LadyFest 1999 By Mary Gillen. In the early ’90s I played bass in an all-girl band called Raggedy Ann. Like so many others, we had our fifteen minutes: recording with indie producer Pat Maley from Olympia, WA...

In the early ’90s I played bass in an all-girl band called Raggedy Ann. Like so many others, we had our fifteen minutes: recording with indie producer Pat Maley from Olympia, WA. Meanwhile, K Records and Kill Rock Stars were putting out some of the best music I’d heard, giving me faith in the state of youth culture. I found myself in an extended community of musicians, artists, and punks, of which Olympia seemed to be the far-away capital. I imagined fresh air, hip kids, great parties and cheap rent. For years I stayed away, lest the mythical place disappoint. But this past August I hopped a plane for Ladyfest-a six-day music/film/art festival by and for women (transgenders and boys welcome, too). The ladies of Olympia spent almost a year organizing this inspiring and successful celebration of punk rock ideals. They clearly put forth the message to other women; you can, and should, do this in your town.

For $55 you could wear a cute badge around your neck and get into all events. Olympia was flooded with girls and women proudly wearing these badges all around town. Even out in Lacey, WA I saw kids flipping through their Ladyfest programs over cups of coffee at Denny’s. As I made my way through the shows, local bars and into basement parties, I saw beyond the candy-colored bobs and white belts to what lay beneath the hype.

While waiting in line for badges, a girl came through the crowd snapping our I.D. pictures. Soon we were all chatting and comparing mug shots. There was an immediate sense of community, which grew over the next several days.

Part of the afternoon shorts program, Purge-atory by Jannea McClure, was a lo-fi, low-budget video about a bulimic girl that prompted groans from the audience. The protagonist vomits at every chance she gets. Her mother shows great concern, but only for her daughter’s improper technique of ridding herself of that awful food!

Anne McGuire had two pieces in the program. When I Was a Monster, showed a really weird naked girl making faces into the camera for five very long minutes. It made me want to puke! Her next piece, Joe DiMaggio: Part One, was far more entertaining. It presented a first-person view of the stalking of Joe DiMaggio in a parking lot. The narrator sings rambling and often funny a cappella songs to and about Mr. DiMaggio. The audience seemed to like this one, though I preferred another stalking video, Lisa Ganser’s Stalking Mike Hawke. I laughed out loud when the heroine of this film tried to hide from her ex-crush: a boy named Mike Hawke.

Her dyke friends are confused by her behavior when she covers her head and says, “Oh no, that’s Mike Hawke!”

“Your what?”

The real showstoppers of this program were Dara Greenwald’s Bouncing in the Corner #36DDD and Aida Ruilova’s 7 Short Pieces. Bouncing is a hilarious spoof on Vito Acconci’s works from the early days of video art featuring a bird’s-eye view of a large-breasted woman repeatedly banging herself against a corner. Each time her back hits the wall, her boobs shake and flop violently. Not quite as simplistic as it seems, this video addresses, among other things, the lack of humor in conceptual video art. 7 Short Pieces was the most provocative group of works in this program, abstractly exploring the neuroses and strange behaviors of people and their objects; from a man caressing and flattering his amp in a basement to a vinyl record being repeatedly dragged across a wall.

The organizers of this festival were clever in many ways, especially in scheduling spoken word performances during the rock ‘n’ roll shows. This way, audiences didn’t have to choose between music happening at one venue and a spoken word program somewhere else. Smart too, because most people I know wouldn’t choose the latter over the former. Readings by Ida, Spider, and Nomy Lamm were woven into a power-packed lineup of Quixotic, Bangs, Misty Fine, Gina Birch, and The Butchies.

Quixotic put on a great show, including their beautiful cover of “What’s So Good About Goodbye?” I was so impressed by The Bangs, especially guitarist Sarah Utter, that I ran out after the show and bought their latest album, Sweet Revenge. The Butchies stole the spotlight with their incredible energy and screaming hordes of fans.

Other cool options for Tuesday included girls-only guitar, bass and drum workshops, a panel about domestic violence run by a local women’s shelter, Safeplace, the “I’d rather be fat than brainwashed” panel, a sex discussion group and an open mic event.

Wednesday’s offerings were similarly diverse and enticing, though I was swayed away by the arrival of a few of my out of town long-lost friends. I made it to the first show that afternoon at Thekla, a local club which hosts a Gay Night as well as what some Olympia kids sneeringly refer to as “fag bash night” when drunk jocks spill out onto the street. The lineup included Allison Williams, Kanako, Braille Stars, and The Rondelles, who I was happy to see live finally. This wasn’t their best show, due to sloppiness and bad sound, but they still looked “stylie” enough to get away with it.

