CYNTHIA ROSS: ‘B’ GIRL FOREVER
My first introduction to Cynthia Ross was at Ancient Mariner, Phillip Giambri’s poetry series at the now defunct 3 of Cups. She had an aura of a true rocker; an edge but more so good-natured and pleasantly sweet at heart. Her true identity; bassist and founder of the late 70s all girl band; The ‘B’ Girls, was revealed in her social media posts. I have kept up with news about her gigs and residence at Bowery Electric with her band New York Junk. Writer and Director Danny Garcia’s documentary, STIV, will be released soon. I decided to do this formatted interview to get some of Cynthia Ross’ memory of Stiv Bators, also an in-depth look at her very own career.
Kofi Forson: Stiv’s documentary is coming out; I immediately thought of you. I remember The Dead Boys from back in the day. I never knew who Stiv Bators was until I started following you on social media. I have a newfound love for him now, watching The Dead Boys concerts on YouTube, listening to his solo albums…
Cynthia Ross: Thanks so much Kofi. When I first scanned your questions I was hesitant to respond because, as you can well imagine, I definitely do not want to be known and remembered solely as Stiv Bators ’ girlfriend. I have my own work, career and identity. This brings up some of the cultural and sociological issues regarding gender based discrimination within main stream media. I’m referring to the way many women, including myself, were left out of the history that we were a significant part of. If one didn’t give up on their dream and vision to succumb to the directive of the man, the machine and the record business … it is rare that people today would have any idea of who we are or know our music. While I definitely didn’t start a band or write or draw to be recognized (it’s always about the work and part of who I am), the marginalization is clear.
That being said, I’m very happy that Stiv will finally have his story told via Danny Garcia’s Documentary Film. When I was interviewed for Danny’s previous films ‘Looking For Johnny’ (about Johnny Thunders) and ‘Sad Vacation’ (about Sid Vicious), I lobbied Danny to do a film about Stiv as his next project. From what I’ve seen, it’s going to be very good and also extremely funny … which is important if it’s going to capture Stiv’s essence.
While those of us who lived through the 1977 New York punk scene recognize Stiv for the talented and incredibly intense front person and songwriter, visionary intellectual and hilarious prankster that he was … he remains relatively unknown to the mall shopping Ramones and Sex Pistols T-Shirt wearers and Johnny Thunders wannabes.
Forson: I was also a big fan of Lords of The New Church from the MTV era.
You sorta met Stiv on a whim as part of the Toronto scene. How was that scene different from New York or London?
Ross: Actually, I never saw The Lords live. By that time, Stiv and I were over. I’ve recently viewed some clips and can clearly see why people loved them. Conceptually, they are a manifestation of Stiv’s views about religion, politics, power, and control. He was way ahead of his time and dismissed by many as a conspiracy theorist; but if you pay attention to what he says … most of it has now been realized and accepted as fact.
We first met walking down Yonge Street in 1977 when The Dead Boys opened for The Ramones at The New Yorker Theatre in Toronto. I had no idea who Stiv was, although I was friends with The Ramones. We glanced at each other and Stiv said he was visiting from New York and asked if I’d like to go for dinner. Something about him made me say yes. We laughed and talked and after an hour or so, he said he had to go to sound check and explained he was in the band opening for The Ramones. He asked if I needed to be on the guest list. I told him I already was and we parted ways until after the show. I had just started The ‘B’ Girls and we had played one or two gigs by then.
Forson: Los Angeles also comes to mind but never Toronto. Who were the major players? What known acts passed through the local clubs?
Ross: Toronto was definitely a major city for all music and along with London, New York, LA, San Francisco and Detroit … a flashpoint for punk in 1976 – 1978.
The main bands included The Viletones, The Ugly, The ‘B’ Girls, Teenage Head, The Battered Wives, The Cads, The Curse, The Dents, The Demics, The Diodes, The Dishes, Drastic Measures, The Forgotten Rebels, The Androids, The Concords, The Poles, The Mods, Johnny & The G-Rays, Martha & The Muffins, The Secrets, The Scenics, Simply Saucer, Swollen Members and more.
Pretty much every band that played New York also played Toronto. My list would be endless.
Forson: So basically The Dead Boys gigging in Toronto was how you got to meet Stiv. Tell me about the encounter. Was he like the Stiv Bators on stage or was he different?
