I’m smoking Virginia Slims with D. Mercedes, lead guitarist for Judas Priestess, “America’s All-Female Tribute to Judas Priest,” who have just ripped through a 17-song set.
This evening Priestess opened with “Rapid Fire,” the lead-off track from Judas Priest’s British Steel, and ended with “You Got Another Thing Coming,” Priest’s biggest mainstream hit. At some point during “Green Manalishi,” I actually kicked a flyer-filled wall from rocking out so hard.
“We fuckin’ rocked, didn’t we?” Mercedes asks, giving me a light. “It took about four songs tonight, but we won ‘em over.”
We are standing outside Bogie’s rock club in Albany, NY, where among the crowd were a tall dude in a Beavis and Butthead “Breaking the Law” T-shirt; two lipstick-ed grad students in cocktail dresses who sang every word; a Nikki Sixx lookalike taking cover in the back; and the band’s drummer’s parents, who drove up from Lawrenceville, NJ, in their tan Chevy Suburban.
Mercedes can tell I agree because I am smiling, but I go ahead and tell her Yes, you all did fucking rock.
I came here tonight—like most people, I suspect—for nostalgia and perhaps eye candy. A couple weeks ago, I spotted the show’s flyer in a local guitar store. In the photo, Priestess lead singer MilitiA, with a curly blonde side-hawk and mirrored sunglasses, sits on a motorcycle in the same iconic pose taken by real-life Judas Priest lead singer Rob Halford, though with her studded leather vest barely concealing her large bust.
As I take another drag of my you’ve-come-a-long-way-baby cigarette, I think about how my idea of an all-female tribute band has changed, and probably rock ‘n roll and originality as well.
“The fans who show up want to get the music the way they know it. They also want to come to see if we can do it, if we can really play.”
Earlier that day, during a band interview at a local coffee shop, Mercedes told me, “The fans who show up want to get the music the way they know it. They also want to come to see if we can do it, if we can really play. Especially since we’re women. Men have more leeway.”
There are advantages to booking a band with songs the world already knows. During a pre-show run-through of “Grinder,” I noticed the soundman knew the songs already; he probably knew exactly when to add reverb or echo or when to bring the lights up and down. I also noticed how MilitiA’s Broadway-meets-arena singing style suited Priest songs perfectly. That, and when she sang “Grinder, looking for meat / Grinder, wants you to eat,” her legs encircled the mic stand.
“Growing up, I didn’t know anyone in a band,” MilitiA says. Her dad, she told me, schooled her in ’70s rock—Led Zeppelin, Traffic, Beatles. “He literally sent me up to my room with his records and said, ‘Listen to this—that’s the good stuff.’” She entered piano competitions, sang in school chorus, then moved over to Rocky Horror and theater and her first band in Boston. It wasn’t until her move to New York that she got into heavier rock. A one-off Queen-tribute show at B.B. King’s Blues Club & Grill led to a gig as lead singer in Van Helsing’s Curse, a rock opera by Twister Sister’s Dee Snider; guest-VJing on Fuse; singing back-up for Cyndi Lauper and comedienne Sandra Bernhardt. Eventually MilitiA formed her own band, Swear On Your Life, affiliated with the Black Rock Coalition, then tried out for Judas Priestess.
There is one song—one note, actually—that is described as the litmus test for Priest tributes, a song even Rob “Metal God” Halford has said he gets nervous singing live. It is the F5# in “Victim of Changes,” off of 1976’s Sad Wings of Destiny. Other Priest tributes, the band members tell me, don’t get it right, or avoid playing the song entirely. YouTube clips (one, two, three) of other bands bear out this observation.
I asked MilitiA if she hits the note.
“Do I hit the note?” She stared at me. “Yeah, I hit it. I hit it forward, backward, on the side. I wouldn’t have gotten the job otherwise.”
“Many is the time that men will come up to us after the show and say ‘We came here to laugh,’” Mercedes says. “They say, ‘We thought you would stink and this would be a goof.’ And then they say ‘Wow, were we surprised.’”
