Zellotry: a conversation with Heather Haley

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      Heather Haley’s novel The Town Slut’s Daughter is, clearly, a fictionalization of a young woman’s encounter with (and seduction into) the world of punk, but the fiction only goes so far; there are obvious parallels with Haley’s own life experience throughout.  

      The book, for example, begins with two young women attending a D.O.A. concert, one of whom has never seen a punk show before. Similarly, Haley’s introduction to punk was seeing a D.O.A. show at the Windmill with her best friend Cathy Cleghorn. There’s no attempt to fictionalize the band, and the members of D.O.A. are named—Joey Shithead, Randy Rampage, Chuck Biscuits. Later in the book, Haley’s fictive counterpart ends up singing in a punk band, which Haley also did—more than one, in fact, especially given that the Vancouver Zellots had a different lineup from the California chapter, Heather Haley and the Zellots (to say nothing of the Ontario splinter of the Zellots, sans-Haley).

      And all those bands were a completely different entity from the .45s, who featured Haley, Brad Kent, Rampage, and a drummer Rampage describes in his I Survived D.O.A. memoir as a “streetwise dyke from the Eastside of Philadelphia”, Karla “Maddog” DuPlantier.

      The book further follows Haley to California, and climaxes in the L.A. riots of 1992, which Haley herself witnessed (and which served partially as impetus for her return to sleepy Vancouver). “I never felt more like a Canadian than standing on the roof of our studio on Vermont Ave. on guard with a fire hose wishing we had bought a shotgun,” she remembers, now, saying she was more or less “trapped” by the riots going on below.

      So just how much of the book is autobiographical—and how does her mother feel about the title?

      “People always wonder about the title,” she responds. Her mother, Corona, died in 1992 , when Heather was still in Los Angeles. (It was her “annus horribilis”, she says, the year she lost her business, marriage, and mother). “My mother was a troubled person, and we had a volatile relationship, but we shared a deep bond as well. Corona didn’t care what people thought. She was proud of me and even came to see the Zellots play at the Smilin’ Buddha.”

      As for the book, I always say if it was autobiographical it would be a memoir, but I know what you mean,” Haley responds. “Certainly my life experiences inform the story and lend it authenticity.” But Haley feels “there is more truth in fiction” than in memoirs, anyhow. “One is free to embellish, feign, render events fanciful or grotesque. What’s so great about reality?”

      Haley has inscribed a copy of the novel to me at Commercial Drive’s Storm Crow Tavern, a few blocks away from her apartment, where we begin our conversation. We’ve been chatting about a few things: she shares a trepidation with many Vancouver renters that she’s soon to be priced out of the city. We also touch on her time in Los Angeles: turns out she knows and remembers the Flesh Eaters, fronted by fellow poet Chris Desjardins, who will soon be making their first Vancouver appearance, this January at the Rickshaw. (One wonders if Chris D. remembers her?)

      Haley is well-kept, as always—from a few feet away, she looks nearly identical to the strikingly beautiful, charismatic woman you see in Bev Davies’ early photos.

      What does Haley remember of that first DOA show? “The volume! It was, truly, an assault on the senses, but I adapted quickly. It was like nothing I’d heard or seen, so exciting.”

      Before her inauguration into punk, Haley—a native of Vancouver—had been living and working in Alberta and studying music at Grant MacEwan University. When she got back, through Cleghorn, she “got re-acquainted with the Surrey contingent: Art Bergmann,  John Armstrong, Bill Scherk, Jim Cummins, and Gord Nicholl.”

      Jim Cummins— I, Braineater and visual artist, had gone to high school with Haley, and before her departure to Alberta, Haley “had been roommates with Art, along with my boyfriend Peter Draper, former guitarist for the Shmorgs. And John and Bill used to skip classes to come over and hang out with us.”

      The Shmorgs, for those who don’t know, were Bergmann’s pre-K-Tels band; their sole LP is a pretty easy find in Vancouver collectors’ shops, but it’s mostly a curiosity, for those who want to hear a young Art Bergmann making Stonesy, bluesy rock music, prior to his discovery of punk. It’s not awful, but it’s not “Data Redux”, either. Peter Draper would go on to record Heather Haley’s band the Zellots, but the tapes appear to have been lost. (“[Supreme Echo’s] Jason [Flower] and I spent two years trying to track down the master tapes, but to no avail.”)

      The upcoming Zellots flexi, on Supreme Echo records, will feature three original songs, with Haley on vocals. It was sourced from “a cassette I’ve been carrying around much of my adult life”, she says.

      The Zellots began when Haley met Conny Nowe, whom she describes in the flexi’s liner notes as a “Dutch Amazon drummer”. “She had recently returned from working in the commercial fishery,” Haley says. “She was competent, talented, and driven—I was rather in awe of her.  We shared a rapport and immediately came up with a plan: we rented the house on 34th Ave near Victoria and started playing music together. We put an ad in the Buy & Sell which is how we met Jane [Colligan, bassist] and Christine [DeVeber, guitarist]—they were recent Ontario transplants,” and later would start the Ontario Zellots when they went back home. “Jane’s boyfriend Nick took photos and designed our posters, and I think Peter came up with the band name, and the stylized spelling.” He also helped soundproof the basement.

