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Kick the doors open

There’s the standard way to do feminism. Or there’s punk rock.

By Joan Anderman

Photos by Gretchen Ertl

Carolyn Zagame doesn’t want to be here, in this scruffy community arts center near the outer edges of Boston. She wanders glassy-eyed past the plastic tubs of earplugs and a banner screaming TEAR THE PATRIARCHY DOWN, her long down coat zipped tight. Normally on a Friday morning she would be puttering at home, chatting on the phone, reading the Bible. But her daughter Ali begged and cajoled for nearly a year, and Zagame finally caved. That’s why, instead of tending to familiar tasks in her small town in Central Massachusetts, Zagame is entering the bubble.

No one quite knows how to talk about the bubble, how to make peace with the idea of it, because bubbles are usually bad news — they stand for swimming in a sea of sameness, fingers in our ears to block out the noise of competing ideas and uncomfortable truths. But the bubble officially known as Ladies Rock Camp is different. To begin with, it’s noisy as fuck, and “fuck,” by far the most popular word here, is generally uttered in unison at high volume to describe the proper response to the status quo. In this bubble, there is no such thing as a bad idea, or a mistake, or even a rule. Uncomfortable truths are received with open hearts and more Cheese Balls than you can imagine. Sounds simple enough. In fact it’s fraught, but then so is rock and roll, which is technically what the campers have signed up for.

Between Friday morning and Sunday night a group of 43 women, no music experience required, will form a band, learn an instrument, write a song, and perform it in front of a packed house at a nightclub. That’s 72 hours from newbie to headliner. On paper it sounds impossible, but it has been done, again and again, for eight years in Boston — twice every spring, including on this chilly weekend in March, when Zagame and her fellow campers file in.

Pretty much every inch of the three-story community center, which bears the fitting name of Spontaneous Celebrations, has been refashioned into a clubhouse/playground/shrine to rock and roll, generally, and female rockers, specifically. The cavernous upper floor, dubbed the Rock Room, is ringed with drum kits and plastered ceiling to floor with photos of female musicians, from Billie Holiday to the Slits to Bjork to Taylor Swift. Every few feet a hand-scrawled genre sign is tacked to the wall: FOLK, METAL, INDIE, RAP, GOTH, GLAM, NEW WAVE, COUNTRY, GARAGE, NOISE, TECHNO, POP, PUNK. Posters in iris-searing shades of pink and yellow have been placed ad hoc; there’s one balancing on the back of a sofa, one stashed against a speaker, another teetering on an easel, beaming out the program’s slogans and mission statements. It’s as if a zine came to life and we are spending the weekend in it.

Campers have signed up for instruction in specific instruments: the guitarists receive their lessons in a light-drenched art studio, while keyboardists use tiny, freezing practice rooms in the basement, reached by descending a steep staircase and body slamming a meat-locker-style door. As far as I can tell, this is the only form of injustice at Ladies Rock Camp. On the ground floor, renamed the Jungle Room for its animal-festooned curtains, someone has hung a heavy plastic sheet to bisect the space, creating the Bass Cave. All three floors are bursting with donated gear, in clusters, stacks, and mounds: dozens of amps, cables, drums, pedals, power strips, microphones, Midi controllers, instruments, picks, sticks, cymbal bags, finger tape — everything the campers and volunteer staff will need for a three-day music intensive.

Except that this isn’t only a music intensive. It might not even primarily be a music intensive. It’s a feminist organization disguised as a music camp. One of its purposes is to raise money for Girls Rock Campaign Boston, a series of summer and after school music programs for teens and tweens. Another is to give women — including trans and gender non-conforming participants — an experience that hinges on risk-taking, rewards self-expression, and rejects the notion of perfection. Not to disparage the well-trod feminist watering holes, the panel discussions and Twitter hashtags and Lean In Circles, but doing something this bold and this public requires a level of badassery — more to the point, instills a level of badassery — that sets Ladies Rock Camp apart. In my long career writing about music, it is perhaps the most punk rock thing I’ve witnessed.

You’re a natural revolutionary just by being female and living in this world. Why? Because guess who made up the rules. That’s Hilken Mancini, the Ladies Rock Camp co-founder and program director, speaking at morning assembly on the first day of camp. We wake up every day, we go to our jobs, feed our kids, walk our dogs, and we don’t really think about it all the time, but we’re punk rock just by being alive. None of this would work without her. She paces the Rock Room, clipboard in hand, words tumbling out by the fistful. Punk isn’t a purple mohawk and ripped fishnets, punk is thinking for yourself. It’s looking at the status quo and going no thanks, I don’t want that, I’m going to do it this way. Picture the silliest combination of clothes you can imagine. Pink tights and gym shorts. Clashing knee socks and a bedazzled fanny pack. That’s what she’s wearing. That’s a really hard thing to do. It’s hard because we have been living it for a very long time, and it’s hard to see in your everyday life that you’re not supposed to look like anything, you’re not supposed to do anything, you’re not supposed to be this thing that they put on you every day.

