The Butchies and Amy Ray at Asbury Park

These are The Butchies, one of the best riot grrrl bands of all time, last seen backing up Amy Ray at The Saint in Asbury Park, NJ on April 20, 2012 (I’ll add you some video later).

Melissa York (center), the drummer, is awesome on a stick.  She rocks the wrist sweat band better than old school Andre Agassi and her glasses rival Maddow for total butchness quotient (BQ).

But even York can only do so much with lead singer Kaia Wilson’s current song repertoire which leans heavy on sea turtles and tofu. Kaia is plenty hot, but once you start singing about tofu it’s a short slide into a Portlandia sketch, particularly if you used to play ping-pong in the Gay Games (as Wilson did).

As for Alison Martlew, the bassist, I’m not gonna lie. When she took the stage at Asbury Park I thought she was a 17 year old boy (props to her, though, for being so polite as she slid through the crowd onto the stage). So she’s butch…which is good, but is it possible that there is a point at which you can actually be aging too well?

Kaia’s opener gave me flashbacks to my college girlfriend who ate a lot of soy nuts, taught “gentle yoga” and worked at the co-op in Ithaca, New York with a bunch of dirty hippies. Still, Kaia did a kick-ass cover of “Orinoco Flow” by Enya. If ever there was a song that deserved a butch treatment, that one is it. After her set was over, Kaia provided solid back-up for Amy Ray the rest of the night.

Amy was charismatic and enigmatic, as usual. Like every real dyke, I’ve been following her career for 20+ years now. I don’t think it would be too much to say that she and fellow Indigo Girl Emily Saliers are kind of like every lesbian’s cool aunts.

Here’s a typical Amy song lyric: “The landed aristocracy, exploiting all your enmity…all your daddies fought in vain, to leave you with the mark of Cain.” Anyone who can work “enmity” into a song is cool with me. But I’ve always had the impression that Amy isn’t able to lighten up…ever. She went through a heavy duty mandolin phase in the late 1990’s without a hint of irony peeking through in either her lyrics or her behavior on stage. Mandolin is like the go-to silly instrument for any wandering minstrel or cooky knight in a Monty Python sketch, but she applied herself to it like YoYo Ma to the cello.

A few years later she experimented with what I can only call an inverted parachute pants phase. In interviews over the last two decades she has talked about her gender identity, but whether she sees herself as butch or gender queer or trans doesn’t explain anything about the outfits. These pants do not say “I’M HERE! I’M GENDER QUEER! GET USED TO IT!” They say “Hey, do you think if I took one of Will Smith’s old pairs of pants from ‘Fresh Prince’ and sewed them inside out while we drive down a bumpy stretch of highway from Athens to Mobile, I could make a cool jump suit or something?”

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall when she first tried them on and showed them to Emily.

Amy R: “Em? Do these make my ass look fat?”

Emily S: “No, but they do kind of make your ass look like it fell out of a helicopter flying at low altitude.”

Right before the Asbury Park show last week I was standing outside The Saint with the rest of the hard core Jersey dykes (there are about 20 of us altogether). Amy walked by with her 15-year-old femmey keyboard player in tow. The twenty of us who were standing in the cold evening light, admiring Amy’s non-descript gray tour van with its Georgia plates, cheered huskily as she went by. She glanced behind her as if she heard sirens somewhere in the distance, then skibbled off down a side street. I don’t know what reaction I was expecting, and I’m not sure what I’d do if a bunch of dykes cheered for me (I’d love to have the chance to find out), but isn’t there some standard thing you do in these situations? You do a little Queen Elizabeth II wave and say “Yeehaw!” or something?

I’m not saying Amy seems self conscious, rather the opposite. It just seems like living inside thick walls of sapphic admiration for 20 years has left her unable to recognize her own silliness or enjoy it. The title of her recently released solo album is “Lung of Love,” which I referred to as “Iron Lung” for three weeks before someone corrected me. There’s no good reason she should see herself as anything other than a consummate professional, after all she is a killer performer with a real intellectual and spiritual streak and she’s been churning out well regarded songs as long as U2 has. But I guess I’m used to thinking that famous dykes are self-deprecatingly funny, like Ellen and Rosie and Rachel Maddow. Frankly, Amy has had a longer and steadier career than any of those three, and she’s done it without relying on laughs. That’s impressive in its own way. Still, I’d give anything to see her smile.

I’m offering $50 to anyone who can get video of Amy Ray giggling posted on YouTube (note: use of Tickle-me-Elmo permitted, but actually rushing the stage and tickling her is off limits!).

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