Violet LeVoit on Towson-Glen Arm

“…covering Jesse Helms’ house in a giant condom…” Page 3 of Violet LeVoit’s 1991 self-published comic history ‘The Gay Rights Movement’ - one of the earliest known Towson-Glen Arm works (courtesy of Matt Bray)

“…covering Jesse Helms’ house in a giant condom…” Page 3 of Violet LeVoit’s 1991 self-published comic history ‘The Gay Rights Movement’ – one of the earliest known Towson-Glen Arm works (courtesy of Matt Bray)

It’s hard to imagine what Towson-Glen Arm would’ve been like without the dynamic duo of best friends Violet LeVoit and Matt Bray. Bray provided the scene with its most zealous political activism, and he was TGA’s first and most important show promoter. LeVoit (who back in the 90’s went by the name Megan Carberry) was the first truly enthusiastic supporter of the Towson-Glen Arm artists, she named, recorded, and collaborated with the very early TGA band The Retarded Dogs, and she made a series of early/mid 90’s comics, design pieces, and accoustic music recordings of her own, including such seminal TGA works as the comic excerpted above and songs like ’50 Pound Shirt’ and ‘Come Away From The Sea’.

Some elements of Towson-Glen Arm survive in Violet LeVoit’s contemporary creative output, an impressive resume that includes work with Turner Classic Movies, the Baltimore City Paper, several film blogs including Press Play, plus two Emmy winning stints producing and editing programs for Maryland Public Television; she’s also worked as an on air film critic at Towson, Md.’s 89.7 fm WTMD, and currently LeVoit is an adjunct professor of pop culture studies at the Maryland Institute College Of Art, and she recently wrote the book “I Am Genghis Cum” (a collection of short stories illustrated by Josh Meyers, published by Fungasm Press). Additionally, Violet LeVoit has had many of her short fiction pieces and articles about film published in various anthologies.

Violet LeVoit is also one of my closest friends, so I’m very happy that she could take time out of her busy schedule to reveal what it was like to be one half of TGA’s legendary founding duo and what the Towson-Glen Arm experience really mean’t to her overall. Alright Violet, we’re ready whenever you are….

I write for a living, but I’d like to not write now. I’d like to spill instead, because at 15 what I created I spilled. At 38 I calculate and revise and spill a little, when it surprises and delights me.

Also, if I don’t spill this piece it’ll never get written, because it will become the biggest spill if I let it. The Towson-Glen Arm scene was one facet of many interconnected scenes, that, if I’m honest about it, were mostly interconnected through my participation and therefore whose interconnectedness might be only my delusion — the existing alternative music scene in Baltimore (Red Die #9, The Piltdown Men, Black Friday, WHFS), the early 90’s anarcho/crust punk scene and its rotating cast of 4 bands (one of which usually included me), the Towson High art scene, the bigger picture of the rise of alternative culture springing out of the 1990s (including grunge and Riot Grrl), and how all of this plays against the backdrop of my own adolescence into young adulthood. I get tempted to write Towson Glenarmderplatz about it. So I will not. I will just spill.

When I was 14 years old I remember thinking “Maybe I just don’t like music,” because I had never heard any music that moved me. 1989’s choices were limited (remember Martika? Tesla? Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians? Soho? Actually, “Hippiechick” was a good song, but it was all we had.), and yes, Naked Raygun and Social Distortion existed, but how am I supposed to find out about them at the Sam Goody (chain record store) two blocks from my house, where the DeBarge CDs still sit in their long boxes? I saw the Sugarcubes on Saturday Night Live, they were pretty okay. There was pop, and there was metal, and metalheads (or “grits” in Baltimore slang: greasy, toothless, working class metalheads – the antithesis of Sunset Strip glam metalheads. ‘Heavy Metal Parking Lot’ is how grits looked dressed up for a special occasion.)

