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. Read More