September 28, 2006
Susanna Hoffs walks like a --
"Hannah Montana," a Disney Channel program I watch on occasion with my daughter, features a 14-year-old girl with a secret identity: she's actually a rock star.
This is an absurd fantasy. |
In real life, the rock star at my daughter's school is a mom. Although she leads a double life, it is no secret. Her name is Susanna Hoffs, her band The Bangles has a long history (hits, breakup, back together again), and she also has very enjoyable a new album with Matthew Sweet, "Under The Covers, Vol. 1" that consists of glossy reworkings of 1960s chestnuts, such as "Different Drum" or "Who Knows Where the Time Goes," as well as other classics and rarities from The Beatles, Neil Young, Bob Dylan and The Who.
Most days, Hoffs, like the other moms, is dropping off her kids at school or attending gatherings and parent conferences. But this Friday, as this article appears in print, she will perform with The Bangles at a school assembly. It's good to live in Los Angeles.
Over the summer, as Hoffs performed with Matthew Sweet and toured with The Bangles, there was a moment when I was afraid I was turning into her stalker. I was staying up late to watch her on Jay Leno (and even later on Conan); pulling over on Sunset to listen to her on Jonesy's Jukebox on Indie 103.1 FM; I was standing in a crowd at the Roxy to hear her perform; and hanging out at Yahoo!'s music studio as she and Sweet recorded an "in studio" performance and interview (thanks to Bob Roback, head of Yahoo! music). But my doctor adjusted my medication, and he says it's under control now.
Here's what I find so striking: Hoffs is totally at home on stage, in platform heels and minidress, playing her "Susanna Hoffs" model Rickenbacker electric guitar. In some ways, Hoffs appears more at ease on stage than she does in person -- at school and in the neighborhood.
Recently, when I asked Hoffs about this, she described the transition from mom to being on stage as being like Peter Parker transforming into Spider-Man. "It's another persona," she said.
All of which begs the obvious: How did a nice Jewish girl from Santa Monica become a rock star?
Hoffs describes herself as a kid who was into music, theater, art and movies and, who, by elementary school, already had a passion to be in a band. Growing up, her neighbor worked at Capitol Records and provided Hoffs' family with all the Beatles albums (and yes, Paul was her favorite). Her mother's brother had a musical instrument store and gave her guitar lessons. Her first band was posing with her older and younger brothers.
The first records she bought were Carole King's "Tapestry" and James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James." "Déj? vu" by Crosby Stills, Nash & Young came soon after. Hoffs recalls that in high school she wore out her copy of Joni Mitchell's "Court and Spark" and was into Bonnie Raitt.
At UC Berkeley, Hoffs continued her artistic journey. She was in a dance company, and started out as a dance major before switching to fine arts. She finally graduated as a theater arts major. During college she also had her first band, a duo with David Roback, later of Mazzy Starr (no relation to Yahoo!'s Bob). Hoffs describes that group as "John and Yoko meet The Beach Boys." Hoffs came to believe, and still believes, that "being in a band is the ultimate art project."
After college she moved back to Los Angeles. She bought an electric guitar from The Recycler (the Craigslist of its day). Answering another Recycler ad looking for a guitarist led to forming a band with several other women, and that, in 1981, became The Bangles.
Meanwhile, Hoffs was supporting herself through a variety of jobs. She had a relative who made ceramics, and she worked in the ceramics factory. She also worked for a company that offered diamond chips as part of its promotions -- which really meant that Hoffs spent her time packing UPS boxes, preparing the invoices and shipping the diamonds. All the while she was listening to K-Earth 101 FM, the oldies station.
Success did not come overnight. "We started out playing out on the outskirts in Arcadia, deep in the Valley. We worked our way towards Hollywood," she said. It was a slow build.
