L7: Dog Day Afternoon
"This is one article I don't think I'll be sending home
to Mom," says L7 bassist Gail Greenwood. Have L7 finally offended even
It's another cloudless, sunny day in Hollywood, and the cacophony inside Dee Plakas' Jeep falls somewhere between cackling and feminine hysteria and the yelping one-ups-manship of joyriding teenagers.
"Don't hit any pedestrians!" bassist Gail Greenwood orders from the hump seat in the back.
"I wonder if I left the coffee machine on at home," guitarist Suzi Gardner wonders absently, pressed up against a door.
Guitarist\vocalist Donita Sparks flicks a Bic and applies it to the end of her cigarette. She then clears her throat and spits the contents out the vehicle's open window. Again.
"Man!" drummer and driver Dee Plakas hollers, peering in the rearview mirror. "I better not get home and have those things stuck to the side of my car!"
"No way," Sparks assures her. "They're all landing in the street."
Plakas' Jeep speeds down the road, its passengers high off the ground, and the clamor inside rolls on with a tide of gleeful laughter. The band are out for a drive on a Friday afternoon while every other schmuck in the world is working. For an afternoon, after two months on the road, L7 get to act as if they have all the time in the world. And they dress the part, too--every L7 member is decked out in the most casual attire: ripped jeans and layered, ratty t-shirts. Accesories include dangling cigarettes and jewelry, and L7 have a lot of both. A necklace with individual block letters spelling out "STINKY" ropes around on Sparks' neck, and two cheap, faux-jeweled rings that read "L" on one end and "7" on the other adorn each ban member's middle and ring fingers. L7 are like a club, an exclusive gang of four.
"There will be hazing," Sparks warns Greenwood, the newest pledge to join the sorority of L7.
"Is it going to involve pinning something to my chest?" Greenwood says not so innocently.
"The rings," says Sparks, grinning evilly. "We're going to heat up the rings and brand you."
"Punch me repeatedly in the tit," Greenwood squeals. "And I have to stand there and take it! I like it! I like it!"
For now the hazing is limited to a car ride, a tour through what has, over the past 12 or more years, become L7's stomping ground. Hollywood, in all of its jasmine-scented, smoggy, phlegmatic joy, is where the band were born, and today Greenwood is getting the full rock-and-roll treatment from her new bandmates. Because, after all, there is a rock and roll in this tightly-packed Jeep. If an alien descended from the skies right now, forced the electric-blue-haired (with sunglasses to match) Plakas to pull to the side of the road and demanded to know what rock and roll was, L7 wouldn't even have to say a word. With one screech from Greenwood, one exhale of smoke from Sparks and one narrow-eyed stare from Gardner, L7 would just flash their rings and drive off in a puff of exhaust smoke. And then the alien would understand.
A sharp pink Corvette rounds the corner just past where Plakas has driven.
"There's Angelyne!" cries Gardner, whipping her head around to catch a glimpse of the ghostly pale, well-endowed billboard model who's best known for, uh, being a well-endowed billboard model.
"She's got talent!" says Sparks, craning for a view. "If you know what I
mean. Double D-cup, baby. I saw some really funny graffiti on an Angelyne poster
the other day. Somebody wrote: 'Got milk?'"
Greenwood's presence between Gardner and Sparks in a Jeep driven by Plakas on a gorgeous Hollywood day is not something she could have planned this time last year.
Her hiring was the result of both dumb luck and the sheer power of her personality. Like a baby switched at birth and then returned to its biological parents, Greenwood knows she's found her real home. But her name might never have crossed anyone's mind if certain events had not come to pass first.
Before this ride could have happened, for example, longtime L7 bassist Jennifer Finch would have to have a complete identity crisis. Shortly before the band went into the studio to record their 4th album, The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum (Reprise), their first since 1994's Hungry for Stink, Finch, who had been with the band since their earliest days, decided she'd had enough. "L7 was my last name for so long--Jennifer from L7," says Finch, "and that identity being stripped away... One day I woke up and I just thought: 'It's okay that I'm just Jennifer, and it better be if I'm about to quit."
