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Huge heart, 8 Inch Betsy: Remembering Meghan Galbraith

Ten months after her death, the community she left behind honors her positivity by welcoming her queercore band's final album into the world.

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Eli Burke came to Chicago from Tucson in summer 2003 to study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but a friend from Arizona who'd already moved here had other plans. Burke (then going by Liz) had played bass in Tucson with drummer Stephanie Levi in a punk band called 8 Inch Betsy, and once they both lived in Chicago, Levi spent months trying to get Burke to come practice with her. "I eventually caved," Burke says. "And I'm glad I did, 'cause it was good."

Levi had recruited a singer and guitarist named Meghan Galbraith, and in summer 2004 the three of them began playing together in a Chicago incarnation of 8 Inch Betsy. They clicked immediately, developing what Burke describes as an alchemical connection at their first practice—they'd turned two of Galbraith's solo songs into full-band numbers by the end of the night.

The band kept playing regularly till 2012, when Burke moved back to Tucson. On January 22, 2015, Galbraith died at age 35 after a long illness, and since then it's become especially clear that she played a big role as a catalyst and inspiration in lots of places besides 8 Inch Betsy. Everyone I interviewed for this story talked about how unfailingly supportive she was. Galbraith was quick to offer an ear or lend a hand, emotionally or professionally, and pushed friends new and old to follow their dreams. She helped people get jobs or find apartments, and she always encouraged anyone who wanted to make music, sometimes helping them with songwriting or showing them the ropes of touring or running a band. Beginning in 2008, she volunteered as a band coach and counselor at Girls Rock! Chicago, which has established a Meghan Galbraith Scholarship to honor what it calls her "infectious positivity and incredible generosity of spirit." In the scholarship's first year, an outpouring of donations from those who'd loved Galbraith allowed the camp to waive tuition for five girls.

The 8 Inch Betsy story ends this Friday with the release of the band's posthumous second album, The Mean Days (it's on 307 Knox, a D.C.-based label run by Melissa Thomas, their final live drummer). They began working on it in 2009, persisting through a lineup change that forced them to rerecord all the drum parts. Galbraith never gave up on seeing it released, not even when the band went on hiatus three years ago. In her memory, Burke has taken the lead to make it happen now.


Galbraith covers the White Stripes' "Hotel Yorba."

Meghan Lee Galbraith was born in Waukegan on August 13, 1979, the same day her older sister, Erin, turned three. She displayed signs of her future punk-rock self at an early age. "My mom was trying to dress her and she just said, 'I'm not wearing dresses anymore,'" Erin says. Around age six, Galbraith started wearing hand-me-downs from a male cousin—T-shirts, jeans, tennis shorts. "People would mistake her for a boy sometimes," Erin says. "And I'd have to explain, 'No, that's my sister.'"

Diane Galbraith says her younger daughter "definitely had a mind of her own." She noticed Meghan's creativity when she was still a child. "She liked creative writing and appreciated a good pun or a corny joke," Diane says. "In grade school and middle school she fooled around with a drum set, a keyboard, and a guitar." In her final year at Greenwood Elementary, Galbraith busted out a version of "Wild Thing" at the school's talent show that she'd taught herself to play on the family's cheap acoustic.

Galbraith began focusing on guitar in ninth grade, at Waukegan High School. Her parents bought her a new instrument, and after a family friend showed her how to tune it, she taught herself to play. "Her room was directly above the living room, and I would hear her playing. It would actually drive me crazy sometimes, just because it would distract me," Erin says. "Like, I had the TV on or something, and I could hear the guitar playing. It was just, like, 'Are you gonna be done soon?'"

Galbraith also joined the school's badminton team—Erin was on it too—and became president of the German club. At age 16 she started playing in the band Ska Box, based in Michigan—her parents owned a cabin in the Upper Peninsula, where Galbraith had befriended Ska Box drummer Jamie Curran. ("She would make friends anywhere she went," Erin says.) Galbraith occasionally played solo shows too, performing songs by Tool and Pearl Jam.

