This article originally appeared in the July 1993 issue of SPIN.
"Did you lend me a tampon that day?" L7's Donita Sparks asks singer-guitarist Suzi Gardner. We're talking at singer-guitarist Sparks's Los Angeles apartment about the punk breakthrough that occurred at last summer's music festival in Reading, England. I want to know what brand Sparks made history with.
"Plain old Tampax," Gardner responds.
"Biodegradable Tampax. What I wanted to do was drop my pants and pull it out, so everyone could see what I was doing. I had on these baggy shorts and I didn't have a belt so I used duct tape, double knotted, so I'm like, shit, I can't get these pants down. I turn around, and I look at Dee, and she sees my hands go down in there while I try to pull out this tampon. I swung it around my head, threw it out into the audience, and all these kids are yelling—they think I'm throwing out a lighter or something—and someone caught it, realized what it was and threw it back up on stage."
This story is an L7 moment, one of those incidents which captures the band's spontaneity and reverence for self-expression, but attests even more to what guys have always liked to call "balls." L7 addresses this conundrum—exactly what is the word for whipping it out when the it in question isn't a male organ but the most fastidiously hidden secret of felinity, Dracula's teabag itself?—with the song "Fast and Frightening," whose heroine has "got so much clit she don't need no balls."
When Sparks hits that line on stage she plays it like just another lyric, and like the crowd does, too; in place of the traditional wave-like surge the crowd does more of a lean. It could be that the crowd is there to rock out, and not to get their feminist juices pumping. L7 can't be reduced to the clit factor. There's just too much going on.
The problem with defining L7 as the ultimate in femme punk is that femme punk is not a genre. Defined as women, L7 are four of the funniest, meanest, strongest, coolest, most pissed-off women I know. Defined as punk, L7 is up there with the giants. People compare the band to the Ramones without batting an eyelash, and Joey is flattered.
"They're fun, they're exciting, and they're spirited," Joey Ramone says, speaking of L7 as progeny. "That's how I feel we played a major role in inspiring them, and we're proud of it." Joey is an L7 fan as well as a Rock for Choice performer. "I like their rebelliousness. They do what they feel, so I definitely see a lot of us in them," Joey says. "It's about being liberated and calling the shots." And if that weren't enough, folks want these women to be political commentators, fashion plates, role models, and witches.
The members of L7 are wild, rambunctious, and spontaneous. Their stage show is a wash of buddy love, crowd working, and acrobatics, which bassist Jennifer Finch succinctly describes as "athletic." Their technical skills are enhanced with an ear for the incongruous—Sparks admits to swing a "Planet Claire" riff from the B-52's—and they use their voices like 20 or 30 extra instruments. Everybody in L7 sings sometimes, but Sparks and Gardner carry the mother lode. Sparks can howl like Johnny Rotten, wail like Charlie Daniels's fiddle when he's being the devil, and pull off the lead in "Pretend We're Dead" with a sing-song sweetness that's almost Go-Go-esque. Gardner has perfected her "beast within" growl-scream until it's positively volcanic: She can hold it low or build it to a shove.
I watch Finch—her hair dyed safety red with face-framing stripe of white, her bikini top showing off the four angels flying around her back. She climbs Plakas's drum kit to go airborne, knee bent, while Plakas look as serene as a child in a room full of Legos, her sticks beating like the wings of something trapped and flawless.
At this all-ages show in Fairfax High School in L.A., I watch the "kids," as L7 often refers to its live audience, for signs of how L7 fits into the universe. Lust objects? Militant activists? Grrrls' night out? This isn't a see-and-be-seen show—they're jammed in too close to see each other—but a chance to repeat firsthand the connection they've made with L7 via stereo and Walkman. The only stronger evidence I've seen of this kind of thing is the cult of Morrissey. I can see the gladioli in their eyes.
The kids are half male, half female, half over and half under 20, and mostly white and Asian. The boys rock out up front yelling "you and me till the wheels fall off" with Gardner, flanneled and stocking-capped in the 100-degree-plus heat of the gym. The small minority of riot grrrls who were belly-writing in the lobby snake through the crowd in a chain, each one's hands around the skinny waist in front of her. The back of one reads "Bite Me" between black spaghetti straps.
I ask L7 later if they feel aligned with Riot Grrrls, and Finch says she isn't going to answer any questions about Riot Grrrls because at the last meeting the grrrls declared a media blackout. Sparks, thumbing through the women-in-rock encyclopedia, She's a Rebel, her mother has mailed her, misunderstands: "I don't know where you got the idea that we were a Riot Grrrl band."