I could be wrong, but there is probably at least one performance-studies Ph.D. thesis to be written on the implications of a biracial Catholic school girl from Columbia, Md., who reverse-engineers the power relationship of a male gaze by performing anthems written for pimply boys that were originally sung by a closeted gay man who wore motorcycle leathers onstage.
In “Appetite for Replication,” a profile of Guns ‘n Roses homage band Paradise City first published almost 10 years ago, Chuck Klosterman described how tribute band members, “mired in obscurity,” play the “zero-sum game” where their goal is to be somebody else. It’s sort of funny, but it’s also wrong or outdated. Tribute bands still play another artist’s music, certainly, but the phenomenon has expanded to include genre mash-ups (Dread Zeppelin, Beatallica, the metal-meets-Bee Gees Tragedy), cabaret-ish reinterpretations, and novelty acts (mini Kiss). Somewhere in there lies the reason why the number of all-women tributes have grown from Lez Zeppelin and AC/DShe, onto Slaywhore, Blonde Jovi, and She-Ruption as well as the Little Dolls (Ozzy), Ramonas, Iron Maidens, Sheagles, and Cheap Chicks.
Mercedes and I sat down for a beer after the show to discuss her life pre-Priestess. I’d already gotten my guitar nerd on talking about her gear with Nick, a friendly guy in a baseball cap and long sideburns on board as the band’s roadie-slash-driver. Mercedes doesn’t use any pedals, Nick said: just a Hagstrom Viking through a Mesa Boogie Dual Rectifier. “She doesn’t need to. She’s one of the better guitar players walking on the planet.” Nick said this with a seriousness only a fellow player could muster. He also told me about how Mercedes quit the music business for more than a decade. “She didn’t even pick up a guitar,” Nick said. Why? I asked. “She got tired of every soundman in the world telling her to turn it down.”
“There was a bucket of mystery water in the back last time I played here,” Reading says. “It wasn’t there today—maybe they thought Judas Priestess is more ladylike than Misstallica.”
Mercedes told me her first tribute band was in Girls Girls Girls, an all-female tribute to Mötley Crüe, using the nom de Crüe “Miss Mars.” (They played at a book party for Chuck Klosterman.)
“It wasn’t my music,” she explains. “It was someone else’s thing and it was fun. But as all things go in life and rock and roll, shit goes South. So I thought, if I’m going to go to all this trouble to do this, I want to play music that I love. I mean, I like Mötley Crüe. I don’t love Mötley Crüe.”
And that, Mercedes says, meant putting together a Judas Priest tribute. She saw bassist Gyda Gash, playing in the Bowie tribute band Ziggy Starlet and the Spiders From Venus (formerly Queen Bitch), and they were on their way.
Mercedes does mention she remains friends with people “from the old days.”
Oh, who, I ask?
Like members of Bad Brains, the rasta hardcore revolutionaries, and stuff. She explains how she founded the Stimulators, one of the earliest and best hardcore punk bands from the New York scene, their song “Loud Fast Rules” arguably the first hardcore punk song ever. And Nick, the roadie? He’s Nick Marden, son of Minimalist painter Brice Marden, also former singer and bassist for the Stimulators. The band’s drummer, 12-year-old Harley Flanagan, would later form another hardcore group, the Cro-Mags.
Tonight in Albany, Mercedes might be getting some flashbacks playing with another jailbait drummer, since Kaleen Reading, sitting in for regular member JoJo Tubeato, is only 19. (The band were also playing as a four-piece since they are looking for a second guitarist, which left Mercedes to play both KK Downing and Glenn Tipton.) I wonder if that’s why her parents, a blonde-in-slacks mom and a dad with a surf shirt and green khaki shorts, came to both shows.
“It’s so great that she’s playing with the ladies in this band,” Kalene’s mom tells me. “They’re teaching her so much about the business and how to stand up for yourself.”
Reading’s regular gig is in Misstallica, “The All-Chick Metallica Tribute,” which I had seen a couple weeks ago at Bogie’s.
