I wrote this in April of 2015. This was not so long ago and yet eons ago. It was before the current co-opting of #MeToo. It was when electing Donald Trump was unimaginable and so he had not yet rolled the stones out of the way and empowered so much hate to crawl out and infect our nation. It is my story yet it is the story of so many of us then and now who live with both casual and significant wounds as we find our footing in this world. The Daddy and Mom the Runaways were screaming at were not necessarily directly their own as much as all authority and they are certainly not mine (both of whom have my love and gratitude).
A couple of items entered the news stream this past year and weighed heavily on my mind, occupying oddly similar emotional places. Perhaps, because they have to do with, to borrow a phrase from the fantastically awful seminal eighties rock and roll film, Eddie and the Cruisers, words and music. Much of my life has revolved around those two things.
The first is the revelation from Harper Lee’s controversially published Go Set a Watchman that Atticus Finch was a racist. Yes he was. This is not news to anyone who read the beloved To Kill a Mockingbird and came to know his moral and paternalistic character. The second is that Jackie Fuchs (Jackie Fox) of the Runaways came forward with her tale of a hideous public rape at the hands of producer Kim Fowley. She was sixteen at the time. Both incidents speak of past and present that is so familiar. Both bring to my mind so many memories and so many unrealized hopes, not all of them immediate and not all of them my own. They also make me realize that geography, white privilege, and dumb luck have been to my advantage throughout my life. Finally, they strike me of the common banality of both racism and rape.
Maybe such banality persists because we are living in an era in which fighting against things causes discomfort and takes too much work; during a time when we enjoy a plethora of easily consumed comfort and all work too hard on a daily basis to afford our modest, yet constant, consumer comforts. Also, charges like rape and racism ruin things for the rest of us. A quick scan of comments following credible online articles on either topic gives evidence to this. The rape victim ruins the football game or the party and the victim of racist epithets and acts just needs to relax and “stop playing the race card”. Jackie Fuchs’ allegations, which are quite credibly substantiated, put a stain on the sexually charged persona of the teenage girl band and accepting that the Atticus of Watchman is the same as the Atticus of Mockingbird, puts a stain on a beloved, noble and moral father figure. Heck, it puts a stain on Gregory Peck’s white suit.
I was born in 1970 into a world in which Richard Nixon was president, the Civil Rights movement was morphing into the Black Power movement and the women’s movement was colliding with the deep misogyny of youth culture embodied in anti-war movements and rock and roll. It was the year of the Kent state shootings, four years before a disgraced Richard Nixon resigned from office, a year before the Attica uprising and five years before the official end of the Vietnam War. Less than a month after I was born former SDS members gone underground blew themselves up in a Greenwich Village townhouse. It was also simply 1970, another year in which a young couple, once college students in SDS themselves, in a mistake marriage full of unrealized ideas and ideals, found themselves saddled with a second child. I was born five years before the Runaways formed. Four years before Patty Hearst was abducted and repeatedly raped (something that has become a footnote in her story and wasn’t even considered in her trial). I was born into a time of seminal sexual liberation and forty-odd years later, we still haven’t reached the conclusion that women can be sexual beings without being sexual game.
I was born into a family in which family legend has it my father was offered a spot with Blue Oyster Cult (then Soft White Underbelly) but declined it for family obligations. My father and his friends always had guitars and my mother had a beautiful voice and was forever flipping records over on the turntable. “Just one more side.” Credibility of my own rock and roll credentials aside, I grew up surrounded by it. My best childhood memories include backyard guitar circles and potlucks. Lots of beards and denim and folk song singalongs with hand-churned ice cream, canned beer, and the sweet smell of marijuana wafting in the air.