I haven’t seen a lot of talk about how the geography of Towson and Glen Arm affected our creative endeavors. I think that’s something worth talking about, especially when I think about how this was before bike culture, phone culture, internet culture. Baltimore, especially suburban Baltimore, has terrible public transportation, and the light rail to take us into the city wasn’t built until 1992. Towson is a metropolis compared to the suburb Lutherville (just one town over, but a 30 minute walk if you’re a 15 year old without a car who wants to get to the library – which was, in pre-internet days, the only opportunity to get information about something that wasn’t going to come into your home via TV or newspaper, which is exactly what happened when I stumbled on Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces in the Cockeysville library, and the Japanese Sex Pistols cartoon inside that I photocopied and my father found and scolded me for bringing something so repulsive inside the house where my sisters could see it. Lipstick Traces is a book I’ve loved for 20 years but only read in its entirety this last summer. When I was done I had to sit and breathe with it against my chest for a moment, like a spent lover.) I found Devo’s Freedom Of Choice, and George Carlin records at the library too. I bought Never Mind The Bullocks at Sam Goody. I don’t know how I knew to buy that. It was punk. It was what you did. It was the first place to go.

But geography…by the time my family moved (to Lutherville, Md.) in the late 80s, the population was mostly elderly empty nesters. I was surrounded by old people: at the grocery store, on the street, at the Catholic church my parents still made me go to. I actually liked them, because they had no idea how to dress. I don’t mean that they put their pants on their heads or anything, but that they all had the style-blindness that makes older people not understand how clothes are out of fashion – and this was 1988, so their polyester pantsuits purchased in the 70s were still only a decade old. Like a Dave Berg cartoon in MAD, they didn’t notice that their fashion was, to contemporary eyes, totally antiquated and silly and an affront to current good taste. I loved it. Their totally absurd disco-suburb ensembles inspired me (I remember one gentleman getting out of his car at the Giant [super market] wearing a blue suit which was covered with appliqued quilt squares of red madras plaid – the pants and jacket totally matched!). They were the only sign of chaos in the manicured suburb, and I wanted to emulate them with clashing pattern outfits of Hawaiian shirts, rainbow suspenders and men’s high waisted golf slacks. Even if it didn’t always have that conscious theoretical underpinning, I think that thrift shop insanity aesthetic carried over into TGA.

Violet LeVoit at age 17, 1992 (photo from the 1993 Towson High School yearbook)

Violet LeVoit at age 17, 1992 (photo from the 1993 Towson High School yearbook)

“From my perspective as a woman, I think it just didn’t occur to the guys in the scene that they could be sexist. It slipped their minds, because they were interested in so much other stuff…(sexism) seemed like in the same category as all the other stuff ‘normal’ people got bent out of shape about for no reason…”

Dressing like old people and going to the library: that’s what I did for fun before I met Matt Bray. You have to understand, before the internet, if you were an oddball, the only way you could meet someone as creative and outrageous as you was 1) put on a crazy outfit and 2) go somewhere and 3) hope someone else interesting was doing the same thing. If you couldn’t drive, you had to hope that someone was close by. Matt and I met in church, of all places. We were in religious education together, where we both gave the teachers hell. I was really taken with him, because he was wraith skinny, and I was equally not taken with him because I could not pin down his personality – he was equally awkward, showy, earnest, cool, cutting. I could not figure out if he was sincere, or if he had that version of “popular” that endeavored to draw me in close before cutting the jugular. He irritated me like grit in an oyster. We were thrown together in middle school again. I don’t remember how but by 10th grade we were best friends. Maybe our mutual antipathy for Catholicism brought us together. He made a tape of himself banging on pots and pans and singing a duet with his mother. I would count that recording in relation to TGA as MC5 is to punk rock.

Here’s the compare and contrast portion of the essay: Politically driven. Matt was the kind of person who wanted to participate in hunger strikes and direct action, where I was a dreamier, Voltairine DeCleyre type, concerned with living as liberated a life as possible, with dismantling sexism at the top of my to-do list. Matt was also an achiever and a striver, academically driven where I was limping through high school on sheer apathy. I had no older role models in alternative culture, but Matt had an older cousin(? or friend of one of his brothers?) who had made a mixtape with the Government Issue song ‘Another Day’ – a bright, driving melody, containing these lyrics:

“Taking this joyride

too long today

taking this joy ride

too long today

hearts break like dishes

why must this life be so cruel?”