Ross: Yes we spent time talking before the show without any knowledge of band affiliations. I always say that if I’d seen him perform first, I’m not sure I would have gone out with him. He was a totally wild and insanely unpredictable performer onstage. He was also almost blind and didn’t wear his glasses when he performed. This allowed him to be completely uninhibited because he couldn’t see the audience. His antics have been well documented and he’ll rightfully be remembered as one of the best front people in punk history. But I got to know the sweet, kind, polite and funny person he was in real life. And he had enough “bad boy” in him to pique my interest. We became inseparable and fell quickly in love after our first meeting.
Forson: Did it make it easier for you to know him because you were both musicians? What did you like about him the most?
Ross: It made it easier to stay together and understand each other because we were both musicians. But it wasn’t an easy relationship to maintain over the long haul.
I have to say Stiv’s sense of humor was the quality that made him stand out from the rest. He made me laugh and I’ll always love him for that. He had the ability to get me to move beyond my inhibitions and seriousness and enjoy life.
Forson: Did you keep up with his career after you went your separate ways? Guess you can say he built on the legend of The Dead Boys.
Ross: Stiv and I were still together during the beginning of his solo career post Dead Boys. The ‘B’ Girls sang backups on ‘Disconnected’ his fantastic solo record released on Bomp in 1980. We were staying at Stiv’s bungalow at The Tropicana because The ‘B’ Girls had a show at The Whisky A-Go-Go in LA that week. During the same trip we also sang backups on Blondie’s ‘AutoAmerican’ (released on Chrysalis in 1980) on a song called ‘Live It Up’ produced by Mike Chapman.
I never saw The Wanderers or The Lords live and didn’t stay in touch with Stiv after we broke up. It was the only relationship I had that didn’t end in friendship. It was too painful for both of us and Stiv was clear he didn’t want to be “just friends”.
Forson: You had your own career. Tell me about The ‘B’ Girls. Who were they? How did you meet? What was it like touring with The Clash?
Legend has it the movie ‘The Fabulous Stains’ was inspired by The ‘B’ Girls.
Ross: I’m writing a book, so you’ll get the full story there. The ‘B’ Girls were my first band and formed in Toronto in 1977 during the punk scene. We were all girls, wrote our own songs and played our instruments. We were heavily influenced by the girl groups of the ‘60s like The Shangri-Las, The Crystals, The Ronettes, The Cookies, Lesley Gore, mixed with Chuck Berry, early RoIIing Stones and The New York Dolls.
The original lineup was me on bass and vocals, Lucasta Ross on lead vocals and guitar, Xenia Splawinski on guitar and vocals, and my sister Rhonda Ross on drums. We recorded our first and only single ‘Fun At The Beach’ backed with ‘B Side’ for Bomp records about three months after we first picked up our instruments. It was released in 1978.
We met each other at every good concert including Roxy Music, David Bowie, The New York Dolls and so on. Lucasta Ross and I started the band at a party in Phil Lynott’s hotel room after a Thin Lizzy concert and recruited the other two girls.
Shortly after forming, we played our first gig at Club David’s. We only knew three songs, so we played them through twice to make up our six song set. Soon after, we began playing CBGBs in New York regularly. We eventually moved to New York in 1978 and I consider us a New York band. That’s where we lived and established our identity.
At one show Joe Strummer and Mick Jones were in the audience and asked us to open for them. That’s how the Clash Tour came about. We played Toronto a few times with them (their first shows in North America), New York (three shows), New Jersey and Boston. It was amazing!! We rode on their tour bus, used all of their amps and drums and became really close friends. After the tour Mick Jones stayed with Xenia and I in Toronto for a few weeks. He later produced a few songs for us in New York. One of them ‘Boys Are Drinking’ is on our LP ‘Bad Not Evil’ released on Bomp in 2017.
‘The Fabulous Stains’ was loosely inspired by The ‘B’ Girls. It was the same story of an all-girl punk band with two sisters. They couldn’t play their instruments but ended up opening for a big punk band (a.k.a. The Clash/Sex Pistols mashup). Lou Adler had me audition for the part that Diane Lane ended up playing. Lou sent a casting agent to Toronto and had me read for the movie. Paul Simonon of The Clash lobbied for me, but I had no acting experience. He was in the film along with a few Sex Pistols.
Forson: You did a show with Johnny Thunders. He was a good friend to you. I imagine this is when you had brought The ‘B’ Girls to New York.
Ross: I met John in 1972 when he was in The New York Dolls and we remained close friends until his death. The ‘B’ Girls played tons of shows with Johnny’s various bands including The Heartbreakers, The Black Cats, La Cosa Nostra, Gang War etc. I also played bass with him a few times. My husband Billy (R.I.P.) played drums with him after Jerry Nolan left The Heartbreakers.
Forson: It must have been eye-opening given that time in New York; the CBGB scene, the New York Punk legends… How did you fit in? Besides Johnny Thunders, who were some of the other performers you gravitated towards?