I know enough about child development to know that my early childhood shaped me more than any other time in my life so I am definitely a product of the seventies. My cultural and memorial touchstones, however, all come from the eighties. So while I can harken a fondness for childhood freedom, glam rock, grit, the working class, long gas lines, wide hemlines, truly dirty and dangerous New York City, black power, a more fiscally conservative time, and Jimmy Carter, I can quote Footloose and Purple Rain and the Ronald Reagan of my youth is not the governor of California who went after the Black Panthers with full racist zeal but the soulless and amoral man who led the Iran Contra arms sales. I lead my life constantly confronting my own paradoxical impulses, informed by the contradictory economies of the seventies and eighties. One is frugal and one irresponsibly indulgent.
Decades are about as defining as political boundaries. They are imposed on something that cannot be contained. In this case not land and sea, but time, evolution, cultural shifts. Like political boundaries, they do encapsulate something that becomes tangibly defined. Still, we can use the boundaries of decades to look at cultural shifts. The Days of Rage helped burn an era of peace and love to the ground and by the time of the 1970 Kent State shootings, myriad new factors were afoot. Drugs had taken hold. Strongly. People were really, really angry and beginning to see non-violent methods as futile. Across the sea, an IRA member said it best some years later when he said something along the lines of, if they will not listen to the force of our words, they will listen to our force. Stokely Carmichael began as a supporter of non-violence but one can only suffer so much hatred and oppression before one fights back.
Some people saw any work toward change as futile and simply focused on themselves. The freedom of the established counter culture looked pretty good to the younger baby boomers who had seen their older siblings join revolutions and they embarked on a decade of enjoying their own freedoms. Jim Jones led a group of hopefuls into the wilderness of Guyana and it really did seem hopeful: a beautiful self-sustaining mixed race community founded on kinship, love, and equality. Plus, in the footage of their origins the gardens are beautiful and bountiful, surely a sign of nurture and health so it is numbing that only a year later that community became one in which members gunned down outsiders on an airstrip and parents felt desperate and hopeless enough to take their own children’s lives. I am incapable of reconciling in my mind the lush glory of the gardens of Jonestown with the profound sadness of its end. The cutlass beans alone were bursting with hope. By the time the eighties hit, we entered a decade of massive backlashes and elected Ronald Reagan and started down a path that put us in a time when Bill Clinton was the best Republican president we ever had and Bill Ayers buys lattes at Starbucks.
The music of the 1970s departed from the folk-infused peace and love songs of the 1960s and the drug influences changed from the warm kaleidoscopic jangling prevalent in songs like Dylan’s “Tambourine Man” to a more frenzied, angry sound sometimes tinged with a sexual violence. If Woodstock represented the love of the 1960s, Altamont represented the feel of the 1970s – the party had become perilous. The Runaways “Cherry Bomb” is a perfect example of such a song. It is appealing in its provocative form of FUCK YOU. Guitar riffs, distortion, raw lyrics, and a hard-edged androgyny all entered the mainstream music scene.
Racism, quite prevalent, tangible, and viral today was no less present in the seventies. In many milieus it was more accepted and some forms of it were not recognized. I grew up during a time when students and teachers subtly differentiated the “nice slave owners” from the brutal and bad ones. I learned all the acceptable, sacrificed dark-skinned saints: Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks. Nobody mentioned Fred Hampton, and scary Malcolm X was just so angry! I also learned that the true heroes were white men like Abraham Lincoln and Atticus Finch. I was raised by liberals and they made it clear to me that racism was bad. We had black friends in both parents and children. One day though, I was at the Kroger with a family member and while looking at another family this adult muttered, “Well that’s an interesting couple.” Dad was a very dark-skinned black man and mom was a very pale blonde white woman. Their child was a baby. The year was probably 1977 and it was one of the first times I came to recognize hypocrisy and the limits of one’s own beliefs. That is, when ideas collide with reality.
