Dancing Wimmin: the Deadly Nightshade


Women dancing together became a significant thread in Northampton’s Lesbian subculture and nascent community in the 1970s. Gay men had semi-private parties at the men’s collective on Butler Place in ‘Hamp. Gay dances for both men and women were held at UMass and Hampshire College. Groups of gay people would also consciously “out” themselves in straight bars in Amherst and Hadley creating gay space for a night. Dances specifically for women, however, grew out of the spreading Women’s Liberation Movement, sometimes in new venues outside of bars, and often to the music of all-women bands.

Four of the five all-women’s bands that played in ‘Hamp during the 70s were also lesbian, though not out as such. Many of the members of the Deadly Nightshade, Lilith, Artandryl, Liberty Standing and Ladies Chain had lived or gone to school in Northampton as well. While most of the bands played the local bar/dance club circuit, they also performed at feminist and lesbianfeminist benefits and events, which increasingly included women-only dances.

By 1972, feminism had spread enough in Hampshire County to be celebrated through a Five College Women’s Cultural Week, March 6-11, with events on all the campuses. Anne Bowen, who graduated from Smith and volunteered as staff at the Valley Women’s Center on Main Street in Northampton, brought part of her all-girl band Ariel out of retirement to play at a hootenanny for this celebration. Response was so positive that Anne, along with Pamela Brandt and Helen Hooke, began a new career as the Deadly Nightshade, Deadlies or DNS.

Helen, who had also graduated from Smith, played violin (fiddle) and lead guitar. Pamela, who graduated from Mt. Holyoke College and was partners with Helen, was the bass player. Anne, who had also been in a jug band, played the washboard as well as rhythm guitar. All three were to later harmonize as well on kazoos. The three lived together in a farmhouse in Ashfield.

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Anne Bowen, Helen Hooke, Pamela Brandt

 

Since they wanted to be a fun dance band for any kind of venue, they initially learned between a hundred and one hundred and fifty songs, including many Motown hits. To make Texan Anne happy, they also added some Patsy Cline and bluegrass. They described themselves as an “old school pop/rock/soul/country/electric bluegrass trio.” They often began their performances with a very up-tempo Carter family song: “Keep On the Sunny Side.” Other favorite covers included “Teach Your Children” by Crosby, Stills and Nash; and “Truckin” by the Grateful Dead.

By the autumn of ‘72, the DNS was polished enough to play at the Valley’s first women’s dance, which was held at UMass Dickinson House, sponsored by Southwest (Residential Area) Women’s Center. Out lesbian Judith Katz (future Lambda Book Award-winning novelist) was the first Student Coordinator there.  In the spring of 1973, the Deadly Nightshade again played at Smith (for the Women’s Festival) and UMass, as well as at Mt. Holyoke College.

At first they wrote new tunes to fill in their repertoire, but soon they were presenting original material that was explicitly feminist, often in a humorous way. They became one of the first feminist rock bands in the country.

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bumper sticker from KM’s collection

Women who came to know the band through political events also began to show up at their straight gigs, including at the Lazy River in Northampton and another bar in Florence.

Pamela reports, “We drew an interesting mix of people. At some bars there were lots of bikers and burnt out Vietnam vets, as well as all our usual lesbian/gay feminist crowd. Fortunately, everyone got along okay. We very consciously considered it our job, as much as playing the music, to make sure that that happened. You know: ‘It’s only rock and roll,’ as the saying goes– but in a way for us, as politically-conscious musicians in a time before it became fashionable for entertainers to be political, it was exciting, even if only for four hours a night, to feel like we were the catalyst for creating a bit of a utopian world in a microcosm. That fit very well into the vibe in the Valley at the time.

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Pamela sent me this photo taken at a straight bar in Amherst on Halloween where the Deadlies were playing: me in drag sitting next to Liz Knowles and Nancy Schroeder

 

The Deadlies played two or three nights a week for three years before they got a record contract with RCA/Phantom. They went on to release two LPs, “The Deadly Nightshade” and “Funky and Western.” Both albums were nominated for Grammy Best New Artist Awards.

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their first album for RCA

 

They were the only all-female band in that time which signed to a major mainstream record label and still recorded songs with outright feminist content, despite RCA’s efforts to tone them down.

Pamela commented on this in relationship to their memorable song, “High Flying Woman:”

 “Well, it’s really just sort of a feminist anthem, only it doesn’t sound like an anthem. It sounds like…well, when we play it live, it sort of sounds like a country rock song, and the way it is on the first album, they made it into sort of more of a little pop song.

Words were very important to feminists in those days. Well, like the word “chick,” you were all supposed to be a woman, not a girl if you were over a certain age, because the way the words had been used in those days for men and women, even when you were 80, men would say “Hi, girls.” But they were men, you know, it was girls and men, it wasn’t girls and boys. And then chick was one of those words also, which we really hated, because as band people it was okay for women to be in bands if they were just the chick singer, for a male band. What was considered to be inappropriate was for women to actually be the band, be the players, so the whole chick thing really rubbed us wrong. So that’s what the whole song originally started out as, you’re not a chick, you’re a free-flying woman, a high-flying woman. And it sort of got more general as the song went on about how women should not be in a cage, you should set yourself free, take yourself for a glide, you’re a high flying woman.A version of it is accessible on YouTube.

