We Were Never Promised Jetpacks

Twenty-five years ago, I was in a group called The Shams. We were three women singing and playing together. Richard Hell called us “beauty shop soul” and it fit: the sound of a couple friends sitting around a kitchen table talking in harmony, with guitars. We’d just released our first album on Matador and the label gave us a small budget to make a music video. In the early nineties everyone was doing them, and it was another chance to play dress up and escape from dirty dishes and day jobs (I had a three-year old and temped in an office; Sue painted fancy apartments; Amanda designed clothes). A filmmaker fresh out of college stopped by Sue’s tiny studio on 10th Street and Avenue D to give us his pitch for “Dark Angel”, an eerie song from our album Quilt.

“I see the three of you, in lingerie. You’re in a bathroom, posed around a tub. In the tub is a naked man – he’s dead, and you’re all caressing him.” Pause. “Sort of like the Pieta?”

The three of us nodded, trying to hide stunned expressions. “That sounds…interesting,” one of us managed. “We’ll, uh, let you know.”

As soon as he left, we laughed for an hour. “Never!” we shrieked. “That is the worst, most ridiculous idea EVER! Can you imagine us in lacy underwear, trying to keep a straight face while some guy lies there with no clothes on, pretending to be dead?”

“Nuh-uh,” said Sue.

“He’s got to be kidding,” said Amanda.

“When hell freezes over!” I said.

Still, we all agreed it was the funniest thing we’d heard in ages.

Two weeks later at The Shams video shoot, the tub was now a bed for practical reasons. The dead guy left for another engagement midway through, so a lighting man with a different configuration of chest hair stepped in and laid down to take his place. Other than that, it was pretty close to what the filmmaker described.

A stylist friend of Amanda’s worked a trio of Todd Oldham suits in there, in addition to the lingerie – there was no escaping Todd’s odd mix of loud patterns, quirky details and classic tailoring in 1991. Did it work with the aesthetic of the video? Who cared, it was free clothes! We looked like Mildred Pierce on LSD.

We’d moved on to the lingerie portion of the shoot, the three of us sitting around in satin and lace, bare legs, hair finally starting to droop from the two hours of curling irons and freeze spray we’d subjected ourselves to that morning. Silly as it all was, we were having a blast. We always did. “Stop laughing at yourselves!” my daughter screamed at us once, but why would we do that? Wasn’t this supposed to be fun?

Then Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth came strolling through the gallery space where the video shoot was set up, just as a makeup artist friend pumped up our lip gloss and adjusted the straps of our old-fashioned slips.

“I think they live in the building,” Sue said. They seemed to be heading our way. Maybe they’d say hello – after all, they were on Matador, we were on Matador.

In their t-shirts and unkempt hair they looked raggedly perfect. Like they were in the middle of doing laundry. Only they went on stage looking the same way. I went on stage to get away from doing laundry.

We were never afraid to make fools of ourselves – that was one of the perks of being in a band. Sonic Youth were serious. I suddenly felt like a complete dork. Like the cool neighbor kid next door just walked in my room while I was singing in a hairbrush in front of the mirror.

Kim and Thurston said hi to the camera guy. Then kept gliding across the gallery floor, right past us, like their grubby sneakers had jet packs.

“We’re cool, too – honest!” I wanted to shout. But the lip brush was in the way.

26 thoughts on “We Were Never Promised Jetpacks

    1. amyrigby

      I believe Shannon died some years back Stribs, he had a beautiful visual sense (i know we laughed but he put everything together in a way that still hangs together i n spite of the kooky outfits hair etc..)

  1. Mahwah Paterson

    I’m not much of a computer user. I think we all spend too much time on our backsides. I don’t see myself checking this, or anything else, out over the long term. But the entries are clever, insightful and amusing– dare I say amiable? Like your songs.

    The Net resembles the Tower of Babel. So much is on there that it all drowns itself out. And it has killed (or nearly so) much of our our former culture and big sectors of our economy: Musicians, newspapers, booksellers, local sports events, tutors, singles bars…the list is much longer. Kind of sad.

    1. amyrigby

      I’m glad you enjoyed the entries, thank you! I know what you mean about the internet, although I do still see people buying and reading books. And getting into music, live and recorded. It’s easy to spend way too much time on here but a lot of it is time well spent, learning and communicating. But it’s great to get away from it and go for a walk!

      1. Mahwah Paterson

        Listening to music (for example), yes, but not paying for much of it. I think the Net has created a culture/economy of entitlement to free or extremely inexpensive stuff. It has to be hard for someone like you with talent who has paid some dues that you can’t make a good living just selling records. But I play b-ball with some great players who never made money at it, other than some scholarships. I guess one must love the process and let the pharmaceutical salesmen, et al. make the money.

        I guess you can learn some good stuff on the Net, if you say focused. But I think the Net has supplanted much introspection and face to face conversation. The opportunity to meet people in public has greatly diminished b/c people are addicted to I-Phones and I-Pods. And people tend more to communicate only with those they agree with b/c the Net allows one to avoid people with whom one disagrees. Or to just write some dismissive, disrespectful comments to them.

        Yes, something’s lost and something’s gained in living every day. But there’s no cosmic guarantee that the same amount is gained as is lost.

        Still, you are a clever writer, Amy and I think I perceive most of your cultural allusions. But time is zero sum. And I have to play more ball and improve my piano and salsa. I spent too much time on this message!

  2. David Warshauer

    As always, reading Amy’s diary is a great experience. I’ve bee hunting around for the Shams’ album for a while, and after reading this found it on Amazon and decided to spend a bit on it. Too bad that Amy and her bandmates don’t get to share what the re-sellers manage to get. But I’m looking forward to hearing it.

  3. vicky wheeler

    hi Amy… aw, i’m so glad i stumbled into your wordpress over here! ‘drive by shooting’ was the name of shannon’s short-lived video production company. i think that’s the only video he did, in fact.
    anyway, yes, you’re right… he died in an accident 10yrs ago. i still miss him every day. this made me really happy to read, though.
    and i hope you weren’t serious about the ‘cool’ thing. you Shams were (and are) TOTALLY cool. hope you’re well! xoxoxoxoxooxxo

    1. amyrigby

      hi Vicky, so nice to hear from you. That is sad about Shannon, I remember running into him years after the video and what a sweetheart he was. Cool is a hall of mirrors – being an outsider looking into the anointed circle, where the insiders are celebrated for being outsiders…wait where’s Malcolm Gladwell on this?! take care and see you in…Memphis (not sure where you’re living these days?)

  4. Linn Davenport

    Shannon was a mad– in the best sense– genius, was friends with him on a couple tours of Iowa City and then ran into him years later in Manhattan and was greeted with a big hug. He recognized me first because he’d cut his hair much shorter. Also, though I had and enjoyed both Shams albums, I had no idea he did the video! (And I had no television anyway but…) Hilarious– but really good– testament to his benign svengali-like charm & the Shams’ hep spirits. (Hepper than others’ preening and/or diffidence– though I do think Kim is probably more socially awkward than anything else– I’d say; in context of her ex- it could seem otherwise.)

    1. amyrigby

      Yes, he had those golden locks! “benign svengali-like charm” – perfect. I’m into Kim’s book and think it’s great and that’s she’s an interesting woman, I appreciate her honesty and vulnerability. Now about “hep”, that is a great word, due for a comeback. Thanks very much for your comment.

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