Rockbitch - Kingston, London, November 2001

"Such women are dangerous
to the order of things"

and yes, we will be dangerous
to ourselves

groping through spines of nightmare
(datura tangling with a simpler herb)

because the line dividing
lucidity from darkness

is yet to be marked out..

"From an Old House in America"
Adrienne Rich
["Poems 1950-1974"]

Paradox and Subversion in South London
There are strippers in the bar of the Sir Robert Peel at lunch times and in the evening; most nights the performing space in the larger room next door is opened for live music. Tonight, 9.15, Rockbitch are playing here. Tonight, you might say, they will have strippers in both rooms.
I'm sitting in the bar, it's about 8.30, there are crowds gathering next door for the support act and just a handful of us in here with the strippers; the door opens and four of the 'Bitches slip quietly in out of the night. We exchange a few words - Jo has come to tell me I can take some pictures tonight; Luci says nothing but gives me an unexpected and astonishingly radiant smile; Kali and Erzulie are serious, rather severe. They stay for about ten minutes, first squatting by the wall near the door, later moving over to the bar itself; they're unobtrusive, self-effacing, they watch the strippers, join in the applause, courteous and appreciative. I find myself intrigued before the mystery of what these women really are, what they're thinking, how much of themselves their stage persona reflects. I notice, not for the first time, that when they move among us they remain distant, removed, and I become fascinated by the nature of that reserve. Is the reticence on their part or on ours? And why do I fail even to make an attempt to break through it?
Half an hour later as we watch the band setting up on the narrow platform, doing routine things - carrying, checking, positioning microphones - half-dressed under their coats as they were earlier in the bar, they look suddenly ordinary, young, frail, physically small, vulnerable. And then later, as the show is under way, they are different again but still they're remote; though confident now, that patina of vunerability gone, their faces are for the most part demure and composed, almost like masks, scarcely speaking, always watching. I wonder how much of this is shyness, how much is a deliberate distancing.
Rockbitch: Babe at Kingston
Babe - Lead Guitar
The women of Rockbitch have flitted across my path now half a dozen times in small pubs and on small stages like this. It occurs to me that I've never seen them out of the shadows, outside the circle, never marked their existence beyond the incantatory limits they have thenselves chosen. They're summoned to these occasions by some necromancy, out of the penumbra; they exist out of time, they have defined their own history. Like stars from another age, like Garbo or Dietrich, they come to us as images, as icons; unlike the media's minions, the tabloid whores, we can have no feeling that we know them, they have no hinterland but the one they've chosen to document, to embellish, maybe even to create, whether for our benefit or their own. And out of the vacuum of that ignorance is our imagination forced to furnish fragmentary, partial notions of a history, gleaned from odd interviews, occasional confidences, truths or fictions.
So here is the first paradox - that by offering us only a surface, multi-faceted and intricate though the surface may be, they force us to create our own depth, imagine perspectives; thus, already, is the power of our imagination invoked in their ritual. Perhaps now it's time to take stock.
Tonight there are a few morons in this South London audience, loud voices pliant with alcohol, shouting their insecurity. At least once Julie's microphone stand is pulled aside, from time to time people push towards the front; one over-fraught with his burden of cool lifts his face as Erzulie comes close to kiss, then turns aside to reject her, blows cigarette smoke towards her; grace on her side is unfazed, the boor in him is dead to her courtesy, immune to the shared gift. And yet there are others here tonight, the vast majority, more responsive; beside me at the front are two pretty girls, physically much alike, slim, hair shortish, straight and highlighted; clearly lovers, often they embrace and kiss, yet at the same time they're watchful, intelligence glitters in their eyes. While we waited, while the band were setting up on this narrow stage, one has teased me a little - "Are you really here for the music? Come on, be honest.. "; but she does it with charm, with laughter in her face, perhaps because she knows that I could ask the same of her and that for both of us the answer would be complex. She shares a little banter with Babe, asks her to play "Essex Girl" (though she is, herself, clearly no Essex girl).
Later on, several times during the evening this girl reaches out to touch Babe, once Babe takes her hand, holds and caresses it for a few seconds; in those seconds tenderness and civility touch us, the power that exists disproportionately in these women to sanctify, to create beauty where none is apparent, makes some mitigation for the incivility that is abroad. Yet if that small moment may have touched a heart it's possible that I alone observed it. Within this large, loud, almost brutish event, the most powerful moments may be those that pass unwitnessed, not just the touch of the flesh but that even lighter touch upon the psyche of the glance, the word. If so, then here is another paradox: that beneath the riot of sound, ritual, display, there exists an inner silence of the mind where another, secret rite has concourse; the nature of that rite will be different for each person here, and each to the rest unknowable.
Rockbitch: Julie at Kingston under yellow gels
Julie - Lead Voice
I wonder how many people here have seen Rockbitch before, how many have seen the Bitchcraft video. I compare the images of that video with what we see today and wonder whether this is the same band; remember that in Bitchcraft we saw Julie harangue the audience, we saw her fisting Babe, we saw Luci held, legs spread, whipped repeatedly across her cunt, we saw her flinch and cringe, we saw Babe standing naked, spreading her labia, pissing into Julie's face. Today we see only pert bodies, we see pretty girls kissing, licking pussy, caressing breasts, fucking themselves or each other with their fingers; it's clear that the agenda has changed.
I think of the strippers performing next door; it occurs to me that as the lap-dancer stands to the prostitute, so does the new Rockbitch stand to the old - there is sex in it of a sort, but sex without bodily fluids, sex that is iconic rather than real. The strap-on may glisten a little as it goes from cunt to mouth but there's nothing of brute sex here to disturb or shock. Yet perhaps this retreat to metaphor may represent advance as well, another paradox? Does it hint that the lap-dancer may move you in ways that are not false to a part of your nature, that cupidity may not always be a truer response to the naked body than tenderness, a fuck may not always mean more than a brush of the cheek, that a response of the intellect may take you down unexpected paths? Subversive thoughts to be prompted by women whose claim is to fuck anything that moves.
A few days from now Babe will be in relaxed and chatty mood in front of a handful of us at Hastings; she and Julie will be flirting, laughing together and she'll tell us the story of Eveline. Suddenly I'll be reminded of those occasions when I too have prowled the Oudezijds Voorburgwal, remember how I too have been seduced by those febrile images of transgression and desire even while conscious of the disturbing certainty that here were lives wasted, lives unfulfilled, remember how I hoped then that for those at least who moved me that certainty might be denied - and it's oddly possible that if Eveline be made more of truth than myth she was even then there. Strange alchemy to conjure such half-lost memories from the velvet darkness of that near-empty cellar.
Rockbitch: Erzulie and Kali in the dark at Kingston
Erzulie - Ritual Dancer, Lesbian Seductress
with Kali (beyond)
There are many things happening here; the phantoms that coalesce from this miasma populate a vision informed by the intellect as well as the imagination; Rockbitch space has limits precisely defined, its ends are deliberately selected, its means carefully structured. These are not the strippers next door and their purposes are not the same. Though there is a gloss to this surface, the surface encrypts subversion; though it glitters like the dew on the web, settles like the spindrift on the shore, yet that spray has its acerbic tang, that web can destroy.
Take just one moment: the two dancers return to the stage, naked still but with their faces now hidden behind real masks; sinuous, surreptitous, they approach Nikki; obliquely and slyly at first they begin to hassle her; chaste now in white she's clearly irritated, responds petulantly, but the harrassment only increases, she's brought to the front of the stage, overpowered, abused, penetrated, violated; cloaked for a moment by the dancers in a fumbling confusion she re-appears transformed wearing a strap-on and the head of the beast - is it wolf or dog? Images of sexual transformation and beyond - virginity to rapacity, passivity to violence, human to animal, to god, to the devil.
And beneath this ritual, as beneath almost all of them, is the rampant percussive power of the music, with its distinctive rippling keyboard loops running up and down, and the bass rising from under Amanda's flying hair; and above it, above them, Julie's astonishing voice, insinuating murmur or raw scream, now with Babe's high harmony, now alone.
One conclusion, at least, is uncompromising. These women are very sexy and their audience is predominantly male. Yet their sexuality is lesbian, their subtext rigorously feminist. Their lyrics speak of anger against men; their images in song and on stage are of women's pain in a male society and of women's fulfillment with other women. There may exist those who don't want to think about that, who feel uneasy with the challenge. For those who accept the conditions, put aside their certainties - if only for the moment - there is tolerance and embrace; to those who don't - well, Babe's raised eyebrow, the knowing smile on her lips with its shade of contempt, the unspoken words that cross the space between them as she catches Julie's eye -