Finch's self-realization was merely a pain in the ass for the rest of the band. "It was an inconvenient time," Sparks says during a break from Plakas' careening, her voice authoratative but not insistent. She's being diplomatic at the moment, and that's not neccesarily her natural demeanor. "We were in a creative process, and when I'm in the studio I'm not thinking of anything but the project. Any personal shit--my personal life is on hold. Everything's on hold. And that kind of bullshit [involving Finch] is on hold, too."
The official explanation for Finch's abrupt departure was that she had merely left the band to return to school. An admirable reason, but not the entire story. "At the time I quit L7," says Finch, who has since formed a new group called Lyme, "I left because I really needed my own identity outside of music or anything. My father had passed away, and it really changed my perspective on life and how things should go and what I wanted for myself. I don't regret leaving. At the time, trust me, it was the best thing for me. I don't feel regretful. I'm glad. I appreciate that band; I'm glad that I was in it. I love everybody in that band terribly. And I just wish good things for them."
Not ones to be overly sentimental in public, L7 forged on without Finch. "We had to TCB," says Plakas, referring to Elvis Presley's "Taking Care of Business" slogan. "We had to finish [the album]."
"It was like, 'She's gone. Let's find someone else. Forward,'" says Gardner.
Sparks snaps her fingers. "I was on the horn the next day: 'Hey, do you know of any bass players who kick ass and who would fit the band?' I was surprised how many people knew of cool girls who... oh, I shouldn't go there... who couldn't play; they didn't have equipment. I would call them up and they didn't... 'Oh, I don't have my bass rig.'"
L7 had two requirements for Finch's replacement: In addition to being able to "kick ass," the new bass player had to be a woman. "In the past," says Sparks, "[gender] didn't matter to us, but I think we were established for so long as four gals that at this point in our career we wanted a woman. Our first drummer was a guy--when Suzi and I started the band nobody would play with us, male or female. So we took whatever crazy person we could find who had a drumkit or a bass rig. And that turned into all chicks. It wasn't like we were out looking to be an all-girl band; it just sort of happened that way."
What "just happened that way" has been the bane of L7's existence for a long time. L7 started out as one of the few all-female rock bands beginning to gig in the mid-'80's, when the Go-Go's were still as revolutionary as the mainstream got. Mainstream alternative rock was still a decade away; L7 were just way ahead of the curve.
Not entirely punk nor rock nor alternative, L7 took several years to find their groove. Along the way they released an album on Epitaph and an EP on Sub Pop, then moved to the Warner Bros. subsidiary Slash, and have since landed at Reprise. Regardless of their record label, L7 had a penchant for making noise wherever they went, whether they were playing all kinds of benefits, starting up the pro-choice charity Rock For Choice, flinging sanitary napkins at England's Reading Festival, or, well, posing for this article's photos. Maybe the band's wild behavior was a reaction to all the moronic "women in rock" questions, but probably not. The best explanation is that L7 clearly don't give a shit what anyone thinks about them. They just wanna rock, man.
"There's all this real bullshit in the press about how we're angry," says Gardner. "This one-sided thing, just angry.."
"Fierce, angry.." chimes in Plakas.
Sparks sums it up. "We're either angry, or we're goofballs. And, yeah, we're fucking angry, we're goofy, we're serious, we're everything. So let them think we're scarier than shit."
"I was fucking shitting my pants when I came out here [to meet the band]. I bought [their image] hook, line and sinker," says Greenwood, before revealing that her new bandmates are a "bunch of pussycats."
Sparks growls melodramatically. "We'll bite ya balls offa ya! Right offa ya body! We'll castrate ya! We'll bite off ya balls and digest 'em! Then shit 'em back out and put 'em back on ya!"
Says Gardner drolly, "I see a pull quote."
"I get all sorts of great information from people [about L7] now that I'm not in the group," says Finch. "I should tell you [to ask the band] lots of girls-in-rock questions," she jokes. "They love that stuff. You know: 'How does it feel to be a woman in rock?'"
Intentionally or not, L7 became and will remain an all-female band. They're just sick of discussing only that one fact of their existence. And well they should be: For while L7 are inventive in their presentation and style, it is no longer revolutionary for women to lead bands or play guitars, drums, or bass. It wasn't in the '70's. And it isn't now. As L7 might say, get used to it.
That doesn't stop the wide-eyed wonder of total strangers who meet L7 for the first time and treat the band as if they were the aliens. This incredulous behavior from fans surprised that women can do what L7 do so well sticks in Gardner's craw.
