Image Credit: Aaron Brame
1994. I drove around Memphis in my little green car with the big dent on the side. The speakers shook as Kathleen Hanna screamed, Suck my left one. The wind in my hair. The sun bright through the windshield. I was seventeen and Bikini Kill was my favorite band, my solace from high school, from so many difficult things I had already experienced, and only in these moments with their music blasting did I feel free.
Bikini Kill was three women and one man. Kathleen Hanna on lead vocals, Kathi Wilcox on bass, Tobi Vail on drums, and Billy Karren on guitar. They formed in 1990 in Olympia, Washington, all of them in their early twenties. The first time I heard Bikini Kill, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when Kathleen’s voice trembled over the chaos of sound, the wave of her valley girl inflections, it was a voice that my resembled my own.
Before punk, I listened to music by men with lyrics usually about girls who were broken. I had wanted a teen boy to find me beautiful and soothe the wounds. Instead a boy called my house and told me that AIDS kills fags dead. The boy who called, I had once considered him my friend. He was talking about my oldest brother, the one from my dad’s first marriage, the one who was gay. My brother died from AIDS the summer I was between ninth and tenth grade.
In the nineties, there was no social media, no Twitter communities. The Internet was new, and poor families, like mine, didn’t have a computer, let alone internet. I discovered Bikini Kill through Sassy magazine. Sassy before Teen Magazine took it over. Sassy had stories written by women about girls with purple hair and rainbow tights who smiled only using their lower lip to show their crooked teeth. My bottom teeth were crooked because my dad lost jobs which caused lost insurance which caused my braces to come off early. But more importantly, the girls in those stories weren’t waiting on boys to fix them. Then, in March 1992, in the “Cute Band Alert” section, there was the short article on Bikini Kill. Soon after, Tobi Vail publicly condemned Sassy. She saw it as another corporate glossy magazine. There was, of course, truth in this, especially the Cute Band Alert which often featured alternative bands with heartthrob leads like Evan Dando of the Lemonheads, and Shirley Manson of Garbage, as if looks were why we should listen to a band. Sassy was, of course, mainstream, but it pushed at the edges. It introduced a new world and consciousness to girls who had no access to it otherwise. Sassy served as a starting point.
Yet, it wasn’t until the summer of 1993, when I got my driver’s license and my beat up 1980 Honda Civic, bought for 900 dollars by my mother who had saved up from her two jobs, that I finally came across their albums at the record store on Poplar. I bought the CD version of their first two albums. I went home and placed the CD inside the player, and Kathleen’s voice jumped into the air, hey girlfriend, I gotta proposition goes something like this . . . Her voice could go from child-like to a deep guttural wail in one single song. The music was raw while Tobi Vail beat the shit out of the drums. I wanted to be them, I think I wanna take you home / I wanna try on your clothes. Bikini Kill gave me permission to be angry, to be something not sweet and innocent. I didn’t feel like how girls were supposed to feel. I didn’t feel soft and pretty. They sang songs about incest and abuse, about rape,and about not needing a boy/man to rescue them. But also about female love and solidarity, when she talks I hear the revolution / in her kiss, I taste the revolution. I listened to them non-stop. I learned about riot grrrl through them—young teenage girls across the country who declared liberation from rape culture, and from what society erroneously dictated as girl.
It was hard to find them, these other girls. They weren’t on MTV. They were the girls I found inside of fanzines. Fanzines were the antithesis to Cosmo. In them, teen girls controlled language, changed their signifiers, adopted a new way of speaking, like grrrl, like calling the patriarchy whiteboyworld. I mail ordered the zines that were advertised in Bikini Kill’s record liner notes. Then these zines advertised more bands, like Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy, and more zines made by girls all over the country. The stories inside were political and hairy, and consisted of teen girls telling how they were surviving and fighting the everyday struggle of being a girl. I stopped shaving my legs. I eventually cut my hair short and jagged, no training, no haircutting shears, just my mother’s dull scissors, and clumps of brown fell to the floor. I started calling myself a riot grrrl, even though I didn’t personally know any other riot grrrls. I hadn’t met them yet, but I could feel them all through the songs of Bikini Kill and in their words on the folded photocopied fanzines. We sang, we howled, we growled, we told our truths. Because of Bikini Kill, we were turning our cursive letters into knives.