["two women, eye to eye
measuring each other's spirit, each other's
limitless desire"]

- all this says, more eloquently than any polemic, louder than the lyric of the song - "Fuck you".
But, of course, final paradox and subtlest irony, if you're looking at her tits you probably won't hear it.

Rockbitch: Julie at Kingston
Julie at Kingston

All photographs on this page were taken during the band's first song at Kingston, with their permission.
[Next time we'll turn on the lights.]

In search of the desert witch, the shamaness
forget the archetypes, forget the dark
and lithic profile, do not scan the clouds
massed on the horizon, violet and green,
for her icon, do not pursue
the ready-made abstraction, do not peer for symbols.

So long as you want her faceless, without smell
or voice, so long as she does not squat
to urinate, or scratch herself, so long
as she does not snore beneath her blanket
or grimace as she grasps the stone-cold
grinding stone at dawn
so long as she does not have her own peculiar
face, slightly wall-eyed or with a streak of
topaz lightning in the blackness
of one eye, so long as she does not limp
so long as you try to simplify her meaning
so long as she merely symbolizes power
she is kept helpless and conventional
her true power routed backward
into the past, we cannot touch or name her
and, barred from participation by those who need her
she stifles in unspeakable loneliness.

"Turning the Wheel", Adrienne Rich, 1981
["A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far" ]

Copyright: Makaris, November 2001

Corrections, reflections and alternative views would be welcomed by email.

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