Saturday, April 7, 2012

On Houston's Street: Talking music and life with Avengers singer, solo artist

Penelope Houston performs with the Avengers in Seattle, July 2011, (All Cat Rose photos, except where noted)
By Andy

First, there was that biting guitar riff. And then, the raging vocals leaped into action:

It's the American in me that makes me watch the blood
running out of the bullethole in his head.
It's the American in me that makes me watch TV
see on the news, listen what the man said.
He said,

Ask not what you can do for your country
what's your country been doing to you
Ask not what you can do for your country
what's your country been doing to your mind?

It was a Sunday night long ago on Rodney Bingenheimer's radio show on KROQ in Los Angeles that I first heard an Avengers song -- and 'The American in Me' and many other insightful tunes featuring the voice of Penelope Houston have stuck with me since then.

The pent-up punk energy and melody are the perfect concoction when you spin an Avengers record or if you're lucky enough to witness the band live. They kicked things off with a roar in the San Francisco area in 1977 and are still vital today.

I chatted with Houston, now age 53, by phone on March 30. She spoke volumes about her new solo album, "On Market Street," and the re-release of the classic Avengers "pink" album, backed with outtakes, rehearsal tapes and live recordings.

Magazine cover, April 1996


* How'd the show go last night (record-release party at Cafe Du Nord in SF, March 29)?

It was good. It was my first full show with this lineup of the band, so (laughs), there's always like, you're looking at the other people and they're looking at you, it's like, 'OK, yeah, we could have used a little more rehearsal, but it goes like this.' But I think it sounded good, we videotaped it and recorded it, we'll see how it all comes out. People liked it, they were all very happy-- good crowd.

* Good. What were some of the highlights there for you last night? Do the new songs translate pretty well live, do you think?

Yeah, I've had a couple people tell me that the title track, 'On Market Street,' makes them cry. I've had more than two people come up to me after this show, and then I played it just as a duet with Tom Heyman, who's the guitar player I'm taking to Europe with me, and people just said, 'Yeah, I started tearing up on that song, seeing it live.' It must be translating.

* Tell me a little bit about that song, what it means to you.

It's sort of a special song. It was the last song that got written for the record. And what really happened is, there were 10 songs for the album, and one of them was 'USSA,' which is a song from the late '80s or something dealing with Russia breaking up, kind of, in a funny way. But when preparing these 10 songs to go into the studio, Pat Johnson, who I work with, he was like, 'Wow, 'USSA' just doesn't fit in with the rest of them. Your work is so mature now, your songwriting is so strong, I don't think we should put that one on the record.' And I was like, 'Well, then I'm gonna have an album with nine songs on it, and that's not acceptable.' And he said, 'Well, write another song.' And this was about two days before we were going into the studio, and I said, 'Um, you know it takes me like a year to write a song.' (laughs) I can't write a song in a day.

So, I sat down with a poem that I'd written a couple years ago while at work and walking around the Market Street area... so I saw this guy when I was out there on Market Street, it was around Christmas, and he was walking on the street, on the sidewalk, on his knees, and he was like in connection with his god. But it seemed really harsh, like a harsh penance, like he was a penitent, you know? And he was also probably homeless, with a lot of issues, but there he was-- him and his god, and I was just like, 'Jesus Christ, I gotta write this down.' So, I wrote this poem, and the poem pretty much is translated to the first verse of the song. So, when I decided to write the song, I took that poem and the song came about really fast and pretty naturally. (She recorded it the next day acoustically without the band, and the mellotron was added later by producer Jeffrey Wood.)

Somehow, that song really touches people and it seems to have a lot of weight, and that's why I ended up using the name of that song for the album.

From 'On Market Street':

This is for the wastrel
Invisible and shamed
Down on his knees on Market Street
His sickness is unnamed
Through the rain he genuflects
His pilgrimage is real
The shoppers with their Christmas lists
Go round him where he kneels

And if your faith is true
And if your faith is strong
You'll enjoy the freedom from choosing right from wrong
And if your God is great
And if your God is good
He would live on Market Street, not in Hollywood

* Looking back over the many songs you've written, would you say that one -- it's one of your newest, obviously -- might already be one that could be a favorite, that has affected you a lot?

I think so... somebody already wrote a review of just that song and put it in the SF Weekly, which is kind of cool, with a link to the stream of the song and all of the lyrics.