"That's not what she said," Finch defends, and Sparks shows me the Post-it on the book where her mom has listed all the pages mentioning L7.
* * *
L7 arrives at Sparks's apartment on time and ready to be grilled. The Grease soundtrack ("Better shape up!" Olivia warns) can be heard on the street and Sparks switches to Harry Belafonte before the tape rolls. Visual inspection reveals a friendly Bam Bam (the cute gray mongrel from the "Pretend" video, and Sparks's favorite beast of eight years), a set of vintage Easy Curl curlers, Growing Up Brady on the coffee table, a Spanish language box of "Donitas" cereal, and a singed photo of L7 with Don Ho.
When they talk about their happiness regarding success (and personal definitions of that concept), or about planning a songwriting session, they are a team, a democratic machine who nod with each other and remember who was about to say something, but maybe forgot.
Cigarettes are the only uniform L7 props, and each member's mildly raspy voice finds other complements: Sparks's flashing pale green eyes and flat accent transforms her into a tough, funny Audrey Hepburn; Plakas can quietly pull off Slash or Sandra Bernhard; Gardner's near-white hair shimmies back and forth with every nod; and Finch, while often loudest and brashest, is like an antenna for the band.
Finch was born and raised near Los Angeles, but the other members came to L.A. for the music scene—Gardner from outside Sacramento, and both Plakas and Sparks from Chicago suburbs, although they met in L.A.
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"Donita and I met each other in 1985," Gardner explains. "We'd been floating around the same town, kind of following each other in jobs, and bands, and even with dudes, kind of, and we had a lot of people telling us that we ought to meet." They laugh about the years of "the psycho rhythm section" before enlisting Finch and finally Plakas in 1988, but it's clear that securing this lineup took a lot of work.
The band's eponymous first record has been reissued on Epitaph, but it's not Ur-L7 (no, the band hasn't performed "Bite the Wax Tadpole" lately). The next record, Smell the Magic, a 1990 Sub Pop EP, is a nine-track paean to the greatness of punk rock.
"The 'Shove' single was one of the most amazing things," says Sub Pop's Jonathan Poneman. "That singularly blew my top off. I compare L7 with Motörhead or the Ramones: a real primal rock machine."
Bricks Are Heavy (Slash, 1992) marked L7's journey into the mainstream audience, if not mainstream aesthetics. The album gets as pop as the band's biggest song, "Pretend We're Dead," which is so pop that pop guru Matthew Sweet covered it on his '92 tour. He says that when he would come home from touring, his wife always had the Bricks CD in the portable player in the bathroom, which he listened to in the shower. "It kind of reminded me of when I first got into punk and new wave when I was 13," Sweet says. "They're rock goddesses."
Bricks sold an estimated 225,000 copies, and since its release, L7 has toured nonstop and received a surprising amount of publicity. The band has been experiencing what Finch calls the "Ricardo Montalban—Fantasy Island—be a rock star for a week" thing, referring to two festivals they played in Brazil at which fans sang "Pretend We're Dead" outside their hotel, pressed their faces against restaurant windows while L7 tried to eat, and grabbed band members' hair and clothes each time they walked outside, even with four (reportedly hot) bodyguards.
"The thrill wore off in about two hours," Gardner says. They don't even think about that kind of star torture someday happening to them here.
"We never look that far into the future," Sparks says. "We only look to the next few steps."
L7 isn't afraid of having big heroes, and "heroes," though. Plakas cites the Ramones, Finch picks Frightwig, Gardner lists Black Sabbath and AC/DC, and Sparks goes off—the B-52's, the Ramones, the Cramps, Aretha Franklin, and Patsy Cline. All of them cite the punk scene of the late '70s, and all of them say they have too many musical heroes to mention.
The heroes give good insight into the confluence of style and genre that has become L7: part punk, part party band. Harry Belafonte said it pretty well too, when he described his beloved calypso queen: "Sonora's dance has no title: you jump in the saddle, hold on to the bridle."
What L7 doesn't want to be is a women's band, either in "genre," or in audience. "There was the girl band thing, there was the fox core farce, there was the Seattle band farce, there was the grunge-rock thing," Sparks says. "We've been around longer than all that stuff. Basically we're a rock band from Los Angeles."
"When we formed, we just wanted people to play with," Gardner says. "We didn't care what set of organs they had. We just wanted to fucking rock."
Lyrically, L7 parodies (or adopts) traditional (and sometimes loathsome) male stances, from Gardner's pick-up line, "You and me till the wheels fall off," to its cover of the Fiends' "Packin' a Rod." L7 didn't play that one live, so I don't know if Sparks keeps a straight face when she sings "Guns & Ammo is what I read." The band's freedom from sincerity makes the drug that much more heady. For me, the L7 drug takes care of a hard day at the job, bad traffic, humidity (that's Virginian for smog)—all the things that probably pissed them off in the first place.
