Queen of the In-Betweens

Mackenzie Howe (The Wild Reeds) pays tribute to her tomboy hero Suzi Quatro.

The first time I heard The Pleasure Seekers, I was at a house show in Highland Park. It was a benefit for the young artists who lost their lives in the Oakland warehouse fire of 2016. Girlpool played a sweaty set in the living room, and it felt like the floor could have given out at any moment, but I didn’t care because there was magic in the room. Between sets, the LA-based feminist collective Honey Power was DJing, and it’s all thanks to them that I heard “What A Way To Die” over the speakers, for the first time. That song stopped me. It was everything I hoped rock & roll could be, which it turns out, is the fury of four teenage girls in the ‘60s.

The Pleasure Seekers, Suzi Quatro’s original garage-rock band, was made up of all four Quatro sisters, and eventually morphed into the band Cradle before Suzi went solo. I dove into their first record immediately, finding pieces of myself in every track. Reimagining each one of my own songs, dreaming that I could capture something that raw in my own recordings. It was my gateway to Suzi Quatro.

After that I happily scarfed down every one of her solo releases, scouring YouTube for interviews, rare footage, and live videos. If you have never seen Suzi, she is untamed, androgynous, infectious, and a great bass player to boot. But her voice — HER VOICE — that’s where the raw power lies. Her staple outfit was a skin-tight leather bodysuit, her shag haircut reminiscent of Keith Richards’ mullet, and her unpainted face warm like the sun. She still looks very much the same.

The Quatro sisters were from a musical family. She grew up in Detroit, and recalls watching Elvis on TV for the first time as the moment she thought, “That’s what I wanna be.” It didn’t occur to her that gender may be an obstacle — that he was a man and she was a girl — and that attitude is exactly what shaped her trajectory.

Her solo career lined up with the advent of The Runaways and Blondie, a time when women began taking their place at the rock & roll table. Backed by an all male band, her songs had scrappy T. Rex power, stick-it-to-the-man lyrics, and contagious melodies—what we now call Glam. She even dabbled in disco production on tracks like “If You Can’t Give Me Love.” But what I find to be the most important aspect of Suzi was that she was herself: her stance on stage, the growl in her voice, and the way she commanded her band and the audience — like Peter Pan over The Lost Boys.

I’m not a girly girl, which has been both a point of pride and shame throughout my life, and I’ve come to realize that some of the things I disliked about myself — my weathered hands, my own awkward stance, the deep lines in my facial features, my shaky voice — are actually some of the things that made Suzi so attractive to me. She appeared the same, but somehow liberated!

Though she did find her true audience in Europe and Australia, I don’t think ‘70s American pop-culture knew what to make of her. Not from the same poetic trench as Patti Smith, nor the same new wave cloud as Blondie, Suzi was somewhere in between. Somewhere many of us feel we are.

Last year, unbeknownst to me, my boyfriend tracked down Suzi’s email address and contacted her on my behalf. Upon receiving a response, he couldn’t keep it in anymore, so he passed along her info. OF COURSE I EMAILED HER. One of my favorite aspects of being in a band is the messages we receive from folks who have had some true connection to our songs. I am continually honored and humbled by the stories we hear. So I thought “Fuck it, what do I have to lose?” and wrote to her on a particularly hard day in the studio last spring, while recording our album Cheers. Suzi was shocked that I was such a huge fan of The Pleasure Seekers, and her music in general. I wanted to reach through the computer screen and crown her Queen-of-the-In-Betweens (a perfectly fitting term stolen from a song by Grady Wenrich)! I wanted to call her and tell her that she’s being played in bars and at parties — hell, her name is even tattooed on my arm (OK, maybe I wouldn’t tell her that part, for fear of sounding totally creepy. I have our drummer Nick Jones, and tequila, to thank for that one).

Since I can’t actually crown Suzi as Queen-of-the-In-Betweens, I felt the need to write my first essay in 10 years because, to me, she hasn’t been given the recognition she deserves. Though she was never on the cover of Rolling Stone, without her, maybe Courtney Love never would have been.

Rock & roll changed the world, and the spirit of it has always resided with the marginalized. Girls ARE rock & roll. It’s a shame that “female-fronted” is treated like a genre. The Wild Reeds have played countless festival stages, and shows where we’ve had nothing in common musically with the lineup, save for our gender. The fact that the term “girl band” is still used continues to shock me. I think this same logic can be applied to any profession where men still reign supreme.

It’s hard to explain why someone who was so influential for women in music has also aided in the journey towards gender being of less significance in music, but that’s how progress towards equality works. So, here’s to dreaming of a time when every 5-year-old girl can be the Elvis she wants to be.

Mackenzie Howe is one of the singers, songwriters, and guitarists of The Wild Reeds. The Los Angeles band released their third studio album, Cheers, on March 8th via Dualtone Records. The band will be touring throughout the U.S. this spring. Check out dates here.