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Tits, turquoise + transmaniacons 

Betty Davis, Jennifer Herrema & Joi shoo-b-doop and cop power

Planet rock has always been a hard bop for sonic sisters (and for sistas of color? Negro, please!). Yet a wee bit o' adversity never stopped the O.G. Nasty Gal/Riot Grrrl, Betty Mabry (Davis), from throwing down hard in the 1960s and '70s jet-set music scene. And while her premier daughters for whom "Blue is the Frequency" -- Jennifer Herrema of Royal Trux/RTX, ATLien Star Kitty Joi -- have often been beaten by the system, they remain unbowed and defiant.

While the late Nina Simone is justly revered as the icon of song who emerged from this state, there's another great postwar lady of sound who ought to be praised for her association with North Cack: the incomparable Betty Mabry, second wife of Miles Davis (and while she's still with us, I beg). As much as Simone, Miz Mabry is a key transitional figure in the 20th century story of blues legacies and black feminism -- and she was already a 21st century stone fox when her self-titled debut was released in 1973.

Raised her first 12 years between her grandmother's farm in Durham and Greensboro before her family decamped for Pittsburgh, Mabry later studied at F.I.T. and modeled from age 16, penned the Chambers Brothers' hit "Uptown in Harlem" at 20, wed Miles Davis at 23 and later lived and composed in London -- all before releasing her trio of classic LPs, reissued in the Aughties by U.K. label MPC Ltd.: Betty Davis, They Say I'm Different and Nasty Gal. Although scribes and fetishists prefer to underscore her association with Mad Miles and speculate about her relations with Jimi Hendrix, Mabry at least made rock history as the suga mama of fusion: in short order, she went from serving as muse (and cover model) of Miles' Filles de Kilimanjaro to brokering the generational broken arrow of sound that were the jazz giant's summits with Hendrix and Sly Stone.

The Bitches' Brew must have been Betty's, as her potent aesthetic of electric sexual healing and Medusa-like disturbance prove out on her debut (complete with Greek Chorus courtesy of the Pointer Sisters and Hot Band-era Sylvester), when she fearlessly sings "If I'm In Luck I Might Get Picked Up." And, with the Rock Hall induction of the Ronettes imminent, do check Mabry's bad girl rock masterpiece, "Anti Love Song," on which she comes 'round the mountain ridin' Neal Schon's wah-wah: "No I don't want to love you / 'Cause I know how you are / [...] 'Cause I could possess your body / You know I could make you crawl / And just as hard as I'd fall for you, boy / You know you'd fall for me harder."

Take that, B'Day Beyoncé of "Ring the Alarm" repute -- instead of hustling tenuous songwriting credits and worrying about catering to some man who might take away "everything I own," Mabry actually composed her own music plus simply pimped Miles' style into the revolutionary Dark Magus, and (perhaps) whipped Jimi with "a turquoise chain." If "he" was a big freak, Mabry was the greatest, most virtuosic Superfreak of them all, battling the public one-dimensionality of feminine expression.

Among her contemporaries, Aretha was the primordial/asexual black voice, LaBelle were space-glam divas, Gladys Knight was the sanctified but gritty virgin, Claudia Lennear a country-rocker lost to obscurity, Ava Cherry too esoteric, Millie Jackson unrepentantly tethered to the Chitlin' Circuit's collective toilet -- and Chaka Khan, too, was fire, but neither as independent nor extreme as Black Betty. A more photogenic and fo' real Black Panther than Elaine Brown in her prime, Mabry prowls through the African Diaspora's sistahgurl subconscious as an icon of the most useful brand of protest music. As a country-ass picker whose primary instruments are her sublime bitch screech and voracious vulva -- and a pricklier folkie than Dylan -- she's the pivotal figure par excellence between (recently deceased) Ruth Brown and Tina Turner of yore and the severely indebted Macy Gray and Beyoncé of today.

If only the sassy upstart (who's shuttled between Carolina and PA in recent years to care for her ailing father) would now reemerge to speak out against the government and its degradation of the poor who are Public Enemy No. 1 -- especially her fellow disenfranchised sisters of the post-Katrina South, now set adrift in what Iris Dement once termed the "Wasteland of the Free."

"I used to love to ride the range with you, baby..."

Betty Mabry is a singing cowgirl, with a hard, brilliant aesthetic fit to rival Arthur Lee's acid-drenched Myth of the West. In her prime, Mabry was a freak and sexual provacateur in the vein of Bessie Smith ("I got the world in a jug, the stopper's in my hand / I'm gonna hold it until you men come under my command"), but no corrupt degenerate (laughin' at Vh1's I Love New York). Hers could also be a lonely, plaintive voice crying out for understanding, salvation, relief; see "You and I" "The Lone Ranger" and the parodic "In the Meantime."

Of course, Mabry's thunderous roar is better celebrated -- what Jody Rosen would call "a storm system disguised as a singer," and I think the regenerative source for her femme followers Jennifer Herrema and Joi (Gilliam-Gipp). If Mabry and Herrema are cowgirls-on-the-range with sometimes unhappy but scintillating trails to match, then Joi is the lone ranger of the 'hood, struggling to reconcile Dirty South gothic with her own rich, freaky-deak interior landscape. And still, despite renewed attention surrounding the reissue of her Tennessee Slim Is the Bomb (Joilicious) last year, Joi and her titillating, thorny work have yet to be uplifted in the tradition of Martin as Beyoncé claims the power to do. Per "Superbowl Janet," America still nurses fear of the black titty.

At the other end of the Great Divide, Joi's fellow erstwhile Calvin Klein model Herrema (they were once in the same Avedon-ripping, grunge-era campaign) has abandoned Virginia's Dirty Dirty for the sea-girt, mestizaje wilderness of Southern Kalifornia. Whereas Joi walks the tightrope between temple prostitute and earth mama above the gutter of public censure, Herrema not only left the relative security of work-play with former Trux partner Neil Hagerty but continues to eschew the whore-mother and all other female archetypes except pirate queen and (occasional) sartorial muse. On her latest wonder, Western Xterminator (Drag City), Herrema is a post-frontier antihero of the surf and Strip, skillfully harnessing twang and high horsepower. And via songs like slow jam "Knightmare & Mane" and Funkadelicized "Rat Will Kill," Herrema still channels the Chocolate City childhood wherein she was weaned on classic soul -- like her beloved twangtastic 'Bamas the Commodores (songs from Betty Davis were intended for the Commodores' Motown debut and the band demoed both "Game Is My Middle Name" and "Walking Up the Road") -- as well as the raw growl and unrepentant sexuality of Betty Mabry, whom she admires.

By turns, Herrema and Gilliam are impervious badasses throwing noise louder than bombs, then lost souls/"fallen women" striving to maintain their precarious perch in the flux of culture. Although they're right on time for the glossy-mag gold rush on the Federation of Black Cowboys, these are creative people who still must reckon with what Mabry snarled about in "Dedicated to the Press," depression's ill winds and the hellhounds of society.

Whether swinging high or low, these spawn of Betty Mabry will doubtless persevere, toiling on the unbroken trail between the classic rock era and Afrofuture, deploying their poetic pirate souls and storm wails to shoo-b-doop and bop rock & roll.

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