Ross: We were all just friends. We all went to each other’s shows and hung out at each other’s places like one big gang. In our close circle it was The Ramones, The Dead Boys, The Heartbreakers, The Erasers, The Criminals, The Boyfriends, Gary Valentine & The Know, Blondie, Mink Deville, Robert Gordon & Chris Spedding.
Forson: Do you remember the first time you met Debbie Harry? Debbie Harry has gone on to become a major influence on your career. Tell me about your friendship and working with her in the studio.
Ross: It was probably at a show at CBGBs or Max’s… Debbie gave me sage advice about the music business and also introduced me to her lawyer early on. I have a lot of respect for her. She’s extremely talented, and in control of her career. The ‘B’ Girls opened for Blondie a few times in Toronto and we became friends. Debbie came to a lot of our New York shows and once she agreed to produce us she did our sound at a show. She did this to prepare for the studio. In the studio she was fantastic. We trusted her and she knew our sound. She didn’t try to change anything about us. She just captured who we were. Debbie produced two songs for us in 1980. They are on our record that recently came out on Bomp. When I gave her a copy … she said “Congratulations, you really deserve it!” We are still friends and she hasn’t changed with success.
Forson: You’ve put The ‘B’ Girls back together. Who is in the current line-up? How have you kept the old sound or perhaps created a new edge?
Ross: With The ‘B’ Girls celebrating our 40th Anniversary in 2017, I had approached our original label, Bomp, about releasing all of our demos (that weren’t really demos but high quality recordings by top notch producers) on vinyl for the first time. Bomp agreed and in the meantime I asked the girls about doing some reunion shows. Timing wasn’t right (I’d been asking for the last eight years as I was the only one still playing) but then Lucasta said yes! She was the original singer and co-founder. Once Lucasta was onboard, I recruited two younger New York City girls on guitar and drums. So the current lineup was me, Lucasta, Elisa and Lyla. And voila! The ‘B’ Girls were reborn. The “Born Again ‘B’ Girls” sound was slightly more edgy and driving. It was great! We decided to only do special gigs that would be fun. And so The ‘B’ Girls 40th Anniversary Tour kicked off at Burger Beach Bash at Coney Island in June 2017! Then we had the Record Release Party for “Bad Not Evil” at Union Pool in Brooklyn. Next we played Toronto (our hometown) and in March 2018 we played LA for The Women Of Rock Oral History Project. I hadn’t smiled so much onstage in years! Next came The ‘B’ Girls Japan Tour in September 2018! So the past two years have actually been a dream coming true. It may have taken us 40 years, but we finally did it and did it our way without compromise!
Forson: You’ve been to Japan and back. Was this your first time touring Japan? How were you received? Describe if you can the rock and roll/punk scene in Japan.
Ross: I’d never been to Japan before and have always wanted to go and had been told by The Ramones, The Dead Boys and Johnny Thunders that The ‘B’ Girls needed to go. I knew we had a following there, but never realized how big it was. It was beyond anything we could have imagined. We played Osaka, Hamamatsu and three or four gigs in Tokyo.
The whole thing was incredible!! Every band we played with was great! It was like New York in the 70’s with the support, the energy and the warm, welcoming hospitality. We met so many new friends and fans who have become like family. I got to meet a few people I’ve corresponded with for years in person. Everyone brought us gifts. We signed autographs and took photos with fans. I had so many young girls tell me they started bands because of The ‘B’ Girls! They all had copies of our original 45 and when we played they knew all the words to every song! The scene there is “psycho” or “saiko” as they say! I honestly can’t wait to go back!
Forson: You have also been working with the new band Beechwood. How excited are you for them? How has it been going so far doing promotion for them, getting the word out?
Ross: I’ve recently moved on from managing Beechwood to focus on my own projects. I’m writing a book, and there is a documentary film being made about The ‘B’ Girls. ElectraJets is releasing our first LP in September, I still play with ElectraJets and New York Junk, and I’m hoping to record and perform some solo stuff and more spoken word/poetry in the upcoming year. Lucasta from The ‘B’ Girls and I are planning to record some new material and do some shows. So I really don’t have time to continue to add band manager to that list.
I’m really proud of how far I took Beechwood from being relatively unknown to where they are now.
In one short year, I got them a record deal, an EU Booking Agent, they put out two stellar LPs and a reissue; did two successful European Tours and got tons of positive press. In addition, I was able to get them on a lot of great bills through my connections in New York and beyond.
