The all-woman feminist rock band Eyes never recorded an album. There are no bootlegs of their live gigs, no collections of their demo tapes, no YouTube videos, and no Facebook groups celebrating them. Unless you were one of the few who saw their amazing live gigs, mostly at crummy bars in the early to mid-Seventies, you have likely never heard of them or heard them, and certainly never seen them.
Until now, they would be nothing more than a memory shared by fans like me if not for New Yorker rock columnist Ellen Willis, who wrote about them briefly in the second half of a piece called “San Francisco Habitat” published in the magazine in 1973 (and in her 1982 book, Beginning to See the Light: Pieces of a Decade and later included in the 2011 collection Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music). Well, “it’s not enough” as onetime Eyes frontwoman Alicia Pojanowski sang.
I wrote about Eyes when I was 20 for an underground paper. What I wrote back then wasn’t good, so I rectified both problems with this essay, which is the final piece of writing in my book, Addicted to Noise: The Music Writings of Michael Goldberg.
“SOMEWHERE IN THE SHADOWLAND of Santa Cruz County, the beginnings of a rock & roll transition are in process. Within a small, two room bar off Highway 1, Eyes pulsates with 1984 energy and excitement.
“Eyes, when they choose to play in Santa Cruz, perform exclusively at Mona’s Gorilla Lounge. Mona’s is a unique bar…. A bar that caters to people of all sexual preferences. The atmosphere is one of intense sensual vibrations when Eyes perform. This may be caused by their tight, raunchy, hard-rock, and bluesy sonic moonbeams.”
So begins a story I wrote in October 1973, three months after I turned 20, for the long-gone underground Santa Cruz weekly Sundaz! During the spring of that year, a woman friend of mine, a self-identified feminist who was friends with Kate Millett, author of Sexual Politics, took me to Mona’s to see the all-woman rock band Eyes for the first time. We entered the dark, smoky club, walked through the front room where people were drinking, smoking, and talking, past the bar and into another room crowded with mostly lesbian couples dancing. The band across the room on a low stage was playing the Marvelettes’ “Danger! Heartbreak Dead Ahead.” I had liked the Motown hit, but this version was better, there was a desperation in the vocal, this was life and death rock & roll, intense and vital, and in that moment, Eyes was the best band I’d ever heard.
Eyes were an incredible rock band. Not just a feminist rock band. Not just an all-woman rock band. No. They were an incredible flat-out rock band. They were the Velvet Underground. They were the Clash. They were the Patti Smith Group and the Rolling Stones. That kind of flat-out incredible rock band.
Even before we got to Mona’s I was intrigued. My friend, who taught a class called “Women in Film” at the University of California, Santa Cruz, had made a short film of Eyes performing, which I’d seen, and in talking about the band she favorably compared singer Alicia Pojanowski to Mick Jagger.
Pojanowski was a captivating and at times forbidding figure, both in the film and live. Thin and tall, her hair curling down to her shoulders, dancing on the low stage as she sang, raising her arms so they stretched out from her sides like wings, she was, at times, androgynous as Dionysus, deadly as Medusa, wise and beautiful as Aphrodite. She balanced the seriousness of the songs with a casual insider’s sense of humor, joking to the mostly female crowd after the band finished one song, “It appears to be feminist bandstand. All you young couples, we’re watching you.”
From the audience: “We’re watching you!”
Eyes were a groundbreaking band: the first all-woman feminist rock & roll band. There had been a handful of all-woman rock bands before Eyes (Ace of Cups, Fanny, Joy of Cooking) and others also formed in the early Seventies (Sweet Chariot), but Eyes were the first to combine feminism and an original rock sound. In addition to Pojanowski, who wrote lyrics, fronted the band, and sang in a voice that could be strong and hard (but, when appropriate, could be softer too), there was ace guitarist Peggy White, sophisticated Fender Rhodes keyboardist Janet Small, melodic bassist Nikki Nutting, and a powerhouse drummer named Vicky Gilliam.
Eyes, originally named Isis after the Egyptian goddess of fertility, was birthed by Peggy White (who described herself as “the founding mother” in a press flyer about the group) in January 1972. None of the other women had played in bands before and didn’t have the opportunities in the late Sixties that preteen and teen guys had to be in bands. Girls just didn’t play electric guitars, electric basses, electric keyboards or drums in the Sixties. Janet Small studied classical piano for years, but that might have been detrimental to playing the simple chords and melodies of rock music.
