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Careful with That Ax, Lilith

Meredith Brooks is livid. After a good twelve months of touring and national TV appearances, and after selling more than a million copies of blurring the edges, her 1997 debut album, Brooks has once again been mistaken for a mere rhythm guitarist by a big, nationally distributed guitar magazine.

"That's the kind of shit that pisses me off more than anything," she bursts after being read the odious passage. "This is exactly what people still do, which is why I couldn't let anybody else play on my album, even if I wanted to."

By anybody, Brooks means anybody male. Specifically, any male guitarist. In addition to lead vocals, she ably handled all six-string chores on blurring without any male assistance whatsoever, thank you very much. That would include all rhythm guitar tracks, all lead tracks, all inventive, experimental sounds she coaxed out of her trusty Teles and Strats -- everything that sounds like guitar and much that doesn't. Still, a national magazine prints the offensive identification "lead guitarist" next to a photo of Brooks's tour back-up guitarist, Yogi Lonich, and Brooks flies off the fretboard, so to speak.

"I can't believe that after everything I've been through, and everything I've done, some magazine would still do that to me. That is the epitome," she huffs. "This is really good. This is really good for your article, so you can get a direct reaction."

Brooks probably isn't alone in suffering the lack of credit that often befalls female rock instrumentalists. And though music history is replete with many, many stellar female guitarists, keyboardists, violinists, et cetera -- contemporary players such as guitarist Bonnie Raitt, pianists Tori Amos and Christine McVie, percussionist Sheila E., and violinist Lili Haydn, to name a representative few -- a thorough scan of a reference work such as the New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll sadly turns up scant mention of female artists at all, let alone notable instrumental virtuosos.

Not that female musicians who opted to do more than sing -- and great singers are certainly not to be dismissed -- haven't had an enormous impact on music. Throughout most of the century they have clearly been equal to men, and at times dominant, in blues and gospel; and since the Sixties their presence has been consistent, if not exactly proportional, in rock and pop. Their role in the overall scheme of things is expanding, and the past couple of years in particular have seen some long-needed and very positive moves toward equality of the sexes in the historically male-dominated rock and roll world.

Successful, credible female artists are certainly more prevalent these days, especially in the wake of the early-Nineties riot grrrl movement and last year's hugely successful Lilith Fair, the top-grossing tour of 1997, which outscored even that of the Rolling Stones in attendance and income. In fact, the festival's popularity surprised many in the music industry, though the women involved don't understand why.

"How is this surprising?" asks Canadian rocker Holly McNarland, who appeared with Lilith Fair founder Sarah McLachlan on a date two years ago that inspired the subsequent tours and who will play the second stage during Lilith's visit to Coral Sky Amphitheatre July 26. "It shouldn't be surprising," she continues. "It should be totally natural. And I think in a few years it will be. It won't be such a big deal."

Lilith is actually an even bigger deal this year, featuring, at various shows, nearly 50 respected and talented female artists -- not counting local support acts -- who will make 57 tour stops throughout the United States and Canada. Other than McLachlan, who performs on all the dates, Brooks, McNarland, and Raitt share the Coral Sky spotlight with Natalie Merchant, Queen Latifah, Holly Cole, Rebekah, and Gin and Evi Weintraub and their band INHOUSE (from West Palm Beach). Though the event was not sold-out at press time, ticket sales have been strong. Nationwide, grosses for the festival have already exceeded last year's. But with the possible exception of accomplished guitarists Brooks and Raitt, Lilith Fair is still largely a showcase for female singers. Despite the fair's reputation as a celebration of women in music, many of the band members behind the front women are men.

It is somewhat ironic that, just four days later, Coral Sky will host the summer's ultimate testosterone-fueled rock experience: Ozzfest, which was also a big hit last year, mostly because it served as a long-awaited reunion for Ozzy Osbourne and his band of old -- Black Sabbath -- and as a playground for a tortured crew of metalheads, such as Pantera and Type O Negative. Joining Ozzy this year are Tool, Megadeth, Motorhead, the Melvins, Limp Bizkit, Ultraspank, Coal Chamber, and a couple of lesser-knowns. Female lead guitarists, however, or slammin' bassists, or drop-dead fantastic drummers are virtually, if not completely, nonexistent in the Ozzfest lineup. Compare the personnel at these two festivals side by side and the gender disparities seem downright ridiculous.

