Earlier this month, I filmed one of the greatest rock bands of all time, L7. The evening marked an important life moment, too—it was my first time seeing the band in concert, a fact that has been a deep source of shame as a longtime fan turned historian. I’m sure I’ve lied about this glaring ommission in the past, probably to validate my rock pedigree to some record store dude, so consider this my "coming clean" and day of redemption.
I have interviewed women-identified rock musicians, as an (unpaid) occupation, for four years. I speak on panels, present at conferences and give lectures to various undergraduate classes on the importance of documenting women’s histories and the use of oral history in capturing the voices of the serially disenfranchised. I recently lectured at a prestigious liberal arts college in the Northeast—the topic was interpreting queer histories in a multigenerational collection of interviews, interviews like I compile in the Women of Rock Oral History Project. Just for fun, I asked the class if they had ever heard L7, a band that inarguably subverted rock normativity and gendered expectations with their androgynous style, attitude, and of course riffs, in the 1990s. Not one person raised their hand.
I interviewed Donita Sparks in July 2015 at her office space in Santa Monica. It was my second trip to the West Coast and the first time I came close to vomiting due to nerves. I’ve almost thrown up twice since: Once, in a hotel room with Cindy Wilson of the B-52’s, and once in an elevator with Shirley Manson. I fucking love L7, and yes, I’m a professional and can temper the screaming fan within me, but she’s always there. Honestly, I’d be worried if I didn’t experience a visceral reaction in the presence of artists whose music has deeply affected me, personally, and larger culture. I entered a small, carpeted room with my videographer and noted a potted plant and an open window, just in case. There were people in an adjoining room, studiously working on laptops, editing video. I found out later that they were working on Pretend We’re Dead, the L7 documentary released in 2017, spearheaded by Sparks, as a way to preserve the bands legacy in the wake of historical obsolesence.
During the interview, Sparks discussed women’s erasure from rock history and the '90s rock canon. Oddly enough, in 2014, we had both typed L7 into our respective Google search engines with the same result—an article titled something like, "These Chicks Can Rock." Donita embarked on the documentary project and I made business cards and started an oral history collection. She spoke candidly about her history, L7’s formation and rise to success, the band's subsequent demise in 2001, and L7's reformation in 2014. She discussed legacy, and how it’s easier to be remembered when you have some capital—or a good publicist. Without financial backing, it’s easy for bands like L7 who existed before the advent of the internet, but who were major players in their respective scenes, to get lost in a “grunge” narrative predicated in a false history comprised mostly of cis men in flannel shirts, sprinkled with a handful of female figureheads, for taste.
Before I conduct interviews, I compile interview guides. This research consists of reading memoirs, biographies, and scouring archives and the internet for interviews, album, and live reviews. I always check Wikipedia, too. And yes, Wikipedia is an open source platform, meaning anyone can edit the world’s largest encyclopedia, and although this fact is often used to discredit the site, it is widely used and a major source of knowledge for the general public. In 2015, Sparks’ Wikipedia page was severely lacking. Her career had been condensed to a two line biography and a subcategory titled, “Controversy,” detailing an incident at Reading Festival in 1992, when she removed her tampon on stage and hurled it into the mud-slinging audience, a move recalled as one of the Best or Worst Rock Moments in history, depending on who you ask. The tampon itself has been referred to as one of the most “unsanitary pieces of memorabilia in rock history.” That same year, Sparks dropped her pants on live television, another “controversial” incident she described in our interview as absurdist performance art a la John Waters, and in response to a parade of scantily clad men participating in a “bum contest.” Meanwhile, GG Allin fans make pilgrimages to the grave of a performer famous for slathering himself, and sometimes his audience, in feces. Iggy Pop is reveled for rolling around in broken glass—Sid Vicious, too. Male rock gods like Jim Morrison (and too many more to list here) have exposed themselves on stage and are personified as pinnacles of rock sexuality for all eternity. Men are always bleeding and disrobing for their art, but I guess it’s less rock 'n’ roll when the blood is collected onto a fibrous cotton swab, or there’s a vagina under the dropped pants instead of Jim Morrison’s dick.
What I find more frustrating is how one measley tampon toss overshadowed the feminist statement it made, and the more tangible activist work like Rock For Choice, a ten-year concert series co-founded by L7 that advocated for abortion rights and raised money for pro-choice groups.
And while feminism of the '90s is often confined to the riot grrrl movement, and (unfortunately) condensed into marketable slogans like “Girl Power” and “Girls to the Front,” L7 were spreading the feminist gospel to sweaty, mixed gender crowds via rock anthems like "Everglade" (“This guy was drunk, stupid/ And he must have weighed a ton/ Said, Get out of here girly, I'm just trying to have some fun. So you want to have some fun/ Well, break out the big guns/ Redneck's on parade/ Don't cross my line says Everglade”) and "Fast and Frightening" (“Got so much clit she don’t need no balls”).
L7 defied categorization at the height of their success, but women in rock need to fit neatly into predetermined compartments in order to be remembered, thanks in part to (predominantly) white, male journalists who created and maintained carefully constructed guidelines for participation. The band blurred those boundaries, defied gender and genre sterotypes, are often left out of the overarching rock narrative, and subsequently overlooked as pioneers of a scene they helped create. L7 are a rock band. They are women. They’re kind of metal. They’re androgynous. They’re straight. They’re loud. They’re intense. They’re funny. They shred. I have never seen Suzi Gardner or Donita Sparks named in any “100 Best/Revolutionary/Innovative Guitarists of All Time” list. This is an oversight. It is sexist. Gender is the reason for the season.
That night, I attended one of the greatest rock shows I’ve ever seen. I was able to watch the show and document it, from the comfort of the sound booth, behind my camera, with a clear shot of the stage. I am older now—to my continued surprise, I keep aging—and seeing women command a stage over the age of 40 is more validating than I can put into words, especially as I near the twilight of my 30s. It is also necessary in a culture that continues to worship at the alters of youth and tired rock n’ roll stereotypes. I wanted to livestream the show and send it to all of the kids in that lecture who had never heard L7; a classroom of burdgeoning queer archivists who squeeled with glee at a Hayley Kyioko slide but did not recognize Phranc or Grace Jones. Music that exists today is an evolution of what came before, always.
In 2015, in an office space in Santa Monica, Donita Sparks said, “We’re taking back the narrative.” And last night, I bore witness to the materialization of that statement in front of a multigenerational, mixed-gender audience. My hope for the future is that women in rock will no longer be solely responsible for preserving their legacies, and that their continuing careers and creative output are upheld and lauded, presently, in order to create a more inclusive frame of reference for future generations. Long live L7.
Photographs by Jen Vesp of musiquemagazine.com. Used with permission.
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Tanya Pearson is a Public Historian and Director of the Women of Rock Oral History Project, a collection of digital interviews and written transcripts documenting the lives and careers of rock musicians. She is a proponent of lesbiansim, aging, vegetarianism, senior dog adoption, and Joan Didion. When she's not working she enjoys rock climbing, playing in bands, and watching The Golden Girls with her dog, Andrew. Folow Women Of Rock Oral History Project on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.