This was the song of us driving and dreaming down Baltimore’s 83 expressway, yearning for a future where you can do anything you want, in the way that only two teenagers in a fast car can yearn…

Too much Glenarmderplatz. Back on track: The point of this essay, is, that after we were in middle school together, Matt went to Dulaney High School and met Mike Apichella, where I went to Towson High and met Lou Thomas, who also had a penchant for rainbow suspenders.

I liked Lou instantly because he was following the same hopeful pre-internet rules for meeting people: dress outrageously, look for others of your kind. He was 14 and I was 17, and he kept inviting me to his house, and I kept finding reasons to not go (I don’t think I was avoiding him, I think I just had other 17 year old stuff to do) and luckily he kept asking me. That’s where I met his clan of friends, Dave Willemain, Bob Phair and Chris Teret. Lou made music, but to my eyes his magnum opus was the feature film Clockbutt, which I can best describe as a series of improvised sketches starring Thomas, et al. videotaped in someone’s living room – my favorite line “Liberated women don’t have to be women! They can be men, too!” I was (and remain) convinced of the brilliance of Clockbutt, and they became my new favorite people…

I had been in other anarchopunk bands like Culture In Decline and Matt, Mike and I formed the band Rapeseed, with a rotating cast of guitarists until my friend Ben Castle joined as our guitarist. Matt wanted to follow in the tradition of bands like Filth and Nausea and name the band “Rape” because it was the most awful thing he could think of. I balked and suggested “Rapeseed” instead, with the idea that we weren’t naming the band after canola oil, but after the symbolic “rape seed” inside of all of us – the horrible kernel of sick culture we’d been implanted with, against our will, and how our lives were defined by our fight against that kernel — politically, creatively, and personally.

Rapeseed’s songs were political protest songs – anti-smoking (“Bait”), anti-eating disorder (“Teeth”), anti-religion (“I Hate Religion”), anti-rape seed. Matt was our political conscience in many ways, although Mike and I contributed. Ben was never an activist but he was a better musician than all of us put together. We put out a cassette and got a small mention in some music zines. (They quoted my line “Bite the man that feeds you” in the review, which tickled me.) After Rapeseed broke up, Matt, Mike and I (and another guitarist whose name escapes me) continued the “name the band after the worst thing you can think of” tradition into Child Sized Coffin*, which was…more short-lived…

“Songs that were not songs, vegetarian sacrifices of artichoke hearts… performances that ended in me faking screaming fits and running up the stairs… just trying to subvert how songs and shows begin and end.”

…to my teenage self, Riot Grrl felt like many empty, angry complaints** because there was no sexism in Towson Glen Arm. I don’t know if that was a conscious decision, although we were all pretty much in agreement about being politically progressive. From my perspective as a woman, I think it just didn’t occur to the guys in the scene that they could be sexist. It slipped their minds, because they were interested in so much other stuff. I don’t remember anyone getting mad about someone dating someone’s girlfriend or something, or getting mad because a woman was doing something better than a man. Those kinds of concerns seemed so silly and 90210. It seemed like in the same category as all the other stuff “normal” people got bent out of shape about for no reason…

…I had a willingness to write songs about sex — albeit, mostly highlighting sex’s absurdity, but also its excitement. I had a side project with Lou Thomas and Scott Gilmore where we took the refrain from a dirty Alan Ginsberg poem (“Balls to your partner/ass against the wall/if you never get fucked on Saturday night/you never get fucked at all”) and made it the chorus to a dirty drinking song. I’ll sing it all to you if you like (one verse is really funniest because I swallow halfway through the lyric) but my favorite verse was this, because of its bilinguality:

There was a Moscow nympho who always aimed to please

Although there’s quite a famine she’s got all the eggs she needs

When she goes to the market she never stands in queue

She just says “у вас есть колбасу, я хочу.”

That was the kind of scene it was: you could throw in a dirty joke in another language and someone would get it. (Will Maris [of The Nudists] got it first. His knowing little smile when he heard it pleased me to no end.)