 

Which raises questions about societal issues most rockers would never even begin to ponder, though perhaps they should. Most obvious is whether women have been discriminated against over the past, say, 30 or 40 years, by the music industry and relegated to mere window-dressing as pop figurines and sex symbols (Spice Girls, anyone?). Of course they have, but that's been discussed ad nauseam, and it seems the winds of change are finally increasing into a gale no one can ignore.

But beyond that admittedly larger issue lies another long-standing mystery: Why are so few female rock and pop musicians currently pushing the envelope of actual instrumental excellence? Relative to their counterparts on the metallic roster of Ozzfest musicians -- and musical style, metal or otherwise, is not the point here -- the vast majority of those female musicians who have enlivened radio airwaves of late have chosen not to take their guitar playing, or their drumming, or any of their instrumental abilities, to the same level as the typical guy rock star. Subsequently, local female musicians, in South Florida and everywhere else, tend not to aim too high in their aspirations. But face it, ladies: You can do it.

Why aren't there more teenage girls following in the footsteps of highly advanced guitarists such as, for instance, Bonnie Raitt? Why are female Marty Friedmans (Megadeth's resident shredder) so few and far between? Why is there only one Jennifer Batten, Michael Jackson's long-time tour guitarist and a guitar hero if ever there was one, for every 100 or so Joe Holmeses (Ozzy) or Adam Joneses (Tool)?

"Girls are not encouraged to live up to their potential in our society," says Brooks, who admits that her family supported her musical ambitions from the beginning. "As much as we tout creativity in our society, we are also the crushers of creativity, starting in grade school."

Fortunately, creativity wasn't crushed in the Brooks household. It was Brooks's older sister, in fact, who pointed out to her some years back that there were actually plenty of girl guitar players. What Meredith needed to do, she explained, was to go beyond strumming a few chords and learn to play lead, challenging her to cop Eric Clapton's and Duane Allman's licks off "Layla." She quickly met that challenge, and though she struggled through many years of frustrating putdowns (as a member of Charlotte Caffey's post-Go-Go's, early-Nineties Graces, she turned up at a recording studio to find a slew of male studio guitarists on hand to cut tracks for her), she toughed it out and proved her detractors wrong. Her hits "Bitch" and "What Would Happen" may not feature screaming solos, but her six-string fluency on those tracks and throughout blurring the edges clearly goes beyond simple chordal fretwork. Today, partly because of her career struggles and partly because she just wants to see female musicians live up to their true potential, Brooks is outspoken about creating opportunities for girls to follow their dreams in music.

"We need to have more instruments in music classes and have parents ask girls if they're interested in playing an instrument. They need to encourage them and talk about it," she says emphatically.

But parents and music teachers aren't the only ones in modern society who should be offering encouragement. Male musicians and local music venues need to be more supportive of female-fronted rock groups as well. "There have always been women in music," comments INHOUSE vocalist and guitarist Gin Weintraub, who shares center stage with her singing twin sister Evi. "But there hasn't always been an open invitation for women to play in certain clubs. There haven't always been venues, other than coffeehouses, for these artists. It's a great opportunity to make it more of a mainstream idea, to open up club concert situations for women in music. The Lilith Fair is just a huge one of those."

Of course, all the familial encouragement and open-door policies in the world may not be enough to change the way young women approach their music and their instruments. Though Brooks -- and all music fans, for that matter -- has every reason to expect women to push their instrumental abilities further, she theorizes that deeper motivations, possibly even genetic programming, may be a factor in driving young men to spend hours and hours working out solos and intricate musical passages while their female counterparts concentrate more on singing and songwriting.

"Maybe," Brooks reasons, "it's because it's a way of expression that's more acceptable. Men can express their feelings through music, without having to actually show those feelings themselves. For men, [guitar solos] are a way of displaying testosterone-based emotions. Women are more expressive. They don't need to vicariously express feelings through music."

 

Maybe, maybe not, but by now Brooks has calmed down, set aside her anger over a magazine's slight, and once again taken an optimistic stand as a role model for future guitar players -- girls, that is -- everywhere. Considering that women make up more than 50 percent of the population, her words and actions carry with them the potential for major musical and societal change. And like a lot of people, Brooks thinks that's long overdue.

Lilith Fair begins at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, July 26, at Coral Sky Amphitheatre, 601 Sansbury's Way, West Palm Beach; 561-795-8883. Doors open at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are $24, $39, and $49. OzzFest '98 begins at noon, Thursday, July 30, also at Coral Sky Amphitheatre. Tickets are $25.75 and $39.75.


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