(7) lita ford, "kiss me deadly"
(1) guns n' roses, "paradise city"
and earns a spot in the final four
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 3/24.
BETH NGUYEN ON LITA FORD'S "KISS ME DEADLY"
I never learned the difference between heavy metal and hair metal, or any other kind of musical metal, because for years they all meant the same thing: screaming, unattractive white men with unwashed hair, with mouths that formed hideous shapes in order to emit their wails, matched by equally shrieking electric guitar sounds that absolutely had to be played at top volume. Back then, in the 1980s of my youth, I didn’t like anything about these guys. But my two older sisters did, and they had total control of the radio. School mornings, they’d wake up extra early to tease their bangs as high as they could get them. Their music would wear me down until I too knew all the songs by heart.
But every once in a while there would come a song and a singer that made me want to listen. “Kiss Me Deadly” by Lita Ford thrilled immediately with its opening lines. My sisters and I were growing up in a deeply conservative town in Michigan where many of our friends weren’t allowed to go out on Sundays, much less watch MTV or listen to lyrics like
I went to a party last Saturday night
I didn’t get laid, I got in a fight, uh huh
It ain’t no big thing
The first time I heard those lines I was thirteen, old enough to know that I would never in any way resemble a woman like Lita Ford. Not that I wanted to be her, any more than I wanted to be Madonna or Cyndi Lauper. But I was fascinated by these women, who were wild or outrageous in different ways. I loved watching them because—I only understand this now—they were interesting women in worlds that didn’t want them even to be. I could admire them, and root for them, without wanting to be them.
Lita Ford was a rare hair metal women among all those hair metal men. She wasn’t going to be in the background, playing a vacant-eyed sex object in some guy’s video. When Lita Ford sang and performed, you paid attention; she didn’t even have to scream and wail. Sure, she carried the look, with hair that went big rather than shiny, big and so full of spray that I knew if she whipped her head around and her hair hit you in the face, it would hurt. She wore black leather, tight; black eyeliner and frosted lipstick. I understood this was a uniform she was required to maintain. I was more interested in how she took control of the stage, the screen; she played guitar with a bravado I could not fathom, her body hunched, simultaneously concentrating and preparing to spring forth.
Nothing to eat and no TV
Looking in the mirror don’t get it for me, uh huh
It ain’t no big thing
I see Lita Ford at a party, dancing close with some guy. He’s no one special but it’s a dance, a song, something to do. Another girl tries to push her way in, but Lita isn’t going to stand for that. She elbows the girl away. The girl elbows back, using some shoulder. And that’s it. Lita turns and swings and they’re off, pulling each other’s hair and yelling. Then Lita is out on the rain-soaked sidewalk, alone, pulling her leather jacket over her shoulders. She needs a cigarette. She walks alone, angry at first and then—fuck them. She tosses the half cigarette toward the curb. She doesn’t care where it lands.
This isn’t her music video. It’s my devised narrative, starting where I was at age thirteen; it’s how Lita Ford has stayed in my mind all these years.
This is the life she’s ended up in—so what. The hair, the leather, the nights that don’t turn out the way she thought they could. The morning is always too bright. There’s nothing to eat in the house. She has to ask her dad for money and he argues with her. It’s the same thing she’s heard for years: what is she doing with her life, when is she going to get her act together, she’s a mess. He goes right to the edge of what he means to say, what men always end up saying: you look like a whore and you act like a bitch.
It ain’t no big thing, Lita says, to her friends, to herself. She gets another cigarette, puts on that same leather jacket.
Lita Ford finds her own way.
When I google Lita Ford in 2018, I discover that she’s been out of music for years, held back by her now ex-husband; they had a rancorous divorce and she hasn’t seen her two children in years. She says her ex has been keeping them from her, has turned them against her. Before the divorce, they’d been in talks for a reality TV show for E!.