In the fall of ’94, Suzy transferred to my school. She’d been living in California with her dad. On her first day, she wore a CRASS t-shirt and striped black and white tights under her blue jean shorts. Her nose had a little hoop in the right nostril. She told me she pierced it with a safety pin while watching punk rock videos. She also had left behind a meth problem in Cali which had caused her to stop eating, and to drink Pepto Bismol all day, but was a sober punk now, she said. Not straight edge. There was too much aggression and nationalism in the straight edge scene. She wasn’t an addict in recovery either, just a punk girl who didn’t drink or do drugs—at the moment. She decided to not poison herself and to be present in her life. Be present. I was amazed at anyone desiring to be present. To me, the present was a cage. We became friends. She introduced me to other punk bands like Crass with Eve Libertine, and their album, Penis Envy. We drove around in my green car singing along together to Bikini Kill, and also the Dead Kennedys—we loved screaming for Nazi punks to fuck off.
Suzy and I ate lunch outside with all the other weirdos, like Andy in Pretty in Pink. The cafeteria was where the popular kids and nerds shared space, but not tables. We sat outside on the pavement in a slight alcove where the parking lot curved into a loading dock. We watched the skater boys skate and do tricks on the rails on the dock. The skater boys were our friends. The boys who didn’t fit in with the hardcore punk boys who moshed at shows, but who also didn’t fit in with the jocks inside. One of the boys had a sister, Becca, who used to be my best friend. I’d run to their house when my dad was drunk, but then Becca said it was too hard to be friends with me. I was too messed up she said. Damaged at seventeen. She was at my apartment the night my brother died. We were watching a movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The phone rang and I answered. It was my brother’s mother. She asked for my dad, and I knew. I could hear the men screaming in the movie, rattling their beds and chairs, and I could feel the same rattle inside of me.
My rage scared my friends. It came out at the wrong times. We were at a playground after dark and everyone was having fun. I was in the parking lot trying to learn to turn on the skateboard. I planted one foot toward the rear of a boy’s board as my other foot propelled over the asphalt, the wheels rolling. I worked up speed, and put both of my feet on the board. The parking lot curved, and I leaned, shifted my feet, and then suddenly everything reversed and the sky was below me, my feet above, the ground rising up fast. I landed on my side. I looked around, and no one saw. No one was watching me at all. Suzy was laughing with the boy who we called Steph because his voice sounded like James Spader in Pretty in Pink. The night had cooled off and provided a reprieve from the suffocating Memphis heat. One boy was on the swings, swinging so hard that the posts popped up and broke the dirt. The sparkly dome of stars swelled above us where the gods obviously couldn’t hear my pleas. And then it hit me. The deep ache that often welled up inside my stomach and quaked throughout, and I knew that if I opened my mouth, I would start screaming. I was struck by my aloneness. The loss of my brother, my obliterating father. The way I felt so fucking pissed off when everyone else seemed to only have the general teenage angst. In that moment, I felt terrifyingly alone. And then, my throat erupted into words that I didn’t mean, words that had nothing to do with the actual root of my pain. I was up on my feet again and charging toward the playground, and shouting at my friends. I yelled at Steph and Suzy, and said that they thought they were better than me. I yelled at the cute one for not liking me. I wanted to break something, an external representation of the way I was cracking apart inside. My hands tremored as my voice grinded away, all my fire blazing up into the night. I couldn’t articulate the cause. I couldn’t point to my chest and say, “It hurts here.” So I just screamed. They all stared. This wasn’t the first time. I wasn’t crazy, I was fucking mad. My friends waited it out. Waited for me to shut up. Suzy understood. She knew, like most teenage girls, the anger that stemmed from being powerless to change anything.
“Don’t Need You” screamed about not needing boys. It asserted that girls didn’t need boys to complete them. It affirmed that girls don’t need you to tell us we’re cute or to say we suck. I wanted to be the embodiment of this song. But I also desperately wanted to be worthy of love. My brother had loved me. He thought I was the prettiest baby. He combed my hair and pinned it back with red ribbons. But boys didn’t like me. They went the other way down the hall at school when they saw me. It hadn’t always been that way. Before my teenage rage, boys wanted to touch me. The first time was Michael with his brown hair and brown loafers. Both of us thirteen and in eighth grade at two different public schools. He fingered me while we were at a friend’s house. Then when I was fifteen and at a drama tournament at the local university where I was reading a short story from Sassy in the dramatic prose category, a boy with combat boots and a shaved head held my hand. We had only just met at the vending machine. I wore jeans that were loose and somehow when I sat down on the ledge around the steps, his hands were in my pants. I didn’t resist. I thought I was supposed to be grateful that he wanted to touch me. I couldn’t point to one thing that made me believe that boys could just do what they wanted to our bodies, but it was a belief I had developed from living in the world, the pre-Bikini Kill world. I had never really dated, minus the one date where the older boy picked me up and took me to a pool hall. I overheard him tell an older man that I was ripe. But no boy had ever loved me. When I heard “Don’t Need You,” I decided to pretend that I was already this song. The song let me off the hook—If I didn’t need you, a boy, then it didn’t matter if I was loveable or not, because a boy could not determine this about me. Even if I was unworthy, everything wrong and unlovely, I still don’t need you.
