[Fiction] Psycho Femmes — Nicholas Rombes


The girls are here. They are beautiful. Freshly born. I haven’t named them yet, is that strange? I don’t want to jinx them with permanence just now. It’s too early. Our children, Antony, our babies, our twins. But doesn’t our feel possessive, as if we own them? We made them yet they are not ours. If the system is to change we can never think of them as ours, never. They curl and uncurl at the same time and I feel like they already know they have each other but that’s impossible, right? Do they even know they exist? They must. And they are so hungry.

Do you remember (if you are able to remember anything) what I told you about Paul’s sister Zoe, about how she feared the cult had followed her out to Michigan, tracking her? I wanted to tell you something else about that because someday when you’re free (and I have to believe that day is real and is waiting in the future) it might be important. Anyway, Paul said he didn’t know if Zoe meant actual cult-people following her literally but it didn’t matter because that’s when he realized, he said, how similar he was to his sister, whom he’d never really known. I asked him similar in what ways and he said that both of them were attracted to power. For Zoe it was more intimate and personal in the form of the cult, a small circle bound by one charismatic leader and having access to that power, even just by association, gave her a feeling of power, Paul said, while for him, he said he realized he was attracted to something more massive, a sort of impersonal power. He didn’t care about people or personalities, but systems. He told me all this after we got back from the Michigan dunes that seemed to be tumbling into the cold blue water.

Paul also said that Zoe had, as part of the cult initiation or whatever they called it, been witness to a drowning. They’d dragged a woman to a farmer’s field and drowned her in the shallow water that had gathered there after a storm. It was only a few inches deep, Zoe told him, and afterwards everyone had to kneel and touch the back of the drowned woman’s head, putting their palms on it one-by-one. Zoe told him that her head was still warm and that one of the reasons she couldn’t concentrate anymore was because she could still feel that warmth in her hand. I’m telling you this Antony because I know how curious you were about Paul. I don’t know if this helps you understand anything or not or explains that sadness Paul carried around with him but I wanted to tell you because it’s one of things that attracted me to him and why I agreed to the whole plan to trap you.

While you were here you saw the whole Detroit operation, pretty much. The way Paul runs it, at least. He’s hardly the only one. You saw the exchanges, the elaborate nonsense set up to disguise some very simple but vital facts. You can pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about, that’s okay.

At first you thought Patti and I were witches; pretty funny. 

Or that we were pro-pussy and anti-cock. 

Maybe you thought we were revolutionary or insurgent witches and that we’ve got this weird thing going to cast a spell on people like you, people who still support the protectorate. God!

Did you ever hear or did I ever tell you the full story about Patti and Psycho Femmes? Patti dyed her hair red, just for you. Her background’s in behavior modification therapy and what she learned from your initial reaction to seeing her faking it in the wheelchair is beyond me but she said it confirmed what we thought about you based on your profile. Patti’s parents worked for the protectorate. Her dad was just a clerk but her mom was an informer—how exotic that sounds—who wormed her way into some of the book clubs here in Detroit. But the punk thing is real. Patti was in a band called Psycho Femmes and they even played with Iggy Pop a few times down at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor.

That’s where I met her. I was just 16. This would have been around 1981. She was like some alien creature, so radiant and beautiful but in an ugly, deranged sort of way, I don’t know if you noticed. She never lost that radiance. She looked like a model who’d fallen down the stairs one too many times, someone once said or wrote about her. She had pictures of Susan Sontag taped to her fridge, like they were family photos. She’d doctored them that way, made them look like Polaroids with that soft, dreamy sheen. Punched thumb tack holes in them. That was Patti.

Her elbows were bulgy and she had this awkward, crane-like way of walking. But everything came together when she picked up a guitar. I was designing anti-protectorate flyers and sometimes I’d go to Second Chance or the Blind Pig just to see some random band. I’d never heard of Psycho Femmes. Patti and I became instant friends even though I don’t have an ounce of musical talent and even though Patti always denies she has any talent, she’s really a very skilled musician. 

