JAIMIE VERNON – Women Are From Bay City, Men Are From Syrinx

This week I stepped into a Facebook hornets nest of women commenting on a current concert photo of Tom Jones. The conversation was going along swimmingly as the ladies talked about when they’d seen him perform for the first time, the last time, how great he still sounds and what their favourite songs were. Then it happened. Someone said he was still ‘hot’.  And that’s when I lost it. I dove in with a roundhouse to the solar plexis. My response to the thread is the same as it is every time I see a pop star’s picture posted and banal conversations about same. Guys talk about the music – guitar solos, drum technique, wicked harmonies, cool staging and lighting, and the show itself. The ladies, meanwhile, talk about the hotness. The tight trousers, the long, shiny hair, the puppy-dog eyes and kissable mouth.  Everything but the music or the performance. And they call guys superficial? If men think with their penises and listen to music with their ears, then women think with their hearts and listen to music with their vaginas.

Of course, I did this on the wrong Facebook wall and was quickly humbled when I realized that I was in a viper’s den of female rock smarts. It was a group of kick-ass ladies I’ve admired since the 1970s as musicians from some of Toronto’s greatest punk bands. Ooops. The legendary Patsy Poison of The Curse (http://youtu.be/ib-rw6vvNB8 ) gave me a beat down by saying that if Tom Jones could no longer sing she wouldn’t even bother with him. The ‘hotness’ to her was the whole package – the voice, the confidence, the moves, the charisma – like Prince who, despite being a butt ugly bug troll, can carry a tune and Mach Shau. For the first time, ever, someone finally burst the bubble on my misconception of female music fans. It also showed me that not all twelve-year old Bay City Rollers fans grow up to be middle-aged twelve-year old Bay City Rollers fans. Or Tom Jones fans.

I have been spoiled in the last 20 years having been surrounded by in-laws who are musically knowledgeable. It’s rare to know an entire family that can sit down and have an intelligent (and heated) discussion fueled by their love of MUSIC. My wife didn’t just grow up around her musical siblings, she paid attention and can hold her own against any man in an argument about who rocks harder – Iron Maiden or Van Halen [the answer is Iron Maiden]. She grew out of those teenage crushes (but married a bass player anyway) and views music for what it is – artistic expression. But that twelve year old rears its head every now and then and she’s well aware of it. She lets it out for air and then sticks it back in the box where it belongs. I completely understand. I’ve met Donny Osmond too so I don’t blame anyone for back-sliding to 1971 every now and then.

Meanwhile, some twelve-year old teenyboppers grow up to want to BE the Bay City Rollers…or Iggy Pop….or Janis Joplin…or Madonna. My sister-in-law Maureen Leeson worked for years setting the bar high. (http://youtu.be/x9PPH1lkV-I ). She’s now in the band Area 52 with funky cat Eddie Zeeman, but I had the pleasure of standing next to her on stage for 15 years. Initially it was intimidating as hell. But, she brought out my A-game. I stopped wanting to be the popstar that made little girls wet their pants and, instead, became a better singer (if not all round musician) because, let’s face it, who the hell wants to be a 65 year-old lascivious pop star creep like _______________ [insert lascivious pop star creep name here]. It gave me the confidence to take a stab at a solo career. How many times has a strong female musician inspired men?  I don’t know of many. In Rock and Roll there’s too much ego tied up in being the female conqueror – both on and off the stage. I believe that all-male stranglehold is what eventually drove women out of the audience, out of housewife rolls, and out of record label desk jobs and onto the stage.
Joni Mitchell left the prairies to exorcise her small-town demons as a folk artist in Yorkville. But Yorkville’s façade of artistic, pharmaceutical and sexual freedoms was overshadowed quickly by a new corporate sausage fest. She was easily as talented as her coffeehouse contemporaries – but the record deals were being handed to the Lightfoots and the Neil Youngs. She headed to California where free-thinkers had gathered to just be themselves. She could soon choose her men for business or pleasure or friendship and there was no judgment. She had empowered herself and her career. The chanson women of Quebec knew this much earlier. Louise Forestier was almost a film noir version of the French Revolution’s Liberté. She was the woman that everyman wanted. But you couldn’t have her. If anything, she would have you. But she stopped short of letting that smoldering sensuality overshadow her talent as one of Quebec’s greatest chanteuses; only outshined by Ginette Reno’s unwavering class and elegance (in this writer’s humble opinion).

And when American Janis Joplin hit the scene the wall between the sexes began to come down. This was a woman that could smoke, drink, curse, fuck and emote as well as any man – if not better. She was an equal and took the piss out of the music business’s notion of what a woman’s roll in music should be. You could have your Karen Carpenters and Chers. They’d certainly fill the void on radio that the newly self-destructed Beatles left behind. But Joplin gave hope to those gals who didn’t look good in prom dresses and didn’t aspire to be stay-at-home June Cleavers. The seed had been planted. But then Joplin died. A thousand would-be careers died with it. Or did they?

Secretly, subversively, an entire generation of women performers were plotting a take-over (or to at least join the Hedonism). It was subtle at first because pop radio was still dominated by Helen Reddy and Anne Murray but the Wilson sisters blew a hole in what was expected of female musicians through their band Heart – they ate Led Zeppelin for breakfast and they were coming to your town to rock your asses off. They even called Canada home for awhile and made it safe for Ladies of Rock to not only headline shows but occupy the music charts. Montreal’s Franki Hart, transplanted American Nanette Workman, Lydia Taylor, Terry Crawford and others led the charge across Canada. By the early ‘80s the term Metal Queen was coined when Lee Aaron became the embodiment of Red Sonja – the comic book gladiator. http://youtu.be/4n6WjXWc-Fw

It might have been cartoonish at the time, but Aaron’s stage persona was both empowering to her female audience [Europe’s current Metal Queen, Doro Pesch, would owe her current career to the ground work Aaron laid out in that territory] and alluring to her male followers. And, yes, most of her fans were male. The pop stardom idolatry tables had been turned. It broke down the doors for Holly Woods (Toronto), Darby Mills (Headpins), Sass Jordan, Alannah Myles and others. Goodbye Farah Fawcett and Sports Illustrated swimsuit lust…hello, Rock Chick fantasies.

