ARCHIVE: a collection of historical documents or records providing information about a place, institution, or group of people; the place where historical documents or records are kept.
Although Manhattan MiniStorage offers “secure reliable and clean storage, access controlled, and continually monitored,” I’ve never believed that the brightly lit row of cages was the appropriate final resting place for the decades of output from my band, BETTY.
What do you do with all the tapes from public access television, half-inch VHS and cassettes that unspool as the recorded timeline of a feminist art punk trio that sprang to life in Washington DC in response to the Reagan ’80s? I suppose a colorful path of mosaic tiles could be made from all the gig flyers hand-lettered and secretly photocopied afterhours in the Capitol Hill offices of friends. The sheaves of articles, posters, and photos that have survived various floods in the bottom floor storage room could be formed into uncomfortable furniture, as I’m sure someone like the Guerilla Girls would have done to protest the inequity in coverage of women protest musicians. We could decorate our bursting storage space with decades of bright pro-choice stickers and hang a sign declaring it the BETTY Library of Fortissimo Fun and Fury.
Better yet, digital alchemists could spin our ongoing 33+ years of music and mayhem into golden strands of zeros and ones of binary code. A shining chain could be made of the protests at the White House screaming for someone—anyone—to start talking about AIDS; of the impromptu singalong when we wrapped The Pentagon in a ribbon of peace banners for nuclear disarmament; of the heady performances with Essex Hemphill and Wayson Jones, with Jane Siberry and Laura Nyro, with Peter, Paul and Mary and the Indigo Girls in protest, in celebration, in endlessly singing for a safer and more equitable world.
Although most of our first gigs were socially conscious—either at the Take Back the Night Rally for the Rape Crisis Center, for DC’s first Gay Pride Festivals hidden away on P Street, or to urge women to vote in radio PSAs—BETTY was also a hard-partying, far-traveling, sex-positive trio of creative good time gals. How incredible to be able to click easily into any point along the path of a band like ours and have a fuller understanding of the times.
I met the Ziff sisters, Amy and Elizabeth, earlier in the ’80s when they ran an ad on WHFS radio for a “bass player for the all-girl punk band, Lickety Split.” From the first time we played together, our connection was electrifying, vibrant. We laughed long into the night and the second time we played together, I never left. That first band, renamed Quiver, imploded after a year. Our next band of note was On Beyond Zebra, an art-rock quintet that featured the three of us singing and rapidly grew a following. Restrictions from other band members choked the three of us but we could barely articulate our unhappiness, when the band was doing so well. Then, in 1986, Dodie Bowers, co-owner of the famous 9:30 Club in Washington DC invited just the three of us to come sing at her birthday party. We hurriedly agreed on the name BETTY—none of us really remembers why—but in all capitals, without the need of the patriarchal possessiveness of a last name. The night of that performance, everything changed. We found freedom. We understood that whatever the outcome might be didn’t matter as long as we sang our hearts out together the way we wanted.
It’s been a dizzying jumble of adventures and friends, loves, losses, and lessons as an independent band over the past 33 years, but we keep singing on. BETTY has recorded 10 albums and made countless appearances as guest artists on other recordings. We have had a dozen theme songs on television, including the controversial theme for the groundbreaking series, The L Word. There have been films and commercials; too many awards to mention modestly; glorious, glittering gigs with our heroes and idols, as well as performances in support of politicians in whom we believe, from Ann Richards to Stacey Abrams. We were appointed Arts Envoys by the U.S. Department of State and are Stonewall Ambassadors for the upcoming 50th Anniversary of the Christopher Street uprising.
And still, we sing on. Someday, we hope to be able to prompt our fading memories with just a click and quick digital review, but for now we still cram the keepsakes from each exciting event into our over-stuffed storage space like breadcrumbs into a sausage. After all, BETTY doesn’t have time to stop and savor what we’ve created. We’re too busy licking our chops for the next musical feast.
Alyson Palmer is the performing artist best known for her ongoing work with the indie rock band, BETTY. Along with their concert dates, the band leads workshops with their non-profit wing, The BETTY Effect, an advocacy project for women, girls and the LGBTQ+ community. Aly founded 1@1 Equality Actions, the 1@1 Minute for Women’s Equality, and the ongoing “women’s history through music” project, CHIX. www.HelloBETTY.com