Influenced by the punk scene centered at Mabuhay Gardens, and the fun, bohemian spirit of a city that was, back then, an affordable place to live, Judy Gittelsohn and Carol McClellan formed two different, musical contingents. One was Pink Section, using the B-52s as a model (two girls, two boys) and the other was Inflatable Boy Clams, an all-girl improvisational outfit. Both bands released singles, including the controversial “I’m Sorry,” and truly embodied the DIY spirit of the city before the deaths of Harvey Milk and George Moscone
“You know your blue dress? Your favorite one with all the lace and the full skirt? Well, I wore it out the other night and I thought I would surprise you at that party we went to last Friday? So it was real nice to wear and stuff. But I came home, and I had started my period. And it was all over the back of it, this big stain. And so I tried to bleach it out because I knew that you liked the dress so much. But I bleached out the dress and it ate away all the fabric in the back, plus all the petticoats. So there’s this big hole all around the skirt. I’m sorry.”
As opening lyrics go, it’s a lot longer than Patti Smith’s infamous declaration “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” that kicked off Horses. It’s a lot less famous too, but it’s about as shocking, especially when you heard it on college radio back in the early 1980s. And while the Inflatable Boy Clams’ “I’m Sorry” was hardly a hit, it got a lot of airplay on college stations. There were plenty of weird indie seven-inch platters as post-punk became a thing around the time of its 1981 release, but few were as memorably offbeat as this.
Set to creepy, funereal organ and background chanting, “I’m Sorry” was a laundry list of unspeakable sins two women committed to each other. All were recited with unapologetic nonchalance before concluding with an insincere “I’m sorry.” Many underground rock fans only remember this track, but it was part of a five-song double seven-inch that was reissued by Superior Viaduct in 2015. Even fewer fans know much if anything about the all-women Inflatable Boy Clams who, like many early San Francisco punk and new wave acts, eked out just one independent release before splitting.
Two women from the group actually had a fairly lengthy and varied history on the front lines of San Francisco new wave and post-punk, performing and recording with three bands from the late 1970s through the mid-1980s. Judy Gittelsohn and Carol McClellan (then known as Carol Detweiler) had been half of Pink Section, who put out a 1979 single and 1980 EP. They were also part of the Longshoremen, who issued a couple LPS in the mid-‘80s. Their journey from new wave to art-punk and neo-Beat poetry in some ways mirrored the feisty San Francisco underground rock scene as a whole, as some of its key players blended punk and new wave with performance art and near-minimalism.
That journey started, as it did for many local musicians in punk’s early days, at the San Francisco Art Institute. Long a haven for bohemians, some of the city’s first punk and new wave acts formed or partially formed there, the Avengers probably being the most celebrated. So did Pink Section, with McClellan on drums and Gittelsohn on keyboards and synthesizers. Both women also did some of the singing, the lineup filled out by Matt Heckert and Stephen Wymore.
Originally Charly Brown and Gary Miles were also involved in trying to get the band together. But as Brown and Miles used synthesizers and Heckert and Wymore wanted to make music with instruments, Charly and Gary formed a separate group, Voice Farm. Another member of Voice Farm, Myke Reilly, would play a key role in Judy and Carol’s career as producer for the Inflatable Boy Clams.
Today San Francisco is one of the most expensive cities in the world. It’s unaffordable for many young people, who even if they find a place might have to work too hard to meet their expenses to even think about finding time for creative projects. It wasn’t like that in the late ‘70s. Back then, you could live in the Art Institute’s North Beach neighborhood for cheap. Also in North Beach were the city’s leading punk club, the Mabuhay Gardens; one of the world’s top literary hangouts, City Lights Books; and the headquarters of one of the first punkzines, Search & Destroy, whose founder V. Vale worked at City Lights.
It was a tightly interconnected and, in some ways, incestuous scene that, if only for a brief time, served as a breeding ground for new bands hungry to express themselves outside of the mainstream.
“All of our friends were in bands,” says Gittelsohn. “Everybody sort of slept together, had sex with one another, and loved each other. And moved in and out, and were roommates. I lived with Matthew and Stephen. My downstairs neighbor was Deborah Iyall of Romeo Void. I was roommates for a little while with Bond [Bergland] of Factrix. Tony Hotel [of Noh Mercy] was Carol’s drumming teacher.”
