San Francisco in the late ‘70s may not inspire much of an impression as a punk haven to those who typically consign that niche to places like London and New York. But there was something curious brewing in the dankest corners of that city that promised a wealth of untilled musical material. While not the publicized danger magnet that was and is often the preserve of New York City, San Francisco had its own stories of the common dangers that flooded its streets and districts. Before the emergence of the punk movement, which would rule Britannia by the mid-’70s, the Golden Gate City had already found itself mired in a strange wave of crime that purled throughout the tail-end of the ‘60s and into the ‘70s.
Ravaged by the slayings and assaults by various predators like the Zodiac Killer, the Zebra Killers, the Golden State Killer, the Doodler, and the Santa Rosa Hitchhiker, San Francisco’s streets were a bustling flux of danger. Commerce and cruelty comingled with a relentless unease. Nightlife in the city seemed at once the embodiment of adulthood development and a harbinger of death – a terrible quandary for those simply navigating their everyday lives in the city, but also a deadly predicament ripe with the inspiration of youthful aggression and drive.
Enter a throng of pushy, restless, and hungry musicians looking to stomp and slash their John Hancock onto every conceivable metropolitan space. You had the Nuns, whose brand of punk was reframed through a ‘50s rockabilly aesthetic. There was the more meat-and-potatoes punk-rock of the Avengers, fronted by the at turns vivacious and lackadaisical Penelope Huston. The rhythmic twang of punk provocateurs the Offs kept the clubs heated with the frenzy of writhing bodies.
Within this milieu of noise and movement was the intersection of facility and danger, an emotional signpost signaling a new culture. In this climate, precipitating from 1975 and onwards, a young Debora Iyall was just beginning to explore its environment. Moving to San Francisco from Fresno to attend the San Francisco Art Institute, Iyall found herself inundated with the city’s growing punk culture. Inspired, in particular, by a show by the Avengers, Iyall soon found herself fronting a band of her own called the Mummers and the Poppers, which played punk renditions of popular ‘60s rock songs. Wanting to write original material, Iyall kept a lookout for willing and new players, eventually happening upon Frank Zincavage, a fellow college art student who played bass and owned a drum machine. Iyall would then recruit guitarist Peter Woods and drummer Jay Derrah from the Mummers and the Poppers, and the three would begin the preliminaries of their joint songwriting.
Referencing the dearth of romance in San Francisco at the time, Iyall named the new band after seeing a headline on the cover of a local magazine that read “Why Women Can’t Get Laid in San Francisco”. Ironically and, perhaps, auspiciously, Romeo Void was officially formed on Valentine’s Day. When Benjamin Bossi, a saxophonist who could blow poetic lines with the likes of Sam Rivers and Ornette Coleman, was coaxed out from behind a deli in San Francisco’s Market Street by Iyall, the band’s lineup was complete.
Given Iyall’s inclination for keen observation, Romeo Void’s most peculiar feature was the often startling and frank storytelling. Iyall’s lyrics were sordid tales of the San Francisco streets in the early ‘80s, stories that told of the dangers of single women living alone in an urban city that was rife with crime and spoke candidly about date-rape, prostitution, and murder. All throughout, the sentiments of dispassion and misanthropy were interwoven into tales of women walking home alone at night, picking up strangers in bars, or planning their escape while their deadbeat boyfriends lay drunk on bathroom floors. Pitched somewhere between the sexual freewheeling of Erica’s Jong’s erotic novel, Fear of Flying (1973) and the gritty, cautionary realism found in Judith Rossner’s fictional psychological study, Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1975), Iyall’s stanzas evoked an image of the bruised and defiant everywoman navigating her way through an urban wilderness of romance and death.
After making a splash with a few live shows across the city, the band caught the attention of the San Francisco-based indie label 415, which quickly signed them. Before the recording of the first album began, drummer Derrah left, and in his place came John Haines. Romeo Void’s debut, It’s a Condition, was released in the summer of 1981 and picked up an underground following, along with the first smatterings of some healthy praise.