Growing up, I frequently wore railroad-striped overalls and my closest cousin called me Scout. With the Morton Salt Girl bob and bangs that I sported for about 25 years, it was a fitting moniker. Just as Laura Ingalls idealized and romanticized her harsh prairie existence, Lee idealized and romanticized the good in her small Alabama hometown, perhaps striving to elicit the paternalistic do gooding exemplified by Atticus in Mockingbird. Sometimes I think benevolent paternalism as a form of racism is better than real ugliness because it hints at humanity yet is truly uglier and more insidious in the way it maintains a slow boil rather than foments revolution. So thank you Atticus Finch for revealing your true Confederate Flag colors. Perhaps we needed more of Orval Faubus and George Wallace and less of your grace and courtesy. After all, Go Set a Watchman was the story Harper Lee initially wanted to share with the world.
While I have not greeted the discussion around Watchman with much more than a resigned shrug (of course given the opportunity to publish another Harper Lee book, someone is going to do so. Of course Atticus was a racist, a likable, noble, admirable racist, just like Robert E. Lee. And of course my white privilege and comfort have allowed me to love Mockingbird and the characters in it.) The Fuchs story briefly consumed me. When I first saw a news item pop up on Facebook I was about to get in the shower, carrying my Ipad into the bathroom to play some music. Instead I sat on the bath mat and read the original Jason Cherkis Huffington Post article as well as several tangential pieces. Later, I watched Fuchs interviewed and read the responses of several of her bandmates. Why? I was never particularly a fan of the Runaways or Joan Jett. I was, however, also a Title IX generation girl. I didn’t break ground wearing lingerie on stage, drinking underage, and screaming lyrics at adoring and lecherous fans. I did fight the local newspaper until they gave me a route and then fought customers who protested having a girl as their carrier. I did grow up surrounded by rock and roll, wearing my brother’s hand-me-down Toughskins and my mother’s Jean Nate, and with a very open conception of gender roles and identity.
At the time of Jackie Fuchs’ rape she was a recently turned 16 and her manager rapist was well into his thirties. The rape occurred at a party and most of those present were teens – hopeful, aspirational, drug and alcohol affected teens. It was 1975, or the dawn of 1976. I know what it is like to be that young and hopeful, that full of so many ideas with no clear way to put them to purpose. For me, that was experiences such as lying in the back of a pickup truck parked at a canyon edge in Wyoming and watching the Perseids while sipping cold beer and feeling the electric tingle of proximity with the boy beside me. It was also drinking way too much Bacardi and Diet Coke during a high school theater cast party and having friends simply put me to bed in a guest room rather than take advantage of me. I have been in many moments of terrifying vulnerability and been saved only by luck or momentary good decisions that have resulted in more frequently having good memories to hold and stories to share rather than trauma to pocket or regret and shame to carry.
There were plenty of nights I experienced only tipsy and careless kisses, feelings of exuberance, and stories of brushes with danger. Only a few times did things become vaguely uncomfortable or slightly unsafe and most of the time life felt like it did one night when a friend and I were walking to the cooperatively owned Del Rio Bar for a drink and she said that she felt like something was going to happen, she just didn’t know what. I had known that pregnant feeling my whole life, the feeling of being on the edge of something big. And things often did happen but because of who I was, how I was raised, my fears and low expectations, I just sort of kept looking for something to happen rather than planning and sometimes, things did happen. Fortunately, what happened was usually pretty good though oftentimes, not as good as it should have been. It was also occasionally frightening.
One late night I was walking home from work, carrying a rolled apron fat with tips, far too late at night for a young person to be walking home alone. Someone with a knife stopped and asked me for help. His build-up was brief. He asked me for money and told some classic story about a broken down car. When I declined to give him money because unrolling my apron and revealing my stash of singles seemed unwise, he said, “But all I have is this knife,” and pulled a blade from his pocket. A police car immediately pulled up next to us and saved the day.
