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Marian Anderson: It's such an innocent-sounding name, a little old-fashioned, even. It could be the name of your ninth-grade English teacher. It's definitely not the name you'd match to a punk rock pinup queen unafraid of pissing on an audience. "Get naked! Get down! It's good for you!" she used to scream from the stage during the intro to "Annihilation."
That's the kind of girl Marian Anderson was. As lead singer for the Insaints, a legendary band from the Bay Area's thriving underground punk scene of the '90s, she's best remembered for her arrest at 924 Gilman Street for "lewd and lascivious conduct" involving two other women and a banana. Interviewed by MaximumRocknRoll in April 1993, she refused to apologize for her ways, saying, "It's liberating and it feels great, like I'm totally free. It's a very powerful experience for me to be naked and asserting and expressing myself at the same time."
Powerful, maybe. Lucrative, not so much. While some of the bands the Insaints regularly played shows with went on to become kajillionaires -- Green Day, the Offspring, Rancid -- Anderson's band broke up not too long after the infamous Gilman Street gig. In 2001, Anderson died of a heroin overdose. Until recently, her life and contribution amounted to little more than a couple of titillating photos in the San Francisco Chronicle's pink section -- "Slippery Rights Issue in Banana Case" goofed the headline of a June 1993 article -- and the Insaints' sole recording: one side of a split 7-inch record. But that is set to change.
With a little help from a new singer and a recently released batch of rare studio and live tracks, Anderson's legacy is about to be revisited. The only question that remains is, can a re-formed Insaints -- as fronted by Miss Eva von Slut -- do it justice?
Miss Eva von Slut, fetish model, singer for all-girl psychobilly band Thee Merry Widows, and burlesque dancer (who prefers not to reveal her real name), overwhelmingly calls to mind the curvaceous, whip-smart darling of 1930s cinema, Mae West. Somehow, she's all business and all pleasure at the same time. Nothing frightens her, nothing slows her down, no lighting scheme fails to flatter her. And yet, she tells me, she's intimidated by the Insaints, which is kind of funny considering the mild-mannered grown-up punks are mostly shorter than she is. But it's not a joke, not at all. It's a respect born of fandom.
"I think that [Grammy nominee and porn star] Wendy O. Williams and Marian were two of the strongest female musicians that I'd ever heard," says von Slut, perched on a barstool at La Rondalla in the Mission. "I heard them and I was just like, 'Holy shit, I need to be doing this!' Women are saying what they want to say ... it really excited me."
As for the rest of the Insaints -- Daniel DeLeon, guitarist, now with psycho-goths Rezurex; drummer Greg Langston, mostly retired from music; and bass player Josh Levine, who doesn't talk much -- they're some of the only men I've seen near von Slut who aren't intimidated by her. Most who get close enough to see how pretty and statuesque and tattooed she is start acting silly -- and close enough is across the street. One imagines Anderson was the same way. No wonder the guys in the band are unfazed.
In fact, Anderson and her proxy have a lot in common: often-platinum hairdos, lots of large, colorful skin art, and a knack for putting the fear of God into the opposite sex. Their differences are important, too: Von Slut, for all her intensity and onstage lingerie, seems stable, healthy, and, unlike Anderson, not on the run from a devastating history of violent childhood sexual abuse. But demons or no demons, one quality makes them very much the same.
"I think a lot of it had to do with our voice similarities," von Slut guesses about her qualifications. "It's strange: We had our first practice a few weeks ago, and some of Marian's very close friends were there, and one of them said he closed his eyes and was getting chills and his hair was standing up on his arms -- he said it sounded just like Marian singing."
For a lot of people, particularly those who loved the crazy girl-girl dominatrix acts Anderson made infamous, the burning question about the Insaints' updated spectacular spectacular is whether von Slut will be packing bananas or not. Answer: not.
"I don't feel like I'm re-creating," von Slut says, fending off would-be suitors with one hand and gesturing with the other. "I think it would be almost disrespectful for me to go onstage and do what she did. That was really something that she came up with that was making a point that she wanted to make. I think that her lyrics are strong enough and the music is strong enough ...." She pauses. "We will be having some stage antics," she says, giggling, though she declines to elaborate.
As for her own message -- what von Slut will be offering Insaints fans in place of phallic fruit -- the singer is quite clear. "I'm coming from a little different point than Marian was, but that's definitely an important message of my performance, that women of all sizes can be beautiful and sexual, and should be proud of who they are onstage."
At a recent Insaints rehearsal at Oakland's Soundwave Studios, the quartet roars into "Carry On," one of its signature thrashy, pounding numbers, and the look on DeLeon's face is tender -- not what people expect from someone with a pompadoured mohawk, a Necromantiks T-shirt, and a long history in street punk. Understandably, it's quite a nostalgia trip for him, ripping through these angry songs with the same two guys on bass and drums but with such a different woman on lead vocals. In the liner notes of the recently released Insaints CD, Sins of Saints, DeLeon wrote an afterword about Anderson, explaining, "I saw her as my best friend, my sister, who I loved very much. Her angelic voice echoes through my mind every day."
That angelic voice now echoes through Soundwave's practice space, note for note, snarl for snarl, only it's coming from von Slut, whose stage name takes on new meaning as she tackles songs like "Whore," in which her maddened voice plays off sharp guitar riffs, quick throbs of bass, and deceptively complicated drum work. "I am a whore/ I will play out all of your fantasies, but I won't give it away," the voice screams, ripping the defenseless word "I" into fluttering shreds. It's classic punk, flawless in its fury.
"One thing people get wrong about us is that they concentrate on the sex-show thing," says Langston, who notes that the nudity and such was actually a relatively short phase in the band's history. More important, he exclaims, "We were a rockin' band!"
Sins of Saints may come with a booklet you probably won't show your mom, but its musicianship, songwriting, and recording are surprisingly professional and polished. DeLeon's guitar is confident and stinging, and the songs show influences ranging from reggae to blues to classic rock. And Anderson, while able to whip out a growl, a spoken bit, or a scream anytime, was clearly a talented vocalist, not some fuck-up screecher; she was from the Exene Cervenka school of wailing, and an admirer of the Avengers' Penelope Houston.
"The master tapes to our recording were lost for about 10 years -- it's a miracle that we were able to find them," DeLeon e-mails, explaining why the new album took so long to put out. He also says he now has enough material to fill several future Insaints records. Would he like to have a tall, brazen von Slut along for live performances supporting those? "Oh yes, I hope and plan on keeping Eva for all upcoming Insaints shows!" he writes enthusiastically. "I think she's Marian's vocal twin."
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