Chimes in McClellan, “Judy and I were living in the same apartment building in North Beach. I met Judy in the building, met the boys at the Art Institute. Everybody was all kind of like, ‘We’re gonna form a band. Do you want to be our drummer?’ I always wanted to be a drummer. ‘Yeah. Let’s do it.’”
It wasn’t like that in the late ‘70s. Back then, you could live in the Art Institute’s North Beach neighborhood for cheap. Also in North Beach were the city’s leading punk club, the Mabuhay Gardens; one of the world’s top literary hangouts, City Lights Books; and the headquarters of one of the first punkzines, Search & Destroy, whose founder V. Vale worked at City Lights.
Rock women drummers weren’t common even in punk, but lots of taboos were falling as the scene got off the ground, even in a local scene not destined to make nearly as heavy an international imprint as the ones in New York, London, and Los Angeles. Named after the so-called Sunday entertainment “pink section” of the San Francisco Chronicle, Pink Section were soon cutting the indie “Tour of China”/ “Shopping” single, which combined fractured thrashing rhythms with goofy lyrics and whimsically off-kilter tunes. Trouser Press gave it something of a half thumbs-up: “Although suffering from the ‘can’t write, can’t play, let’s have fun and make noise anyway’ syndrome it’s still at least semi-groovy.”
On their 1980 self-titled EP, ominous growling guitar licks, breezy keyboards, and yelping vocals marked Pink Section as kind of a rough counterpart to the B-52’s. The young San Francisco punk scene might have been attracting its greatest notoriety for proto-hardcore bands like the Dead Kennedys, but Gittelsohn feels “we were much more pleasant. Much more like the B-52’s, rather than the angry, hard – not that Crime was hard people, but they had a much tougher veneer. Pink Section was, if you looked at the colors of our clothing, much poppier, much pinker. Much more about retaining youth and playfulness, silliness.”
Agrees McClellan, “We just had like a jingly jangly off-kilter kind of flashy sound. We didn’t have the history together that [the B-52’s] had. We also didn’t have the melodic, or even the voice expertise, they had. But we admired them. I loved what they were doing. We kind of were a reflection of each other, a little bit, in terms of being two girls and two boys. And being happy, poppy, jumping around, partying.” Adds Gittelsohn, “The harmonies of Kate and Cindy of the B-52’s, there was a lot of that between Matthew and myself. Of two voices that were not unconventional, but harmonizing in nonstandard, nontraditional things.
“We were much more pleasant. Much more like the B-52’s, rather than the angry, hard – not that Crime was hard people, but they had a much tougher veneer. Pink Section was, if you looked at the colors of our clothing, much poppier, much pinker. Much more about retaining youth and playfulness, silliness.”
“There was a picture in some little punk book of the B-52’s holding our little record. There’s an element of Athens, Georgia that really spoke to Carol and I in particular. Sort of girls that are pixies with short socks, flat shoes, and dresses. The B-52’s are much more quaffed, like a style. We were a little more rumpled. We got dressed, but we didn’t have the tons of makeup and big hair. I mean, I did have big hair, but it was like wildly natural. Theirs was styled and precise.”
Judy also has a less expected comparison to offer: “We played with Magazine one time. Their music, a little bit, was akin to Pink Section. But they were much darker. There was a discordance of Pink Section, and not non-melodic; rhythms that were kind of conventional rhythms, but quirky.”
With “Midsummer New York,” they also held the distinction of being one of the first acts of any sort to cover a Yoko Ono song, at a time when Ono was deeply unfashionable even among much of the underground. (For the record, the earliest might have been the Tribe’s version of “Why” back in 1971; also, the exceptionally disagreeably named Child Molesters covered “Don’t Worry Kyoko” on a late-‘70s single.) That was changing when critics detected some Ono influence, whether intentional or not, in records by the B-52’s and Lene Lovich. Gittelsohn’s clear the inspiration wasn’t accidental: “I loved Yoko always. Her vocalization, her sensitivity, and her boldness. The musicalness just kind of was right for Pink Section too—the guitar, the pausing, the sort of haltingness.”