We know this and we don’t. Rather, we have to learn it again and again. It’s why so many campers and volunteers return year after year. Full disclosure: In early 2016 I received an email from Mancini, whom I knew casually from covering the local music scene as rock critic for the Boston Globe. A band coach for the upcoming session had to drop out at the last minute and they were looking for someone to replace her. She wondered if I was interested and available. It seemed like a joke. I had formed my first band only two years previously, at the age of 56. I was learning to play guitar, figuring out how to write songs, wrestling with stage fright and many of the questions Ladies Rock Camp tries to answer in the loud-as-fuck affirmative: Do I have the right to make noise and be imperfect and be myself?

I also worried that, as a critic, I wouldn’t be able to conjure the unbridled support that is a pillar of the experience. I couldn’t even say that I believed, as one of Mancini’s foundational slogans goes, that every shriek, every chord, is awesome. What if it’s just cheerleading? As it turns out, I am a believer. I know it because I entered the bubble that spring, and the next one and the one after that, where I experienced firsthand the transformational power of conviction.

After Mancini’s opening speech, each of the campers, seated in a large circle on the floor of the Rock Room, answers the question, “Why are you here?”

I’ve been wanting to sing in a band since I was a kid.

I’m here because I get the message every day that I’m not good enough.

My BFF said it was life-changing and that you’re not the same person when you walk out.

I’m nervous all the time.

I turned a big age this year and I want to get way way way way out of my comfort zone.

I’m a perfectionist and I’m here so I don’t have to be.

I’m here for the sixth time because the world is a toilet and for three days I can pretend it’s not.

I said to my friend that if Girls Rock Camp had existed when I was young my life would be so different. She said it can be different now.

I was very resistant. I have no musical ability. None at all.

That last answer, or non-answer, is Carolyn Zagame’s. Tiny, tidy, and fiercely traditional, she is looking at her hands, which are folded in her lap. It’s hard to imagine her crashing in a roach-infested apartment in Brighton with a bunch of roommates while attending Boston College, but back then, in the early ‘80s, Zagame was as ambitious as she was broke. She studied hard, graduated with honors, and began moving up the corporate ladder, dreaming of the penthouse she would one day buy for herself.

She was a young sales manager at a company that made fiber optic products for turbine planes when her boss began sexually harassing her. Two weeks after being summoned to his hotel room on a business trip — it didn’t go well, Zagame says — she was laid off. Her self-esteem tanked and her mother’s words, the drumbeat of a generation, came to her with crushing force. “‘Don’t worry about brains. You’re small and you’re pretty, you’ll find a husband to take care of you.’ That’s what she told me all my life.” And that’s what Zagame did. She never returned to the workplace, finding meaning in motherhood and, eventually, her faith. The feelings of worthlessness that derailed her professional career were long gone, or so she thought. Then she became the keyboard player in Fallen Petals.

The mechanics of band formation, which follows morning assembly on the first day, is confounding. To begin, campers are instructed to stand under the genre sign that best represents their favorite music. Then they’re told to walk to their second favorite genre. For a while all bodies are in motion, bouncing in slo-mo off the walls of the Rock Room, clumping and dispersing like electrons following the mysterious law of musical attraction. You can see women weighing their tastes, second-guessing decades of fandom. As the mood grows more confused, the women are specifically instructed to not freak out. There are nine drummers in the room; shortly there will be nine new bands in the world. Each will spend the weekend with a pair of coaches, who are also wandering around the Rock Room in pre-determined teams, waiting for a look or a vibe or a random act of proximity to match them with their charges.

Grace Buchanan, who is 50, looks significantly less alarmed than some of the other first-timers, maybe because she has done crazy things before, like enrolling in comedy school for the sole purpose of surviving the end of her marriage. A software architect with tattooed calves and a graying pompadour, she describes herself as “a bit outgoing,” which is like saying Bikini Kill is a bit punk. Like many of the women here, Buchanan learned about Ladies Rock Camp from a friend who went and wouldn’t shut up about it. Buchanan played French horn and trombone in high school, but these days she gets her kicks singing along to Erasure and Eurythmics, so she signed up to do vocals at camp.

