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Punk filtered through queer

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Even in her thrift shop duds, G.B. Jones can't play down the glamour. Statuesque, with her long hair a shade between fuchsia and Miss Clairol's Sparkling Sherry, this artist, filmmaker, guitarist, and self-described "dyke from hell" easily holds the rapt attention of a roomful of surly punk kids.

It's Friday night at Czar Bar, a Wicker Park hole-in-the-wall, and Jones's all-woman band from Toronto, Fifth Column, is on the bill. Inside, the place is a Moose-lodge look-alike. A wooden bar travels the length of the storefront then turns to the right, leading into a homely rumpus room with a small stage and a few tables and chairs scattered toward the back. This is the kind of room where punk has always played best--the decor is cheap, the ceiling is low, the beer is cold, and the lights are dim. The clientele is young, pierced body parts rampant. Girls mill around, appearing variously in shaved heads, crew cuts, and dreadlocks; the boys sport buzz cuts or neo-hippie long hair. Although most of the crowd is gay, they wouldn't describe themselves that way. These kids prefer to call themselves queer. "Homocore" describes their subculture: a blending of punk music, with its in-your-face ethos, and attitude as expressed by Queer Nation: "We're here, we're queer, get used to it." These kids have turned out for Homocore Party Number One, the first in a planned monthly series at Czar Bar featuring the best bands of the queer cutting edge.

"Instead of using a mainstream middle-class heterosexual model, 'queer' really celebrates more the real perversity and diversity of sexuality in general," says Steve Lafreniere, a Chicago promoter and publisher of his own queer zine, The Gentlewomen of California. "But within queer culture, homocore kids who like punk rock are even more marginalized. They're like a subculture of the queer subculture of the gay culture. It's more than just a taste in music. Punk filtered through queer is a very different idea than punk that was filtered through middle-class America or working-class England when it was originally happening. It's not just gay people getting into punk. It's using punk as a form of music to express a whole other set of concerns, desires, anger. And fun things, too."

Back in 1985 homocore heroine Jones and Bruce La Bruce, a pal from Toronto's experimental-film community, found themselves tired of the homophobia in the punk/hardcore scene, but not fitting into the regular gay club scene either. So working on the cheap the two put out JDs, a fanzine devoted to the wild soul of the queer/punk fringe. Jones and La Bruce dug up songs with gay themes, and created a homocore top-ten, including everything from Patti Smith's "Redondo Beach" to Mighty Sphincter's "Fag Bar." A skate-punk issue included Jones's drawing of Jodie Foster on a skateboard. Another featured an interview with 70s gay porn star Peter Berlin. A photo of Johnny Rotten was altered to give the Sex Pistols frontman a penis tattoo.

"It was kind of an obvious idea," says Mark Freitas, one of the Czar Bar homocore party organizers. "But someone needed to actually vocalize it and give it a terminology, an aesthetic, and a look. And they did that." Through mail and word of mouth, JDs (short for "juvenile delinquent" and J.D. Salinger, among other things) became a cult classic and begat other queer zines with names like Homocore and Holy Tit Clamps.

Given Jones's history it was fitting that her band should kick off the homocore series. Judging by the crowd's enthusiasm, it was clear that those in attendance were in sync with the band. The gaggle of young adults pushed eagerly up to the stage, stopping just an arm's reach away from the band.

Fifth Column fleshes out a punk attitude with a diverse musical range. They've absorbed and reproduced a number of styles, from the Ennio Morricone/spaghetti-western guitar intro of "She Said Boom" to the full-frontal thrash assault of "All Women Are Bitches". In between are pop songs with 60s-girl-group vocals that recall the Shangri-Las, interspersed with dreamy, offbeat harmonies reminiscent of Tracey Thorn's pre-Everything but the Girl work with Marine Girls.

The band's musical breadth unfortunately isn't reflected in a corresponding ideological flexibility, and some of their lyrics tend toward preachiness. "Fairview Mall Story" recounts the events tied to an actual police sting operation that cracked down on, and exposed the names of, men having sex in a mall bathroom. Fifth Column's strident stance--blaming the police and the media for the persecution--doesn't really address the ambiguity of the situation, the down side of blow jobs going on in a public restroom.

The same one-dimensional politics color their militant feminist number "All Women Are Bitches." Musically the song is a stunning thrash piece filled with crunching guitars and a booming bass line. But the angry lyrics border on simplistic male bashing. Since lead singer Caroline Azar is a skillful vocalist, and the band is right behind her with tough musical chops, the didactic lyrics aren't necessarily a major problem. But when Azar stops singing and goes off on spoken word harangues, she undermines the song's musical thrust. "All women are bitches" is just a sarcastic way of saying "All men are assholes," and Azar's diatribe just belabors her point.

But if Azar's between-song patter sometimes borders on ranting, at least there's never any dead air. Taking the stage at Czar Bar, she surveyed the crowd from behind bangs and thick black-framed glasses, and kept up a running monologue decrying patriarchy.

"Mother Maybelle's spirit is here with us tonight," she said by way of introducing the Carter Family song "Chewing Gum," then she pulled back her That Girl shoulder-length bob to reveal a semishaved head underneath. Her vocals are by turns ragged and pretty as she belts, shrieks, raps, and croons, matching the band when it cranks the decibel levels, then singing softly on the haunting, quirky number "Science Fiction."

Azar is a hardworking performer. When the band launched into a psychedelic-pop number, she took time between sweeping keyboard solos to explode into a mangled watusi. She was backed by two raven-haired girls in black leather and fishnet, who did a raunchy bump and grind, spanking each other with riding crops, then wrestling each other to the ground.

Jones's icy-cool manner was the antithesis of Azar's frenzied dance attack. Where Azar is confrontational, Jones is quietly commanding. Looming tall over the attentive throng who came to see a cult figure in the flesh, she stood at the edge of the stage, playing her guitar slung to the side, anchored against her hip. Every so often the hint of a smile or a glare rippled across her poker face, and when she spoke her remarks goosed the enthusiastic crowd into a tent-revival fervor.

The rest of the band laid a solid musical foundation for Azar's soaring vocals. Bassist Beverly Breckenridge, dressed in overalls and snapping bubblegum from behind a shock of curly hair, thumped confidently along with Torri Colichio's hard, no-frills drumming. Donna Dresch on guitar, her blond hair hanging over her face as she played, provided the musical backbone. She attacked power chords with intensity on the thrash numbers and managed a light, melodic touch on the poppier songs.

Although the crowd at Czar Bar was familiar with much of the material and yelled for favorite tunes, Fifth Column's influence only reaches certain circles. Without the distribution clout of a major label behind them, many of the band's releases are difficult to track down. And audience turnout at the band's live appearances seems to be a hit-or-miss affair. This was evident when they played on a three-band bill at Cabaret Metro the night after the Czar Bar gig. The mob that would pack the house for the Mekons had not turned out in force when Fifth Column hit the stage in the evening's opening slot, and the people in the sparse crowd didn't appear to know their music.

Though the band had flourished the night before in close quarters, they seemed somewhat out of their element on a bigger stage. Wearing white vinyl knee boots, red tights, and a black jumper with stripes, Azar tried to make up for the absence of her keyboard ("Someone threw water on it last night," she explained) with physical antics, twisting and shimmying across the length of the stage. The Metro's booming sound system gave her voice a clarity that was missing at Czar Bar, and the beefed-up vocals made it easier to understand her sometimes explicit politicking. Not that all of the audience was happy about that. When Jones broke a guitar string and stopped to replace it, Azar killed time by reciting a poem that took aim at misogynists, prompting several men in the audience to hoot derisively. Jones's song dedication to "all female revolutionaries" also elicited some sneers.

Fifth Column closed their Metro set with a version of "All Women Are Bitches" that simply roared, a punk wall of sound. Jones and Dresch pummeled chords in unison, while Azar sank to her knees, mike in hand, her voice alternately pleading and snarling. It was a fitting ending to the two-night stint--a finale delivered with real gusto. But Fifth Column's manifest politics, designed to antagonize and provoke, aren't for everyone. When the band exited and a male crew began to lug their amps offstage, I overheard a guy near the bar say, "Well, I guess men are good enough to carry their equipment."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Genyphyr Novak.

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