Galbraith worked on her own material privately, writing poems and lyrics in her bedroom and recording songs for friends. "She'd record them on four-track and give the audiotapes, so there's only the one copy," says her friend Steve Albertson, who got to know Galbraith when they were 14. They hit it off while hanging out on a trampoline at a mutual friend's house, and Galbraith gave him her homemade version of the Beatles' "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" (which begins with the lyrics "For the benefit of Mr. Kite / There will be a show tonight on trampoline").

By the time Galbraith started her senior year in 1996, she'd quit many of her extracurricular activities. Her paternal grandmother had died in March of her junior year, and Erin says this had an adverse affect. "She started experimenting with pot and things like that." Galbraith also began a brief flirtation with the rave scene. She wore huge bell-bottom jeans with colorful plastic necklaces, and she dyed her hair for the first time—it became a sort of canvas, as did Albertson's. "She had this giant box filled with hair dye, so whenever it was time to play with hair, there was a palette to play with," he says. "It was super cool."

Galbraith had had boyfriends in high school, but senior year she had her first girlfriend. "The first time she kind of came to her own sexuality was during the early rave stuff," Albertson says. "I think she really figured out who she was in this 17- to 20-year-old period of her life. And then, you know, she was a huge proponent of lesbian culture."

When Galbraith turned 18, just months after graduating from Waukegan High School in 1997, she moved to Chicago—not for college but to focus on music. "She actually barely graduated," Erin says. "She was so smart, but she just hated school."

Through some Chicago friends she'd made in Michigan, Galbraith promptly landed a job at Ravenswood coffee shop Beans & Bagels. If any of the typical employee-­boss formality ever existed between Galbraith and Beans & Bagels cofounder Darren Brown, it dissolved quickly—on the job they joked, talked trash, and bonded over favorite bands, especially the Dead Milkmen. "She was just as crass as I was," Brown says. "The things that came out of her mouth—boy, let me tell you. She just had no filter."

Meghan Galbraith in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2010 - JESSE BURKE
  • Jesse Burke
  • Meghan Galbraith in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2010

Galbraith was also an invaluable employee. "Honestly, without her I don't know what I would've done, because she was my right hand man, and she would do anything for me and my family," Brown says. Galbraith helped keep the shop staffed—Albertson and Burke wound up working there thanks to her—and she became its face to the community. Customers would visit to check out her latest Technicolor haircut or what she'd added to her collection of piercings and tattoos. "They would come in to talk to Meghan, see how she was doing and what was going on," Brown says.

Writer Joe Meno was a regular at Beans & Bagels in the late 90s, though he'd met Galbraith elsewhere through one of her old roommates. Before 8 Inch Betsy came along, she'd had a few other musical projects—she self-released a CD under the name Meghan Lee, and in 2003 she formed a band called Our Missiles Are: with Meno. "It was like a high-concept art-school band, where every show the title of our band would change—like, it would be 'Our Missiles Are: Horny,' or the next one would be "Our Missiles Are: Sad,'" he says.

The band didn't last long, but Meno's friendship with Galbraith did. They'd trade mix CDs and listen to cassettes in her car. He cast her in a few plays he wrote, even though she'd never acted before. "What a gift to have somebody who's willing to go along with your half-formed ideas," Meno says. "Like, 'I'm trying to figure this thing out, can you help me? And you're gonna have to be in the show and be onstage in front of 50 strangers or whatever.' She was game for it. I'm 41, and I just don't have friends like that anymore."

Albertson, who also acted in Meno's plays, says Galbraith helped convince him to launch his first long-term band, Dr. Killbot, in 2001. "She made it seem like something that was really possible," he says. "I think I settled into playing with one band even before she did."

Meno cast Galbraith as teenage punk Gretchen, the lead role in a one-act play called Haunted Trails, which he named after a mini-golf course in the southwestern suburbs; it opened on the Chopin Theatre's downstairs stage in January 2003. When Meno decided to turn Haunted Trails into a book, he says he drew inspiration from the supportive spirit he saw so much of in Galbraith—the same spirit that had encouraged him to put on the play in the first place.