Pink Section “were sort of the house band” at the Deaf Club, a club for deaf people that Pink Section manager Robert Hanrahan rented out for punk shows, where actual deaf members of the club would sometimes dance to the vibrations of the music. “The Deaf Club would be so crowded, just a mass of bodies throbbing and bopping,” exalts McClellan. “Gigs regularly would last until 2 am.”
They were even booked, along with fellow San Francisco band the Situations, at a Deaf Bowling Association party where “most of the clients were deaf and dancing, like couples dancing. It was mostly empty. We started to play our set and nobody was paying any attention to us,” though eventually “I remember them dancing to the beat.
“That splendid time was had at Dunfey’s motor lodge near San Mateo, out on Highway 101. Very David Lynchian. It felt like one of our last gigs, maybe because the sound was terrible, like nonexistent, but it was the vibrations that mattered. Maybe a last gig for the Deaf Club in any case.”
Pink Section also played more conventional venues, once opening for the Stranglers at the Old Waldorf, one of San Francisco’s top downtown rock clubs. They played to some of their most enthusiastic audiences at Seattle’s Showbox, recording their EP in Seattle in Triangle Recording, “this brand new studio,” remembers Gittelsohn. “The next morning we’re at breakfast and they go, ‘The place burned to the ground. Someone left a cigarette in the couch.’”
Pink Section “were sort of the house band” at the Deaf Club, a club for deaf people that Pink Section manager Robert Hanrahan rented out for punk shows, where actual deaf members of the club would sometimes dance to the vibrations of the music.
That wasn’t what broke up the band, as “somehow our tapes were okay.” They also toured in Los Angeles, Athens, Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, Ottawa (where two nights in a strip club drew “about seven people”), and New York. Gittelsohn considers one New York show where she and Hanrahan took a cab from the airport to the stage at Max’s Kansas City as the Pink Section’s apex. In New York they also opened for the Simple Minds at Hurrah’s, where they met Iggy Pop, but they wouldn’t last much longer. “I think that we just like blew through it,” is how McClellan looks back on it. “We woodshedded, made up these songs, made recordings, went on tours, went to New York. And kind of got burned out on each other a little bit.
“I loved doing stuff that was really off-kilter and kind of experimental, and I felt like Steve wanted to go just in a different direction. More like a Wall of Sound kind of music or something. He was the bass player; maybe he would have wanted a drummer that was just like a steady beat, and not a kind of all over the place drummer, like I was. It just lost its newness, and we had trouble writing new songs that we could get behind together.”
After returning from New York, “We didn’t really write any more songs after that, I don’t think.” So Pink Section’s discography stalled before they even did a full album, though one was pieced together by Superior Viaduct in 2015 with the single, EP, and some other material (not including a cover of “Do You Know the Way to San Jose” Carol remembers the band performing).
Pink Section’s Matt Heckert would go on to greater fame as part of the industrial performance art group Survival Research Laboratories, whose events often found obsolete machinery crashing itself into submission. “He always worked on cars, and was always mechanically interested,” observes Gittelsohn. “So the transition made complete sense. It was a fascination with moving parts, metal, gears, noise. Some of his art that he did later were these big metal things; he did some sound sculptures and kind of incorporated a lot of wah-wah-wah things, undulating.”
The two women from Pink Section would also go in a less commercial direction, if not one nearly as noisy and industrial. With JoJo Planteen and Genevieve Boutet de Monvel, they formed the all-women Inflatable Boy Clams. The all-woman lineup was still uncommon for rock in the early 1980s, but it wasn’t the only unusual thing about the band.
“I’m young enough to not be intimidated by men, but I’m old enough to know that men kind of like ran the rock scene,” explains Judy. “It didn’t bother me. But Boy Clams was the ultimate expressive woman thing, or girl-female thing. Where rehearsal for the Boy Clams was the four of us, or three of us, drooling on the floor, hollering. It was so intensely creative.
“Pink Section was a little more conventional. Pink Section had kind of standard guitar, drums, bass, vocals, and keyboard. The Boy Clams, we rotated instruments all the time. We did what one another do. We didn’t have ‘you do this, you do this.’ We didn’t have set ways of doing songs and it was very theatrical. We wore bathing suits with a schoolgirl outfit on top of them, with a party dress on top of them, with business suits on top of them. We would sort of, through the performance, take off one layer and do a song, and take off one layer and do a song.”
