First set by Frightwig is unplugged. Stories will be told about their early songs.
“California Über Alles,” Jello Biafra and the Dead Kennedys sang during the Golden Age of Punk. Across the Atlantic, The Sex Pistols screamed, “I am an anarchist.” At its best, Punk in the U.S. and in England expressed anti-racist and anti-authoritarian sentiments. Bands like the Ramones—who sang songs like “I Wanna Be Sedated” and “The KKK Took My Baby Away”—revived rock ‘n’ roll when rock needed reviving in the age of Thatcher/Reagan. Macho guys enjoyed successful careers, but the music industry often turned a deaf ear to the women singers and musicians. Sometimes male audiences weren’t much better.
Frightwig, a San Francisco based all-women’s band, had to fight for time and space in a male dominated culture. With grit and determination, it carved out its own territory and made a name for itself. Then the group disbanded so the two mainstays could have kids and raise families. Now, just in time for the terrors of the Donald Trump/Theresa May era, the band is back and raring to take on the powers-that-be once again. I caught up with them recently and listened to them talk about their lives on the road, music and politics and the comeback plans.
In the 1980s—when punk began to flower in San Francisco—Deanna Mitchell and Mia Simmans—Frightwig’s founders— never wore fishnet stockings, stilettos or had panda-like eyes and spiky hair, though the name of the band suggests unkempt hair that stands straight up. Frightwig never fit the stereotype of the female punk band. Maybe there never was such a thing.
Still, Frightwig lived punk as thoroughly as any of the guy bands that grabbed headlines in Rolling Stone magazine. Deanna was 24 when she and Mia first shook up the clubs where guys leered and geared. Mia was 18 and learning how to defender herself when she was hassled. Deanna’s last name was Ashley. Mia’s was Levin. That was in San Francisco before the HIV/AIDs pandemic wasted whole communities.
“It was a wild time and a horrible time,” Deanna said. “We lost a whole community of beautiful young men, mostly, and we had to learn very quickly how to deal with death.”
Over the years, Frightwig has played with several women drummers who came and went. Cecilia Kuhn, who recently died of cancer, was the heart and soul of drums and vocals. “Yeah, we lost Cecilia physically,” Deanna said. “But we’re still here.” Mia added, “We go very deep. We used to joke that we should marry one another, but we found good men, married them and raised families. And here we are, together again.”
Band members have included Susan Miller, Lynn Perko, Bambi Nonymous, Rebecca Sevrin and Eric Drew Feldman, the only male, who plays Synthesizer.
In the largely male dominated world of 1980s Punk—that stared Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, Joe Strummer, Joey Ramone and his brothers—Frightwig was often viewed as “a female freak show.”
Mia and Deanna toured the country and cut a few records, opening for Butthole Surfers, Redd Kross, DOA and many other bands. They performed in New York, L.A., Chicago, New Orleans and all across America, as well as in Canada and Europe. In the 1980s Mia and Deanna had jobs at movie theaters like the Strand and the Egyptian that paid $3.25 an hour.
“We did what we wanted to do,” Mia said. “We paid the rent, lived on burritos, went to Rainbow, picked up vegetables that were too ripe to sell and at home made soup.”
Deanna added, “A lot of the San Francisco punk bands didn’t want to go on the road. But we’d always said, ‘Get us outta here.’ We’d pile into a car, drive to New York and do our gigs. There were places where we had the support of male bands.”
On stage at The Fillmore, Tool & Die and Mabuhay Gardens, they played mean guitars, belted out their lyrics and couldn’t help but look sexy and sound like they belonged to the world of street protest.
“I can’t write a happy-go-lucky song,” Deanna said. “They
have to be political.” Mia explained, “Writing lyrics is my favorite thing in the world to do. I’m compelled to write. All the words belong to me.”