A dark and, oftentimes, disturbing work, It’s a Condition is a document of the deep-seated anxieties of living single in the big city. Iyall’s lyrics of sexual politics and disquietude sit uncomfortably next to a throbbing rhythm section that pounds away like absconding feet on the pavement. On the album’s opener, “Myself to Myself”, an insistent hi-hat races against the main drum beat, and the guitar and bassline begin at diametric angles before coalescing into a melodious riff.
Iyall sings a discomfiting lyric of social withdrawal, avowing her restraint from seeking out meaningful relationships. The air of loneliness and alienation sinks with deep profundity on lines like, “It used to be I could take a long walk on a windy night to go see someone, but someone is now somebody else…” The band manages, as the lyrics pull the weight of the song to a tier beneath the theta of anxiety, to make a daring and sincere bid for the dancefloor. Meanwhile, Iyall sings impassively; the detachment in her voice at a remove that makes her sound as though she is merely an onlooker speaking from somewhere outside the song.
Other stories propagate in the quagmire of San Francisco’s more squalid corners. “White Sweater”, the band’s first single, initially released as a 45 before the album’s release, is a Freudian nightmare that chronicles an anxiety dream and a near date-rape. Beginning with the sound of a door ominously creaking open, the first chords creep in like the score of a horror film. Iyall launches into a dream narrative purportedly about her sister’s rumored suicide, watching her fall to her death in an elevator shaft. Embedded throughout the lyrics are strangely phallic euphemisms: “a hot towel of muscle”, “snakes”, “a huge sliver”, “shaft”. Yet another reference alludes to sexual impotence: the titular “limp” white sweater, worn by the woman who lies dead at the bottom of the elevator shaft.
The narrative then transitions into an account of attempted rape, the anxieties of the dream projected onto the frightening encounter: “I went on a blind date/ We sat in the backseat/ He thought he could free me/ Didn’t know I could be mean/ Till he shoved my face down/ I gave him my left knee/ I knew he was stupid/ But I needed a replacement/ I’m not gonna call you when I’m lonely…” Band members Woods, Zincavage, Bossi, and Haines work in tandem to produce a rhythm of intense panic. Drums are wound up to peel out with desperate release and the guitar strings seem not strummed but skinned with the blade of a knife. Meanwhile, the bassline breaks into a breathless run, and the sax circles the tune in distress. Every moment of the song is fraught with fear, the woes and pressures of the city’s festering crimes compacted into a deadly slip of sound.
On the polyrhythmic tumble of “Nothing for Me”, Haines works up a tension in the drums pounding sensuously beneath Iyall’s breathless spoken word. The emotions of a flummoxing sexuality slide around the groove with transformative power. “You’re stuck in a closet and who do you think is on the other side of it?” Iyall susurrates. The dynamism here is sketchily outlined, the “You” in the song never identified as either subject or the singer herself. “You think no one’s flesh is as simple as your own…” goes one refrain. In the trials of experiment and experience, the woman of the song discovers terrible boredom, borne from passions going numb amidst a crowd of impotent men.
“Charred Remains”, a story of that same boredom now personalized to an intimate, though meaningless, relationship, begins as a lone and pondering guitar riff in search of a rhythm; it finds its footing in the eventual groove of growling bass and a demanding beat. “There is an inky silence in my kitchen, and I’m the need for sleep,” Iyall sings before declaiming, “What’s the fuss? Well, I’m restless!” The narrative of the loveless woman in love is finally upturned in the album’s closing number, “I Mean It”. A hollow haunt of keening saxophones, the adagio ballad positions the singer once more in the uncomfortable apertures of unrequited romance, this time as the vulnerable half of a crumbling relationship, perhaps entirely complicit and open to the fatalism delivered by her non-responsive partner.
It’s a Condition marks the life of a young woman in the early ‘80s who finds herself in both a spiritual and emotional flux. It’s an album, an entire narrative, that would help to draw a trajectory in the stories of women shaped by writers like Tama Janowitz, Anne Waldman, and Joy Williams; writers who documented, at turns, the dangers, despairs, and discontent of life in the city during the ‘80s.