Affirms Carol, “It just felt a lot more natural and there wasn’t so much tension or expectation. As an all-girl band, it was like anything goes. We just had a different aesthetic. It was just really fun, experimental, and free in that way. The style was quieter; at times the songs were hypnotic, and the choruses were sometimes chanting.
“When Pink Section played, we had to bring all the instruments, all the amps. But with the Inflatable Boy Clams, we just went in our living room, and it was more like playing with toy instruments in a way. We’d kind of tear down the drum kit and there was less of a formality. We conceptualized what we wanted to do, and just kind of did it. We played more like in a performance house or something than at the late-night rock shows.” Besides a series of midnight shows at the Eureka Theatre, they also played other offbeat venues, like the still-running Artists’ Television Access non-profit art galley and screening room in the Mission district.
The material the Inflatable Boy Clams generated was in some ways quite different not only from Pink Section’s, but also from most other underground bands as post-punk began to take shape. The songs fell somewhere between new wave and spoken word pieces that were as much theatrical drama as songs with rock lyrics.
These were set against minimal musical arrangements of ominous keyboards, improvisational saxophone (by Boutet de Monvel), stark bass, and spare percussion.
The results were spooky and disquieting, recorded in a not-by-the-book manner suiting the unclassifiable pieces. Myke Reilly from San Francisco band Voice Farm, remembers Gittelsohn, used “a four-track cassette recorder to record us in our living room on 16th Street.” Although there’s a layered feel to the combination of voices, instruments, and effects, the ambience is nonetheless spare and spacious, rather than dense and cluttered.
“Myke is an excellent producer,” Judy elaborates. “He really left the room around it. There’s a lot of air around things; it’s kind of like he was comfortable leaving space around stuff. That makes it very layered, interestingly,” though “there are not a lot of parts to it. It was very spare, musically. I think that’s kind of how we sounded live, too.
“Culturally, that’s sort of our gestalt – ‘fill it.’ ‘Fill it’ is often the non-valuable thing of music, because in music you want to hear the nice and the mellow and the crashing. And you want to be able to distinguish the difference. If you get all filled in, there’s no place for your mind to go, or your senses to rest and recuperate, and then allow something crashing. We appreciate by contrast. But if the air isn’t there, it’s like it’s a homogenous landslide of information. There’s no place to feel the poetry, or to recognize the depth and lightness, and colors.”
In Carol’s view, “We just pared down. There were fewer things going on, fewer instruments. If I wasn’t playing the drums, somebody else was just hitting a block of wood or a little bell or something.
“One of the things that I loved about recording with Myke was that he left all the accidents in. Like the accidental electronic stuff that quirks the beats, and these funny sounds that the electronics made that were kind of like clicks. He left all of that in, and yet it was a clean sound.”
The spacious layers were especially striking on “I’m Sorry,” which had its unlikely origins when McClellan heard a woman sitting at a Chicago bar singing the 1920s pop standard “Bye Bye Blackbird.” “I decided I wanted to do it, but I couldn’t do it nearly as good as that woman. I researched and found the ‘I’m Sorry’ song”—a popular jazz standard from the mid-1920s—“which is really pretty sappy. But I changed it around, deconstructed, and it became the backdrop for the narratives that Judy and JoJo came up with spontaneously.
“We started recording it in the living room; then Judy and JoJo, they just had to make fun of it. Maybe I wanted to have this sad song, but then Judy and Carol telling these hilarious stories. It was an accident waiting to happen. It just melded very well.”
Besides the incident with the dress that kicks off the track, “I’m Sorry” also discusses smashing up a friend’s car, stealing boyfriends, and carelessly destroying tapes and musical equipment in excruciatingly gruesome detail, all culminating in deadpan apologies (“I don’t think you should use your tape recorder, but I’m sorry”). Were these based on real life stories?
“Exaggerated real life, let’s put it that way,” responds Gittelsohn. “Fiction. We just had a good time with it. The thing that I think is so successful about ‘I’m Sorry’ is everybody goes, ‘Oh, I had a situation just like that.’ So it’s very relatable. We took it to such an exaggerated degree. We did a lot of versions of that live,” sometimes with different lyrics, “and it was always so much fun.”
Another song, however, was based on a real-life experience, as “Marin” “was sort of based on a true story. I was kind of burnt out and stayed [with] my mother’s best friend in Marin. It was like a place to sort of get sick and fall apart. So that was about going to Marin and getting better up there.”
