Women on the Verge of a Breakthrough

On-stage and behind the scenes, a diverse and determined group is carving off a big piece of the local rock

"We're creating our own history," offers Helaine Blum, manager of promising local rock band Black Janet. She is trying to explain what sets South Florida's rock music scene apart from other cities', and in particular why she and so many other local women have taken up the cause. "Because of my skills, nobody here really cared if I was a female. I don't think that I'd have the opportunities in New York or L.A. that I've found here because it's all growing so fast. And that's something that's as exciting to me as anything I'm doing with an individual club or band I might be promoting -- being a part of the explosive growth in the overall scene."
For once, South Florida's original music scene appears to be ahead of the curve on an emerging trend: the prevalence of women in rock. Bands like Black Janet, Voidville, Jack Off Jill, Little Nicky and the Slicks, and Demonomacy; promoters like Miami Rocks (an annual band showcase and industry seminar-cum-schmoozefest) founder Georgina Vidal; band managers like Blum; even club owners like the Cactus Cantina's Linda Lou Nelson. Women have, in recent years, been making a huge impact in local o-rock circles. Trend, hell. Like Blum says, it's an explosion.

Less than a dozen years ago, females were commonly relegated to support roles in the rock hierarchy. Women rarely fronted bands, and those who did tended to trade on their sexuality more than their musicianship. Gypsy Queen, featuring the Mattioli twins, Pam and Paula, was a prime example. While the band was one of the more musically accomplished outfits playing Miami's cheap-beer-and-Zeppelin-covers circuit, it was probably more famous for the twins' appearance in a Playboy pictorial. Which is not to say Gypsy Queen deliberatley set out to exploit the twins' looks. That was just the way it was.

Vesper Sparrow broke the mold; appropriately, Vesper's history is a perfect example of how women's influence in the local scene has blossomed from one little band into a maze of musical and business offshoots.

While nobody would be naive enough to suggest that the presence of four attractive women hurt their chances for getting gigs, solid songwriting really set Vesper apart. At their late-Eighties peak, the lineup of Kelly Christy, Carolyn Colachicco, Mary Karlzen, and Rose Guilot was making some of the best original music South Florida had to offer, regardless of gender.

"I don't want to sound pompous," says drummer Colachicco, "but yeah, I suppose in a way Vesper opened the door. Our thing wasn't, 'Is there a place to play?' It was the songs. Back in '85, we'd play any place that would have us," she reminisces, mentioning the Reunion Room in Fort Lauderdale, Churchill's Hideaway in Little Haiti, Club Beirut on South Beach, and the Jockey Pub, a brutal blue-collar dive in Davie known for cheap suds and live music. "There wasn't that much interest in original rock in general. We used to play the Jockey Pub once a week, four sets a night, for $60. I don't think a lot of these bands today would work for that."

Yet Vesper Sparrow hasn't cashed in on original rock's surging popularity. After showcasing at New York's storied CBGB in 1989, the band splintered. Colachicco and Christy have endured a series of personnel changes without settling on a permanent lineup; of late they've been, in Colachicco's words, "hiding out, writing new stuff, trying to decide whether it's worth the investment to release a CD or just save money and record more songs on tape." Guilot has been maintaining a low profile, running her own digital recording studio, applying to UM's musical engineering program, and writing songs with her band Paper Dolls, which has yet to take a public bow.

Mary Karlzen, meanwhile, is now flying solo, and flying high; she has released two CDs. Mary -- she's attained single-name status thanks to the tireless promotion of her manager, Y&T Music founder Richard Ulloa A writes and sings country music with a strong folk-rock edge. Although her video for the song "A Long Time Ago" has been picked up by The Nashville Network, Country Music Television, and the Americana TV Network in Branson, Missouri, Mary is a purist who laments the dawning of the MTV era.

"I hate 'em -- videos -- but they're a Necessary Evil. The Big N.E. It's all someone else's images," complains the songwriter. "It's a little like country radio -- a bunch of plastic, cloned Barbie dolls who don't write their own songs. The labels send them to finishing school to learn how to talk to the media, how to dress. They're Stepford singers. Perfect hair, perfect bodies," says Mary, whose outspokenness may have cost her some country radio airplay. "I think anybody could sell CDs with the right people behind them."

Despite her tendency to pooh-pooh her own accomplishments, Mary's music has been the foundation upon which Rich Ulloa has, in effect, built a record label. The first CD eventually paid for itself; the second, a six-song EP titled Hide, has sold more than 800 copies. Rachel Spitz, WVUM's public relations director, manager of funk rockers Second Coming, and Ulloa's assistant, has been tracking national radio exposure, and she confirms that Mary has been receiving airplay in locales as diverse as Aspen, Des Moines, Taos, and Santa Monica, and held the top spot for a week (and was in the top five for more than a month) at WMNF-FM in Tampa.

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