Black Pussy is causing trouble again. Last week the Portland-based retro-rockers were booted from the 35 Denton music festival, which said the decision was prompted by a combination of their own second thoughts and complaints from their fan base. The organizers of the three-day event, which is slated to bring about 100 acts to about ten venues across the small North Texas university town from March 11 to March 13, released a statement that read (in part):
"We are confident in our booking team and the selections they have made. However, after learning more about this band and receiving feedback from our community, we do not feel they are the right fit for our festival, our town, or our culture."
This sort of controversy is nothing new for the band, which has been perpetually dogged by media outlets (including this publication) wondering exactly where five white guys get off calling themselves Black Pussy. Their label, Made In China Records, insists the name salutes the original title of the Rolling Stones’ 1971 hit “Brown Sugar,” a song that is racially fraught no matter its title, nor how deeply its opening riff is etched into the rock history books. Wherever the name came from, the ill will surrounding 35 North’s decision has apparently not spread to Houston, where Black Pussy is scheduled to perform at Rudyard’s on March 17 with locals Hogleg and the Dirty Seeds.
According to Rudz booking agent Stacy Hartoon, the Black Pussy date has been on the venue’s calendar for about two weeks and has yet to draw a single complaint, nor did their show at the bar last year. (The band also played Walters Downtown twice in the second half of 2015 without causing much of a stir, either. Opening for Mac Sabbath at Scout Bar in September…not so much.) But any interruption in Black Pussy’s schedule because of their 35 Denton dismissal hasn’t affected their Rudyard’s date. While allowing she understands people’s aversion to the name, “I think it’ll be fine,” Hartoon says of next month's show.
When the Houston Press talked to Hartoon last Friday afternoon, she had just confirmed the band’s load-in time. Saying “there are a lot of really bad band names,” she admits Black Pussy’s provocative name originally helped convince her to go see them in person, “just to see, ‘What is this about?’” she says.
Once she saw them, Hartoon adds, “They were totally the opposite of what I thought they would be. They were just a lot of fun.”
Black Pussy cultivates a heavily concentrated 1970s aesthetic, from their choice of font and their look — long hair, leather and fur-lined jackets, mustaches, bell bottoms, Cuban-heel boots — to their airbrush-style artwork and taste in covers; e.g., songs like Blue Öyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” It even extends to the band’s name, at least if you believe front man Dustin Hill. A few days before 35 Denton dropped Black Pussy, he told our siblings at the Dallas Observer that, besides the “Brown Sugar” story, he thought the name evoked a “'70s feel, a blaxsploitation feel, a Tarantino type of feel.”
He didn’t stop there, either. ”The words have so many meanings,” Hill said. “’Black’ means multiple things and 'pussy' means multiple things. The definitions are amazing. I don’t pigeonhole anything.”
However disingenuous Hill’s words may sound, Black Pussy’s music would fit right into the sound tracks of several Tarantino movies, so it’s hard to say he’s completely off base. Think about it this way: Would the same band, under a different name, even necessarily draw a much bigger audience? Certainly the ceiling for Black Pussy’s style of music — psychedelic-tinged hard rock similar to Blue Cheer, Monster Magnet or Austin’s Amplified Heat — is somewhat elastic, but few bands of this ilk can command an arena-size audience anymore, or even a large theater. With a name like that, Black Pussy isn’t doing themselves any favors in terms of crossover appeal, but they don’t appear to be interested in that sort of thing anyway. It’s easy enough to argue that this kind of rock and roll belongs in seedy bars and dank warehouse-style clubs, the general lack of seediness at Rudz notwithstanding.
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Since its origins, rock and roll has been at least a little transgressive in nature, or at least the stuff that is worth a damn has been. It needs bands that probe the limits of acceptable taste, if only to find out what the market will bear at any given time. Texans have been used to either laughing or cringing at questionable names since the days when the Butthole Surfers were referred to as the “BH Surfers” by their hometown newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, and most papers wouldn't print names of bands like the Dicks at all. Thus far, it seems the market is bearing Black Pussy enough for them to play smaller rooms like Rudz, or to open for other acts at somewhat bigger venues. Besides, bands trying to one-up each other in terms of outrageous names is nothing new. If Black Pussy rubs you the wrong way, what about Anal Vomit or the Child Molesters?
If nothing else, this little episode provides an interesting lesson in the differences between political incorrectness and something even worse — hate speech. Black Pussy’s name may be a prime example of the former, but it’s tougher to paint them into the latter category. It’s tacky as hell, true, but still doesn’t seem to originate from any feelings of malice. Regardless of how bitchin’ their “Don’t Fear the Reaper” cover is, it's safe to say Black Pussy may never win many fans within certain segments of the U.S. population. Others still, though, could probably be forgiven for thinking some critics of this self-proclaimed “stoner-pop” band just need to hit that bong a few more times.