I hitchhiked across Ireland when I was young. Most of my rides were pleasant and kind. (Well, there was one French couple that I really irritated when I encouraged them to take a shortcut that wound up being unpaved and narrow.) One fellow, however, was increasingly creepy and aggressive throughout our ride. I gave no indication of my deep unease and instead talked him into dropping me off at my hostel so that I could freshen up and meet him at a bar later. I had him drop me at a hostel other than the one at which I was staying and waited for him to drive away before I walked the ten or so blocks to my actual hostel, one less student-oriented and in a less safe part of town. I haven’t always made good decisions but I can think on my feet. Actually, as I was nearing my real hostel with my pack on my back, a car of two unarmed Dublin bobbies pulled over and asked me where I was going. I told them and they encouraged me to hurry along as night was approaching and I was not in the nicest of neighborhoods. If only they knew I spent my afternoon wondering if I was going to be raped and murdered in the Irish countryside. I never thought again about the bar down the street from my faux lodging and instead enjoyed a night at a pub closer to my hostel and woke the next morning to find breakfast was served in the basement. I enjoyed cornflakes in whole milk and soda bread with marmalade while listening to Highway 61 Revisited at high volume. The basement reverberated with the familiarity of Dylan and I loved watching the young Irish people working in the kitchen grooving to the anthemic American music with the same glee I felt in Galway a few nights later when a young Australian man looked down at the Blundstone boots on my feet and asked me what, “An American girl in Australian boots is doing in Ireland?” I giggled and later joined him in a pub where, when we walked in, we encountered a group of young Irish lads singing the racist southern American anthem “Sweet Home Alabama”. So many lines of convergence. What’s an American girl doing in Australian boots at an Irish bar with an Australian stranger listening to a racist American song and planning on returning to a situation in which she is sleeping in a room with strangers? Hoping for the right experience. Waiting for something to happen.
There was the time in Chicago when I decided to walk the long miles home from work, at Ed Debevics in River North, to my apartment in Wrigleyville. It was a quiet Sunday evening. I started zig-zagging North until I was smack dab in the middle of the infamous Cabrini Green. There was no immediate threat to my person – only the widely accepted knowledge that this was a very dangerous area. (Now, years later, after the DC sniper and so many mass shootings we know better. There are no safe and unsafe places. There is just this great big mess and we are all in it together.) That night, I tried to carry myself without vulnerability and just kept walking. Two young women coming out of a liquor store saw me and I made eye contact with them, hoping they might offer help. Instead, they called out, “Damn, you’re a brave little white girl!” and laughed uproariously with each other. I trudged on and arrived home just fine, ashamed of my fear yet with my white privilege intact.
There were the nights I said no, even when physical activity went pretty far, and there was the one time someone tried to push things too far while in a dorm room full of people giving each other back massages. He was rubbing my back and suddenly snaked a hand down my shorts. When I kicked him out of the room he called me a tease and blamed me for his actions. After all, I had clearly invited him to do so when I allowed him to give me a massage. Fortunately, there were friends around and I was not intoxicated so kicking him out was easy and he had no opportunity to follow through on what he clearly believed he had been invited to do. In the other cases, no one even considered not accepting my no.
Those kids there with Jackie Fuchs that night in 1975, watching the horror of a young woman being raped, lived in a time when consent wasn’t defined as clearly as it is now, and we are still struggling with the definition. It was a time when rock and roll was owned by men. Again, this line has edged only a bit. I just recently listened to a model hosting a music awards show tell the nation that she had the credentials to do so because she, “bangs a musician”. Jackie Fox was part of an all girl band literally packaged as jailbait and sexualized in all images. The other youth present that evening were compromised not only chemically and chronologically but by their own hopes and aspirations and likely by the relief that it wasn’t them passed out and being violated.
I was in no way a music pioneer. At the dawn of 1976 I was in Kindergarten. The first half of the year in Evanston, Illinois where my school was very close to the Northwestern Campus and my kindergarten class was progressive with regard to child development. I was pulled out regularly for speech therapy and we had technology of the time in the classroom. Everyone was engaged and well-behaved and there were several teachers. We moved to Ann Arbor mid-year and our school served the edge of town where there were several low income housing projects and a number of rural kids such as ourselves. My new kindergarten had one teacher, far too old to still be teaching, about thirty kids, a full working kitchen with no safety measures in place, and a high loft dominated by a biting bully. Both situations were very different from the seminal California punk and heavy metal music scene of the same time but a part of the same culture. I also grew up as it sounds those young Runaway girls grew up – largely unsupervised. I was walking, biking, and riding buses just about everywhere from a young age.