Hoffs recalled some of the landmarks, or "OMYGOD" moments: The first time they heard their own song played on the radio ("Getting Out of Hand," self-released and played by KROQ DJ Rodney Bingenheimer); being signed to Columbia Records; quitting her day job; standing on a street corner and hearing "Manic Monday" playing from a car ("It was shocking"); opening for The English Beat and for Cyndi Lauper; playing enormous festivals in Europe before audiences of 100,000. "And we felt like we were a little garage band from L.A," she said.
"Another OMYGOD moment was opening for Queen and just walking out on the stage and looking out at the crowd," she recalled. "Surreal is the best way to describe it."
And there was Hoffs' "Dolce Vita" moment at a press conference at the Sanremo Music Festival in Italy, where there were hundreds of photographers. Later, that night the guys from Duran Duran invited them for dinner, and there were girls, hundreds of girls, climbing all over the car, banging on the windows, with Duran Duran casually ignoring all the fuss.
"It was so funny," she said.
It would be easy to say that the success of The Bangles owed a great deal to being attractive females playing pop tunes. But their appeal was more punk, more emotional.
The bands that inspired Hoffs, such as The Velvet Underground, The Talking Heads, Television and Blondie were all considered art bands. To some extent they were also New York bands, born out of the cauldron of clubs like Max's Kansas City and CBGB's. Hoffs embraced that aesthetic -- she is proud to recount that she attended the Sex Pistols' legendary last performance in San Francisco -- but she gave the form another twist, a California-bred sensibility. The songs The Bangles wrote and performed, and the 1960s classics they covered, all shared what Hoffs characterizes as "pop melodies with a dark side."
In the 1970s, California rock (Jackson Browne, CSN&Y, The Eagles) took the 1960s' New York coffee house folk movement and added a layer of emotional wistfulness, a chord of melancholy to the otherwise cloudless California days. Similarly, what The Bangles did in the 1980s was to take '60s pop harmonies and infuse them with an edge, both musically and emotionally (case in point: listen to "Hero Takes a Fall" or their cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "Hazy Shade of Winter" from the "Less Than Zero" soundtrack).
The Bangles broke up in 1989. The details have been memorialized in a VH1 "Behind the Music," which is worth watching just for the parade of '80s hairstyles. What Hoffs says now is, "We needed to go off and have our own lives."
Hoffs says that when you are young a band becomes your family, and that at a certain point: "It was part of our growing-up process. We had to rebel against each other."
Hoffs spent the 1990s pursuing solo projects. She also married Jay Roach, and they became the parents of tho
se two children who are the reason I see Hoffs around school. Roach, who during that decade went from TV writer-producer to one of the most successful directors in Hollywood ("Austin Powers," "Meet the Parents"), is also partly responsible for the events leading to The Bangles' reunion (Roach asked Hoffs to write a song for the Austin Powers sequel, for which she enlisted her former bandmates' help, after which they played at a 1999 Beatles tribute before formally reuniting in 2000); Hoffs' current collaboration with Matthew Sweet (he was part of Ming Tea, the Mike Meyers/Austin Powers band); and for another OMYGOD moment -- performing at the Oscars for a billion people ("My heart was beating like in a cartoon," Hoffs recalled).
Hoffs said that being a Bangle again "is very fun." What she came to realize is that "if you are in a band for a long time, you have a sound." It was a sound that she realized she couldn't make with others.
She said that audiences have "a certain appreciation for what we do that's grown." Hoffs explained that she feels good that The Bangles decided to work together again, and she is happy because it seems to mean something to people. At the same time, Hoffs sees playing with Matthew Sweet as "a chance to enjoy making music in a different way." There are already plans for a Vol. 2 of covers, this time from the 1970s. Hoffs feels that "when you do a cover song," it brings it into the culture again, "giving a new generation of kids a chance to access the song."
Which is exactly what The Bangles will do when they perform this Friday. I'll just have to explain to my daughter that while "Hannah Montana" isn't real, Susanna Hoffs is.... She's the real deal -- all mom/part rock star.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward.