It was the summer of 1987 in Hyde Park on Chicago’s South Side. Hyde Park smelled like oil and musty bricks and evaporating plants, as only Hyde Park could smell.
The day before the midnight boat gig, I steered my rattly bike into the alley behind our 57th Street K & G apartment.
I saw a cassette dangling in the bushes. The grey-brown tape snaked along the bushes and in the chain link fence.
A simple label, written in red pen, read:
“A token of my esteem.”
A message. A sign.
I was 23 years old, and how could Barbie Army not be on the hinge of Chicago punk rock greatness? How many other bands in this city were going to play two gigs within 24-hours this weekend? Nobody.
And nobody else from University of Chicago was going to be playing electric guitars in the middle of Lake Michigan tonight.
Our first show would be an all-ages punk cruise with No Empathy and Rights of the Accused. A tour boat would leave Navy Pier at midnight and dock at 7 a.m.
Then, hours later we would play at Navy Pier itself for a giant bash called “Halfway to Saint Patrick’s Day” at 10 a.m. -- one of many acts to perform at the pier’s enormous stage in front of giant crowds of rock and roll fans.
I dug out a pencil from my purse and carefully spooled some of the tape back into the case, then unwrapped the rest from each branch of the shrubbery.
I hid my ancient Schwin behind the fence, locked it out of sight and brought the tape upstairs.
The cassette would have music on it. This tape was a love offering, and it had ended up ripped apart and strung through the bushes in the alley.
Who made it? Who threw it away? What was the back story?
I knew one thing: It was a sign. Tina and Mary would have to agree it was a talisman. No matter how awful the music was on this tape, the band would have to cover at least one of the songs on it. Only we would know WHY we were playing that cover.
Upstairs on the third floor, I pushed shit off the kitchen table and set up a tape repair lab to restore the cassette to working order. With a steak knife I unscrewed the tiny screws and adjusted the plastic spools and reseated the tape head on its tiny felt base. The tape was wrinkled and stretched and dirty, and needed to be carefully rewound.
Tiny magnetized chromium oxide particles had been shuffled, twisted and pushed around into a big mess. They needed to get back on a smooth track to pass their rates of vibration onto the magnetic tape head, and release the sounds recorded by some stranger to be a token of his -- or her?-- esteem.
Cassettes were the first, pre-internet music sharing technology.
They could be used to bootleg any LP, and could be spread from person to person.
Barbie Army had recorded two cassettes of our own songs with Lee Pope at the Jay’s Garage studio. We made our own tapes and advertised them in Maximum Rock and Roll. We sold about three tapes a month for $3 each via the U.S. mail. The new tape was called Barbies Don’t Bleed.
Once the buzzer rang and a guy named Martin from Switzerland was at the door. He had ridden his scooter all the way from downtown to 57th Street on the El to buy a tape from us.
“I’m staying at a bitch hotel downtown,” he told us.
"You’re at the bitch hotel right now," our roommate Paul muttered.
I was busy with the cassette surgery when Mary appeared in the kitchen, wearing her performing togs: a gold sequined tank top, a black short skirt and some weird boots previously unrevealed onstage. She wore tampons tied in a headdress in her hair.
“We gotta get ready for that boat,” she said.
My own outfit for the evening was much less thought out. Tights with holes and somebody’s 30-year-old black crushed velvet dress with bald patches and a rip along the zipper.
Later, as we drove our band gear-filled station wagon north on Lake Shore Drive,
I tipped the cassette into the player on the seat between us.
“OK, wait, you have to listen to this. This is important,” I told Mary, my tampon earrings bumped against my neck like pendulums.
But squeaks and shrieks emitted from the speakers.
“Egatnavdasid ym fo egatnavda koot uoy esuaceb,” a man’s voice said. “Egatnavda koot uoy esuaceb. Rennis a fo egatnavda koot uoy esuaceb.”
“Aw, crap. Tape’s upside down,” I said.
