Thursday, July 1, 2010


    Resilient, local "Paisley Underground" figurehead driven to national notoriety, self-absorbed sexiness pulled like taffy from vulgar to sublime and shared with the masses like communion: Paula was a gas to work with, capable of brainstorming terrific visual ideas for our brief collaborations.

    Her first band of acclaim, The Pandoras, was spotlit for its 1960's costume and garage-sound accuracy. Early press praised its Standelles' redux vocal quality as so very garage that it barely registered as female. The aggregate then bisected into warring factions, with Gwynne Kahn, now Nipper Seaturtle ( a Westlake School For Girls alumna like yours truly, and its implication of heavy biz connections [Tin Pan Alley/Broadway composer blood relation in this case,] to help launch the band ) versus Paula Pierce, Chino outback trailer park pop fanatic newly relocated to the bright lights of the big city.

    This became the first ever overture in my whole career to document a group gratis from sheer enjoyiment of it. I sought access via Greg Shaw, indie mogul and magnate of all things neo-'60's in the U.S. (which is not hyperbole, mind you.) He clarified the then mystery of the duelling divisions each calling itself the Pandoras (Gwynne's was the original plus one, but Paula, its singer/guitarist frontwoman, had written all the material, hence her sturdier claim to the band's concept, and had assembled her new ensemble without missing a beat, to much publicized rancor from her former teammates.) Greg only volunteered the former's whereabouts: Paula's were obtained through minions of Rodney Bingenheimer, magnate of all this neo-'60's in the greater Los Angeles basin (no exaggeration as well.) 

Intrigued by female musicians attempting accuracy of any sort even as the two separate bands continued to perform under the same moniker (itself a clever reference to the most volatile of the "Riot on Sunset Strip" era teen music venues) that they both lay claim to, I made the usual scientific comparison and promptly was  bowled over by Paula's ironclad confidence in her own onstage authority as a pop persona, the kind you can't practice in front of a mirror. In contrast, the Gwynnedoras explored, however high-spirited or well-researched authenticity-wise, something of a recherche of '60's perdus endemic to her wannabe generation (subsequently cured for all when the recession of the late '80's restored some sense of urgency/purpose needed to inspire any original reclamations of the rebel pop music form.)       

The Pandoras' '60's revival studio session, 9/23/84, featured props from my personal archives, and two Pandoras are wearing my boots. (Their query: "Why aren't there neat things like these in the thrift stores?" Answer: "Because people like me saved them.") I taught them how to negotiate sitting while wearing micro-minis the hard way, as the the proofs revealed that this photographer, unused to looking up women's dresses, had revealed what necessitated later retouching.

    Paula's next visual extravaganza shifted its '60' focus to Roger Corman-style biker movies, and our 1985 Pandoras on giant Harley Davidson hogs predated the Hollywood fad for bikes as rock photo accessories by quite a few years. All her own ideas. Band boyfriends assisting at the session wailed with escalating paranoia, "Isn't this how Altamont started?!" at the intensity of attendant prop owners' fascination with nubile feminine forms poised atop with their own mighty Harleys betwixt their legs.
     Paula's Pandoras (Gwynne's mutated entirely away to different concepts--Mad Monster Party, Boo!, The Negro Problem etc.) then navigated a succession of record deals, releases and dismissals on Bomp, Rhino, Elektra and Enigma. One even wholly restaged my Pandoras-on-the-floor-amidst-clutter pose with its own toady photographer, as instance of borrowing from me not unprecedented in this label's methodology. Every so oft emerged new power-boyfriends for Paula. She ditched the '60's baggage and honed her vulgar-but-fun stage posture worthy of Dr. Ruth Westheimer turned guitaroid, to complement her music's eternal quality of unreconstructed rawness. 

    After publication of the Sunset Stp. and biker shots, I lost touch with their goings-on except for meticulous reportage by a video-trader who forever defined for me the difference between a fan and a fanatic. Quoth he: "When my buddy caught the pantyhose Paula threw him from onstage, he framed it: I wore mine!" (not for pragmatic glam couture but empathetic immersion.) He was, at least, the type of fanatic gracious towards his obsession's right to privacy, and only troubled Paula to proclaim her wonderfulness in person at every gig, and once to request that she sit upon his lap for his Christmas card photo. Trash afficianada, adulation enjoyer or media mindful, she readily complied.

