High Times - November 1979
Once rock'n'roll was a male stronghold in a man's world. Today women are kicking out the jams, guitar to guitar with men, achieving instant equality. Here are six women who changed the state of the art. by Liz Derringer
If rock'n'roll wasn't invented by a woman, it was invented about a woman. Anyway, woman was in on it from the beginning. In R&B she was equal to the man, vocally. Among whites, where rhythm music was widely considered immoral, it was harder for women to break into rock'n'roll. But nothing could stop them. By the early '60s the girl groups were practically dominating the scene: the Ronettes, the Shirelles. the Angels, the Crystals. And many great hits were penned by women such as Carole King.
As the '60s hit full swing and Beatlemania transformed the music scene, things changed for women again as superstars like Martha and the Vandellas, the Supremes and Aretha Franklin scored hit after hit. Women were reaching equality with men in the spotlight, at the mike. But virtually all rock musicians, writers and producers, not to mention business people, were of the masculine gender.
Women began to move into these male-dominated areas in the mid '60s, through folk into rock and then psychedelic rock. Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins, among many others, expanded the role of the female performer and her subject matter. And then Janis Joplin, Grace Slick and the psychedelic earth mothers arrived, and for the first time men and women were equal partners in the crime of rock'n'roll. But there was still a long way to go, baby!
Today the women in rock are firmly entrenched. Patti Smith, transforming herself from poet to rock star, showed that women could do a lot of things that men couldn't, or couldn't do easily, anyway. Patti set the attitude. And now, plunging into the '80s, women stand guitar to guitar with men, going boldly where no women have gone before, like behind the control board or into the board room. Look out.
Liz Derringer has seen women in rock since rushing the stage at Murray the K's shows in Brooklyn in 1964. She is married to guitarist Rick Derringer and has met as many rock 'n' roll females as any man or woman. We asked her to talk to a few of her friends about women's changing role in rock, and here they are:
Lead singer of Blondie. Blondie is not Debbie. It's a group, the biggest new-wave group in history. Debbie is a band member above all - and a great singer, songwriter and beauty.
Do you enjoy performing?
When I'm out onstage, I really do. But if I have mental problems, business problems or emotional problems, they get in my way. I have to concentrate not to think about anything. If I have a big problem before I go onstage, it really hinders my performance.
Do you think the audience notices it?
Definitely. It's not to the point where an audience is going to say, you know, her usual performance is better, because nobody knows us that well. It's like we're still making it. We're creating our audience. We have a lot of room, but I know people that are close to me will notice.
Do you work with an audience? If they're getting off, does it make you have more fun?
Absolutely. Especially it affects the guys, because they don't approach the audience the same way that I do, because I'm the hook. I'm the lead singer, and I have to work more toward the audience. They have to work more on the technical end, creating the music and having a balance and everything like that. But when the audience starts going crazy, man, the band acts great.
Do you find it difficult fronting the band?
I don't have any problems fronting the band. I've had a lot more problems just trying to keep the rent paid.
I'm sure you've been asked a million times about male chauvinism and being a sex symbol. How do you deal with it?
Our situation is very real, and it's very mundane. It's down to the practical and the technical aspects of doing the job. I love my band, and we've had our personality differences and our arguments just like anybody else, but it's never been because of any male-female hostility. We have had our moments of jealousy where they might want to have more of the limelight or more of the press coverage.
So how do you react when a guy fan comes on to you?
I'm real lucky. I haven't been really attacked. The people that come up to me are real complimentary and nice and flattering. It makes me feel great. I always say there are all different ways to handle it. We've been rushed, we've had people overtake the stage. I mean, physically overpower us and come up onstage. We've had 250 kids onstage at times, standing on the speakers right in front of us and trying to kiss me and stuff like that. And I think it really depends on how you handle the situation. We've never been in a situation where it's been really angry. We haven't had any real hostile crowds.
On the road, what's your life like?
A lot of times, it's record-company dinners, or sometimes we get into a town like in Switzerland, and there was a kid who won the contest to have dinner with Blondie and stuff. Little things like that. Sometimes it's real tiring, so we usually unwind after a show. A lot of times, the guys will go out, and they'll go to a discotheque or something like that. I don't really do that that much because I'm with Chris. I think if I was on the road and single, I would definitely go out. You just can't go back to the room and sit there, especially in foreign countries. The TV goes off at an unreal hour, and it's boring. I read a lot when I'm on the road. That really saves me.
Do you find it hard keeping level-headed about being a rock star and not getting egotistical?
Not yet, because I don't feel like we're really super big. I don't feel like I'm a star. Some people say that, "Oh, you're a star now." I say, "Yeah," but it really hasn't hit me. I don't know if it ever will. I think I was pretty well prepared mentally because I'm older. It's not like I'm 19 years old or anything. It's like I really have done a lot of things in my life, and this is really what I want. It's not like I wanted to just be a star. I really wanted to do music. That sort of balances it out.
