BOOK REVIEW & READING IN CHICAGO 6/22 – The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band

Spitboy, a punk band made up of four women, was unique, whether or not they intende to be. Though punks espouse an anti-establishment philosophy, the vast majority of the creators of punk music have historically been cis white men and boys from a middle-class background. By the mere virtue of being womxn in a rock band that did not play Riot Grrrl music in the 90s, Michelle Cruz Gonzales and the rest of Spitboy were difference. Beyond that, Gonzales deviated further from the punk ‘norm,’ being a xicana and having grown up poor in a semi-rural area in California.

Ironically, the aspects of her identity and experiences that made punk more appealing, relatable and necessary for Gonzales were the very things that made her feel alienated from punk culture and environments. Gonzales reflects on her taking on the nickname “Todd” as a way to downplay her Mexican-American heritage. Though punk culture was Gonzales’/Todd’s culture, it was also a culture that didn’t engage with her identity and her background and forced her to diminish those aspects of herself. Her womxnness and her xicananess acted as divisons – borders, if you will – between her and her band and folks in the punk music scene. Through The Spitboy Rule, Gonzales learns and unlearns things and grows as a musician, a womxn, a xicana who is proud and open about who she is.

Though this book is a memoir, it is not chronological, historical and is not by any means a sociological report of the punk scene. Still, facts are important, and so are identities and there is much reflection on brownness, womxnness and being a xicana in a white world. The foreword by Mimi Thi Nguyen shows us the personal and historical significance a book like The Spitboy Rule has:

It is perhaps obvious to say that The Spitboy Rule is crucial to our necessary (and necessarily imperfect) histories of black and brown punk, both as a reckoning with the historical politics of race and gender in punk cultures and as a genealogy that demonstrates how the past resonates in the present.)

But though this book is our history, it is also Michelle’s memoir. There are other stories here that paint a kaleidoscopic picture of a brown punk life, strewn with lanky boyfriends and lyric sheets, untoward assumptions of intimacy (the story about the fanboy who wants hugs, ugh) and tea and crumpets with Citizen Fish, alongside illicit border-crossings and impromptu visits to grandmothers in the city with the second largest Mexican population in the world.

Through reading this book, we don’t get a complete picture of the punk rock world as a whole, but rather glimpse into Cruz’s particular experiences while in Spitboy and the identities and experiences that shaped her as a person, a musician and a member of the punk scene who had to fight to get a seat. While I’m not familiar with Spitboy’s music (yet!) I imagine fans would appreciate getting this kind of insight what’s going on behind the lyrics, behind the ideas that the band expressed in their songs and to see that Spitboy, while principled, was not just make general condemnations and declarations.

From the first page, Gonzales takes us right into the existence of Spitboy. Though she provides a little background on her family and where she grew up, the book is not by any means chronological or trying to give a history of the band or a biography of Gonzales’ entire life. As she continues telling the story of Spitboy, more about her is revealed about the experiences that made her need punk in her life, why it was important to her. Her experiences with sexist heckler and white folks – even her own band members – being freaked out by her xicana identity and family when it was too “in their face” were all significant moments that shaped her as she fought to just make music and be a part of the international punk scene.

Gonzales’ short chapters in this book are arranged by a general theme or triggered by a specific memory, but within them there are moments and other concepts and memories that are tied up in them; nothing is ‘in order,’ and it wouldn’t make sense for them to be. For instance, the chapter named “The Threat” is about the band recording in a studio for the first time, an exciting moment that immediately turns stressful when they discover that, on tape, they sounded like a stereotype they were hoping to avoid of “screeching females.”

“Is that really what we sound like?” one of us asked again.

I could see [the music engineer] Kevin reach over and press the button to turn on his mic.

“Yes, that’s what you sound like.” He smiled his trademark wide smile.

“We don’t want to sound like that,” one of us said into her mic.

“You don’t want to sound how you sound?”

[…] It seemed like a terrible contradiction. We wanted to sounds like women, but we didn’t want to screech, we didn’t want to grate, and we knew of course that stereotypes about women were influencing how we felt, as Kevin had tried to gently point out.

[…] And even though I always felt a little bad about it, I know I sang my vocals in that same lower register whenever we played that song live thereafter (25-27).

Scenes like this demonstrate the inner workings of the band, their principles and philosophies and their fears. Sometimes Gonzales lays that stuff out for us in explanations after the scenes are described, but mostly you can get it, without. Gonzales’s writing is very matter of fact and not overly descriptive; even discussing things that are emotional or painful are made to feel rather unembellished and not indulgent. Though Gonzales’ tough punk exterior comes through in the writing, there are moments of revelation and intimacy that make this book a quick, relatable and fascinating read.

ATTENTION, CHICAGO: Michelle Gonzales will be doing a reading of The Spitboy Rule at La Catrina Café on June 22, starting at 7pm! Be there or be square…

The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band

By Michelle Cruz Gonzales

Foreword by Martín Sorrondeguy

Preface by Mimi Thi Nguyen

Publication date April 16, 2016 by PM Press