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.
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.
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.”
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.
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”!:
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.
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.
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.
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.
__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.
__ 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