Scarier than Courtney Love: the singer Brody Dalle
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Brody Dalle: the return of tough, surly female singers

Kate Mossman meets the riot mom and wife of Josh Homme, whose sound is a unique brand of domestic hardcore.

Tinnitus, the war wound of the ageing rocker, is not normally associated with women of 35 but “two decades of cymbals” have taken their toll on Brody Dalle, the punk singer married to Josh Homme (of Queens of the Stone Age).

I tell her I enjoyed her gig. “I couldn’t hear shit,” she replies. To be fair, no one could: the Hoxton Square Bar and Kitchen was rather too small for this kind of music. Many came to see one of rock’s most famous wives expecting Courtney Love 2.0 but what they got was less theatrical, more dead-eyed and scary. While Dalle screamed, older members of the crowd kept stepping out for air. At the front, teenage girls sang along to her latest single, “Meet the Foetus/Oh the Joy”. In the video, an animated unborn baby slips out of its mother’s womb at night and sets the world to rights, instigating a UN-style baby conference.

“I would love to see a conference of foetuses,” she says in an iambic LA monotone, tucking into a chicken breast the morning after the gig. Her left forearm bears the name of her first child, Camille, and above it another elaborate tattoo spells “Fuck off”. “Meet the Foetus” was inspired by a period of post-natal depression, “the anxieties you have about bringing your children into a world that resembles the zombie apocalypse”. Dalle is a mother of two children who “mean more to me than anything else in the world”. Her music is a unique brand of domestic hardcore.

She has been on the scene for years. Born in Melbourne in 1979, she had a bad start: she had a violent father (he now lives in  England – “in Leeds or some shit”) and later she suffered sexual abuse. She formed the all-girl punk group Sourpuss when she was 13, then took up with Tim Armstrong, the lead singer of the US rock group Rancid (sample lyric: “The Holocaust was nothing compared to my lividity!”). The marriage was fraught: “I used my band to get away from my husband.” Her punk unit the Distillers had some commercial success but, she says, “I had an addiction to methamphetamine that I couldn’t get away from  – we all did, which is why the band imploded.” When she married the desert rock titan Josh Homme (it was Dalle who first called him “the ginger Elvis”), she found stability but babies – and baby blues – halted her music career.

In 2014, the world is once again open to the idea of tough, surly female singers in Airtex shirts and Dalle’s first solo album, Diploid Love (which will be released in April) is bang on time. The acts that inspired her when she was 13 (“L7, Babes in Toyland, Hole, 7 Year Bitch”) were cornerstones of the riot grrrl movement, now seen by rock’s reverse telescope as a key part of modern feminism, inspiring “girl power” in mainstream pop and, eventually, the balaclava-toting Russian dissidents who riffed on its name.

“I could not tell you what Pussy Riot sound like,” she says, working a tea strainer. “I’ve read all the articles but I have not heard a note of their music. Which is probably the experience of a lot of people. I’m not very impressed with Russia, though, seriously. F*** them. No gays? They must be out of their minds. They should have had the Olympics taken off them. It is embarrassing.”

Her husband, Homme, whose nexus of musical collaborations includes Eagles of Death Metal and Them Crooked Vultures (his supergroup with John Paul Jones), has not had a direct creative input on Diploid Love, though the couple have recorded together in the past. “I feel a little bit of anxiety working with him because as a musician, he’s on a different level from me,” she says. “With my melodies and harmonies I can compete but not with playing. I would not be able to jam with my husband. He is an accomplished badass. He is not a wanker at all. He has the sexiest, most tasteful riffs.”

Dalle’s second coming suggests an alternative to the popular notion that creative people lose their edge when they find domestic bliss. “When you have a kid, all this stuff from your own childhood starts to come up. It is gnarly. Once, the music and the band were the outlet: now, I’m more equipped to deal with it but I have an endless well of darkness.”

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

Photo: Getty
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Standing up to China’s censors: an attempt to delete history backfires

For years now, the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square.

At the time, the massacre in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing on the night of 3 June 1989 was the worst thing I’d ever seen. In front of the Beijing Hotel, where my camera team and I took refuge after we’d escaped from the square itself, I counted 40 people killed or wounded by soldiers of the Chinese army. A photographer who was standing on the next balcony to ours was shot dead when the gunner of a passing tank casually sprayed the hotel with machine-gun bullets.