I think that anyone that's been in San Francisco or lives in an urban environment, has interactions with people and they feel a certain amount of helplessness or outrage or, in some people's cases, they feel superior or whatever. And I think that song touches people on a lot of levels that have had that kind of urban experience. And melodically, it's very nice.

* Obviously getting inspiration for songs for you could be wherever you go, just walking around or doing anything else.  (Is there) a go-to place where you like to write songs in San Francisco?

(Cracks a joke about the Missouri Lounge in the East Bay, which people call the 'Misery Lounge.')

I would say my own misery, the times in my life when I've been feeling really bad or beaten down, those are the times when I'm generally the most productive as far as writing lyrics. It doesn't have to be any particular place, often I will write while I'm walking, and I think that tends to make my songs all have the same meter (laughs). A lot of the songs on this record are related to the break up of my last marriage and the crazy affair that happened afterward, just a lot of excitement and heartache, tumult and so a lot of those songs came right out of my journal, so that would be another place. And I always write in my journal while I'm in bed; I tried carrying it around with me, but it just seemed like a dangerous thing to do.

Sometimes, I'll read something in the newspaper and that will trigger thoughts that will turn into a song. It's always hard to know where it's gonna come from.


* So another thing coming up is this Avengers discography with the "pink" album being re-released. Those songs are 30-plus years old and still really reverberate with people, what's your reaction to that? Do they still speak to you after all these years?

They do. People have sort of said to me, 'Do you feel funny singing 'Teenage Rebel' and singing these songs that are old?' And generally, as soon as the music starts, I kind of, in a way, become that same person I was when I was 19. There's no hesitation at all, I completely can feel what is in each one of those songs. And I think that's one of the exciting things, as well, there's always people in the audience that are singing all the lyrics and they're so excited to hear it. They're relating, too. It's really, getting that strong reaction from the audience that is great. It's one of the things that kept me playing that set of songs for the last 7 or 8 or 9 years... and I'm always very excited when I'm doing it.

(Talk turns to one of the Avengers' last gigs in Seattle in July 2011 at Neumo's when she was battling a cold and her voice was a bit ragged. She forged through it and we in the audience helped her with the words.)

I should have just handed the microphone down to the crowd (laughs) ... Some people, they're singing along and they're in it, they're enjoying themselves.

Avengers in Seattle, with Joel Reader, top, and Greg Ingraham, below.

* Of all the songs in that catalogue, is there one that still stays with you the most?

I'd have to say there's two:

'Corpus Christi' -- I wrote back then, I guess in '79 with Brad Kent, who was the last, the second guitar player of the Avengers. I think that my writing on that, lyrically, was sort of an indication of where I was gonna go just as far as-- visually, there being a lot of imagery. It's more a song to be thought about, it's not like an anthemic, kind of 'We Are the One' thing. So that is one that I've done versions of that were not punk-rock versions. I did that for years with my various acoustic bands.

* I saw you at the Mountain View, CA, Shoreline Amphitheatre years go at one of those festivals. You did an acoustic set on the side there, and a buddy of mine, I think we might have done a little slam dancing to it...


* It worked, because I'd never seen the Avengers early on, so I was excited to hear an Avengers song along with your great solo stuff.

Oh, wow, that's funny. That was a funny show. People have been reminding me of all the sorts of crazy things -- I had an interview and this guy from one of the newspapers around here and he said, 'Yeah, the first time I saw you was at Golden Gate Fields,' which is a race track. And somehow, we did a show with Buster Poindexter, which is David Johansen, at Golden Gate Fields and that is so weird that you (the newspaper guy) were there and that was your first exposure to my music. It was one of the oddest things. And that one (with me), I think it was called Gathering of the Tribes, I think it's the only time I've ever been out there (to Shoreline Amphitheatre). (I still have the cassette I bought from her that day.)

From 'Corpus Christi':

In the beginning there was a void
except for the written word
But I was born in such foolish times
my guilt is guaranteed
now I don't want to burn in hell
John told me that I would
unless I went down to the water
my sins purged in his holy blood

see how they run, sheep to the fold
see how they fall, corpse from the cross

Magazine cover, February 1990

* So what was the other song?

The other song, I would say that has really stuck with me is the 'The American in Me.' I just think that because the subject matter of that song -- it really encapsulates my world view in a way, or the way that I like to express myself, it's really captured in that song... I'm saying things in interesting, kind of oblique ways. Like claiming that I am an American, but saying that also the American in me is like a separate entity, like the separation between us and who Americans are seen as by the rest of the world. And then also, the whole idea of how we see events as fed to us by the media.