My AP history teacher, Coach Barry, had a big red alcoholic nose. Probably around forty, which was dirt old to a teenager. He taught lecture style and weaved in inappropriate humor. He segued from topics, like the Civil War to Reconstruction, by saying, “Last night while in the throes of orgasm with my wife,” or “While watching Debbie Does Dallas it occurred to me . . . ” The jocks in the class laughed, truly amused. The cheerleaders, and the girl soccer players, who he coached, laughed too. But they seemed shocked. I wanted to vomit. In class, I often expressed feminist views. My newly hairy legs had been noticed and mentioned by the teacher. When I walked into his class, there was a shift of power that threw me off. Like the older boys when I was in grade school, back when I had a speech impediment and pronounced Kaas Ta, and the boys asked me to say my name, “Kitty” over and over again, laughing as I unknowingly said “Titty,” like years later when I am buying a banana in graduate school from a kiosk, and a male professor asks me where the condoms are. It’s a shift so subtle that others wonder why we don’t speak up, why we don’t say “fuck off,” or even “that’s inappropriate.” Our autonomy, our right to exist just as we are in a space suddenly becomes diminished. We become . . . I became disoriented.
I walked into history class and Coach Barry stood, short and chubby like a brunette Santa, in the front of the room. He held an empty cup in his hand. He glanced around the room. I walked past him and took my seat in front of Brad whose family owned the grocery store where my mother worked at night. Brad ran with the alpha boys because he was rich. Brad and I weren’t friends. Coach Barry scanned the room as we waited for him to start class. He squinted his eyes as he gazed out over the desks, the windows to our backs. He said the name of a classmate, “Jakobe—No, not you. Wouldn’t be right.” He continued to look out across the room.
“Kitty,” he said. I flinched at my name. Everything felt wrong. He was up to something. “Will you go get me some water?” He asked extending his cup toward me.
I didn’t trust him. I thought he was trying to get me out of the room. I stood and walked toward his cup through the static air.
“Wait, sit down. That would be sexist.”
All the white boys laughed. I froze, not quite understanding what was happening. Brad high fived Brandon and said, “He got the bitch!” I wasn’t sure how this got me or why anyone thought it was clever. But Coach Barry knew what he was doing. He was maintaining power, showing that he controlled his classroom. My self suddenly shrunk. He sat his cup down, empty, and started class. It was so small. So seemingly innocuous. But he knew what he was doing. I felt like I was as red as his ugly nose. I wanted to turn into a tiger and claw his face into shreds. I also wanted to dissolve into nothing. Shana passed me a note that read, “That’s fucked up. If you want to walk out, I will too.” I turned and nodded to her. As we slid out of our chairs, the class went silent. Coach Barry paused his lecture. Shana and I gathered our books and then walked out. White boy, don’t laugh, don’t cry, just die . . .
We went straight to the principal’s office. The principal with his white hair and toothy smile didn’t understand. He sat behind his desk in his large chair, while we crowded together in small foldable chairs on the other side. We included the talk of orgasms and porn because surely this old conservative white man would be offended by the allusions to pornography and sex. But he wasn’t. When he talked to us, it was like we were little girls and not seventeen-year-olds on the cusp of adulthood. He placated us, condescended, and minimized. He sounded like Dana Carvey playing George Bush. An imitation of a principal. A stand in for someone who should care but didn’t.
The principal deferred me to the guidance counselor who told me that she didn’t even want me in AP classes because I wasn’t serious about school. She was right that I didn’t give my all, but I was passing all my classes. We weren’t even inside her office where we could talk in private, where she could ask me questions, where I could confess all that was going on. Instead, we were in the common foyer area at a round circular table. I sat in the chair across from her watching her mouth move. She explained to me that Coach Barry and Principal Wright had decided it was best to pull me from my AP history class. “I wanted to pull you from all your AP classes, but Mr. Hainey thought pulling you from his class and putting you in basic English would cause you to drop out, ” she laughed, the latter part funny to her for some reason.
