I love wreck and roll
A new gallery exhibition celebrates the birth of hardcore punk in Reno and reintroduces The Wrecks, the city’s legendary all-female band
At a Reno house party in October 1980, four teenaged girls attacked their musical instruments, playing the down and dirty, loud and fast version of punk rock that was only just then becoming known as hardcore. Vocalist Hell’n Keller shouted into the mic as bassist Bessie Wrecks, guitarist Jone Jetson and drummer Lynn Lust played quickly and loudly. The rhythms sometimes seemed to stutter. The execution was sloppy, but the songwriting was honest, and the energy was electric. This was the first show of the band The Wrecks. They couldn’t tune their instruments, and they played only three songs. But it was somehow compelling.
“They weren’t very good,” said Gary Elam, a musician who was then also a photographer for the Sparks Tribune. “But it didn’t seem to hold them back. That’s what everybody liked about them. They just went for it. ’This is what we’re going to do, and if you don’t like it, tough.’ It was such a rare thing. The hardcore punk that was emerging at that time—you didn’t see very many girls. And the four of them were really trying. They weren’t horrible—they were as good as anybody else, really.”
Being good, per se, wasn’t necessarily the point. Preconceived notions about what qualified as “good” or “bad” music—including technical proficiency on instruments—went out the window with punk. The title of The Wrecks’ best known song, which appeared alongside bands like the Dead Kennedys and Flipper on the 1982 compilation album Not So Quiet on the Western Front, sums up the principle succinctly: “Punk is an Attitude.”
The group is sometimes referred to as the first all-girl band in hardcore, and the presence of such a band helped shape the Reno punk scene at the time. The Wrecks were very influential on the best known band to emerge from early ’80s Reno hardcore: 7Seconds. (The claim of “first” is almost always impossible to prove. And neither the band members themselves nor this newspaper are claiming that The Wrecks were absolutely, definitely the first all-female hardcore band—especially given the added complication of trying to distinguish hardcore from regular ol’ punk rock. But, regardless, it was a rarity.)Wreck center
“I lived in San Francisco and New York, and what I’ve found that I really missed about Reno was the fact that you’re kind of overstimulated in big cities, and here, you’re understimulated, and you’re kind of driven to be creative because, what else are you going to do?” said Bessie Wrecks recently. She goes by Bessie Oakley now. “When I lived in New York, I felt like I couldn’t even go outside because there was too much to do, too much to choose from. I could be this person who wears weird safari clothes—what is their scene? You know what I mean? What is this world? All these weird worlds and they didn’t cross. In Reno, they all cross. The person who wears weird safari clothes shows up at the gig because there’s nothing else to do.”
She went to her first live music show in spring 1980, the same year she’d later play her first gig. She was a 15-year-old drama nerd and Rocky Horror Picture Show enthusiast. She and her best friend, Jone “Jetson” Stebbins, went to a concert at a place called CBS Dance Floor, near where Park Lane Mall used to be. They saw a band called The California Beat, danced around, and met Kevin and Steve Marvelli, two guys who were just as willing to dance as they were. The brothers invited the girls to come see their new band’s first gig the following week. Their band was called 7Seconds.
“They were so excited to have other people there,” said Oakley. “It was so fun. There were no rules. There was nothing. If you see how 7Seconds looked in pictures, they look like a bunch of burner hippie guys.” At the time of the first gig, the members of 7Seconds all had long hair.
A moment of truth came for Bessie while she and Jone were hanging out with the band members after a gig, and somebody lit up a joint.
“I was like, ’Oh my god, the time has come, I’ve got to smoke pot,’ and I’d never smoked pot before,” she said. “It starts being passed around, and Kevin says, ’No, thanks,’ and Steve says, ’No, thanks.’ And so it was cool for me to say, ’No, thanks.’ I’ve never smoked pot to this day, and I link it to that very day. And they didn’t care. I had this image like I’d have to smoke pot. Like I’d have to choose, ’Am I cool or am I a geek?’ You know what I mean? And this was just like complete liberation from any rules. There wasn’t like you had to be this way or you had to be that way. For me, the entry point was complete freedom. Weirdo? Drugs or no drugs? Whatever. We’re just happy you’re here.”
By the 1990s, drug use was something of a dividing line in the local punk community, where there was bad blood between the groups who did drugs and the “straight edge” groups who did not. But in 1980, following an era when consumption of drugs and alcohol was the assumed admission into the counterculture, the decision not to use drugs was somewhat radical. Oakley calls it “an alternative to the alternative.” And she points out that this choice was a decision that people in the scene made independently. It wasn’t like the “Straight Edge” movement a few years later, partially inspired by a song written by Minor Threat’s Ian Mackaye, where non-users sometimes got very militant with their beliefs.
“There were like-minded people popping up all over the country,” said Oakley. “It wasn’t because Ian Mackaye came and preached ’Straight Edge.’ It wasn’t a bunch of followers, which it became later.”
But the scene in Reno in 1980 was all about inclusion.
“A lot of people go back to their high school time and say this is their peers and how they formed their ideas, but ours was really the punk scene or the hardcore scene, where we developed values, where we developed aesthetics and a sense of humor,” said Oakley.
And it wasn’t long before, with a little encouragement, she and her friends wanted to start a band of their own.
“I really think that people were just excited—let’s start a scene!” said Oakley. “It was just this feeling.”
The band started in fall 1980, and played shows with the likes of Black Flag, DOA, Saccharine Trust and Dead Kennedys, as well as 7Seconds, of course. The Wrecks, released two cassettes, Spinerock ’81 and Teenage Jive. They played shows in Sacramento, San Francisco and Vancouver. The band members also wrote and edited a fanzine called Paranoia.