They’re a fantastic band with all the necessary ingredients to make it and deserve every success. I hadn’t heard anything new that captured my interest like they did in over 25 years and working with them reinforced that when I believe in something, I’ll put 100% effort into making sure it happens.
What I learned from the experience is … just because you’re good at something, it doesn’t necessarily make it the right thing to do. I’ve always managed every band I’ve been in; but at this point in my life I have to make choices about where I invest my time and energy. I’ve made a commitment to step out of the shadows and take some artistic risks. I’ve always been more comfortable standing behind the front person, writing songs, booking gigs, connecting people and making stuff happen. I don’t know how much time I have left, so I can’t continue to put myself on hold.
Forson: You are a familiar face at Bowery Electric. What has been your involvement with the scene there, working with your band New York Junk?
Ross: I’ve had peripheral involvement with Bowery Electric for a long time. I love playing there, have put together a number of great shows, and was part of a group of people Jesse Malin (musician and owner) brought together five years ago to help plan the successful tribute nights paying homage to bands like The Cramps, Suicide, The Ramones, etc. I have a lot of respect for Jesse who (along with his partners) is really keeping original music in existence on the Bowery and in the East Village through his clubs Berlin, Coney Island Baby, Niagara and The Bowery Electric.
Forson: You had a birthday there not too long ago.
Ross: Yes. My 65th Birthday was January 26th, so I celebrated at Bowery Electric by doing what I love with who I love! I put together a night featuring Beechwood, New York Junk, BBQT, and ElectraJets, Chuck Bones of The Trash Bags DJing between bands, and a few very special guests.
Forson: Downtown’s own Puma Perl was part of the show. How has she furthered your interest in poetry?
Ross: Puma Perl, Lucasta Ross (of The ‘B’ Girls) and Sam Hariss (of The Sweet Things) were the guests. Sam performed with ElectraJets. Lucasta and Puma performed with New York Junk.
I’ve always written poems and stories and reading was my escape from reality as a child.
Puma has introduced me to the Downtown Poetry Scene at The Parkside, Puma Perl’s Pandemonium and now defunct Bowery Poetry Club and the 3 of Cups. I’ve attended many of her readings and have gone to hear others read with her as well. She’s encouraged me and made me aware of many poets and players such as Beyond Baroque, Great Weather For Media, and Three Rooms Press. I’ve read and loved her work: ‘Knuckle Tattoos’, ‘Ruby True’, ‘Belinda and Her Friends’ and ‘Retrograde’.
About four years ago I participated in a women’s writing workshop facilitated by Lydia Lunch. That was really the catalyst that restarted my love affair with poetry and spoken word and got me to write and read my work in front of people. Lydia was great at providing practical guidelines for reading as well as modeling performance and providing insight and valuable constructive feedback. Ever since then, I’ve been writing poems non-stop. Hundreds of them. It’s like a tap was that was turned off for many years and suddenly it just flows. They come to me easily … first thing in the morning before the day begins.
Forson: You are part of the New York poetry scene. How different is your approach, writing and performing poetry to playing the bass?
Ross: I don’t know if I can say I’m part of the New York Poetry Scene, but I definitely have aspirations to write and perform spoken word and poems. It feels like a bit of a closed club but when I’m ready I’ll figure out my path. Poetry is way more intimidating than playing bass. Bass is my comfort zone. I feel free doing that. It’s effortless when I’m playing the right songs with the right musicians. When sharing or reading poems, it’s like being naked. No instrument or band to hide behind, and exposing my innermost feelings. Facing rejection and letting people inside one’s soul and psyche.
Writing songs and writing poems are, however, quite similar for me. In fact, the one time I’ve submitted my poems/prose to a publication … I got rejected because the panel said my poems sounded too much like songs.
So there was some external frame that I didn’t fit in. With songs, I don’t ever think about fitting in. The same goes for the way I write poetry.
Forson: How did performing with Martin Rev at the Suicide Sally Tribute affect you and help you make peace with the early days of punk?
Ross: Performing with Marty for the last few years at both the Cramps and Suicide Sally Can’t Dance Tribute shows has been one of the highs of my musical life. It’s a feeling that’s hard to explain and it’s based on camaraderie and respect. Both Suicide and The ‘B’ Girls (as well as Blondie and The Ramones) were produced by Craig Leon. Both Suicide and The ‘B’ Girls toured with The Clash. And I loved Suicide. They were dark, dangerous and avant guard. They had great songs that told stories. They were performance art without pretense. And they were pure, raw, New York City Rock’n Roll.
I’m honored to be here, have the opportunity to play together and to finally have my history recognized.
Cover photo: B’ Girls, Johnny Thunders Photo By Bob Gruen