    When similar enthusiasts' ranks swelled minus the comcomitant politeness, she labelled them GBG'ss, or Girl Band Geeks. The most frightening example I encountered at one of my friend Mary's shows very badly wanted to impress me, band photographer, with his proclamation of his perfect attendance record for all female performances staged in Los Angeles for three decades, and with his "credentials": a business card crammed with 4-point type life's work accomplishments, stellar pinnacle represented as having attended Hal Blaine's party. The aforementioned should warn of no small amateur level of dysfunction.
    My last encounter with Paula took place at Elektra's press party celebrating the label's release of Pandora product. With gushing surprise, she sincerely complemented my post-illness (cancer) makeover. (I liked and respected Paula who in turn professed admiration for my work, but sensed she heretofore had considered older yours truly a tad square in the persona department.) She'd wrangled new high-power management (that of Little Caesar, thus quelling any notions I might entertain of ever collaborating with her during that mgmt's tenure.) Her lifelong efforts and dreams seemed all systems go, and she looked genuinely radiant, triumphant (see photograph below.)
    The high-power management helped the Pandoras accomplish little except getting dropped from the label without any music released whatsoever. Some retrenchment here and there. But Paula Pierce died on Aug. 10, 1991 at age 32 from an aneurysm, problems that were neither alcohol nor drug-related.

    The orderly fanatic thanked me for the letter of condolence that I'd sent him. He said it was the sole acknowledgment of his role in lionizing her saga to anyone within earshot from someone he considered to be part of her hallowed inner circle, and opined how that selfsame elite now snubbed him at mutually attended concerts.

     The eulogies, excepting Pleasant Gehmen's, dwelled on the ensemble girl-band antics where I had seen a singular performer of real Rock authority. Some pronounced judgement on her "work the industry"-opportunism streak: I just figured she had acted on the question we all secretly address, "How badly do you want it?" Others out and out faulted the Pandorean derivativeness. Instead, my firsthand witness I knew that she had understood, then expropriated the most important ingredient to fuel earlier Rock greats which forever eludes mere roots' band stylists: its central passion. Paula Pierce wrote, performed and sang like her very life depended on Rock 'n' Roll music. And apparently it did.

    On Dec. 2, 1992 I dreamt about Paula as if she were still around on the scene, just a normal conversation dream with, as in real life, no punchline whatsoever. Motivation finally kicked in to confront her memory with this essay, but in computer review, it all inexplicably crashed, my first instance of total copy eradication for this text or any other. Paula Pierce's intangible strength apparently endured. . .

                                         All photographs © 1984 - 1989 Heather Harris. All Rights Reserved.
Pandoras' Video Fest:
 *Original lineup, Paula Pierce, Gwynne Kahn, Bambi Conway, Casey Gomez 1984;
**1985 lineup with Paula Pierce, Melanie Vammen, Karen Blankfield, Julie Patchouli

 **one of the last lineups, 1990, Paula Pierce, Melanie Vammen, Kim Shattuck, Sheri Kaplan
****hijinx from last line up, post-rehearsal karaoke with Sheri Kaplan, Paula Pierce, Kim Shattuck, 1989


Nipper said...

Grandfather, not uncle

Johnny Canucklehead said...

Saw the Pandoras in the mid-'80s in some tiny club in Hollywood when we were down there on vacation. Was really into the whole Paisley Underground and was checking out bands on that trip.

They blew me away live and the band members were very very cool to hang out with after the gig.

Had lost touch and had no clue Paula died so young. Such a shame but what tunes, man!

Anonymous said...

"""Thank you for an intelligent review of it all, Paula Pierce was one of those comet kids that amaze as they blaze by, but are gone in the blink of an eye. Sadly we lost out on whatever might have happened with her here, just like Janis Joplin or Sandy Denny...thanx again for your wonderful article & of course iconic photographs that preserve some trace of it all. Memories...<3 :)

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