(14) bulletboys, "smooth up in ya"
(6) the cult, "fire woman"
and will play on in the sweet 16
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchshredness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on 3/18.
raquel gutiérrez on the cult's "fire woman"
Growing up in Southeast Los Angeles my introduction to The Cult came through the Southern California post-punk pre-alternative radio station, K-ROQ. I heard Ian Astbury’s restrained growl and Billy Duffy’s lighter-worthy guitar solos couched between Blondie and the Buzzcocks, Devo and Depeche Mode. The Cult may have gotten airplay on K-NAC, the heavy metal station I was sure to tune out of as soon as I heard the chainsaw racket of Megadeth or AC/DC. My genealogical lifeline to The Cult comes by way of the English acid of Generation X, Crass, and Led Zeppelin.
So mining The Cult for their hair metal metal meant having to readjust my perception of good old fashioned punk rockers that knew how to play their instruments. The Cult stood as my first avatars of genre promiscuity. That punks and heshers were capable of liking the same band was not a lesson I was attuned for in my adolescence. In my middle age I have chilled the fuck out on these porous categories though. Still, whether it is punk or metal, I will always want my favorite band trivia to reveal more than what it does. I want to know about the interstices of intention; what strikes before inspiration does. How do naming ceremonies get their due? How tempestuous was a muse? And most importantly, why was Ian Astbury just watching a guy in North Dakota change his tire without offering to help? And how does that tidbit continue to persist within our informational ethers?
The lore suggests that Ian Astbury on a day off from tour, from singing his ass off for one of the most unsung bands in hair metal history opening for Metallica, happened to find himself somewhere in North Dakota. Astbury noticed a member of the local Sioux tribe change his flat tire on the side of the road. Upon being noticed by the steely-eyed singer the man invited Astbury home and offered him a home cooked meal. This just doesn’t make sense so I’m compelled to call on the rhetorical ability that a speculative non-fiction offers and adjust the narrative slightly. Astbury held the tire jack. And the pressure gauge. How else does a man get invited to a stranger’s home to engage in the intimacy that a home cooked meal affords?
Astbury meets this tire-changing gentleman months into a newfound sobriety that enables him and Duffy to lead the band in meeting its responsibilities to themselves and their fans as they white knuckle a grueling tour schedule with aplomb and grace. Astbury is also looking to an ancestral belief system not his own to ground a life framed by trauma and tragedy where sick and absent parents forced the eldest son to care for his younger siblings. Astbury’s mother died of cancer on his 17th birthday and his father tried to commit suicide shortly thereafter. On top of an already shaky homelife Astbury endured being raped by a male boss and kept on working that low wage job to continue supporting his family.
But none of this is mentioned. A fanatic will glean Astbury’s predilection for Native American cultural objects and expressions (he lists Buffy Saint Marie as an influence, his self-fashioning in leather and turquoise, animal guides subtly grounding his peacockishness). It sits, a ghostly weight tempered each time he steps out on stage, as the rolls were buttered and as the green beans passed hands between this indigenous man who was on a mid-term break from studying resource management at the local college. He told Astbury that he wanted ultimately to help purify his tribe’s source of potable water. He then asked Astbury who had been attentive to the man’s optimistic aspirations what was he doing for his community. Astbury was struck dumb at the query.
That silence was however generative as Astbury went on to dream and deliver a Gathering of the Tribes, a music festival that brought artists from diverse genres together on the same stage. From the Indigo Girls to Public Enemy to Primus Astbury’s vision was to heal the rifts that the music industry had capitalized on in keeping fans away from bands they might not have sought out because of the way radio adheres to its own bizarre business model for disseminating art. To be in service is often a tenet for those seeking solace from addictive tendencies even if Gathering of the Tribes had a limited shelf life that drained $50,000 of Astbury’s own money. It did however inspire Perry Farrell to basically rip off the idea of a cross genre audience pollination experiment and start the more lucrative Lollapalooza.
Yet who inspired Astbury to pause and take in his North Dakota surroundings with an expansive presence of mind was none other than the fire woman herself, Renee Beach. Not just a former flame but a manifestrix of lore in her own right, Beach before her role as muse was said to have received the nom de guerre in a naming ceremony that coincidentally places her in North Dakota also. But nary a word to clue in the hair metal listener of various complicated Americas except to thank the online Lakota to English dictionaries that tell us that yes Peta Win translates to “Woman of Fire.” In a time when a politic of identity was reserved for the most marginalized of women studies majors we may never know if Renee Beach—inventor of the bullet lipstick case for Mac cosmetics and art director of The Cult’s video for the sexiest song in their repertoire—holds a tribal membership to the Lakota and Teton Sioux nation.