Deanna is now 60. Mia is on the cusp of 55. “We’re crones,”
Deanna says. They’re youthful crones who are outraged by the growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots and shocked by the mushrooming detention centers along the U.S./Mexico border. They can’t not stay at home and not perform songs such as “Redistribution of Wealth.”
In fact, Frightwig is back by popular demand, as sassy as ever, and ready to take on the culture of misogyny all over again. “Smash the patriarchy is my hashtag,” Deanna said. “We need a woman in the White House to clean up the mess that men have made all over the planet.” She added, “I tell Trump to ‘Fuck off’ on his Twitter account and he can’t do anything to stop me.”
Deanna and Mia both remember that guys in the audience would look up at them on stage and shout, “Show us your tits.” They’d shout back, “Get up here and strip for us.”
Mia explained, “We weren’t into being offended. We didn’t want to play the victim.”
In some ways, Deanna and Mia were unlikely band mates. Deanna was born in Bakersfield and grew up in Fremont, California, where her mother raised her on country music, which she still loves. Mia grew up in New Jersey, Washington, D.C. and Palo Alto, California. Her hippie mom gave her a musical education in Joan Baez and the Beatles. At 16, Mia moved to San Francisco on her own steam. Despite the cultural differences between them, both women have a keen sense of humor. They also both like to dress up and give the audience something to look at. 37-years after they first came together they still dress up and give audiences something to look at.
On Mother’s Day, May 12, the newly recreated Frightwig performs at Oasis, the legendary gay nightclub that features cabaret and drag shows. It’s a benefit for RAICES, a Texas non-profit that helps asylum seekers. “The audience will be very appreciative and also very demanding,” Deanna said.
The venue, the cause, and the Mother’s Day occasion promises to bring out the best Frightwig has to offer.
Cecilia Kuhn, whose drumming for the fearless feminist punk band Frightwig inspired countless musicians, has died of cancer. She was 61.
Frightwig bassist Deanna Mitchell posted on the band’s Facebook group last week that Kuhn had died that Thursday.
“Cecilia is released from the troubles of daily life,” Mitchell wrote.
Kuhn was an essential component of the San Francisco-based, all-female punk band that made its mark during the male-dominated hardcore scene of the 1980s. Frightwig guitarist Mia Simmans said that Kuhn’s musicianship and fearlessness in the face of rowdy, chauvinistic punk audiences propelled the band to pursue more than just the occasional show. With Kuhn as the band’s battery, Frightwig would go onto record two albums and inspire bands like Hole, Babes In Toyland, and Bikini Kill.
“She was really good at saying yes. We all were, but she had her life together,” Simmans said. “She was more organized than Deanna and I ever were, and her spirit was clear. She was like, ‘Yeah, let’s rock. Let’s kick the ass of the world.'”
Simmans added: “She was also the only one of us who owned a vehicle.”
Raised in Arkansas, Kuhn came to drums late in life, picking up the sticks on a whim in her 20s and living in California. From a 2013 interview she did with Tom Tom Magazine:
I was sitting there, contemplating my boring life and flying into L.A. I looked out the window as we were landing, and I said, “F*ck this, I’m learning drums.” I started drum lessons soon after that. Playing drums just seemed like a good antidote to the stupid life I was leading. Little did I know what a major decision that was.
Mitchell and Simmans started Frightwig in 1982, and Kuhn was an early fan who helped the band out as a roadie, including setting up the drum kit and transporting it to shows. Before long, Kuhn took her rightful place behind the kit and became the band’s drummer.
Tall, with big blonde hair and a penchant for wearing boxer shorts and Converse high tops, Kuhn was frequently described as being “intimidating” on stage, which Simmans credits to her physicality and “fierceness.” She was also a musical triple threat, bringing drum and guitar skills to the band, as well as a beautiful singing voice.
“She was by far the best singer out of all of us,” Simmans said.
But according to Kuhn, other musicians she played with outside of Frightwig rarely complimented her other than saying, “You play well for a girl.”