That book, Hairstyles of the Damned, came out in early 2004 through Punk Planet's new Akashic Books imprint. The back of Galbraith's head appears smack in the center of its iconic cover, her bright pink hair leaping out against the green background. The book has gone through 15 printings, selling about 100,000 copies. "I really believe that book cover was hugely responsible for the success of that book," Meno says. "She happened to have the most perfectly round head, and it just was very aesthetically pleasing."

That year Galbraith also jump-started the Chicago version of 8 Inch Betsy, where her fearlessness and positivity helped Burke get over a bad case of stage fright. "I was notorious for getting physically ill before shows," Burke says. "It wasn't the preshow jitters—it was the 'shitters' is what we called it, 'cause I was just sick every time."

Once at a dive called North Beach, 8 Inch Betsy played for a largely male audience that didn't seem used to seeing women play punk rock. "It's a fratty dude bar, and I was so scared," Burke says. "I don't know what I would be scared of—like, dudes in the audience not liking us? I don't know. It was really weird." But the crowd responded well—Galbraith pretty much always guaranteed that the band would make an impression, up onstage sweating through her wife beater, pushing her huge voice, and strumming her guitar till her fingers bled. "With someone like Meghan next to you, you feel safe. That's a thing," Burke says. "If it was just me, I could not have accomplished what we accomplished."


A live-performance video of 8 Inch Betsy's "Doomed"

In 2005, 8 Inch Betsy began to find a larger audience after opening for Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls on the first night of the third annual Estrojam festival. In anticipation of the September gig, the band hastily recorded a four-song EP and burned it onto CD-Rs; for the cover, Burke screen-­printed an image of two rabbits play fighting. Ray tapped 8 Inch Betsy to open a handful of her shows in October, which was not only the band's first time on the road but also put them in front of Ray's loyal and often queer fans. "You'd go to the show and there'd be people just waiting outside from the time we pulled up—in the morning, they're waiting to get in," Burke says. "They just loved the songs. They were instant fans. I keep in touch with some of those people to this day. That was when we felt like we could do this."

The recording of 8 Inch Betsy's first album, This Time Last Time Every Time, was a slow process, mainly due to its cost—sessions started in 2006 and ran into 2007. That year Galbraith left Beans & Bagels, in part because she wanted a job more amenable to band life—she began working door at Lakeview bar the Long Room. "When she left, the heart of my hearts just sank," Brown says. He'd hoped to eventually sell Beans & Bagels to Galbraith, but he had to recognize that her dreams lay elsewhere.

In mid-2007, 8 Inch Betsy began shopping their debut around. "We had asked Victory," Burke says. "They didn't want to sign a queer girl band, which kind of sucked actually. They were just really blatant about it." The band focused on queer labels, and released This Time Last Time Every Time through San Francisco's Queer Control Records in early 2008. In 2010, the catchy single "Doomed" got picked up by the Rock Band Network, a download service attached to the popular video games.

To support This Time Last Time Every Time, 8 Inch Betsy made their first big tour, but before it started Galbraith and Burke both went through difficult breakups—an experience that deepened their bond. "I remember the day that I moved out of my place—I was not good, and Meghan was like, 'Let's get a six-pack. We're gonna walk—we're gonna go to the train tracks,'" Burke says. "She always had the right thing to make you feel better. It made me feel like everything was gonna be OK." Later that year, Burke moved into the apartment Galbraith shared with Albertson.

For the most part, the band's touring consisted of weekend treks to nearby cities. Lexington became a favorite destination in 2008, after local musician Jackson Schad (who used to go by Jackson Cofer) made his first foray into booking just to get 8 Inch Betsy to play at a bar in town called the Boiler Room. Schad's girlfriend had introduced him to the band, and he still recalls how he felt listening to "Unemployable" after the economy bottomed out. "That's the one that stands out in my mind as when I first heard lyrics in a punk song and said, 'That's really close to home,'" he says.

