Punk, but Not Stupid

Manhole stays angry for all the right reasons

Houston's no easy town for aspiring musicians, and no town is easy when those musicians are holding down serf-wage day jobs and trying to a make a serious go of the music business at the same time. Unapologetic punk rockers playing in a town where punk rock has never really caught on (at least as far as drawing the crowds), and where attention from the sort of people who can further your career is rare, aren't exactly stacking the odds in their own favor. But when your band is your joy and your mission and your dream and your life all rolled up into one tightly guarded package, you find a way to do what you have to do, even if it means making some enemies along the way, and even if it means calling up a little help from your friends.

In one sense, Manhole's anger at the emotional and political state of the union paints the foursome as intimidating, standoffish punks with a humorless agenda. On the other hand, Manhole might be the most grateful group of angry women ever to simultaneously kiss and slap Houston's underground music scene. In the liner notes to Manhole, the group's eponymous debut scheduled for release this week, the band sends out "thank yous" to no less than 250 persons, bands and entities. I'm on the list just for putting their name in print a few times. And if you've got enough interest in a barely heralded all-woman punk band from Houston to have read this far, then you probably are, too.

The litany of gratitude is an appropriate, if unwieldy gesture; half the fun of grassroots punk may be the music's amateur glee and fuck-you attitude, but the other half is definitely communal. You buy a punk rock disc and check the notes to see if you're recognized, or if anyone you know is mentioned -- to see if you have a connection to the people making the music. And the music always sounds better when you do.

Making that connection is what Manhole is all about. Interviewing vocalist Allison Gibson, guitarist Eev Rodriguez, bassist Chris Nine and drummer Beth Shaffer, the band comes across as earnestly committed to an anti-sexist, anti-racist agenda and an almost touching belief that, yes, music can spread that message and just maybe even change your life for the better. It comes across as lines drawn in the sand, separating the bad guys (those who don't give a shit) from the good guys (who care a lot), and as fighting words aimed at any one or thing that operates from selfish or greedy motives. On Manhole, the connection makes itself felt through 18 grinding slices of guitar-driven rage, sprinkled with pointedly sampled news reports of senseless violence and racist venom.

Manhole is not a band out banging on its instruments for the free beer and cheap groupies; Manhole really thinks it matters.

The band traces distant origins all the way back to the summer of '91, when Rodriguez, who was then managing the Bayou Pigs, met a woman at the Pik-N-Pak who wanted to start an all-girl band. That meeting led to a few jam sessions with Rodriguez playing bass where, she says, "We didn't know what to do, so we were playing Scorpions' songs, or Danzig."

Gibson, 23, had recently moved to Houston from Florida, where she had fronted a hard-core band, and was looking for something new when she overhead talk about a band that needed a singer. One night while hanging out with friends at the Francisco Studios rehearsal space, she discovered that the early version of Manhole was practicing down the hall. She knocked on the door and asked if she could sing.

When Rodriguez's two original partners left the fold, mutual friends introduced Nine, who had been playing guitar and singing with bluegrass bands. Nine, 23, says she taught herself bass in a week by playing along to Soundgarden records. Rodriguez dropped the bass, borrowed her boyfriend's guitar and taught herself to play that instead, since, she says, "I didn't know any chicks who played guitar. And we had three weeks before we had to do our next gig."

A committed drummer, as usual, was the hardest element to pin down, and Manhole blazed through a roster of skin-pounders that would make Spinal Tap proud before finding Shaffer, a 21-year-old Austin transplant.

If pulling together a working band weren't hard enough under any circumstances, pulling together a working band comprised entirely of women turned out to be an especially difficult chore.

"I hate to put down women," says Rodriguez, at 31 the group's elder stateswoman and the mother of a 13-year-old son, "but women have so much to do. Playing music you kind of have to set aside your personal life a lot, even more so than men do. I guess maybe you're just expected to do all these other things, instead of being really dedicated to one. Or you've got to try to juggle them all, and it was really hard. Even with the women that we've played with, they've always had boyfriends, or something that was holding them back. We couldn't even find guys that were really serious."

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