An interview with Pleasant Gehman: writer, vocalist, promoter, and actress from the first wave of Los Angeles punk.
This interview took place in Winter of 2011.
One night a friend laughingly joked with me that no matter how hard you try to fight or deny it, habits tend to eventually come back full circle, sometimes startling you when you unexpectedly catch a glimpse of your past re-emerging in the present.
Before the internet, the history of punk’s early days -barring the hazy memories of those who were at the shows and the parties- was available either through mainstream media that, by nature and almost without exception, had a tendency to sensationalize or trivialize it, or through self-published zines, magazines and newspapers created by the people who were there. Los Angeles was in the unique position of being at the center of both large and small media, and growing up in the outskirts a decade or so later, I soaked up every reference I could find to those bands that I had missed the original wave of. Pleasant Gehman is omnipresent in LA’s punk past – her words have composed the eulogies of some of the landmark bands and clubs, her image an anchor in much of Jenny Lens’ photographs of the early punk gigs, her image synonymous with punk in movies like Back To The Beach, Thrashin, Suburbia, Valley Girl, and her recollections contributed to more recent books about LA punk in a historical context like We’ve Got The Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of LA Punk and Lexicon Devil: The Fast Times And Short Life Of Darby Crash. She sang in bands, booked the clubs, wrote for the magazines and newspapers, wrote movies, acted, danced…..
As a teenager I came across a book of hers in the small press section of a large bookstore (she laughed when I told her about shoplifting her book). The book, Escape From Houdini Mountain, was a collection that read like a highlight reel of the most debaucherous nights and lust-hungover days of that era, describing with sass and candor the drugs, the flings, the trespassing, the natural disasters, the drag queens and the delirium. Houdini Mountain, along with her two other books, Senorita Sin and Princess Of Hollywood, captured the trashiness, the decadence, the recklessness, the intensity of a scene and a city that were enmeshed in each other, and gave rise to bands and personalities that would go on to inspire future bands over a far larger area.
I’ll admit here that I was most drawn to her for being the literary voice behind, and often at the front of, LA’s earliest punk tremors, a tireless fixture in a scene that exerts a hold over me through today – where the Go-Go’s singing about coke-fueled nights are still the records that I put on when Saturday night rolls around, the candid naivete of a punk scene in its formative incarnation captured in the documentary film The Decline Of Western Civilization never ceases to reignite a certain sense of nostalgia and youthful angst- and alcohol-charged vows to set the mundane world on fire, and Valley Girl’s cinematic ‘City Punks vs. Suburban Squares’ contentiousness crescendoing into an epic food fight where a hijacked limo carries the protagonists into the streetlight-tinged glow of the LA freeways is still – no exaggeration – the greatest movie of all time!
In writing, her poems are odes to a grittier era of Los Angeles that often goes without a proper level of appreciation. In a way, her writing becomes an unintentional history of that era of early LA punk written from within its chaotic and discordant midst. For with history, it’s one thing to construct a picture in hindsight, but often this lacks the elements of urgency and recklessness that make up the intensity of why a certain time was so significant to begin with. In person, she has a natural way of telling stories, recalling atmosphere and tangents that draw you in until she reveals the punchlines and climaxes of each one.
But then again, that was all years ago. I know the role that punk played in my life. How those albums, those shows and those nights are some that I get most nostalgic for. But I wondered to what extent the past is still in the life of someone who wasn’t only in it, but had a hand in shaping it. I met Pleasant in a coffee shop inside the gates of the old Hollywoodland development, almost immediately beneath the Hollywood sign which was built, aged and nearly crumbled in the sun-soaked haze of Los Angeles before a handful of people took it upon themselves to come up with a way to preserve and save it, leaving its presence steadfastly a part of LA’s surreal and cinematic landscape.
[ interview ]
Pleasant Gehman: …I’m really specific on the details, but sometimes not on the dates. Like I can remember a gig exactly, what people were wearing and who said what, but then can wonder, was that ’78 or ’80?
Can you talk about your own timeline, of when you came to Los Angeles, and maybe of your introduction to some of the others in LA, in relation to when the punk scene really began to form.
I came to LA in March of 1975, and a few days after I got here I turned 16. My mother was working at 20th Century Fox, that’s why my family moved here. They had already been out here for a couple of months, I was finishing out a term at boarding school, where I was sent, I got a scholarship because I was smart, but basically I was sent there so I wouldn’t be screwing around and smoking dope with my mother’s theatre students. Anyway, I came to LA and all I wanted to do was be a groupie and, you know, go to Rodney’s [English Disco] and shit like that. So the first thing that happened was when I went to visit my mom on the Fox lot and look at everything. I was walking and someone said, ‘do you want to be in a movie?’. I said, ‘sure. What is it?’ They were like, ‘It’s Roger Corman,’ and I loved Roger Corman. I loved all that trashy shit. In the days before cable, all the channels would have a film library and they were usually hellish B-movies from the 50’s in black and white, and I’d seen so much of Roger Corman’s stuff and all I could think of was Little Shop of Horrors. I was like, ‘Yeah! I’ll do it!’ Then she asked how old I was, I was 16, so she said they’d have to get permission from my parents. I said my mom was right over here. And so she was saying I was going to be in a movie but I didn’t tell my mother it was a Roger Corman movie because she probably would’ve flipped out, knowing it was going to be some kind of exploitation movie. But she gave her permission, so I was in Hollywood Boulevard, getting sprayed with a firehose across the boobs with a bunch of other girls. That was the first few days.
