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Pop Talk: Rock Around the Cock

Originally appeared in October 1970 issue of Pop Talk, reprinted here with permission of the piece’s author Patricia Morrison

Writer’s note: Until now, this column was the only Pop Talk piece that had ever been reprinted anywhere: in Evelyn McDonnell’s and Ann Powers’ groundbreaking 1995 compendium Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop and Rap. I was very proud of having been asked by them to submit a piece for inclusion, since no one else had ever requested to anthologize any of my stuff (except for a couple of Doors reviews in some coffee table book). Quite honestly, I had been feeling slighted and ignored in the grand scheme of rock-criticism narrative and history, not having my undeniable status as a Founding Mother of the Genre recognized in any real sense. So when Ann and Evelyn asked me to be in their book, I was thrilled, and though my pique did not vanish, I felt better about it.

I still feel that way—the resentment and pissed-offness. Everybody focuses on the guys who were there at the dawn of it all and not the few chicks who were there every bit as much and who were every bit as erudite and serious and musically opinionated as their male counterparts. It’s always been deeply annoying, which is one of the reasons I put this present collection together—to get my work of that day, perhaps not as shatteringly ever-so as Richard Goldstein’s or R. Meltzer’s or Lester Bangs’s, but certainly as valid, out there for people who never saw it, to claim my place and speak up for not only myself but my rock-critic sisters. It’s not wrong to want credit for what you achieved, and we achieved a LOT.

Then again, even women rock critics who came along much later were similarly ignored by the boys’ club…just like women musicians and women executives, who also complain, and quite rightly, about being slighted. Anyway, I chose this piece to appear in Rock She Wrote because I think that of all the things I wrote for J&P, this was probably the most important.

Plus, in the company of fellow anthologies like Patti Smith and Kim Gordon, I naturally wanted to look my best…

Rock and roll has come a long way, baby, from the strange days when the streets were thick with sobbing chickies come to throng the pavements outside hotels housing the Beatles or the Stones. Times’ve changed, for sure; now the interested phenomenological observer can go to the Fillmore or similar habitats and behold an audience comprised chiefly of young men, alone or in groups, some of whom may be accompanied by young ladies but very often not, and almost nowhere will there be seen (a) three or more women together and not looking uncomfortable, or most especially (b) a lady by herself.

Odd indeed for a branch of popular art that once was almost exclusively female in its constituents, but by no stretch is it limited to the concert situation: I haven’t any figures  presently available as to the gender percentages of the record-buying public under 30, but it comes to my mind that I do see mostly men patronizing the record stores in my neighborhood, and it takes only a quick glance at J&P’s rate card demographic breakdown to see that for a music magazine put together entirely by women, the readership is some 92% male.

Not to mention women in the business end of rock, and women artists, and the LYRICS…but all in turn.

Welcome to the Camp, I Guess You All Know Why You’re Here

Given: rock and roll is a middle-class phenomenon. All the following rant, with the exception of that statement of I think unarguable fact, is purely subjective and based entirely on my own observations in the field, supplemented on occasion by solicited opinions from various sources friendly and not; of course, any further reader observations, experiments and/or hypotheses are more than welcome.

Now. Concerts, contrary to popular opinion, are not devised chiefly for the hearing of the music therein performed, though that music is a major factor in deciding who attends which concert, but rather as a socio-economic ritual, of some solidity, in which all participants know the roles and moves assigned to their specific level of the whole and generally carry them out with a good will, whether it be Jethro Tull at the Whisky or Cosi fan tutte at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Rock concerts, up until a few years ago, used to be primarily female occasions, screaming seas of young girls with tear-streaked, ecstatic faces; the whole interchange was largely gonadal in orientation. Along about 1967 the change came: rock and roll became rock. More sophisticated, more self-conscious in lyrics and techniques, more mechanically oriented, the new music lost large numbers of its old fans—and in so doing, picked up even larger numbers of male music-lovers who had previously avoided it. (Not to say that there had been no male rock and roll fans all along, but they had definitely been lying low, or listening to folk or jazz or blues, and came to rock in open and significant numbers only when it became—dare I say it?—more intelligent. I have no idea how far it is possible or desirable to go with the proposition that most women do not dig ‘progressive’ rock, but I think it is pretty clear that lots do not, the reason being that it is, indeed, too much of an effort to make; hastening to add that this is not necessarily due to any cerebral defect on the part of these women but more likely a reflection on their education—the same could be given as a reason why many women do not enjoy jazz.)

So concerts then became largely male occasions, and, outside of the very small number of women who attended because they had done some listening and actively decided that they preferred the music of Group X to others and had real musical reasons for so doing, females at rock concerts tended to be there chiefly in the role of attendant to some man—either in a pre-arranged, “date”, situation or as a free-floater, invariably in tandem with another girl, there to check out the action and hopefully score with, depending on tastes and opportunities, either an unattached male fellow audience member or a musician.