Peggy White made use of feedback, distortion and a wah-wah pedal. At the beginning of “Siren Sniper” she added surging feedback to lift the song. Many of her solos used distortion reminiscent of Quicksilver Messenger Service guitarist John Cipollina or even Hendrix. She played the song’s melody when appropriate but often took off into psychedelic flights. The music she wrote for Eyes could be ominous, and there was an anger and power in her solos.
There were plenty of female rock & roll singers in the Sixties, but Pojanowski, who grew up in New Jersey, wasn’t focused on rock music then; she wanted to be an opera singer, but her family was not keen on her going to New York to pursue opera. Her focus on opera—she’s a dramatic soprano and told me she sang using chest tone in Eyes—likely contributed to her distinctive rock singing voice.
The group called themselves Eyes for a reason—they were turning the idea of “the male gaze” on its head. “We played the Overcast, a club on Haight Street, every week,” Pojanowski said during an interview in late January 2022. “And the guy who owned the club claimed he had ‘made Carol Doda.’ There was always that element in what it meant to be a girl rocker. You were just—there was always this legacy of women as sex objects. We tried to own it in a positive way. We saw ourselves as sexual subjects, but not as objects. We were the eye. Not the one who is seen but the one who is seeing. [We were Eyes] because we were the ones doing the looking.”
Eyes—the five women were all in their 20s back then—formed just as the second wave of feminism was hitting its stride, and feminism had everything to do with what the band was about. This was a time in American history when young women stopped putting up with shit from their boyfriends or husbands. They were willing to kick the guy out (“I asked you over a month ago / Please move out your things,” goes one lyric), or walk away (“You got to break your bonds”), if they weren’t treated with respect, as equals.
Pojanowski told me that the Eyes women considered themselves part of the women’s movement. “Eyes really was a cultural project,” Pojanowski said. “For me it wasn’t a musical project as a much as a cultural project. It was about feminism; it was about being involved in a movement that was about my own particular place in history.”
Guitarist White described Eyes as “the musical arm of the women’s movement.”
Pojanowski wanted it to be clear that “the Gloria Steinem brand of feminism didn’t really speak to us. Because we weren’t middle-class professionals trying to make it. That brand of feminism didn’t speak to women who wanted to stay home with their children and certainly not to—and I hesitate to say this because I’m a white person—but it didn’t speak to Black or Brown people either, as a group, in my opinion. We were looking for something else in feminism than just to become just like our male counterparts who would be cogs in the big economic … We saw ourselves as artists, perhaps misfits in the sense that homosexuality, for those of us who were homosexual, was not … accepted by the general public. Our goal was to feel powerful in who we actually were. Be comfortable, be happy about it.”
They all lived in Berkeley or Oakland where protests, activism, and the counterculture were still the currency of the day. Eyes was a collective, with each member contributing to the good of the whole in their own way: Peggy White with her lightning strikes guitar, Vicky Gilliam with her rock-solid drumming, and so on. Everyone made an important contribution, and they relied on each other to fulfill their roles; there was a strong sense of comradeship.
Small, White, Nutting, and Pojanowski wrote or cowrote some of the original songs Eyes performed, sometimes contributing lyrics, sometimes music, sometimes both. The group’s manager, Ella Hirst, also wrote lyrics and sometimes music too.
Eyes helped set the stage for all-women bands or bands fronted by women, that came along later like Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, the Patti Smith Group, the Avengers, the Pretenders, and later still, feminist bands like Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney. Eyes saw themselves as something new. And they were.
Pojanowski, who like Patti Smith grew up in New Jersey, was (and probably still is) an excellent singer. She could handle everything from the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself” and the Supremes’ ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” to Neil Young’s “Mr. Soul” and David Bowie’s “John, I’m Only Dancing.” Other covers included the Stone Poneys’ “Different Drum,” Spirit’s “I Got a Line On You,” the Marvelettes’ “Shop Around,” Neil Young’s “Mr. Soul,” and Bowie’s “Suffragette City.” Eyes were adept at picking covers that kept the dance floor full while often conveying empowering messages or providing the context for their original songs.