Then, within that first week, another girl that I knew from boarding school, she had quit and had left the school before I did, her family already lived out here, and she liked like glitter rock and all that kinda stuff that I liked. So as soon as I got to LA she called me up and told me that Queen was playing at the Santa Monica Civic. We went, and I smoked pot with Tony Curtis. Then I saw Georg and Paul, who later turned into Pat Smear and Darby, at the Queen concert. Georg was wearing, like, no shirt and long black bell bottoms and a floor-length black cape, and Paul was wearing all white with a red Bowie cut and that Aladdin Sane lightning bolt across his face. So after I was high on Tony Curtis’ pot, I got a pen and I drew saturns and moons and stars all over the back of a matchbook and I said, ‘Aladdin Sane, you cosmic orgasm, call me’. I threw it at them and they got it and they called the next day, they both called at different times, and I was talking to both of them. And I learned about emergency breakthrough telephone calls from them. They used to be free. So you’d be talking to someone on the phone and it would be like, ‘there’s an emergency breakthrough from Mott the Hoople’ or ‘Mark Bolan has an emergency breakthrough for you.’ So we were all emergency breakthroughing to each others’ calls and watching weird movies late at night on the phone together for like a week and then we decided to meet in Westwood, because they both lived towards the beach and I lived more up in this direction. So I took the bus down there, and we met in Westwood and they were with Chris Ashford who was their friend and had a car, he was a little bit older than them. And we all immediately took Quaaludes and smoked pot and ran around Westwood tipping over stuff in office buildings. After that we would cut school to go to each others’ schools or I’d call and say I was getting on the bus to go down to the beach, and they’d wait ten or fifteen minutes and go to the bus stop so when I screamed out the window, they’d know what bus to get on. And Paul Roessler [later of the band, the Screamers] used to hang out at the beach, he was like a total west side beach boy, and Kira, his little baby sister, who else? Gerber, a lot of those people were west side beach kids.
Do you remember some of the events that led to your initial involvement?
Right after I met Georg and Paul in Westwood, they were like, ‘do you wanna meet Iggy?’ and I said, ‘YEAH!’ They were like, ‘We know where he lives.’ So we went to this giant palatial apartment building, like a 1920’s apartment building, and I thought, you know, even though I got all his records from the cut out bin or I shoplifted them, I didn’t know what that meant, I just thought that if you were a rockstar you were immediately rich. So I remember I thought that the whole building was his house. But he turned out to have a really hellish tiny bachelor apartment. There was fast food garbage all over the place, half-drunk beers, it was like psychotically gross. And he came out of the bathroom wearing unzipped messed up cut-offs and was all tan and his hair was still white then, and the first thing he said was ‘does anybody have any drugs?’, and I was like [in a pipsqueaky voice] ‘I’ve got a joint in my purse,’ and I was sitting there in complete disbelief.
So it went on like that, with us just knowing about gigs. There were some gigs that were pre-punk rock like the Zippers, or the Imperial Dogs, local bands like that, The Runaways, The Quick, that were kinda edgy, punkish. I mean it sounds really pop but they were not like normal mainstream bands and they were’t signed. I was really good friends with the Runaways and I used to cut school to go watch them practice at S.I.R. with my friend, Randy, who I did Lobotomy fanzine with, whose been deceased now for a while.
Anyway, the first real ‘punk’ gig was probably Patti Smith at the Roxy in 1976, right about when Horses came out, and everybody was there, EVERYBODY. Including Iggy, who invited me and my friend, to go swimming at the Beverly Hilton the next day. We used to do that anyway, because we were going to Beverly High, and we used to put on bathing suits under our clothes and cut class and sneak int through the open back doors at the back of the hotel and just grab towels off the maid cart and then walk into the pool and pretend we were staying there. Eventually the pool workers started recognizing us, but every time they tried to kick us out we’d start making a fuss and always someone from like Bad Company or Led Zeppelin or someone would be like, ‘no, no, no, they’re with me.’ It was crazy in those days because there was no security anywhere, you could just do shit like that. You could just walk backstage and stuff, well, maybe it’s because we were girls. Anyway, we went up to Iggy’s room. We were going to go swimming, and then Ivan Kral came to the door, and we were all in awe because he was Patti Smith’s keyboard player and he had just played the night before. And he and Iggy disappeared into the bathroom for a long time and we didn’t know what was going on, like we didn’t know if they were doing drugs or something else, you know what I mean.
