blinding white light: seeing perfect pussy

The night I went to see Perfect Pussy I went alone, leaving straight from work for the venue in ragged clothes that doubled as maybe-cool but also fine to get dog slobber on. I like going to shows alone because it allows me to be selfish about the experience that I have–who I talk to, how much I drink, where I stand, when I leave becomes all dictated by my own desire and not negotiated with a friend or date. Sometimes when I really love a band, I find myself drawn to the stage as if by magnetic force, pulling me in to stand nose-to-amp, eyes raised (only slightly, since the dive bars I frequent are home to stages maybe one foot off the floor) to take in what feels like a holy experience just feet away from the performers, ears racking up damage by the second. Nothing is more of a drain on that full-hearted rush than the hulking presence of a boyfriend in the back of the room, arms crossed and uncomfortable without your presence to anchor them in that space. That’s not to say I don’t love to share; while the band played, I found myself looking sidelong to see the joy on my friends’ faces. I like to clasp onto arms, scream-whisper eagerly about how much I fucking love this! That communal pleasure vibrating through a crowd carried on sound waves is a kind of energy field I feel like I can only tap into individually. You can’t do a swan dive holding someone’s hand.

The one grainy phone photo I managed to snag.
The one grainy phone photo I managed to snag.

I sat on the back porch most of the night to avoid encounters with exes and the thick fog of cigarette smoke pressing on my asthmatic lungs. JJ’s is a relic from an age past; a loophole in state law allows patrons to smoke inside, and having watched people ash on the floor for as long as I’ve been going there and never having seen a mop appear–not even when people break bottles–I feel like the floors are, at this point, lacquered in congealed cigarette ash. Don’t get me wrong, though, I find that endearing. I drank a few beers and relished my freedom by bouncing from one cluster of friends to another, bound to no one in particular, following the natural course of conversations waxing and waning and people coming and going. I don’t remember when people started flooding inside for the headlining band, but I do remember reaching the front of the room and immediately shouldering my way to directly in front of the stage. I said “sorry” insincerely over my shoulder to a friend I had pushed by to stand in front of, and he said something like, “you do you, girl,” understanding my need to be as close as possible. I think people are used to that.

I went into this show bubbling over with optimism; I’ve never seen a friend describe one of Perfect Pussy’s shows with anything less than overt enthusiasm. I’ve listened to their album “Say Yes To Love” a lot. Their driving, relentless sound reminds me of all the 90s female-fronted hardcore comps my uncle has gifted me over the years, bleeding power and energy, and I was immediately hooked. There’s only so much salivating over old Ebullition releases a girl too young to have participated in that era of punk herself can do before wondering whether people are making music like that in a post-2003 world, and Perfect Pussy is. Not to say they’re some Spitboy carbon copy, but their sound is in that realm of hardcore that is feminist but post-Riot Grrrl, or in the case of a band like Spitboy, casually brushed shoulders with Riot Grrrl in the women’s restroom but hung with a different crowd. There’s an overlap, sure, but this genre is a different animal entirely, something tougher, scarier, with a heavier step, that pushes boundaries in both sound and gender. I think with a lot of bands like this you see their influences really heavily contributed to RG and the throwaway Bikini Kill comparison just because it’s punk and there’s a girl singing, like Punch or White Lung or whoever, when you can more directly trace their sound back to that nebulous period of feminist punk and hardcore that populated the late 90s and early aughts. Unfortunately the surviving Angelfire archives don’t do thorough justice to the time period and I don’t know as much as I wish I did. I will say, though, that Perfect Pussy revives that same energy and sound in an incredible way. The experimental/noise component to their music is what I would consider a 2015 version of Submission Hold’s free form jazz-flute breakdowns. Maybe I’m reaching for that one, or maybe it’s just that I prefer a table full of noise gear distorting sound to a wild flute solo.

The set itself was considerably more intense than listening to the album. You couldn’t understand any words their vocalist, Meredith Graves, was singing, but it didn’t matter because her stage presence put the room under a spell as if the way she moved and the dictionless, violent hum of her voice pitching up and down could tell us all we needed to know about the content of the song. Sometimes pained, sometimes exaltant, she rocked forward or shouted to the ceiling at intervals, singing as if it were extremely difficult to pry the words from her throat and performing for us was strenuous labor for her. This implied use of force to expel her vocals washed energy over the crowd, and I think I mostly stood there trance-like, maybe nodding or bouncing. I was awed, absorbing this huge wall of sound narrated wordlessly by the expressive, powerful Graves.