But all we are to know of Beach is her role as muse not as a broker of cultures, a tour guide for her blue-eyed beau. We know of her through desire’s nightsong, a howling made mantra in the following refrain:
Fire woman, you're to blame
Fire woman, you're to blame
Fire woman, you're to blame
Fire woman, you're to blame
The “Fire Woman” video is an excellent portrait of a live show. A public could come to expect Astbury’s headbangs with balletic elegance, an iron-flattened black maned tomcat on a hot tin roof in tasteful black flares—or simply put, the second coming of Jim Morrison’s sex on legs. Bae can move. Bae can thrust. Bae can sneer. Bae can fuck. (You don’t believe me? Hover over the 4:30 mark on the video and see for yourself.) A rollicking vision quest but for sex. Am I right, ladies?
Where do we buy tickets?
And like a shamanic incantation (or maybe when the edibles hit) it just as semen and blood in its climactic helix release its captive from its lusty clutches, Astbury casts his object of desire out of Eden. Sex in Astbury’s soaring baritone, like Morrison before him, heralds the addict’s last frontier.
The momentum of Sonic Temple’s success dissipated noticeably despite career peaking performances at the 1989 MTV Awards. Astbury unraveled from personal issues ranging from a tempestous relationship with Beach to his father succumbing to cancer while The Cult was in the middle of its Sonic Temple tour. Drummer Matt Sorum jumped ship to join Guns N’Roses saving that band from a similar fate. The Cult of course continued making music but never eclipsing younger bands from their Sunset Strip salad days.
There’s a lot we owe to The Cult. And by we I mean us the philosophers of hair metal. And by owe the inventory of debt includes bridging the gaps between punk and metal through angst, sex, and leather; the headscarf as lead singer objet d’art; Guns N’ fuckin’ Roses. That’s right. GN’R was the opening act on The Cult’s tour in support of their third album Electric. It is a likely story that each night Axl, Slash and Duff took copious notes on performing live and living hard. Even Beach made an important intervention by tying the head scarf on Axl Rose’s ginger mane herself. The rest is hair metal history.
Raquel Gutiérrez was first introduced to the politics of space when in 8th grade got dropped off at the Music Plus in Lakewood, California to stand in line for Guns N'Roses tickets only to realize she was a browner kind of fan. A former life involved working music retail marketing for a Soundscan competitor back in the pre-MP3 days and now Gutiérrez is a poet and essayist pursuing her MFA degree in poetry at the University of Arizona. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she writes about space and institutionality and publishes chapbooks by queers of color with the tiny press Econo Textual Objects, established in 2014. Her work has found homes in FENCE, Zócalo Public Square, ASAP Journal, Huizache, The Portland Review, Los Angeles Weekly, and Entropy.
KATIE MOULTON ON BULLETBOYS' "SMOOTH UP IN YA"
Powerful. Aggressive. Sleazy. Putrid yet pleasant.
That’s how original bassist Lonnie Vencent described BulletBoys’ music in 1989, when the band was riding highest, at the crest of its popularity. “Putrid yet pleasant” sums up “Smooth Up In Ya”: Marq Torien’s snakey spandex, the thrumming bassline, the fat kick-and-snare, the guitar solo that lasts one very long minute yet never seems to resolve. The chorus lyric is a-sensical, yet the riff stays with you like a crusty stain. “Putrid yet pleasant” is the epitome of Shredness, which succeeds when it teases new heights of moronic, phallo-centric farce. “Smooth Up In Ya” is the platonic ideal of anti-intellectual, anti-human cock rock. It’s cock-a-doodle-douchebaggery! What more is there to think about?
Yet I did think harder. Listen deeper. And what I found up in “Smooth Up In Ya”—with its excess of style and dearth of critical thought and shirts—was a more expansive, even feminist, performance of desire and sexual negotiation.
“Smooth Up In Ya” squealed and thumped onto the airwaves in 1988. Back then, my family lived in a Missouri development of split-level homes, all middle-class linoleum and fake wood-grain. The backyards were tessellated chainlink. All the other moms on the block looked like they were auditioning for an off-brand Whitesnake video. A few of them looked like they would have been cast—rolling across the hood of a car or leaping off their front porch like “Daddy’s little cutie” to chase Steven Tyler down the street (barf). They dyed and teased and sprayed their hair. Their eyelashes were thick with mascara, their lipstick red and immoveable. They wore tied-up tank tops and acid-wash cut-offs. They looked nothing like my mom. I rejected them outright. I was a scared and therefore judgmental kid. These other moms swatted my fellow kids in public, but also ignored them totally, letting them run around screaming into the night and giving them sips off their Busch Light cans when they were thirsty. The other moms were all named Karen.