I thought there should be a ‘the.’

THE Psycho Femmes. 

But Patti said it was in line with Talking Heads and, later, Ghost in Machine and that the THE would put the emphasis on singularity, while just Psycho Femmes was for all women, not just the band. Patti was the first one who ever talked openly to me about politics, not local politics but national, which of course meant talking about the protectorate, something I’d never done before. She used words like neo-liberal and neo-fascist. I don’t know how it was with you Antony but none of my friends talked about such things. We didn’t need to be told not to talk politics, I think we’d internalized the fear. I guess that’s the way very subtle social engineering and propaganda work: if it’s done well enough it doesn’t need to be enforced.

Psycho Femmes, God! 

All their songs were in the future tense. 

As if everything great or terrible was yet to happen. 

As if we hadn’t seen anything yet. 

You know how punk was supposed to be all about NO FUTURE? Well, Femmes embraced that blankness and wrote themselves, their own fantasies, into it. 

If the future really was a void then why not fill it with something? 

The band was guitars only, even though synthesizers were all the rage at that time. It was Patti on Stratocaster (of course!) and then a bunch of different girls rotating through on Schecter Hellraisers and Chapman Baritones that Patti’s dopey brother had stolen. If punk was the same boring three chords fast and loud then Psycho Femmes was three chords slow and louder. I came away from their shows turning lyrics over in my head that I’d sworn I’d heard but of course there was no singer in the band and no lyrics to be sung. And yet there they were: words to songs I hadn’t heard. This was the band’s secret power and I’m sure I’m not the only one who discovered a hidden part of herself during those shows. 

OUR SETS ARE AS SHORT AS OUR SKIRTS. That was the Psycho Femmes slogan for a while. It’s funny how in life under the protectorate we embraced all the old binaries we’d worked so long to free ourselves from. Wearing short skirts used to be ironic, a way to distance ourselves from our mothers. But then somehow it became important again for us to, I don’t know, re-assert the old codes that’d gotten us this far. And the fact that Patti was capable of off-stage violence, that meant a lot to us. We trusted and feared her. 

One year the protectorate decided to ration electricity. What a disaster that was. I think I told you about it just before they snatched you. It was during the summer, nighttime into early morning, from 11:30 to 4:00 am or something and I remember how much we laughed at the seeming randomness of that. Why 11:30? Why not 11:00 or midnight? We found it so funny and clumsy. 11:30! I don’t know about you and your friends but that just gave us so much hope that the protectorate was doomed, somehow. 

Of course, a black market in electricity sprung up almost overnight and plus it was so easy to get around the meters by disconnecting the black wire every night at 11:30 and then re-attaching it in the morning. But before people began to figure out how to do that there was a certain beauty, a certain stillness, to the city at night, absent of so much artificial light. I miss that.

One thing more about the Psycho Femmes. When we moved to northwest Detroit on 6 Mile Patti took this idea from another band to plunge the stage into darkness for the first few songs. And then the lights would come up slowly. The light op had specific instructions: 40 seconds. It was quite dramatic and it helped to get the audience onto their side early on. Maybe this was Patti putting her psychology to use, I don’t know. But one night—actually this was like the second or third time I’d seen them perform—one night at a place called Bookies as the lights came up there was a box on the stage, a box that clearly surprised the band. It was about the size of a really big suitcase, but clear. Transparent. It was hard to see what was inside because of the lights, the reflection. The glare. This was in Detroit during that wave of the micro bombings—do you know about those?—that terrorized the city that hot summer. Of course everyone’s mind rushed to give meaning to the box: it was a bomb, most likely, that an audience member had slipped onto the stage during the dark, and it was up to Patti, as leader of Psycho Femmes, to deal with it. 

Or it was a prank. 

Or the band had placed it there themselves. 