Other choices for Wednesday included workshops on how to operate a PA system, auto mechanics, AIDS awareness, creating alternative menstrual products, and sex work and sexual assault. The much anticipated drag show, hosted by the Teenage HoDads, was supposed to start at 11:30 p.m. but by close to 1:00 a.m. there was still a line of people slumped waiting along the wall of the Capitol Theatre. I heard it was fabulous.

After getting a late start, I wandered over to Metro, the local salon/trashy clothes joint and official prep site of the afternoon’s fashion show. Show organizer (and participating designer) Aura Perrica had invited me to come down with my camera, and by the time I arrived models, stylists, lipstick and fake hairpieces surrounded her! As vintage Madonna spilled from the speakers, I watched various ladies don their friends’ designs and sit for painstaking beehive hairdos.

I followed the girls to the Capitol Theater, where paper cutouts of life-sized undies, bras, and socks pinned to a clothesline were hung against a slide show backdrop. From the corner of the stage The Space Ballerinas delivered beautiful, spooky New Wave music as the first models walked out. It was fantastic to see Allison Wolfe of Bratmobile wearing a Rolling Stones-inspired “lips” dress, designed by Joseph Derouselle. Beth from the Gossip and many other ladies-about-town strutted their stuff for a wildly supportive audience. This was no ordinary fashion show.

Lyuda Feldman (designer and co-organizer) began the show’s trend of incorporating larger-than-life props such as cotton candy, a pinwheel and bubbles. Her most interesting piece was a graffitti-painted gown, but my favorite was one of her little girls’ dresses with a pony head on the front, worn by a four-foot-tall model in cowboy boots!

As the show went on, the themes and performances grew stranger. Christine Lieu’s gothic models came out all at once to stage a dark, somber picnic scene. Tammy Illfigure’s tight jeans-wearing, bad ass models had a catfight and were dragged off the stage. Sophia Shalimiyev should quit fashion now and go into costume designing for LSD trips. I loved her white shift dress with a big red lightning bolt and “professional slut” scrawled across the ass. Also amusing were a scary bee hived nurse and big “little girls” in bows and oversized shoes.

Aura’s segment was the most fun. A park bench was the central prop for her show. One of her first models was a prim girl who sat reading on the bench, only to be scared away by a girl flasher who left her trench coat behind. The next girl came over and slept on the coat, only to be kicked away by a taffeta dress-wearing brown-bag boozer. The last model climbed lustily onto her lap, ending the show with a furious make-out session!

After showering Aura with praise I munched on vegetarian sushi at the opening for the “Take a Picture: It’ll Last Longer” photo show at Olympia World News. Then it was off to the Midnight Sun for “X-PAIRe-NAIRAh: experimental narrative and super shorts,” a program hosted by Bridget Irish, the fest’s main film curator, and all-around lovable eccentric. This program featured my own film, Blue Star, a short about an underground pop star and her manicurist friend. Needless to say, I was excited to see it in this particularly girlie context!

A few of the films were repeated from an earlier program, so I sat outside, glad to escape the awful heat and cramped conditions. It was a real shame they couldn’t find a better alternative to the Capitol Theater. Regardless, I saw some interesting work, including Sadie Shaw & Tina Gordon’s Madeline’s Valentine’s Day Party, in which a sexy and sinister Madeline throws a party for her nearest and dearest, feeding them with spiked candies and turning them all into zombies-I’m talking B-movie chic to the max!

Another video that dealt with transformations (of a different sort) was Katharine Case’s Removable Phantom Crotch. This video abstractly portrays the lives of a group of teenage girls struggling with complicated, somehow made-up identities as girls, as well as the discrimination and abuse they often endure from teenage boys, other girls, and themselves. Kat is a friend of mine, and I remember very well witnessing her devotion to this project. A big element of the vibe at Ladyfest was just being there for your fellow female creators—I felt an unmistakably warm touch of girl love.

After the screening, I hopped into a car and headed to a local party where I squeezed into the basement. I climbed up on top of some old amps and sat mesmerized by The Gossip. This was definitely one of the peak moments of the fest for me. Lead singer Beth is a sexy, incredibly talented performer who commands her audience into submissive Blues-Punk joy. No wonder Thurston Moore begged them to open for Sonic Youth after he saw them in NY. The Gossip give you that rush of excitement, like something bad is going down, like “Oh shit—this music is gonna get good & raw!”

By then I was psyched and ready for “Metal Karaoke Night” back at The Midnight Sun. Upon arrival, I dashed to the front to check out the list of available songs and finally chose “Photograph” by Def Lepard-great song, though not my first choice (which would have been Heart’s “Magic Man”). I waited for an eternity until there was just one girl ahead of me. Not only had she somehow signed up for the same song without my realizing, but also she absolutely butchered it! I was so horrified that I had to leave the premises immediately.