“In Paranoia, we would interview bands, and a lot of times we asked really dumb questions—but it wasn’t without a purpose. Not that it was completely intentional, but part of it was we didn’t like the fact that everything was so cool. People were so into being cool. Even people in the Reno scene were so into themselves.”
Some interviewees, like Long Beach band TSOL, seemed to think they were “complete morons.”
“How did we turn it on its ear? We just printed it. They were so mean to us, and we just printed it.”
After The Wrecks dissolved, drummer Lynn Truell and guitarist Jone Stebbins moved to San Francisco and formed the still-active indie pop band Imperial Teen with Roddy Bottum of Faith No More. Imperial Teen had some minor hits in the late ’90s. Oakley left Reno in ’86, and has worked in advertising, marketing and design, and studied traditional Indian dance in India. Wrecks vocalist Hell’n Keller is reportedly some kind of rancher now.
The legacy of the band is somewhat greater than the sum of its artistic accomplishments. Oakley says that one of the defining characteristics of the Reno scene, compared to other punk and hardcore scenes of the 1980s, was its gender inclusiveness.
“Punk rock had a lot females involved with it,” she said. “When it started going to hardcore, when gigs started getting violent, girls stopped going in other cities. In Reno, we never had much violence … during that time. I believe that had to do with the female influence. … It was mutually beneficial. We had this environment that was accepting of us, but I think we also, in a way, were also able to say, ’Hey, your conception of a girl as just as girlfriend or whatever is not necessarily true.’”
“I feel proud to be part of a lineage of strong women in punk music in Reno,” said Jeanne Jo, who was the vocalist of the mid-2000s hardcore band Arabella and co-curated the 2010 exhibition The Wrong Side of Reno: Three Decades of Punk and Hardcore Music in the Biggest Little City, an exhibition of music and vinyl record covers, at the Nevada Museum of Art. “Having female role models gives other women permission to get involved. Being part of a lineage that includes The Wrecks is something that I feel really proud of. … The Wrecks were very special women who did something amazing for the time that they were in, and did it just by being themselves unapologetically. That’s so cool and such a good example for other women.”
“It did not feel unusual to us,” said Oakley. “But we did recognize, and even still to this day, I know that we get more attention because we were girls. With the same musical ability, we would not have had as much attention if we were males. We were highly conscious of that. I think personally that the Wrecks were more of a phenomenon than a band.”Wrecking ball
About six years ago, Oakley went to a 7Seconds concert in Reno. It was the first time the now legendary hardcore band had played in its hometown in several years. She was somewhat appalled by the crowd at the show, which she described as “just a bunch of jocks.”
“These people don’t know their history,” she said. “They don’t know there should be women here. … This is not punk rock. This is not hardcore. Hardcore and punk rock is about being original. That’s the roots of it. Be real, be original, and don’t follow.”
Like any good punk rocker, she is as likely to be inspired by things she dislikes as those she likes. So she approached the Holland Project, a local youth arts nonprofit and gallery, with a proposal of an exhibition of photographs, letters, and show fliers documenting the Reno punk scene in the early ’80s. The exhibition, titled Skeeno in Black & White & Words: Roots of Punk in Reno, 1979-1985, will be up at the Holland Project from Aug. 11 to Sept. 4. “Skeeno” was the irreverent nickname given to the city by punks of the era.
The exhibition will include photographs by GI Jane singer Cari Marvelli, who’s sister to Kevin Seconds and Steve Youth of 7Seconds, as well as photographs by Elam of the Sparks Tribune. A related event on Aug. 13 at the NMA will feature a short film by Elam and Jim Diederichsen from 1981, titled “7Seconds Goes to San Francisco.” Seconds will speak at the event.
The Holland Project will feature related fanzines in their reading room, including issues of Paranoia. A letter wall in the gallery will feature handwritten letters sent to the Wrecks and 7Seconds, relics from the pre-internet age, when pen pals had to actually do some work. Punk rockers from all over the country and world would write letters to each other. One of Oakley’s early pen pals was Thurston Moore, back before he was in the band Sonic Youth. That band gave The Wrecks a dedication the last time they played in Reno at the Grand Sierra Resort on July 4, 2007.
“I’m approaching this as a historian—not necessarily nostalgically, but there’s an element of that,” said Oakley about this archival exhibition she has curated. “I started to see that it had all these pieces of culture and tradition and having mores and things like that. It really stuck with me how this had been created. And it was not a corporate culture. Never in Reno was there ever a promoter who made money. We didn’t have a club. It was all individuals. It was ground-up all over the country. Even back then I started to see this as a very unique period in time.”
“We were really interested in it because we’re always interested in ways that we can get the music aspect of Holland into the gallery space—the melding of the art and the music sides of Holland,” said Alisha Funkhouser, the Holland Project’s art and gallery director. “There’s the DIY aspect of the show itself and that era of music, and the feel of the photos she sent us. And there’s the historical aspect—there are a lot of things that the kids who come to shows now don’t know about.”
Funkhouser said that an appealing aspect of the photographs is comparing the people in the photos to the people who come to local music events today
“Some of them look really similar to what’s happening now, which I think is really interesting,” she said. “I could see those same kids still coming to shows.”
Oakley said an appealing part of curating the exhibition has been learning more about other bands from that time, like Belvue and the Yobs.
“They kept the Reno scene unique because they were not toe-the-line punk rock,” she said. “They were just weird and wild.”
The weirdness and the wildness is what appeals to her in Reno punk and hardcore of the time, although she believes it could have gotten even weirder and even wilder.
“We may have continued longer if we weren’t constrained by the three chords of hardcore,” she said. “It allowed us to get into music, but there also were some constraints in not allowing you to be quite as weird as you really were. … Who knows where we would have gone if it weren’t for the constraints of fast. Because it’s hard to play fast when you’re just learning how to play.”