The four musicians together created a sound at times vaguely reminiscent of the Doors due to the dominance of Small’s electric keyboards, but it was the original songs, along with Pojanowski’s deep, expressive voice, that made Eyes unique—and made audience members and rock critics like the New Yorker’s Ellen Willis pay attention to this band that didn’t have a record contract. Those original songs that Pojanowski sang could be very dark. “Siren Sniper,” “Happy in the Attic,” “Night Blindness,” and others confront sexism, physical and emotional abuse, and female empowerment. The songs have a real depth to them, and there’s a Dylanesque sarcasm but also a real sincerity. In one song, Pojanowski sings, “You got to know what you want / You got to break your bonds / You got to look for something new.”
Pojanowski was a fan of folk music when she was younger, particularly Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and the blues duo of Dave Ray and Tony Glover. “I learned every single song on Joan Baez’s albums,” Pojanowski said. She also told me she spent four years trying to sing like Dave Ray. She also dug female singers and “girl groups” as a kid including Martha and the Vandellas (“Nowhere to Run,” “Heat Wave”), the Marvelettes (“Danger! Heartbreak Dead Ahead”), and Lesley Gore (“You Don’t Own Me”).
She was “steeped in Surrealism” at the time, she said. “I was absolutely fascinated by Surrealism and Dada and Marcel Duchamp. I wore a cartridge belt onstage with Tampax where the cartridges go. Juxtaposing things that don’t go together that I thought represented personal female power. I thought it was art.”
In Pojanowski’s (lyrics) and White’s (music) “Happy in the Attic,” Pojanowski sang, “You were so afraid / To show me to your friends / I was out of step and you were not impressed … / Listen to you never were the monster you pretend / … If you think I’m leaving now / You better think again.”
In the chorus, Pojanowski sang in her defiant voice, “I was happy in the attic / I could be alone all day / I drank my Coca Cola / And threw the cans away / Once you put me up there / I knew I had to stay / ’Cause I was happy in the attic,” while other band members echoed her in a singsongy falsetto.
“I think I must have been thinking of Jane Eyre,” Pojanowski said. “I guess the message is, ‘I know you were ashamed of me, basically, and kept me in the background but you were never the monster that you pretended. I actually was having a good time in the attic. I was happy in the attic. You don’t have the power over me that you think you do. And now—and I really don’t know if it’s because now I have some notoriety [as a singer?]—I’m looking better to you, you’re willing to bring me out in the open more, and not act like I’m out of step. But frankly, I just want the relationship we had in which I could spend lots of time by myself.’”
In another song Pojanowski wrote the lyrics for and White the music, “Siren Sniper,” the protagonist is a powerful, independent woman. “I’m the siren sniper / I bide my time / I’m the ruler of the earth / I bide my time / I’m the rock and basalt soul stopper / The foam and cool fire death dropper / You’ll know me when I come / I’m the kind of woman you warn yourself about / And I won’t let you down.”
“I don’t see us as being anti-male,” Pojanowski said. “We just wanted the power we had. That’s how I saw what we were doing. We were just stepping into our rightful sense of power, which is what all the women in the women’s movement, let’s say the whole Bay Area scene, were trying to do. I know there was a lot of anti-male feeling [in the women’s movement] but I don’t think that’s what we were doing.”
It was male musicians that the group members had a problem with. “Rock was such a male domain,” Pojanowski said. “I thought that most of the rock guys, as opposed to men in general, were really dinosaurs in terms of their consciousness. They seemed to be really retrograde. They inhabited a cultural world that didn’t have to accommodate women much at all other than as groupies or whatever. I don’t think the real world was that bad, as bad as it was in the rock world.”
Pojanowski worked in a law office and before that she’d been a draft counselor. At least one of her songs dealt with the politics of the day. In “Closet Queen” (lyrics Pojanowski, music White—also referred to as “Queen of Tangerine” because of the chorus, which begins “I’m the Queen of Tangerine”), Pojanowski sang, “My brother he’s a frager / My sister’s underground / There are post office pictures / Of my friends all over town / The judge who gives the sentence / Says it hurts him more than them / But I’m not taking any chances / ’Cause you know my crimes much worse.”