I hesitate; I want to know more and yet I don’t want to know any more. I want Lita Ford to stay in mind as she was back in 1987. I suppose, in a way, that’s what we all want, those of us who like returning to another era, to the past that gets deeper, and want to keep it as it is but also let it bend to our own shifting gaze and perspective. I want Lita Ford to be the same but I want myself, my 1987 self, to be different.
What did I know at age thirteen? Almost nothing. I was used to whiteness, sure—raised in its world (this world). But I was also a child of Vietnamese refugees, myself a refugee. Someone who had learned to be careful. My life couldn’t have been farther from Lita Ford’s. I was never going to be someone who got into a fight at a party. Yet I could see her then, as I do now. I see her in the morning hours, that time of rethinking and possible regret. Lita Ford isn’t wasting time on regret. She isn’t waiting for some guy to choose her. If she doesn’t go home with someone it’s going to be her choice. She can hold her own in a fight just as well. It’s not a big thing. It merely exists in a series of continual maneuvers having to do with the body.
I remember saying to my sisters, back in 1987, what does she mean kiss me deadly? The adverb didn’t really follow, didn’t really make sense. It still doesn’t. Sometimes I want it to have a comma as in Kiss Me, Deadly; sometimes I change it to Kiss Me Deftly. Part of the joy of the song is that, like Lita Ford herself, it doesn’t care. It prefers action over talking. Come on, pretty baby. I sing with her every time.
Beth (Bich Minh) Nguyen is the author of the memoir Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, the novel Short Girls, and the novel Pioneer Girl. Her work has received an American Book Award and a PEN/Jerard Award, among other honors, and has been featured in numerous anthologies and university and community reads programs. She directs the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco, where she teaches fiction and creative nonfiction.
PARADISE VÉRITÉ: KARYNA MCGLYNN ON "PARADISE CITY"
THE STOOPID ORIGIN STORY
Like many less fortunate ideas, “Paradise City” was conceived in the back of a rental van after a show in San Francisco. Apparently the boys in the band weren’t much impressed by the Bay Area because the drunker they got, the more sentimental they supposedly got for home—AKA “Paradise City, where the grass is green and the girls are pretty”. In 2018 this sort of utopian middle class nostalgia sounds a bit unnervingly #MAGA for my tastes, especially since the song seems born out of an anti-San-Francisco frame of mind—I mean, can you blame us for hearing the song as a lament for the loss of a simpler place and time where color lines were well-lit and gender boundaries were clear?—but perhaps we should just by grateful that Slash didn’t get his way on this one. If it had been up to Slash, the song would go, “Take me down to the Paradise City, where the girls are fat and they’ve got big titties! Take me home!” The other gunners voted this idea down.
I have to deal with the issue of my own embarrassment. Listening to Guns N’ Roses now forces me to confront some of my earliest notions of sexuality: pre-irony, pre-internet, pre-Morrissey-phase, pre-queer. I grew up in Texas in the 80s and 90s. GNR was HUGE. Your knowledge of (and allegiance to) them factored into your social status at school. The kids who liked them most were smart and bad and pretty chill. A lethal injection of middleclass coolness that seemed to appeal to both jocks and drama nerds. We could all get behind the fact that Guns N’ Roses totally rocked. Sometimes I think that GNR was the last thing we all agreed on. So why does it embarrass me so much?
My mom picks me up from fifth grade. Correction: my mom and I leave together from fifth grade because she’s my teacher and I only get to leave when she leaves, which is late, because she always has to grade and do lesson plans and feed the snake and staple holiday-themed borders around the bulletin board. But today she says we’re leaving early. My heart soars—the possibilities!—until she says why: the orthodontist. So I’m sulking in the car like a little ungrateful bitch—like, “How dare you spend thousands of dollars of your single-parent teacher’s salary to ensure my mouth doesn’t look like a cemetery by the time somebody actually wants to kiss me!” But we don’t go to the orthodontist...