Jackson, born Tina Maria Miller, began the process of coming out as transgender in 2008, at which point he was already playing in a group called the Spooky Qs. Though he now lives in Brooklyn, where he contributes to an LBGTQI music podcast called Homoground, before he left Lexington he helped build its queer music scene. "Lexington is a very gay city—it's got a history of that—and the music scene has been incredibly strong. But there was rarely a crossover between the gay scene and the music scene," Jackson says. The 8 Inch Betsy show was a turning point, because the band helped him connect with far-flung queer musicians—soon he was getting a flood of MySpace and Facebook messages from artists wanting to play in town. The Spooky Qs joined 8 Inch Betsy on the road five times, including a ten-day trip in May 2010, and Galbraith and Burke taught Jackson about tour budgeting and band etiquette. In 2010 he founded an LBGTQI festival in Lexington called Queerslang, which celebrated its fifth year in September.

Galbraith and Burked helped foster community closer to home too. In summer 2008, they began volunteering as band coaches for Girls Rock! Chicago. GR!C outreach director Melissa Oglesby recalls Galbraith's rapport with the campers: "Sometimes at camp, bands are having a hard time—kids are struggling, they're not getting along, they're having a hard time writing the songs, whatever it is. And we have band coaches who float around and come in and magically save the day," she says. "There are very few people who can do that—it takes a very special kind of person, and that was the best skill that Meghan had."

Oglesby saw Galbraith as an ally on a larger stage as well. "She was very much a part of our community, not only as a volunteer but just in the sense that she was very much aligned with what we were doing," she says. "Her presence in the world was very much of the Girls Rock! ethos. She was a female front person in a band; she was part of the DIY scene; she was very into supporting other female musicians."

The 8 Inch Betsy song "Fire Blast," from the band's debut album, 2008's This Time Last Time Every Time

Galbraith continued writing new material for 8 Inch Betsy, and by 2009 they had enough for another album. The Mean Days was originally recorded in 2010, but the band had to postpone its release after Levi quit in the middle of a short tour not long afterward. "She is very talented, but ultimately our personalities did not mesh," Burke says. Galbraith and Burke decided to start over, ditching Stephanie's recordings and redoing them with drummer Christian Moder from Chicago band the Great Crusades. (Melissa Thomas, head of 307 Knox, eventually filled Levi's spot onstage.)

At around this time, Galbraith began a relationship with Miranda Anderson, touring manager for Chicago theater company the Hypocrites. Anderson was a regular at the Long Room, and she'd hang out with Galbraith at the door—sometimes for 15 minutes, sometimes for hours, often working on crosswords Galbraith tore out from a book of puzzles. "I could totally tell that sometimes she would not answer things just so that I could eventually figure them out," she says. "Which was pretty cute."

Anderson doesn't remember exactly where she first saw 8 Inch Betsy, just that it was a windy outdoor show at a local college. But she remembers Galbraith onstage. "You could just tell immediately, 'Oh, this is Meghan in her happy place,'" she says. "It was just really magical to watch her perform live, and after that point I went to every show that I could." They started dating in spring 2010, and Anderson moved into Galbraith's apartment in 2012.

Moder finished replacement drum tracks for The Mean Days in 2012, but at that point 8 Inch Betsy ground to a halt. Burke had made the difficult decision to return to Tucson to teach art and visual culture. He began the transition from Liz to Eli after the move—he'd been coming to terms with his gender for his last few years in Chicago. "Being in an all-girl band put some pressure on me," he says. "Or I guess I put that pressure on myself."

Without 8 Inch Betsy, Galbraith mostly worked on music privately. "There would be times when I would come home and find her just sitting in her room, playing music or writing a song," Anderson says. "I didn't want to get in the way of it."

Galbraith never gave up on The Mean Days, and she'd frequently try to restart the process of putting it out. It wasn't until after she got sick at the end of 2013, though, that the album came off the back burner. Galbraith's family has kept the details of her illness off the record—specifics are also absent from her obituary—but it's clear that her declining health sped up the release. In October 2014, Burke got the go-ahead from Galbraith to work on releasing The Mean Days. The pair kept in touch till the day Galbraith died in January—she sent one last message on Facebook hours before her death. "It said, 'Me love you long time,'" Burke remembers.

