Punk lost one of its greatest creative and political minds on February 19.
Poison Girls singer and guitarist Vi Subversa, born Frances Sokolov, was still active at 80, having performed her last public gig with the Naughty Thoughts on Dec. 5, 2015. Subversa’s story was shared by She Shreds the day after her passing, with an assist by Water Wing Records’ Alex Yusimov. Building on those sentiments is this deeper look at Subversa’s legacy, as told by her best known anarcho-punk peer, her children’s Rubella Ballet bandmate, a D.I.Y. rocker whose love for Poison Girls helped pave the way for Riot Grrrl, and a current hardcore musician in two co-ed bands.
Steve Ignorant of Crass
This is 1970 or 1980. I can’t quite remember. But I do remember Vi was singing “Hex.” As I was listening some punk say to me “Isn’t she a bit old to be doing this?” and I said, “What the fuck do you think you’ll be doing when you’re 40?” At this ripe old age of 58 I can assure you it matters you still do it.
And now my memory takes me back to an overcast morning in Epping, Essex when there was me and Vi in the kitchen of Burleigh House (now under the M25). Vi said to me as she was washing up, “Steve I’ve got a new song”. I sipped my tea and listened as Vi said, hands in marigold rubber gloves, “They are marching on a playground. They are training on your green….”
That song became “Piano Lessons” and every time I hear it I’m taken back to that overcast nowhere morning in Essex when me and Vi just shot the breeze. That breeze became a gale and blew everyone away.
Zillah Minx of Rubella Ballet
I made this documentary [She’s a Punk Rocker UK] because I wanted the world to see the strong women involved within the punk scene. As a punk myself at age 15 in 1976 I met a lot of strong women. One of them was Vi Subversa of Poison Girls who I featured in the documentary.
I first saw Vi Subversa singing for Poison Girls at a gig supporting Crass in 1979. I was an 18-year-old punk. I also met [her future husband] Sid Truelove. He was homeless and Vi invited him to live in their commune in Epping. I soon joined him in their commune which was a dilapidated house under notice of demolition to make way for the M25. A room was used for rehearsing, and Sid and I along with Vi Subversa’s son Pete Fender (guitar) and daughter Gem Stone (bass) became Rubella Ballet. We were encouraged and given the opportunity to play support gigs and tours with Poison Girls and Crass. We had none of our own equipment or funds. Poison Girls lent us equipment and let us rehearse at their house. Our first release, an album on a cassette in a bag with a D.I.Y. poster, badge, and lyric book, was made by us in their house. We had turned down a release on Crass records to be on Vi Subversa’s record label Xntrix.
Unlike celebrities of today endorsing their latest perfume or line of branded clothes, Vi lived in our world as a single mother, a political activist who cared about people, and a feminist who spent time camping at Greenham Common and acted on her beliefs. Nearly every gig was a benefit for CND, the homeless, Anarchy Centre, ambulance crews, the miners, the firefighters, single parents, or ALF. Vi Subversa knew how to translate her political and feminist views into insightful and relevant lyrics for punk anthems that all the audience understood. She stood on stage a lone older, fearless Jewish woman in a punk band, clearly stating her beliefs.
She found a place within punk where she was loved and respected as a friend regardless of her age and gender. She was an inspiration. Women and girls loved to see Vi on stage. Many times I heard girls tell Vi she had changed their lives with her lyrics and being herself on stage. It was empowering for all women who saw her. Men were equally in awe as she held her own in any situation. Not that it was always easy. Many times our gigs would be invaded by National Front skinheads who would attack the audience and storm the stage, but we continued.
For me she was a friend who lived her life the way she wanted to without the self-imposed boundaries of age, gender, etc. It was empowering for all to see a women on stage who did not fit the stereotypical female of the time.
She had a voice and she used it. One person does make a difference to the world.
Jean Smith of Mecca Normal
In my mind, Poison Girls fit together with Crass, X-Ray Spex, the Raincoats, the Slits, Au Pairs, and a few other female-fronted punk groups. They all made a huge impression on me both singularly and fit together on some sort of conceptual plane, speculating on how their communities functioned. The day-to-day reality of what bands went through in various scenes was important to me.
I knew that Vi was a mother who, as an older woman, was an anomaly in the London and international punk scenes. Finding out that Poison Girls and Crass were associated gave me an insight into how similar anti-authoritarian perspectives could be articulated differently within the same scene. They were two fairly like-minded groups of people with completely different approaches to music.
Vi was an inspiration when I was grappling with being forceful both emotionally and intellectually. Like Poison Girls, Mecca Normal connects the sound, lyric content, and visual performance to create an overall intensity based on comprehendible points about feminism and injustice.
Vi revealed the underpinnings of patriarchy and its episodic atrocities from the perspective of a person who had been compiling facts a lot longer than those around her in that scene. It was likely her frustration with the system had been brewing for a long time too. At that time, in the 1980s, it was an oddity to see a woman in her 40s singing in a punk band.
Vi’s fantastically powerful voice matched her intellectual stance. Watching her perform, I knew she wasn’t kidding around. Poison Girls took a genuine stab at changing the world.
Vi frequently sang about things specific to the UK, but even when I didn’t fully get what her idiosyncratic songs were about her delivery made it clear she wasn’t having any of whatever conventional, mainstream crap was going down. With Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in US, it was easy to grasp the correlation because greed, lack of empathy, deceit, and corruption are fundamental to capitalists and right wing politicians everywhere.
That Vi Subversa was different was what inspired me. Her voice, the political intensity of the lyrics, and that she was an older person in what was regarded as young person’s scene gave me a sense that whatever band configuration I came up with could be viable.
When Mecca Normal first toured down the west coast in 1986, we met people in Olympia, Washington who really liked us. That felt pretty weird. Elsewhere we’d been called the worst band ever and stuff like that. Then suddenly there were people, young women especially, who were responsive to us. We were pretty raw and in your face at that point and it was somewhat confusing to be getting a positive response. Some of these young women went on to be the co-founders of Riot Grrrl. At one point Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill said, ”I wouldn’t be in a band if I hadn’t heard of Jean.”
I wouldn’t go so far as to say there wouldn’t be a Mecca Normal if there hadn’t been a Vi Subversa. But during a period of time in the early 1980s, when Mecca Normal was intensely disliked, I listened to idiosyncratic bands including Poison Girls to reinforce the idea that I sing because I have things to say. What Mecca Normal does has nothing to do with being liked or praised. We’ve always been a group intent on changing the world.
By the time Mecca Normal played with Poison Girls in London in the late 80s, Vi was in her mid-fifties, which seemed old. Yet here I am at that same age now, writing new songs and not feeling old at all. Feeling better than ever in the most important ways.
It’s important for feminist bands to demystify how they came to be, to make their origins transparent. Knowing that Mecca Normal inspired Kathleen, we developed a classroom event called How Art & Music Can Change the World. Knowing that we inspired someone who went on to do culturally significant things puts us in the position of being able to tell people that it is possible to change the world.
The Ramones were the band that made me want to play music, but Poison Girls were the band that made me feel okay being a fucking weirdo while doing it. Don’t be tricked by the ding dongs that control everything around you. Hex is easily as good as The Feeding of the 5000.