Bernadette Mizrahi Photography
PURR: Pinup model Miss Lorin Rose strikes a pose.
Shake, Rattle and Roll
What draws so many North Bay hipsters to the rockabilly scene? It's a culture, not a fad
By Brodie Jenkins
Red lips, pompadours, tattoos and circle skirts swung and swaggered into the Mystic Theatre last month to see Wayne "the Train" Hancock and his band. Ladies chatted in tight clusters while greasers with slicked-back do's and indifferent expressions hung in cool packs. Cigarette lighters flicked. Grinning rakishly, a young guy, fedora jauntily tilted over his eyes, strode through the door with a giggling blonde, her hair done up in neat pin curls, a flower behind her ear and a crimson pencil skirt fitted snugly over trim hips. Her stockinged legs balanced impressively atop a pair of killer patent leather pumps, and she peered coyly out from under a veil of false feathery lashes. Hot damn.
These are the cats and chicks of the North Bay rockabilly scene. They gather to be seen, exclusively it seems, by each other. Few deigned to answer questions from an "outsider," especially a young female reporter whose pen and notebook might as well have been a gun and holster. Defiant refusal followed sullen rebuff; passersby shied away. "I'm not interested in the media," one fellow said. "I don't need any press."
People trickled into their seats, and Buckaroo Bonet began a rambunctious opening set packed with covers, including Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" and "Tequila" by the Champs. "Any drinkers in the house?" yelled the lead singer in a questionably authentic Southern accent. A few hoots arose from the mostly skeptical audience. "Yes, we like drinkin' in this band here," he grinned. A pristine pair of Adidas sparkled on his feet. During each song, he thrust his lanky body about like a guitar-playing praying mantis, contorting his goateed face to emphasize the intensity of each strum. As if by magic, the drummer's shirt slowly came unbuttoned throughout the show until it disappeared completely. The crowd was unmoved.
By contrast, the entry of Hancock's band was met with a roar of excitement as couples poured onto the dance floor. "Good luck getting people to talk to you," smiled a boy in plaid shirt and thick-rimmed glasses as he twirled and dipped me around the floor. Skirts ballooned around us as experts kicked up their heels to the thumping rhythms of real hillbilly swing. My partner explained that the general hostility had been a reaction against the media's tendency to make subcultures like theirs look canned. "I mean, did you see that opening band up there? That guy in his Hot Topic belt and Adidas sneakers? Rockabilly's about a nostalgia for a simpler time. Where do Adidas fit into any of this?" With Hancock's voice challenging the likes of Hank Williams and the old-fashioned elegance of the Mystic's auditorium encompassing a sea of vintage-clad dancers, anyone would have believed we'd indeed traveled back in time.
"It's not a fad," he assured me. "It's a culture. Few people get that."
All Mama's Children
A marriage of the terms "rock 'n' roll" and "hillbilly," the word "rockabilly" was originally ascribed to a style of music played in the 1950s that blended styles from country and rhythm and blues. Wanda Jackson's growling electric voice ripped across traditional blues instrumentals sped up and infused with heaping amounts of upright bass, pounding keys and twangy guitar. Carl Perkins' silky croon paved the way for Elvis Presley's swiveling hip and insolently curled lip. The King took rockabilly music to the mainstream with his massive genre-crossing marketability. In the process, much of the raw authenticity was diluted; glitz and showmanship were the hallmarks of the most commercially successful acts.
Rockabilly music's popularity slowly fizzled out in America after the 1960s, making its way over to Europe and the United Kingdom in the 1970s. Musicians who could no longer attract American audiences played to enormous crowds overseas. A culture developed around the music as kids adopted the old looks and lifestyles of their parents' adolescence. Rockabilly fashion was inspired by the nonmainstreamers of the 1950s—the hoods and the toughs, the bad girls, black R&B artists and hot rod-racing WW II vets, whose love for engines also became a major part of modern rockabilly culture.
By the 1990s, rockabilly had slowly made its way back to the United States under the guise of "Weekender" bashes, two-day parties still held in such lawless climes as Las Vegas that feature car shows, burlesque acts, pin-up competitions and more, drawing thousands of attendees. Famous older and modern rockabilly bands from all over the world come to play, and for two days, the culture is its own world.
"I think what makes rockabilly great is that it kind of takes you back in time—the clothing, the cars, the style—to the 1950s, and that's when our country was probably at its best," says Todd "Troublemaker" Jenkins, a photographer and the owner of the Santa Rosa–based pinup photography company Custom Culture Images. "Life was easier back then and simplified, and people were happy, I guess. Probably everybody who's in the rockabilly scene now wasn't born in the 1950s, so it's cool," he says. "Looking back at pictures of your grandparents and seeing them in cuffed jeans and slicked-back hair—it makes you proud."
