The Metro, Melbourne, November 1995
I blame RAGE for me bleaching my hair.
For those of us who grew up with it, this iconic late night music show was the soundtrack to many a Saturday routine, along with home brew and rollies when staggering in the door in the early hours.
For some of us in the 90s though, there was no pulling on of ripped lace dresses or flannelette shirts in preparation for a gig or club. At the age of nineteen, the ritual I witnessed was that of my housemates as I prepared for another night on the couch, waiting for them to return with sordid stories and greasy kebabs.
Agoraphobia starts slowly. There’s a tremble of a hand on the doorknob, a flutter of your heart on the tram, and then suddenly it’s been two years of watching your housemates walk down the front path, without you. I could manage only what was strictly necessary and preferably solitary: a fortnightly trip to my therapist, during which every stranger was the enemy and the footpath undulated with my panic. Sometimes, if I felt brave, I would sneak out at night when no-one was around and find my way down to the Yarra River, breathing in the fresh air in greedy gulps.
Music kept me company. Music, and the pen pals I found in the classified section of Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll magazine. Unable to make new friends in the real world, I would write my life and send it to Zurich, New Mexico and Rotterdam, listening to a solid diet of feminist punk.
The first time I saw Babes In Toyland was on RAGE in the early 90s. The video clip for Bruise Violet had me instantly, irrevocably hooked; three wild women attacking their instruments, the singer, Kat Bjelland, screaming ‘Liar!’ as she stamped her feet and howled vitriol at the camera. She had bleached white hair and red lips.
Soon after, so did I.
I played the album it came from, Fontanelle, as often as my housemates would allow. I rang the RAGE hotline each week and with pen raised, waited for their name and the time their clips would be shown. I switched from cheap chardonnay to straight tequila because this new thing called the Internet had told me it was Kat’s favourite.
And when their Australian tour was announced, I knew I had to go.
How, I was less certain. But when the date rolled around I had a ticket, my sister at my side to guide me, and a canister of strong sedatives in my handbag.
I wasn’t in the door of the venue ten minutes before I had to take one. The heat of the crowd and the jostling bodies made fear surge up the back of my throat. I splashed water on my face in the toilets, wondering what the hell I was doing. And when I looked up, I saw bleached blonde hair in the mirror. It took a moment to realise that it wasn’t mine.
Kat was standing at the sink next to me. Kat Bjelland, the tequila swilling, foot stamping singer whose music I’d become hooked on. And damn, she could pull off the blonde hair and baby doll dress SO much better than me.
She was peering into my hand.
‘What have you got there?’
I didn’t know how to respond. I was in the toilets with Kat Bjelland, and she was waiting for an answer.
‘Ah, Valium.’ I cleared my throat. ‘It’s Valium.’
She nodded, then turned to the mirror to check her lipstick.
‘Crowds make me nervous,’ I croaked.
She looked over at me and sighed.
‘Me too, honey. Me too.’
I looked into the mirror and for one surreal moment, saw a scene from the Bruise Violet film clip, two doppelgangers in ragged dresses standing in front of a grimy sink in the toilets of CBGB’s punk club in New York. And then with a ruby red smile, she was out the door.
There would be a time, ten years later, when the agoraphobia was well and truly in my past, and my passport was stamped in multiple countries. One of my favourite cities would turn out to be New York and my first visit saw me staying just opposite CBGB’s on the Bowery, where the video was filmed. My reflection in the mirror was a woman with long auburn hair, the punk having given way to blues, but with a photographic memory of the lyrics to Bruise Violet, and every outraged howl in it.
I even had a shot of tequila to celebrate. I’m pretty sure Kat would have approved.
© Rijn Collins.