Interview with: Nicole Panter
Conducted April 2005
For as long as I've known Nicole Panter, I've admired her intelligence, honesty and directness. In fact, I think she values those qualities as much as I do. She has always been one to speak her mind freely and you always knew just where you stood with her. This boldness must have served her well in her role as manager of the Germs. "Managing the Germs" almost strikes me as an oxymoron, but manage them she did.
But the Germs are not where her story begins or ends. Nicole is also a respected author, college professor, feminist and political activist. Check out the links at the end of this interview for some examples of her work and more information on this talented woman.
Fuck you punk rock/ 1977
Imagine the exhilaration of knowing that you are part of something that is completely and utterly new and different. Imagine that all your life you have felt cut off from the rest of humanity at the most elementary level -- you do not communicate well with others.
Imagine feeling so lonely and twisted that at times you have really, really tried to kill yourself, even though you were just a kid. Imagine that the people who were supposed to love you, your family, have continually and deliberately brutalized, and betrayed you in ways other people couldn't begin to imagine. Imagine that you are at the end of your rope.
Then walk into a room, where for the first time in your miserable, horrifying life, you feel a part of things. These people understand you because these things have also happened to them. There's no need to explain your silence, your shyness, your need to get totally obliterated every night of the week and to maybe fuck some really cute boy against a wall in a dark corner of the club without ever asking his name and then go dive into the sea of bodies pogoing. There's no need to explain the way this music, this noise makes you feel. There's no need to explain why, when you get dressed every day you do everything you can to make yourself look as ugly on the outside as you feel on the inside.
There's no need to explain your hurt or your anger or the damage you feel because it is perfectly self-explanatory in this place, in this music.
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-Nicole Panter (c) 1994
1. What was/is your contribution to the punk community?
I managed probably the most notorious (behaviorally) band in the first LA punk wave -- the Germs. Within that context I set up a self-administered publishing company that has probably paid the song-writers and their heirs several hundred thousand dollars over the last 28 years. I set up the deal with Slash, which wouldn't have happened otherwise -- no one else wanted to record the band, let alone buy them $5,000 worth of studio time -- an unheard of figure back then. As a result, they made an album, G.I. which is still in print and considered a punk classic. I designed the cover (to look like an understated Pablo jazz album rather than the expected "ransom note" raggedy punky graphics -- Bob Biggs wanted to spell out "GERMS" on one side in jelly beans and on the other side in rotting meat, which Frank Zappa had already done on something). Oh, and I told Darby that if he didn't participate in "Decline of Western Civilization" which he didn't want to do, I'd quit being the band's manager (I had to bring out the big ammunition occasionally). Their appearance in "Decline" pretty much made sure they became known to subsequent generations of disenfranchised kids. That movie gave Darby the immortality he always said he'd get....
I was also partners in a record company called "White Noise" and we put out The Avengers EP the "American In Me." The record we put out before that was VOM's single, my partner in the company was a friend of R. Meltzer's aka Mr. Vom. R. Meltzer, in some kind of twisted attempt for post-hippie street cred has been telling people that I was his girlfriend. This is not true, except apparently, in his imagination.
Later, in 1982 I was a contributor to and an actor in "The Pee Wee Herman Show" onstage at the Roxy for a year or so and then we did it for HBO. I don't consider that part of my punk past -- by '82 I no longer considered myself a punk on active duty, but it seems to have been folded into the punk niche.
Also I was married to Gary Panter, a cartoonist who has been pretty much lost to history outside the comix world, but he came up with the Screamer's "screaming head" logo and did a comic called Jimbo. Gary was called the "Godfather of Punk Cartoonists" and I wish he'd be
rediscovered -- I have a closet full of paintings he gave me that I'd love to sell for decent money, if anyone is interested....Matt Groening was his best friend. They'd sit in the front room giggling and drawing dirty cartoons, like two twelve year olds. I'd make them PB&J sandwiches and then go lock myself in the bedroom and read or watch Green Acres reruns or Rockford Files.