My father first managed a local record store in which he drank and smoked pot with a fun young crowd who appreciated the novelty of children, especially three lovely and intelligent ones who wore oversized Grateful Dead t-shirts and knew all the Beatles and Doors lyrics because we listened to them on 8-track cassettes in our Dodge Dart. Later my parents purchased a bookstore on the same street and our free run of downtown Ann Arbor continued. We grew up returning massive stashes of beer bottles for ten cent bottle deposits so as to buy candy and Faygo pop. We knew all the local business people and my early life was one of many paradoxes – staying up too late with casually partying adults and then using their bottle deposit profits to buy rainbow and cat stickers at Peaceable Kingdom. I was being raised by a health conscious mother who had many rules but offered little supervision so on Saturdays we siblings were sent off for lunch with cash in hand and instructions to eat at the health food store by the parking garage. We alternated eating chapati sandwiches from the health food store and fish sandwiches from the McDonald’s across the street.
What was I doing during my young years of exploration and expectation? Looking for, waiting for, the next thing that would help me know in which direction to point my toes. I wasn’t up for absolutely anything so I had the reactive skills to say yes or no but I was up for many things so I wasn’t using the proactive skills of making plans, not for any sort of long game anyway. Plus, what came along was often interesting and worthwhile so continuing on my adventures seemed worthwhile. Timing and geography were on my side.
The ability to say no in the moment, to handle decisions well on my feet, was why I said no to my first husband the first dozen times he asked me out. And then, after we became involved, the first several dozen times he moved to make things more defined and serious. Finally, when we were in a relationship, the first hundred or so times he suggested we move in together. Smart girls who can think on their feet can handle the moment but they are not prepared for the long con, especially when they are allowing the moment to dictate the direction in which they turn their toes.
At fourteen I was going to be a fashion designer, by sixteen an actress, by eighteen a writer. At no point did I plan on becoming a Montessori elementary teacher. But I was preparing to do so all along because those evenings at the record store and long Saturdays at the bookstore, I absorbed everything: what I read and listened to, how to operate a cash register and answer a telephone, how to interact with people. I watched people and differentiated them by style, class, interests. So, yes, I read biographies of Hank Williams and Dolly Parton at the same age I read On the Banks of Plum Creek. I read R. Crumb and Dickens with equal interest and pleasure. I read the Compleat Angler and the Art of the Female Orgasm and didn’t really understand either. I was sent to the corner store for more beer when my dad and his friends were hanging at the store after hours and at home my mom taught me how to bake bread. When I look at those young women in the Runaways, equally vulnerable and powerful, groundbreaking as they were stereotypical. Were they being exploited as jailbait or breaking boundaries in a male-dominated industry? It’s all true. For this Michigan girl life was so often like a Bob Seger song, one in which you pick up a companion in a bar outside of Mackinaw City and together you head into the promise of the unknown.
The swell of promise and willing self-destruction swells in your belly and brings a smile to your lips. You will drink that additional drink or take that deep drag off someone’s joint or kiss someone you really shouldn’t kiss – or should you? I know those encounters, those moments, those. . . possibilities. Yet, Bob Seger’s “Roll Me Away” is a song of fewer than five minutes and To Kill a Mockingbird is a book of fewer than 400 pages. And “Cherry Bomb” can burn both to the ground in just over two minutes. So for me, the words and music weren’t quite enough to risk such dangerous leaps because they end and a some point, life must begin and decisions must replace leaps. I am damn lucky that unlike Jackie Fuchs, who eventually attended Stanford and earned a law degree, I began making my decisions before deep damage compromised them.