...we go to the RODEO CARNIVAL. I’m eleven and have been a subscriber to Seventeen magazine for exactly a year. I’ve already seen The Lost Boys twice:
I have a picture of Jason Patric on my wall next to Jon Bon Jovi and Debbie Gibson and Kirk Cameron. I feel guiltiest when I put up the Bon Jovi. I’m confused. There’s been this very nebulous but distinct 1950s/60s nostalgia in the air ever since I can remember. And we’re all supposed to like jellybeans. Lately, almost everything turns me on, and I don’t have vocabulary for any of it even though teachers are always praising my vocabulary. I don’t think they’re giving me all the vocabulary. There’s this commercial for Cherry 7-Up where I imagine this pop-collared proto-Matt LeBlanc (who actually turns out to be Matt LeBlanc) is my boyfriend and that we two serve as the only neon pink pulses of color in an otherwise black and white world. This is how youthful romance feels—like you’re inventing new colors in spite of a previous generation’s oppressive nostalgia:
I <3 CARNIVALS
Carnivals meant everything to me, and I wasn’t a snob about them. I didn’t care if it was a state fair or a dilapidated kiddie carnival that popped up in a k-mart parking lot for a few hours. Everything about them fed into my hunger for altered states at a time when I could only satisfy this hunger vicariously (and abstractly) through MTV, movies like Labyrinth & Beetlejuice, and occasional late-night sleepover games/rituals that bordered on the Occult.
To me, carnivals embodied the whole tantalizingly cloaked world of Teenagers at Night—all the funnel cake and “French kissing” and neon intrigue and denim. I wanted a Matt-LeBlanc-style boyfriend with a great pitching arm to win me a giant stuffed animal. For an eleven year-old girl, is there any greater external validation of your own lovability than a comically large stuffed Garfield? But I didn’t have a boyfriend, so I spent a lot of time getting “bullied” by boys in bumper cars: the electricity that thrilled up my spine when they rammed into me from behind. Sometimes they smirked lasciviously. Sometimes they winked. Sometimes the ride operator would see my “distress” and go full White Knight on me—jumping in my bumper car and chasing down the bad guys to show them who was really the Bumper Boss.
If there was a gatekeeper to the realm of Adolescence, I was pretty sure he worked at the carnival, and I really wanted a ticket. I even had a genie-in-a-lamp wish plan. First Wish: Carnival in my Back Yard. Second Wish: Have a Cabriolet Convertible like Cindy Mancini in Can’t Buy My Love. Third Wish: “Unlimited Wishes, Sucker!” I bought into the Reagan-era mythology, but I also had my feelers out for the freaks, for anything subversive. I liked it when carnies flirted with me even though I pretended that I didn’t. I liked it when they left me stranded at the top of a ride on purpose, my pink jelly shoes dangling in a night air that felt special: endlessly noir & effervescent, like a Cherry 7-Up ad, but slightly sinister. These aren’t thing’s we’re born knowing how to ask for.
THE 1988 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION
We had a school-wide election prior to November. For months my mom and I had been canvassing for Michael Dukakis door-to-door on weekends. Mostly old men told us they were “proud Republicans” and “not interested” in anything we had to say, “thank you.” The old women always told us we’d “have to speak” to their husbands who could never “come to the door right now.” But I thought at least the kids at my school would vote the right way. They didn’t. After all the votes were tallied, George H.W. Bush won the Cypress Elementary School mock election by 94%. I couldn’t believe it. I cried about it sporadically for weeks. “But HOW could they be so blind?” I asked my mom melodramatically. My mom wisely told me not to cry about it at school if I wanted to start making friends. I didn’t listen to her.
“Paradise City” will forever be linked to the occasion on which I first heard it: as an eleven year-old standing in line for the Super-Himalaya—the most glam & psychedelic of all carnival rides:
I was in line behind two beautifully bad teenagers with amazing bangs. She had holes burned into the butt of her jeans and he had a long black coat and glitter eye-shadow and they were smoking and frenching at the same time. And then, suddenly:
Take me down to the paradise city!
Where the grass is green and the girls are pretty!
Take me home! (Oh won't you please take me home!)
This was the moment some primitive version of my Kundalini woke up. In Axl Rose’s elven plaint I heard it: there was something missing and I’d been lied to. Guns N’ Roses tore through the scrim of my innocence all at once. I wanted whatever pleasure-torture men and women were inflicting on each other all around me. I wanted a huge teddy bear, yes, but I also wanted carnal knowledge: I wanted somebody to put their big warm hand in the butt pocket of my jeans, wanted my tongue to snake-dance with another tongue under the strobe lights, wanted the bumper car of my adolescence to smack me from behind, wanted to cause somebody to feel so passionately that they undulated & pulsed with irrepressible color.
While on the Himalaya ride I was musically deflowered by the Appetite for Destructiontrifecta: “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” “Welcome to the Jungle,” and (again) “Paradise City” (they were playing them in a loop) while sitting directly behind the french-kissing teenagers. Their car waved up and down in front of me and their tongues made snail silhouettes. They kissed like it pained them to do so but were nonethleless magnetically compelled. This is exactly how Axl Rose sings. The unseen carnie/DJ occasionally interrupted Slash’s sickest solos with air horns, stinky fog machine blasts, and questioned whether we could collectively “handle it” if he sped up the rotation or “Turrrrned IT A-ROUUUUND!” Can you imagine taking in all this information at once? “Where do we go now?” I thought that Super-Himalaya would spin faster and faster until a current of neon, pheromones, and Pure Rock launched us all into sexual orbit. When I got off that ride, my knees buckled.
THE ENNUI OF THE EUROPEAN TOUR
If there’s one thing late 80s/early 90s music videos love doing, it’s dressing up a bunch of black & white b-roll footage as a music video for a surprise hit. These pseudo cinéma vérité montages always include silly and subversive moments—like the drummer popping up from behind the green room couch in a leopard print Speedo and chugging a magnum of champagne in a delightfully self-aware caricature of Rock Star Excess—but also moody, soul-searching moments, like grainy shots of the bassist asleep on his gear at the Frankfurt airport, or the front man smoking alone in front of hotel in Belarus as the sun rises, silently asking himself, “Is it all really worth it?” These same videos always feature stop-motion animation of massive stages being built in Pasadena/Lisbon/Everywhere/Nowhere in a matter of seconds. You can never really tell where the sound-check ends and the show begins. And to be fair, that probably speaks fairly authentically to the experience of touring with a hair metal band in 1988.
The “Paradise City” video is in the aforementioned tour montage mode: Steven Adler being woken up in his hotel room by a mischievous camera crew and putting a pillow over his face. Slash, practically naked, smoking a requisite cigarette, and just shredding it in the middle of Wrigley Field (and shut up—I don’t care whether it’s actually Wrigley Field. That’s not the point. The point is that some of the footage is in grainy black and white and could be anywhere in America where a rock band has both unbelievable privilege and unbelievable loneliness, and feels the need to flex both simultaneously... Okay, so it’s Giants Stadium.)
Their name and logos are everywhere in this video: on stage, on their shirts, on multiple shots of merch tables, emblazoned on the backs of their jackets, tattooed on their biceps. Their branding is so pervasive that any sartorial choice that’s not self-promotional stands out— like there are lots of fabulous Izzy Stradlin vests, and at one point Slash is wearing a Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt, but it actually says “Hard Cock.” There’s also this angry beefsteak of a security guard who has filled his polo shirt to max capacity. He looks like he’s about to shove the shit out of someone. He probably was; half the video is shot in Castle Donington for the Monsters of Rock Festival—you know, the show where two fans were trampled to death in the mud. Leave it to GNR to shoehorn tragedy into their music video as proof of their own Extremeness.
I find myself wishing the jump-happy camera would sit still and show us the stage show. That’s extreme enough. Also, Axl Rose is fucking mesmerizing. The hips. The hair. The bandana. The undulations. Those otherworldly pipes like Robert Plant;s, only more pained and Pentecostal. It’s so good that I sometimes forget that I’m not watching a younger Ewan McGregor playing the part of Axl Rose in a biopic that never got made. Why would you cut away to the merch table?
