Text and live photo © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2016
Book cover image from the Internet
Adventures in Cuntopia: The Life of a Punk Rock Prom Queen
By Colleen Caffeine
Ellora’s Cave / EC For Real, 176 pages, 2016
In the wake of the likes of Detroit icons like Iggy and the Stooges, Alice Cooper and the MC5, and in the shadow of the Grande Ballroom, came a punk prom queen named Colleen Caffeine. She soon would become a cult figure in the punk scene thanks to her band Choking Susan. Her dedication to the music goes even beyond her many tattoos and outrageous looks. While still in Choking Susan, Caffeine, who is a huge fan of the Ramones (she has a tat from the Rocket to Russia LP cover on her arm), joined an all-woman Ramones cover group brilliantly named the Whoremones. Problem was she didn’t play any instruments. Well, determination is a great teacher, and as she was filling in the Dee Dee role, she taught herself to play the bass to beyond a level of just competency.
When her bands play Europe, they sell out large clubs and her fan base is worldwide. Where she is least known, it seems, is in the good ol’ US of A, beyond the boundaries of Michigan. Here is a brief version of how I got to know Colleen, and to call her a friend:
In the mid-2000s, I learned that Choking Susan was going to play at CBGB, ground zero (along with the Grande) for the music they play. For some reason, and it’s nothing I’ve ever done before really, I contacted them and offered to show them around New York, including some “punk-centric” highlights of the Village. Perhaps it was because they weren’t kids, having been around a while, and from their MySpace page I could tell they were coming from a lot of the same music I enjoyed.
Reluctantly (I could tell from the tone of the response, the reasons for which she also indirectly discusses in the book), they agreed to meet the day before the show. Among the places I took them was Trash and Vaudeville, the old Fillmore East site, Gem Spa, where Manic Panic used to be (Caffeine is known for variant and vibrant hair colors), and the Joe Strummer mural. We also ate at DoJos, the one that used to be on St. Mark’s Place; it’s a vaping supply store now...
For the last place, I took them to Manitoba’s. I knew the band was fans of the Dictators, so I hoped to help them to meet the man, Handsome Dick, Sure enough, there was HMD behind the bar, but the band, being the bad-assed punk rockers that they are, were idol-shy. So I went over to him, and pointed out the band. Being the mensch that he is, HD grabbed a flashlight from under the bar and spent quite a bit of time with them, chatting and explaining a lot of the pictures that covered the walls. Choking Susan was agog, and it made me happy.
We said our farewells for the evening, and then I got to see them play a really fun show at CBs the next night with a local Brooklyn band I knew, Status Quo No Show (SQNS). I took tons of pix, including the lead singers of both bands in the infamous crappers (both sexes).
Wow, about 600 words in already so, since I’ve now given some background, I should probably start talking about the book…
First and most importantly, don’t let the title throw you. I’ve read quite a few musician autobiographies, and many of them – while enjoyable and not taking anything away from them – also have the formula of: I grew up in tough circumstances, I discovered music, practiced a lot, joined a bunch of bands, and despite competition, drugs, sex and band in-fighting, became a legend. Then it all became too much and the band broke up due to infighting. But Colleen don’t play that.
It is true, the Caucasian Colleen begins right off discussing her tough background by stating, “I was born a poor black child,” but she does it with humor and not necessarily focusing on a chronology-based telling of her life. More stream of consciousness, she jumps around from subject to subject with a self-depreciating candor while discussing her inner thoughts about life and what has happened to her. Rather than a sorrowful slog, even when she is discussing hard topics, like an emotionally hard breakup, it’s a pinball version with topics being the bumpers to bounce off of to fly to the next thing. For example, she discusses her demure grandma being a classy broad to going abroad and her love for the Dominican Republic.
It’s almost an ADHD model for the first half of the book, and yet it works well for her. It kind of reminds me of Ulysses S. Grant (bear with me here): the reason he was a great general is because he failed West Point, so he didn’t follow the expected order of things in the patterned way of war. This is kind of what this project is like, in that rather than just an autobiography, it’s more like musical riffs. During a guitar solo, one can just follow a I-IV-V Blues formula, or one can go off on tangents and just play. After listening to I-IV-V over and over, a streaming bowl of riff can be a nice change.
Along with the history of her life, we get to hear about friends, life and death, break-ups, hook-ups, touring, and general philosophical ways of looking at what is happening. There really is no rhyme or reason for the order, just whatever she is thinking at the moment, though some later chapters do follow through with the thought. That, and you know she will either brag about herself, or look at herself as incompetent. Honey, you’re you, and most of your fans are grateful. Period.
Most chapters have a theme title, which is usually a sexual pun on a song title or expression, such as “A-Dick-Shun,” “Thimble Tits,” or “Life is a Semi in the Middle of My Colon.” Plus, I kept wanting to talk to her throughout the book. For example, when she says, “If only I had a dime for the number of times I’ve been called strange, odd or weird. In love, I have only ever been treated as a burp and only afforded the smallest effort of a subconscious poof of air after one had been satiated with whatever had whetted their appetite.” Oh, honey, I’ve been called all of those things, too, and you know what, good, and so what? Punk Rawk! That’s what makes a rock and roll lifestyle. Also, you just haven’t met the right dude (or woman; I won’t assume about the future) yet. No, I’m not implying it’s me or anyone else, but the road is being traveled, that’s important.
She does address that somewhat with “I hear people say you need to find happiness and fulfillment within yourself, enjoy your own company. For some reason I’m not able to do that. I don’t know why either.” Yes, and neither does anyone else. I’m not wagging a finger, I’m sighing that answer.
Don’t get me wrong, the book isn’t a downer…well, maybe in certain sections she has some deeper, philosophical life queries, but Colleen also has an outstanding sense of humor, lyrical timing, and a keen sense of observation. If I quoted every line I underlined, this review would be many pages longer.
Colleen expresses her emotion in song lyrics, and there are many published here within the paragraphs that show how a particular incident is processed, transformed, and regurgitated and transformed into something meaningful, and often powerful.
This was an enjoyable read from beginning to end, and the numerous photos in the back (none of mine, so I’ve included one) just make it that much better.
The biggest drawback of the book is that I’m afraid it’s not going to be reviewed as much as it should, or be in many bookstores thanks to its title. But be sure to buy it in either its print or electronic form from Amazon.com at the link at the top. Meanwhile, I’m hoping there is a next book on the horizon.
|An earlier version of Choking Susan at CBGB (photo by RBF)|