PUNK IS AN ATTITUDE THE WRECKS BESSIE OAKLEY RENO 1984
I don’t have a clue what goes on behind the scenes of incarnate reality aside from what I’ve gleaned from the countless glimpses behind the veil I’ve secured through close encounters of the trippy kind with minor to massive doses of psychedelic substances over the years. These psycho-spiritual excursions may have provided me with some very useful modeling of the post death/pre-birth state but they sure didn’t leave anything resembling a neat little cosmic answer tied up with string on my doorstep!
I’m compelled then by observation and experience to take a rather agnostic view of the realms beyond. It seems like the only sensible position to take, after all, if these bardos were well understood they wouldn’t be the realms beyond. Instead they’d be a Subway Sandwich location or something. My position on these matters means I can’t honestly say I believe in reincarnation, but I’m also able to say I don’t not believe in it either.
That said, there are certain people I’ve known who, without my even immediately recognizing it, are subtly related in my mind with another semi-specific place and time. My old friend Bessie Oakley is one of those people. As long as I’ve known her I’ve always associated her presence with that of a frontier woman of The Old West.
If you knew her you’d agree it wouldn’t take a great leap of imagination to see why I made that connection. It’s not rooted in bunch of metaphysical b.s. that’s for sure. Heck, all you have to do is say her name out loud…( )…. If that isn’t the name of a heroine from the out of cowboy days dag blammit, I’ll eat mah hat!
It also doesn’t hurt that Bessie’s from Reno, NV. (or was it Sparks that she grew up in?) Not to mention her look. She is very beautiful but not in a overly delicate or super girly way. Even though I knew her well as a young lady there was a flinty edge to her appearance and demeanor that gave her good-natured summery glow a formidable quality.
She wasn’t too tall, she wasn’t too small, she had a frame that would’ve served her well splitting a cord of wood or tearing up the dance floor in town at the saloon. If she wore make-up at all she never wore much of it. When she thought hard about something her clear blue eyes would get squinty and I could just picture her surveying a stranger riding up on his horse toward the porch of her homestead from across a sun bitten prairie.
Her personal style did nothing to place her squarely in the times we lived through together as friends either. All through the Punk/Hardcore days she wore her blonde hair down past her shoulders and often in braids. She wore denim, long skirts and sensible shoes and with only a minor tweak here and there she could’ve strolled onto the set of a Western movie and straight into the camera’s eye without anyone having to shout "cut!"
Her personality was right at home in her person too. She was and still is funny as hell with a sense of humor that reflected her love of John Waters and which could make even the guys blush. She is tender hearted and warm but she didn’t take any sh-t from creeps. I always knew her to be patient and very open minded but she didn’t put up with nonsense or suffer fools gladly.
She also happens to be the very definition of a maverick pioneer, if not in terms of settling the land and breaking ponies, then at least culturally speaking. She and her all-girl Hardcore band The Wrecks were matter-of-fact Riot Grrrl before the first people to call themselves “Riot Grrrls” were out of grade school! I might be forgetting one but I can’t think of another all-girl, or even girl-centric band, in that early American Hardcore era.
The Wrecks were a not-at-all-distant memory by the time I met Bessie in 1984 and soon afterwards, another Wreck, Jone Stebbins, who immediately became one of my dear friends as well. Bessie and Jone weren’t only known for being Wrecks either. They were equally well regarded and probably just as well known for their work as the co-editors of one of the most engaging and well loved fanzines of the time, a brilliant, funny, and charming off-the-cuff serial work of art known as Paranoia ”the magazine for blind and illiterate punks”.
As fate would have it, a few years later in San Francisco I came to be friends with the band’s drummer Lynn Perko. She and I even played music together a few times when her band Sister Double Happiness was on a hiatus. I sucked, she was great, our jams didn’t leave the practice place. I was an acquaintance of The Wrecks’ singer Helen in S.F. as well. At the time I knew her she was working at the old Hard Rock Cafe location over on Van Ness and we’d all hang out together with the likes of Gary Floyd, Debbie Gordon, Phillip Gilbeau, Roddy Bottum and that whole Texas/S.F. Dicks/ Faith No More /later to become Imperial Teen scene.