2. Which artist, band concert and/or show had the most impact on your life?
David Bowie's Diamond Dogs show at the Universal Amphitheatre was the first life-changing show for me, it was quite the spectacle. I grew up in a small desert town 2 hours east of LA and everyone else was listening to Lynyrd Skynryd, so seeing a very delicate, pansexual
Bowie at the height of his career validated this whole other aesthetic -- visual and musical -- that I gravitated toward. Patti Smith, in an early show at the Whisky, before "punk" was called "punk" was another one. During punk, I loved The Clash, the Weirdos, the Screamers and the
Plugz. The Weirdos were the best LA punk band, hands down. John Denney, even on his worst night, had the kind of charisma as a performer that Frank Sinatra had. I could never understand why no one knows about them now. The Screamers were just so dark and fun and different....I saw a video of them a couple of years ago and I was struck by how flamingly gay they were, something that went right by me back then. And The Bags, of course...(ed. note: of course!)
3. What was the role of women in the early punk scene?
As effortlessly equal as that of men....the strongest, smartest, most independent women I've ever known were punk girls, but it wasn't ever stated or harped on, it was just a fact of life. Maybe that's why everyone felt like such misfits in the non-punk world...
Punk rock girl fights were the scariest thing ever, they were so vicious. I was never in one, but I saw a few.
4. What is the legacy of punk in your life?
Well, first of all, it helped me act out a lot of anger about having bad parents -- better than therapy. I don't know that I've ever met a kid who identified themselves as punk who didn't have some fucked up early life thing, usually abuse sometimes at the hands of family, sometimes they were simply outcasted by peers.
It gave me a group of people whom I identified with and a certain degree of acceptance I hadn't known before. I am still something of a black sheep among those black sheep, but as someone who speaks her mind that's just the way things are and the older I get, the less I care about what anyone thinks of me. Punk taught me that I didn't have to be a people-pleaser. And that when the emperor isn't wearing any clothes, somebody has got to say it loudly and clearly.
It gave me the confidence in myself to finally start writing seriously -- the whole DIY/learn as you perform thing.
5. What are you listening to now?
Oh, my dear....books on tape most likely! Or NPR, though since the November election, I can barely listen to the news -- I've been tuning out the world since then! Hearing punk makes me sad -- the Clash makes me sad that Joe died so young, the Ramones make me sad that there are more dead Ramones than dead Beatles. The last record (see, I still call them records, for god's sake...) I really liked in its entirety was the most recent Modest Mouse record. Damien Rice is good. I also listen to lots of Indian devotional music, I think that's from doing yoga 2 hours a day, every day for the last 9 or so years. Yoga has taken up where punk left off for me, in terms of working out my issues...
6. Do you have any funny or interesting stories to share?
A million of 'em. Let's have dinner...
Here's one. I was hanging out with Darby and Pat and Lorna and a few other people and we decided to go to the movies. We had two choices, "Dumbo" or "Salo: 100 Days of Sodom" by Piero Pasolini. Being punks, we decided to go to "Salo" of course, which was pretty gross and porny -- Nazis have a secret school for boys where they make them do all sorts of awful, humiliating, S&M things. There's a scene where the boys have to dive into a giant vat of shit for some reason or other. During this scene, Darby groaned and said loudly enough for the whole theater to hear: "God, we should have gone to see Dumbo instead." And he meant it, he wasn't being a smart ass. Which for some reason still strikes me as hilarious -- he fancied himself such a little toughie, but he really wasn't...
During the Elks Lodge Riot, Lorna (Doom) and I were coming out of the rest room -- in true contrarian punk fashion, we'd gone into the men's room -- just in time to see the cops working their way up that huge wide grand staircase in a wedge. They were holding up thick lucite shields with one hand and just whacking the hell out of people with their billy clubs as they moved up the stairs. We went into the auditorium part to get away from them, we were just a few steps ahead of the carnage. The Go-Go's were onstage, I think. We worked our way through the audience telling people to leave through the stage exits, to get out of there because the cops were going crazy. We went through the backstage labyrinth and out the stage doors only to walk into what looked like downtown Beirut. There were sharpshooters on every rooftop spaced three feet apart from each other, hundreds of them. and the ever-present helicopters with their spotlights, and down on the sidewalk, the swat squad was in full riot gear, like the guys who'd come up the stairs and they were just whaling on people. It was something I never hope to see again in my lifetime....well, that's not a funny story, but there you have it....