Released by the local Subterranean label as part of a five-song double seven-inch, “I’m Sorry” struck a chord with college radio programmers. Rodney Bingenheimer also gave it airplay on KROQ in Los Angeles, where he hosted perhaps the most popular alternative rock program on a commercial station anywhere in the US. Yet the Inflatable Boy Clams not only didn’t put out more records, but wouldn’t even last much longer.
“I may have grown tired of JoJo,” says Carol. “We were roommates. But I don’t know if that was really the cause of the breakup. We just kind of went from one thing to another. The last venue was at the Eureka Theatre, the midnight shows. We called ourselves the Little W’s. We kind of even changed the name. Then I think people just kind of went on to other things we were doing.” The Inflatable Boy Clams did have some other material that didn’t make it onto their double seven-inch—“Ode to James Brown” is one intriguing-sounding such title—though no other songs have been available. “Genevieve had a particularly mesmerizing spoken word piece about ‘roaches invaded the computer,’” note Carol and Judy. “While she was not always present, she was a key figure.”
With “Midsummer New York,” they also held the distinction of being one of the first acts of any sort to cover a Yoko Ono song, at a time when Ono was deeply unfashionable even among much of the underground.
Both Gittelsohn and McClellan would work in maternity clothing at Japanese Weekend—Carol for seven years, and Judy for about fifteen—though they took part in another musical project in the mid-1980s. Poet/spoken word performer David Swan, aka Dog, “was sort of a family member,” as Judy recalls. “He loved the Boy Clams. Dog had a big history of going through people with the Longshoremen, and he did a lot of stuff at Club Foot,” a venue where Judy and Carol had played (and which spawned the Club Foot Orchestra, in whose original incarnation McClellan had been asked to play). “Then I guess the Boy Clams sort of disbanded, and Dog kind of seized on us. Carol and I were and are best friends, so we did this synchronized vocals and dancing that was really accenting Dog’s work. So we were sort of a Greek chorus for Dog’s work.”
If the Inflatable Boy Clams were a bridge between new wave music and theatrical vignettes, the Longshoremen were more a vehicle for Dog’s brand of updated beat-type spoken word poetry, with some incidental music, background vocals, and effects. They issued a couple albums on Subterranean in the mid-‘80s, though both McClellan and Gittelsohn view their roles as support to Dog’s vision.
“He wasn’t asking a lot of us,” says Carol. “It was very minimal, it was very spare. We didn’t even have drums anymore.” Which was a relief, in a way, according to Judy: “It’s also like, we probably got sick of carrying all this equipment around. It was like less and less effort.”
Some of the visual elements the Inflatable Boy Clams brought to their performances survived, however, in their wardrobe. “I remember buying twin clothes a lot for the Longshoremen,” says Gittelsohn. “We would go to the thrift store right before we played, and we’d go, ‘Oh look, there’s one my size and your size.’” As Carol puts it, “We’d coordinate everything to be twins.”
As to why their bands didn’t last longer or record more, both look back on their limited discographies without regret. “We were just that age where things change,” McClellan muses. “Nothing stays the same. People were dating this person, and then they’d go date that other person, and get caught up in other kinds of interests. Things were so fleeting. There was this performance art going on at the time too. That in itself is like a one-time thing—you do it, and it’s over. That’s how kind of how our bands were. It was like performance that just came together.”
Their bands and their records were also projects that reflected a certain period in San Francisco when such idiosyncratic artistic statements were possible, even if their lifespans (and certainly distribution on disc) were limited. “It was such a little window of time,” wistfully states Gittelsohn, who’s now a painter (info at www.judyg.com). “It was ’76 through ’82. I just felt like we ruled the town. We were so young and so free. We lived together, we didn’t go to school, we just ran around. We were up till two and three in the morning all the time. We were brand new over 21, and everybody was in a band.”
But at the end of the ‘70s, “then [Harvey] Milk and [George] Moscone were dead. And the Jim Jones murders, and [new mayor, and now longtime US Senator] Dianne Feinstein was in charge. That was depressing. The dark cloud of Dianne Feinstein taking posters off, not letting people do street performing. There was this…like this door closing gently, and the creativity just kind of changed.”