There are some female musicians whose fame came much later than punk rock. Donita Sparks, founder member of all-girl rock/grunge band L7, seems to have all the conventional rock chops, and tends towards a ‘metal’ rather than old school punk sound. In fashion, too, Donita Sparks and L7 have been archetypal ‘rock chicks’ with leather, long hair, a Flying V guitar and a ‘don’t mess with us’ attitude.
But when researching musicians for punkgirldiaries, you tend to focus on the year of birth. Although Donita Sparks didn’t become well-known as rocker, feminist and icon until the late 1980s/90s, she was born around the same time as us. So the question inevitably rises….. Was Donita Sparks influenced by punk? Did she get started in music because of punk?
There’s a great interview by Tanya Pearson, recorded for the Women of Rock Oral History Project – and the following quotes are from that interview.
Sparks recounts a safe, middle class upbringing on the South side of Chicago, which she describes as ‘square’. Her older sisters brought home records by the Beatles, Stones and later David Bowie and this started a love of music. Donita persuaded her mother to buy her an electric guitar for her 16th birthday and a revelation soon followed:
“My sister came home from college with a Ramones record….. that busted the whole thing open because when I was 15, I was thinking ‘am I going to go to college…. or am I gonna go a little more punk and off the rails?’ – That was the decider.’
There then followed a period of hair dying, dressing outlandishly and working as a messenger and a popcorn popper to try and raise enough money to move to L.A. and ‘get the fuck out of Southside Chicago’.
Arriving in L.A. with $1200 dollars, Donita Sparks found a job, an influential boyfriend and started to enjoy life:
“I had fantasies of being famous, but I had no plan of action… through my boyfriend, I mixed with the punk scene – the after-hours crowd and through my job (on the LA Weekly) I met artists.”
Before forming L7 in 1985 with Suzie Gardner, Donita Sparks was in two previous bands.
“The Debbies was my first band … it was a dare….The drummer said ‘C’mon – what are you afraid of? … You’ve got to be better than Suzie Gardner.’ – my future band mate! We wore housecoats and curlers.”
Donita Sparks describes her second band as being a fun party rock band like the B52s with some feminist lyrics. By 1985, she had formed L7 with Suzie Gardner and was playing the many venues in LA at the time.
“It was a very jumbled scene. There was performance art, rock… a bohemian scene,…. arty goofy bands… cowpunk… hardcore…. they all played the same venues but it wasn’t one scene.”
In this early live video of L7, you can detect straight rock and punk elements. The musicians are confident and sassy.
L7 were one of the main bands on the 1994 Lollopalooza tour, during which time Kurt Cobain was found dead. In the Tanya Pearson interview, Donita Sparks talks of the immense impact that this had on her and the band.
We’d love to interview Donita Sparks and find out whether she had heard British all-girl punk bands like The Slits. An earnest, musicianly punkgirldiaries salute goes out to you Donita Sparks, even though you do play distinctly non-punk Flying V guitars!