Nancy Barile was, along with countless other women in the city in the early 1980s, an integral part of Philadelphia’s punk and hardcore scenes, as a promoter, manager and writer. Generally, though, accounts of hardcore discount or ignore completely the essential roles that women played, on stage and behind the scenes. This has been particularly galling to Nancy Barile, who finally decided to write her own memoir, I’m Not Holding Your Coat. Now in its 2nd edition, the book struck a chord. Jen B. Larson caught up with Nancy Barile to talk about the book and the role of women in punk and hardcore.
Women were integral to early punk the world over. In Philadelphia, bands like Head Cheese, The Stickmen, and The Excuses–to name a few– featured badass, powerful women like Celeste Ries, Jade Lee, Susan Ottaviano, multi-instrumentalist Beth Ann Lehmann, future Lunachicks drummer Becky Wreck, and the captivating singer Lisa Mauro. And then, there were women like Allison Schnackenberg and Nancy Barile who took hardcore bands to the next level by managing groups, booking local shows, and working on the fanzine Savage Pink. Barile, an author and educator, recently published a memoir, I’m Not Holding Your Coat (Bazillion Points), about her experiences in the Philadelphia scene until ‘82, when she moved to Boston.
If you weren’t there and your only understanding of hardcore is mainly through books and documentaries like American Hardcore, Henry Rollins’ biceps and academic articles (as mine has been), you might believe that all hardcore scenes were aggressive, male-dominated spaces where women weren’t welcome (as I once did). As more people get to tell their story, more perspectives emerge. The truth is, women were there; they did play in hardcore bands, perhaps not at the same rate as they did in other punk delineations, but they did, and they were essential to many of the scenes as a whole. While individual women have gone on the record saying hardcore just wasn’t for them or that the spaces were toxic to them, others were absolutely involved and taking up space at hardcore shows: standing front and center (as evidenced by stories, videos, and photos) and making things happen.
According to their own narrative, women who were there, like Nancy Barile, didn’t feel marginalized or alienated; they felt empowered. Able to rebel against the normie world and cultural restrictions of womanhood, the presence of these women in these scenes was essential. Punk is an ecosystem that functions because of the dynamics of its interactions, and they were part of the spark.
Nancy points out that a handful of people who haven’t read her book (yet) assume it’s about her husband’s band, SS Decontrol. As UK writer Tim Cundle pertinently puts it in Mass Movement, “If you’re hoping for some inside scoop on life with Barile’s husband, SSD guitarist/band founder Al or a multitude of SSD stories then you may be disappointed… because, as it should already be clear, this is Nancy Barile’s memoirs not Al’s.”
The truth is, women were there; they did play in hardcore bands, perhaps not at the same rate as they did in other punk delineations, but they did, and they were essential to many of the scenes as a whole.
The generative power of women can’t be stamped out and is especially not less-empowering because of their proximity to men. To writers, researchers, and fans who want to discuss the time period in retrospect as though women weren’t there at all, or that their presence was simply “in the shadows”: that’s not how everyone there experienced it. And that’s one of the main reasons author and educator Nancy Barile decided it was time to write her book about her personal experiences in the early Philadelphia hardcore scene. It’s an imperative and enjoyable read. Nancy is a gifted storyteller, and unless you’re a sour agelast, you’ll definitely find yourself laughing out loud many times (as much as I tried to refrain, I did, on a plane, stuffed between two less-than-amused strangers.)
Recently, I got the chance to discuss it and her many double-lives with her.
PKM: You listened to all sorts of music growing up– glam-rock, early punk, new wave. What was it about hardcore that made it your tribe versus other punk offshoots?
Nancy Barile: Well, it started– I guess you could say– when I was listening to bands like Discharge, a British hardcore band. I always liked the harder, darker side of music, even when I was a little kid and I heard “The House of the Rising Sun” or I could compare the Beatles to the Rolling Stones and know the Rolling Stones were more evil. I went to see Black Flag play at City Gardens in Trenton. I loved the energy, the darkness, the physicality, the riskiness, the danger. It was an adrenaline thing for me. I just thought it was the greatest thing. I was all in after I saw Black Flag. That was probably the first hardcore show I saw.
PKM: So it was more about the music than the personal relationships? Did the relationships you built tie into your love of hardcore?
Nancy Barile: The music was always the driving force. The music was always number one. Ya know. I love the people I met in hardcore. I am still friends with them to this day. It was music first, relationships second.
PKM: The way I see your book is about how much fun you had in the hardcore scene, it’s about the politics of being a punk, and there’s the beginning of your relationship with Al. You’ve mentioned one of the main reasons you wrote the book is because dudes born in 1985 will start explaining to you what happened at shows you were at in 1981.
I loved the energy, the darkness, the physicality, the riskiness, the danger. It was an adrenaline thing for me. I just thought it was the greatest thing. I was all in after I saw Black Flag.