I could look in my diaries. I used to keep page loads of diaries. When I was in school I would basically write everything down that happened the night before, like everything, full conversations. I would like to do more book projects, but with my dancing, my concept a while ago was if I was going to dance, I was going to do it full-blown, because I didn’t think my joints would last as long as my brain would. I’m still writing, but my dancing just takes up a lot of time.
Yeah, it seems like there’s been a recent wave of books and films documenting the origins of punk, especially LA and New York punk. But you’ve pretty much been writing consistently this entire time. Your books are almost like unintentional documentaries from within. Are you planning on working on any new writing projects?
I actually have a book of insane road stories. If you count in the Screaming Sirens, I’ve basically been on the road for 35 years straight. And those are stories that rival anything that’s in Houdini Mountain.
Escape From Houdini Mountain is probably the only book I’ve ever seen that comes close to the Motley Crue book.
[laughs] And you know, that’s not even the tip of the iceberg. What’s really funny is at the time it came out, the publisher wanted to publish it as fiction, because, she said, memoir doesn’t sell. And I was like, ‘but it’s not fiction,’ and she said ‘I think it will be better.’ And, stupidly, I let her do it. The thing that’s crazy about it is after a while I had that and the Underground Guide To LA and the other books, so I had some book proposal ideas, this is right before I started dancing full-blown, so I sent full stories to some agents, and one of them wrote a letter that I remember by heart. A bunch of them wrote letters that kinda said the same thing. But the letter said, ‘Your stories are implausible and your characters are unbelievable.’ [laughs] I thought, ‘okay, maybe I oughtta work on my fiction a little bit better.’ Like they haven’t even been embellished in the slightest, and if anything, they were underplayed.
Houdini Mountain, the idea was just all crazy love stories, love and sex and drug stories. The Screaming Sirens stuff was just outta control. I’ll tell you a good Screaming Sirens story, if you just wanna know how out of touch with reality we were. We were on tour, going through the Rocky Mountains, and we were really fucking late for a gig, we were just maybe barely going to get there on time. Our van was always breaking down. We used to call it the Pupa because it looked like Mothra’s pupa cocoon, and we had a trout on the back of it that we thought would make people think we were just some old people going camping, although that was kinda belied by the fact that one of the back windows was blacked out with taped up tampax boxes, there were fishnet stockings hanging from the ceiling, and like beer cans and mismatched cowboy boots on the floor everywhere. We were driving through the Rockies and we had had this blowout and it’s getting later and later, and we were just listening to a Johnny Cash 8-track, because the van had a 8-track player. We had a bunch of good 8-tracks, stuff like the Sex Pistols, but Johnny Cash and the Sound Of Music soundtrack, those were our feel-good 8-tracks that we listened to when we were stressed out and running late. It was getting a little bit dark, and of course there’s no payphones for us to call the club. We didn’t know where we were. We didn’t know what time it was, because, of course, none of us had a watch. And finally somone had the bright idea, let’s turn on the radio and find out what time it is. So we turn it on and it was coming in really bad because we’re in the mountains, it was coming in all staticky and squeaky, and all we heard was this crackling faint thing about the nuclear disaster, and thousands presumed to be dead. And we were just like, what? What the fuck?! And we heard something else at the end of it about the nuclear explosion, and then it was just like sizzling static noise. And all of a sudden I start getting these panicking OCD thoughts, like, ‘you guys, when was the last time we saw a car?’ And I think as soon as I said that, other people were either thinking it at the same time or they realized that, someone goes, ‘oh, I don’t know, like two and a half, three hours ago’, and I was like, ‘where do you think that nuclear explosion was?’ you know what I mean? And we all started panicking. And we tuned into, like the one radio station that came in clear, it was a preacher. The only other station was like middle-of-the-road stupid music, any other radio station was not coming in, so we drove in suspense for probably like an hour and a half and then we started seeing some cars again, and we were like, ‘oh, thank god. It’s not where we’re going.’ But we still had no idea. And the next day we found out it was Chernobyl, and that same day we made a resolution that, out of our $5-a-day per diem, each of us would have one day of the week to buy a paper and read it to everyone else when we were driving.
When you put out your first books, had there been any other LA punks who had been putting out books by that point?