But they were hot. They could be ditzy and sharp, kind and loud, but never as loud as the men. Still, at countless driveway parties, they made known their preferred sex symbols: Dwight Yoakam in painted-on leather pants, Billy Ray Cyrus minus sleeves, and the wild-maned men of hair metal. So I tried to listen to “Smooth Up In Ya” as the other moms would have.
While “Smooth Up In Ya” appears to be another utterly crass hair-metal come-on, the song breaks the mold in its concern for the partner’s pleasure. Marq Torien addresses a woman under the assumption that she’s playing hard-to-get, but who may simply be uninterested in his serpentine preening. He flicks his hair and promises to “send shivers/ smooth up in ya (smooth up in ya) in ya.” The syntax is critical: It’s not Torien’s hypothetical cock that will be dispatched “smooth up in ya”; instead, it is “shivers” of pleasure! Whose pleasure? Not Torien’s, and not Mick Sweda’s, wanking off the guitar in the corner. It’s the subject’s pleasure! "Don’t let your lovin’ go to waste," he sings, "All it takes is just one taste"—which we must assume is his offer to apply his mouth to wherever his partner wishes. And just how are shivers sent, not down but up? The associative leap echoes Rilke: And we, who always think of happiness as a rising, would feel the emotion that almost overwhelms us— Because poetic association is required to describe the complex magic of the orgasm not only of the female, but of any person other than oneself! That shit requires an attuned empathy, brosef.
The other element that sets “Smooth Up In Ya” apart: While most of these frizzy peacocks must insist on their conquests, bang you over the head with claims that she totally wants it, there’s no confirmation that this lust is requited. There are two ways I like to imagine the song’s scenario playing out: First, the potential partner does not accept Torien’s invitation, and the extended guitar solo, its diddling and wailing, is a sonic metaphor for the speaker tending to his desire in the privacy of his tour-bus shower.
The second scenario I imagine is that the agent of desire decides to give the speaker and his shivers a chance, and the guitar solo is describing the length and intricacy of the oral sex he is performing. And maybe the partner is enjoying themself, and maybe their desires, like those of the moms on my block, are a little sleazy, putrid even—but pleasant.
Okay, I admit this is mostly bullshit. Dear reader, I listened to BulletBoys so you don’t have to. I researched this certified-platinum garbage. I know things I can’t un-know. For example, “Smooth Up In Ya” may be the least problematic original track the band recorded. Consider "Kissin' Kitty" and its admiration for "a pretty with a titty kissin' every dude in sight." (Dude just can't resist that internal rhyme!) Or "Hard As a Rock," which includes the very special lyrics "Give me the g-string shivers/ She's always in heat." In a 1988 live video of that song, even Marq Torien looks a little desperate in his kneepads and crop-top, belly rolling through every chorus as it develops its thesis (read this slowly): "Hard as a rock/ Hard as a rock/ You get me baby, hard as a rock/ Hard as a rock/ Hard as a rock…" Et cetera.
I know Marq Torien still tours as BulletBoys and has cycled through more than 30 band members. The band (with the exception of Torien’s voice) sounds just awful live, no matter its incarnation. I know Torien was an early Trump supporter and attempted to sell a pair of his own pants—worn—online for $7,000. Perhaps this was to raise funds for the child support he didn’t pay, and for which Torien was arrested in 2015—shirtless, naturally. No one even knows whether it’s The Bulletboys or just Bulletboys or BulletBoys. “Smooth Up In Ya” has zero annotations in Genius because it’s just that vapid. Mostly putrid.
No, this is probably not art worth examining. No, this analysis is not what (the) BulletBoys intended. But this is about fantasy as empowerment, as control. And hey, fuck Bulletboys! I want to argue for this song not just in spite of Bulletboys but to spite Bulletboys.
One night, our old block woke to squealing tires. One of the Karens and her husband Wally ran an unruly household at the bottom of the hill, and that night it burst out onto the street. There was shouting, slamming doors, honking, and a peel-out. Whatever Wally did, Karen wasn’t taking it. Maybe he pleaded, maybe he negged her, bluffed and blustered, maybe he tried to stop her going. Maybe he just didn’t get her off. The peel-out seemed to last forever, but really it lasted the length of an extended guitar solo: the time it took Karen to screech out of her driveway and burn rubber all the way up the block—dragging Wally behind her, flailing from the tailgate of her pickup.
I don’t know what happened to most of the other moms. There were divorces and deaths and babies having babies; there were happily-ever-afters, whatever that means. But I want to believe that these women were loved, but not only loved. I want to believe that they were sexually fulfilled. That they were listened to. That they got their shivers on their own terms.
Katie Moulton is a writer and music critic from St. Louis. She is currently the Hub City Writer-in-Residence working on a book called Dad Rock, and you can find more of her work here.