But that was merely the safe and polished tip of the iceberg. The real subterfuge was happening at the sub-atomic underground level. The Dishrags, The B-Girls, The Curse, Martha & The Muffins, Michael Jordana & The Poles and the mother of all anti-establishment misbehaviour, Carole Pope (with Rough Trade), were turning music and lyrics into weapons of sexual warfare. Simultaneously, artistic communities around Canada were teaming with social activism buoyed by three riders of the Conservative apocalypse: Reagan, Thatcher and Mulroney. Lorraine Segato’s Parachute Club picked up the baton and lead the parade. Rise up! Rise up! They shouted. And everyone sang along. Parachute Club’s call was met by Quebec chanteuse Luba (a lion in mouse’s clothing) – response on the Plains of Abraham with a song called “Let it Go!”.  http://youtu.be/NK3L6ccMQ4U

The radical and disenfranchised jumped on the parade float and turned Shakespaere’s Ophelia into a role model – Jane Siberry, Dalbello (http://youtu.be/aLXhlNll-2s ), and Mary Margaret O’Hara showed that it was safe to talk about nightmares and the things that hide under the bed and that self-expression was 90% of a singer’s charisma.

And just as quickly as the music had begun, the industry shifted. The tone changed and major labels stopped believing that these liberated, singular artists were the future. Corporate rock was dying. It was the cash cow and without it, the fringe visionaries were let go. Many were the very women that had grown a new Canadian identity. Instead, someone decided that it was time a new generation of Anne Murrays and Karen Carpenters should pave the roads with platinum and gold. Seattle had the all-boys Grunge Club, but Canada had Celine Dion, and Amanda Marshall, and Shania Twain. It was sweet. It was safe. MANkind sighed a sigh of panicked relief. And they fed the more artistic minded listeners with the Diaphanous and dulcet tones of Sarah McLachlan, Jann Arden and Loreena McKennitt. Oh, there was still Mitsou titillating young boys in two official languages (http://youtu.be/8aI0QTEJjIg ), and dance floors were ablaze with Eria Fachin and Michie Mee (with L.A. Luv) and the pop grooves of Louise Reny (One To One) but for all intents and purposes the danger and unpredictable behaviour from the Ladies of the Loose Cannon had been vanquished. Or so they conceitedly thought.

Men always fail to realize that everytime they repress the matriarchy, it comes back to kick them in the ass. Or in the case of Alanis Morissette, to rip their dicks off. This self-assured performer – who had written and released her first 7” single when she was 12 – decided that being manipulated and cast as a teen dance sensation in the early ‘90s was no longer a clown mask she could comfortably wear. She had too much to say about too much growing up far too fast. The kettle was steaming hot and she had to vent. And that she did. “You Oughta Know” ( http://youtu.be/NPcyTyilmYY ) was the battle cry for every woman that had ever let herself be mistreated by a man. She was taking back the power. The power to grieve, the power to be angry, the power to forgive herself. And most of all, the power to not apologize for wanting revenge. It was like a giant rallying cry for female artists everywhere. Alanis had the courage to shake off the shackles of repression and self-loathing and foster the confidence not only in herself but those around her. It was a new revolution. Alanis would single handedly bury Grunge and encourage the next wave of cock-sure female role models to come into the light: Peaches, Jully Black, Nelly Furtado, Esthero and Bif Naked among them.

Jully and Bif are my female heroes. Both have overcome huge personal adversity and have said “no” when the man-hands and the man-money have conspired to try and derail their personal ethics. It takes a lot of sand to tell the power brokers to go fuck themselves. No compromise. No quarter.  http://youtu.be/oYsu-_jyfTk

And, to me, that’s what constitutes “hotness”.

Send your CDs to: Jaimie Vernon, 180 Station Street, Suite 53, Ajax, ON L1S 1R9 CANADA

Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com

5 Responses to “JAIMIE VERNON – Women Are From Bay City, Men Are From Syrinx”

  1. Rhys Downie Says:

    Don’t forget about Suzy Quatro

  2. Holy shit! One… two… three… wait a minute, I’ll get it… seventeen… Man, I can’t count that high! You have outdone just about everyone in naming female musicians of whom I’ve never heard of, let alone heard. For me, give me electric, then we can talk. If they plug it in, I’m there. Rock without consciousness of gender. Mena Hardy. Kristin Pinell (Grip Weeds). Devon Sproule. Maggi Jane (Hymn For Her— oh, what she can do with a cigar box guitar!). Solid column, Jaimie, if only for the mention of Nanette Workman. There was a time I tried to get people to listen but, alas, there were superstars, don’t you know.

  3. Jim Chisholm in Campbell River Says:

    Ellen McIlwaine!!!

  4. i’ve written a few columns on past/present/future female rockers I admire, so i gotta say i’m loving seeing Jamie throw his hat into the ring too! i’ve got some homework to do…

  5. Rhys – love Suzi Quatro too….but for the sake of the article, I was only discussing Canadian female rockers. Maybe Frank Gutch Jr. can cover the million American & Brit femme rockers in one of his columns.

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