IN MEMORIAM: VI SUBVERSA
May 7, 2016
Gina Favano for Women in Sound
Meraki (n.) – the soul, creativity, or love put into something; the essence of yourself that is put into your work
The first time I heard that music, that voice. Full body chills. What the hell is this? Simultaneously tired and tireless. Queasy stirrings, trusting in the gut.
“I denounce the system that murders my children. I denounce the system that denies my existence.”
The voice is strong, compellingly androgynous, disturbing and correct.
“I curse the system that makes machines of my children. I reject the system that makes men of machines.”
Vi Subversa, a.k.a. Frances Sokolov, passed away on February 19th [of this year] at age 80, within a month’s span of the maelstrom of grief following the demise of Bowie and Lemmy. She is most well-known for founding the peace punk band Poison Girls in 1976 at age 42, incidentally the same age I am now, not having any prior experience playing music onstage.
First things first: If you’re not already familiar with Poison Girls, I recommend starting at the beginning with 1979’s Hex then on to 1980’s Chappaquiddick Bridge. The latterly full-length albums which date up to 1985 all contain startling gems of songs -‘81’s “Total Exposure” and ‘82’s “Where’s the Pleasure?” in particular. They were never well-received by record labels or the esteemed critics of the day, including John Peel, whose weekly televised “Peel Sessions” were proffered to every other Tom, Dick, and Mark E. Smith on the scene. Most of their recordings were released by Crass Records, as the anarcho-punk band Crass were their artistic cronies and neighbors, and X-N-Trix Records, a label started by Poison Girls themselves to put forth their own music, as well as their lesser-known contemporaries. Musically, they were relentlessly experimental, including their later forays incorporating elements of disco. What can I say? It was the times.
A particular quote from one of Vi’s rare interviews arrested me with its frank delivery:
“For 40 years I thought I mustn’t sing, I’m not Mick Jagger…or Johnny Rotten…I’m not Marilyn Monroe, I shouldn’t be in public, I should stay in my closet and mind my children and mind my business. Only it IS my business, what happens in the world…is my business.”
Fellow songwriters, how long did it take you to figure out what you wanted to say and how to say it? I know it took me a good long while. For her there was none of the usual fumbling through the ether trying to discover one’s true voice or distilled message. She erupted onto the British punk scene an Athena, fully formed from the forehead of a life already well lived. The authenticity garnered through experience is unmistakable to those who listen for it.
Vi’s very physical presence was challenging even to the so-called open mindedness and anti-establishment ethos of the cultural era and to the narrow scope of what “the girl in the band” was supposed to look like. Here stood a formidable, opinionated, Jewish, feminist, middle-aged mother in plus-sized punk regalia; rebellion personified. She was a master of conveying injustice clearly through the lens of music without stripping it of poetry. Formulaic political platitudes were cast aside in favor of the raw, smoky voice of experience, paralleled only by Bea Arthur’s in it’s bassy timbre. The source of her musicianship, dare I say, lied not in technical expertise, but in artistic ingenuity. The songs tackled topics like the emotional complexity of motherhood, sexual violence, environmental devastation and the holocaust, and were delivered full-throated and clean by the blunt force trauma of that voice.
In the majority of articles I’ve happened upon written about Vi Subversa preceding her death, one of the words I’ve noticed occurring most frequently is “inspiring” - as in, “she was so inspiring”, “what an inspiration” - which leads me to ask myself, what is it that made her so inspiring to so many people? Is it because, among the pantheon of the selectively celebrated rock frontwomen, it’s still a rarity to find someone who so blatantly shared their mind, heart and guts? Who unapologetically presented themselves as human, flawed by society’s standards, comfortable in their own aging skins? What a multi-pronged tragedy that is.
And now I’m getting to what her music says to me. It says: “I’ve got something to say. I’m going to say it and I don’t care what you think. There are things happening in the world that are wrong, and I’m going to sing about it. Up yours if you don’t like it.”
That is her legacy. Meraki. That and knowing through her example that here are still unique ways to express situations that can make us feel powerless. She made important, fearless music. What else is there to say?
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Gina is a visual artist. She is also the bassist and singer in Pittsburgh-based band Come Holy Spirit. Their most recent album, Asters and Disasters, was released on Water Wing Records in May 2018.
- Women in Sound 2019 -