Here’s how Buchanan describes the process: “I stood between GARAGE and GLAM for a while and then I walked around looking for 80s ALTERNATIVE or 70s ROCK and a few other women were nearby and then someone came up to me and said ‘do you want to sing in our band?’ and suddenly I was like ‘what is happening?’” Half an hour after band formation, Buchanan and the four other members of the newly-constituted Girl Skull are huddled in a corner of the Jungle Room having their first Quiet Band Practice, when groups make whatever progress they can writing a song without plugging in.

To start, a coach encouraged them to map out what they wanted to say. “We had been talking about how few women there are in metal, and the shit they go through, and the common thread was how we don’t want the next generation of girls to have to go through that,” Buchanan says. “One of my bandmates said we need to kick the door open. And I was like, yes. That.”

Rock music can be really dumb. Also: coarse, plain, raw, wanton, blunt, and rough. The 10,000 hours of practice we’re told is requisite simply doesn’t apply. That’s not to say there aren’t virtuosic practitioners who make rock music of the highest caliber, just that there are things that matter more than experience or precision. Early on the second day, Boston-based tunesmith Merrie Amsterburg is in the Jungle Room delivering a laid-back master class in songwriting. All you need, she explains, scratching at her guitar, is three chords and a lot of attitude. Heads start to nod, in recognition, in relief. Campers are sitting on the edge of their folding chairs. Amsterburg begins to sing in her otherworldly soprano.

I saw him dancin’ there by the record machine

I knew he musta been about seventeen

The beat was goin’ strong

Playin’ my favorite song.

By the time she gets to the chorus everyone in the room is singing along, including Carolyn Zagame, who has tiptoed from the back row to the front. She knows all the words.

I love rock ’n roll

Put another dime in the jukebox, baby

I love rock ’n roll

So come an’ take your time an’ dance with me.

Actually, Amsterburg goes on, all you need is two chords. Or less. There’s “Joy,” a song by Lucinda Williams made of a single chord and a truckload of grit.

I don’t want you anymore

Cause you took my joy

I don’t want you anymore

Cause you took my joy

You took my joy

I want it back

You took my joy

I want it back.

Hilken Mancini has felt it herself, that conviction and productive rage. Mancini, 48, once thought she would be a dancer, but midway through her sophomore year at Boston Conservatory she traded her toe shoes for an electric guitar. What she lacked in know-how Mancini made up in zealotry. She dropped out of school, bleached her hair, spent her evenings in rock clubs and her days working at Tower Records, where she met another female rocker named Chris Toppin and the pair formed Fuzzy, one of the celebrated bands to come out of Boston’s ‘90s alt-rock scene. Mancini’s career took off. She settled into a long-term relationship with Fuzzy’s bass player and created Punk Rock Aerobics, a popular fitness regime for anyone who was ever picked last for kickball, according to the companion book. Everything was great.

In rock there’s one thing that matters more than cunning or speed or experience or precision, and that’s conviction.

Fast forward 13 years. Fuzzy is finished, the bass player has left her, and Punk Rock Aerobics has imploded. “I was freaked out,” Mancini says. “I knew I wasn’t going to have a baby and a normal life, but it felt weird and awful to say goodbye to all that. It was a really hard time. I was feeling pretty crazy. Then I went to girls rock camp in Portland and it blew my mind.”

Chance, destiny, karma, call it what you will: timing is everything. Just as Mancini’s life was falling apart, the organizers at the Rock ’n’ Roll Camp for GirlsThe camp grew out of founder Misty McElroy’s project as a women’s studies major at Portland State University. There are now Girls Rock Camps in more than 40 American Portland, Oregon asked her to bring Punk Rock Aerobics to their summer program. Away she went, in emotional tatters, into a community of women — including Nora Allen-Wiles, a college intern and activist who would become the co-founder and executive director of Girls Rock Campaign Boston. All of them fortified Mancini with the sheer force of their radical support. They wanted her to run assemblies. She said no way. She didn’t even know their theme song. She would definitely throw up. The night before camp started, Mancini was handed a script and told she would be fine. “85 girls were coming the next day so I did it, because that’s the ethos. I believe in you. I believe in you. I started to be, like, I can do this in Boston.”

I-believe-in-you ethos notwithstanding, Fallen Petals is struggling to play the bouncy retro-pop tune the group is working on at Saturday afternoon’s Loud Band Practice. The Ladies Rock Camp curriculum is designed to arm novices with the rudimentary tools to write a part for their song — choose a few notes or chords, make up a melody, bash out a beat. Carolyn Zagame has settled on her three notes; the problem is counting. “Is it F, 1, 2, 3, 4? Or is it F, 2, 3, 4? This is challenging for me, you guys!”