While I was running around, other lucky ladies attended workshops on bike repair, creating community resources, women of color claiming space, and labor organizing. A country-themed show featured Rose & Kathy Melberg, Tennessee Twin, Daisy Duke, Trailer Bride, and Neko Case & Her Boyfriends—whew!

This may have been a lazy day for me, but not for Ladyfest! Okay, so I’m ashamed to say I missed the panels and workshops on tenant rights training and self-defense (hey, I live in New York!). But I did make it to Tammy Rae Carland’s “Faking It,” a program of contemporary experimental video. As with much of her own work, the program dealt with identity as a construct. She claims these pieces attempt to “redefine ‘fakeness’ as a transgressive and subversive formal element that can work to rewrite history, re-frame truth and reality, and to include queers, women and people of color.” I was intrigued by the video about the American woman who becomes a Vietnamese pop singer. It reminded me of my friend and ex-band mate Sheila, who belts out the best Japanese karaoke I’ve ever heard come from the mouth of any blonde, blue-eyed girl.

Later on, a bunch of bands opened for Bratmobile (I Mudder Accordion, Shotgun Won, Aislers Set, Lost Goat, and Lois), and I was finally fulfilled by seeing the reunion of Molly Neuman, Erin Smith and Allison Wolfe. Hearing those simple-yet-true lyrics, super catchy beats and guitar riffs only made me love Bratmobile all over again! They played classics like “Cool Schmool,” “Kiss & Ride,” and “Love Thing,” as well as new songs I’ve already got stuck in my head. A sweet moment came when Allison thanked Ladyfest for the dedication to her mother, the late activist Pat Shively, and she ended the show with a big cheerleader split! I know their new album will be great, even though singer Allison Wolfe could simply burp on vinyl and I would buy it.

Next we headed over to another house party, where COCO was scheduled to play in the basement, but unfortunately this night ended on a bad note. I was mingling with some kids on the front lawn when two of my guy pals came over and told me that some drunk, hostile (and uninvited) local men had accosted and tried to surround them in the backyard. Thankfully my friends decided they’d rather leave than get their faces bashed in. The next day, as we chatted with other kids, we were depressed by stories much worse than that. We heard tales of kids getting their asses kicked on their way home at night and how it was the standard MO to travel in packs-this from the town where so many kids’ musical heroes have hailed. It’s true that having an enemy to fight against stimulates artistic rebellion, but I began to wonder what kind of Utopia this really was.

I woke up a bit disillusioned and yet at the same time sad to be leaving so soon. The afternoon show at Thekla did cheer me up, though. The lineup was Allison Williams, Slumber Party, The Shady Ladies, and The Gossip. When they came on, two teams of kids climbed into opposite balconies at either side of the stage and had a dance contest. I think Nomy Lamm’s gang won, but I can’t be 100% sure. Beth Gossip pleased herself by making the crowd sing “Happy Birthday,” to her friends, insisting that we address the birthday kids as “y’all,” and made us yell “howdy” too. That girl’s just a living doll!

I was pulled in to the spirit of Olympia again even more by the “Fabric, Objects & Art” opening at Arrow Space, which was quite cool and thought-provoking-disguised-as-silly. For instance: human-sized stuffed pills of Zoloft and Prozac—now I wonder what could be inferred from that...are we really what we eat? Is the influence of such medications now so huge that we can have cuddly “dolls” made to further iconify them? I loved the pop-art style pink and black “vinyl” dresses (fashioned to look like a record cut in half), and Jen Smith’s delicate stitches across plain white undergarments (meant to recreate the map of her family’s immigration from Vietnam to America) resonated for me. But what really nailed it was the brilliant, hilarious “scratch ‘n’ sniff” installation of eighteen boxes, hung in three rows across the wall, each fitted with a plexiglass door. Every box contained a pair of ladies’ full-cut, retro-styled undies. Some were polka dotted, some were striped, and some plain, but if you wanted to know what really made each one special. Visitors awkwardly and tentatively opened the doors and leaned in for a good whiff. Soon we were giggling and comparing the various scents. Most were pleasant, but not all. Just picture a bunch of people sipping wine and sniffing panties.

I was so ready for that night’s big show: Portland Union Choir, Inga Musico, The Art Cheerleaders, Sarah Dougher, The Bobbyteens, Holly Golightly, and finally Sleater-Kinney. I had heard through the vine that my old friend and bandmate Erin was in the choir. It was a trip to see her sway back and forth, with a bunch of people in wacky get-ups, singing labor union rallying songs. I know it’s a noble cause, but it was a little silly.