I comment once again on the noticeable scarcity of solo women at rock concerts; whether this is due to vestigial social embarrassment at being seen without an escort or understandable fear at being out alone late at night, I do not know, but I tend to think it falls somewhere in between—having made such scenes, for whatever reason, primarily social, it has become incumbent upon women to further elevate them into “occasions”, something to look forward to, and not to treat concert scenes as casual entertainment the way most men do, just running out and buying a ticket and going, alone, to hear someone they really appreciate.

All of this, of course, merely serves to illustrate that given proposition: rock is most truly a middle-class phenomenon, and these are all most truly middle-class attitudes; for all the screaming we do about how free the women of this generation are, things show up quite otherwise in practice.

Sexy Sadie

Congruent to the situation of women: rock concerts is the position (no pun intended) of the groupie. Judging by all the criteria available, the role of groupie seems to be the only one that most rock musicians are willing to allow females to fill. Carrying the concept of woman-as-object to almost as great an extent as do men who patronize prostitutes, rock artists. by their own admission, see the groupie as a rather fetching device of roughly the same convenience quotient as a knothole, only more decorative and lots more fun; there are no demands, no wondering where you stand in the woman’s eyes, no frantic posturing and juggling of stance—everything out front and the rules thoroughly understood by all parties involved.

Sure, it’s exploitation: but I think that in such a situation as this, you just can’t exploit anybody who so obviously wants to be exploited—for whatever reasons of her own. And much rock-journalistic fodder has been made, to date, of just what those reasons are. I don’t pretend to know, outside of the obvious; but neither do I intend to protest too much, just because it may not be the way I do things—if deriving an identity of sorts from the men they ball makes them  happy, fine, and welcome to it, but I could wish devoutly that rock musicians acknowledge the fact that there are indeed other-motivated women even in the rock and roll business. No slight on groupies, but there are even women who have their minds on the music as music and not on the musicians as groins. And I am sure that Karin Berg of the East Village Other and Anne Marie Micklo of Rock and Deday La Rene of Creem, to name a few, would back me up.

In It For The MONEY??

For a field that some claim is devoted to, supported by, and furthered for the interests of the women of the American alternative culture, the business end of rock and roll is noticeably sparse in women who are responsible for doing any of the prime moving that goes on. How often do you see a woman promoter putting together one of the monster festivals—not just serving as a sometime consultant, or a sop to Women’s Liberation, but really doing it? How many  women managers are there around, or booking agents, how many  women who have any real responsibility or power in the running of giant talent firms, how many women engineers at recording studios, how many women producers, how many women disk jockeys or program directors, how many women are on the A&R staff of record companies like Columbia or Atlantic, how many women are involved in house advertising staffs for record companies, how many women run their own record-company executive positions the way they want and  are regarded by their male co-workers as equal on all levels?

Though that last may be asked with equal validity of women in any field, it has particular importance in this one, which is supposed by popular belief and wishful thinking to be loose, free and easy, and not prone to the peculiar hang-ups of other, straighter business strata. (Though one group, Ten Wheel Drive, does have a female equipment manager, who schleps those amps as though she means it, women are as a rule regarded as not suited to such goings-on as lugging drum cases or sweating over a Scully 12-track or dragging the lead singer out of a bar at three in the morning.)

In fact, about the only thing that women appear to be thought of as good for in this business is p.r. Hype. Oh, I know about Alison Steele of WNEW-FM [on-air personality] , and Tracy Sterne of Nonesuch [label managing director], and Dusty Street from KSAN [radio show host] in San Francisco and a few others. But these are clear and brilliant exceptions, or so the men who run everything else would have it. Everyone else is in publicity. Now, women are very good at hype, they do it all the time; they can brag about their groups the way they’d brag about their grandchildren. But that’s like saying women are good at being secretaries because they like looking after their bosses. Men can hype very well too; gender is hardly a qualification.

And women writers. I do tire of flailing away at that ol’ male chauvinism hydra, but I tire even more of going out to do an interview and being genteelly condescended to as not much more than a particularly well-connected groupie, and then, some time during the interview, having to watch the interviewee male drop his drink at a perfectly ordinary remark as to, oh, the influence of eighteenth-century Irish-Scottish broadside ballads in his work, or John Cage, or Django Reinhardt, or even non –musical things like the auteur theory of filmmaking, or just about anything having more intellectual content than “What’s your favorite color?” Male reporters draw nary a raised eyebrow with questions having to do with pursuits intellectual, techniques musical, or just plain all-around mental information, but women journalists invariably pull down (a) suspicion (“Who coached YOU so well, little girl?”) or (b) amazement (“My God! It thinks!”). Once the moment of truth is past and you are accepted as mind and not cunt, things go well, but there should never have to be even that momentary caesura of credibility.