I think Exene and Lydia had already put out Adulterers Anonymous, it was right around then. And Iris Berry and I, as well as a lot of other people, were making chap books of our stuff. Me and Iris had it made because she was working a job at Paramount that she didn’t know how she got and she didn’t know what she was supposed to be doing for months, no one had ever told her, and she was getting paid a lot of money. She was jumping out of her window, because she didn’t want people in the hallway to see her leaving her office, and playing basketball with the Fonz. She went in there completely hungover and she filled out an application and she thought, well I’m never going to get that, and then they called her to work and they gave her an office and stuff and they never told her what she was supposed to do or who she was supposed to report to, so she sat there day after day doing nothing. So we used to go and sneak in there at night and print our books for free. We would all have lipstick on, we would just wink at the security guy and just say hi, and he wouldn’t think that two girls were going to do anything. You know, I wish we woulda been able to rob the costume department. Anyway, so we’d been doing that a lot, and there were some books coming out, and mine was one of the first on Incommunicado Press. There were three that came out at once, one was Nicole Panter’s and I can’t remember who the other’s was. And after a while, Gary was like, ‘wow, your book is outselling all the rest, people must really know you’. And I said, ‘Gary, I know they know me for my writing,’ because I was working for national magazines at the time, ‘but,’ I said, ‘I can guarantee you it’s the cover…’
So you wrote the book on LA, having edited The Underground Guide To LA, I was wondering how you felt that LA as a place – in the sense of it being this unique kinda glammed out, heavily-wardrobed and surreal environment – influenced the punk scene that began here, and also, over time, if the punk scene had any influence over the culture of LA.
It’s weird because when punk was going on, I knew it wasn’t just ‘a phase’ that teenagers were going through. I knew it was an important historical moment, like Paris in the 20’s or the Beats. I mean I wrote shit like that in my diaries all the time. I knew that it was going to be a real historical thing. Anyway, I think most of us that were here came here, a lot of the punks came from the glitter rock scene or had grown up in the LA suburbs and really had a wacked skewed view of the world through the filter of Los Angeles. Just take the Weirdos for example, just the insane amounts of stuff they wore, it was just crazy, it was Dada-y, it was kinda Flintstones-ish, it was weird b-movie, wild. Or the Go-Go’s, like total Annette Funicello/Frankie Avalon. That was their whole aesthetic at first. A lot of us were really into the whole 60’s beach movie looking thing, or into looking like people from Warhol’s Factory, and 20’s movie stars. I mean Hollywood seriously informed a lot of the fashion choices, even though we would also do stuff that was like punk rock. Like you would wear a dress that was a 20’s looking dress, shredded up, and then you would put safety pins on it. And you tried to have perfect shoes that went along with it, but it was fine if your stockings were all ripped. We tried to look like Beatniks. We all wanted that 60’s look. Guys would be really into those pointy-toed cockroach killer shoes with the heels, and we all like Jackie O. So a lot of the look of it was completely from movies.
And then as we started influencing movies, this was more in the 80’s, like Janet Cunningham who used to run the arts space called C.A.S.H., she started an agency that would supply real weird looking people to movies, so they’d ask for punks and they’d get like four central casting punks and then four of her punks, and they’d look at us and they’d look at them, and their ‘punks’ would have like one safety pin on acid washed jeans, and they’d send them home and they’d say to Janet, ‘do you have any more bikers or, like, fat tattooed people?’ Also, a lot of us were totally making a living being punk movie extras in the early 80’s because no one would hire you in those days with weird colored hair, and in those days weird color didn’t even mean Crazy Color, that didn’t come in until a little bit later. Weird was just like white or Lucille Ball red or black. And if you were black and had like blonde hair, people were horrified on the street. They would throw garbage at you, they would yell at you out of cars, male or female, it didn’t matter. And then after a while they started yelling, like, ‘Devo!’ or ‘Bowie!’, you know?
Also, the places where we all lived had a lot to do with the movies. Like the Screamers house at 1845 Wilton, the ‘Wilton Hilton’, that was built by William Randolph Hearst for Marion Davies. It was one of her houses, but I think it was later bought by, I could be wrong, by 20th Century Fox and it was kinda a house that they used to have parties in, and then, later, it was kinda a starlet dormitory. That house was totally crazy haunted. But buildings like the Canterbury, and the Hillside, and the Hollywood Gardens, which has been torn down, those were all, I don’ know how common this phrase was, but we used to call them starlet apartments because they all had these bitchin Murphy beds and built-in vanities with lights around it, and that really was where all the starlets stayed.
So, especially in Hollywood, there was always some huge connection to hte movies and to the past. But on the flipside of that, we didn’t really relate much to Hollywood as it was going on then, at that moment in time. I mean, who gave a fuck about Farrah Fawcett and Charlie’s Angels. The only thing I consciously remember about pop culture or movies or tv then was thinking that if Mr. T was an idol to millions, why was my mother and other people complaining about my hair. [laughs]
I’ve heard people say that the punk scene specifically in LA at the time had an equal participation by women.
Oh yeah, there was a huge amount of girls in it.
Was that something that you acknowledged at the time, did it seem unusual later when a lot of punk scenes became pretty male-dominated?