The music I can only think to describe as “loud,” primarily because I don’t know what I’m talking about, but also because that’s a compliment. It was more formulaic of a noise show than a punk show, the set seamlessly transitioning in such a way that you could rarely tell when or if they were switching from one song to the next, like a very well contained, intentional mess. The sound was insistent and raucous, as if pushing me forcefully down a rabbit hole until I reached the bottom and all that was left was feedback loops, shutting off one by one until eventually–silence. Their keyboardist had a setup splayed across a table reminiscent of what I’ve seen at many noise shows, an intimidating number of pedals and switchboards, none of which I can identify, resulting in a jumble of wires that made me feel, if anything, concerned about how he kept it all straight. I like that about noise, that there’s someone standing in front of a bunch of knobs and pedals pressing them with great intention, but how they generate the sounds are still a mystery to me. Given that, I think maybe knowing what I’m talking about would spoil it for me, like learning a magician’s tricks, and I’m better off as an ignorant spectator nodding along to deafening screeching because I like what’s happening and I don’t need to know why.

After their set I promptly got in the merch line to pick up a tape and a shirt, and once I had my prizes cradled in my arms and began to shuffle away through the crowd, I saw Meredith Graves standing in the shadows between the merch table and the stage. I leaned in and stumbled over some words, something like “y’all were great!” or “I’m a huge fan!” or both; the details are obscured because I experienced the phenomenon wherein you meet someone who is very important to you and your brain retains the emotional impression but not the actual details, which are replaced instead with blinding white light, like an encounter with an angel. It’s fine. I know I also told her I admire her writing and write for a music blog that features only non-male writers, something I’d thought she’d appreciate given tweets such as these.

What happened that is extremely important to me is that I apologized to her for the local end of the booking of the show. The bands that played with Perfect Pussy were unmatched in both style of music and in that there was not a single woman in either band. This isn’t a critique I would level at every situation of there being only one band with girls in it on a show, because if it were I would never be able to stop complaining. But when booking a headliner that is an overtly feminist and relatively famous touring band featuring multiple female members, it is at the very least polite to extend an invitation to play to a local band with women in it. There are a plethora of bands in Chattanooga whose sound approximates punk, hardcore, and noise in some way and in which incredibly talented women are writing and playing music. None were chosen for this show. It was weird. My investment in the booking is not just nitpicking–I want Chattanooga to be able to represent itself with its full potential as a destination to touring bands. If I were in a feminist hardcore band and played in a town where I was booked with only men playing totally different genres of music, I would have serious reservations about whether this was a city that was right for my hypothetical band, and if I wanted to go back or route my next tour elsewhere. There are endless tiny cities like ours in the South they could have chosen that they skipped this tour–Athens or Greenville to name a couple–and I want bands to want to play here. That means putting the right locals forward when it counts.

I told Graves a summary of this, that I thought the locals were poorly booked and that in spite of what she saw that night there are many women making great music in Chattanooga, and that I hoped they would come back around and be able to see one of them next time. She took my apology with no surprise and an amount of embarrassment, citing that they’d experienced the same issue in a lot of towns. She put the blame on herself, explaining that she’d been incredibly busy lately (no doubt working on her new record label, Honor Press) and didn’t have a hand in booking this go-round of tour. Next tour, she said, she’d be making an intentional effort to be playing with a more diverse group of bands. I certainly don’t blame her because it’s not up to a touring band to choose their supporting locals, but I do hope next tour she puts some pressure on for towns to put forward bands to match theirs, selfishly because those are the bands I prefer to see and less selfishly because structurally prioritizing the inclusion of women in music is important.

After that carefully measured conversation I rushed over to a friend–I don’t remember who, blinding white light, blinding white light–and clasped her hands excitedly, “I met Meredith Graves! We talked!” The typical hysteria overtook me, fortunately out of sight of the band. I felt giddy and I wanted another beer. I was curled up in an armchair in the back of the room when a friend (one I made by way of her being my ex’s most recent ex, a very interesting way to align female energy in friendship) offered me a ride home so I didn’t have to walk over the river in the dark, drunk and holding my keys the way girls are supposed to do at night. Because at the end of the night, no matter how great it is to witness women being powerful onstage, it is a stage, and when the performance is over you go back to the disappointing reality of male-dominated space and the fear of walking home alone. Just with an extra sparkle of hope in the passenger’s seat of another really cool girl who has your back.

Aria

About Aria

aria is a baby punk melusine living in the tennessee valley, a dog person both in the sense of loving every dog and only caring about sincere earnestness and unconditional love.

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