Even though most Punks, myself included, only got to experience The Wrecks’ music from their legendary cassette releases, I also had the good fortune of feeling the impact of their energy in my life as personal friends. It has to be said though that you didn’t have to know them personally or even know their songs to be touched by their influence. The fact is, if you were involved in the American Punk scene in that era you likely were affected by them whether you knew it or not.
I say this because they were hugely important individuals in the compact but very vital and widely influential Reno punk scene, a scene known by its nickname Skeeno. That city’s motto the "Biggest Little City in the World" could’ve very accurately been applied to its Punk scene alter ego as well in terms of the disproportionate size of its footprint on the national scene. All the touring bands played Reno back then. For instance if you lived there you probably saw Minor Threat, I lived in the much bigger city of Seattle and never had the chance to see them live.
Of course Reno didn’t just import the great bands they exported some too. By far the most well known of these exports is the mighty 7SECONDS. If you follow my blog you know I was great friends with 7 SECONDS (who I met through Bessie) and that as a teenager I had the life-altering experience of seeing the country as a roadie for the band. I also shared a place with Kevin, his girlfriend Angie, and some other folks in Reno for a while around the time of that tour.
When I said earlier that you didn’t have to know The Wrecks or have even heard them to be touched by their broader influence, I’m thinking primarily about how their presence was felt nationally through the gender inclusive, proto Punk Rock-feminist message woven into 7 SECONDS’ songs and aura. It may seem strange that in a politically radical scene like American Hardcore there were very few bands singing about gender equality but it’s true.
7 SECONDS weren’t just any band either. They were one of the most popular bands around and they toured a lot. Everywhere they went they made a point to address women’s and girl-centered issues head on from the stage. Kevin’s lyrics also spoke specifically about defending and promoting women’s roles and rights in Punk Scene itself.
Like I said, this was a very rare message to hear before 7 SECONDS but it was more common after they delivered it to the scene. So it was no small thing. I knew a lot of girls and guys, myself included, who deeply appreciated this strong pro-woman perspective being voiced in the very dude-centric, too often very macho wilderness of the scene at that time.
I’ve read many interviews, and I’ve heard Kevin talk on stage very clearly about how his gender inclusive perspective was influenced by the big role women played in the Reno scene. Bessie and Jone, The Wrecks, he and his brother Steve Youth’s sister Cari and other women helped shaped that scene into the special one it was. It should also be noted that the 7 SECONDS brothers were raised by a strong mother who was known to the scene, and thanked on every one of the band’s releases, as Ma Seconds.
That’s what I mean about the ripple effect Bessie, Jone, Lynn and Helen’s music has had and continues to have on the world. It’s also worth mentioning that I was urged several times to write this post by a woman who herself has long been a prolific and inspirational progenitor of The Wrecks’ motto “Punk is an Attitude”, none other than Bikini Kill/Jigsaw/3rd wave feminist icon, artist, and activist Tobi Vail.
So all you Tumblring teenage Riot Grrrls out there who have had your lives changed by Kathleen and Tobi’s shouts, wails, singing, playing, pounding and professing, you might want to Google ”Wrecks Reno Punk” sometime. You’ll be glad you did.
I’ll close on a personal note…
I can say this now over 25 years after the fact without a hint of embarrassment because it wasn’t a secret then, it’s no secret now, and it only shows what exceptionally good taste I have, and had in human beings even as a young Punk.
Bessie Oakley was my first true love. I hoped then that I wasn’t shooting too far out of my league as a 15 year old in my feelings for her, even if I was I couldn’t help it! My love for Bessie transcended the realm of being a mere crush on some older, unapproachable, scene queen that I could only admire from afar. Yes, she was and will always be, a total Punk Rock hero of mine but she was also one of my closest, most beloved friends and she was someone I (and half the guys in the scene, I’d imagine) simply adored. Like so many other people, I still adore her to this day!
…and I love Jone, Kev, Lynn, Steve, Troy, and all those Reno people who meant so much to me and taught me so many good things about life. Thanks guys!
I’d like to dedicate this post to all of you and to Tobi Vail.
R.I.P. Phillip Gilbeau.
The Wrecks, Bessie Oakley and Jone Stebbins photos by Cari L. Marvelli. Birthday collage made for me from Bessie Oakley (featuring Tim Yohannon, Jone, Silvio from Italy, Barry from Christ on Parade, Martin Sprouse and many more) from my personal archives. Thanks to Cari L. Marvelli.