Scissor Girls

Lounge Ax, September 6

By Monica Kendrick

According to the Gavin Web site: “Sarah McLachlan and her manager, Terry McBride, are planning a North American tour for an all-women music festival next July and August, including Emmylou Harris, Suzanne Vega, Tori Amos, Tracy Chapman, Joni Mitchell, Neneh Cherry, Veruca Salt, Annie Lennox, Natalie Merchant, Paula Cole, and Lisa Loeb. ‘I want to have the whole range of music made by women,’ said McLachlan.”

Ah, the whole range of music made by women–rock music, I guess. Why, it must be. Janis and Nico and Mia are dead. Chrissie’s in matronly retirement, Patti’s busy climbing out of it. Diamanda’s off scaring up grants to get the pig blood and male prostitutes in priests’ collars for her next project. Kim couldn’t claw her way out of the closet Thurston keeps her chained in. Exene’s gotten real unpopular with that Unabomber stuff, and Lydia was always unpopular, it’s just that people were afraid to tell her. Kate Bush has finally been spirited away by the fairies. Sinead’s into this goddess thing that creeps people out. Laurie’s busy on a concept album about the joys of loving Lou (rumor is he wrote it). Me’Shell NdegeOcello just laughed at us, and nobody can pronounce her name anyway. I don’t even know where Grace Jones is. Joan Jett’s getting a sex change to become the Ramone she always was inside. Does Jayne County count? We could never afford Girlschool’s beer budget. Team Dresch? Tribe 8? But they’re…you know. We don’t want to alienate families. Courtney? You want Courtney, you deal with her.

And even if they’d ever heard of them, I’m sure they’d never invite the Scissor Girls. There’s something terribly unnurturing about their bratty sub-Stooges frenzy and their playfully sinister Pere Ubu-ish noise molding. They’re way out of every target market. If too many consumers got hold of this stuff, they might catch on that the energy of rock ‘n’ roll comes out of a primal space in the animal brain that’s beyond gender, which would pull the rug out from under all the free hype based on the alleged novelty of women making music.

This is not to say that the Scissor Girls might as well be boys; on the contrary. Gender informs our experience of music as much as it informs our experience of any other kind of entertainment, but the best rock ‘n’ roll is often made by people who transcend gender–remember Little Richard? But the marketing world doesn’t know how to deal with the possibility that the “next Patti Smith” might be a man, or that the “next Iggy Pop” might be a woman. The Scissor Girls were one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands Chicago has ever produced. They were wild and funky and rude and brilliant, and after the revolution those spin-doctoring hacks who still don’t get it will be calling some future inspired freak the “male Azita Youssefi.”

That is, if anybody notices that they were here. Guitarist Kelly Kuvo is moving to New York, and the Scissor Girls are over. It was a glorious moment, and if you missed it there remain their two full-length albums, To: The Imaginary Layer on Skeletons (The Making of Americans), and We People Space With Phantoms (Atavistic). Their new ten-inch, So You Will Start to See What Staticland (Load), is the only recording to feature Kuvo on guitar (original guitarist Sue Ann Zollinger left the band in 1993 to pursue a degree in science). The band’s also put out scores of seven-inch singles. They’re jarring, haunting records, capturing as much of their raw vitality as a recording can.

So many great bands break up so soon. Perhaps it’s because feral intensity can only be sustained in short bursts, or perhaps it’s just a function of the immutable law of showbiz that says it’s always better to leave your audience wanting more, not less. But if fossil exhibits like the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame have anything to teach the teeming masses, it’s that you’d better find your joyful noise right in the here and now, because chances are this decade’s (or at least this month’s) “next ——–” is breaking up in a whirlwind of indifference at this very moment somewhere out there in the vast American night. It’s happening right in front of me tonight, and I’m not convinced that I would stop it if I could.

For one thing, it means free food. There’s a homemade buffet dinner and crepe paper streamers in front of the stage. We chow on beans and pasta from paper plates while longtime Scissor Girls colleague and Antichrist-about-town Bobby Conn sings a set of tributes to the departing Kuvo, who sits in a throne off to the side of the stage wearing priestly black robes, her newly shaven skull decorated with Magic Marker swirls.

When the Scissor Girls take the stage, Kuvo takes off the black drapes and reveals a gold lamé shirt and layers of heavy necklaces, looking a little like a risen mummy queen as she falls to her knees and scrapes her guitar strings down to the tortured pick-up. Drummer Heather Melowic, with her cropped hair and relatively few tattoos, seems demure by comparison, but there’s nothing sweet about her attack, the unrelenting precision that holds together Azita “AZ” Youssefi’s hyperactive metallic bass lines and Kuvo’s near-improvisational maelstrom.

That precision just might be the most radical thing about the Scissor Girls, the fact that they spin such a fierce, absolutely conscious chaos. Hysterical women (and who ever heard of a hysterical man?) are easy to dismiss, but the Scissor Girls are fully in control, pulling the bait and switch, playfulness for murderous rage, spitting out the sprockets of deconstructed cliches left and right. At one point AZ and Kuvo come perilously close to a Blue Oyster Cult-style guitar duel. Their musical antecedent is the same New York no-wave scene that gave us Lydia Lunch and Sonic Youth, as well as assaultive Japanese noise dealers like Melt-Banana, but even that’s skewered: a predicted climax dissolves in a sudden shift to simple punk, a quiet moment violently intrudes, somebody laughs, Weasel Walter stage dives. AZ’s voice cracks and sweeps and snarls, fighting upstream in the rhythm.

As AZ, defiantly beautiful in smudged raccoon makeup and a ballet costume, turns her back and plays to the wall of amplifiers, a photographer leans in and snaps a closeup of her ass. She is well aware of the effect of her high-powered flirtations. Her bass still registers symbolically as phallus–just not hers. Nor that of anyone she seems to respect very much. Rather than a symbol of power, it becomes a symbol of surrender as she pounds it and shapes its sound to fit her own agenda. And yet young men cluster the front of the stage with rapturous expressions. “Tonight I wanna feed everyone!” she yells, presenting a foil plate of some of the food from the buffet table–which I understand she cooked–to the front row. The boys dive in like sharks, eager to take from her hand the same stiffening pasta they ignored ten minutes earlier.

The feel of the whole event is bittersweet. It’s a celebration of the fleeting nature of epiphany, something the forces of nostalgia fail to understand. Rock ‘n’ roll demands not balls but energy, guts, wit, lust, and rage, none of which are nearly as restricted to the male gender. Had the Scissor Girls been male, I still would have loved their music. But because they were not, they were living proof that noisy, aggressive rock ‘n’ roll is human music, and that chick rock, like dick rock, is boring.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Marty Perez.