During the previous three weeks I had spent almost every day in the square, making friends with dozens of students who were demonstrating there. How many of them were killed that night I have never been able to find out. It’s not the kind of thing you can easily forgive or forget. 

For years now the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square that night. This may or may not be literally true, though I saw for myself the bullet-scars on the stone steps of the monument in the middle of the square before they were repaired, so it probably isn’t. But this is just playing with words; the real killing fields were the avenues leading away from Tiananmen Square, such as Chang’an Avenue, which runs past the Beijing Hotel. The implication of the official line is that the massacre was simply invented by the western media. Fake news. Sad.

Tiananmen paralysed China for an entire month, and damaged its relations with the outside world for years. Even today, more than a quarter-century later, it retains its intense toxicity. A Chinese newspaper journalist I know got into trouble for referring to it as a “tragedy”; if you have to refer to it, you must call it simply “the Tiananmen events” – but it’s better not to mention it at all.

It was bad enough in what now seems with hindsight like the liberal, benevolent reign of Hu Jintao. Since 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power and introduced an increasingly ferocious crackdown on dissent, every official throughout the vast Chinese system is aware of the urgent need to keep away from sensitive subjects: not just Tiananmen, but the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Which is how, earlier this month, a Chinese import agency came into conflict with the oldest publishing house anywhere, over the world’s best and most respected journal of Chinese studies. The China Quarterly, double-blind and peer-reviewed, is owned by the School of Oriental and African Studies, but Cambridge University Press publishes it. The Quarterly’s website of course carries many articles on just these subjects. The import agency suddenly ordered CUP to take down all 315 of them, some dating back to the 1960s, from its website within China; if it didn’t happen, the Chinese said, they would be forced to close the entire website down.

CUP fell over itself to obey, in order, it said, “to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market”. Which, as a defence of freedom of speech, isn’t quite up there with John Milton, himself a Cambridge alumnus, in Areopagitica:  “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

The China Quarterly’s admirable editor, Tim Pringle, in the quiet but steely way that befits a scholar under pressure, allowed it to be known what CUP had done, and dozens of outraged scholars and others yelled about it as loudly as Twitter and Facebook would allow. The China Quarterly’s first editor, Roderick MacFarquhar, nowadays a sprightly octogenarian who teaches at Harvard, weighed in angrily on behalf of the organ whose high reputation he had helped to create, and some rough words were used about academic publishers who did the work of an autocracy’s censors for them.

To do it credit, CUP listened and realised what irreparable damage they were doing to the China Quarterly; and it announced on Monday that it was reinstating all the articles.

Pringle couldn’t resist a bit of high-minded reproof:  “Access to published materials of the highest quality is a core component of scholarly research,” he wrote. “It is not the role of respected global publishing houses such as CUP to hinder such access.” And he added:  “Our publication criteria will not change: scientific rigour and the contribution to knowledge about China.” Milton would have been proud of him.

Does any of this really matter? Well, it’s a useful object-lesson in how to approach China. Personally, I don’t think Xi Jinping and his friends, as they splash around in the lakes and swimming pools of Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party retreat beside the Forbidden City, will have known or heard anything about it. In spite of its refusal to admit the dreadfulness of the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre, China isn’t really just an Orwellian society where officials labour away destroying or rewriting the files of the past. No doubt the party would like to, but it simply isn’t a shot on the board in the modern world.

You just have to turn to Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. After CUP decided to reverse its self-censoring operation, hundreds of brave souls in China took to the internet to greet the news with pleasure and relief. Some had the courage to put their names to their comments: “It is a triumph of morality,” wrote Zhang Lifan, a Beijing historian. Another historian, Sun Peidong, praised the international chorus of disapproval that had brought about CUP’s change of heart. Someone else, unnamed, wrote “Cambridge University has backbone.”

Even in the days of clampdown and repression, you can just about get away with saying this kind of thing; though within hours some government job’s-worth had deleted the entire discussion from Weibo. But right across China decent, honourable people who believe in telling the truth now know CUP and Cambridge University haven’t, after all, sold the pass.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia