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Friday, December 2

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« Friday Quick Links Lollapalooza 2011 - Stage Clash, Round 1 »

Event Fri Jul 29 2011

The Ladies Rock Experience


The author's fingers, after a day of playing bass.

I am the perfect candidate for Ladies Rock Camp. I've always wanted to be in a rock and roll band, but never had the balls to do it. I regularly update my facebook status with names of fictional rock bands, sometimes going so far as to list the name of their breakout single. A sampling includes:

• Caffeinated Eyedrops; breakout single: Friday Can't Come Soon Enough
• Canadian Viagra Apology; breakout single: Sorry, Eh?
• Strength in Numbers; breakout single: There Are More Of Us Than There Are Of You
• Kiss Me Back; breakout single: Paul Stanley Was Made For Loving Me
• Ctrl, Alt, Delete; breakout single: When Life Opens a Window You Cannot Close
• Paid in Canadian Dollars; breakout single: The Ratio Is Practically One to One, and
• Perceived Facebook Slight; breakout single: Unanswered Friend Request

I'd seen an end-of-camp Girls Rock! Chicago showcase at the Metro, and was impressed. Seeing a bunch of girls aged 8-16 get onstage and strut their stuff was inspiring. When I was a girl, I wasn't encouraged to be loud, and it seemed like boys got to have most of the fun; they got to be class clowns, they didn't have to worry about getting their clothes dirty, and they got to play in garage bands. Things may have changed a little bit since I was a girl, but inspiring self-confidence and creative self-expression in girls is always a good idea.

I signed up for this year's Ladies Rock Camp as soon as I could. Besides being a fun way to spend a weekend, it benefits Girls Rock! Chicago; all tuition earned from Ladies Rock Camp goes towards paying the tuition of Girls Rock!, which never turns away campers due to lack of funding. I decided to learn the bass, an instrument that has always seemed a little darker and heavier in tone then its higher-pitched cousin, the guitar. I've played guitar before, although it's been years, and learning something new appealed to me. What follows is a diary of my experience.

Day 1, Friday

After I signed up and paid my tuition, I didn't give Ladies Rock Camp much thought. The weekend snuck up on me, and Friday morning I found myself wandering aimlessly through Wicker Park in search of Josephinum Academy. It began pouring down rain the moment I stepped off the blue line, and although it's a short walk, I managed to walk in circles looking for it. I've lived in Chicago long enough that Wicker Park looks nothing like what I expect it to, and it was raining hard enough that I stopped into a Subway sandwich shop to get out of the weather. I called Heather Lember, the program director, to let her know I was running late. She assured me that the bands hadn't formed yet, and that they'd keep an eye out for me. That was when I felt my first pang of panic: the bands hadn't formed yet... was this code for: I was missing out on vital pre-band bonding time? Was I going to get to Ladies Rock Camp to discover that all the cliques had already formed, leaving me to be the lone misfit performing solo? Flashbacks of sleepaway camp washed over me - all those summers that I arrived at camp late, and got the last available bed in the cabin. Invariably it was the shittiest bed, the one closest to the door or the one with the thinnest mattress, or the one right under the leak in the roof that dripped every time it rained, and everyone seemed to have paired up into BFFs already.

I found the entrance to the school, and checked in with the staff seated at a folding table. They checked my name off a list, gave me a name tag, and asked me if I wanted a pic. "Oh, I'm a mess, I just came in from the rain, do I have to take the picture right now?" I asked. "No, a pick..." the woman at the desk explained, and handed me a guitar pick. "Oh riiiiiiiiiiiiiiight," I said, "that wasn't very rock and roll of me."

I walked into the school cafeteria, where LRC staff was listing camper suggestions on an over-sized Post-it note. Oh shit, I thought, everyone here is seventeen years old, I'm the oldest one in the room! Closer inspection revealed this to be false; in addition to the women in their 20s and 30s, there were women in their 40s, 50s, and possibly beyond. There was no age limit to this camp.

Laminated images of female rockers were taped to columns around the room for inspiration: Hannah Blillie; Patti Smith; Joan Jett; Tina Weymouth; Bjork. I was given a handmade, photocopied booklet with the word BASS in large print on the cover. Inside, handwritten, was this message:

"HEY THERE, LUCKY CAMPER, You're about to learn the electric bass... ROCK N ROLL!! Maybe you've never played the bass guitar before... OR maybe you've never played any instrument before. It's ok - you can learn! You'll figure it out. This little zine has some bass-ic (HA! GET IT?) info in it that will help you out (hopefully). You don't have to read the whole thing. Just keep playing + you'll get to be super good really fast! WORK IT OUT!" The second page had a diagrammed image of a bass with the names of everything I would have called a "thingy" titled: PARTS OF THE BASS GUITAR.

We counted off into groups and were sent to different tables for some "speed dating" to get to know each other. At one table the topic of discussion was "what is your ideal night out?" At another, it was "if you had one superpower, what would it be?" (My answer - if I had just one superpower it would be to exist in more than one place at once; if I had two superpowers the second one would be to always have good hair.) After the speed dating rounds were over, we were encouraged to create a band based on who we had "chemistry" with. In line with my worst sleepaway camp fears, I ended up in the center of the room, the lone bass player who hadn't been snapped up by a band. Luckily, there was also a drummer and two guitar players in the same boat; we formed a band on the spot.

From there we went to instrument lessons; there were two bass students, myself and a woman named Margot who had a tattoo of North Carolina on her calf. My bass teacher was a young woman named Andrea who had a mustache tattooed on her right arm. We sat in what seemed to be a health education classroom; a series of index cards were taped above the blackboard with phrases like "diseases & disorder," "drugs & alcohol," and "family health and sexuality." Andrea taught us the strings on the bass: G,D, A, and E, and by the end of the class I could play the bass line to "Another One Bites The Dust," "Smoke on the Water," and "Summer Lovin'."

After instrument lessons there was a workshop on songwriting, followed by band practice. I felt extremely crabby; I'd just spent all morning in a non-air conditioned building with a bunch of strangers, and my patience was wearing thin. The morning deluge had soaked my socks and shoes, and I'd been walking on the filthy floors of the school barefoot; the heat was getting to me, and I felt lightheaded. I excused myself to get something to drink, barely feeling my legs move under me as I climbed the stairs to the break room. It was over 100 degrees outside, and it wasn't much cooler indoors. There were fans set up in the classrooms, but it wasn't doing much to offset my discomfort. For a moment I considered whether I could put up with these conditions for another two days. My new band mates: Heather M. on drums, Kara and Kayu on guitar, and me on bass, were coaxed by Heather L., who guided us as we stumbled through creating what would become the music for the verses and chorus of our song. As we practiced, I worked through my crabbiness. "I'm not usually like this," I said, by way of explanation. How could I possibly ditch these ladies? I thought. The camp was already short a bassist --one of the staff members was stepping in and playing bass for the band that didn't have one. Did I seriously want to make that big of a deal out of this?


Heather Lember helps the newly formed band, All Over Texas, to compose music and lyrics.

When the subject of band names came up, I whipped out my list of fictional rock band names. "We don't have to use any of these," I said, not wanting to be bossy. We were in an English classroom full of dictionaries and plays, and flipped through them, resulting in the following list of band name possibilities:

Half Drunk
On Bourbon (from A Streetcar Named Desire)
All Over Texas
The Kowalskis (also from Streetcar)
Freshly Bathed and Scented
Barely Sufficient
Slum Night

Band practice was followed by dinner, then more band practice. By the time I got home I was exhausted; I fell asleep by 11pm, but not before impressing my husband with my new shredding skills, and showing off the dents in my fingers from playing the bass all day.

Day 2, Saturday

Something happened in my sleep. I don't remember what I dreamed, but all that practice had set my neurons on fire, and my unconscious mind had figured out that the bass line to "Another One Bites The Dust" starts the same way as the bass line to "Rappers Delight." It was one of the clearest epiphanies of my life. I grabbed the acoustic guitar that I was using at home as a substitute bass, went online to YouTube, and called up The Sugar Hill Gang. Within minutes I was playing along with "Rappers Delight." I was as proud as if I'd just graduated from college Summa Cum Laude; I couldn't wait to get to Ladies Rock Camp and tell Andrea about it.

Before instrument classes, the campers and staff joined in the following affirmation. It looks corny written down, but it felt awesome to say out loud. I might have to post a copy of it on my bathroom mirror.

"I am so, so, so, so awesome just for being here.
I will leave behind my worries at home, and bring my full presence to my band.
I will collaborate with my kick ass band mates.
I will push myself to be the raddest instrumentalist I can.
I will not care what my face looks like while I am shredding.
I will play so loud that the walls shake.
Camp is short; I will enjoy it while I can!"

I showed off my newly learned "Rappers Delight" bass line to Andrea and Margot, and since I'd dressed more appropriately for the heat, I showed them my own tattoos, which are on my thighs and hidden from sight 99% of the time. We discussed cats, tattoos, and learned the bass line to "Seven Nation Army," "I Love Rock And Roll, "and "Blitzkrieg Bop."

In band practice Heather L. coached us through creating an intro and a bridge, and when we needed lyrics to our song I suggested that we use the list of band titles as a song. Strung together they kind of told a story, and this way we wouldn't have to write any lyrics. I became the band's vocalist; in addition to my stunning vocal credentials, which include high school chorus and singing roles in high school musicals, nobody else wanted to do it. We chose "All Over Texas," as our band name, and named our song "Barely Sufficient."

Day 3, Sunday

We began the day with another affirmation, this one geared towards the showcase that night at Schubas that we would all be participating in:

"I will remember the things I learned about myself this weekend.
I will support my band mates.
I will not be overwhelmed by the bright lights onstage.
I am proud of myself for being so awesome and strong all weekend long.
I won't let the adrenaline intimidate me.
I will remember to go to the bathroom before I go on stage.
I will get through the song tonight no matter what.
I will use all my concentration and focus onstage tonight.
I will impress my friends and family with my new shredding skills."

Then it was off to band practice, where we practiced our song for hours, breaking for lunch and for a workshop on how to perform live. Then we rehearsed in the cafeteria in front of the other bands.

That night at Schubas, the first band went onstage promptly at 6. We were 3rd in the lineup, and dare I say it - we were good. We didn't miss our cues, I sang directly into the mic, and for three whole minutes we were rock stars. On my way out the door I passed by Mary Beth, who emceed the event. "I think I'm going to keep playing bass," I said. She stopped me before I could walk out the door. "I don't like the sound of that maybe," she said. "I will keep playing the bass," I said, correcting myself.

In the days that followed, I heard the bass lines in every song I listened to, and figured out how to play the bass lines to "Whole Lotta Love" and "Give It To Me Baby." Who says boys are the only ones who get to have fun? I'll be back next year, as a camper or as a volunteer, and I'll support Girls Rock! Chicago for years to come.

For more information on Girls Rock! Chicago and how to become involved, make a donation, or register for camp, visit Girls Rock! Chicago.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

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By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

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