Perhaps. But the 1950s weren't the best time for anybody who wasn't white, and they weren't the best time for anybody who wasn't male. "And you had to wear a girdle!" says Christina Palomo, owner of the Santa Rosa shop Skirt Chaser Vintage. "I think it's natural that you get this sort of progression after enough time passes. We forget what it was like to have to wear those things, and we become able to make our own choices. Then some of us are going to choose to have this sort of aesthetic. We're going to wear makeup and we're going to do our hair up big because we can, and it's fun!"
Put Your Cat Clothes On
The vintage aesthetic Palomo hails can be adopted lightly or taken to the extreme, depending on how dedicated an individual chooses to be. A last desperate attempt at gaining an interview at the Hancock show landed an articulate brunette named Marissa Patrick, clad head to foot in vintage—a blue, flowered print dress, white pointy-toed pumps, a matching white purse, expertly styled hair and makeup and even a pair of white gloves. Beaming graciously, she agreed to chat.
"[My boyfriend and I] live in a 1940s house. Everything in it is vintage, from the kitchen to the towels," she explains. "You have to have an eye for it. I go on eBay a lot."
eBay? Apparently being vintage-friendly doesn't have to mean total Luddism. "We embrace technology completely," Palomo says. "That's how I started [Skirt Chaser Vintage]. I was doing eBay for three years beforehand. Most rockabilly people I know spend a lot of money on eBay."
Though appearance has a lot to do with it, vintage collecting is also about a social and environmental consciousness. "It's recycling," says Heather Van Doorn, co-owner of the Sebastopol eatery Starlight Wine Bar and Restaurant. "You know it's going to last, rather than some crappy new thing you can buy that you know will end up in a landfill."
Hot rod building also combines a vintage aesthetic with a crafty recycling sensibility. "We find swapmates and trade with friends," Palomo says, "and sometimes you have to make the stuff yourself. Sometimes you have to fashion things out of unexpected parts."
Hot rods are typically American cars whose engines have been modified, or "hopped-up," for higher performance. The term "hot rod" was possibly derived from the contraction of the words "hot roadster," open roadsters being favorite cars to modify for their convenient light weight.
Hot-rodding took off at the end of WW II, when returning soldiers who had been trained in technical service sought outlets for their new expertise. Old Fords, Model T's, A's and B's were among the cars they modified to reduce weight and improve aerodynamics, and dry lake beds and abandoned air fields became racing grounds. Leather jackets may be more of a fashion statement today, but they were functional for motorcycle racing at the time.
"Back then they didn't have all of the safety precautions we do now," says Heather's husband, Ted Van Doorn, an avid vintage car and motorcycle collector. "Airplanes would land in the airfields during the drag races. They'd never let that happen today—too many concerns and liabilities."
But a revival of club racing has seen more properties, such as Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, lifting restrictions and hosting races due to huge demand.
Born to Rock
In this forward-moving, increasingly developed world, it's a wonder anybody's looking back to the 1930s, 1940s or 1950s at all. But those aiming to skirt the mainstream find rockabilly is a refreshingly unique blend of the old and new. A large portion of rockabilly folks transitioned into the culture from the anti-establishment world of punk rock. Some bands, following the lead of South London group the Meteors, took the aggressive hard-edged style of punk music and punched in elements of traditional country and swing—like the stand-up bass and tremolo on the guitar—creating the intermediate genre of psychobilly.
"Psychobillies," as fans are called, still don the wild colorful hairdos, tattoos and ripped garb from the punk days, but they borrow from rockabilly fashion as well, seeking out the most taboo styles they can find: prison stripes, bondage gear in honor of the notorious pinup icon Bettie Page, leopard print and dramatic makeup. An obsession with old science fiction and horror films also characterizes the genre, sometimes called mutant rockabilly, adding an eerie kitschy edge to psychobilly lyrics and shows. During one performance of "I Was a Teenage Werewolf," Lux Interior of the Cramps crawled and gnawed at chords on the floor in his best impersonation of the fictional creature.
In researching their favorite psychobilly bands and discovering their rockabilly influences, some psychobillies were turned on to that style of music as well as the more classic looks that went with it. From there, many chose to give up their rougher punk and psychobilly backgrounds for the gentler world of rockabilly. But the mentalities remained the same. "We may have left behind the music, but I think some of the ideals are similar," Palomo says. "Individuality is a huge part of it. A social consciousness is part of it. Not that we don't dirty the air with our hot rods, but we feel that we make up for it with all of the recycling."