      “The men we knew were solidly in our corner,” Haley recalls.

      It feels like a weird question to ask, but was she taken more or less seriously on the punk scene—which tends to mistrust beauty— because she was so good-looking?

      “I don’t think it’s a weird question. I’m an ugly duckling, quite insecure and never felt beautiful so didn’t reflect on that much. When I was condescended to, which happened all too often, I chalked it up to sexism.”

      What of the hostility towards female punks on the scene? There’s footage of the Dishrags being booed and abused onstage in Susanne Tabata’s Bloodied But Unbowed; were the Zellots witness to any of that treatment?

      I saw the Dishrags play several times,” Haley answers, “but did not witness that particular abuse. It didn’t surprise me, though. Certainly there were those types in the crowd and the Zellots were heckled on occasion. Came with the territory.”

      But “male or female, most of our friends were musicians, and supportive without question. I mostly recall the camaraderie. We shared everything; equipment, gigs, rehearsal space, billing, beer, and the aforementioned excitement, which was intoxicating.”

      Easily my favourite of the three songs on the flexi, “Let’s Play House” is presented in the vein of '60s girl groups, more doo-wop than punk rock, with Haley archly singing about how “cooking and cleaning” would be her destiny. Co-written with De Vebber and Colligan, it reflects Haley’s disillusionment with the institution of marrage. “I’d always wished my parents had split up. They were miserable together.”

      She says the song is both “satirical and an homage” to girl groups. The EP is nowhere funnier than when the background vocals kick into “goin’ to the chapel and we’re gonna get married.”

      Though Haley self-defines as a feminist—and was “quite militant as a young woman,” she “began to cultivate an aversion to rhetoric or hitting people over the head with a message. I avoid mixing politics with my writing,” she says.

      The next track on the album, “On the Dole”—which is probably most typical of what the Zellots sounded like, Haley says—sounds like early Ohio punk, back when Chrissy Hynde was on the scene, say. (“I greatly admire Chrissy Hynde, she’s a powerhouse.”) As for the subject matter, Haley “used to work as much as possible, but I think we wrote the song because many of us at various times were on welfare.”

      The final surviving Zellots song, “Vampire Love”, is the real oddball; discordant and weird, it seems to owe a little to New York No Wave. There were certainly bands in town that were aware of that phenomenon; Alex Varty has said that AKA had a definite awareness of DNA, the skronky New York avant-rock trio fronted by Arto Lindsay. So was Haley listening to Lydia Lunch or something? How did that song come together?

      Sadly, Haley “can’t recall the specifics. We used to jam in rehearsal and then I would go upstairs with a tape and write the lyrics in my room. I wasn’t aware of No Wave at the time but later lived in NYC and ran with several members of the scene, especially Gordon Stevenson of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks”— the band Lydia Lunch sang for early on—“who was married to Exene’s sister, Mary.”

      Early Zellots sets also included covers: Wire’s “Fragile”, or ? and the Mysterians’  “96 Tears”. “That was a challenge without keyboards but we pulled it off.”

      As for the .45s—who get talked about at greater length in Rampage’s book—Haley remembers that “Brad approached me after the Zellots broke up and suggested we form a group with Randy and Karla. Wild premise, I know. I suspect Brad wanted his own version of the Avengers, which is how he met Karla, by residing in California during his stint playing guitar with the Avengers. But, we all knew and were very supportive of each other. Most of us toured up and down the West Coast as it was cheaper and more viable than touring Canada. There was a real circuit consisting of Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The Dils played Vancouver often, as did the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag.”

      There are also some .45’s rehearsal tapes out there, but Haley isn’t sure where they are. There are also some recordings of Heather Haley & the Zellots, made in California, but again, they’re on tape and not exactly available. For the time being, the three-song Supreme Echo flexi is the only available physical media representing the Zellots, during their year or so of existence in Vancouver. (The band never committed anything to vinyl back in the day.)

      Any final thoughts on her days with the Zellots?

      “I wish we had not broken up, that we’d appreciated what we had, but such is the folly of youth. That experience catapulted me from frustrated wannabe to artist with a voice, such as it is. I can’t imagine how my life would have turned out had it not been for punk rock.”

      Heather Haley will be interviewed by Nardwuar this Friday (September 15) at 3:30 p.m.; then, on September 23, will be doing various meet-and-greets (at Neptoon from 1 p.m., Red Cat Hastings from 2 p.m., and Coquitlam’s Music Madhouse Records from 3:30), climaxing in an 8 p.m. record-release party at What’s Up? Hot Dog (2481 East Hastings) that evening. For more information, see the Supreme Echo Facebook page