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Live Through This
How I learned there are no guilty pleasures and embraced my music identity
I married a guy who loved the Pet Shop Boys. Making the same mistakes I’d made before, I worked hard to love the things he loved and let go of my passions. More classic bike shows, less live music.
There were unstated rules in our relationship. When rules aren’t stated but treated like they’ve always existed, someone has laid them down. Someone allowed them to become standard. Once allowed they are then reinforced. Reinforcement makes it hard to tear down. And usually someone is injured in the process.
He had hobbies. He was creative. He aspired. He was an artist.
I was his audience. I was his cheerleader. I funded his many tangential aspirations.
Music is key to my identity. Chorus/choir singer. DJ. Groupie. Local music aficionado. But in all those years I never saw a place for myself in a band, except as a joke. I followed all the local women musicians, but never connected my joy of their music with my potential for joy playing my own.
My husband gave me an acoustic Taylor Big Baby one year for our anniversary. Maybe I’d been talking about playing? Music is my foundation. He knew that, and I am thankful that was seen. I learned to play open chords and found guitar tabs online for things like Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Little Pink Houses.” The point was for me to be able to accompany myself, so I could sing. SING! I compiled notebooks of tabs and played mostly D, A, G. I learned that my favorite chord is Am and no wonder; it sounds so sad but feels so good.
The vibrations of the wood resonated next to my belly, pregnant with my girl. Later, I sang to her as she lolled around on the floor, watching me strum, belting out things like Hole’s grunge soap opera, Live Through This. I could take on Courtney Love’s personae and sing full throated about fucking, lust, self-pleasure, anger, without listening to her noisy critics, who said things like:
You know Kurt wrote those songs for her
She would never have gotten a record deal without Kurt
Playing music became a normal part of my life, not just inside the walls of my house, but with other women, independent of my identity as an adjunct to my artist spouse. I became an artist, with aspirations for that art, to play and sing my own songs on stage. I created an audience for myself too that had no connection with him.
In my band’s infancy, we played our first two original songs at an open mic, each of us humming afterward with electric energy.
I don’t want this to end!
My bandmate Susan had the same idea. Do you want to go work on some stuff?
We could go back to my place and jam a bit. It’s not too late, it’s Saturday!
As we quietly crept downstairs to the practice room, I popped my head in to where he watched TV, our toddler asleep upstairs.
We’re going to practice a couple things for a little bit. The open mic was so fun!
We set up my guitar and her keys. And noodled on a discordant progression that became “Wash it Away.” We spent a mere 45 minutes that basement session, and carried the energy into more music, like a reinvestment that paid off down the road.
But after Susan left I saw the effect my energy had on my husband. He quaked, shaking in anger. Incoherent anger. Was he angry because I didn’t ask his permission? Because I was late? Because I was loud? Or because I didn’t think I needed his permission?
Being married shouldn’t have felt like this. Not a possession. Not a child at someone else’s control. I didn’t sign up for those rules.
At some point between rages and raging silences, my sweet girl must have woken. I picked her up and brought her into bed with me, perhaps to protect her but more likely as a shield for myself. The bedroom was dark, but the hall light was on. I watched as his shadow filled a bag with clothes. He was loudly wordless about where he was going and I didn’t ask. He continued to shake. I held tight to my girl, not letting go until the sound of his truck was far down the street. I worried about what would happen when he came back.
I used to think I was proud to be a chameleon. I could morph to fit in any environment, even if it was only being quiet enough to not be noticed when trouble started.
I threw away my Led Zeppelin tapes (I – IV) when my high school boyfriend disparaged them, groaning in 1989 at their passé rock-godness. I love Led Zeppelin, present tense. I also wanted to be liked, included, all those things, so I physically rid myself of the evidence. But it was still in my heart no matter how hard I tried to hide it, groaning and rolling my eyes when he did.
I learned to hide the music I loved so much that I wouldn’t let go if challenged. Hazel, PJ Harvey, Lida Husik, Liz Phair, they were mine. I held on tight and somehow that paralleled the decline of that relationship. Maybe because I separated myself from his identity? I’ll never know whether he actually liked me or that he liked that I liked him.
Does a chameleon embody those different identities, colors, textures or just mask themselves? It’s an instinct, a coping mechanism. Do they ever have survivor’s guilt?
I met my bandmates at Ladies Rock Camp (LRC), a fundraiser for Portland’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls. In this weekend camp, women assembled to form temporary bands, learn new instruments, write a song together, and play a live showcase by Sunday afternoon.
A friend evangelized over LRC’s effect on their life and vowed to sponsor someone who responded with interest in the next session. Hell yeah! Despite losing their random drawing, I was committed and paid my own way.
I borrowed a well-worn red Stratocaster, a talisman for me proving that I belonged as I went electric. Short guitar lessons brought me to the simple, loud pleasures of power chords. Just like that I transformed to playing punk songs. My rock camp band included a defense attorney lead singer, a grandma on drums, and Kim, an architect designer, on bass.
Karaoke was a necessary exercise to practice stage presence and embody our performance identity. I sang Liz Phair’s “Fuck and Run.” I battled my own critic saying the same thing people said about Liz.
She can’t even play guitar
No matter our day jobs, for that weekend we were Repeat Offenders. “Remember Who You Wanted to Be” was our straightforward meta punk anthem.
Now I had this posse of people with a shared experience. We were empowered by the sounds we made together, yes, but more than some feminist awakening—we were already feminists—it was a collective opening to join forces as musical artists. At first, we gathered monthly to jam with anyone who showed up, on any instruments they wanted to play. Kim and I were always at the jams, as was Susan, who loved The Breeders and rapped impressively.
Many folks were content or comfortable playing covers. Susan, Kim and I wanted to make our own original music. We’d stay after the big jam and noodle around in a small band practice room, using camp equipment and having the space reminiscent of the LRC experience we loved. Building steam, we knew we needed a drummer to round us out. When Ann sat in with us playing with her bare feet, smiling the whole time, we knew we’d found our fourth and became a unit. Kim suggested the name Piefight and I loved it at once, a little bit playful, a little bit punky.
I’m still not sure whether as a chameleon I was trying to take on the identity of someone else or merely negating my own. One way was more active than the other, but the result was still confusion. Who was I outside of that environment?
Was this internalized misogyny? Was I buying into the same stereotypes I was fighting? Of course! Whose voices were these in my head? They sounded like mine, the familiar warring voices one side and othering each other ad nauseum. Was I ashamed of my own pleasure? Maybe back then I was, but no more.
I’ve learned there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure. It’s Hole’s “Violet” I choose to sing at live band Karaoke from Hell. Fittingly, Piefight outlasted the marriage. Each of us brings our whole identity to collaborate with each other, making something unique and badass together.
Leah Nagely Robbins is a writer, civil engineer, musician, and mom. A lifetime music lover, she began a collaboration with her band Piefight in 2011. Piefight won a Legends award from the Portland Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls for their support and example of broadening women’s and girls’ voices in music.
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