And women artists. With my own ears I heard a member of a major British band [Okay, the statute of sexist limitations has probably run out on this one, folks: it was Richard Thompson, then of Fairport Convention. He got better, I’m happy to say—PKM] tell me that women in rock groups are bad news because they’re “too emotional”, whatever the hell that means. Does it mean that they miss gigs because they’re drying their hair or had a fight with their old man, that they can’t pull their weight musically, either playing an instrument or songwriting, that they evince unprofessional behavior patterns on tour? I have heard all of those charges laid to MALE group members, artists belonging to various groups at various times, so let’s have no attitudes copped that female rock artists are any more emotional than their male counterpart prima donnas.

On the other hand, there appear to be only two roles for women rock artists to play. Joan Baez and Judy Collins and Laura Nyro can get away with much, under the cover of “art songs”, but where does that leave Grace Slick and Tina Turner? Filling the—needless to say—male-specified roles of (a) Ice Princess, or (b) Down-Home Ball. So there we have Grace, gelid, brittle, bitch goddess incarnate—interestingly enough, she has never made any formal statement of position on the function of women in rock—at the one extreme, and Tina, or Janis Joplin—interestingly enough, neither have they—at the other, as the earth-mother, scratch-your-back, tiger-lady stone soul fuck. Not much in between, not much choice. And—

Women Is Losers, For Sure

If women as rock artists are severely circumscribed in their choice of role through which to communicate, then woman as the subject of rock lyricists merely reinforces the limitations.

Almost without exception, rock lyrics are dedicated to keeping women in their place, and we all know just where that place is: “Well, I know you must have heard it a lot/But it’s a fact/ Men always seem to end up on top.” If men are on top, there’s only one place left for the rock woman, no matter how much she does not like it.

There are a lot of reasons for this, not least among them the faggot attitudes of the male rock-appreciating populace (not for nothing did Jim Morrison recently complain during a concert, “The only people who rush the stage are guys”), or their wish-fulfillment fantasy trips (“Bet I’m better than he is anyway”). Nothing wrong with that, guys, just don’t do it at my expense.

Women in rock lyrics are generally confined to, again, one of two very well-defined categories, and there is between the two absolute and utter dichotomy: the Conceptual Female and the Biological Female.

These two divisions tend to fit in pretty well with the functions assigned to female rock artists: they are at least as arbitrary, and they are certainly as rigid and as limiting, and they are probably a whole lot more insulting.

The Conceptual Female tends to be the province of the former folkies: Dylan, Tim Hardin, John Sebastian. She is idealized, romanticized, and she is held to function as either a hate object or a loved object: Martha Lorraine, who belongs to Country Joe, or the unnamed lady who’s “got everything she needs, she’s an artist, she don’t look back” that Dylan missed so much, or even Mick Jagger’s true beloved Ruby Tuesday, who is probably somewhere in between. The one thing that most Conceptual Females share is that they all got away from the men who celebrate them in song; their state is undoubtedly the more gracious for that, but it does somehow leave said dudes looking a bit like losers. You have to admire the ladies for it.

The Biological Female, on the other hand, exists in her creators’ minds as nothing other than sexual object, and she is by far the more numerous of the two. From the Beatles (“She’s A Woman”) to the Stones (“King Bee”, “Under My Thumb”, “Yesterday’s Papers”, “Play With Fire”, “Stray Cat Blues”) to Hendrix (“Foxy Lady”) to the Grateful Dead (“Little School Girl”) to the Doors (“Love Me Two Times”, “Back Door Man”) to James Brown (“It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World”) to Gary Puckett, even, for God’s sake. The Conceptual Female may ball, but the Biological Female gets balled: it’s an important and obvious distinction— active in the case of the former, passive in the case of the latter.

It’s the real-life prototype of the Biological Female that all the leather pants and silk shirts of the onstage rock performer are aimed at; I see this not as specifically intended malicious oppression (I’m trying to be charitable), but purely stupid ignorance, and either it has to stop or it has to transmute. There’s nothing wrong with sexism, provided it works both ways. For ex—

Coda and Conclusion

A rather well-known singer (male) [yeah, yeah, we all know who it was—PKM] once asked me why I write and why I write about what I write about. Which is a perfectly legitimate question to ask any writer, but something there was about his…well, his attitude that caused me to make him a fairly snotty reply. And just so everybody can know, and to continue the point I was making somewhere above about sexism besides, the real reason I write about rock and roll is because I want to get up onstage at the Fillmore East, wearing a black leather jumpsuit and a silver-plated Telecaster, grab the mike, sneer at the audience, “You PIGS”, and then get off forty-five minutes of the indisputably finest rock guitar ever heard anywhere. And then retire from the rock and roll scene forever.