Nancy Barile: It is the most infuriating thing and it happens constantly. Just recently, I posted a photo in a hardcore Facebook group of my husband, Jake Phelps from Thrasher, and Andy Strachan. And a guy wrote on there, “Why isn’t Springa in this picture?” Springa, the singer from SS Decontrol. And I go, “He wasn’t there!” And he writes, “Springa was always there… always.” So I’m like, “Who the fuck is this guy?” So I look him up. He graduated high school in 2000—OK, like he wasn’t even born yet! So I write on there, “I was there… And you’re gonna tell me? I’ve posted pictures of being at Irving Plaza and some dude born in ‘85 will be like, “That’s not Irving Plaza.” And I’m like, “that might not be the Irving Plaza you know from the ‘90s, but that’s what Irving Plaza looked like before it went through 14 remodels in 1981. It happens all the time [to] women. I wasn’t on a stage, I wasn’t in a band, but I have a really good memory. I’m a documentarian and I’m an educator, so do not mess with that. It really makes me so mad.
PKM: That’s so arrogant and annoying but also– you’ve talked a bit about revisionist history. It’s like a chain of events. Where do they get their information?
Nancy Barile: I don’t know. But I don’t see the same thing going on in posts by men. I don’t see the contradiction, the refuting you. And sometimes men post things that aren’t true. Or it didn’t happen that way and I’ll think, “Is anyone gonna say anything?” I see it on the posts of women! It’s really annoying.
Just yesterday, some guy in a hardcore discussion group was bitching that there were too many older people posting old stuff. And he thinks that there should be new stuff all the time. And so I was like, “Are you an admin, and is there a set time period that this group is about?” because if there was, I wasn’t aware of it. And he’s not. But his masculine privilege says that he thinks he can tell everyone how the group should be. And he says to me, “I know you wrote a book about your husband and SS Decontrol and New England Hardcore” and I can’t tell you how many times people think that’s what my book is about! So I have to say, “My book is about Philadelphia and my experiences in Philadelphia and it ends in 1982 when I moved to Boston after meeting Al. It’s got about three months about my time with Al in it. My book is not about Al, it’s not about SS Decontrol, and it’s not about Boston Hardcore. But yet people assume that because I’m married to Al that’s the only connection to hardcore that I have.
It happens all the time [to] women. I wasn’t on a stage, I wasn’t in a band, but I have a really good memory. I’m a documentarian and I’m an educator, so do not mess with that. It really makes me so mad.
PKM: It’s so clearly not about Al.
Nancy Barile: I thought about making the book a little longer, but I’m glad I didn’t, or it would have become “Wife of… “ ya know.
PKM: I rewatched the American Hardcore documentary recently and I actually got pissed off. I had seen it a long time ago and I feel like this shaped my understanding of hardcore, and there are barely any women in it. It’s not until like 3/4ths of the way through. You’re in it, and I don’t even know if you got to speak.
Nancy Barile: I know! Here I am, Jen– I’m all excited, thinking they’re gonna ask me about Philadelphia hardcore and how I helped launch it. And it became immediately clear to me that I was relegated to “wife of band member.” Since that time, people have come to me and asked me questions about punk. At the time, I hadn’t done any interviews, so I didn’t have the tools to speak up. I was just kinda like, “well maybe this is just about SS Decontrol and I’ll just move back.” I was really, insanely pissed off when the movie came out. And men in Philadelphia who were really instrumental in taking the scene to the next level got all the credit for the scene.
I say this in the book– it really wasn’t their fault. How could they know the excruciating minutiae of every single scene, especially a scene like Philadelphia which wasn’t as big as Boston or DC at the time. So I don’t fault them for it, and to their credit, they put me in the second edition– I told a few more stories in the book. I talked to Paul Rachman recently. He bought [my] book and I told him I talked about what happened and I said ‘you know, I don’t want you to be mad about that. But… it was women who launched the hardcore scene to the next level– and it wasn’t just me– it was really Allison Schnackenberg who took the BYO to the next level.’
PKM: It happens in so many genres. I have read academic articles about the “forgetting of women in grunge.” Like, women were there, but then suddenly the history is written as if they weren’t. Or, like, bands like Hole or Babes in Toyland get lumped in with Riot Grrrl when they were more aligned with and involved in the grunge movement.
Nancy Barile: Yep, 100%.
PKM: Speaking of articles, you mention your irritation with the claims in “Philly punk: Gender politics in the City of Brotherly Love” in the book. When I had just read the quote about “the invisible labor of women,” I had a totally different initial reading. I didn’t read the whole article at first, just the quote you included in your book, and read it thinking maybe it was a call to give women more credit.
