By: Mary K. Cantrell
Jean Caffeine arrives fifteen minutes late for our interview wearing a yellow skull T-shirt and her signature disheveled hairstyle. Eons from the punker persona she adopted in ‘70s San Francisco, back when she gulped down four cappuccinos at a time, she settles for one half-calf as we sit down to discuss her upcoming performance of her one-woman show Sadie Saturday Night at the Hyde Park Theatre September 25.
Her performance about growing up punk in San Francisco is a hybrid of storytelling and songwriting. Folky punk songs written and performed by Caffeine and guitarist Josh Robins, of local rock band the Invincible Czars, are interrupted by vignettes about her personal journey through the movement. She recalls how she stumbled onto the punk scene after seeing a poster of some leather-jacketed rockers on the street, hanging out at the local radio station, drumming in several all girl bands (one, Pulsallama, opened for the Clash) and tells stories about a mysterious “blue haired boy” and getting her heart broken.
The 56-year-old lovingly refers to her short performance as “the bastard child of the memoir” – she wanted to write about her impulsive, chaotic young adulthood. She says finding the punk community was liberating. “I think it’s about belonging, I think everything has always been about belonging,” Caffeine says. “With the punk scene you could belong within the subculture, while at the same time being so different.”
"I think it’s about belonging, I think everything has always been about belonging"
She spent her nights attending shows and after-parties for bands like The Tubes and The Dils, punk rock bands based out of California, in the name of opposing corporate culture and promoting cultural consciousness. The push toward music purism involved rejecting arena-filling bands like The Rolling Stones and Boston. “I think a lot of people my age and people up to ten years older were like, ‘Fuck this, the culture is really bloated– especially music. Let’s get back to basics.’ ”
Punk helped closed the gap between the audience and the performer, Caffeine says, and allowed for more intimate relationships and increased dialogue. “When you go to see the area band and you’re like a teenager you’re like ‘is he looking at me? Is that singer looking at me?’ 1,000 heads deep to the back of the arena, you know, you’ve got all these little fantasies going on, but with punk you were going home with the guitar player.”
Caffeine says attending performances by bands like The Tubes blew her mind – she discovered a subculture, nightlife and theatricality that she had never seen from the popular bands at the time. “The lead singer would be wearing like silver lamé and enormous platforms, they’d act things out, they’d have a motorcycle on stage, they had a trapeze artist and I had been really interested in theatre around 6th or 7th grade so that really spoke to me.”
A lyric from The Clash’s song “1977” – “No Elvis, No Beatles, or the Rolling Stones in 1977” – spoke to San Francisco punks who were disillusioned with pop culture and wanted to confront the public and offer an oppositional stance on popular politics, media and fashion. “I think we were really anti-corporate even before we had this insanely corporate culture,” Caffeine says.
Wearing their punk-dom like armor, kids dyed their hair unnatural colors and wore clothes from thrift stores that had been torn apart and sewed together, all to spark dialogue. “You really wanted to engage with the public when you walked down the street,” Caffeine says. “You wanted to start a sort of aggressive, confrontational conversation.”
However, Caffeine said the harsh look was hard to pull off at times because people would shout obscenities or throw things at people who looked “punk.” “We are so used to everyone expressing themselves with their clothes, their hair, with their gender, with their lack of gender,” Caffeine says. “We are so used to people being really expressive and just looking and going ‘that persons punk’ and ‘that persons goth’ and ‘that persons a yuppie’ but no one looked like us, we were freaks.”
Caffeine eventually transitioned from a punk rock fan to a punk rock participant when she joined her first all-girl band, the Urge. She took drumming lessons from Karla Maddog, a member of The Controlers, a power punk band from LA. “So I set out to be thrown in from the drum stool,” Caffeine says. “I’m not very punk but I’m very do-it-yourself.”
It was never the band’s intent to make a feminist statement by making an all-girl band, Caffeine says. They encountered a lot of the sexism that prevails today, though, when trying to book shows. “It was hard to get a gig as a female band, I was always hitting up my male friends,” Caffeine says. “I love so many guys in the music scene, but it’s still a boys club.”
Fans of ‘60s music and fashion, her bandmates wore vintage psychedelic dresses and vinyl go-go boots, and they listened to The Supremes and the Shangri-Las. “We were trying to make that music, but as I say in the show, through our limited musicianship and damaged filters, it came out punk.”
Alcohol and drugs were also a huge part of the nightlife, Caffeine says – narcotics were easily accessible in a port city like San Francisco. The punk movement also tended to attract individuals who felt like they were on the fringe of society, who were unhappy with their home lives and looking for an escape. “I think a lot of people in punk had damage from family and cultural damage,” Caffeine says. “There was partying but there was also a lot of self medicating.”
"It’s a piece of my identity and it totally shaped me but I lived in all these places at times when things were happening so I floated through a lot of scenes almost like a chameleon."
The sense of community Caffeine found through identifying with other misfits was eventually eclipsed by a desire to move onto the next big thing. Simultaneously seeking an escape from drama with her father and experiencing newfound freedom after quitting her band, Caffeine packed up and moved to New York City. “I gravitated to something lighter and brighter after all the darkness of getting high and the stress of that look,” Caffeine says. “That harsh look wasn’t a pose– I felt it, I believed it, I loved it, it was just a hard thing to live with.”
In New York, Caffeine became immersed in the hip-hop scene, then later she became fascinated by honkey tonk music after moving to Austin. As she aged, she became disillusioned with the punk movement, confused by older punks aging idealism. “I’ve been in all these scenes and maybe that’s why I’m not a punk rock-lifer,” Caffeine says. “It’s a piece of my identity and it totally shaped me but I lived in all these places at times when things were happening so I floated through a lot of scenes almost like a chameleon.”
Caffeine has also experienced a lot of agism in punk, and in an effort to be more inclusive of all ages of punks at her show, she booked local all-girl trio, The Sister Rays, to play a set after her performance. “I’ve been waiting to have an intergenerational happening because I’m kind of old and I’m talking about punk but I’m not giving you that experience, I’m giving you my memories.”
While Caffeine says she may not want to wear her punk-dom like a tattoo that stays forever, she can’t help but laugh at the irony as she reveals one last story about how she got her tattoo. The faded words “It’s Not Worth It” (the title of one of her favorite Dils songs) are enscribed on her upper left arm. She was tatted up in the ‘70s by her dear friend, Penelope, of The Avengers, the same day she discovered a tooth in her pizza.