I also “wrote” the “song” for the Retarded Dogs called “Shaved Snizz”, after a porn mag I’d seen (and purchased) at the Royal Farms store on York Rd.(the main drag in north Baltimore County) It wasn’t a song, just an extended instrumental with placards recounting the story of how I’d obtained this absurd document. (I remember the one time it was performed, my band mates got fed up with the reams of cards I’d written and skipped ahead to the end in exasperation.) Retarded Dogs was the ultimate Towson Glen Arm project, the one I’d dreamed of doing for so long, the apotheosis of everything I’d ever wanted to do. Songs that were not songs, vegetarian sacrifices of artichoke hearts, songs about boys pleading with their mother to leave them alone (“ChAAAAAAAAD!”), performances that ended in me faking screaming fits and running up the stairs in tears, startling band members who didn’t realize I wasn’t really upset, just trying to subvert how songs and shows begin and end.

I don’t remember the chronology of Retarded Dogs, if it was before or after I left for art school, but things for me started to fall apart. I had another life in the Baltimore crust punk scene, because it sated my thirst for chaos, violence, and offensiveness, dark impulses that really didn’t exist in the lighter, absurdist TGA but I was getting fed up with crust’s anti-intellectual, anti-creative, anti-art and culture stance. I was tired of bands and tired of band practices. People were getting older, getting into drugs, drinking, and the stupid adolescent bullshit I thought we were above and smarter than.

I went to art school in Boston and longed for what I’d left behind. It was there I read accounts of Mabuhay Gardens, of punk before there were rules for punk, people writing songs with typewriters and making dresses out of black plastic bags. That was the first inkling I had of the value of what I’d left behind…I graduated from college. I looked for a job. More Glenarmderplatz bullshit, but this time it’s Somethingelsederplatz. Grownuplifederplatz. TGA slipped out of my life softly, and then disappeared…

Violet LeVoit(left) braiding Matt Bray's hair(right). Though artists like Lou Thomas, Dave Willemain, Tricia Lane, and Eli Jones were the true pioneers of the Towson-Glen Arm aesthetic, LeVoit and Bray were almost completely responsible for creating the networking of the venues, promoters, and patrons that formed the TGA artists' primary base of support. (photo by unknown - Lutherville, Md. August 1991; courtesy of Violet Levoit)

Violet LeVoit(left) braiding Matt Bray’s hair(right). Though artists like Lou Thomas, Dave Willemain, Tricia Lane, and Eli Jones were the true pioneers of the Towson-Glen Arm aesthetic, LeVoit and Bray were almost completely responsible for creating the network of venues, promoters, and patrons who formed the TGA artists’ primary base of support. (photo by unknown – Lutherville, Md. August 1991; courtesy of Violet Levoit)

(* a band also known as Sunshine and It Can Be Done)
(** Violet LeVoit’s opinions on Riot Girrl are quite different than those of most TGA artists; the 90’s political movement spearheaded by Kathleen Hanna, the U.K. band Huggy Bear, and other young radical feminists was really one of the biggest influences on Towson-Glen Arm, equal in importance to the works of Sun Ra, the French Situationists, producer Lee Perry, or any of the scene’s other, more obvious/”weird” influences)

For more info on Violet LeVoit go to http://www.violetlevoit.com

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2 Responses to Violet LeVoit on Towson-Glen Arm

  1. J. Spence Holman says:

    i remember a rapeseed show at matt’s house that really changed my whole perspective, your or mike or both rolling on the floor, screaming. i still have the cassette. knowing that all of these crazy shows could happen in a suburban cul de sac was pretty awesome. plus my folks were much more willing to let me go to lutherville than, say, the loft, so i felt like i was beating them at their own game – only the “safe” neighborhoods? ha! i just saw a crusty punk offer a blowjob for gas money, within spitting distance of a play set (actually happened).

  2. Lou Thomas says:

    Somehow I missed this post until now. Violet was definitely the coolest person to ever set foot in Towson High, no wonder I kept asking you to come play crazy music with us at my mom’s house.

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