“There was a bucket of mystery water in the back last time I played here,” Reading says. “It was black and smelled like rotten eggs. Nobody messed with it. It was in what they call the ‘dressing room.’ It wasn’t there today—maybe they thought Judas Priestess is more ladylike than Misstallica.”
Like her Misstallica bandmates, Reading is a wunderkind from the Paul Green School of Rock in Philadelphia. There are clips online of her doing elaborate solos from Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, Alice Cooper (example of a clip title: “Drummer Girl (15 years old) playing the Frankenstein solo”). Reading also plays in a couple other bands—her country band recently played upstairs at the Charleston in Brooklyn—as well as Queen Diamond, an all-female tribute to King Diamond.
“We’ve only played, like, five times,” she says, “but it’s my favorite music to play.”
“We’re not upset or whatever playing in tribute bands,” Mercedes told me at the beginning of the night. “Far from it. We had a discussion recently, and came to the conclusion: Who’s the most important person in the entertainment industry? Lady Gaga—the Ultimate Tribute to Madonna!” She pounded on the table. “Hello?! Is that not the biggest tribute act on the planet? This lady has taken it to the stratosphere, but it’s still a tribute act.”
“There’s a lot of drag queens and other performers she’s stolen from and never gives credit to,” Gyda Gash, Priestess bassist said. Gyda is quiet, but when she does speak, people listen. Later, I asked her photographer friend who drove up to the gig what other bands Gash played in.
“Google her,” he says.
Maybe the problem we have now isn’t that we’ve forgotten our past, but that people are too worried over being derivative.
So I did. Let’s see: there’s Gyda Gash at CBGBs in the 1980s, wearing a Ramones shirt. I pick up my copy of Please Kill Me, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s canonical oral history of punk rock, and read Gyda Gash’s quotes where she talks about her relationships with Stiv Bator and Cheetah Chrome from the Dead Boys and the punk scene at large. She had a wild night with Iggy Pop once. Like Mercedes, after punk rock waned into parody, Gash turned to the heavier projects. She’s basically a female stoner/doom rock trailblazer. A recent video clip shows Gash onstage at a Whitney Biennial concert with the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, a performance artist singer Ms. Gaga owes a fair share of indebtedness.
“The good stuff that’s out there is derivative anyway,” Gash said at the coffee shop. “You’ll listen to a song, get to a good part, and say, ‘Oh, that’s Black Sabbath.’”
Tribute bands were never note-for-note doppelgängers, as Klosterman claims in his article, nor are we stuck in a period of retrospective malaise, as Simon Reynolds puts it in his new book, Retromania. Thirty miles away, rock band Wilco were playing at a very-well attended festival, and I wasn’t the least bit interested. I mean, I like their music fine, but does it fucking rock? Will warmed-over Americana-meets-George Harrison change your outlook on the world, or just, like, soothe people into believing they experience something new or important?
I think we’re waiting for something to rock us, we’re hungry for that something, and as of late we’ve concluded that such a thing doesn’t have to be new. The people at Bogie’s and other clubs are keeping the flame alive while the rest of us bide our time through yet another epoch of twee. “Original bands are out there, with four or five people onstage,” Mercedes tells me at one point. “Nobody gives a shit.”
Poet and critic Randall Jarrell once said famously that the job of the critic, if nothing else, is to repeat what has been forgotten every 50 years. Maybe the problem we have now, if there even is one, isn’t that we have forgotten our past, but that people are too worried over being derivative. Let’s just replay what we’ve forgotten. To quote another literary critic, Harold Bloom, who writes in his book The Anxiety of Influence: “Great writing is always at work strongly (or weakly) misreading previous writing.”
Priestess plays the songs faithful to the spirit of the music, sure. But they also sort of transcend it. I come from the same generation as Heavy Metal Parking Lot, the much-bootlegged documentary on drunk and stoned metal fans tailgating before a 1986 Judas Priest/Dokken show in Maryland. The joy of listening to Priest is how it makes you feel, well, free. You’re heading out to the highway, coming alive in the neon light. Stupid? Sure. That’s rock n’ roll. Great rock is always at work that way.