Nancy Barile: I did not see it that way at all. I saw it as they were saying we were mothers and nurturers and that we were behind the scenes. And that just wasn’t the case– in Philadelphia, there were women on stage, up front, in the infrastructure, writing the fanzines, managing the bands and their entire article was just not an accurate portrayal of the Philadelphia scene at the time. And they used a quote from me and used it to shape their narrative which really pissed me off. I was really offended. Like, do your research. Like I said in the book, I wouldn’t accept that kind of sloppy research from a 14-year-old. I didn’t like it all, I thought they did a lousy job.
It would have taken 20 minutes to research women who were in punk bands at the time. There were a lot of women, a lot of super-powerful women. There was a woman named Beth Anne Lehman (BAL) who was groundbreaking in performance art and played like 18 instruments and was in a band called the Stick Men who were insanely good. She did these crazy things like leading a group of women banging drums into the subway.
Stick Men – Videos, of varying quality, of live performances, 1981-83:
I think they had a thesis and shaped it how they wanted to. I think that was really wrong. There were a lot of women in bands in Philadelphia. I wasn’t a huge fan at the time, but I respected the hell out of them. And there was Head Cheese, they had a huge song, “Jungle Jam.” It became very popular so you would find that if you were researching it.
Jungle Jam – “Head Cheese”:
I was jealous they had the guts to be on stage doing it! Becky Wreck was the drummer of the Excuses and Lisa Mauro was the singer! There were women in bands.
PKM: Not so much playing the kind of hardcore you were into…
Nancy Barile: Just Becky, I think Becky was the only one who went on to play more hardcore, that I can think of. I left Philly in ‘82, so I don’t really know what happened after I left. But hardcore was growing in ‘82. It was still a baby, it was still embryonic.
PKM: What’s interesting to me is that, even if there are more men in a certain space, women hold a particular power. Something I see a lot and in your writing is this generative, creative power that women have.
It would have taken 20 minutes to research women who were in punk bands at the time. There were a lot of women, a lot of super-powerful women.
Nancy Barile: Yeah, I don’t know whether that was a Philadelphia thing, but in Philadelphia, when you talk about punk, you see about 50/50 women and men at shows, maybe 60/40, but in hardcore it was still, to me, I knew there were more men, but not by huge amounts–it wasn’t 90/10 or 80/20, not even 70/30. It was probably like 60/40. And the women in the scene were super powerful, together women, who had a lot of respect from everyone in the scene. I never felt marginalized or alienated or disempowered as a woman in Philadelphia ever… EVER.
Allison Schnackenberg, she was a couple years younger than me. She is a brilliant woman and she was, she is, a feminist. Meeting her when I was like 21, she taught me a lot. She really laid the blueprint down. There were a lot of really strong women in Philadelphia. It didn’t feel like there was a gender imbalance to me. Maybe I have rose-colored glasses, but I don’t remember ever thinking, “aw jeeze,” ya know, “this isn’t gonna happen for me because I’m a woman.”
And the women in the scene were super powerful, together women, who had a lot of respect from everyone in the scene. I never felt marginalized or alienated or disempowered as a woman in Philadelphia ever.
PKM: So the actual issue with representation is more how people are looking back at it?
Nancy Barile: Yeah like that “hold my coat thing.” I never heard that expression until 2005. There is so much photographic and video evidence of women in front in Philadelphia at the time. You can see me right up front at the Bad Brains, at SS Decontrol, in the video at Black Flag– Allison next to me, Becky Wreck next to her. I never thought it was anything special, it’s just how it was.
PKM: What did you think about Riot Grrrl?
Nancy Barile: I loved the Riot Grrl movement. I thought it was really cool, I was really excited to see it.
PKM: There’s this other theme going on with you and it’s this double-life thing. I saw on your Instagram that you wrote these fan columns as Shirley.
Nancy Barile: I wrote for Savage Pink and sometimes I wrote as myself, but I did this scenester column that got a little gossipy and smackdown if someone did something I didn’t like, like destroy the bathrooms at the Elk Center, one of the only venues that let us do shows. So it let me say things that I couldn’t say as Nancy, so I was Shirley. The book is in the second edition now and if I do a third edition, that will go in there.
PKM: I was wondering when I saw that if you were trying to use a pseudonym to hide from your employer but since you were also writing as yourself, you were using a pseudonym to talk to people in the scene anonymously.
Nancy Barile: Yeah, exactly. And I would try to hide my punkness from my job, but it was hard with my hair the way it was. It was white and I was bruised a lot. And I didn’t dress like the other paralegals and secretaries. I had to conform to a certain dress code, but I would punk it up a little.
PKM: I was thinking about how hard that must have been, dying your hair every week. Did it fry?
