It’s 1991, and L7 has signed to a major label. A well-known grunge musician at a party in San Francisco insults a song frontperson Donita Sparks wrote, making fun of her affinity for car culture and surf music. You know, California shit. The specifics are hazy. Her fury was not. So Sparks opted for the ultimate revenge: immortalizing him in a prison of his own design, as a character in one of her songs. “Don’t preach to me, Mr. Integrity,” she sang, her flat drone forever rattling in his ear.
“I can’t tell you who the artist is,” says Sparks on a phone call from Toronto, sounding almost apologetic when CREEM asks who inspired such creative retaliation. “I actually admire this person.” There’s a hint of amusement in her voice, “I was just incredibly angry with him that night.”
Thank god. Sparks can get more mileage out of a bad night and a downstroke than most musicians with a seven-figure recording deal; it’s a miracle no one has made her seek anger management. And exactly thirty years ago, during the making and promoting of L7’s 1992 classic Bricks Are Heavy, her short fuse was experiencing something of a golden age. At the Reading Festival in the U.K., it made music history.
Maybe you know the story. The crowd at the U.K. festival was hurling so much mud at the band they could barely play. So Sparks pulled out her used tampon and fired it back at them. “Eat my used tampon, fucker. And oh, Jesus, watch out for tuberculosis,” she snickered.
But behind that brusque front, the hurt went deep.
“As someone who’s dodged a lot of misogynistic arrows,” she says, trailing off. “The mud had that same kind of, you know—it triggered me—so I was just like, ‘Fuck it.’” In L7’s 2017 documentary Pretend We’re Dead, the first thing she says off stage is: “Get the press release ready.” It was the beginning of the end for L7, Sparks says. But fans took the moment of frustration-fueled “performance art” as a symbol of feminist solidarity for decades to come.
These days, L7 fans throw tampons dipped in red paint onstage the same way people throw tea bags into the Boston Harbor on the Fourth of July. “It’s getting passed down from mother to daughter,” Sparks jokes. Sometimes the tampons land with nice notes written on them. Only L7, famous for rage anthems like “Shitlist” and “Shove,” would get literal love notes launched at them in return. “I have contemplated a tampon cannon for the stage,” Sparks says. “Maybe for the farewell tour.”
To really appreciate tampongate, though, we have to go way back to 1983. Ronald Reagan, running for re-election, published an essay on the evils of abortion, and advocated for the reversal Roe v. Wade. In 1984, Reagan was re-elected. In 1985, L7 formed.
Sparks grew up in Chicago, in a family of left-leaning activists. As a kid, she accompanied her mother to pro-choice rallies and equal rights marches. She continued to support abortion clinics in her 20s when she moved to Los Angeles. It was also there that she met Suzi Gardner, a poet in the DIY art-punk scene who had studied guitar but hadn’t yet combined the two. Gardner loved heavy metal bands like Motorhead and Deep Purple. (“If I make it to 90, I’ll still be listening to Black Sabbath,” she has said.) Sparks loved taut, catchy punk and new wave like the Ramones and the B-52s. Soon, Jennifer Finch joined as bassist and Demetra Plakas on drums, rounding out the group’s sound and direction. "When we formed, we just wanted people to play with," Gardner said in an early interview. "We didn't care what set of organs they had. We just wanted to fucking rock."
In 1989, L7 became one of the only non-Seattle bands to sign with Sub Pop Records, the label at the heart of the grunge youthquake, with Nirvana, Mudhoney, and Soundgarden on its roster. At the time, and certainly still to this day, the band resisted anything that labeled them “women in rock,” feeling that gender categories cheapened their work. But the fact that they were women in rock—and unafraid to air out all the inconvenience, anxiety, and hypocrisy that went along with it—gave them something their mostly-male peers lacked: an agenda.
When L7 signed to a major label three years later, they used the clout to organize Rock for Choice, a concert series that supported women’s rights and encouraged voter registration. Nirvana, Hole, L7, and Sister Double Happiness co-headlined the first iteration. Rock For Choice concerts ran for a decade, from 1991 to 2001, and featured bands like Rage Against the Machine, Fugazi, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, and the Offspring. When the series finally ended, grunge had long been over, and L7 dissolved as well. The band went on an “indefinite hiatus” for nearly a decade and a half: from 2001 to 2014.
But over those years, L7’s fan base only grew stronger and more devoted. Percolating online interest inspired Sparks to test the waters with her old bandmates.
Now, L7’s millennial fans—who might’ve discovered the band as the prosthetic-vulva wearing rockers in Serial Mom or first heard “Shitlist” in Natural Born Killers, or, like me, simply arrived early enough to a Donnas concert in 2007 to check out the openers—are getting to experience the band live again as they finish up their Bricks Are Heavy 30 year anniversary tour. What a gift that all four original members are here, looking and sounding sharp as ever! Their roadies may not rock out naked onstage like they used to, but with L7, you never know.
“How many of you have seen us before?” Finch asked the crowd at the first of two New York City shows, her red and blonde locks stuck to the sweat on her neck. “How many of you have seen our sex tapes?”
“They’re on sale at the merch table,” quipped Sparks. “They’re not that great.”
On this tour, L7 plays Bricks straight through, an exhilarating exorcism for everyone in their presence. (And for the heads, that meant deep cuts like “It Ain’t Pleasure,” which they never play live.) It’s worth noting that a month before I attended the first of two L7 gigs in New York City—at Manhattan institution Irving Plaza—I saw their peers Smashing Pumpkins play the very same stage. “Siva” was like a mewling lamb compared to the merciless assault of “Wargasm” into “Scrap.” Seriously: by 9:15 p.m., L7 was going off with eighth notes, Gardner’s sunglasses were shaken off, Finch’s volcanic head-banging all but shook the crowd. At one point, drummer Plakas wordlessly made a heart sign with her hands behind the kit and everyone (including the drunk hecklers to my left) immediately stopped and signaled hearts right back to our queen of thunder.