So, I think those are both really kind of huge ideas and issues and I've always been happy about the way that song presented those two really big ideas.

* They still ring true today, too.

Yeah, it's complicated being an American.

* That's definitely a victory being able to write songs from back then that still leave a mark today.

Yeah, I think really that's why the Avengers have a longevity that we've had is because people saw something in it and still see something in it that makes them feel and makes them think and makes them jump up and down. To me, it doesn't seem cliched, it doesn't seem like, 'Oh my god,' there might have been a haircut you had in the '80s that you really regret or any photos or something. There's nothing really about the Avengers that is still any kind of like a time-capsule embarrassment or anything.


(She grew up in California, and lived in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue from third grade through high school... "beautiful Bellevue," she jokes.)

But I wasn't a Bellevue person, I was a Bellevue outcast. In fact, Bellevue might have been one of the reasons why I rebelled, because my family was not anything I could rebel from-- my mom is way more liberal than I am. We were brought up as Atheists, we didn't have anything to rebel against as far as our family, just living in this place of Bellevue-ness -- you know, the plastic suburbs, I think, encapsulated -- probably gave me some early things to run away from.

* Growing up, what were your early musical influences? How did you get into singing?

My mom. My mom was a musician and she taught singing at Cornish (College of the Arts in Seattle), so we always had singing around the house growing up. I think when I was a pre-teen or something, I started listening to Mose Allison... Incredible String Band, Pentangle and all this kind of crazy, the original psych folk of the '70s. And then when I was about 16, I went off to college in Bellingham and I remember hearing the first Patti Smith album, listening to Bryan Ferry and Lou Reed, all the pre-punk stuff that was going on out there and that was kind of the beginning of it.

And then, Jan. 1 of 1977, I arrive in San Francisco and then became exposed to the early, early punk stuff: the Ramones and the Damned and all the early stuff that was coming out.

* You guys played the infamous (Sex) Pistols show-- how was that show for you guys? Was that a memorable show for you?

(Laughs) It was the biggest show that we had ever played at that point. Also the biggest show the Pistols ever played -- the biggest audience for them.

It was kind of weird because, we'd been playing for six months in the Bay Area and also LA, and on the whole West Coast, we could think of about 500 punks, those were the people we knew, we saw in our audience. So, to get on stage and look out at 5,000 or 6,000 people, who weren't necessarily punk, but they were all throwing shit and spitting, behaving badly, was just like, 'What, who the fuck are you?' It's like, 'What is going on?' 

(She hadn't gone to big concerts...) I wasn't really versed in the behavior of crowds or anything -- it was a little terrifying. The first thing that happened to me, we walked out and I walked out toward the microphone and the spotlight and the stage is covered in spit and I started to slip and I almost lost my balance but caught it and then continued walking -- that was kind of the introduction to that set for me.

And I think you can see this arc of fear or nervousness in us that sort of goes in our set and then at some point, we kind of turn a corner and we become really forceful and we gain the confidence and then finish off the set with that. And I think it's really sort of an interesting thing to see.

(The gig -- the Pistols' final show -- was Jan. 14, 1978 at Winterland in SF... You can see the five-camera, color video at Wolfgang's Vault -- both full Avengers and Pistols sets -- at

Magazine cover, August 1985; with Dick (Subhumans UK) and Joey (DOA); Andy's band Sorex was featured, too.

* What do you do aside from doing the music?

I live in Oakland. I work at the main San Francisco Library, in the information services department. It's a wonderful job because I'm kind of a professional know-it-all, I answer the phone when people ask strange questions, and I'm also there when they come in... I always have loved libraries, so I'm really happy to be working there.

(When she's not working part time at the library, she attends SF State, where she's earning her degree in studio art with a dual emphasis on painting and printmaking.
Houston and her non-Avengers band will embark on a 16-day European tour on April 19 in Berlin.
Then, the Avengers will stage a "pink"album re-release party on May 18 in SF and hit the road on a six-day West Coast tour.
A 21-date Avengers European tour is slated for July.)

"I'm hella busy this year," she ends with a chuckle.

Cat Rose pic -- posterized.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Why don’t you perform in event space NYC sometimes? Every song has a story behind it. Please come here and share your journey and songs with us. I loved these lines ‘ And if your God is great, And if your God is good, He would live on Market Street, not in Hollywood.’ You are just wonderful!