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Just having L7 around makes the world a little more comfortable; they work extra hard so you don't have to. "Calgon can't take me away," Sparks sings, but hearing "Diet Pill" can—it's one of music's great ironies. L7 refuse to be held accountable for my power trip, but the women are happy when I thank them. They're equally happy when I get the joke.
Girls just want to have fun, and L7 isn't interested in dictating any diatribes. This is rock'n'roll, not Feminist Theory 101, which they probably wouldn't have taken anyway because those courses always meet too early. If it gets in the way of rock'n'roll, L7 probably won't like it. But if it's good for you, whatever "it" you subscribe to, they'll probably beam when you tell them.
The fun of L7 is that it's listeners get to decide when the band's joking and when it's not. Gardner and Sparks admit that they cracked themselves up writing "I put your stuff out on the porch / you pissed in your pants and put out the torch!" for "Slide," but it's also a real kick for them to see the kids singing it anthemiclly in the front row. If their silliness turns into your break-up survival kit, L7 will still respect you in the morning.
The members of L7 hope and believe that the fact that they're female is "icing" for their fans, which is understandable when you consider that they're extremely vulnerable to pigeonholing. "Our fans couldn't give a shit if we're women," Sparks says. "We did not set out to be an all-girl band. It just happened that way."
* * *
L7 wears its rock'n'roll mythology proudly, from dropping trough on live British television to permanent body adornment. "This was my first tattoo," Finch says, pointing to a green lizard crawling around her left hand near the base of her thumb. "I got it to ensure that I'd never become a secretary or a bank teller." Plakas has fiery black rings around her right calf and left arm, and Gardner has a spider and a heart with an anchor on her ankle. Sparks sports a birthmark her mom called an "angel kiss."
Piercing isn't so big a deal for them: "Everybody's pierced these days," Sparks sighs. She's starting to smoke Plakas's Newports and the evening is winding down. Finch is going to see 7 Year Bitch and Tribe 8, but everyone else is consumed with errands, plans for an upcoming songwriting session, recording their lives after coming off tour. Gardner calls me a cab and says hi to the dispatcher. She used to drive for the company.
The next night at Finch's features more of the same: more cigarettes, more mineral water. We talk about Rock for Choice, which they founded, and a San Francisco benefit with Nirvana this spring to help women in the former Yugoslavia who have been raped and confined as part of Serbian warfare.
"Rock for Choice," Finch explains, "basically formed because we were sitting around rehearsal and discussing stuff that we'd seen on the news about our diminishing right to control our own biological destinies, and we decided we wanted to do a benefit for that. We contacted a few different organizations and we realized none of them were set up for a band just to call and say, 'We want to do something; we're available this month.' So we just decided we were going to have to start an organization that's designed to promote concerts, and that's what we're doing."
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"Our goal was to raise awareness, and like, secondary, was to raise money for the Feminist Majority Foundation, which operates a nationwide clinic defense. And now that circumstances are even more desperate, you know, they still need this income to go protect doctors and protect clinics."
Part of the band's befuddlement at being categorized seems to be that they didn't realize how many women—or "gals," which is their operative term for us—feel empowered by their image, and their active political projects. They fumble when asked about their image, their personal choices in behavior and dress. Sparks finally says it out loud: "I don't think we realize how people listen to what we have to say," and it seems to be strange for L7 to be asked social and political questions, and to think about how their politics affect their nature.
For the immediate future, fun is in the works for the band, more music writing, more recording, some overdue relaxation, and their new alliance with John Waters, who tapped L7 for his upcoming film, Serial Mom, which should be out in January.
"I like their politics, I like their music, and they have a great sense of humor," Waters says. "I've always been a fan of theirs. I play their music in my car all the time, when I need to hear some aggression."
Waters reports that the movie is about "a sweet, lovable serial killer who could be your own mom," and he's last Kathleen Turner, Sam Waterston, Ricki Lake, Mink Stole, patty Hearst, and Traci Lords in addition to L7. Camp as Christmas. L7 will play a band called Camel Lips. What are camel lips? Sparks explains: "A camel toe is when women wear their pants too tight, and their poon lips look like a a camel toe. It can also be camel lips."
A film, a new record, they hope, by the end of 1993 or early next year, and then more touring. That's life as L7. "We're still waiting for our Midol sponsorship," Sparks says. "We want the pink satin tour jackets."