Billie Ray Martin’s haunting, soulful voice soothed many a chill…
It’s a steamy, hazy, noisy afternoon in Camden and a bunch of punked up teenage girls are sat on the street outside the Electric Ballroom. They’re determined to be front row at tonight’s Spinnerette gig, ‘cause they wanna pay homage to the lead singer and hardcore heroine that’s Brody Dalle.
You see, she’s a classic rock and roll pin up, girls wanna be her, boys wanna do her. Well, there’s more to Dalle than her behind-the-bike-sheds rebel beauty. Her singing voice can range from a skin shredding industrial howl to coquettish pop siren. Oh, and she plays the guitar like a mean bastard with hard on.
Solace in heroin
You might say Dalle comes with a lot of baggage. Either that, or she’s lived a lot. Hailing from Melbourne, she grew up in a dysfunctional, destructive home. By the age of 9, Dalle had watched her mother kick out one abusive man before remarrying and having kids with another.
By 13, she’d been booted from several schools, preferred sleeping rough to crashing at home and found solace in heroin. After a few years of making Amy Winehouse seem tame, she swapped needles and smack for the squall of the guitar and formed an all girl punk band called Sourpuss. She’s been raising hell and breaking hearts ever since.
Upstairs at the Electric, in a room that’s as bleak and unwelcoming as a suburban crack den, Dalle and her band mate Tony Bevilacqua perch on a leatherette sofa. They’ve both just stepped off stage from a sound check, and while Bevilacqua has the floppy, laid back charm of a rock and roll Muppet, Dalle’s a little wary. Considering the grief she’s endured from both the press and her own fans, it’s quite understandable. As the lead singer of The Distillers, she used to glug a bottle of vodka and smoke a pack of cigs as pre-gig prep. So, how does she warm up for shows now?
“I can’t smoke a pack of cigarettes anymore and if I drank a bottle of vodka, I’d probably pass out and die. I think it’s just tolerance, I built up such a tolerance back then….you know, and I was 24.”
Did she ever feel pressured to be as rock and roll as the boys? “Not pressured, but keeping up with them, yeah. If they did thirteen shots, I did thirteen shots. But I black out…and do really stupid things like punch people and take my clothes off.”
Tony Bevilacqua admits that despite Dalle’s fierce reputation, he often feels protective towards her.
“It’s kinda hard when you’re playing and there’s some drunk asshole shouting, show me your tits and show me your pussy. It sucks. You wanna go over there and punch ‘em in the face, but you’re playing and can’t really do that,” he groans, wearily.
While Dalle’s fostered an image of wayward rage, the woman sat in front of me is sensitive, cautious and genuine. Okay, so you wouldn’t pick a fight with her, but she’s a far cry from the snarling vixen portrayed in the press.
Her love life has attracted uproar, hatred and hoo-ha in a scene that judges women far harsher than men. Who knew rock and roll could be so narrow minded? She met Tim Armstrong, frontman of punk rock band Rancid aged 17.
When Dalle turned 18, they got engaged and fled Melbourne to set up shop in Los Angeles. After a stormy 6-year marriage, she left Armstrong and fell in love with Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age. This move caused the punk community to react like cracked out Daily Mail readers, spitting with fury, aiming their bile at Dalle.
On the upside, this explosive outrage helped fuel the success of The Distillers critically acclaimed album Coral Fang. The band had the good humour to dub their US gigs ‘The Most Hated Woman on Earth Tour’.
She sighs with careworn resignation at the mention of that period and obviously doesn’t want to drag it up again. “Stuff goes away, she whispers. “It dies down. It’s just a little echo in the past. Scary nonsense.”
Originally signed to Sire, Dalle gave the mainstream record industry a laquered finger, by going independent with her new project Spinnerette. She told NME, “I didn’t want to do a fucking monkey dance for people who don’t care about art. I want to be more art-focused and call the shots.”
Asked how that strategy’s working, Dalle fires back, “It’s working out great. I’m not having to fight for artwork to be approved.”
This might be in reference to The Distillers’ album Coral Fang, whose gory image of a nude woman on the cross was hastily altered when America’s big record chains refused to stock it. The current artwork for Spinnerette’s debut album is a close-up shot of Dalle’s panties and corset. It’s super tame, but when the band performed on Letterman, the artwork was blurred by the CBS network. Lacy knickers are too racy for puritanical America, even after midnight.
The fashion world loves to embrace rock’s leading ladies; think Courtney & Versace or Madonna & Vuitton. If it’s not an ad campaign, then the labels get hip rock chicks to pout in the front row. So is Dalle’s absence from this symbiotic circus a conscious choice?
“It’s funny you should say that,” Dalle admits, “I did a photoshoot yesterday for Pop magazine. It was a lot of leather and leopard, so it’s not too far from what I do…and recently Marc Jacobs wanted to fly us to Tokyo to do his fashion show.”