The Deadly Nightshade had many memorable gigs once they were on the national circuit. One of my favorites was their appearance on Sesame Street. Watch it here as they play “Walk on the Sunny Side”!:

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the Deadly Nightshade on Sesame Street

They toured nationally, so, after their early years, they were generally outside the Valley. Their last official gig was in 1977 at the National Women’s Conference. They retired after that because Anne had grown tired of being on the road.

Both Pamela and Helen continued with their music after the band retired. Helen has released four solo albums over the years  . Pamela was a member of Lowlife, a New York City mixed gay and lesbian band which existed from 1982-86, at a time when the two groups were largely separate politically.

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In 2008 the Deadlies had a reunion performance at the Institute for Musical Arts in Goshen, MA that drew an enthusiastic crowd of 150. Encouraged by this, they began writing new material and making more reunion appearances. In 2012, they released a cd, “Never Never Gonna Stop”, with mostly new music (described as “newgrass, modern electric blue grass”) as well as four vintage audio/video clips from 1984.

 

thedeadlynightshadealbum cover

A little promotion tour for the cd included the Bitter End in  Greenwich Village and Northampton’s Iron Horse Music Hall. The band had been planning a tour for 2015 which would have included Northampton, but Pamela developed knee and back problems in the spring. In August, she died unexpectedly of a heart attack at her home in Miami.

Further reading:

The Girls Next Door by Pamela Brandt and Lindsy Van Gelder (Simon and Schuster 1996) contains Pamela and Helen’s coming out at Mt. Holyoke College while in a girl-band story.

SOURCES:

__Brandt, Pamela. Email to KMR May 23, 2004.

__Raymond, Kay[marion] and Letalien, Jacqueline, editors. A Herstorical Chronology of the Valley Women’s Movement 1968-1978. Ceres Inc. Northampton. 1978.

__ The Deadly Nightshade website includes lots of the group’s history unavailable elsewhere including how they got their name. http://www.thedeadlynightshade.net/Home.html

__And their facebook page  https://www.facebook.com/TheDeadlyNightshadeBand

__ Doyle, JD. Queer Music Heritage. Radio show recorded stream and transcript interview with Pamela Brandt about the Deadly Nightshade plus lots more. An incredible resource and searchable site. March 2013. http://www.queermusicheritage.com/mar2013s.html

__Parnass, Larry. “Deadly Nightshade performs again Sunday in Northampton.” Daily Hampshire Gazette. Northampton. May 24, 2013.

Coming Next: the bar bombing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Intense Confluence of Radical Ideas: Umass Fall 1971


 

The 1970 co-founders of UMass/Amherst Student Homophile League (see previous posts)  had rapidly moved into other forms of activism creating a leadership vacuum within the group. Kathryn Girard joined the Women’s Caucus of the School of Education and Michael Obligado started, with other more radical SHL members, the local Gay Liberation Front. I stepped into this opening for leadership that Autumn of 1971, editing a few editions of SHL’s newsletter the Closet Door, and ushering the group through the process of getting recognized status as a student group and student senate funding.

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Kathyrn Girard and I outside the GLF space in the Student Union basement (across from the Hatch) early 1971, photographer unknown

Shortly after I started going to SHL meetings in the fall of 1970, I broke up with my partner Susan  and moved into a rooming house in Northampton. I had to leave the cats and dog in her custody. In addition to a subscription to the lesbian magazine the Ladder, my partner and I had established a mutual correspondence with its editor Barbara Grier (publically Gene Damon). Susan sent clippings of relevant news and book reviews. I contributed black and white line drawings on demand that were published as illustrations under the pseudonym Kate McColl.

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Illustration I did for the Ladder under the pseudonym of Kate McColl. I don’t have the date for this issue.

I sent Barbara a letter telling her of this change in relationship, and also about my involvement with the area’s first gay group, SHL. I think she was in St. Louis, Missouri, working as a librarian and living with a partner, Helen. Her response was, “…enjoy your gay lib play therapy.. but when the boys take over go find a women’s lib groups and educate them…”

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Dictaphone memo sent to me from Barbara Grier dated 11.12.70.

It took an eventful year before I finally understood and took Barbara’s advice. I was, after all, a recent veteran out of Ohio. I was Republican (“I like Ike“) stock and older than most UMass undergrads. I looked around at freshman orientation in 1969, at the anti-war protests, hippies, and drugs, and, when surveyed by the school, projected my four year experience there would make me, in a reactionary way, more conservative. Ha ha!!

I cannot adequately describe the intense confluence of radical ideas flooding the campus (and Valley) at that time, some of which were (literally) hallucinogenic. This was a massive influx that stunned then stirred my brain into bursts of new synapses. Light bulbs turning on, indeed.