Do you feel lucky to be in the position you're in?
Definitely, but I honestly did put a lot of work in it. I didn't just say, "Oh, I'll do this." I really thought about it and wanted to do it. I don't like the business end, though. I'm thoroughly involved with it. I must make decisions. I must meet people. I must talk and play the game right. But I don't like doing it that much.
Does a lot of backstabbing and nonsense go on?
I get hurt by things I read in the press. I don't read a lot of the press. Just like skip over it. Like the other day, somebody I only met once very briefly started ripping me apart in the press, and to what gain? If someone's interviewing you, like you're interviewing me right now, I wouldn't start saying stuff about some designer or some other singer and just say, "Blah-blah-blah." What gain is that? It doesn't do anything except make me look like a negative, bitchy person.
Obviously, you're not.
I have my days, and my pet peeves. God, I'm really nasty sometimes. Ask Chris. [Chris Stein, lead guitarist of Blondie, and Debbie's roommate.-Ed] No, don't ask Chris. I will say that the way the system is created, that it's not created for girls. It really is a man's game the way they have structured the whole routine: the working and going to gigs and stuff like that. I don't think it's as appealing to a girl because the ideal of hitting a town and like ransacking it making out with this guy here and that guy there really only appeals to certain kinds of girls. I think that girls are more inclined to have a relationship with one guy for a while. You know, meet somebody, stay with him for a while. Whereas a guy - it is traditional that a man will go into town and find a girl, have an affair and then flee. One-night stands are more intended for a man, I think.
You have Chris - that makes a big difference.
At a certain time in my life I was really into one-night stands, but I got hurt a lot by it. I don't think that happens to a man. But it varies in men, too.
You're not married, right?
We're thinking about it, we talk about it every couple of weeks or so. Actually, the first week that we started going out, Chris asked me to marry him right away. He's been married before, but I never have, and I have this mental thing about marriage - my idea of marriage from when I grew up as a teenager in New Jersey was very inhibiting. I didn't like it and I didn't like the role of wife. It didn't suit me, so the idea of a traditional marriage really turned me off, but I think now that I understand who I am - really more my own person - I probably will get married. But I think that I really consider it more in terms of bringing up the family, having kids - that I would want them to have the proper identity. I'm really into the idea of a child being influenced by a lot of different adults. I think that kids become inhibited or small-minded if they're only confronted with the emotional problems of one set of adults or one adult. That makes them think that this is the way I'm going to be and this is the way the world is, and it's not the way it should be. You have a lot of different influences. As long as you're feeling that you're not just thrown away like a piece of garbage.
Yeah-loved. When you were young and you would hear female singers that were already famous, did you consciously think to yourself, "I'm going to do that"?
Oh yeah, I've always tried to imitate them. I admire Polly Styrene from X-Ray Specs, and I like Suzy from Suzy and the Avengers. Let's see, I also admire girls like Martha Valez and Chaka Khan.
Do you like Suzi Quatro?
Yes, Suzi is doing some interesting stuff. She's really tough, a real hot bitch, and I like some of the Wilson Sisters' stuff, Heart - I admire so many.
Do women's libbers ever harass you about being a sex-symbol rock star?
I haven't really run into any heavy butch feminists that have been attacking me, because I think that what I do is sort of versatile. I take so many different stances in the music and lyrically that I cover a lot of ground. It's not just as if I'm the weak, feminine creature. I stay away from that lyrically. I don't have that "Oh, you walked all over me and walk all over me again." I really don't like that stance anyway.
What stance do you take?
I love to sing about love and sex. It's the most popular thing, but I think that some of my twists in the theme are good. Like on "X-Offender," the first thing that came out on the record that's about a legal thing actually is about how you define what a sex crime is. It's from the woman's point of view. Everybody thinks it's about a hooker but it's not. It's about a young boy who makes love, and it's like a crime of innocence. He becomes tagged for 5 years of his life as a rapist because he makes a 16-year-old girl pregnant and he's charged with statutory rape. It's just like, where do you draw the line? I mean there's a mad ghoul who gets released for violent rape, sexual abuse, and he's released after 18 months because there's no place to put him. And you can't rehabilitate him and he goes out and he commits the same crime again - and it's like there's this 16-year-old kid who commits a crime of innocence and gets caught. There's no extreme definition and there should be. It's things like that - that's pretty deep, actually, and it comes off as being light.
If there was anybody that you could meet, either live or dead, who would it be?
I would like to meet somebody from ancient Greece - Socrates or somebody like that.
Would you talk about philosophy?
Not only philosophy, but the lost ability of human beings on mind over matter, and all of that stuff. I'm really fascinated with all that, and whenever anybody asks me for a message to my fans, me and Chris, like we always say, "Well, try and develop your psychic abilities." Because I really think that that's important.