When we arrived at the restricted parking area near the pier, Tina was waiting near a streetlight. Her t-shirt said “ROTA,” and she was hopping back and forth in her high tops and ripped jeans with drumsticks in the back pocket.
Beside her was Tina’s amazing CTA traveling drum kit setup: A luggage roller was stacked with bungie-corded bass and tom drums and hardware. Around her neck were two Chicago Sun-Times delivery bags, one contained the snare drum and one her foot pedal. Her right bicep had a tattoo of Betty Boop jumping out of a snare drum.
“Ahoy Mateys! Where’s this damn boat?” she yelled.
It felt strange rolling amps and carrying guitars across a gangplank into the hull of the Spirit of Chicago. We followed a tiled hallway to a red carpeted lounge, set up with duct tape on the carpet to delineate the “stage.” Three were only two mic stands, which meant we had to share the front mic John-Paul style and give Tina the other one.
The boat gimmick suddenly became manifestly clear. A $25 all-ages show in the middle of the lake meant seven hours of unlimited drinking, just out of the grasp of the long arm of the Chicago Police Department. As far as we could see there was no food to be had.
As usual, Tina took the lead counting off the songs, setting up song changes with aggressive drum rolls, pushing the songs forward, cuing us when the tempo or volume changed, and always ending with a bang.
Having recently reverted to a three-piece, Barbie Army’s drumming was even more important to fill up the space between my guitar playing and Mary’s bass playing. We usually switched instruments back and forth several times during the set, as songs demanded. The low-ceilinged room made the sound loud and it was hard to hear each other, especially the vocals.
Doppler Effect, Oliver, Don’t Wait, Rayon Inferno, Billy Bragg’s New England, and Tina belted out her Joey Ramone cover. There were maybe three other girls on the whole boat, and all looked to be in high school. I tried to make eye contact and sing especially to them.
Could anyone hear the vocals? None of our regulars were there, and the crowd was young, wearing lots of leather jackets – in July! Most gathered in clumps in the Chicago rock-show stance, arms clasped across chests, heads back, standing skeptically in groups.
Maybe they were Frances Parker students, friends of the ROTA gang.
Booze was consumed in plastic cups which, by 2 a.m. rolled out of the single trash can and littered the cigarette-covered rug. On the deck at 2 a.m., as Rights of the Accused yelled “Child! Adult! Child! Adult!,” we caught some air as various young mohawked patrons vomited over the rails until dawn. I felt old. We were everybody’s big sisters.
At 7 a.m., the boat chugged back into the dock where whitefaced and sick looking kids stumbled over the gangplank and dispersed, shakily, into the hazy summer morning.
But we still had another gig!
It was halfway to St. Patrick’s Day on Navy Pier, as vinyl signs dotted with Old Style beer logos announced at the entrances.
Barbie Army was bedraggled after a long night on the Puke Cruz. But we still had our tampon headresses and we were still going to rock the show.
Coffee and cigarettes were obtained. We rolled our amplifiers and carried guitars through the cement maze to the main stage, still wearing blurred makeup from last night’s gig.
Yes, it was early, but there was something odd about the Halfway To St. Patrick’s Day thing. No one was there. The pier’s cement corridors were empty. A few staffers carried equipment back and forth, the gates were opened, but only a handful of people seemed to be walking around.
“Where is everybody? I thought this was advertised on the radio,” Mary asked.
At the enormous stage, two sound techs set up our relatively tiny amps -- it seemed -- about 100 feet apart from each other. Tina’s drums were so far behind us, I suddenly worried we wouldn’t be able to hear her or communicate with each other.
Would "Mr. Fucky," my used Fender amp, start buzzing after being rolled across the bumpy sidewalks? Would Mary’s solid state Peavy amp be loud enough to be heard? Would we hear each other in the monitors? My heart pounded. I smelled my own stale sweat on the dingy crushed velvet.
The sky was empty and the worst thing was rows of empty seats -- stretching as far as the eye could see with a few people standing way in the back and a couple of small groups sitting in chairs too far away to make them out.
