(all photos from Brazen's own private stash)
The bad news just seems to keep coming too fast and hard for music fans everywhere. The great, great drummer and singer Cecilia Kuhn passed away on May 4, 2017 from cancer. She was 61 and a pivotal member of the San Francisco punk band Frightwig, who were deeply influential on many of the all-girl punk groups we know today. As I reflect on her life, my personal memories of being a Frightwig groupie during the band's peak period in the mid '80s, when they were spending practically entire summers in New York, come rushing back to me all at once. Indeed, this lady and her band were unforgettable, and I got to know them quite well way back when for awhile. Of all the accidental new musical discoveries I ever made in my life, one of the absolute happiest accidents of all was the night I discovered Frightwig.
It was July 1985 and I was calling myself Ray Zinnbrann back then. I had gone to a seafood restaurant in Montclair, NJ to see a local experimental punk band called Children in Adult Jails open for them. Yes, that premise sounded strange right off the bat. And it was about to get even stranger that I could even have imagined. The word on the street was that Frightwig were not to be missed, so I stuck around for them. Suddenly, four of the wildest, kookiest yet loveliest looking ladies I'd ever seen in my life were playing the trashiest yet most wondrous rock & roll in the middle of a fucking seafood joint. They struck me at first as kind of a cross between Flipper and Kiss with a bit of Raincoats thrown in. Their playing was loud and crude, but it all melted into one big, glorious noise. And it all sounded like heaven to me... especially as I found myself in love at first sight with Mia Levin, their guitarist. She was a long legged, daisy duke clad vision of blue-dreadlocked heaven out to steal my freak flag-waving heart. And much though Deanna, Susan and Cecilia did their best to keep up with her, all I could pretty much see for most of my first Frightwig show was Mia.
But at the end of the show, Mia put down her guitar and took over the drum chair, and the tall, blonde drummer became frontwoman for the last song, "l'll Talk To You And Smile." The sweetness of Mia suddenly gave way to the fireball that was Cecilia, and with an open minded crowd totally digging it, she let it all out in a fiery yet controlled ball of rage, with humor injected in the form of musical quotes from "A Day In The Life" and several false endings after which Cecilia would jokingly ask, "Are you irritated yet?" It was one of the greatest and most dramatic endings to a band's set I've ever seen. She owned it, baby!
That was it. In the blink of an eye, my summer of 1985 had suddenly and gloriously become The Summer of Frightwig. Naturally, I didn't fight it -- I submitted full throttle without asking a single question. I met them after the show and they were the sweetest, coolest ladies you'd ever want to meet. I then followed them pretty much everywhere they went the rest of the time they were in NYC/NJ, which was pretty much all summer long. God I loved them. So much so, in fact, that I even remember the riffs to all the songs they played live but never released. (Oh, to hear "Summer Love" again... it surely fit the mood.)
I followed Frightwig to a live radio interview at WFMU where they were hosted by two of the members of the aforementioned Children in Adult Jails. I followed them to Danceteria, decked up in Frightwig magic marker tattoos (oh, to be young again!), where the ladies walked in on an argument between me and the asshole working the door who didn't want to let me in, and threatened to hand his ass to him if I wasn't allowed in at once, FREE... then invited me backstage to hang out. But the best night of all was when I followed them to Tin Pan Alley, one of only two gigs I've ever attended in the Hell's Kitchen area, where I finally got my wish to be alone with my beloved Mia for awhile... just indulging in something green and medicinal and talking about hip hop music with her before they played their second set, during which Deanna made me get up onstage and perform a male striptease during Mia's stunning rap showcase "A Man's Gotta Do What A Man's Gotta Do." I obliged down to my underwear as she tried in vain to get me to take it further still. Fortunately, there was no Youtube in those days.
Alas, my "romance" with Mia was doomed both to last only the summer and to end in heartbreak. On Labor Day Weekend '85, at the Peppermint Lounge, Frightwig turned up for their final gig before returning to Frisco... without Mia. I suspected something was up immediately, and my suspicion grew when I overheard two of them whisper to each other: "Have you told him yet?" "Uh, no." When they then went onstage without Mia, I knew the heartbreak was dead ahead. And I now confess I was a bit pissed off at them afterward for waiting all night to break the news to me that Mia had quit the band and returned home early with her husband (who was super-laid back and didn't seem to mind my fawning over his girl one bit) after finding out she was pregnant. In the end I forgave all involved (including Mia), but still, 'twas a very sad night in Wigland indeed.
Despite the loss of Mia, I still kept on loving Frightwig, and wrote them a sincere and heartfelt letter thanking them for making mine a wonderful summer nonetheless. A few months later, an envelope bearing the words "FRIGHTWIG LOVES YOU!" in big magic marker letters turned up in my mailbox. Inside was a long, lovely letter from Deanna, announcing the birth of Mia's child and telling me they were coming back to see me again soon. And indeed, Frightwig would return to the east coast in the fall of '86 with a new girl replacing Mia. Her name was Rebecca and her guitar talents extended to actually building her own axes. She added a new and somewhat darker vibe to her role than Mia, but I grew to like her. Shortly before they arrived, I walked into Pier Platters in Hoboken one day and screamed with delight upon finding an album with the new lineup waiting for me. You didn't stream new releases in advance on the internet back then either, folks.
During the fall of '86 I saw Frightwig three more times: at Irving Plaza with Sonic Youth and Firehose, at CBGB with 7 Seconds (whose drummer kicked my ass at pinball that night), and finally at the Lismar Lounge, the very same stage that would host my very first live performance in NYC just over a year later. I remember they were sick as dogs on the last night from food poisoning. But they played and I got all four of 'em to sign my album. Rebecca's signature read "Beware of Philly cheese steaks," while Cecilia simply wrote "Wig out!" I still have the signatures. I only wish I knew what the fuck happened to Deanna's letter. I'll never forget that on all the gigs in this tour, they extended "Punk Rock Jailbait" to ten minutes, with Cecilia once again stealing the show and my heart, and she and Rebecca getting into some harsh-noise guitar dueling during the song's extended finish. She was a tremendous performer who looked like she was always ready to burst out from behind the drum kit at any moment -- and always did at the end of every set.
I may have been crushing on Mia in '85, but after she left the band I admittedly took to fawning over Cecilia, and we ended up talking for hours after the Irving Plaza and CBGB shows. Looking back, I would have to say she seemed the most grounded of all the members, the one who looked after the others. She was warm and inviting and great to talk to about all sorts of things. We exchanged addresses but somehow never did get around to corresponding. It's unfortunate that we never did, for I think we could have been great long distance friends. I am deeply saddened to know she is no longer with us, especially since Frightwig had recently reunited -- complete with my lovely Mia back where she belonged -- and were sounding better than ever to these ears, even releasing some strong new material. I was hoping we'd ultimately meet again. Frightwig truly loved their fans, and their fans loved them back, and always will. I'm so glad I got to know such a great band, and a great lady named Cecilia Kuhn.
To conclude my wondrous Frightwig tale, you can see the legend for itself in the form of an almost hour-long video of the classic lineup (Cecilia, Mia, Deanna and Susan) playing a full set live in SF in '84, complete with a VERY definitive version of Cecilia's incredible showstopping finale "I'll Talk To You And Smile." It's enough to make you cry now.
Sigh. Goodbye, Cecilia. Wig out in heaven, sister.