No matter, it was there at the foot of the stage, sucking in our thoughts. Into its thick glass. Was it glass? I don’t know for sure. A few people in the audience left, and a few hurled beer bottles and even underwear at the box. Some people spat on it. Psycho Femmes was into these long, dark, droney songs at that time and Patti stripped off her leather jacket and laid it over the box and I thought it was a gesture like you might do if you came across a fresh roadkill, a small deer or a cat, how you might, if you were of a certain sensitivity, cover it with something out of respect for a little life lived. Patti’s gesture had the strange effect of both acknowledging the box and disavowing it, as if to say, yes, we see that you’re here, now we’re going to ignore you and play the fuck on! And from that moment forward the audience ignored the box that might have held a bomb, or nothing of the kind, and so did the band. It seems like a nice story, right? 

Well the show ended with Psycho Femmes playing a cover of ‘November 22 1963’ by Destroy all Monsters, which they always did, and by 2:30 or 3:00 am everyone had left. The glass box had been tossed into the garbage in the alley behind the Masonic Temple on Cass and there it remained for two days until the garbage was collected. En route to the city dump the truck exploded like a grenade whose shrapnel was garbage killing the driver and the passenger of a car next to the truck. We didn’t learn until much later that the garbage truck driver was Carlos Weir, one of the founders of the insurgency. Shredded up by the splintering glass. They said they found a few of his teeth a block away, embedded in a telephone pole. A host of theories emerged: that he was the original target all along, or that Psycho Femmes themselves were somehow involved, or that it was all much simpler than that (in the way that truth is stranger than fiction) and that the bomb was meant to go off right there on the stage but that somehow its fuse had temporarily failed and that the box was carelessly tossed out and it was just coincidence that it killed Carlos.

No matter, Psycho Femmes were never the same. A cloud of doubt and suspicion hung over them. When, after a few months, it became clear that wherever they went and whatever music they made they’d always be associated with the murder of Carlos Weir, Patti disbanded them, although they still continued to make music on and off for the next several years. They’d release singles with no cover art, no song titles, no names, just red vinyl 45s that would appear in paper-white sleeves in record stores without ceremony. I had a friend who lived in Shepherd’s Bush during that time and she said that the records would even show up there, in out-of-the-way record stores. I still don’t know how they disseminated those red, covert Psycho Femmes singles all across the globe. You could tell the songs were recorded fast, faster even than a lot of that silly lo-fi punk music at the time. Patti never even told me about it. 

She’d just disappear for a few days and come back and then several weeks later the records would appear. It became like a game between us never to mention it. I know I wanted to ask her about it and I sensed she wanted to tell me but neither one of us ever brought it up and I think I know why: we were both practicing deceit. Deceit in service of some larger cause, in this case the insurgency. We deceived each other with our feigned ignorance. I knew that Patti knew that I knew that Psycho Femmes were behind those records. And maybe the glass box, too. And Patti knew that I knew that she knew this. And I knew that Patti knew that I knew. Or suspected. 

I guess if you psychoanalyzed her you’d say she had intimacy problems, but what does that mean? That she likes to fuck without getting close, basically. It’s all just so much patriarchal bullshit anyway. All the “great minds” of psychiatry are men, right, at least until recently. Have you ever read Freud’s Dora case? The mute hysteric! Patti was obsessed with it for a while and that’s actually where she got the idea for the name Psycho Femmes.

All of which is to say, Antony, that I’ve included a cassette. It’s not labeled but I think it’s from the show with the box. I want you to hear it. Maybe they’re not treating you as bad as I fear they are and they’ll let you listen, and if you listen closely you can hear the hum of the box. I hadn’t noticed it at the time but listening to the tape there it is, like a siren or a wail just beneath the noise of the band and the crowd. 

When I listen to it now I imagine it’s a signal.

Like I said, they are here, Antony, and they are beautiful. 

I haven’t named them yet, is that strange?




Nicholas Rombes is the author of the novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing (Two Dollar Radio, 2014) and 10/40/70 (Zer0 Books, 2014). His work has appeared in 3:AM Magazine, The Believer, Oxford American, n+1, and other places.

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