Now that’s all very well, and it hasn’t been done before, and it’s just Patricia’s private fantasy, no weirder than your own; but the point is that the way things are now, neither I nor any other woman will be able to do it, and not because we can’t play guitar…if a man is free to do it, then so should a woman  be free to do it, whether it’s rock and roll stardom, or producing, or being the president of CBS or the United States; that’s obvious. For all its self-hype to the contrary, rock is just another dismal male chauvinist trip, with one important difference: it’s got the power and the looseness with which to change itself. It better happen quick.

Writer’s note: Of course, it never did. Not really. And that’s very sad. But enough other things happened to make it perhaps a little less sad, and these days I do see plenty of women onstage, though unfortunately they’re always prancing around practically naked. (The boys too: Jim Morrison died for your sins, Marilyn Manson…) Autotuning and lip-synching, equally unfortunately (the boys too: Jimi Hendrix died for your sins, Justin Bieber…). Never a female Hendrix or Clapton or Lennon, but then again there was never a female Mozart, so there it is. I cannot possibly believe that such a lack is due to a severe and inherent lack of musical talent on the XX-chromosomal side, so I must then conclude that it has to be because no woman with the chops for it has decided that that’s her priority. Which is strange, admittedly, but, again, there it is.

On the non-public front lines of sexual liberation, of course, things were very different. Sure, rock stars never got told no, but those were the days when even regular people never got told no. And good days they were, despite the lingering actuality that the sexual revolution just meant that women got screwed in brand-new ways of screwingness that now involved actual screwing as well as theoretical and figurative.

This was particularly prevalent and noticeable among male members of the Movement, who despite the presence among them of such firebrands as Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver and Susan Brownmiller, nevertheless still seemed to relegate revolution-minded females to providing coffee, typing and sex. Hey, just like their straight-world counterparts.

Well, fuck THAT noise, said I and many others, and started up feminism then and there. If the times they were going to be a-changin’, then we damn well wanted to be a-changin’ them to our own needs, specs and purposes, and no frizzy-haired, Army-surplus-jacketed dickbrains were going to tell us otherwise. We see how that worked out, of course: could have been a lot better, but actually not so bad at all, considering.

But as I mentioned way up front, apart from that, I didn’t really encounter a ton of overt sexist crap, thankfully—mostly because the men I met in the course of doing my writerly job were my age or nearabouts, and had taught themselves, or had been taught, usually the hard way, how to treat women as human beings. More or less. At least face to face. I generally found them polite, engaging and quite human. (Yeah … “Apart from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”)

Nevertheless, imagine my dismay and astonishment to find that I encountered worse man-piggy behavior from some of the guys on Jazz & Pop than I did from any rock star I ever met…yes, including Mr. Robert Plant, who looked like Sir Lancelot du Lac by comparison to these louts.

It was generally the pre-war generation (though by no means all of them), and a couple of the younger jazz snobs as well, who were doing the dissing: older, cranky, superannuated and embittered hobgoblins who apparently didn’t see why they should be respectful of or even courteous to some long-haired, mini-skirted chit who nevertheless had the power to edit the balls off them if she so chose…and who could write the balls off them as well.

On their parts, perhaps it was explainable as equal doses petulance, jealousy, resentment and sexism—the usual pernicious cocktail stirred up by things who walk in human guise who aren’t fond of women, for whatever reasons. Or perhaps I, just by existing, reminded them of their inevitable and increasing irrelevance in the already churning revolution. In any case, not a pleasant mix. But I refused to stoop to their level, taking care to behave in a far kinder and more forbearing fashion to them, as both a woman and their editor, than any of them deserved.

Of course, some of our older writers were true gentlemen and great rock fans, for whom I had nothing but genuine respect: Ralph J. Gleason, Jay Ruby. The rest of them, not so much; or, let’s say, I had at least as much respect for them as they had for me—yes, as much as that. I wasn’t asking for reverence, or deference, or even friendliness: just common courtesy and the civility due my position. Frankly, I was a bit hurt and surprised that Pauline let it go on at all, let alone as far as it did: even to the extent that one of said louts kept me and my writings out of a book he assembled of notable J&P rock features and interviews—the only major person who wrote for the magazine to be so slighted. Which I found particularly galling, since in all sizzling modesty my work, and certainly my Doors feature, “When The Music’s Over”, here presented, could stand up to anything he did include or, indeed, had written himself—plus my being that, you know, EDITOR thing. But we had never really gotten on, so perhaps it wasn’t such a surprise after all.

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