I liked Mr. Hainey. I turned in essays on books I read on my own, like The Handmaid’s Tale or The Bell Jar, and he gave me As. She handed me a form to get signed by Coach Barry. I tried to tell her my side. But she cut me off and said, “You’re too angry. You’re a teenager, what do you have to be mad about?”
I wanted to yell at her. To remind her I was only a teenager. I didn’t know that this period would later be called the AIDS Pandemic, or that thousands upon thousands of men like my brother had died, too. But I knew it hurt. I knew it was unfair. I knew my father had been split in two and reduced his life to pints and fifths. But I just smiled. In “Liar,” Kathleen sings, All we are saying is give peace a chance while Tobi simultaneously and maniacally screams over the vocals.
I entered Coach Barry ’s room as class cleared out. Suzy had come with me. She looked tough in her Cramps t-shirt, cut off shorts, and combat boots. Coach Barry told her she needed to go, but she didn’t even acknowledge him. The fluorescent light bulbs buzzed, a sound I had never noticed until then. I took a deep breath and said, “I think it’s wrong. I am passing your class, but I am being forced out of it.”
He snatched the form out of my hand and set it on his desk. He stared at me for a moment, narrowing his eyes. Suzy exhaled and he cut his eyes to her. He turned back to his desk and signed the form. He held the form out toward me, but then, suddenly, he backed me against the wall. His nose was broken blood vessels and red splotches. His eyes searched for the little girl in me who he could intimidate. “This is for the best,” he said. “If you stay, you will be too sensitive. Your little antennas will be up waiting to find a reason to come after me.” His fingers arched like antennas. His breath reeked of alcohol. I fought the urge to spit in his face. My pulse raced. I couldn’t find air to breathe and worried I would pass out. Suzy’s hand grabbed my wrist and pulled me out from between the wall and him, and then we were out of the room.
I didn’t tell my mom. She was working two jobs—secretary by day and grocery store cashier at night. My dad was in rehab, yet again. I called the board of education. I got transferred around to different extensions. I left a message at multiple extensions, but no one ever called me back.
One night, Suzy and I went to the punk rock Antenna Club in Midtown. Her friend’s band was playing with another band. The loud angry music. The girls with dirty dyed hair and patches with the names of punk bands sewn on their clothes. I had been there once before with Becca. We went to see Alice Donut because someone told us we would like them. While sitting outside, Becca had ripped the blue labels off her Keds so she would fit in better. I still had roller rink bangs, the kind that are supposed to look fluffy, but are stiff with hairspray. A house burned down across the street. We went over there and sat on a hill and watched it burn.
As the band played, Suzy sat on the edge of the stage with another girl. A boy with long hair climbed up on the stage and stood front and center. He flipped off the crowd. The crowd cheered. He turned around so that his back was toward us and then he dropped his pants and boxers to his ankles. He spread his butt cheeks. A girl reached up and smacked his ass. Everyone was laughing. I laughed too just to fit in, but I thought it was weird the way boys thought we wanted to see their assholes, and even weirder how we all laughed when they showed us. I turned my head away, and that was when I saw the flyer glued to the wall. A date that was only a week away. Bikini Kill was coming to Memphis.
In the documentary, The Punk Singer, Kathleen said that her father never raped her, but was sexually inappropriate. My father was neither of those. My father was actually a decent man between the binges of alcohol. A few days after he got out of rehab, I showed up at his apartment, a planned visit that he knew about, but he was already drunk. I hid out in my old bedroom. I sat on the floor and pulled my journal out of my bookbag. I wasn’t going to do homework, but needed something to distract me from the mess in the other room. Then my dad was at my door, standing there, wobbling, and leaning against the frame. He held a picture of Bob, my brother, his first born. “I loved him,” he said through tears. I got up and closed the door. I heard him stumble backwards, and then forward into my closed door. He continued shouting about loving my brother, possibly leftover guilt for those few months he refused to talk to Bob when Bob first came out to him. I was only five then, and didn’t know why Bob wasn’t allowed around. I opened my journal and tried to write as his wails got louder and louder. His pain was so big that it overshadowed mine, overshadowed everything. I dropped my pen and cried into my hands cause look there’s another boy genius who’s fucking gone which was a line from the song Kathleen had written about her friend who died of AIDS. The song that wouldn’t be released for another year, but when I do hear it, I will cry, and I will listen to it for years to come, and I will cry every time.