"What's amazing is that in 1997 people could be as racist as they are, that people could be as Neanderthal about a lot of things. That part is a side of me that makes me want to fucking check out. I don't want to be a part of the human race. Fuck those people. I don't think you can get beyond it, because you're always going to have fucking idiots."
Greenwood nods in agreement. "There are still 25-year-old white guys who try to be all PC and who still have a lot of racist and sexist feelings," she says. "And it scarse me to see people that are younger than me who have that mentality, still. And packaged in a scarily perceptive, PC person whose real beliefs are sexist and racist. And homophobic."
"I would rather see," says Sparks, "a 70-year-old World War Two vet who's
still calling [Japanese people] Japs because he had.. it's more excusable than
someone who has all this knowledge and all this shit that has gone on before
them that they should have learned from and haven't. That is scary to me."
Those who fail to learn from their history are doomed to repeat it. So here's a quick history lesson, then, about a former Hollywood landmark. Plakas' Jeep draws up in fron tof something best described as a site, a wood-panelled, walled-off vacant lot. Everyone leans out the car's side windows to stare.
"Oh, this makes me sad," says Gardner. "I'm going to cry."
Says Sparks solemnly, "This is where Raji's was."
Everyone has a club like Raji's in his or her town. A tiny, dilapidated club with unidentified sticky things on a floor that probably hasn't been washed since before grunge was new. It's the place that doesn't hold more than a few hundred people but gives new bands a chance to start out. In Boston, it's called T.T. The Bear's. In New York, perhaps, CBGB. In Hollywood, it was Raji's. And once, one of the new bands who were given a shot here were L7. But on the night when Gardner and Sparks played live for the first time they weren't L7.
"What was the name?" asks Greenwood.
"Oh, no.." demurs Sparks.
"Give it up," insists Greenwood.
"I believe," says Sparks hesitantly, "that Suzi's brainstorm was 'Pretty Bad.'"
Gardner still loves the idea. "So the reviews would say, 'Pretty Bad. And they were.' And I thought that was funny."
Their first gig was a talent show, as it turns out, a Christmas-party talent show for the want-ads-based newsletter The Recycler, where Gardner worked at the time. "We were the only rock band on the talent show," says Sparks. "They had Recycler employees doing like 'answer the phone' comedy."
They started by opening up on Wednesday nights, then moved to opening on Monday nights, and finally got to headline on a weekend. "I remember being a schlep waitress around here for so long," says Gardner, "and the first night we sold out the place and the fucking line was around the block--that, to me, was like a pinnacle of my life."
"The first night I ever played with them," says Plakas, "I don't know why I remember the date--November 16, 1988--I was so fucking nervous, because I'd only been in the band for two weeks, and I had tried to cram [to learn] 12 to 15 songs. All the people that had known them before were coming to check us out, but it was cool."
"Raji's was legendary," says Gardner.
Adds Sparks, "It was the kind of place you could go on any given night of the week and run into friends. It eventually got to the point where they had an L7 poster on the wall, and our record on the wall. People were stoked that a Raji's band got to where we did."
Raji's went the way of most loose-end clubs. After the 1991 earthquake nearly destroyed it, the club limped along with scaffolding as if it might be repaired, and that kept it alive another six months. And then it closed.
"I'm going to cry," says Gardner.
"Don't do that," says Plakas, starting the engine again, leaning her blue
mane out the window and pulling into traffic. "Let's head out. Hi, I'm Dee. I'll
be your driver today--so long as I don't hit any pedestrians."
They say the meek shall inherit the earth, but do you really want the place swarming with indie-rock bands? After spending any time with the members of L7, the behavior that seems at first almost pretentiously self-serving (the display of their logo on their persons, the growl in their voices making some pronouncement about rawk) in fact becomes refreshingly unpretentious and admirable in its complete sincerity. What is easy to forget when lingering in the mindset of too many low-rockin', head-shavin', Prozac-swallowin' indie bands who tend to be afraid of their own shadows and fearful of self-promotion is that irony gets boring in large doses. It's easy to forget that some people enjoy stuff not for its kitsch value, but because they genuinely like it.
