since there are so many female musicians performing now–unlike the ’70s and ’80s–the audiences now are very receptive.”

Cheap Perfume still have a hold over their former “boy groupies” as well. Zuko, who is a musician himself, recently got to play a gig with them, and had this to say about their set, “When the girls took the stage after midnight, it all came back to me – the raw energy, even as a trio- Bunny’s straight ahead locomotive guitar (she also handled lead vocals), Susie’s stylistic bass lines, and Brenda’s powerful backbeat (that girl packs a wallop!). They did a few of the songs I remembered – hell, I sang along! Cheap Perfume played the way I’ve always liked it – fast, loud, kinda sloppy R&R, and no encores, dammit. Ok, they’re cute, too!!!”

The group will be playing gigs at NYC venues such as Siberia and Don Hills, during May and June of this year [2007], and have also started to work on their long overdue album. Drummer Brenda Martinez says, “We are currently working in the studio recording some new and older material. So, we will be releasing more music…we will keep everyone up to date on our MySpace page. We weren’t able to record all that we wanted in the ’70s and ’80s…which is something to look forward to now because recording has changed and improved so much…we are really excited!”

Even though the closing of CBGB was quite a blow for the band, Bunny feels as if, “…Rock N’ Roll never dies and we believe the spirit of CBGB and the New York punk scene will always live on and that is proven if you give a listen to some more recent Punk bands out there that have kept that spirit alive. Hopefully everyone will help keep it alive by supporting Cheap Perfume and all the other bands that are keeping that message out there.”

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