Self harm demons
Happily married to the ginger punk-hunk that is Josh Homme, Dalle seems less tormented by the demons of her youth. As a former self-harmer, I ask how she broke that cycle and what advice she’d give to young girls who’re tempted to cut themselves. She takes a long, deep breath and I find myself apologising for the heavy question.
“That’s okay,” she says, quite sweetly. “I was sexually abused when a kid, so I think a lot of the self harming goes along with that. Most of the young women I’ve met, come into contact with, or read about (who’ve been abused) have all like, cut or fucked themselves up….and the same for some guys. For me, it’s just something I grew out of. I just didn’t want to do it anymore.”
With such a an army of young, female fans, does she feel the pressures of acting as a role model?
“You mean accountable, responsible? Yeah, I do, but that’s not fair. First and foremost, I’m an artist and I make music. I want my music to speak, rather than anything else. For me, music is healing and helps you get through all kind of things. It punctuates and chronicles your life, and I hope that’s what does it.
“You know, sometimes I’m gonna do things that don’t look so good, or sound so good and I’m very opinionated and some peoople don’t like my opinions…so there’s not much I can do about it, you know. I just hope that girls can make their own decisions and make the decisions that are right for them…and not make them based on what anybody else thinks of them.”
Coke and speed
Tony Bevilacqua was The Distillers’ roadie for four and a half years, then upgraded to singer/guitarist in 2000. He seems integral to Spinnerette, and claims the secret to their enduring relationship is their ‘brother and sister’ closeness. Does it piss him off that the press tend to focus on Dalle?
“No. Never has”, he drawls. “I mean, I’m just a guitar player. I don’t think of myself as a very interesting person. I don’t really have much to say.”
It’s obvious he’s being unnecessarily humble and when asked if he’s telling the truth, Dalle gets cross at his demure denials and flags him up as the tour entertainer.
They both snigger when I ask why rock music and heroin seem to go together so well. “It’s funny, different genres (of music) do different drugs,” says Dalle. “I don’t think we’ve ever been part of the genre to really do heroin, it’s more coke and speed, you know, uppers.”
“The thing about coke and speed is that it doesn’t enhance music at all,” adds Bevilacqua. “In fact, it makes it horrible.”
It seems that everyone, including myself, enjoys chatting about drugs. We all conclude that coke isn’t creative, opiates can be inspiring and E might leave you dancing to the sound of a reversing lorry.
Howling and roaring
Asked how she feels about being portrayed as a sex symbol, Dalle admits, “I don’t feel very sexy, she deadpans. “At all.” Does she feel a pressure associated with that image?
“Sometimes, yeah. I mean, I think if I were 10 or 15 lbs lighter right now, things might be a little bit different.”
Her sex symbol status makes visceral sense when she’s on stage, howling and roaring in your face. Sitting with her in a room and watching her perform prove wildly differing experiences. With a guitar slung over her shoulder like an assault rifle, she evokes a raw sensuality that’s bracingly genuine.
She’s sexy ‘cause she’s in control and ruling the stage. It’s fuck you and fuck me, all at once. Just in case you’re in any doubt, she has ‘Fuck Off’ tattooed on her left arm.
Like many women in the public eye, her weight seems to be discussed endlessly and Bevilacqua points out the inherent sexism of this situation. Nobody really comments on his choice of stage wear, but Dalle is subject to the dictates of the fashion police.
“I don’t mind so much the dressing up, ‘cause I love it,” she admits. “It’s more the other thing.”
As someone who grew up in relatively laid back Australia, does she find it hard to reconcile her pro-choice, anti establishment views with the God fearing country she lives in now?
“It’s interesting, she says, warming to the topic. “I wasn’t baptised, but I went to a Catholic girls’ school. I was raised with this atheist, political, lefty, feminist mother and she sent me to the Catholic girls’ school so I wouldn’t be around boys. I don’t think she realised the impact that would have on me. I was the only person under 18 who was pro-choice.”
She seems at a loss to work out how to bridge the divide between the religious right’s ‘pro-life’ thinking and her own views. Referring to ‘Lake of Fire’, Tony Kaye’s notoriously graphic documentary on the topic, she asks, “What can you do when people have such intense feelings and opposing views?”
Does she feel in any way fearful ‘coming out’ as pro choice?
“Not at all,” she says with confidence, citing the liberal hippy values of southern California where she lives. She thinks for a few moments, then says, “Humans are so complicated and so, er…”
“Stupid?!” interrupts Tony.
She was right, he has perfect comic timing. Everyone falls about laughing. That night, I return to the Electric Ballroom to watch them perform. By any standards, it’s a spellbinding performance. Dalle is on fire, her voice is spine tingling and it’s easy to see why she’s kept Tony Bevilacqua on board. He works his guitar with a frenzied skill that’s breathtaking. I grin all the way home, clutching a signed CD like a teenagerl. Brody Dalle is compelling, occasionally frightening and without doubt, the coolest woman in rock.
First Published: The Hospital Club Magazine- Issue 20, October – December 2009