Review of The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band, by Michelle Cruz Gonzales

Cover of the memoir: The Spitboy Rule, by Michell Cruz Gonzales, with a photo of the author playing drums.
Cover of the memoir: The Spitboy Rule, by Michell Cruz Gonzales, with a photo of the author playing drums.

Michelle Cruz Gonzales’s “The Spitboy Rule: Tales of a Xicana in a Female Punk Band,” is one of the best rock memoirs I have ever read. It honestly portrays much of what made the 1990s punk scene beautiful, and much of what made it ugly, too. But what really makes this book great is how eloquently, and passionately, Gonzales writes about how it shaped her own personal growth and identity as a working-class woman of color.

First, some of that beauty. $5 live shows. DIY performance spaces and organizations like Gilman Street, Klub Komotion and Epicenter Zone. The political activism. And, of course, the raw energy of bands like Spitboy. Mimi Thi Nguyen’s preface does a great job of anchoring the book in its historical context (e.g., Gulf War, Rodney King, and the rarity, even in the San Francisco Bay Area, of an all-women, anarchist feminist band). Which brings us to some of the ugliness. In spite of the leftwing politics of so many of the bands, and fans, it was still a straight, white, male-dominated scene. Sexism, racism, and homophobia were always present, sometimes overtly, and other times subtly, in the form of “colorblindness,” or the uncritical exercise of privilege.

Many of us were, in fact, very self-critical. But we were also young and inexperienced. Sometimes we came up with good analyses and effective solutions. Other times, well… Let me share one of my favorite parts of the book, when Spitboy is playing in Washington, D.C., with members of Bikini Kill in the audience. Before their set, a tall guy comes up to Gonzales and asks if the men have to stand in the back of the room, like they were told to do during a Bikini Kill set. Irate, Gonzales announces to the audience that men do not have to stand in the back. “We’re not a riot grrrl band.” The room goes silent. So, Spitboy’s lead singer, Adrienne, follows with “Please don’t block a woman’s view; don’t stand in front of someone who is shorter than you are. Just use common sense.”

The first time I experienced the men-in-the-back rule, I willingly complied. The mosh pit was notoriously dominated by big, aggressive dudes, and sometimes outright bullies. And even though I considered myself a feminist, I am tall and probably quite often blocked the view of shorter people without even realizing it. So, it seemed a fair and reasonable compromise to me. However, Spitboy’s less authoritarian message would have really resonated with me, and would have been a much more effective reminder for well-meaning big guys to pay better attention to our oversized footprint.

One of the most powerful chapters in the book is titled Race, Class and Spitboy. It highlights how easily a person from a marginalized group can become invisible to those around them, even when those people are friends, and even when they, themselves, have leftist politics. In one scene, Gonzales introduces her bandmates to her working-class abuela, in East Los Angeles. The band is uncharacteristically quiet and awkward. No one asks her grandmother any questions or tries to get to know her. One of the bandmember’s has a bemused expression similar to the expression she had when Gonzales explained that her two siblings have two different dads, both different from her own dad.

Reading this now, I think, what’s so hard to get? Her mom was poor. They lived on welfare. Her dad was abusive. They had to leave him. Tragic and traumatic, but not uncommon, especially for working-class women. Yet somehow this was perplexing to her middle-class bandmates who hadn’t experienced such things. I saw some of this same kind of perplexion, or obliviousness, growing up, when many of my middle-class peers assumed my best friend, who was working-class and Xicana, was actually middle-class and white, like them, somehow overlooking the clue in her surname.

This invisibility becomes even more glaring, and ironic, when a white riot grrrl accuses Spitboy of cultural appropriation for naming their 3rd album “Mi Cuerpo Es Mio.” But reflecting back on this incident, Gonzales gains some important insight, too. That her own anger at being accused of racism by a riot grrrl “who couldn’t tell a person of color when she was looking right at one,” was actually a mask for the sadness she felt because people didn’t see who she really was, and that she had allowed that to happen.

There are many other moments like this in the book, but you’ll have to pick up a copy and read those for yourself. Likewise, if you want to know why they called themselves Spitboy, or what the Spitboy rule is. You won’t be disappointed. It’s a great book, with lots of rare fliers and posters, as well as stories of touring and performing that range from humorous to frightening. One last thing I’d like to say in closing is that it’s tragic that Spitboy didn’t get to open for Fugazi, at San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center, on May Day, 1993—a regret that was referenced twice in the book, once in the preface, and again toward the end.

The significance is that Fugazi was a band that meant a lot to Spitboy, and to so many of us in the DIY punk scene. Also, because it was such a seminal show. I was there doling out free condoms to anyone who asked, doing my DIY part to stop the spread of HIV. I also gave a speech at the beginning of the show about the Haymarket martyrs, and the anarchist history of May Day. It was a fantastic show, and a great moment in my life. But if Spitboy had played, it would have been one of the greatest punk shows ever.

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