An even bigger thrill (and lots of laughs) came from The Art Cheerleaders, which I would recommend to anyone. If you’ve studied art, music, or embarked on a life of creative endeavors, it will hit home, inspire you, and crack you up! Dressed to the nines in authentically accurate cheerleading uniforms, these gals (and guy) cartwheeled, kicked and jumped through elaborate choreography while shouting stuff like, “Be Postmodern,” to the tune of the classic cheer, “Be Aggressive.” Also great was the audience participation cheer about what one can do with a fine arts degree. It went a little like this: “We say café, you say waitress, café-waitress, café-waitress! We say bicycle, you say courier, bicycle-courier, bicycle-courier! We say erotic, you say dancer, erotic-dancer, erotic-dancer!” I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry.

By today I’d seen old friends, made new ones, and become a regular at the Lacey Denny’s as well as various watering holes about Olympia. It seemed like nowhere but The Spar could make a good mixed drink. But after surveying the local hangouts I decided The Reef was my favorite. Tucked in the back of a tacky marine-themed cafe was the coolest little bar, with old women, hipsters, and various other types squeezed together. This one girl I’d met earlier was dancing to classic rock between the tables, and some guy who had been in GodHeadSilo was hanging out naked from the waist down! By the time we had to leave to see Sleater-Kinney, I wanted so much to stay and dance. Nearby Sleater-Kinney Road may as well have been named after the band, not the other way around, cuz this show was sold out and filled with adoration. I guess the festival meant a lot to them cuz they seemed genuinely moved and proud to be part of it all, especially Carrie Brownstein, who called it “an amazing week.” They played a really long set, with the perfect mix of old and new. Being more a fan of the first couple of records, I was psyched to hear stuff from Call The Doctor, like “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone,” “I’m Not Waiting,” and “Good Things.” During an extended version of “All Hands on The Bad One,” Corin Tucker asked girls to come up and confess bad things they’d done during the fest, and we all cheered for the girl who had shoplifted a box of tampons, “so she’d have money for beer.” The band ended with a cute, bad-ass cover of “Dude (Looks Like a Lady),” with friends dancing all around the stage.

Okay, so I was exhausted and had to work Monday morning back in NY, but I couldn’t miss The Need. One of the opening bands, Glass Candy & The Shattered Theatre, had come highly recommended by my friend Dave. Well, not only did the two guys and female singer all look a lot like Dave (all over six feet tall and super-skinny), but they presented some intriguing juxtapositions. The voice of the band is a beautiful, angel-faced girl decked out like a glamorous punk slut in huge red heels, who danced in slower time than the music. Out of her pouty lips came this unintelligible, deep and reverb-y noise. They were hot, but out there on some other planet. I’d be interested to see where they go with their concept. Other musical performers were Fake, Jean Smith, and Mary Timony, interspersed with spoken/art performances by Stephanne Best and Danielle Lieberman.

But back to my point—The Need. They first blew me away at the SuperGrrrl Convention in Portland back in 1996. I remember watching these two cute, tough girls get on stage, one (Radio Sloan) with a guitar and the other (Rachel Carnes) standing behind her drum kit, wearing a headset mic. I was completely impressed by their music, too—this weird carnival-esque twist on metal and minimalism, all in one. I kept my eyes peeled for anything by them—7”, CD, whatever, and finally started to hear more from them. They seem to have amassed a loyal following now, though they might also be a bit of an acquired taste. I felt lucky to see them live again, and to watch the really cool way they communicate on stage—smiling at each other, Radio asking Rachel to remind her to re-tune her guitar, etc. I was not surprised at all when Radio had a pair of panties flung at her from the crowd, hung them on her mic and sang through them, admitting that she acts “like I’m shy and don’t like it, but...” We all know how she really feels. Wouldn’t anyone love to be treated like that in the land of Kill Rock Stars?

Well, I had quickly fallen in love with Olympia, but almost as soon realized that it is a town of strange disjunction. What initially seemed like a tolerant haven, with punks and dykes walking around by day, by Friday night had become a hostile and creepy ring for drunken fag-bashing and cat-calls. I think the diversity and chaos of New York have spoiled me. My friends and I joked about how getting mugged there is a non-discriminatory business transaction, and how there’s something almost comforting about that.

Local Olympia papers reported on the fest in full color spreads almost every day, gloating about the Time Magazine article, which had recently declared Olympia “The Hippest City in the West!” Too bad the ignorant rowdies only found out this month that the “freaks” had in fact improved the quality and reputation of their town. I guess the guys who tried to beat up my friend at a party hadn’t read those articles, nor had the guys who drove by the Capitol Theater leering out truck windows at all the teenage girls, so no, women aren’t the only targets in this town, or any other for that matter. Sometimes it feels as though we’ve accomplished very little with our bands, films, meetings, and such, like it may as well still be 1992 or 1962. But despite this, the women of Ladyfest wiped away just enough of my cynicism to refresh my sense of hope for the power of music and art. I remembered how idealistic I had been at one time and that I don’t need to let that go. I hope other girls (boys and trannies, too) left as recharged as I did.

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