Rocket Queen: Penelope Houston Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle

The triumphant return of the Avengers.

When you spend three or four nights a week hitting multiple rock shows, you need a reliable cab driver. Someone who knows the quickest way from Ballard to the Funhouse and someone who won't give you grief if you occasionally have to bust out the debit card instead of cash. In my case, that driver is a friendly fellow in his mid-50s whom I'll call D. In addition to doing a stellar job behind the wheel of his Yellow Cab, D is also an old-school Seattle punk with an unrivaled backlog of stories about a time when this city didn't have any punk venues, let alone a "scene."I shouldn't have been surprised, then, when he told me one of his biggest regrets is that he had an opportunity to have legendary punk rocker Penelope Houston of the Avengers join his band. Houston spent many of her formative teen years in Seattle, primarily growing up on the Eastside but eventually intersecting with a small but passionate community of musicians and artists trying to transport the sound of the Los Angeles punk scene up to Seattle. "Penelope was a visual artist at the time, and no one knew she could sing. We asked her to audition and she didn't want to try out for our manager," recalls D as we zoom toward the Bumbershoot grounds shortly after I'd interviewed Houston via phone. "We did a lot of stuff with three-part harmonies, and we weren't sure she could do it."Indeed, when I had asked Houston about what made her transition from visual to performing arts, she'd brought up this same story. "I wanted to sing in my friends' punk band and they wanted me to audition for their manager first, which I just didn't want to do, and then I moved to San Francisco shortly afterwards. Years later, when I saw [members of that band] while I was touring with the Avengers, it was pretty funny. 'See, I can sing, guys!'," she laughs.Clearly, Houston came out on the winning side of this equation. The Avengers were not only one of the most groundbreaking and influential early punk bands of the late '70s, but one so revered to this day that their show at the Funhouse this Friday, Sept. 11, will undoubtedly draw a packed house. The Avengers broke up in 1979, after an astonishingly impressive, albeit brief, two-year career which included opening for the Sex Pistols at that band's final gig at Winterland in San Francisco and essentially pressing the template for feminist-spirited acts like Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill. Houston went on to work briefly with Howard Devoto of Magazine in England, eventually returning to California and working on the cult musical movie Population: 1 with Screamers frontman Tomata du Plenty. She began a successful solo career, working with a sound oriented more toward folk and Americana, but with her punk attitude firmly intact. The Avengers resurfaced in the '90s, playing gigs around the West Coast, making one stop here a few years ago to play a show with Mudhoney at the Showbox. However, it was a show in 1979 at a much smaller, short-lived club that made a major impact on Fastbacks alum Kim Warnick."I was a giant fan, and probably one of the few people who actually saw the Avengers play here at the Bird, Seattle's first punk club," says Warnick. "They played for two nights, and it still to this day remains two of the most intense shows I have ever seen. Those insanely catchy punk anthems sound as good today as they did yesterday, and her amazing voice is what brought the whole thing together... Few women in punk rock sang this great."In addition to the Avengers, Friday's bill also includes their friends in Pansy Division, one of the bands at the epicenter of the so-called "queercore" movement of the '90s, a subgenre focused on gay rights and visibility within the notoriously heterocentric punk scene. Not only are the Avengers and PD kindred spirits in their sharply left-leaning political attitudes and fondness for suffusing punk with pop, they also conveniently share band members now. Drummer Luis Illades handles percussion for both bands and Pansy Division guitarist Joel Reader plays bass in the Avengers. "As I loved the Avengers from the first time around, I'm thrilled that half of my band is in their band!" says PD leader Jon Ginoli.PD is continuing to make new music (their latest album, That's So Gay, was released this past spring); and while Houston's solo career is moving forward, she doesn't foresee new Avengers material in the future, though she embraces revisiting their classic material. "So many people never got to see us the first time around, so it feels great to come out and do songs like 'The American in Me,'" she explains. "And talking to people after our shows who admire or were influenced by us is so wonderful...it's incredibly gratifying."I'm willing to bet Ms. Warnick will be one of those admirers—and cab driver D will probably be right there with her.rocketqueen@seattleweekly.com

 
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