Despite her reticence to come to camp, Zagame has loosened up. Cheerful is clearly her baseline, and in a community that skews toward the fluid and the pierced, Zagame, in her favorite beige sweater and unironic mom jeans, has become the unlikely life of the party. “You guys are so cool!she keeps saying. “I’m just trying to survive over here!” Her demeanor is jocular but there’s a frantic undertow. She grabs a tambourine and shakes it wildly over her head. “Maybe your coolness will rub off on me!” The band coaches have seen it before. Saturday afternoon is when things start feeling real, when the fun idea of Ladies Rock Camp morphs into the alarming realization that tomorrow is show day. Practice is almost over and the band decides to try to get through the song without stopping. JC and Mona, Fallen Petals’ coaches, do everything they can to be supportive, stationing themselves on either side of Zagame’s keyboard, one of them holding up fingers to count beats and the other calling out the names of the notes. Still, it’s rough going, and not just for the keyboardist. Zagame bursts into tears. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Saying I’m sorry at Ladies Rock Camp is like quaffing beer at an AA meeting. Mancini has developed chants and cheers in an effort to cure the campers, not to mention the coaches and instructors and administrators and, truth be told, herself, of the knee-jerk impulse to apologize for their mistakes, which, you’ll recall, theoretically don’t exist here. But of course they do. Which brings us to a game Mancini calls Power Pose.A 2010 study co-authored by Harvard University psychologist Amy Cuddy and popularized in a blockbuster TED talk found certain physical stances can lead to changes in body chemistry that boost confidence.

When you’re on stage there are gonna be things you’re worried about. We’re gathered in the Rock Room at assembly. Am I gonna be good enough? Can I do this? I’m uncomfortable in my body. That’s why we’re gonna play Power Pose. Mancini plays this game with the youngsters at Girls Rock Camp, too. It comes in handy at all ages. All our lives, whenever we do anything wrong, we’re so apologetic for making a mistake, for taking up space, we’re like ‘Oh my god, I’m so sorry!’ Her voice sails up into ultra femme range on that last part. How many of you are nervous about making a mistake? Queasy laughter ripples across the room. Yeah. How many of you are nervous about disappointing your band? Murmurs of assent. Of course. We all feel that way. But we don’t care if you make a mistake. We love you when you when make a mistake. If you drop that pick, roll into it. Mancini pulls a pick from her pocket, flings it to the ground, and tucks into an awkward somersault. If you drop a drumstick, jump over your kit. She leaps over an imaginary drum. Boys get that from the start. Go for it, run, fall, scream, spit, sweat. We’re told to stand up straight and get good grades. Her pacing has grown purposeful. Fervent. I want you to make that mistake bigger. Be our heroes, for our girls and for each other. I want you to find the pose that makes you feel comfortable and good. I don’t care what it is. Stand up.

Attitude, the mission-critical element that Merrie Amsterburg talks about in her songwriting workshop, the one that allows scrappy punk bands to take the world by storm, Grace Buchanan has got it. Once Girl Skull stumbled onto the idea of kicking the door open, she says, “I barfed up those lyrics and 15 minutes later we had the song.” For the next two days, “Kick the Door Open (For the Girls Behind)” drifts under the door of Studio D, down in the basement, getting louder and charging harder by the hour.

Measure the ankles, the calves, the thighs

Don’t eat anything that will alter your size

Don’t be loud, don’t be strong

If you’re not docile then you’re just plain wrong.

A little voice in Buchanan’s head is growing louder, too. It’s her mother’s voice, telling her this isn’t the kind of music she should be singing. “This is her worst nightmare,” Buchanan says. “Me in a black T-shirt shrieking in a band.” Everyone is living with ghosts.

Sounds emanating from the practice rooms are building, ineffably, not toward something finished or polished but with a collective energy that feels closer to faith. Remember the levitation game that was popular at kids’ slumber parties, where someone lays flat on the floor and the others place one or two fingertips underneath her limbs while chanting light as a feather, stiff as a board, over and over, until the prone body, miraculously weightless, is lifted off the ground? That kind of faith.