On January 31, about 200 of Galbraith's family and friends gathered to celebrate her life at the In-Laws Restaurant in Gurnee. Drew Adamek, a friend of Galbraith's from high school, flew in from Serbia to say a few words. Darren Brown of Beans & Bagels, who now lives in Florida, happened to be in town and stayed for the memorial—and his wife flew in to attend. Albertson, Burke, and Erin Galbraith were among those who spoke, and no one made it through a speech without crying. Anderson was too upset to address the memorial, but plenty of people offered consoling words to her. "Every person I talked to at the celebration had an incredible story—you know, 'Meghan changed my life because of this thing that she did,'" she says. "I spent that day crying sad tears frequently, but I think I also laughed myself to tears a good three or four times, which just felt like the most appropriate thing in the world."

The family asked that donations made in Galbraith's name go to Girls Rock! Chicago, and Oglesby says the Meghan Galbraith Scholarship will continue even after that money runs out.

Burke had a difficult time continuing to work on The Mean Days in the months that followed. Just looking through photos for the CD layout was a challenge. "I would just get lost in this history—it just became emotionally overwhelming, and I just couldn't continue," he says. "I don't mean to sound dramatic. It just was really difficult. It took me awhile to get some really basic things done that I needed to get done." Burke hoped to have the album ready for physical release on August 13—the day Galbraith would've turned 36—but had to settle for posting the title track on Soundcloud for the occasion.

Albertson, who runs an Atlanta-based PR company called Baby Robot Media, has helped push The Mean Days out into the world, working for free on behalf of his departed friend. "She was one of the most important people in my life, and I want as many people as possible to know her and her music," he says. "It's really important to me. Early next year I'm going to put together a website that will collect her songs, poetry, and writings."

So far The Mean Days has been covered by the Alternative Press, PopMatters, Punknews.org, and dozens of other sites. In a track premiere earlier this month, Nylon called 8 Inch Betsy "the coolest female-fronted queer band." The campaign has been an emotional one for Albertson; while he was arranging a premiere for "Get in the Van" with Verbicide Magazine in September, he learned from Burke that the track had been inspired by a trip Albertson, Adamek, and Galbraith had taken to Philadelphia to see a Dead Milkmen reunion show in 2004. "I'm like, 'That just hit me right in the heart,'" Albertson says. "I just started losing it right then."

"Get in the Van," from 8 Inch Betsy's new posthumous record, The Mean Days

The Mean Days finally comes out Friday. Its release is a tribute not only to Galbraith's life but also to the community that flourished around her. All three members of 8 Inch Betsy's original Chicago lineup were gay women (they were often called "queercore"), but Galbraith's lyrics don't focus on gender or sexuality, instead telling stories about close friendships, broken relationships, and the city's bleak landscapes and vicious winters. They tend to capture a moment without too many specifics—that is, you can feel what Galbraith was feeling even if you don't have any idea what real-life event inspired the song. Nothing she sings in "Get in the Van" is transparently about that trip to Philly, but when Albertson listens to it, he'll always remember the competition the three of them had to see who could eat the most cheesesteaks.

To celebrate the album's release, Tucson community radio station KXCI is playing a different track from the album every day for a week, starting Monday, November 9. Many of the people I talked to for this story said they'd do the same thing—they'd play the music and think of Galbraith. "The idea of just getting together and listening to records, it's such a foreign concept, but it's what I did with her—it was one of the main activities, just sitting down and listening to a record," Meno says. "I'm sure she would appreciate that—a few people in a room just being together and listening to her music."  v

Correction 11/11: This story has been amended to reflect the fact that 8 Inch Betsy went on hiatus in 2012, rather than breaking up.

Correction 11/12: This story has been amended to reflect Jackson Schad's actual names.

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