“How about some domestic abuse revenge?” Sparks said, looking tastefully unkempt in her muscle-tee and black choker. Plakas answered—dun dun dun dun—the tense, four-beat intro to “Diet Pill.” It’s one of Sparks’s best character songs (and an excellent companion to anyone into The Handmaid’s Tale.) It’s based on a rumor she heard long ago, about a famous country singer (allegedly Willie Nelson) who beat his wife until one day, she hit him on the head with a frying pan, sewed him to the bed, and took off with her kids in the car. “I liked the imagery of someone in a domestic situation using the tools of her responsibilities as her weapons,” Sparks said.
Playing through the record also meant L7’s big MTV hit “Pretend We’re Dead” showed up way early in the set. Third, to be exact. “If anyone leaves after this song,” Sparks warned, with gold streaks painted down her triceps to match her fake tooth. “We will hunt you down.” Anyone who considered it thought twice when they saw the exits were adjacent to Gardner’s side of the stage. While Sparks and Finch wagged their heads and instruments in sync, Gardner kept to herself, her aura of cool as intact as her shock of lily-white hair.
In fact, there’s a buzz of adrenaline in the air before the first Gardner song of the night, like looking out onto a vast ocean before a great white breaches for its kill. And on this tour, that moment is track six, “Slide.” (Some choice lyrics: “I put your stuff out on the porch / You pissed in your pants and put out the torch / You splattered the bathroom with your hair dye / I’m kicking you out and you know why.”) Every line of this ferocious, breakup revenge fantasy rocker is the truth: Sparks said she and Gardner cracked themselves up writing all the insane ways their exes wreaked havoc on their stuff, from kicking in Sparks’s amp to falling asleep in piss while blasting Motorhead. If only the generation of Taylor Swift fans raised on “Better Than Revenge” and “All Too Well” discovered this song…
Bricks Are Heavy was L7’s most commercially successful album, and for that reason, the band and fans always treated it like the Marsha Brady of the L7 discography—it’s the perfect and therefore vaguely resented child. “Early on, I made the cardinal sin of shitting on my hit,” Sparks has said about “Pretend We’re Dead.” Thirty years later, I think we can all look ourselves in the mirror and agree that was dumb. (And for the record, to continue The Brady Bunch analogy, L7 is Alice, Smell The Magic is Cindy, Hungry For Stink is obviously Jan, The Beauty Process is Greg, Slap-Happy is Peter and Bobby, and Scatter The Rats is Sam the butcher.)
Bricks was produced by Butch Vig, who, in 1991, had recently become the most in-demand record producer on earth after Nirvana’s Nevermind exploded. Vig reportedly got a call from his lawyer around that time, telling him that L7 could be just as big. Like Nirvana, L7 had major crossover appeal: punk on the surface and hard rock at the core. Powerful, bluesy riffs and a knack for melody. Vig took the job.
L7 were friends with Nirvana, but they did not have Nirvana money. Only Dee Plakas’ drum and vocal parts were recorded in the hallowed Sound City Studios where Nevermind was tracked. L7 decamped to Vig’s personal studio in Madison, Wisconsin in the dead of winter for the rest. “By the time they left, they knew every hustler, junkie, drug dealer, bookie—every single crazy lowlife in Madison was coming into the studio because they were friends with the band,” Vig has said (proudly reposted on Finch’s personal website). “That was one of the funnest albums I’ve ever made."
Within months, L7 made their network television debut on Letterman, performing “Pretend We’re Dead” with Paul Shaffer rocking out alongside them. The spot ended with Plakas victoriously kicking over her kit.
Over the years, much of the credit has gone to Vig for shining up L7’s grit. Vig was neurotic about making sure every single instrument was in tune. But that month in the midwestern hinterlands gave these pissed-off art-punks the time and space to flex. Just a few examples: Sparks tracked down Yoko Ono and got her blessing for them to sample her shrieking on the political thrasher “Wargasm.” On “Pretend,” Gardner went full George Harrison, playing a winding backwards guitar solo, which meant she had to write the solo then learn it backwards. Finch started taking herself seriously as a singer. She also brought in two completely different sounding songs, and both became instant fan favorites. One of them is “Everglade,” a pummeling rocker about owning your power in the pit (and in life) that breaks loose like a stampede of horses every time they play it. At Irving Plaza, Finch let out a high-pitched trill as Sparks started to shred.
Since this is the first time any of us are seeing L7 since the disintegration of Roe v. Wade, there was an elephant in the venue. When and how would they address it? The moment arrived during Finch’s other miracle song, the hypnotic rocker “One More Thing.” When Finch sang the line “politics messin’ with our lives,” she added a “still” on the downbeat. The sound of exhaustion. Still.
“I just felt bad for the older feminists who fought so hard for that shit,” Sparks says on the phone later. They decided to close out their shows with a rollicking cover of David Bowie’s “Suffragette City”—their version of a public service announcement, Sparks said onstage. “Not only is it the anniversary of Bricks Are Heavy but it’s the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote. This is important. Get out and vote.” Sparks said, tucking her platinum hair behind her ears. “Now bear with us and sing along.”
L7 has always had to do more with less. Unlike their musical peers, L7 did not get rich. They’ve never been on the ballot for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I suspect no billionaire sports team owners are flying them out to play “Packin’ A Rod” on a yacht (though, if it were to happen, that billionaire might be saved when the revolution comes). And yet, L7 are on the road, on their own dime, rocking us, pushing for justice, for equality, for women to have basic human rights. Still.