Even as it deepens faith is tested. The self-doubt that Carolyn Zagame figured was ancient history has returned with a vengeance. At practice, she lowers her head and through tears recites a checklist. “I’m just worried I’m gonna look so stupid up there. I really do like the shadows. I never wanted to be on stage.” She looks ready to bail, at least for a breather, maybe forever, but agrees to run the tune one more time before breaking to attend an afternoon workshop (the choices are Rebel Yell Yoga, Conquering the Stage, and DIY Music Creation). Despite the emotional turmoil, or possibly because of it, Zagame and her bandmates look at each other instead of their hands while playing, a risk that pays off. The song is sort of hanging together. This is no small feat; everyone is struggling to remember their parts and keep the tempo. As if on cue, a volunteer pokes her head in the door and apologizes for barging in but she happened to be wandering by and heard the song and just had to tell them how happy it made her feel.

Temporarily restored, Zagame heads off to yoga, but a couple of hours later, between workshops and dinner, she has another meltdown, up in the Rock Room. It comes out of nowhere. In a flash she’s surrounded by a handful of campers and coaches and someone goes off to fetch her daughter, Ali, who joins the huddle. The circle around Zagame grows closer and tighter.

That night, after Mexican food, there’s a surprise dress rehearsal, when each of the bands performs its song on stage in the Rock Room. During Fallen Petals’ performance, Ali is at the lip of the stage with her mouth hanging open, snapping pictures. After they finish, Fallen Petals, like all the bands, exits the stage to ear-splitting shouts of “Holy shit! Holy shit! Holy shit!” Zagame, looking stunned, falls into her daughter’s arms. “Her determination and her willingness amazes me,” says Ali. “I had to twist her arm at first but she’s coming out of her shell. I believe this will change her life.”

It’s been a long day. Instead of returning to her hotel as planned, though, Zagame commandeers the Saturday night dance party. She drops to her knees and launches into an impromptu Kazatsky, the Russian folk dance, squatting and kicking with her arms folded in front of her. The room erupts, in shock, in delight, in the knowledge that badasses walk among us, even if we can’t see them. Even if they can’t see themselves.

It’s show day. There’s a final instruction session and a short band practice. A pair of stylists from a local salon comes in to give the campers cool hairdos and a photographer spirits each band away to a stairwell or the street to snap promo photos. A few hours later, just before the doors to Once Ballroom open to the public, the campers pile into the club’s kitchen, some in glitter and heels, others in jeans and T-shirts, everyone pressed shoulder to shoulder and quivering with nerves and excitement.

Mancini and Allen-Wiles hoist themselves up onto a metal countertop to deliver the pre-show pep talk, crouching to keep from hitting their heads on the ceiling. Mancini is beside herself, exalting the women for their courage and their heart. She promises them that magic is going to happen on stage tonight. She believes so hard I think she could lift the whole room up with her pinky finger. But Allen-Wiles delivers the gut punch.

You can’t forget this. You have to wake up tomorrow morning, even though you’re not putting on your lanyard, you’re not coming back to rock camp, you have to walk back into your job or wherever your life is and say what to the status quo? FUCK YOU. You can’t go back the same. You have to treat women differently. Every day. You have to smile at women on the street. Tell them that you notice them, that they matter, because that’s where it starts. And then you build it and you build it and you build it.

If I could, I would explain exactly how the exhausted campers muscling through the final band practice at Spontaneous Celebrations turned into the rock goddesses on stage at Once, but Mancini is right. It feels like magic. I’m not just talking about the devil-horns hand gestures Carolyn Zagame hurls at the crowd like she’s the mother of all metal, although that sight alone is worth the price of admission, or Grace Buchanan’s pulverizing performance of “Kick the Doors Open (For the Girls Behind),” a bona fide anthem that should be heard around the world. I’m talking about nine swaggering baby bands, loaded with personality and armed with lyrics like pages ripped from a diary or a manifesto or a long-buried volume of poetry that might never have seen the light of day were it not for three insane days in the bubble.

Leaving can be hard. It’s also the point. The idea of Ladies Rock Camp isn’t to keep the rest of the world at bay, but to expand the bubble, make it bigger and bigger until the whole world is in it. Sometimes that means walking away with a piece of that punk-rock conviction and playing it, like a loud guitar, in your regular life. I asked around and heard about campers who had left with newfound courage to end a bad relationship, request a raise, form a band, stop hating their bodies. 

But it’s not always that simple or direct. It’s not always a transformation that instantly changes a life forever. Sometimes it’s just a persistent memory, like an earworm reverberating inside a former camper’s head. Carolyn Zagame returned to her hometown, to family, to church, to her routine. When I asked her what will stay with her from camp, her voice took on a tone of reverence. “I did something I never thought I could do. I surprised myself,” she said. “This, I think, is what I’ll carry with me.”

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Joan Anderman is a writer based in Boston and a member of the band Field Day.

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