Cutting loose is the lesson at Ladies Rock Camp
Say you’re an office administrator who loves heavy metal, or a trans woman looking for her mojo, or a person consumed with regret for letting your brother be the musician in the family. Let’s say you’re Museum of Science exhibit developer Alana Parkes, 51, who plays violin and used to sing in choirs but ever since the ’80s has secretly longed to play the electric bass. She doesn’t know why. Something about the thrumming feeling in her chest.
Decades go by and Parkes hasn’t so much as held one in her hands, and then one night she’s invited to watch her goddaughter perform with a band from Girls Rock Campaign Boston, a nonprofit rock ’n’ roll summer program for girls. She leaves the show with one thought in her head.
“I want this.”
She got it. For her birthday this year Parkes gave herself a trip to Ladies Rock Camp Boston, an intensive three-day program offered by GRCB. During a long weekend at Spontaneous Celebrations, a community arts center in Jamaica Plain, she and 40 other women took instrument lessons, attended workshops, formed bands, wrote songs, and then performed for a packed house at the Middle East nightclub. It was a blast, and then some.
Try to think of an endeavor that lends itself to a crash course as well as rock music. A few notes, a beat, and some attitude and you’re basically there. Rock can be rough and out-of-control and sound fantastic. It can and probably should be about the weirdest, darkest things you know. Fun is a given. So is catharsis.
“I came away amazed at how much people already have inside of themselves,” Parkes says, “how much creativity, but also how much anger and hurt and rage. There was so much loudness and so much support in this women-only space. That’s something wonderful I don’t have very much of in my life at the moment.”
The sentiment is a common refrain from Ladies Rock Camp participants. Many of them — newcomers and return campers, of which there are plenty — use words like inspirational, transformational, and life-changing to describe an experience which on paper sounds more like a lark. That’s why you’re reading this story. When I signed on to volunteer as a band coach at LRC I didn’t intend to write about it, but then I went, and I saw that what’s remarkable about the program isn’t how fast 41 novices became rockers, but rather the conditions that allow it to happen: radical openness, unbridled enthusiasm, and a near-rhapsodic rejection of perfection.
Every shriek, every note, every chord is awesome! So proclaims GRCB cofounder and program director Hilken Mancini, fist pumping, hair in a tangle, at morning assemblies. Her spirited and unprintable chants fill the building like mantras. There is no such thing as a mistake at Ladies Rock Camp. Ditto bad ideas. Eliminating judgment is a crucial part of the can-do zeitgeist.
“Women tend to not jump in like men do,” says Mancini, 47, a guitarist who came up in Boston’s dynamic ’90s rock scene as a member of Fuzzy. She currently plays with the local rock bands Shepherdess and the Monsieurs and owns 40 South Street, a vintage clothing store in JP. GRCB headquarters is located in the back room of her shop. “Women tend to think that they can’t do something until it’s perfect, until they’re perfect. I was very lucky to have a lot of female role models here in Boston, women who were cool and tough and rocking.”
Now Mancini recruits them as volunteers. Luminaries like Juliana Hatfield, Tanya Donelly, Jen Trynin, Thalia Zedek, Merrie Amsterburg, Joan Wasser, Robin Lane, Claudia Gonson, Melissa Ferrick, Chris Toppin, Linda Veins, and Emily Grogan all have given songwriting workshops or instrument lessons at LRC and GRCB. Instruction is rudimentary, for obvious reasons. Some participants master no more than a messy chord or two. Of course that’s the beauty of rock ’n’ roll as an art form and a catalyst. All you really need is the urge.
Mancini and cofounder/executive director Nora Allen-Wiles created Girls Rock Campaign Boston in 2010 with the mission of empowering girls through music education and performance. The pair launched Ladies Rock Camp the following year expressly to fund scholarships for GRCB, as have some of the other 42 member organizations in the Girls Rock Camp Alliance. Costs are low — the organization is volunteer-run, local businesses give support in the form of food and drink, and instruments and gear are donated.
Both programs were modeled closely on those at the original Rock ’n’ Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Ore., where Mancini and Allen-Wiles met a decade ago as volunteers. In the beginning Ladies Rock Camp Boston was, well, ladylike. Participants sat at tables and were served coffee. Conversation was polite and the vibe, crazy as it sounds now, subdued.
“It was like a mixer,” says Mancini, but not for long. LRC almost immediately morphed into something noisy and sweaty and playful, more like the girl’s program. Posters went up, games were devised, and the women ditched tables and chairs for a giant circle on the floor. They threw raucous dance parties at night, with beer. Mancini and Allen-Wiles began to understand that the women needed to cut loose even more than the girls did.
“We realized how important it is to allow women to be goofy,” says Allen-Wiles, who is 29. “By creating a space where it’s OK to let your self-consciousness go and sing in a growly voice and not be sultry or pretty, it helps them break down all the stuff that’s been put on them for years. It’s about being yourself.”
Be yourself — it’s the simplest of platitudes, but the truth is a lot of women arrive at camp with so many layers of expectations from the world about who they should be and how they should act that they hardly know where to begin.
Erin Genett came to LRC several years ago to “try to find a different side of myself. I had no experience, no idea what I was getting into, and I was terrified of music and getting onstage,” she says. Since then the 31-year-old designer and media producer has returned to LRC and GRCB as both a participant and volunteer and is now the keyboardist in Thrust Club, a band that formed at Ladies Rock Camp.
“I’m not surprised I had a good time,” Genett says. “What I didn’t imagine was how far it would reach. I’m more confident, overall. I know I can do more than I think I can, and when I feel scared I think back to the first time I got up on stage.”
Mancini and Allen-Wiles are thrilled by the ripple effect, the way Ladies Rock Camp reverberates in the world long after the amplifiers and drum kits are stowed away. As the flyer says: It’s not a fantasy camp, it’s a movement. A handful of bands live on, but so does a close-knit community that has become the centerpiece of many women’s lives. More than a few talk about their increased sense of personal power and leaving camp determined to reevaluate the competitive way they relate to other women. Others have quit jobs and left bad relationships — major life changes that they attribute directly to their experience here.
It really should come as no surprise. Rock ’n’ roll is made of blood and guts. It’s all about individuality and self-expression and questioning the status quo. What better vehicle to start a personal revolution?
See a recording from the Ladies Rock Camp Boston Live Showcase in 2015: