Bon Von Wheelie on the Sonics, Sub Pop and living under the radar.
Illustration by James Stowe for City Arts
Last fall the Tacoma band Girl Trouble was rocked by an enormous piece of news: they’d been invited to open for the Sonics reunion show at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre. It was particularly mind-blowing for the band’s drummer (and only female) Bon Von Wheelie, 56. Ten years older than her bandmates, she’d been a restless teenager during the Sonics’ 1960s explosion. “Never would I have imagined I would share a stage with them!” she says, her voice jagged with disbelief.
That October night at the Paramount the crowd spread out in front of them like a dream.
A triumph — except that Girl Trouble doesn’t traffic in the jock language of triumphs and failures. “We always play club shows, small shows,” Von Wheelie explains. “We might be the slowest-moving band in show business. This might seem stupid, but we wait for people to call us.” Not exactly the tactic for fame and fortune, but after twenty-four years they’re still passionate, still finding release in the music. They hold day jobs, rehearse three days a week and play about thirty shows annually, with enough headlong surf-punk energy to compel even the sulkiest shoe-gazer to dance.
Cult favorites during the grunge years, Girl Trouble is a rare survivor. “I’m so glad we never signed to the majors,” Von Wheelie says. “We are too independent, we would’ve had to give something up. It would’ve cracked us like an egg.” Instead, they released records on their own and other indie labels. They steered clear of the rock-and-roll rat race, all those doomed, self-destructive boys who kept bowing out of the light. For Girl Trouble, it has always been about lightness: they’re pranksters, crack-ups — as evidenced by their primitive, neon-bright website:
Girl Trouble — Est. 1984
Greetings Earthlings and welcome to our high-tech world of the future. We are the low-tech rock and roll band Girl Trouble. Our idea of an adventure in modern technology is to turn on the TV and change the channel to Streets of San Francisco reruns using a remote control. So why would dorks like us be having one of these web/home page deals? Because somebody told us it was a good idea and we pretty much do anything that anybody tells us.
If some people form bands to create a sense of family they never had, Girl Trouble is an extension of family. Bon’s younger brother Bill (stage name: Kahuna) is the guitarist, and the band practices next to Bon and Bill’s parents’ house. “Our mom, we call her the Babe, used to come out about once a practice and say ‘It sounds good, now turn that down!’ Now that she’s older, it’s harder for her to come out.” They have written anthems to Tacoma (“My Hometown”) and once employed
Tacoma’s brilliant reigning chanteuse Neko Case as a go-go dancer.
“We asked Neko and another friend, January, to dance for us. Neko and January were very good. We had them wear the black tights and red turtlenecks like Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas.” These days Case always invites the band to her shows and gives them shout-outs from the stage. “That Tacoma bond, it never goes away,” says Von Wheelie. “And if anyone was going to do something good, it was Neko.”
Girl Trouble put out its first EP (Hit It or Quit It) on Sub Pop in 1988 and contributed to the epochal Sub Pop 20 compilation that launched the label. In the nineties, success bloomed and rotted all around them; heroin zombies hid out, losing all their muscle and joy. Girl Trouble was an antidote to all that. Without their wild, visceral energy, the whole grunge scene would have been a downer to end all downers.
Girl Trouble hasn’t quit popping Sub Pop’s grandiose bubble, most recently in a guerrilla appearance at the label’s twentieth anniversary party last summer. The band started hearing about Sub Pop’s big Marymoor reunion from musician friends. “Everyone was coming. Bands were reuniting that had long since broken up.”
They waited for their invitation, but it never came. The snub rankled, maybe because the band believes in family so deeply. “I mean we had known those guys for a long time!” Von Wheelie says. “But in a way it didn’t surprise me.” Over the years, they had been passed over for lineups they would have been perfect for, left out of many plodding histories of Northwest rock.
Then inspiration struck. Why don’t we just play anyway, outside the gates? The band’s faces lit up — genius. A kid they knew worked security at Marymoor; he could get them set up, make sure they were not carted off by the cops.
On that hot Saturday, they set up their homemade sign in a shady spot: NOW PLAYING: GIRL TROUBLE! Immortalized on YouTube, the performance became one of the most talked-about of the weekend. Von Wheelie, long hair past her elbows, in a cowboy hat, sunglasses and Converse high tops, addresses the camera without a hint of rancor: “Well, we thought we want to be at this party too, so we are just going to invite ourselves!”
Bon Von Wheelie makes her own history. She crashes the boys’ party and changes it, cranks up the volume. She was a girl drummer twenty years before that phrase became a cliché. As the beating heart of Girl Trouble, she’s a rock heroine of the riot grrrl variety, though she’s been left out of lots of women-in-rock histories, too. “I’m under the radar!” she says. That status seems to thrill her, the way you are thrilled when a cop you thought was going to pull you over passes on by. •