Ringling Sisters Don't Rock 'n' Roll, but Could Knock You Out With 'Ding-Dang Poetry'

Most people think poets are somber and starkly dressed. But tousled hair, painted come-hither eyes, torn fish-net stockings and accessory-laden lingerie are what you'll see on the Ringling Sisters, Hollywood's hottest new girl group, who appear next Thursday at BeBop Records.

"People always ask us, 'What do you play?' " Pleasant Gehman says. "They assume we're a rock band."

It's an easy mistake to make; every Ringling Sister is in a band. Gehman sings with the Screamin' Sirens, Iris Berry used to sing with the Lame Flames, Texacala Jones fronts Tex and the Horseheads, Debbie Dexter is with the Devil Squares, Debbie Patino is with Raszebrae and Johnette Napolitano is with the critically acclaimed Concrete Blonde. All are involved in independent film projects, as well (look for various Ringling Sisters in the coming films, "Down to Earth," "Lulu in Paradise," and TV's "Superior Court," to air March 17) and plan to release a spoken-word album and a book of poetry on Sherwood Press.

At Disgraceland

We met with five of the group's members (Napolitano is on tour in Australia) at Disgraceland, the infamous Hollywood crash pad/party house that was described in a Rolling Stone article as the "Zero Generation dormitory." Berry and Gehman call it home.

"Poetry is more of a release for us," Dexter says. "We can say exactly what we mean . . .."

"And for once, people can hear the words," Gehman says.

"It's rock 'n' roll without the drumbeat," Jones says.

"Plus, we're not as limited as we are in bands," Berry says. "We don't have to collaborate; each poem is our own. It's like having six lead singers."

"Six ringleaders," Gehman says.

"No competition," Patino says.

"Just because we're in rock 'n' roll, people think that we're completely self-centered," Berry says.

"They tell us, 'Oh, you're so decadent,' " Dexter says.

"And you can get so selfish in music," Patino says. "It gets to be, 'Me, me, me.' "

"But we got sick of how shallow the scene can be and decided to give something back to the community," Gehman says.

Most Ringling Sisters shows have been benefits where guest musicians--Charlie Sexton, Screaming Jay Hawkins, John Henry Jones of the Unforgiven, the Dream Syndicate's Steve Wynn and others--play free and donate the proceeds to the homeless and needy children.

Shocking Bearers of Toys

"When we brought the first batch of toys to the orphanage, the people who ran it were pretty shocked by the way we looked," Gehman says. "They had assumed we were from the Junior League or something."

"They saw us and thought MTV had just walked in," Berry says. "But they were pretty happy when they found out we had $1,500 and three Hefty Bags full of toys."

"The next time we had three carloads of toys," Gehman says.

"I felt like I was in a Frank Capra movie," Berry says.

The people at the orphanage might also be shocked at the group's poetry, which often includes brutally graphic details of broken affairs and life in the Hollywood rock scene.

Some of the work is pure documentation. ("Most people don't bother to write this stuff down," Gehman says. "It's history.") Other poems begin firmly rooted in reality and end in some faraway fantasy. "That's because Hollywood is where reality and unreality meet," Dexter says.

"Lots of work has social and political commentary," Gehman says. "But we're not trying to convert anybody."

That doesn't mean that they mind if someone learns a thing or two through one of their poems.

"Kids don't even know who Jack Kerouac was," Berry says. "But I think they listen to us. We want to be good influences."

Their hip personas only help the message go down easier. And because they know some people get bored with straight poetry readings, they throw in a couple of acoustic songs and vignettes about the ironies of life on the edge.

"We've been told that you can't read poetry unless you follow a certain protocol," Dexter says.

"But we hate that serious, 'Oh I'm-a-sensitive-tortured-artist' attitude," Berry says. "It gets barfy."

"We're sick of everyone's rules," Jones says. "We just want to read our ding-dang poetry."

The Ringling Sisters perform Thursday, March 10 at 8 p.m. BeBop Records, 18433 Sherman Way, Reseda. Information: (818) 881-1654.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World