It didn’t seem weird at all. It seemed like, of course there would be girls and guys. Seeing girls play in bands didn’t seem weird to me. I mean, I knew who that band, Fanny, was, and that was like ’73, ’74. It was June Millington, and actually Brie Howard was in Fanny, who wound up being my drummer in the film, The Runnin’ Kind, and then wound up playing with us live a lot. Anyway, I knew about Fanny, I knew about Heart, I was friends with Joan [of the Runaways] and Belinda [of the Go-Go’s] and knew the Bangles a little bit later. It seemed like a logical thing. It just seemed like whoever had access to equipment could start a band. Later, after I started the Screaming Sirens in the 80’s, I started noticing how weird it was. We would go into Guitar Center to get sticks or strings or whatever, or any music shop anywhere, and we would get stuff like, ‘oh, what kinda drums does your guy play?’ and we would be like [in a deadpan voice] ‘no, it’s for her’. That’s when I started noticing there really was a prejudice.
So some time has passed now and it seems like the old scenes are getting a different wave of attention.The Go-Go’s just did their 30th anniversary tour for their first album and the Germs are getting After School Special-style movies made about them now. Do you feel that anything is being warped or misrepresented from the way you remember it being?
Yeah, I’ll tell you a couple of… I see stuff maybe not intentionally being misrepresented, but I see people who are like your age, maybe younger, who think they’re these authorities on it. Like, there was a cover page of a magazine called How To Look Punk, it came out in like 1976 or 1977, but it was made by someone who I guess was a stylist or something She took pictures of me and Helen and Trudie and Mary Rat at this thing that was called the Punk Rock Fashion Show. I think it was Jenny Lens’ picture and she used it, and it was fine, everyone thought it was fine. It was at the Hollywood Palladium, and everyone was in it, Alice Bag was doing it, all of us girls were doing it. And I had bangs and kinda a crazy Louise Brooks-ish 20’s hairdo, and Helen had like a crew cut and Trudie had long hair and Mary had a pixie cut, but a lot of people that saw it today were just like, ‘huh, [with derision] that’s not punk, look at that girl over there’, meaning me, ‘that girl looks like Roseanne Roseannadanna,’ you know what I mean? Like they thought that we weren’t punk. It was just like, c’mon, look at the date, it was 1977.
I don’t think people today realize, unless they see that Masque book or other books, how many people that there were in the punk scene who didn’t look like how punk grew to look years later. All of us were underage, so none of us had tattoos, unless we made them ourselves [shows me a pretty funny tattoo of a cat’s face on her leg]. Like I said, there were only three colors of hair, a lot of girls still had long hair. Pat Bag, who turned into Pat Morrison, who married Dave Vanian, she had hair down to her ass, she never cut her hair. A lot of people never cut their hair. It wasn’t about the haircuts. And guys, you know, when the Controllers started, they all had like Shaun Cassidy hair. There were people at shows who looked like Handsome Dick Manitoba, with mustaches, I mean, it looked different, it wasn’t commercialized. It wasn’t about the fashion. I mean, it was, of course, for girls, because we made it about the fashion, but that was just fashion, that wasn’t what we considered punk. We were just doing stuff because one day we liked to look like a 50’s movie star, and the next day just wear a trash bag. But younger people don’t understand that that was like a cultural turning point in history. And it was attracting people from all different elements. Like that’s how jocks got involved. I mean, obviously a lot of them were assholey jocks, but they couldn’t have been that assholey because the ones that were really assholey wouldn’t go to a Black Flag show or a Gun Club show.
But the main thing that really disturbed me happened a couple years ago. I was in Victoria’s Secret, and you know how they have those sweatpants that say ‘PINK’ across the ass? I saw this, and I just stood there, it was worse than when I went into a Hot Topic, like I’m getting goosebumps just from thinking about this. I was just standing there thinking, ‘oh my god, what the fuck is this? I think it’s so cool, and it’s just so wrong on just so many levels, and it’s kinda expensive, should I buy this?… or what’. And what it was was a pair of PINK capri-length sweatpants that had on the back, PINK, which already I think is psychotic, for little girls to walk around with something that says that since Larry Flynt publicized the word, but it had the fucking Pretty Vacant busses on each leg, in like edgy silkscreen, exactly like the Sex Pistols’ original stuff. And I was just looking at it, like, ‘does Jamie Reid know that this happened? Was this licensed? Was this appropriated?’ Like who the fuck on their design team said ‘let’s put the Sex Pistols’ Pretty Vacant busses on front of these capri pants. Can you understand just the shock and awe that was going through my head when I saw that? I was just thinking, what has my youth come to? I mean, do they know what this originally was? Like ‘nowhere’ and ‘boredom’; how the fuck can that be on a pair of sweatpants aimed at high school and college girls?
A lot of the old punk bands eventually signed to major labels, or smaller labels owned by majors. What was the feeling when that would happen?
Oh, we were so happy when anyone got signed. We thought it was fucking awesome. There were always huge signing parties. Huge! Big free guest list. Like when the Dickies got signed to A&M;, or like Dangerhouse, who is still there, they weren’t like a big big label, but they were a big-for-punks label. Everyone was really happy because people were signed in England all the time, and signed outta New York.
