Former Babes in Toyland bassist talks Chicago DIY, recovery and motherhood.
Piles of books litter the corners of the small, cozy motel apartment where Maureen Herman resides. Among the immense collection are many that Maureen intends to review for Boing Boing, a publication she frequently writes for.
“Pardon the mess,” she says while pouring me a cup of coffee. “Didn’t do the dishes. Meant to.”
Upon entering Maureen’s abode, I was not met with walls covered in punk posters nor did I hear archetypal stories of punk rock partying and hard drugs from the ex-bassist of one of the most seminal bands of the ‘90s. Rather, I was met with in-depth conversation in the home of a fellow writer and past musician. Maureen conveyed her experiences through anecdotes that would evolve into tangents filled with smiles and laughter, or sorrowful moments of silence; the digressions ultimately revealed important details of a life story plagued with hardships but filled with optimism. She took notice of my audio recorder in the middle of one particularly involved story, and expressed concern for my potential workload.
“Now I’m thinking of you trying to transcribe this and I’m going ‘oh god he’s going to hate me,’” she laughed.
“It’s not Los Angeles,” she said. “It’s Libertyville West.”
Maureen Herman, a journalist and the long-time bassist of ’90s punk band Babes in Toyland, lives in Studio City, an artistic neighborhood in Los Angeles, California. But Maureen refers to her home with a different name, one that resonates with several others living in the area.
“It’s not Los Angeles,” she said. “It’s Libertyville West.”
Maureen grew up in Libertyville, Illinois, a northwest suburb of Chicago. Since she moved to Los Angeles, 26 others from her Libertyville High School friend group have relocated there, including Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Adam Jones of Tool. It was as if the community picked itself up and collectively moved toward the Pacific, though Maureen is quick to say she was the first one to settle there.
She notes that many from the Chicago suburb’s artistically driven niche of high school students went on to become successful writers, filmmakers and musicians, and that their paths have crossed in unexpected ways.
The mainstage Lollapalooza lineup of 1993 turned a major concert into a mini high school reunion.
“Three of us, me, Adam Jones from Tool, and Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine, were in Lollapalooza the same year — that’s weird,” Maureen said.
But before she moved to Los Angeles, Maureen was an integral part of the ’90s Libertyville and Chicago DIY music scenes, which she describes as a tight-knit community of musicians driven by a strong work ethic.
“You had Steve Albini, and Touch and Go Records, and all these other indie labels,” she said. “The independent attitude and do-it-yourself ethic of the Chicago music scene totally was instructive to me throughout my life and as a writer and every other way, because people were doing what they loved.”
Maureen first arrived at the Chicago DIY scene in 1989 when she moved in with her boyfriend, David Wm. Sims, bassist for The Jesus Lizard at the time. Sims and Maureen were students; Sims was studying accounting at DePaul and Maureen was studying comedy writing at Columbia College. Soon after she moved to Chicago, she started a band called Cherry Rodriguez, an “all female band with a guy singer who looked like a biker,” Maureen said. The biker-looking singer was Lance Turbow, a staple of Chicago DIY who passed away in 2014.
According to Maureen, when Nirvana blew up with the 1991 release of Nevermind, “it all changed” for independent music. Nonetheless, “that ethic, that scene remained” in Chicago, she said. Chicago was important enough to her that even after she joined Babes in Toyland — based in Minneapolis — Maureen remained in Chicago. She said Chicago’s scene was also mostly devoid of rampant drug addiction, which plagued Minneapolis’ scene. In Chicago, people weren’t “overdosing every two days” like in Minneapolis.
Kathleen Hanna, the singer of hardcore punk band Bikini Kill and the frontrunner of the Riot Grrrl movement, often cites a Babes in Toyland concert as the catalyst for Bikini Kill’s conception. Thus, Babes in Toyland is generally credited with pioneering Riot Grrrl, a movement of ‘90s Pacific Northwest punk that featured female-fronted bands and powerful feminist politics.
Maureen is honored that her music is considered inspirational, but finds her band’s common association with the Riot Grrrl movement to be irksome.
“It’s just another name that people put on us,” Maureen said with an eyeroll and a chuckle. “We were just kind of living our lives and then all of a sudden we were called Alternative, and then we were Grunge, and then we were Riot Grrrl.”
When you’re a woman in the male-dominated scene of underground rock music, it’s typical to be depicted as a Riot Grrrl, simply by virtue of being a woman who plays loud music. Babes in Toyland was no stranger to the journalistic oversight that fails to make that distinction. They were a Midwestern band that emerged from a unique Midwestern underground scene. As a result, they never felt connected to the Riot Grrrl movement with their sound or their ideals.
“We would get compared sonically with two bands that I think couldn’t sound more different from us, like L7 and Hole,” Maureen complained. “Why weren’t we compared to the Cows or The Jesus Lizard? Or whatever! Things that actually sounded like us.”
It should be noted that neither L7 nor Hole identified as part of the Riot Grrrl movement. Both respective bands had an alternative ‘90s sound that was both accessible and produced enough to fit in with FM radio; at the very least, they fit better than Riot Grrrl bands like Bikini Kill or Sleater-Kinney, whose classic hardcore punk sound was arguably more abrasive than bands like Nirvana. The Midwestern noise-rock, post-punk sound that came from bands like Babes in Toyland, Cows, and The Jesus Lizard didn’t fit the mold either.
But Riot Grrrl and Babes in Toyland had different approaches to playing underground music.
“Early on, a lot of the Riot Grrrl bands kind of prided themselves on their lack of musicianship,” Maureen said.
The Riot Grrrl approach is a classic punk aesthetic with a punk attitude, but associating Babes in Toyland with Riot Grrrl comes off offensively to Maureen; she recalls practicing hard with Babes in Toyland to perfect their intentionally noisy music. They were known for their excellent live shows, withholding sloppy noise until they considered it musically important. For Babes in Toyland, noise was an intentional spice, not the main ingredient.
The tendency for music journalism to box female musicians together remains a problem for women in underground music. Ellen Kempner and Allison Crutchfield of Palehound and Waxahatchee have been critical of music journalism for its consistently peripheral, misleading and static reports on women in music, particularly within independent music scenes and punk rock.
Maureen recalls repeatedly answering questions like, “What’s it like to be a girl in a band?”
“Like literally, how do you answer that?” she said.
In addition, Riot Grrrl bands proudly wore their femininity as an icon of power. Kathleen Hanna would shout “girls to the front,” at Bikini Kill shows, physically moving the men who dominated punk scenes to the backs of the crowd. The Riot Grrrl movement actively pushed for a bigger role for women in independent music. Maureen recognizes the role Riot Grrrl played for feminism in the ’90s, but deep down, Maureen considers Babes in Toyland to be a punk band — not an “all-girl band.”Maureen deems her feminist principles consistent and strong, though her ideology is independent and occasionally strays from her feminist allies. As a writer, she has focused her material on important feminist issues as her life has intersected with them. In a 2015 Boing Boing article, she argued that she will never feel comfortable utilizing “trigger warnings,” a tool some writers have adopted within recent years.
Though she acknowledges that the debate surrounding trigger warnings is complicated, Maureen describes them as “lazy” tools for journalists to come off as “politically correct or compassionate.”
“When you put a trigger warning in front of an article, you’re telling people that they’re about to read something uncomfortable,” she said. “You’re already defining what’s uncomfortable for them.”
“And the more hidden it is, the more it happens,” Maureen warned. “Silence just begets more.”
As a rape and incest survivor, Maureen feels strengthened by women who come forward with their stories, not triggered. She argues that if a trigger warning stops people from reading something, it reinforces silence on the very issues they intend to destigmatize.
“And the more hidden it is, the more it happens,” Maureen warned. “Silence just begets more.”
Maureen has been an academic her whole life and remains an avid reader. But ultimately, she is defined by her vast life experiences after her departure from Babes in Toyland in 1996. Maureen says she was a mostly functional alcoholic during her years with the Babes in Toyland. But after she left, she faced homelessness and addiction to crack-cocaine in the midst of a pregnancy.
Maureen argues that if she were homeless, pregnant and addicted to crack in the current political environment, she wouldn’t have been able to recover like she did. In her memoir, Maureen says she will illustrate her perspective on specific legislation she considers to be politically under attack.
“I’m kind of personifying these different issues – homelessness, poverty, mental health – that so many people misunderstand,” she said. She remains composed as she talks — she’s comfortable with her past, darkness and all.
“I don’t think I would survive,” she said. “Anybody who wants treatment should be able to get it immediately. No matter if they have the money or not.”
Her parenting philosophy is directly informed by her interest in destigmatizing misunderstood topics of conversation. Maureen does not hide the heavy, troublesome aspects of her past from Anna, her 13-year-old daughter. As Anna has grown older, Maureen has become more and more transparent about these issues, including her drug use, her struggles with mental health, and her pregnancy that she says was a result of gang-rape.
“I’m not ashamed that I’m a recovering addict. I’m not ashamed that I have major depressive disorder any more than I’m ashamed that I wear contacts,” she said. “And if I were to hide that from [Anna] then I would be sending her the message that that’s something to be ashamed of.”
“Crack brought me to my knees within two years. And because of it I was able to get sober.”
Maureen’s acceptance has yielded her the strength to see positivity in the most unconventional of places. She even admits to a gratefulness toward her crack addiction, seeing that it pushed her to seek treatment for substance abuse, relinquishing her from “years of pain.”
“I could have gone on for years as an alcoholic and kind of got by being a freelance writer,” she said. “But crack brought me to my knees within two years. And because of it I was able to get sober.”
Now, as a mother, Maureen lives a life driven by her politics and her writing. Though Maureen will always define herself as one of the Babes in Toyland, she now identifies as a writer more than she does a musician. Since the Babes in Toyland broke up in the ’90s, she has only reunited with her bass guitar for what was supposed to be a reunion tour in 2015. The band, however, fired and replaced Maureen in the middle of the tour due to personal differences. According to City Pages, Maureen says her Boing Boing rape culture article was what caused the band to let her go.
“Despite the severe fallout from my own bandmates about writing the article, and it being the catalyst for me getting kicked out of my band, I regret nothing,” Maureen wrote in a statement on her Facebook. “I will never be silenced, by ANYONE.”
Maureen’s article is centered on Jackie Fox, the original bassist of The Runaways, who disclosed to Huffington Post in 2015 that the late Kim Fowley had raped her when she was 16. Fowley was a music producer in the ’70s Los Angeles rock music scene. It was his idea to create an “all-girl band” which ultimately led to the conception of The Runaways. Jett and Cherie Currie, singer of The Runaways, were present in the same room during the incident, according to Fox. Currie describes the incident in her own memoir, though she did not mention Fox’s name. After the Huffington Post’s article was released in 2015, Currie called Fox’s disclosure “courageous,” according to Maureen.
Maureen’s article is particularly critical of Jett, who dismissed Fox’s assertion that she had been present during the incident.
“Anyone who truly knows me understands that if I was aware of a friend or bandmate being violated, I would not stand by while it happened,” Jett wrote in a Facebook post. “For a group of young teenagers thrust into 70s rock stardom there were relationships that were bizarre, but I was not aware of this incident. Obviously Jackie’s story is extremely upsetting and although we haven’t spoken in decades, I wish her peace and healing.”
After Jett’s dismissal, Currie rescinded her supportive remarks about the incident in a Facebook post of her own.
“I have been accused of a crime,” she wrote. “Of looking into the dead yet pleading eyes of a girl, unable to move while she was brutally raped and doing nothing. I have never been one to deny my mistakes in life and I wouldn’t start now.”
Though Maureen did not know Fox personally before writing her article, they have developed a friendship since.
Lori Barbero, the drummer of Babes in Toyland, has professional connections with Jett, according to Maureen. In a 2015 phone interview with City Pages, Barbero acknowledged Maureen’s article was personally bothersome, but denied that it had anything to do with Maureen’s release from the reunion tour.
“The relationship didn’t work out and we moved on,” Barbero said to City Pages. “And that’s really the bottom line.”
Maureen’s account of what happened will be explored in her memoir, which is tentatively set to be released in 2018. Kat Bjelland, singer and guitarist of Babes in Toyland, confirmed to Maureen that neither Bjelland nor Barbero read Maureen’s article. Even after Maureen sat Bjelland down to have her read it, she still declined, according to Maureen.
“So I was literally fired for an article that was not read,” she said.
The completion of the memoir will be a big move for Maureen, since she physically lost an old draft of the book back in 2002.
“I wrote the book once, and then I sold the computer it was on for drugs… without downloading the files,” she said. “Because I couldn’t wait.”
A vinyl record featuring songs supplementing each chapter will be included with special editions of the memoir, Maureen said. So fans of her work can look forward to hearing new recordings of Maureen playing her bass. It will primarily feature musician friends she has gathered over the years.
“It’s not a solo album,” she clarified. “I would like to play on some of the songs.”
The songs will be a mixture of originals and covers, and each song will be attached to a theme of a chapter. A portion of the proceeds from each of the songs will be donated to various non-profits with ideals relevant to each song’s themes. Rape And Incest National Network (RAINN) is among the organizations that is expected to receive donations from the record’s profits. The album has not yet been recorded.
“I’ve had that idea for fifteen years,” Maureen said. “And it’s taken me this long.”
After my departure, Maureen sat on a porch outside the motel room she and Anna call their home. She lit a cigarette and sat in the warm “Libertyville West” December sunlight, taking a break from her life as a mother, as a writer, as a musician who has inspired many.
Maureen’s life is a story that begs to be told; it’s dense with twists and turns and hardships she has overcome against the strongest of odds. “It’s a Memoir, Motherf*cker” will fit in well in Los Angeles, a city with its own unique relationship to punk rock and poverty, to homelessness and drug addiction, to despair and optimism.
“Everybody has a story,” said Maureen. “Some of us more than others.”
“It’s a Memoir, Motherf*cker” is tentatively set to be released in February, 2018 through Flatiron Books, a subsidiary of Macmillan Publishers.
Header image illustrated by Patrick Pfohl
Correction: An earlier version of the story misspelled Tom Morello’s surname. It has since been corrected.
This post also incorrectly stated that Kat Bjelland “refused” to read a piece written by Maureen Herman. The wording has since been corrected to “declined” to more accurately reflect the communication between Maureen and Bjelland.
An earlier version of the story also incorrectly referred to The Runaways as Joan Jett and The Runaways, which has since been corrected.
An earlier version of the story also declared that Maureen’s relationship to Jackie Fox as a close friendship. The word “close” has since been omitted to more accurately reflect the relationship they have.
An earlier version of the story also erroneously referred to a Lollapalooza lineup in 1992. It has since been corrected to 1993.