“So there's this thing about being in a band that plays music from years and years ago,” says Penelope Houston, singer-songwriter and frontwoman of The Avengers, arguably the most important San Francisco punk band of the '70s, in a tone that suggests she's about to tell it like it is.
“Because there are people who were a certain age the first time they heard you, and they're now a certain other age — like 45 and 50. And I think that's okay, as long as they are somehow still actually listening to the lyrics and the music, and not just reliving some teenage moment.”
She reconsiders, taking another bite of her veggie Reuben, and wonders if that sounds too harsh. “At least,” she says, “I'm not doing this for the nostalgia.”
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Houston, 55, sporting close-cropped bleach-blond hair and a “got vinyl?” T-shirt, is sitting in a back booth at the St. Francis Fountain — one of the few businesses in the Mission that's still exactly what it was when she first moved here in 1977, at age 19.
That was the same year she met guitarist Greg Ingraham and drummer Danny Furious, who asked her if she wanted to start a band; before the year was over, The Avengers would release We Are The One, a three-song EP full of defiant teenage spit and verve, with Houston's clear vocals and uncontainable charisma front and center. Greil Marcus called “The American In Me,” an anthem for disillusioned teenagers just beginning to question their government, “a torn flag flown by the Avengers … the best punk band in San Francisco, in moments the best in the country — and what they were claiming was the country itself: the country that the Avengers' songs said didn't want them, didn't recognize them, didn't hear them, wouldn't listen.”
It was the only record the group would put out together. Less than two years later, they famously opened for the Sex Pistols at that band's final show, at the Winterland Ballroom. Six months after that, the Avengers were done.
Houston wasn't, though. It's fitting, really, that the punk patron saint of a city in perpetual flux would be a woman who seems to draw energy from the act of self-reinvention. By the time the full-length Avengers album was released in 1983 — by the time West Coast punk had moved toward hardcore, which seemed to Houston to be just “like churning out sausages from Orange County … there was such a uniformity” — the songwriter was edging toward a different career altogether.
“I started listening to a lot of early Tom Waits, the Violent Femmes, Leonard Cohen,” she says. “I started getting into the darkness that acoustic music could bring.” The first show she played post-Avengers breakup was at the Hotel Utah, and she brought a band that included bongos, a cello, a mandolin, and acoustic guitar.
“I remember feeling like when I started singing in front of that band, I was stepping out into an open space on a little highwire. It was so much more terrifying than singing with the Avengers,” she recalls. “Meanwhile, all the folk people were like, 'This is not folk,' and all the punk people were like 'What the fuck are you doing?'” She laughs. “So I guess that was a good sign.”
Navigating a space between the two worlds has worked well for her ever since: Between 1988 and 2004, she released a dozen solo records, nearly one a year, plus a best-of compilation. Her folk music allowed her to get personal, to write about heartbreak, she says, and to delve more into writing about politics. (“I mean, the personal is the political, right?”) Among a certain set, she's better known as a pioneer in San Francisco's neo-folk movement than as anything having to do with punk rock.
Though the Avengers officially reformed around 1999, when Lookout! released a compilation and the band performed a few shows as the scAvengers (abandoned because “people were really confused about that,” says Houston with an eye-roll), it wasn't until 2012 that Houston's two identities really collided.
First, she released On Market Street, a post-divorce album seven years in the making, that tackled homelessness and a changing San Francisco in its title track. Houston penned that tune for the people she saw in her daily work at the San Francisco Public Library, when she was stationed at the front information desk — “triage,” as she puts it.
The same year, she won a multi-decade legal battle to win back the rights to that first eponymous album, The Avengers (or The Pink Album, as fans and Houston herself often call it). The time between the album's original release and Houston reissuing it in 2012 had given way to countless bootlegs of widely varying quality, so for Houston it was a relief to know it was out in the world again, sounding as she had meant it to sound.
And then she went on tour: first with the Avengers, whose lineup, since the mid-aughts, has been Houston, Ingraham, Joel Reader (ex-Mr. T Experience, Pansy Division) on bass, and Luis Illades (also formerly of Pansy Division) on drums. And then she toured for her solo work. 2013 was a busy year.
It was also the year she found out the two arms of her musical career had more in common, including fans, than she might have previously thought.
“I'm happy to say there are people who appreciate my writing despite the genre of music that's attached to it,” she says, also noting that, for reasons that are still somewhat mysterious to her, German-speaking countries contain the biggest fans of her folk music.
Since then, life has been a juggling act. She plays her solo work around the Bay with some regularity (next up: Nov. 14 at the Elbo Room), but half of the Avengers live on the East Coast, and people have families, so frequent tours don't make much sense — though they do keep getting asked to play in Europe. That frequency is okay with Houston: Without naming names, she has no desire for the Avengers to become like certain other '80s punk bands who wind up on “punk package tours” playing the House of Blues.
The band does gets together for three- and four-night stints: Next week they'll be at the Echo in L.A., followed by a show Friday, Nov. 7, at 924 Gilman with (the increasingly topical) Bobby Joe Ebola and the Children MacNuggits. Playing the perpetual and hallowed teenage stomping ground of Gilman, of course, begs the question: Who are the people at Avengers shows these days?
“Okay, so there are the kids,” she says. “Lots of kids who say, 'Oh, my dad played your record for me.' There are slightly older fans who never got to see us live because we broke up before they were old enough. And then there are the people who actually were there and it's like” — she mimes checking her watch — “'Are you guys gonna go on soon? Because I gotta get home and go to bed.'”
And then there the girls. Teenage girls, and women in their early 20s, who come up to Houston after shows and tell her “Thank you” or “You got me through high school” or “I started a band because of you.”
And that, among other reasons, is why Houston has exactly zero qualms about singing songs — like “Teenage Rebel” — that she wrote as a teenager.
“I still feel like [the teenage rebel] on stage,” she says. “I think that all the shock and disgust young people have when they get to that age when they're first seeing the world for what it is is so righteous and so strong … and I don't know if it's changed, because kids see so much at a younger age now. I don't know at what point the fluffy pink veil is torn away from your eyes and you first see the world in black-and-white, but that was definitely one of the motivations for the band. It was, 'This world is so fucked up, and we have to say something about it.'”
Does she dole out advice to these young'uns, especially when they write to ask if they can open for her? What words of wisdom does a woman who came of age fronting a punk band in 1970s San Francisco have for today's youth who want to make rock 'n' roll?
“I would say to make sure you're doing something that completely expresses you and is as unique as it can be,” she says. “Because there's already been a zillion rock albums, folk albums, punk albums. To be a musician now you have to say something that you can't stop yourself from saying. It can't be like, 'I'm gonna be in a band, I'm gonna make a record.' It has to be something that's just totally driving you.
“If you're not sure about it? Don't do it.”