“Meaning, I didn’t play better than any of the guys,” Kuhn would say years later. “There seems to be an automatic comparison or competition going on, and some people feel like it’s real important that I understand my place in the hierarchy.”
Though Frightwig was beloved by bands such as the Butthole Surfers and Flipper, the audiences they faced were frequently hostile. Crowds often spat on the band and catcalled the band members.
“They were all bro dudes — bro-douches. I’m sure they all grew out of it, but at the time, when the hardcore scene came in, they did not know what to do with us,” Simmons said.
Frightwig went on to release two celebrated albums — Cat Farm Faboo and Faster, Frightwig, KILL! KILL! — and several EPs. In tours of the United States and Europe, they inspired women everywhere they played to pick up instruments.
“On June 6, 1985, I went to the Gorilla Gardens in Seattle to see GBH. The band that opened was Frightwig. 4 women from San Francisco playing noise rock and giving absolutely ZERO f*cks about the guys with liberty spikes shouting at them after every song. I bought their record Cat Farm Faboo and listened to it every single day for the rest of that summer,” Hole drummer Patty Schemel wrote on Facebook.
“Seeing Frightwig as a teenage punk rocker was one of my very early introductions to feminism. They were hugely influential on the late 80’s/early 90s punk rock feminist scene that happened here, and Cecilia, in particular, was an inspiration to me personally. As a drummer, singer, songwriter, and performer, she was completely amazing and awe-inspiring,” Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail wrote.
Kuhn left Frightwig a few years before the band broke up in 1994. When the band was asked to reunite for the Punk Rock Reunion back in 2012, Kuhn resisted at first, but jumped right back in. At the time, she lived and worked for a county outside of Sacramento, and she’d drive four hours to practice with the band on weekends.
“She loved playing. She would come from her county clerk job in her old lady clothes, put on black jeans and rock it so hard,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said that before the reunited band’s big show opening for Faith No More in 2015, Kuhn started showing signs of illness, but it didn’t stop her from fulfilling her band duties.
“Back in January of 2015, when we starting rehearsing for the Faith No More show, she was ill then and was losing weight. By that April she had lost so much weight,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said that Kuhn was a private person and asked that her diagnosis not be shared with the public. But her illness shocked the band, who saw her as the pinnacle of health. While the band partied hard during the ’80s, she stayed in control and never picked up a drug habit. She was also a dedicated vegan who spent many hours during their later tours looking for vegan restaurants in the towns they played.
“I remember her writing us and saying something like ‘What happened to me is no one’s fault. God isn’t punishing me, I didn’t do anything to deserve this. It just happened,'” Mitchell wrote.
Mitchell said that the band is working with Kuhn’s coven — she was a dedicated pagan — on a celebration of her life. The event will be private, and planned for Father’s Day.
“We’re going to smash the patriarchy one last time,” Mitchell said.
With great sorrow and the deepest regrets we must share that our beloved Cecilia passed away yesterday afternoon.
With great sorrow and the deepest regrets we must share that our beloved Cecilia passed away yesterday afternoon.
Cecilia was diagnosed with Cancer in October 2015. Cecilia started treatments immediately and she continued them until a few weeks ago. She tried everything possible to reach recovery. She was a strong warrior woman in her battle against Cancer. We are at peace and relieved that our dearest sister is not suffering anymore and that she is at rest.
Cecilia was a very private person, she didn’t want to discuss her disease or treatments publicly. We respected her privacy. We stayed in touch with each other throughout her illness. She always had positive attitude no matter how sick she was feeling. I remember her writing us and saying something like “what happened to me is no one’s fault. God isn’t punishing me, I didn’t do anything to deserve this. It just happened”.
Cecilia is released from the troubles of daily life. She had an infinite understanding of living her life to the fullest and that life is a gift. She has shed her mortal coil, she has come full circle and she is now free.
Now we hang our heads and cry. Sob and let it out. We are planning a celebration of Cecilia’s life and will let others know soon.
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