The Forgotten Women of Punk: CBGB Vets The Erasers on Their Radically Populist Art-Punk

The Erasers were part of the ‘70s CBGB art-punk scene that included Television and Richard Hell, and though they made a brief appearance on a (long out-of-print) 1982 ROIR compilation, their music and history were lost for decades to everyone outside of a very small circle of critics, collectors, and old punks. But their one excellent, off-kilter single (“Funny/I Won’t Give Up”) is one of the standouts on Numero Group’s comprehensive, painstakingly curated Ork Records: New York, New York box set, which was released to well-deserved acclaim late last year.

The Erasers began around 1974, the brainchild of artists Susan Springfield (guitar, vocals) and Jane Fire (drums), who both saw the fine art world they were embedded in as too economically exclusive. “I wanted to do something in a more populist way,” Springfield says. “Fine art as I was doing it – you know, making paintings – you spend so much time on them that you can’t just sell them cheaply, and so at the end of the day I felt like if I continued to pursue [an] art career, I would only be able to sell it to rich people, because I would have to get enough money to support myself. Music, on the other hand – you can make that available – it was more immediate, and at that time the shows were, like, two bucks.” Fire calls their philosophy as a band “the dematerialization of art in the extreme.”

Springfield and Fire shared a loft in the Fine Arts Building on 59th St. in Manhattan, which is now extremely high-dollar real estate (in 2013, it sold for $34 million), but was, as Springfield describes it, essentially abandoned in the mid-‘70s. She was allowed to live for free there in exchange for operating the building’s photo gallery. New York was at the brink of bankruptcy at the time, a dangerous and tenebrous city, and Springfield recalls that those dire circumstances made the utterly experimental CBGB scene possible. “New York City was falling apart, but we sort of created something beautiful in the dust,” she says.

Springfield wishes the scene had been more racially diverse, but recalls an open mix of cultural perspectives from different types of artists – painters, musicians, filmmakers, photographers, strip dancers – that made the music and other art the participants created together so interesting and vital. Fire agrees, citing the development of the scene as organic, built on the coming-together of people from different backgrounds who thought about art similarly. “There was just something in the air,” she says.

Jody Beach (bass) joined The Erasers after seeing the band perform at Great Gildersleeves on 8th St. There were five people there, she says, including herself and her friend and musical collaborator at the time, Randy Gunn. Beach had been living at the infamous Chelsea Hotel – Dee Dee Ramone was her downstairs neighbor – and making music with Gunn, as well as doing some experimental work with post-minimalist composer Elodie Lauten that was unfortunately never recorded. Beach was immediately fascinated by The Erasers, but was certain she wanted to join the band when the club closed the curtains and Springfield and Fire continued to play from behind them. Beach was even asked to go to California to audition for The Runaways after she began playing with The Erasers, but decided to stay in New York with the band who’d captured her imagination.

Richie Lure, brother of Walter Lure from Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers, was in the band for a bit, appearing on their single recording, and a few other musicians came and went, but the group stabilized when Beach and fellow visual artist David Ebony joined. Beach, Fire, and Springfield all speak glowingly of Ebony and his contributions to the band. “David was a wonderful [song]writer,” says Beach, “and he was classically trained on piano.” But despite Ebony’s formal background, and The Erasers’ shared background in fine art, Springfield and Fire’s populism remained the band’s core philosophy. “We just did what we did, and it wasn’t about getting signed to a record deal or making tons of money playing. We just did what we did because we enjoyed it, and it was fun,” Beach says, laughing. “And if we didn’t get it right, we weren’t worried. I think that sometimes when we played live, people would just love that we’d stop in the middle of the song if we didn’t think it was right, or play the notes that were not right. I think people would come just to see us make mistakes, because it was real, and it was like – ‘What are they doing?’ We were just really into it and couldn’t care less whether there was a mistake or not.”

The Erasers practiced in a meat locker in the basement of a modern deli not far from the Fine Arts Building. “If you were up in the deli,” Fire recalls, “you could hear the sounds [of the band practicing] coming out of the electrical outlet.” Other musicians from the CBGB scene, including Anton Fig, who would go on to be David Letterman’s drummer, would stop by to just play around – Fire describes the scene as collaborative, rather than competitive. “Everybody helped everybody, everybody went to everyone else’s gigs and supported them.” Some of The Erasers’ shows involved running electricity from the meat locker out onto the street and performing, something that’s only imaginable in the bankrupt city Springfield describes. Beach laughingly recalls, “We just played until we got in trouble for playing too loud and they made us stop.”

Springfield describes The Erasers’ message and aesthetic as explicitly feminist. “We all played instruments, we weren’t just the pretty girl up front. And this was right on the heels of the feminist movement,” she says. “If you saw one of our first posters, I had really long, curly hair – beautiful – and shortly thereafter I made a statement and had it all chopped off. That’s why I was wearing the short hair and T-shirts and pants, and not miniskirts or whatever.” Fire’s sartorial aesthetic also had a basis in feminism, and it too evolved over time, but for more practical reasons: “For the first few times we played, I was wearing these girly, frilly things as a contrast to being this tough woman – that didn’t really work out because I perspired too much and it was a big mess.”

Though Springfield, Fire, and Beach all loved playing together as fierce women with clearly articulated ideas about their musical and artistic visions, they also all say that their gender wasn’t of much importance within their specific scene, which they all describe as remarkably open and fluid, especially for the time. “Everyone was just kind of equal,” Fire muses. And all three are careful to highlight David Ebony’s importance to the band. Beach says that it’s been odd, in the publicity around the Ork box set, to see David’s contribution minimized in favor of what she sees as the fetishization of The Erasers as a “girl band.” (The Ebony-less Erasers pictures in the book accompanying Ork Records were taken during a trip Ebony made to India.) “David wrote most of the good songs,” she says. “I just want to say that we love David.”

Most importantly, though, The Erasers’ female members are grateful for the care and detail with which the Ork collection has preserved the special nature of their time and place. Though they’ve all stayed in touch over the years and remain friends, with Beach serving as the hub that holds them together, having their recordings out in the world again has provided them a chance to reflect on how punk informed their different life paths and choices. Springfield, who was in several bands post-Erasers (including the eponymous Susan Springfield Band as well as Desire, with Dee Pop, later of the Bush Tetras), is now an attorney working on asylum cases. She’s also currently collaborating with Palestinian filmmaker Fida Qishta on a book called Made in Gaza; Springfield sees the potential of art to change communities for the better as directly related to her time in punk. Beach has found a new collaborative community of musicians and artists in England, where she now lives, with her husband Chris Spedding, and is working on music with experimental jazz musician Charlotte Glasson. Ebony is an accomplished art writer. And Fire is a consistently active visual artist, her paintings focusing primarily on the connection between art and biology.

The Erasers’ current lives may not look like what we commonly define as “punk,” but all four are making unique, creative, meaningful, community-centered work on their own terms, which is truly the essence of the punk impulse. Their work and ethics link them through theory and practice to their punk former lives, which they hold dear. Recalling The Erasers now, Fire says: “It was a whole experience. I mean, we didn’t even realize at the time how amazing it was. You know how it’s just kind of stuff that you do? You don’t think about it while you’re doing it? So it was a great thing. The whole thing is one big highlight.”

This piece is part of Flavorwire’s “Forgotten Women of Punk” interview series, by Jes Skolnik. Click here to read earlier installments.