In terms of size at the time, it seems like everything just needed to be a lot more inclusive scene-wise rather than exclusive. It seems as if there was just less hostility and exclusivity present toward the diversity of styles than is more usual to come across within ‘punk’ circles these days, like melodic or pop influence could be just another experimental sound to incorporate into a style of music that was still relatively new and also different from other styles of punk across the world.
Well there was a lot of crossover. Like before Peter Case had the Plimsouls, he had the Nerves, and they played with the Weirdos and with the Germs. And the Nerves were pop, Blondie was pop, the Ramones were punk sounding, but it was kinda like pop melody, you know, and definitely pop-culture influenced. The distinctions between punk and quote/unquote new wave were kinda just a label that the press made.
Also, as much as I really dislike big corporations, I have to say that my heart gets warm and fuzzy when I hear Lust For Life being on on Carnival Cruises ads, or like Budweiser did the Cramps. I felt like, ‘this is fucking godlike, who woulda ever thought that?’ But the reason that it’s there is because the people in the creative department now are probably my age, or a lot younger, who think this shit is cool in the same way that we thought the Warhol scene or the Beat scene was cool. When we were doing stuff in the 70’s, even if you wanted to ‘sell out’, it was a hard fucking thing that you’d probably fail at because the people in charge of shit were like 60. They didn’t understand it, they had no fucking idea. They weren’t forward-thinking, they didn’t have their hand on the pulse of America’s youth. They basically had no clue.
My personal interest is trying to take these experiences, and trying to figure out how to use them to further a do-it-yourself mentality, which for me originally came from punk. Having written your own zine, and also later having written for national mainstream publications, you’ve been surrounded by, both, the DIY scene as well as nationally distributed corporations. What lessons do you feel can be applied to the current DIY scene?
Well I decided that over 25 years ago, that either I’m just going to live off my brain and my talent, or I’m going to be a fucking bag lady. Right now, I’ve gotta say, this is going to sound like I’m going all old lady, but if you can’t get together your own DIY scene now, with the help of the internet and options to sell it and ways to make websites and communicate and find people… When we did it, you had to write a letter to someone or try to figure out how to make a silkscreen, like you couldn’t just google it and get all the directions and materials needed. I think in some ways now it’s pretty good because the way the world is going, it’s getting rid of things like that.
So I want to talk about your bellydancing, how did you initially get into that? And how did it become such a dominant focus for you, as opposed to the past when it seemed like you were working on so many different projects?
Well I’m still doing a ton of stuff. I’m acting, I’m writing a lot. I just made a stage make-up DVD. I have a line of bellydance costumes that’s debuting in the Fall, that are being made in Egypt. They’re my designs, like 1920’s style costumes, but with a lot of Egyptian beadwork and stones, stuff like that.
You’re gonna laugh, but I always wanted to be a bellydancer, ever since I was little. I’m sure it came from I Dream Of Genie or from James Bond or Abbott and Costello movies. I always wanted to dance. When I was about eight, my mom took me for ballet lessons in this tiny little studio and the lady was like, ‘Oh, she has flat feet. I can’t take her,’ like I was auditioning for the Bolshoi or something. So I cried and cried, I thought I’m never going to be a dancer. I wound up doing other things, I was drawing, I was writing, so I concentrated on those. I was acting a lot. So I was doing all that stuff. Then, one night, I was on the dancefloor at Club Lingerie, I can’t even remember who was playing. But I go into the bathroom and this girl says, ‘are you a bellydancer?’ I said, ‘no, why?’ and she said, ‘because you move like one.’ And then I was like, ‘are you a bellydancer?’ and she said yes, and I was like, ‘I want to see you! I want to see you!’ So I kinda started stalking her. She invited me to a gig that I could go see her at, and we liked the same kinda music so we would always see each other at after-parties at someone’s house. So we’d always be locked away in a bedroom, holding margaritas or bottles of wine, and she’d be showing me a figure 8 or something, and there’d be people banging on the door going, ‘let me have some!’ and they’d finally burst in and they’d be like, ‘what are you doing?’ They’d expect to see like a mirror full of coke, and we were just sitting there bellydancing. Then she introduced me to some friends of hers who were giving regular classes, so I started taking them and I was obsessed.
After that, this couple that I know, it was two girls, and one of them had sorta given up on this Master’s program that she had applied for, she thought she wasn’t going to get it. She ended up getting it, but by then they had already gotten tickets to Greece. She didn’t want her girlfriend going alone, so she was like, ‘Pleasant, if I give you this ticket to Greece, do you think you could pay for the expenses?’ and I was like, ‘Yes!’ Then I turned to her girlfriend and said, ‘do you have any interest in going to Egypt?’ It was just like an hour flight away. She was like, ‘I’ve always wanted to go to Egypt.’ I just thought, ‘oh my god, we’re going to Egypt!’ I quit my job immediately, I was working at the Hollywood Reporter then, and I was still writing for the weekly. I had no idea how I was going to get money when I came back. I was just scrambling trying to save money and borrow money for the next month, when the trip was. Around then I had been letting this guy stay at my house because my house had been broken into and I wanted to have a guy there. He was Swiss. He said his brother had just moved to Egypt for his job at Swiss Air, and I should call him when I get there.