Nancy Barile: Well, my hair was short so that was the good thing. It doesn’t get damaged when you’re cutting it off all the time. Had it been long, it would have just been a frizzball. I would dye it on Friday nights and dye back the next day. One time, I did it pink and it was really hard to get pink out of white-blonde hair. So when I went back to work the next week, you could still see it. I remember one of my other girlfriends who was a paralegal called me into the bathroom and she was like, “Your hair is pink, they’re gonna fire you!” And I was like “oh my god!” And someone else told me to wash it with dishwashing liquid and so that’s what I did and it came out.
PKM: Now you’re a teacher and I know you’ve said you kept your punk past a secret for 15 years at work. But now that you’re more open about it, do you talk about it more at work?
And I would try to hide my punkness from my job, but it was hard with my hair the way it was. It was white and I was bruised a lot. And I didn’t dress like the other paralegals and secretaries.
Nancy Barile: My kids are not interested in punk. They like hip-hop and world music. If they are interested in anything, it’s my social activism from when I was involved in punk rock. Like that picture of me protesting the KKK rally, they think that’s really cool. I keep that picture of me and Allison at CBGB– it was turned into a postcard and sold in England– I keep that at my desk now. I think they think it’s kinda badass. Gives me a little bit of cred with them. They like that I know certain people, like Jake Phelps, who was editor of Thrasher magazine, and Henry Rollins who they may know from a TV show. It’s not a big deal anymore. It’s not stigmatized like it used to be when I first started teaching.
My nephew asked me if I wrote the book specifically PG-13, and I was like, “Well you know, I didn’t really lead an R-rated life. I was in some dangerous situations, but I didn’t lead an R-rated life.” But I know there was something in my brain the entire time, as I was writing it, that said, administrators, parents, anyone can read this book. There’s nothing I censored really. But I did hear that voice in my head. I think it’s just more accepted now. It wouldn’t have been accepted in ‘96.
PKM: It would have been so scandalous…
Nancy Barile: My husband was in a band called Gage when I first started working at my school and my students loved Gage. They played the Warped Tour in Boston and my students were always in the audience for them. We had a large population that liked alternative music and grunge. I was more worried someone would get hurt at the show and it would be like “It was Mrs. Barile’s husband’s band where they broke their leg” or something. Like I didn’t tell them to go to the shows!
PKM: I have to admit something to you… I was born in 1985, so your ‘85 story about these dudes you were talking about earlier, is funny to me. Part of me feels like I have no business writing on this topic but the other part of me knows it’s essential that I do.
Nancy Barile: I think it’s essential that you do and that you do your research!
PKM: I grew up being told that women were anomalies in rock. And the fact is they aren’t and never were.
Nancy Barile: That is the truth.
PKM: So, in terms of writing, you’ve written this memoir and you write about education.
Nancy Barile: At my heart, I am a storyteller. In my family, storytelling is one of the most valuable skills you can have. If you came home and walked in the door at my house and said, “I’ve gotta story” or “wait’ll you hear this,” everybody’s pulling chairs up at the table and they want to hear a good story. My brother, my dad, my mom, my cousins, we’re all like that.
The genesis of the book was like, I was on Facebook in these hardcore groups, and on the anniversary dates of shows, I would post stories, and people would be like “I love the way you tell a story, it makes me feel like I was there!” and that’s such a great compliment to a writer. So people would tell me, “you’ve gotta write a book” so finally, I was like “alright, I’m gonna write a book.”
My first pitch was “How punk made me a better teacher.” An agent put it out to bid, and what happen was publishers either liked the punk rock story or they liked the teacher story, they didn’t like both.
My nephew asked me if I wrote the book specifically PG-13, and I was like, “Well you know, I didn’t really lead an R-rated life. I was in some dangerous situations, but I didn’t lead an R-rated life.”
PKM: Do you dabble in other genres?
Nancy Barile: You’ll ruin my street cred unbelievably if you tell anybody this. I was trying to make money in 2000 or something so I was researching what makes money, and guess what it is? … [long pause]… Romance novels.
PKM: You wrote one? And I can’t tell anyone?
Nancy Barile: Alright, alright. Let’s get my feet wet. But you need to know what it was about. It’s called The Gym: A Love Story. It’s about a woman who gets divorced and she is overweight and she’s an academic, so she’s like not into this gym lifestyle, but she goes to the gym and she falls in love with a personal trainer. I didn’t get published but Avalon showed interest. They had me send them a few chapters. I was writing under a pseudonym, ‘cuz you know.
PKM: You’ll have to try to send it out again! So on the topic of writing and teaching and academic stuff, I saw a picture you posted of your book where someone had annotated the whole thing, it was full of sticky notes and stuff. What was that about?
Nancy Barile: Oh my god. So, I didn’t know her, but she bought the book and friended me, and she told me, “I had an English teacher who changed my life. This is how I read books.”
PKM: That’s amazing.
Nancy Barile: I know. I didn’t know whether to be flattered or horrified!