I heard today that Vi Subversa of seminal anarcho-feminist-punk band Poison Girls has died, at the age of 80. I can’t overstate how much of an influence this band and this woman were on me.
Vi rallied a generation of musicians and activists with her political insight, lyrical brilliance, wit and charisma. She started Poison Girls in the late 70s as a single mother in her forties – a wonderful act of personal rebellion in itself – and became a uniquely inspiring figure from there on. For those of us growing up under the shadow of the cold war and what felt like an imminent nuclear apocalypse, bands like Poison Girls helped us make sense of the incomprehensible. We felt less alone and powerless. As a teenager in the early 80s, she gave my isolation, despair and anger a voice, and a response. For me, these bands showed that there was another way, that we could try and change the world, and live differently. That we didn’t have to blindly follow the death march, sleepwalk into nuclear oblivion, shut off from ourselves and one another, live divided. I still believe this. The Impossible Dream, indeed.
She had many great gifts. As a songwriter, her effortlessly multi-faceted lyrics bring together the personal and political, from longing and sensuality, to alienation and rage, woven together with an uncompromising feminism and heartfelt humanity that went beyond the one-dimensional protest sloganeering of the time, to a far deeper emotional level. Although Poison Girls’ political colours were nailed firmly to the anti-war, anti-nuclear, anti-capitalist anarchist mast, Vi’s feminism and warmth gave a human dimension to their message. Tenderness, compassion and love permeate their lyrics, alongside and inseparable from images of repression, loss, brutality, prostitution, rape, environmental destruction and nuclear annihilation.
And as an artist/human being she inspired such love as I have never seen before. At her 60th birthday celebration gig, and at what was to be her last performance at the Green Door in Brighton last December, everyone was there out of pure adoration for Vi. Bouquets, kisses and hugs at the end – not so much a gig as a collective outpouring of love for this beautiful woman. I have honestly never seen anything like it.
Oh, and her voice. She conveyed such raw feeling, her voice cracking with passion, whether rage or longing. ‘Bremen Song’ to this day affects me more than any other piece of music. Just listen to her voice breaking with emotion. ‘We burn, sisters, we burn, burn, burn’ – the carnage of the second world war, witch-hunting, the ages-old patriarchal repression of women, the holocaust, the crimes of the christian church – ‘In the name of the fatherland, in nomine patri, for the sake of his property. The smoke from the fire is still rising…’
Everyone who was affected by the music of Poison Girls will feel bereaved today, that they have lost someone dear, whether they knew Vi or not. I didn’t know her, but I gave her a kiss when she came off stage at the Green Door gig and thanked her. I wept during her final rendition of ‘Persons Unknown’ (as did many in the audience), I wept when I heard the news of her passing this morning and again now as I write this. But how fortunate we were to have heard her – and that’s all that matters in the end, really.
So what now? Sadness passes, after all. I saw a post after David Bowie’s death saying that it is now up to everyone who was inspired by him to continue what he began – I feel the same about Vi. Poison Girls was a response to the climate of the late 70s and early 80s, a time of state-sponsored fear, repression and alienation. Many have commented that the times we now live in with the current UK government and wider global crises are not so very different, and that the current punk resurgence is no coincidence. This music gave us a lifeline and a voice and a sense of power during those times. Let’s use our rage and grief, and our compassion and humanity. We believed we could change the world for the better then – we need to believe it again now. And live it.