We got stuck on the Greek Islands after a huge storm. By the time we got to Egypt, we were completely tired and just worn out. And I had written to this hotel called the Windsor Hotel, which is in downtown Cairo, right near Tahrir Square. The hotel looked like a 1920’s or 30’s Tarzan movie hotel. There were rhinoceros, and zebra-skin couches with horsehair upholstery, big palms. So the guy from Swiss Air came, and I thought he was going to take us out for a drink, instead he made us move into his apartment. He had an air-conditioned apartment, which our hotel wasn’t air-conditioned, and he had a driver. In Cairo you can have that on like nothing because the economy is so different. So he let us have his driver because he was a workaholic and he didn’t need him, and the driver was taking us everywhere. He was taking us to bellydancing places. Then when he found out that my friend was gay and that I had grown up in the theatre, he let it out that he loved showtunes.
So by the time we came back, I had costumes and I had that experience, and I just started working. I was getting hired by strangers, I obviously had a knack for it, even though now I look back and think that I’m glad there’s no video because I just blew shit. I mean, my technique was, ehhh, but I’ve always been a ham and I loved dancing, so people would hire me. Sometimes they’d see me and one of my teachers dance, and, you know, she had been dancing for 19 years or something, and they’d come up and just completely ignore her and just be to me, like, ‘you’re soo good.’ And she’d get all mad. But I know it’s just stage presence, just like when you see a band and it’s just the most amazing energy in the room ever, and then later you see the video or hear the tape and you’re just like, ‘what? Everything was completely out of tune and the drum’s broken and the sound’s cutting out,’ you know what I mean? Just that kinda thing. I relate that to punk rock a lot. Still, when I see dancers, I’d rather watch someone that’s having a great time and is just going for it than see someone that’s doing perfect choreography in a really sterile way.
In regards to the old days and punk for you, does that feel like it was a separate life or a separate time, or does it feel like the dancing you’re doing now is a progression of everything?
This might sound corny, but when there’s a certain light here in LA, which I really can’t describe, it’s kinda like that white-out color, when it’s got that marine layer and it’s really white, that reminds me so much… I can see distinctly clear street scenes of walking down Sunset and getting a used leather jacket from the Thrifty’s that a bullet fell out of, or being on Hollywood Boulevard in the light of day with Helen and Trudie. Or every so often I’ll go into an old apartment of someone’s and it reminds me of the Canterbury, like maybe it won’t look like how it did, but it will have something in the architecture. Or the other day, I woke up and I had ‘Boredom’ by the Buzzcocks in my head. When was the last time I heard that song, like 30 years ago? And I still knew all the words, like all of it. Or I was explaining to someone a couple months ago who Gary Gilmore was, and then I started talking about the Adverts. I can’t even remember, I think we were just talking about like corporeal punishment and executions and somehow Gary Gilmore came up, and I had worked for his brother. His brother was one of my editors at the Weekly. It’s crazy, you know, it’s always in my life in these weird ways.
Having been into punk, how does that history influence your bellydancing?
When I’m doing stuff, I don’t do stuff that’s specifically punk, but I always do stuff where I can push the boundary a little bit in a way that someone else might not, in a theatrical way or some other way, just because that was how I grew up. I grew up liking Cabaret, liking John Waters, liking the Damned, and everything was always extreme, crazy, and fun, sometimes scary-looking, or trashy-looking, and sometimes full-blown fantasy. Dancing, instead of doing a normal dance, I’ll do something that reflects things. In Prague, I did a show called Hot Dreams and Poppies, and what I did was I had a girl laying on the stage, dressed kinda like an empress in a really great Chinese robe in perfect 20’s make-up and a 20’s bob. She was lying on pillows, and a girl came to serve her an opium pipe. So this slave is mopping her brow and she’s taking puffs and coughing, and then she falls back on the pillow and suddenly I appear and I’ve got this giant head-dress of poppies and these big see-through gossamer pleated wings and a whole costume that’s all shredded and it has lots of bling, so I was the opium hallucination – all poppies and smoke. I did that and people were like, ‘she’s not only promoting drug use, but she’s doing Asian stereotypes, they were horrified over it. They were also horrified when I came out to the bellydance community that I’d been doing burlesque for ten years but I’d kept it a secret, which is because bellydancers don’t like to be confused with strippers. And I didn’t like to either, even though I had stripped in New York in the 70’s and I thought it was fun. But, you know, bellydancing is a cultural thing and stripping is a different thing. I’ve done a lot of shit that’s really really controversial in the world of bellydancing, and then it’s really funny because I start realizing how normal so many of them are. Not in Egypt, in Egypt it’s crazy, a lot of the dancers, not the foreign ones, but a lot of the regular ones, unless they’re really famous, a lot of them are prostitutes, because it’s a looked-down-upon profession, the way that actors were here at the turn of the century. It’s just riff raff, it’s like, ‘why would you be a dancer if you could be someone’s wife?’ On the other hand, the famous ones are household words, they’re bigger than Cher or Celine Dion. They’re on soap operas, sometimes they make movies, their shows are sold out, they’re like big Vegas productions.