“I thought that speaks to all the political ferment that was happening,” Pojanowski said, then added when I asked her about the phrase “Queen of Tangerine,” “You’ve got the House of Orange in European royalty. Queen of Tangerine is not only a lovely rhyme (to me) but also a spoof.”
Pojanowski also mentioned that one of the women who died in the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) shootout in LA “had come to our gigs. I didn’t realize it until I saw her picture in the paper.”
Guitarist White, originally from New York, studied violin for five years as a kid, then folk guitar as a teenager in the Sixties. She was the only member of Eyes who had previously been in other rock bands. She was in three groups: The Lunatic Fringe (1970), Flash Mama and the Little Honeys (1971), and Wizca (1971). Keyboardist Small was born in New Jersey and grew up in Las Cruces, New Mexico. When she was eight years old she had her first song published in the Unitarian Universalist magazine. Now deceased, she also played violin, viola, recorder, guitar, harpsichord, and organ; she was in the El Paso symphony. She said her greatest honor was picking sugar cane with Fidel Castro and her greatest dishonor was shaking hands with President Lyndon Johnson.
Bassist Nicole (Nikki) Nutting, born in Oakland, started playing acoustic guitar by ear when she was 10. She’d never played bass before she auditioned for Eyes in January 1972. Drummer Victoria Gilliam got her first drum kit in December 1971 and started playing in Eyes a month or so later. The last to join was Pojanowski, who answered an ad in a local paper (either the Oakland Tribune or the Berkeley Barb) and auditioned at an Oakland rehearsal studio the group rented.
While together, in addition to playing regularly at Mona’s in Santa Cruz, Eyes played many women’s movement events as well as Berkeley clubs like the Long Branch and Keystone Berkeley and at the Overcast Club in San Francisco. They also made the occasional trip up to Portland.
Ellen Willis saw Eyes at the Long Branch and wrote in an August 1973 issue of the New Yorker that Eyes were doing what “no other female band has managed: integrating a feminist consciousness with a love for rock and roll and an acute fan’s sense of their own place in its tradition.”
Perhaps because of what Willis wrote, Eyes was pursued by major labels, but the women were not receptive to the companies’ overtures; collectively Eyes chose not to sign with any of them. “We were Berkeley people,” Pojanowski said. “They were big LA record companies. Not really our cup of tea. We would have been chewed up and spit out. We would have been destroyed—personally and artistically. Some of us pretty much knew that was a situation where we would have zero power and we would not get to represent ourselves the way we wanted to be represented. We would have been victimized.”
So what happened? Toward the end of 1974, less than three years after forming, there was a parting of the ways. If Pojanowski remembers why they broke up, she’s not telling. “I would imagine it was because it could no longer go on,” Pojanowski said. “That’s usually the way of things. If the things don’t go on it’s because they couldn’t.”
Pojanowski, Small, and White immediately formed Lip Service with a different drummer and bass player; Gilliam and Nutting went off to pursue their own musical projects.
Though Eyes were together less than a year and a half when I first saw them at Mona’s, they were really good that first night, and each time I saw them after that they just kept getting better. I made a crude cassette recording of one of their shows in the fall of 1973 and 47 years later, in late 2020, while looking through a box of old cassettes, I came across the Eyes’ tape and it was a revelation. For more than a year I’ve listened to it again and again and it confirms my memories. There was no band like them. They deserve to be remembered, to have their place in written history, and now they will.
Michael Goldberg was a senior writer at Rolling Stone for a decade and founded the first internet rock magazine, Addicted to Noise. He also wrote for Esquire, the New Musical Express, Creem, Downbeat, the San Francisco Chronicle and numerous other publications. He has published three novels and two non-fiction books. Wicked Game: The True Story of Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey (2022) can be ordered from HoZac Books. A 400-plus page collection of his music journalism, Addicted to Noise: The Music Writings of Michael Goldberg, which contains profiles, features, interviews and essays on Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, James Brown, Sleater-Kinney, Prince, Flipper, Neil Young, Laurie Anderson, John Lee Hooker, Tom Waits, Lou Reed and many others, is just published by Backbeat Books.
Reprinted with permission from Addicted to Noise: The Music Writings of Michael Goldberg by Michael Goldberg. Published by ⒸBackbeat Books. All Rights Reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.