Sifting through a book of paper scraps jammed together, I see the autumn of 1971 as being pivotal, not only for my personal identity, but as a further base-laying for Northampton’s unique LGBTQ culture. Three historical developments are apparent then: 1.) An early organizational separation between gay women and gay men; 2.) a wide emphasis on radical (as opposed to reform) feminism that began receiving regular energy boosts from nationally known feminists (and lesbians); and 3.) the melding of these two circumstances that would lead to the emergence of a phenomenally strong and multi-faceted expression of Lesbian feminism.

Several news items of note appeared in the October 1971 Closet Door. There are notices of the beginnings of three collectives. The women’s collective would live together in North Amherst on Leverett Road. They overlapped with another newly forming group, the women’s newspaper collective that was to produce the area’s first feminist newspaper, The Full Moon. The Men’s Collective mentioned was, in fact, gay. Michael and friends rented a large house on Butler Place in Northampton. Included in the newsletter is the invitation to attend weekly parties there after the SHL Thursday evening meetings. I think the cover charge for the parties  helped pay the rent. The guys would show off their latest drag costumes garnered from the free store at the Valley Women’s Center.

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Closet Door SHL newsletter Oct. 1971

I am not sure how it happened but by the end of Nov. 1971 I had written a multipage report on the status of women and activism at UMass which was printed in the alternative campus paper, Poor Richard’s.  In the meantime, I came out to my mother over the phone because I was included in the first mainstream media coverage of the Valley’s Gay Movement, Dec.7 in the Springfield Union. My mother’s response was that she had read something in the Readers’ Digest and would pray for me.

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Courtesy Springfield Union published Dec. 7, 1971.
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Michael and I clowning around in front of the Union photographer, Really? Print this!

I also let it be known in SHL that I would be doing less in the group as, instead, I organized a Dec. 8 first meeting of the Gay Women’s Caucus. The space advertised was JQA lounge near the brand new Southwest residential area Women’s Center, in what, I heard, was a former janitor’s closet. The Caucus was the foremother of the UMass Lesbian Union. The attendance was small and my memory needs to be refreshed by others (Jane? Dale?), but my recollection is that the small size and very wide range of interests meant we mostly met socially with each other rather than suggested potlucks or CR/study/action groups. It was a clear statement, however, that gay women had needs separate from gay men, something that other women outside SHL may have already concluded as they joined feminist groups on campus or Amherst Women’s Liberation.

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schedule of events at the end of 1971 published in an article I wrote in Poor Richard’s

 

The year ended for me with euphoria when nationally known feminist and poet Robin Morgan spoke at UMass as part of the Distinguished Visitors Program. (I would like to know who orchestrated this major funding coup.) Addressing a capacity crowd of mostly women in the Student Union Ballroom, she focused on the current state of radical feminism in the U.S. It was the first of many solo appearances by Robin in the Valley. She had previously visited the Smith Campus at the invitation of undergraduate Sandy Lilydahl in 1968 as part of WITCH, Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell.

I fell in love with Robin when she refused to take questions from men after the lecture. I also loved her handling of a student reporter. A few of us sat with her in the campus center coffee shop afterwards, where a male from the Collegian persisted in asking her questions.  My mouth must have dropped open when she told him to “stick his prick in his mouth and sew it shut.” Oh my!

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Photo caption reads “Robin…makes a point about why she feels women.” Massachusetts Daily Collegian Dec. 15, 1971. My guess is that since Robin wouldn’t talk to male reporters they finally got it and allowed a woman to report. From my scrapbook.

A few days later a (first) regional women’s conference was convened at UMass by the Leverett Rd. Women’s Collective. Among the ten scheduled-in-advance workshops was a “gay” one, facilitated by yours truly. Little did I anticipate the explosion of political activity I would be swept into over the coming decade, except I knew it would be with women, with sisters.

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First (?) regional women’s conference 1971.

Sources:

__ McColl, Kate. Illustration. The Ladder. Circa 1970-71.

__Grier, Barbara. Memo note to Kay Raymond. Dated 11.12.70.

__Closet Door, newsletter of the Student Homophile League, UMass Amherst. Oct 1971.

__Bradley, Jeff. “Gay Society Emerging on UMass Campus.” Springfield Union. Dec. 7, 1971.

__Raymond Kay M. “Part II. The Other 42%.” Poor Richard’s: a Weekly Magazine. UMass Amherst. Dec. 3, 1971.

__Spencer, Buffy. “Ms. Morgan Says Women’s Movement Alive.” Massachusetts Daily Collegian. Amherst. Dec. 15, 1971.

__Raymond, Kay(marion) and Letalien, Jacqueline, editors. A Herstorical Chronology of the Valley Women’s Movement, 1968-1978. Ceres, Inc. Northampton. 1978.

__Flyer, mimeographed. Regional Women’s Conference.  UMass Amherst. Dec. 17-19, 1971.