The stuff that I see in Egypt is so wild, and it’s not the cleaned-up, sanitized reinterpretation that a lot of people think is Egyptian dance here. People here are thinking this in a good way, in a well-meaning way, because they want to stay true to the culture, but they’ve never been there, so they don’t know the culture. They don’t know that there are girls who would wear hot pants or a mini skirt costume because they think it’s cool and modern. American people are just not getting that. So I’ve seen some stuff in Egypt, and stuff that goes on in Turkey and Syria and other places that is just fucking wild. So people think I’m a maverik, I’m crazy, though in Europe it’s just a lot looser. Here I teach somewhat burlesque style dancing at bellydancing festivals, but when I started doing that, it was six years ago and it was almost like I was a pariah. But I knew I wasn’t the only person that doing it, I was like, ‘someone has to step up out here.’ So I did it, and that was obviously from my punk rock roots.
At this point, what is there that you still want to accomplish? What projects do you have in mind for the future?
I’m going to start really writing a lot soon. I mean, I’ve never really not written, and like I said, there are two other books that are mostly done that are sitting on the computer, but really, like what I said about dancing taking so much time earlier… I want to do more movies, I just did one recently called The Casserole Club that’s like a 60’s swingers movie. It’s not like I’m considering giving up dancing anytime soon, but honestly I dont know how much longer I’m going to want to be sitting on 17 hour flights, or even 5 hour flights, four times a month. We’ll see. But it would be nice to kinda transition into some other type of performing discipline, or do them both at the same time. Then, I sort of quit drawing and painting a lot when I started making costumes, I make a lot of my own, that’s kinda where that time and mental input went into, rather than painting. But now that I have a costume line in Cairo, I don’t have to make them. I would like to be away from here, I’d really like to live somewhere like Chincoteague or somewhere, but I’ve also been saying that for years.
Whoa, I mean, you literally wrote the book on LA.
Whenever I say that, I feel so sad and sorry. But I feel like I’m a stuck wife in an abusive relationship. Like, ‘oh, but he was so cute and he was so nice at first.’ LA’s just kinda a hellish place to live in, it’s just hard, it’s expensive, now it’s crowded and dirty, the traffic sucks, and if everytime I come back from Cairo, if I’m thinking the traffic here sucks, you know it sucks.
Well you did move to the nicer side of the tracks up here.
Yeah, but people on the right side of the tracks think I’m crazy. Some people I’m around these days know about my past, but most people don’t. Like when I started bellydancing, I wasn’t trying to hide any of my past, but it felt like being in a different life, it was really fun almost like having a fake persona. I would do that a lot when I wrote stories for the LA Weekly. I would live with pre-op trannies for three months, or would do only stuff on runaway kids on Hollywood Boulevard, or stuntwomen. I would do it George Plimpton style, just live with and do only that. So when I was doing it with my own life it didn’t seem that odd. When I got really into bellydancing, when I started being in that world, I was like, ‘oh my god, this is so cool, nobody knows who I am.’ I could just go to a club and spy on people and look at the waiters, you know, just watch people dance. If I went to a rock and roll club, people would be like, ‘I know you’re with your boyfriend, but I just had to ask you a question,’ or sneaking cassettes into my purse. And that’s not even like one tenth of what Belinda or someone nowadays would go through, but I was just so excited when I got into that world. I had to borrow my mom’s clothes to go to those clubs because all I had were like ripped up fishnets and stuff like that. Then I dyed my hair back to its normal color and I was letting it grow, so I could fit in as a bellydancer. I begin thinking, ‘oh, I need this kinda nails, I need this kinda make-up. If I do this, if I dress like this Egyptian CD, it will work.’ And it had to be offstage as well as onstage. I really started, after a while, getting some nice clothes to wear to the club, because at the clubs the waiters were always in tuxedos, there were always folded napkins, beautiful tablesettings. There would be bottles of scotch on the table. I mean, they partied like crazy, but it was so different. So I remember doing that every night because I was working as a bellydancer and I wanted to see dancers. I remember I went to one club, this was right in my switchover phase, when I was still writing a lot, doing bands and bellydancing. I went to one club and my foot was stuck to the carpet in gum and then I put my hand down on a booth to pick my foot up and it was in sticky and gross duct tape and, in my head, I was like, ‘ew, what a dump,’ and then right away I was like, ‘OH MY GOD, WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH ME!’ Like, ‘when did you get to be so hoity-toity?!’ [laughs]
more info on Pleasant’s bellydancing can be found here.
explore her books and writing here.
though she has been continuously involved in acting, writing, dancing, musical and artistic projects since the 70’s, an internet search might be the best way to find more information.