The women of L7 love old Martin Short HBO specials, for example. The love posing for photos in front of a window display for their album at Exene Cervenkova's store, You've Got Bad Taste. And, yes, it is possible to say that you like "playing rock for the kids," which Greenwood opines later in the day. All of this is okay. This is how it's supposed to be.
And if it isn't, L7 could give a rat's ass.
Which is probably why it's okay.
Following the breakup of her last band, Belly, Greenwood had formed her own band, Walter, who were about to get signed when she was adopted by L7. After being recommended by a friend of Donita's, and apparently having her bass rig all set and ready to rawk, Greenwood met up with Sparks in New York City. A few Cagney and Lacey hair jokes later, and Sparks was sold.
"I was assured by [Walter's] lawyer and by the label that Walter would still be signed if I left," remembers Greenwood as she sits in a dressing room with the others, "L7 is such an important band to me--not to blow sunshine up your ass or anything--but it's a fucking important band. My boyfriend said that he would ensure his place in punk-rock history by making sure I came out and jammed with the ladies of L7. It's weird hearing about [the band] scouring the country and almost missing me and almost choosing somebody else; makes me feel like the luckiest person on the planet. My brother was just lurking on the Internet the other night, and he printed out an old Belly review, and it said, 'Gail Greenwood--easily mistaken for a member of L7.'"
"That's so Twilight Zone," says Gardner.
"So we got this [Belly] video just to see what she looked like," says Plakas, "just to check her out, and there's Gail, totally.."
"Gail's legs were spread so far apart," Sparks continues, "every time she'd do that move, Suzi, Dee, and I were going like: 'Oh, yeah! Look at that!' All the shit we loved about Gail's performance was the shit the Belly people were cringing over. Like: 'Oh, she's going too far,' and we were just like, 'Yeah! Spread those legs farther!'"
"We were creaming," says Gardner.
"Thank you for saving me," Greenwood says to a round of throaty cheers. "Now I've got the rings, baby!"
Ah, yes, the rings. Sparks was the first to pick up the "Lucky 7" ring at a truck stop in the Midwest. In a fit of rock genius, the band's drum tech recommended she buy a size smaller second ring, and wear it upside down. After that, everyone had to have a pair of the rings. "It became a quest for the holy grail," says Sparks.
"We enjoy the truck stops," says Gardner.
But other truck-stop denizens do not always initially return the favor. "They give us stink eye," says Sparks, "and then they see we just got out of the tour bus. So then, of course, we go from freaks whose asses they might want to kick to celebrities whose autographs they might want to get. They don't know who the fuck we are, but they might want the autograph."
"We just tell them we're Metallica's wives," says Gardner.
"Exactly," says Sparks. "'We're Metallica's wives. The boys are a little
tired. They're on the bus; they're rinsing out their stretch jeans.'"
Speaking of pants...
The day after Greenwood's introduction to the important landmarks in L7's history, the members of the band are assembled in a room of a large warehouse for a photo shoot. They're sitting in chairs against a red backdrop with their legs spread, and they're doing their damnedest to get four Labrador Retrievers interested in places around which most women won't let humans roam until at least the second date. Though no one will likely believe this, the idea for this photo shoot was conceptualized by L7.
Meanwhile, the dogs don't care that the photo subjects are L7; they're just
interested in getting all the treats and scratches behind the ears they possibly
can. So some coercion is involved, but no dogs were harmed during the making of
this article. Dog biscuits are procured, and sat on by the four band members,
but those are, uh, snatched away too quickly by the dogs to be of any use to the
photographer. Even the biscuits Plakas and Sparks put in the flies of their
pants are gone before anything can be captured by the miracle of film. In the
end, the ladies have to Saran Wrap the crotces of their pants and slather
themselves with butter. The process that works for the photos runs something
"This is one article I don't think I'll be sending home to mom," says Greenwood during the shoot. "I send my mom every article, but I think I'll pass on this one." There is mutual assent from the band's other members.
Which is amazing: L7 have finally offended even themselves. Now that's rock and roll.
Afterward they backtrack a little while cleaning up. "I can't imagine that many people are going to be offended," says Greenwood about the photos they've just taken.
"You take offensiveness out of rock and roll, and you're fucked," says Sparks.
"Rock and roll is supposed to piss off your parents," says Gardner.
"And if it makes us laugh," says Sparks, "we just think it's hilarious. Because it's for us, after all."