One of the sound guys, a heavy fellow with red gingery hair and freckles, was gruffly setting up microphones for our amps -- literally a Chicago Irish leprechaun.
“When are the people supposed to get here?” I asked.
“When they get here,” he said.
He seemed -- how to put a finger on it? He seemed enraged.
“But nobody’s here. Can we wait to go on when some people get here?”
“Half an hour,” he said. “You go on in half an hour.”
We huddled offstage for a quick conference.
“This whole thing is a disaster,” Mary muttered. “What if this whole event is a giant flop?”
“How much money did they spend on this? Could they have rented the whole Navy Pier and no one came?” I asked.
“Well fuck it, we’ll just kick ass anyway,” Tina said.
By the time we were to start, a few more people trickled in, but not enough to fill the empty expanse in front of us.
Way in the back, I noticed a person with arms crossed dressed in a white and silver mariachi outfit with hat, suit, boots.
“OK, showtime!” the leprechaun barked at us.
Time stood still. The sky was pressing down above us. I felt alone on the stage, so far away from the other bandmates. I choked down a sense of dread and stared at the empty seats. I glanced over at Mary, in her tampon headdress.
“Hi everybody. We’re Barbie Army,” I said. “Don’t worry, we played to smaller crowds than this before!”
“It’s halfway to St. Patrick’s Day, and by the way, the Pope just declared that St. Patrick didn’t exist!” Mary said.
“Or if he did, he was ITALIAN!” I added, delivering the punchline for our practiced joke for the event.
Impossible to see whether anyone was reacting. The tech guys were consulting each other.
We lurched into the set, almost by rote, trusting that we could see and hear each other.
I noticed Mariachi guy had moved forward to the side of the stage.
“Why don’t you just open my heart? Open it up if you think you can opener,” Mary sang to the empty seats.
“Stained but clean,” we sang. “Stained but clean.”
Suddenly I heard the sound of pounding drums behind me. Tina was bashing away on her kit, I tried singing into the mic but the amps and mics had been cut.
The leprechaun was glaring.
“You’re done. Get off,” he said.
“You can’t sing about abortion at this event.” An angry looking middle aged woman had joined the leprechaun on stage.
“Abortion? We’re not singing about abortion!” I said. I looked at Mary and Tina.
“Are we singing about abortion?” I asked them.
“Get your stuff and move it off,” he said. “Now!”
I looked up across the empty theater to see if anyone who knew us could vouch that we were in NO WAY singing about abortion.
My eyes locked with the mariachi guy.
Damn! It was Sergio from Weeds!
Sergio Mayora, proprietor of the coolest place to play in Chicago, was up at 10 a.m., standing on Navy Pier, wearing a goddamn mariachi suit and tiny round glasses -- and watching our band.
“Let’s get the fuck out of here!”
We wrapped up patch cords, and shoved them into guitar cases with as much dignity as we all could muster. Tina unscrewed her cymbals and packed everything onto her rolling drum setup.
We rushed over to Sergio. He may or may not have been slightly intoxicated.
“Oh my God, Sergio. Are we glad to see you!”
“I like your… your costume…” I said.
“This ain’t the costume. These are my everyday clothes. My overalls at the bar -- that’s my fucking costume,” he said.
“I can’t believe it,” Mary said. “They hated us so much they turned off the mics.”
The sun shone down. We stood there with our lousy band equipment, wearing our terrible outfits.
This was not the pinnacle of punk greatness. It was the depths of pathetic. We had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
But I noticed Tina was fired up. She paced back and forth shaking her head at me and Mary.
“They didn’t hate us,” she said. “They FEARED US!” She shook a finger in my face.
“We were badass and we scared the shit out of them! That’s why they kicked us off the stage.”
Sergio pointed to Tina. “You listen to her,” he said.
“At least YOU showed up.”
I suddenly knew what I had to do. Digging in my backpack I found the cassette.
“Sergio,” I said. “This is for you. I’m not sure what it means, but it’s a token of my esteem… and it’s in code.”
“Thanks, Barbie Army. I’ll keep it forever,” he said.