BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS, 1980 – The delicate tension that exists between men and women has been fodder for music since the first bones were clapped together and ululations were undulated by groovy neanderthals gathered around the campfire. With very few exceptions, the subject matter of these timeless exhortations have mostly been “will he/won’t she and why am I so lonely.”
To diverge from these tropes, willfully and with determination, was to invite criticism and neglect from the tribe. To even question the superiority of men and the role of a woman, besides being a homemaker, was to invite scorn and sometimes violence.
In 1980 the notion of forging a new world, a new music, a new politic and new notions of sex and gender was an unusual occupation.
The folk who chose to plow those fields and till that rocky soil were harbingers of so many things that have come to pass musically and socially that it is easy to forget that it wasn’t like that before they came along.
There were no templates for them to follow. There was no “music television” or, “24-hour news channels” (CNN had just made its debut but few punks back then had televisions) to provide even the foggiest notion of how to proceed.
You can only glean so much from repeated viewings of Easy Rider and re-readings of Hunter S. Thompson without running into hippie madness.
By default, music made and disseminated via singles and LPs became the telegraph of tomorrow’s promise and the perilous roads that we needed to travel to get there.
Gurl Eighteen embodied everything new, scary and cool that many graduates from Punk U. were contemplating as we danced, flirted, thrust and parried the world around us.
Lesley Woods is serious business. The band she fronted, the Au Pairs, were like the shock troops of sexual and political activism leaving scorched symbols and demolished conceptions in their wake
Although hailing from Brighton, the band seemed more of piece with the Leeds scene and its exemplars Gang of Four and the Mekons.
Radical politically and musically, the Au Pairs fused skittering rhythms, liberating vocals and passionate performances into a power-generating dynamo we were all to happy to plug into.
Their first US tour was a whirlwind. So many of the bands from Europe that would perform at the Underground came to us via Ruth Polsky (you will read about her Gurlhood soon), the booking agent for Hurrah’s in New York City.
She could pay enough for the artists to fly over for one show and return home with some pretty polly in their pockets as well. A short trip to Boston was like a bonus for them and a coup for us.
It was an arrangement that led acts like New Order, Bauhaus, The Cure and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark to our small stage and crappy P.A. for their first U.S. appearances.
Unlike many touring acts, they arrived early for sound check. Extremely early. YHN arrived at the club simply because he had nowhere else to go. The band were splayed and arrayed on the front steps of the apartment building that was across the street.
Their dark clothes and pale skin made them easy to spot. After some casual banter and a quick discussion about Captain Beefheart we got to work.
We quickly made it into the club and started setting-up their gear onstage. Lesley, like the barrister she would eventually become, cross-examined YHN as to the nature of Boston, the status of the state and where she could get some “proper” cigarettes.
Then, they played.
When you are very young every new experience is a thing of wonder. An acrobat, animals fucking, a new bicycle, they all have an eerie sameness to a forming brain.
As we get older, we cross-reference and categorize “new” interactions with the world around us and seemingly lose our awe and wonder.
Watching Lesley was what one would imagine watching Rommel in the battle of Benghazi was like. Cool, in-command and both acutely aware and indifferent to the battle about to be won. It was wondrous to behold.
She was revolutionary in her collaboration with her band mates. Women and men, sharing, creating and in the process informing the discussions about sexual politics. It was a weird thing to do back then.
There was no precedent. Less than ten years after “you bet your sweet bippy” and within hailing distance of “love to love you baby,” Lesley was calling for nothing less than equality for all. Sexually, politically and personally. It was a seemingly extreme feminist territory and position to take before Paglia and post Friedan.
Lesley wanted to take a walk before the show. Since they had arrived so early there was plenty of time to kill. We walked up Commonwealth Ave. to Harvard Street. She, like many artists from Europe was both reverent and repelled by what America had to offer.
We got a sandwich and she was astounded by the size. “Oi, I could make seven sandwiches with all this lot.” She then cemented an idea that had been slowly forming in YHN’s tiny brain. Abundance is not “plenty.” Say what you mean and mean what you say. It is only good work that defines us.
Gurl Eighteen was a magnifying lens, a focal point, a reason to believe in the transformative power of post punk and an amazing influence on so many. If you ever need a lawyer in London, look her up.
No boundaries were crossed nor lives changed in the writing of this piece.
Your humble narrator Tommy Wilhelm is a character in “Seize The Day” and is known mostly for being immature and lacking insight until circumstance forced an inventory of all the things he had surrounding him.
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