Oh, here's one: In June, 2000 I had to have major fibroid surgery and I was going to be in the hospital for a week. So, I checked in on the day of the surgery and they prepped me and told me to go into this little room, but on the green backless gown, paper shoes and paper shower
cap thingee and just sit down, watch TV and wait for an anesthesiologist to come in and talk to me. I'd just negotiated with the surgical nurse to leave my "exotic piercing" in place (down there) even though I was having female surgery, and I'm sitting there in this fabulous ensemble and this Chinese guy in scrubs and horn-rimmed glasses comes in with a clipboard and says: "Hi, are you Nicole Panter." And I say, "Yes." And he says "THE punk rock Nicole Panter?" and I say, "Yes.?" And he starts babbling: "Hi, I'm ____ I'm a huge fan. A huge fan..." and I must have had this look on my face like, "what the hell...." because then he says, "I'm DOCTOR _____. Your anesthesiologist...um....can I have your autograph?" And I just groaned in embarrassment. However, everything went just fine and I ran into Dr. ____ at a coffee house around the corner from my house a few months later, turns out he's also a neighbor and we've become pals.
Punk was the most amazing, free-wheeling, free-thinking group of folks ever and I am so glad I was in the right place at the right time, I can't imagine what path I would have taken if it hadn't happened.
7. Are there any punk women from the early scene that you feel have not been adequately recognized?
There's a great new book out right now called Cinderella's Big Score: Women of the Punk and Indie Underground by Maria Raha. It's scholarly, well researched. The woman who wrote it didn't have any personal agenda to revise history, unlike nearly every other so-called writer who has written about our scene.
Melanie Nissen and Philomena Winstanley were two amazing women who were among those responsible for the flowering of punk in LA.
Without trying, I've gotten way more attention than I'd ever have imagined possible or ever sought out -- I gave a few interviews early on, but after being subjected to one too many writer's personal agendas, I stopped talking about punk and refused to talk to people who were writing about it. For instance, although I am thanked in the acknowledgments of that awful Mullen/Bolles piece of merde Germs "book", all I ever did was hang up the phone on them when they'd call -- Darby really disliked Don Bolles and I felt like it would be a violation of my friendship with Darby to talk to Bolles about him. Finally the publisher called me up and threatened to "ruin" me if I didn't cooperate with them. Of course I laughed at him, there's nothing that guy could do that would possibly affect my life. He did, however, cover my contribution really negatively and derisively in order to make me look bad and then thanked me in the acknowledgments to give
the reader the idea that I cooperated with him.
I have also noticed that people who couldn't have possibly been there are claiming to have been right in the thick of things....There was this guy who was sucking up to one of the more famous punk matriarchs a few years back and he did a few high profile resurrection type events. He was obsessed with the Germs, and he was young, maybe 2 or 3 when Darby died. This didn't stop him from telling anyone who'd listen that he and Darby had been lovers. I'd even seen him quoted in interviews saying it.
I was introduced to some other guy who swore he hung out with me and Darby in Salt Lake City in 1977 when, in fact, I'd never been there and neither had Darby together or separately. Things like that have happened a lot. I think people are assuming I was so drugged out or drunk back then that I wouldn't remember what really happened, but the truth is, even then, aside from the occasional quaalude or two, I was not much of a druggie or a drinker.
8. What is something we should know about you that we probably don't know?
I'll tell you eight things:
1. My stepfather was Pat, The King of Steaks. He invented the Philadelphia cheesesteak. No kidding, you can look it up. He was 37 years older than my mother, who was his fourth wife. I grew up thinking he was my father because no one told us the details.
2. I grew up in Palm Springs, but left home at 14. Until 6th grade, I went to Quaker School.
3. I lived in a cabin in the woods in Marin County for a while in 1976. The rent for the whole place was $50. A month.
4. I've been a college professor for the past ten years, I teach writing and film. Also, I have two published books of fiction out with a third and fourth in the oven.
5. Once a year, I go visit my friend Gregg Turner (Angry Samoans) and his wife in New Mexico. I knew him pre-punk, from Back Door Man, a zine he wrote for along with Phast Phreddie (Patterson). Gregg is also a college professor. We both laugh about this turn of events. Can
you imagine if you'd told me such a thing back then?
6. I've done serious yoga, every day, for nine years -- three times longer than I was actively a punk rocker.
7. I split my time between the ocean and the desert, but hope to be living in the desert full time before too long, I'm done with LA.
8. Because I stayed out of the sun until 1994, I can do all kinds of outdoor girl stuff now, like huge, long hikes up the sides of mountains. Can you imagine?
Want more Nicole? Read on:
Interrobang Interview with Nicole Panter