My dad kicked at the door. “I loved him,” over and over again, and he would repeat this until he forgot what he was doing, until he needed another swig. When I was little, his binges sometimes happened a couple of years apart, and were mostly one really bad night with my mother yelling at him to go sleep it off. But as my brother got sicker, the binges got closer. Then when my brother died, it became every day. This was why we left. This was why my mom worked two jobs to support us. It rained the day after my brother’s funeral. My father cried about his boy getting rained on and continued to cry for years until the bottle took him all the way away. He thought he was the only one experiencing this loss, and allowed no room for others to grieve, so my grief came out in other ways. Skipping classes, crying inside the shower, writing stories about an older dying brother, holding it together until it all ruptured me, and I shattered. Don’t tell me it don’t matter don’t tell me I have three days to get over this . . . it just won’t go way.
Finally, the night arrived. Fall was settling in, and the breeze was like electricity on my skin. I was going to see Bikini Kill. Suzy and I walked into the Antenna club. It was a small crowd compared to the one from last week. But this time, there were more girls than guys. Most had tattoos and colored hair. The opening band was a local band called Cop Out. They were good, but I really wanted them to hurry up so I could finally see Bikini Kill. Cop Out was an all guys band, and guys thrashed around while they played. At shows, the girls seemed to hang back a little, or else they assimilated to the violence, and moshed around, elbows swinging, proving they could take a hit like a boy. Suzy looked like most of the people there and seemed to know them too. I stood by myself, my hair looking like it needed a comb, no hairspray, no bangs, a short bob with tangles in the back. Finally, Cop Out finished and the grrrls, plus Billy, took the stage.
The boys crowded around and pushed past us. Kathleen commanded, “Girls to the front,” calling her pack of unshaved grrrls, and the boys backed the fuck up. It was our turn to take up space. The music started and I knew every word. Kathleen wore a dress that bore the shape of a naked man. She had a huge black heart tattoo on her arm. Her lips were bright red. She shook her hips and flailed her arms in rhythm with Billy’s guitar. Kathi’s bleached white hair bobbed up and down as she thrummed her bass. Tobi was already drenched in sweat from maiming the drums. They played “Star Bellied Boy” and Kathleen screamed I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t cum. I danced and sang along with each and every word. Kathleen was all over the stage. Her energy filled me as her voice dared me to be strong, triple dare ya girl fucking friend.
Of course, they played “Rebel Girl” and “Liar.” Then the music paused and Kathleen said, “Who wants to sing with us?”
Eventually a girl asked, “What song?”
Kathleen said, “We are going to play music and you just sing. Make one up.” I wanted to do this. But fear gripped me and I stayed quiet. Another girl finally volunteered. The music started up again and Kathleen handed the girl the mic. Kathleen melded with the noise, and jumped around the stage spastically dancing. Kathi’s finger plucked her strings as she nodded to the girl holding the mic. Tobi’s dark round sunglasses stayed firmly and magically planted on her face while her arms went mad and brought the sticks crashing down. Kathleen’s hips were earthquakes kicking out her legs like a cheerleader losing her shit.
The girl wouldn’t sing. The fear of it all set in on her and she set down the mic on the edge of the stage. I noticed then how everyone seemed so self-conscious. So worried about what people would think. I thought of the boy from the week before, and how he wasn’t worried, and how he had just jumped on stage without an invitation and spread out his butt cheeks. I thought of the way I let fear control me. The crowd—a frozen statue of girls. Kathleen—a blur of wild. I had to do this. I pushed through the small crowd, my hand nudged the backs of girls, and they parted for me. I reached the stage and grabbed the microphone. Kathi smiled at me. I brought the mic to my lips, and the music whipped inside me. I screamed into the microphone. The heat in my body rose into a full howl. I pelted out the savage language of a pissed off seventeen year old grrrl. I shouted all my pain through the air as Kathleen did a cartwheel followed by another kick. I was hot lava spewing down the mountain, Burn, Coach Barry, burn baby burn. Words exploded from my lips, followed by sounds that represented dead brothers and drunk fathers, followed by more words from other Bikini Kill songs, Me and my girlfriends gonna push on through, riot grrrl gonna stomp on you. All the things I yelled at my friends when the pain was too much. All the times my power was taken. In this space, inside their music, it was ok to be a mad girl. Girls nodded their heads. Some danced. I screamed as loud as I could, louder than Tobi’s drums. Nothing could contain me.
Kat Moore has essays in Hippocampus, Whiskey Island, Yemassee, Salt Hill, New South, Pithead Chapel, Split Lip, The Rumpus and forthcoming in Brevity, Diagram, and Passages North. She was the winner of Profane’s 2016 Nonfiction Prize and a finalist in the Best of Net 2017. Her work also appears in the anthology Bodies of Truth: Personal Narratives on Illness, Disability, and Medicine.