But our relationship to Axl Rose has always been troubled. There’s this scene in the video that always seemed so stupid: a close-up of Axl Rose flashing his all-access backstage pass and nodding meaningfully. “Um, dude, you’re the lead singer of the band—I already assumed you had all the access.” But it turns out I was missing something: there’s a clear overlay on his badge that says “ACCESS ALL AREAS,” yes, but there’s also a Nazi eagle insignia with a fucking swastika and everything.
Writer and contributing editor to Rolling Stone, Gavin Edwards, discusses this moment at length in his way better essay on the “Paradise City” video:
Axl’s wearing the leather military cap again; some guy on Wikipedia claims it is a “World War II Nazi officer cap,” and indeed, it seems to be in the same style as Nazi caps, although it bears no logos. I think Axl was showing off the “Artistes” pass rather than the SS Eagle, but his mind is a strange and squirrelly place, and obviously he enjoyed having a swastika hang from his neck. I suspect he wasn’t a believer in the master race, but was pursuing cheap nihilistic thrills. This was the same impulse that led him to release a Charles Manson cover five years later. In brief, I’d peg him as an asshole more than a racist, although he’s probably both.
“PROBABLY BOTH” BUT REAL QUICK
- Axl Rose’s skin is smooth. TOO smooth. JB Smoove smooth. Like, butt-of-the-white-suede-outfit-that-Cindy-Mancini-wears-in-Can’t-Buy-Me-Love smooth.
- Imagine this scenario: some asshole at a party spills red wine all over Axl Rose’s pretty white jacket and Patrick Dempsey comes to the rescue by spending all his fancy telescope money to get it replaced. Now Axl Rose has to pretend to be Patrick Dempsey’s girlfriend for a month and ride behind him on a lawnmower!
- (BTW: don’t Google “whatever happened to the actress who played Cindy Mancini” or you’re in for another Jonathan Brandeis/Corey Haim sized hole where your childhood used to be).
- Here is something that Axl Rose said about his own childhood: “We’d have televisions one week, then my stepdad would throw them out because they were Satanic. I wasn’t allowed to listen to music. Women were evil. Everything was evil.”
BACK UP: DID YOU CALL GUNS N’ ROSES “HAIR METAL”?
Look, the last thing I need is some armchair bro musicologist sniffing up in my vinyl collection and borrowed taxonomy, ok? I get it: GNR is “genre defying”—a bit blues, a bit punk, a bit (hair) metal, a bit glam.
As Tom Erlewine’s says in his review of Appetite for Destruction, “it was a dirty, dangerous, and mean record in a time when heavy metal meant nothing but a good time.” He notes the “nasty edge” that sets GNR’s music apart, and the “primal, sleazy sound that adds grit to already grim tales.”
They’ve got more grit than say, Poison, sure, but why are people so keen to disown GNR’s glam roots?
I’ve always felt like there’s something a bit glitterphobic about the insistence on GNR’s grittiness. Hair Metal as a genre is tainted by its own glamminess. And I suspect some fans want to keep GNR far away from any whiff of glam because they’re “too good for it.” But how can a band be “too good” for a genre? That is, unless the genre itself complicates any individual member’s perceived gender or orientation. It’s a question of Realness v. Camp. That tension is one of the things that makes stadium rock so thrilling—the flamboyance and the fire-worship, the wind and fog machines, the transformations and electrified peacockery, the strutting and catastrophic amounts of guitar. And yes, dudes, the Hair.
Karyna McGlynn is the author of Hothouse (Sarabande Books 2017), I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl (Sarabande Books 2009), and several chapbooks including The 9-Day Queen Gets Lost on Her Way to the Execution (Willow Springs Editions 2016). Her poems have recently appeared in The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, Black Warrior Review, Ninth Letter, Georgia Review, Witness, and The Academy of American Poet’s Poem-A-Day. Karyna holds an MFA from the University of Michigan, and earned her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston. She was recently the Diane Middlebrook Fellowship in Poetry at the University of Wisconsin and is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Christian Brothers University in Memphis.