The retro move into rockabilly was also an attempt to stay part of something authentic and unexploited as psychobilly became increasingly popular with young scene-seekers. "I became more comfortable with rockabilly," says 20-year-old pinup model Lorin Estes, known as Miss Lorin Rose. "The whole psychobilly scene is getting a little out of hand. I mean, Hot Topic got a hold of that. It's kind of being looked down on."
Hey, Good Lookin'
Out of the rockabilly scene comes the faux-scandalous world of pinup culture, which has seen young divas with names like Dayna DeLux, Dita Von Tease and Heidi Van Horne modeling for well-known rockabilly retailers and gracing the pages of hot rod and pinup magazines. Modern pinup photography borrows from the popular WW II GI escapist fare of Betty Grable and Lana Turner to 1950s glamour girl Marilyn Monroe and the not-so-girl-next-door Bettie Page. Models wear everything from retro bikinis to tight-fitted "wiggle" dresses to corsets and back-seamed stockings. Affectionately cheesy props, such as parasols, classic cars and old microphones, make playful sidekicks, and nudity is usually only implied.
"[Pinup's] more of a tease," says Miss Lorin Rose. "That's kind of what I like about it. It's not like, 'Here I am, here are my boobies!'" she laughs. "It's classy, you know? You see so many models out there who are just, like, spread eagle, and it's like, what are you doing? Why would you advertise yourself like that? There's just no class at all these days. And that's why I like pinup, because it's classic."
Many are drawn to pinup because of its open mind toward all body types. "I think pinup photography is great for the fact that you don't need to be a model," say Jenkins who, aside from taking photographs, plays stand-up bass for local rockabilly band 1/4 Mile Combo. "You can be your average Jane, and you don't have to be stick skinny. You don't have to have the perfect figure. As long as you're happy with what you have and you're comfortable in your own skin, that shows through the camera."
Miss Rose, whose first pinup shoot ever was as Miss August in Jenkins' 2008 pinup calendar, started modeling in part to prove that she didn't have to have a waiflike body to succeed. "Friends and boyfriends told me I could never be a pinup model because I wasn't skinny enough," she says. "So when I moved out here, I decided I wanted to prove everyone wrong back at home. I mean, I'm not a size two. That's another reason why I like pinups—because I can actually go somewhat far in it without having to diet or become anorexic or anything." For the record, Miss Lorin Rose is a knockout and just the size a healthy gal should be.
Modern-day pinup incorporates a little something for everyone, blending a more open mindset with the vintage aesthetic. In the 1950s, Bettie Page made history when she donned her dominatrix attire and posed for bondage and fetish photographs (illegal back in those days!), opening doors for women to have a little more fun behind the camera. "I think some people get the idea that maybe we're into this cheesy Donna Reed kind of nice thing," Palomo explains. "But really, we all come from this sort of punk background. We love the seedy side of it. We love Bettie Page in her six-inch leather heels wielding a whip. It's a much more empowered vision of women."
Though they look glamorous in pictures, most pinup models aren't rolling in the bucks. "Making a living off pinups is almost impossible, unless you're down south [in L.A.] and have a contract," Miss Lorin Rose explains. Yet the field draws an increasing number of ladies excited to dress up and flirt with a camera—dough or no dough.
Some may argue that pinup is just another way to put women on display for male objectification. But in a time when a woman came this close to earning a presidential nomination, the ability to express one's sexuality can be considered just another freedom. "We can do whatever we want now," says Heather Van Doorn. "One day you could wear your cute little low-cut pinup outfit, and the next day you can throw on your overalls and working boots!"
Bunny Yeager, who began her career as a fashion model herself, is one of the most notable pinup photographers in the world. Her shots of Bettie Page, whom Yeager helped greatly on her road to fame, are notably some of the most beautiful.
Painter Mabel Rollins Harris is also famous for depicting female nudes in her art, often placing them in ethereal settings or natural landscapes. Endowed with a feminine perspective, Yeager's photographers and Harris' paintings took the sleaziness out of pinup. "It wasn't just a lecherous man slobbering on his canvas," laughs Van Doorn. "They aren't campy."
Glad All Over
Back on the steps at the Mystic, Marissa Patrick brushed a curl from her floral printed shoulder. "I just look at it as this is what I've always grown up in," she said. "My grandmother showed my sister and I how to do our hair when we were little. I have a huge love for 1940s and 1950s fabrics. We drive hot rods, we go to concerts and listen to old music."
Streams of tired dancers scurried to the bar, flushed and just slightly mussed from the night's exertions. In the background, Hancock's flawless yodeling floated pleasantly over a foot-tapping melody and the soft buzz of chatter. A warm red light gave the evening an even more glamorous tone. Looking natural as can be, people talked, laughed and hummed to the music.
"We're not trying to make a statement," Patrick said frankly. "This is just what we like."
Send a letter to the editor about this story.